We realised the jinx of the Caribbean GIS conferences had hit again. The first had been disrupted by 9/11, the Barbados and Bahamas conferences by hurricanes in the region stopping delegates attending and this one was now due to be directly hit by a hurricane on its third day. Delegates had already not bothered to travel to Cayman, more were arranging an early exit.
My colleague, Edsel and I were sharing a room. He had arrived in only on the Sunday night, and by Tuesday he was twitchy about getting out again. A lot of the US delegates had already gone home and others were looking in to options. It was a good job we had taken a day to hire a car and head around the island to sightsee, taking in the Turtle Farm then driving way out to the windswept east of the island, dropping in on the botanic gardens and seeing the blue iguanas, and wrapping around the lagoon for a burger lunch at Rum Point. We looked out over the lagoon and saw several boats playing around on the sandbank known as “Sting Ray City”. More of that another time.
I looked at a bunch of scenarios. First the hurricane was not forecast to be that strong – a category 2 at worst. But Cayman had experienced the full force of hurricane Ivan the year before and was not prepared to take any chances. Tourists in particular were being evacuated as fast as possible. At some times planes from Cayman Airways were departing for Miami every hour. I felt it would be easier to ride the storm out in the hotel.
No sign of the storm yet
Second, my options for leaving did not put me in a good position. BA had given up flying into Cayman for a few days – there were only about 3 flights a week anyway, and by the time the storm had gone through and the airport was reopened I would be OK to take my scheduled flight back home. Looking at the Miami option I would still not be able to get a flight home till after the time the airport in Cayman was bound to reopen.
Third, I had a sneaking wish to go through a hurricane. When in Dominica, a forecast hurricane was downgraded to tropical storm as it reached landfall. In two years in BVI I had only experienced the tropical depressions and all their rain but they had only turned into nasty hurricanes when they reached the USA. So I was still to see the full effect.
Almost immediately I found him on a tribute site on Facebook. I traced it back to the start of the thread. Before I read forwards I knew what had happened. Greg worked for the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States as an inspector of planes. Considering the job he did I was surprised he hated travel. He was far more at home with his circle of friends in Antigua. But he had been forced to go to Haiti for a workshop and he stayed at the Hotel Montana. The earthquake occurred while he was there. As I read the posts on the Facebook page the story with all its emotion unfurled. First there were the post trying to find him, and ask for any help. Then as the days go by there was the support to the search and rescue teams who were battling to dig into the rubble of the hotel. Then the desperation as nothing was found well beyond the time you would expect anyone to realistically survive, and finally the moment when a body with identifiable markings was brought out.
And then the posts became about the tributes to a wonderful man, a great colleague, a fine friend. The details of the memorial service, links to the newspapers in Antigua and Trinidad. And more comments came.
To find this over two and a half years after the event was a devastating blow. To know such a warm, friendly human being, and realised how much I’d taken his presence for granted. To know his life was taken away in a moment, or maybe in such a painful, horrific way I cannot imagine. Another friend I wanted to grow old with.
My time in Haiti was punctuated with the loss of two great comrades, and for that I shall always be saddened. My time in Haiti was also a tense time with having to be constantly on guard, often confined and with the pressure of a quick contract to deliver. Still through that I saw a resilient people, a fiery creativity growing from the heartland of this crazy capital city, and still the elements of all good Caribbean living in its rural areas. Its future will be difficult, may not go exactly to plan, but it inevitably has to have a future, and an independent character that will see it on for many hundreds of years to come.
And personally, well , I still have the glorious memories of my good friends.
Sunset over Port Au Prince
There was one little postscript to this story that personally affected me. I was still dealing with Edsel’s untimely demise. A few months after my return home I was trawling through my lists of contacts and I found a friend of mine who lived in Antigua, Greg. Although a Trinidadian, he had lived in Antigua for many years and I had come across him at a workshop when I was working in BVI. He had invited me for a weekend in Antigua to lime and see the country. I jumped at the chance at the time. Antigua was a couple of hours flight from BVI (usually with only one quick stop in St Martin) and I spent several weekends over there; good to get a change of scene from my island. This guy took me around sightseeing and we visited Nelson’s Dockyard and spent a night on Shirley Heights at the usual weekend party up there. We got on very well – outsiders in someone else’s island – and I found him perfect company.
Antigua was a good place for me. When I got back to UK I started working in places like Montserrat and Anguilla. And Antigua was the place I would pass through en route. And it was good to meet up with Greg and even if I was only in Antigua a few hours, pop over to the Sticky Wicket pub next to the Airport and have a beer and a chat.
I’d not worked in the northern Caribbean for a few years. I’d not seen Greg for a while. I thought I would drop him a line, but I heard nothing back from the email addresses I had. So I searched his name on Google.
My return trip was punctuated by the confiscation of a deodorant aerosol at Port au Prince Airport (for personal use I deduced) and meeting up with a guy I had not seen for ten years as we both were in transit at Guadeloupe Airport.
Haiti was a difficult place to work in, but beneath the tension and the exposure to desperate poverty and future planning, this was just another Caribbean island with a soupcon of Latin American spice and African verve that made it a melting pot of creativity. I hope there is enough entrepreneurship , of the right sort, a will to make things better, and a way of bringing the whole community with you as opposed to making a quick buck and scrambling over everyone else, to make the country a better place.
Kinam at night
The natural disasters and the anarchical structure of the country will make development a difficult task – even if slow progress is made now, there is a strong probability another natural or manmade disaster will take place to knock everyone back.
The next morning we all got dressed up in smart shirts and ties and headed for the workshop. We got their bright and early and had time to fix the usual projector issues, worry over the banner (it was smaller than we expected) and wait ages for anyone to turn up. As well as a load of round tables there was one long table already heaving with snacks, drinks and ice.
At the workshop
Queueing for the buffet that did the damage
The banner that caused all the problems
We went way past the start time before we got a quorum. Quorums in this case does not mean a minimum proportion of the whole group, but ensuring that the key people are there. And of course most people of high status make sure they arrive unfashionably late so that everyone else is left waiting.
The workshop went well, we got some feedback, and headed back to the hotel. We’d eaten a huge buffet at the Montana and I was ready to relax before retiring early to be ready for the next day’s travel home. But whether it had been the buffet’s fish, or the salad, or something in the cream cakes…. my stomach was not happy with it and I spent a sweaty, uneasy night and difficult early morning. Suddenly the Polyfilla of Imodium became essential and I said my goodbye to my excellent colleagues ( they were there another day before they headed to UK and Quebec).
We returned to Petionville but popped in to a supermarket for a few items – Jean Luc had got into the habit of having a bunch of snacks around including his beloved Vache Qui Rit. We also needed some flipchart markers. The entrance was enclosed in the usual high walls of high status buildings in Haiti. We passed several armed guards as we went in, but once inside it was a normal supermarket and very well stocked. In Petionville there were a huge number of foreign aid workers, and probably the largest concentration of people in Haiti with disposable income. You could be in France here with high rise shelves stacked high with every convenience, and a cheese counter, delicatessen, fish store, and large vegetable and fruit stalls. As we were in the snack aisle for Jean Luc to pick up his cashew nuts and cheese, I noticed that A Mills peanut butter was on sale for 400 Gourdes. OK it was for Arrowhead Mills products, but it was nice to think I had reached as far as Port Au Prince with my entrepreneurship.
Is it really?
These little events stay in the mind, but they were horrible punctuations in a rich tapestry of life. Towards the end of the trip, I had completed the work I needed to do and had my inputs ready for the workshop. Jean Luc needed some help at the hotel where the workshop was to be held, so I accompanied him on a short visit there. The Montana had been one of the flagship hotels in Haiti before the quake. Like many high status buildings on the south side of the valley, it had a prominent position on the end of a ridge. As we headed up the entrance driveway, the vista revealed itself – the Caribbean Sea to the west, the port and downtown area next by the coast, and the suburbs, airport and salt lake all laid out below us. But the hotel was a shadow of itself. It did not reveal itself to me immediately. Jean Luc and I walked across a small garden with a formal ornamental pond into a small neatly painted office; the reception. We waited a while for the staff to become free and then walked with the events manager to the conference room. We passed a pool surrounded by half collapsed masonry, and into a large room facing out over the city.
The swimming pool
We sorted out the affairs and I took a little look outside on the terrace. There seemed to be few guests and few rooms for them to stay in, but the room we were looking at was in good repair. Another sign of the disproportionate damage done and the disproportionate manner in which the reconstruction had taken place.
I’d recently had some quite intense safety and security training for MapAction. One of the items we had talked about was that if you are inside a building and you hear shots, your natural reaction is to go to the nearest window and see what all the commotion is. The right reaction is to do the exact opposite and find the solidest piece of furniture you can hide behind.
In the Kinam, as the rest of the hotel headed out to the gate, I was glad to override the natural functions and I crouched down behind a nice firm stone pillar. There were only a few shots but the reaction of the crowd outside I could guess at by the screams and shouts- and the fact the noise suddenly became dispersed and less uniform – people were scattering as fast as possible away from the gun or guns.
The situation dissolved nearly as fast as it had erupted and I went back to the laptop to continue working. On chatting to a waiter ( after a couple of weeks my French was fluent enough to make a conversation of this), I found out the horrific story behind the commotion.
Nice view – but you often heard gunfire
Earlier that day a police car had smashed into a market stall. They ran over and killed a woman then drove off without even stopping, The market stall holders had rallied together and with a few hangers on, hastily organised a protest march to gather at Pertionville’s police station which was on the southern side of the town square. The gun shots had come from the police who had tolerated a few moments of protest but did not want the marchers to reach the steps of their workplace.
These kinds of stories were not necessarily daily occurrences in Haiti, but they were far from infrequent. Several times when I had been at the Ibo Lele, I would hear a bang, maybe a vehicle backfire but could be gunfire. We’d see people fighting on the street – maybe over a bang on a car, maybe kids falling out over some trivial issue, the flames in their eyes boring into their opponent’s skulls as they eyed each other up and the crowd would egg them on. There would be market mamas arguing over a sale, a man, or just a bad day. This town had an edge that continued to bubble up to the surface and cause more harm.
The third and completely contrasting event happened much later in the trip. We were getting close to the workshop and Jean Luc was once more out making sure everything was OK at the hotel where it was to be held. Chris was getting some printing done at a place in Petionville – for some reason all workshops in the Caribbean need a banner; whether there are three people or thirty thousand. They need to show all the logos of who is funding, who the clients are and a complicated title (with a set of roman numerals in them if they can possibly squeeze it in). Titles of workshops seem to get sillier and sillier, although the most complicated one was for a meeting I attended when living in BVI. It was on the nearby island of St John and called “Virgin Islands Reef Fish Spawning Aggregation and Marine Protected Area Workshop for Fishermen”. The name was so long that they had to reduce the font on the t shirt to fit it all on one side.
So Chris was out measuring up the size of the plastic sheet to be used and getting the PDF of the banner together. I love the efficient use of time in these contracts.
I was putting the finishing touches to the maps for the presentation, and was down in my usual haunt of the poolside tables. I was close to the main wall of the bar and to my right there were more tables leading to the small garden at the front of the hotel. At the end of the garden was a tall thick tall stone wall that shielded the hotel from the main road south out of Petionville and across from that the town square. The square still had a lot of mature trees, but the ground around was hard from the heavy footfall it received, and littered with shoe shiners, tobacco stalls and newsstands, cell phone card vendors, people just hanging around and, well , litter.
Once in the Kinam Hotel you usually forgot the outside world existed
The noise from all this activity was impossible to ignore but somewhat tempered by the heaviness of the wall. On this afternoon, as I worked away at my screen, even I could perceive that the noise was more organised. I could hear chanting and singing approaching the hotel. I tried to continue on, but the racket got louder and many of the hotel guests and staff had broken from their current occupations and were heading to the front entrance. The entrance to the hotel itself was a narrow gate barely two people wide so it did not take long for it to fill up and it was difficult for people to see. If I leaned back I could just about see around the corner to where a small crowd of onlookers had now built up just inside the hotel grounds.
The singing and chanting were now loud and there was some competing shouting from a different direction. I decided I could come away from my laptop for a moment and take a look. I was glad I had delayed as it was just while I was wandering up to the onlookers I heard shots fired.
It was late at night and I was numb. Edsel had been my closest colleague and a fantastic friend for over ten years. In the morning I was still numb and spent the morning sending a couple of emails to his friends and colleagues. Edsel had a very split life; he was a true Kittitian and had a huge network of family and friends on the island itself, but those people barely knew a lot of his international work colleagues with whom he had shared so many memories – he still had his connections in Nashville through Vanderbilt University. That conference in Jamaica was for the GIS community in the Caribbean and both of us had served on the committee for several years. He was well known and liked by everyone he came in contact with, but now I was that link to those GISers.
Edsel in Cayman
I had to compose an email to this community – we were preparing for the conference even while in was in Haiti. I also got in contact with some of his family in St Kitts and in the UK, including his nephew in St Kitts whom he had taken under his wing. Within a couple of hours of me sending out this email, I got a dozen replies, from those who knew and respected Edsel as a colleague and sent formal condolences, to those who knew him as a friend and had to admit my message had immediately made them cry. I even got a few emails from people who knew how close we were – I’ve never come across anyone who had the same vision for how we could help GIS develop in small island nations, or have such complementary skills to see it, and also share the same wicked sense of humour. These people realised just how much I was mourning as well as going through the motions. It was tough. And here I was in the middle of a intense contract in a difficult country miles from my own support networks. When I was cheerfully greeted by Jean Luc and Chris at breakfast, they quickly saw my mood and knew I had bad news. I managed to stay composed and in fact the nature of my work – the strict modelling on the computer and the creativity of making good looking maps, helped me to keep things together for the next few days while I searched for the emotions to find a useful way to vent them.
I became a liaison between Edsel’s family in UK and St Kitts and his GIS colleagues all over the world and did what I could to relay information back and forth, and post messages about him on his Facebook page.
I can’t express everything I felt at that time; you will read elsewhere of our work, our friendship and the adventures we had in many places over the years. But he was one person I was looking forward to meeting up with when we were old and reflect on our times, and we were robbed of that, as well as to make new times and continue to explore our vision and camaraderie. I still miss him dreadfully.