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.
Montana – rebuilding from the rubble
The temporary reception
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.