Crazy Town, Crazy Island – A terrible message

The second event touched me very personally.  The advent of good communications almost anywhere in the world means that I was in contact with so many friends through Facebook and the rest.  So many I do not hear from regularly but I got a message from a distant friend, Graeme,  on the island of St Kitts – only a few hundred kilometres to the east of me.  It simply said “Sorry to get in touch this way, but have you heard about Edsel?”

It’s never a good message to get, and I thought of all kind of reasons why he asked.  I said no.  I had talked with Edsel through Skype a few days before I left the UK.  He was heading to St Lucia to talk to some clients there about a sort of sat nav app he was looking at.  We were saying how we had not caught up in a while and were looking at a couple of options for new work together, as we often did.  I’d said I would follow up with him after I got back from Haiti and we were planning to meet up in Jamaica later on that year at a conference.

Graeme replied “I’m hearing that he has died.”

Of all the scenarios that had run through my mind this was the one I had dismissed as being the least likely.    Graeme himself had no confirmation but had heard something on the old familiar Caribbean grapevine.  I reached out to Eduardo who was living in St Kitts at the time.  After a couple more hours he came back and confirmed it to me.  Edsel had arrived in St Lucia OK but had suffered an almighty heart attack; he never recovered.


Edsel in St Vincent

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – The First Disruption

Three events occurred at the Kinam that disrupted the routine.  I’d escaped Hurricane Isaac’s clutches in Guadeloupe, but the storm steadily progress westwards into the Caribbean Sea and then gradually twisted north west to head directly to Hispaniola.  It made landfall at Jacmel, about 35km south west of my hotel.  The rain pelt down on the tin and wooden roofs of the hotel and the wind whistled around the corridors, but the staff had carefully tied everything down or carried loose items indoors so apart from a slightly flooded courtyard, the hotel escaped any damage.  But as I listened to the wind that night, I could not help to think about the thousands of people already exposed to the open air from the quake, now trying to keep hold of everything they had left, keeping the rain out from any gaps in their canvas, hoping the flood water and the associated mud coming down the steep slopes would not inundate them and ruin those precious belongings.  And worst, hoping that no flying debris or mudslides would harm their loved ones.

Alas, twenty four people died that night in Haiti because of the storms.  Maybe not the thousands that had been killed in the earthquake, but still more trauma, heartache, and sheer wretchedness for so many in this already beleaguered country.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Hotel or Prison?

About 40 of us remained now and eventually a small 737 landed and we headed on board.  It was dark when I reached Port Au Prince, but a new driver had been hired and he was efficient at whisking me away from the hawkers and taxi drivers outside the terminal building.  And because it was already quite late, we headed straight up the main road with barely a stop – less than forty minutes to get up to Petionville instead of the usual hour and a half.

Jean Luc and Christophe were having an after dinner drink when I arrived; we greeted and they could see I was shattered so they gave me the barest of arrangement details and sent me to bed.

The Kinam Hotel is a remarkable piece of Caribbean culture in amongst the mayhem of the Port Au Prince region.  Beautifully ornate gingerbread details on the roof, the balustrades, even the window shutters. It was barely touched by the earthquake, probably because it was built on firm rock and its base too was local stone.  It covered a small plot but apart from a wall on the south face, the other three sides were all enclosed by one large building.  There were a couple of restaurants on the front side; one next to the pool, one raised up on a terrace.  Jean Luc had booked us in to one of the meeting rooms for the next two weeks, to do the analysis of the results, write the reports, make the maps and prepare a final presentation.  We were not going to work in the Fisheries Department for two reasons.  One it saved nearly four hours of commuting, but two, there had been some issues with various individuals in the ministry and we wanted to avoid them escalating into difficult problems.  That is diplomatic talk and I’m contractually not allowed to say more!


The gingerbread style of the Kinam Hotel

It meant the rather peaceful surrounds of the Hotel Kinam became my home and prison for most of the next two weeks.  In theory we could have gone out and about a lot more, visited all the Haitian restaurants around Petionville, but to be brutally honest there was not time.  We had a huge amount of work to do in time for the presentation before I left.  For those who read these blogs and think what a fantastic jolly time I always have; well you only really hear about the highlights.  On many a trip I have been on I spend 90% of it in an office or hotel.  I may get one day trip out to see a bit of the country, and of course take lots of photographs and have many stories about that.  What is never visible are the hours and hours of work that you do not take photographs of or talk about much because…. well it is tedious.  Tedium was the routine at the Kinam; up and breakfast where a nice grapefruit juice, a plate of fruit or maybe some scrambled egg and toast and lots of coffee, then back to the room to grab the laptop. Off to the office or the (ok yes) poolside to tap away.  We had a nice table next to the pool for a while but the sun came direct on to it by 10am and made us both sweat and not be able to see our laptop screens that we gave up on that idea.  The small meeting room above the main entrance was far more suitable, although the construction work outside and noise of street traffic could be distracting if the windows were open, and the inside either too hot, or if we used the AC , too noisy again.  My favourite spot was in the lower restaurant, shaded from the sun next to the cool stone walls of the hotel but still with a nice enough view and a modicum of activity to keep you interested when making maps became too much of a chore.  The three of us would take turns in going to different places as we felt comfortable.  We might all be around the restaurant table and interacting – either joking or discussing finer points of the project.  We might split for several hours.  Jean Luc had  a few activities out of the hotel to concern himself with, mainly about arranging the workshop.  Chris and I often as not were in the hotel.  Chris had all his field data, which he had shared with me, and was doing his analysis work with stats packages.  I had all the data I needed and spent hours putting it together, running some process that would take an hour or two and spend the interim time stopping my computer processor from overheating or typing up my notes for the report.

So this was the rhythm of life.  Lunch would be something light – a salad or a quick sandwich.  We might have a glass of lemonade in the afternoon, and our meal would be taken with a beer beforehand and a beer with and then back to the rooms for an hour of home emailing, watching whatever I could glean from the francophone and non-CNN channels on the TV and so to bed.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Keeping ahead of the storm

I was back in Haiti only a couple of months later.  Jean Luc had secured us rooms at the Kinam Hotel in the heart of Petionville at one side of the main town square.  Again I could not reach there in one day from UK so had to overnight this time at Orly Airport in Paris.  Once more I got the “wood between the world’s” feel of a clean functioning Hilton hotel in the airport grounds with all the buffet, housekeeping and well stocked bars that any European traveller expects.  My route was even more complicated this time as it involved another stop off – in Guadeloupe.  For all my travelling up and down the Caribbean Islands over the previous 15 years, I hopped over all the French territories except St Martin.  So although I only had a few hours to kill in the airport it was worth it just to say I had been.

We were now in mid August and the hurricane season had got close to its peak.  As I had arrived in Orly from London City the night before an Air France official had been waiting for me at the baggage reclaim.  I expected her news – the flight to Guadeloupe would leave one hour earlier in the morning.  A large storm had brewed in the Atlantic was heading straight to Guadeloupe.  It would be named Hurricane Isaac before it reached.  I was OK about the arrangements at Orly – my hotel was a five minute drive from the terminal and I ensured I got back to the terminal early.  What concerned me more was that I was due to stay in Guadeloupe for five hours before heading onwards to Port Au Prince.  Would the storm have reached before I was able to take off?

Flights from Paris to Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Martin, or to indeed any of France’s overseas territories, are counted as internal.  That means you have the odd sensation of flying for 8 hours without having to go through all the immigration and customs rigmarole.  As a transit passenger in Guadeloupe,  I simply walked up a gangway from the plane, peeled off from the holidaymakers and returnees who went to grab their bags, and within a few moments was sitting in the roomy departure lounge.

There was not a lot to do but read my book and watch the airport activity.  A couple of other flights left.  I looked out over the runway.  It was already raining heavily and frequently; the tarmac and concrete looked soggy and sad.  There was some bustle over by the hangers – doors being secured, windows boarded up.  As I looked up in the sky the clouds were tightly packed against each other and moving briskly in one direction.  But the wind speed was not too much yet.  I looked at the departures board; my flight to Port Au Prince was the last live flight showing – the others were all cancelled.  It was a Saturday – a popular day for the large charter flights to come in with holiday makers.  As well as another Air France flight, a CONDOR jumbo jet came in, discharged its load and sucked the departure lounge almost empty before scurrying back to France ahead of the storm.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – A symbol of the ruin

This ceremonial area of the city surrounded the presidential or “National Palace”.  This had become a symbol of Haiti in the aftermath of the quake but to drive past it in context just across the way from all the displaced people, demonstrated how indiscriminate these disasters are.  Once a proud colonial edifice; a startling white wedding cake of a building with three dome capped towers at the centre and either end, now it is a forlorn sight; the upper storey three quarters demolished, the largest  of the domes having crashed right down into the entrance hall,  a second had buckled and was now removed; the third still titled at a 30 degree angle.  This is the heart of the nation, and yet it was unable to keep beating.  And again, like our friend the waiter in Petionville, a very uncertain future with little hope of rebuilding. We headed back up to Ibo Lele.  Few times have I been in a country that has been so closely brought to its knees as this.  I’d been surprised to see how quickly some places rebounded but in Haiti that process would not be as elastic.  We just hoped our small contribution in encouraging the establishment of freshwater fishery would generate much needed protein in country and a whole market chain that would provide valuable income from the producers to the market stall holders.


A Palace (and a country?) in ruin

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – A livelihood tumbled away

We passed through the centre of Port Au Prince on the way back; in amongst the still standing buildings much of the quake ruined ones had been cleared.  But the spaces had been taken up with tented villages.  Every piece of possible material had been used to make shelter, whether it be plywood or corrugated iron, or parts of tents donated by the UN agencies, USAID, DFID and others; the names of the donors still visible on the side.  As we crawled through the late afternoon traffic, we had time to see down narrow alleys where people jostled to get past each other, children sat with their feet out of their tents watching the world and the weather.  We passed from the hustle and bustle of the shopping district into the more ceremonial parts of the capital.  In most cities this is where you go from vibrancy to solemnity, from hustle and bustle to relative oases of calm.  But with so many displaced people in Haiti even two years after the earthquake, every patch of square or parkland not securely fenced in was taken up with not just tented villages, they were tented towns and cities, maybe housing up to 10,000 people in a block.  Beneath the fading blues of the tents donated by the humanitarian community, the multicoloured Creole culture shone through, from the patterns of the women’s dresses to the gaudy plastic hardware for cooking and cleaning.  In amongst the tented houses were tented shops, tented businesses and tented bars.  People may have had got over the fear of living in buildings, but there was the inevitability that they could not afford to go back to their old plots of land, however small, and reconstruct.

When I was back in Haiti on the second visit, one of the waiters in our new hotel was a kind, gentle guy, probably in his late 50s.  He had on thick lensed glasses to combat his severe short sightedness but they never seemed good enough as he had to peer at bills and menus held close to the end of his nose.  We spent so much time in the hotel he served us several times a day with meals or drinks, and we chatted to him.  Jean Luc discovered that he lost his house at the earthquake.  He had a wife and two daughters and they had been living in one of these tents ever since.  They had salvaged a few essentials from the building, but not much, and he had lost his business that was underneath the house.  He was forced to take whatever work he could , and he ended up waiting table at tis hotel in Petionville.  The government compensation scheme was woefully underfunded and bureaucratic, and he had no insurance.  He did not have enough savings to rebuild his home.  It seemed desperate that someone who had spent so many years building a respectable life had not only had it swept away almost instantly, but had been given little hope to even reclaim a small portion of that life.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – The Deadening Rain

We had a meeting with our guides in a local bar to discuss what it was we were supposed to have seen, the rain still pouring steadily outside and the occasional rumble of thunder reinforcing our good decision not to go into the middle of the lake in a metal boat.

We drove back to the crazy city  over the next couple of hours, discussing our field trip, planning the field work to be done over the next couple of months and my mapping and modelling  inputs to come.  We also chatted about life, learnt more of Jean Luc’s other career as a fish farmer in Quebec and listening to various dotty songs in French.

Rain is a deadener for human activity in developing countries.  As we drove along, all the hustle and bustle of the market had gone – a few souls desperate to buy food braved the mud and wet.  No-one worked in the fields, we would get a glimpse of people grouping together in leaky corrugated iron clad bars peering out at the weather, or from verandahs of houses,  or maybe as close up to a tree’s trunk as possible.  There was no one in the fields.  The roads; where normally people would be hanging around at junctions or by bus stops, were near empty.  Even the animals had retreated under houses and sheds.

As we drove the potholes filled with water, the ghuts and gullies splashed with brown rivers, the droplets plopped from plantain and paw paw trees.  In the countryside the rain looked life giving, once we entered the city again it just looked depressing – the already grey concrete landscape looked even drabber, the only saving was that the dust that normally hung in the air and was blown around on the trade winds or from traffic had been washed to the ground.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Caught by the storm

As we headed down to the boats the clouds burst, cold plops of rain fell on us, but we thought we would try and launch the boats.  We sat in a metal one and one of the villagers pushed us off the mud.  I tend to be of the opinion in the tropics that you are going to get wet, so up to this point had not carried any waterproofs with me – they usually made me more wet from sweat on the inside than dry from the rain on the outside.  And when the sun comes out you dry quickly.  But this day I had made a mistake – I had on a heavy polo shirt which sucked up the rain.  Additionally it had gone very cold  with the squalls on the lake and the water cooling the air.


We  are heading out on a metal boat?

We still pursued our destination but since the guys only had poles and oars we had not even cleared the nearshore lilies when the first thunder clap hit.  Being in a metal boat in a lightning storm did not appeal to any of us so we headed back to the black shore as quickly as we could with the limited forms of propulsion we had.  But the rain, which was already steady , turned torrential.  The inside of the boat was filling up fast and the passengers had to bail as fast as possible with whatever we had to hand.  We slipped onto the mud and scrambled out and headed to the vehicle.  The rain made it difficult to see further than the end of your nose, and was turning the beach into a quagmire and it took some moments to get back in the 4×4.  Jean Luc and Christophe were wearing thin plastic ponchos (which have now become part of my essential kit) but even they looked soggy and bedraggled when we got back in the vehicle, which we quickly steamed up.

We sat in the rainstorm for five minutes – it not being safe to move off as we could not see.  Eventually the rain did ease but it was still pouring and there seemed no point in trying to reach the cages now – we had to be careful to be back in Port Au Prince by nightfall from both the security issues and the fact our guides needed their evening free.

So we started back to the village and the main road.  The weather had other ideas.  Although the climb from the lakeshore was not all that steep, the rain had made the hard impacted road slimy and even with our diff lock engaged we could not make it up the road we had come along.  The driver tried hard but the smell of oil and the strained noises from the engine showed us that he was not approaching the problem the right way.  We tried to advise him on moving off gently but there was no way we could get grip.  Eventually he got out of the vehicle and reccied a route to the west.   It was a struggle but with much sliding, a couple of slip backs and plenty of back seat advice, we made it to more level ground and weaved our way through the village, much to the delight of a set of soggy children who had come out to see what the noise of wheel slips was connected to.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Finding our guide

However it was time to get back on the road and away from this little oasis.  We thanked our guides and drove out on the road.  Lunch was La Vache Qui Rit on  crackers en route; not my favourite food but so enthused on by Jean Luc that I could not refuse.  We still headed westwards and apart from one town where a market had spilled out so far in to the road (to allow maximum hawking for any passing vehicles) we made reasonable progress.  But dark clouds were gathering on the mountains to the south and the heat started to go out of the day.

We were due to meet the chairman of a local fisherfolk organisation on the main road but was having difficulty locating him.  Our government guides kept phoning him and he would tell us that he was standing by a tree.  Since there were hundreds of trees along the road side this did not help.  Eventually we worked out that we had gone past the spot and had to retrace our steps.  Eventually this small man emerged from the side of the road and flagged us down.  He climbed in to our already crowded 4×4 and we set off down a track between some smallholdings.  We met a couple of other villagers who followed us down the hill and out onto an open plain, grazed heavily by horses.  A few elegant trees gave this the appearance of a landscaped parkland, but this gave way to a rather muddy volcanic soil intermittently covered in grass.


Muddy conditions

We got out the vehicles and looked across marshy vegetation at a huge open lake, black under the clouds, and behind the wall of mountain that was its catchment.  We could not see the whole lake from where we were and the plan was to take some small pirogues or small open boats out onto the water to inspect the cages.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – At the mission

Our American host quietly and humbly explained the system to us, and how he had both devised and implemented this incredible and workable system based on reading all the scientific journals and books on how to fish farm.  His education was totally unrelated; he had majored in divinity.  It seemed totally juxtaposed that a man with a background in belief and thought and theoretical argument had managed to apply science in such a practical way.  But he seemed to see it as a holistic truth; God had given him the skills to look for the right learning and build the fish farm.  This place was the modern equivalent of the monastery; within the strict structures and institutionalised rituals of a religious existence, there was a symbiotic relationship with experimentation and practical application.  There was no dichotomy here; it all came together in one place.  I’m not a religious person but apart from some of the language this guy used that rang wrong in my head, it seemed he had developed a very humanistic, balanced and working livelihood.  I’d see it as the appliance of good science; he saw it as a gift from an unworldly being.  Whatever it was, it was operating well.

After an hour of being out in the full sun we were flagging, and our host invited us back to the main house for drinks.   It was a standard Caribbean villa, simple architecture with balustrades and open terraces, although on the lower floor the terrace was heavily barred.  But on the outside someone had painted “The West Virginia Hotel” and we noticed that a nearby outhouse was the “Sheriff’s Office and Jail House”.  It was a sort of joke, although it looked incongruous in its surroundings.  We were led through to a cool open kitchen and our host and his assistant quietly searched for some glasses and water.

Looking around the room, I felt like I was in a youth hostel.  The decor was very hostel like with beige painted walls, the odd religious poster around the room, the usual characteristics  of a shared space including ketchup bottles, baskets for cutlery, plastic cloths.  And around the wall flip chart paper containing the cooking, cleaning and activity rotas for all the volunteers.  Everything has its place both in time and space; people fit in to the order ,and maybe the Order.  And the tranquillity and order of this mission washed over me.