Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Visit to the fish farm

We finally reached open country; at least as close as you get driving along the coast road in Haiti.  There were still many villages and the road was serviced with markets, stalls, fuel stations and other bric-a-brac.  We turned off down a series of short tracks to end at a large iron gate.  We waited for a few moments while our government colleagues went inside to check on our arrival.   Next to the compound was a small concrete guardhouse, and stacked up a coconut palm trunk were several examples of Creole art.  Considering how we were at the end of a cul de sac in amongst the deepest countryside, I wondered how they expected to sell anything at this location.  But I did not have too long to consider this as we were then greeted by a quietly spoken American man.  This was an American funded Christian mission, but this guy, with a series of other co-workers and volunteers, had established a self sustaining farm.  He guided us past the pigs and chicken sheds through to the fish farm.  It was devastatingly clever.  They were growing tilapia here, or Nile perch.  These fish are commonly used in development science as an easy to keep, high protein, transferable stock in fish farming, although they have caused some problems if released into the wild where their aggressive reproduction has squeezed out natives.

Here in the confines of the concrete tanks, they were part of a big system.  A nearby spring had been tapped and its water poured into the first large earth tank.  Slurry from the chicken shed was piped a few metres down into the tank, which turned the water into a thick green algal rich soup.  This water was then fed downhill into about a dozen more concrete tanks – and tilapia at various stages from nursery to fully grown fish were happily swimming around in the water feeding off the nutrients from the farm.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Past the Epicentre

Heading off again we passed through many kilometres of chaotic suburbs , gradually leaving Port Au Prince behind but then travelling through a succession of other towns and cities including Carrefour (the epicentre of the main earthquake) and Grand Saline.   It was two and a half years since the quake, and yet the evidence was all around – cracked walls, buildings still lying at peculiar angles (sometimes still being inhabited that way) .  Piles of rubble everywhere, or the material to rebuild stacked high but not yet utilised.

The waste from the earthquake mixed with the accumulating detritus from a third world city; household waste piled high from food and glass to sofas, oil drums and old cars.  Picking their way through the garbage were crows, dogs, the occasional pigs and human beings, including children.

Progress through the urban areas was painfully slow at times, but eventually things started to alter; the houses were not packed so closely together, there were more trees and smallholder plots and tiny plantations of coconuts and bananas.  The houses were now more substantial; not affluent necessarily but with a proper terrace around, more bungalow in style.  Some were wooden and painted.  It finally dawned on me where I was; I was back in the Caribbean.

Spending most of the week in Port Au Prince, I had been exposed to this crazy mix of Latino, Caribbean and African influences, with the pretence at north American and old colonial throwbacks.  Now away from the density and intensity of the city, I saw Haiti for what it really is, an easy going, resource rich and in many places, stunningly beautiful country.  Port Au Prince was the Caribbean on acid; only in Port of Spain or Kingston had I seen anything close to the level of hypertension and anarchy.  As I say for every country you ever visit, don’t stay in the capital or the biggest cities, they are often dreadful mutations of the country as a whole; it is as true of London and Paris as Port Au Prince and Accra.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island- Heading out of town

The following day, a Saturday, I joined my colleagues on a further field trip.  Way out west was a large lake where fish cages had been set up and we were to go see them, and along the way visit a couple of other fish farms.  Despite it being the weekend we still had to sneak out very early to get through the traffic, made worse by the fact we had to pass close to the centre of Port Au Prince itself.

We dropped down to the town along the same road I had travelled to CNIGS.  We started to get clogged up as we approached the city centre, and we needed to get fuel and a few snacks for the road ahead, so stopped off at a filling station.  I had a chance to view the street scene.  We had parked close to a major bus stop.  Buses in Haiti are works of art rather than functionary units.  Every spare surface is adorned with Creole artwork, a mix of designs, pictures and symbols and flamboyant word art.  As well as the metal work of the side panels, the cab and roof, there were additional cow catchers, side pieces, and sometimes hoods over the front windscreen almost obliterating any chance of visibility.  Window frames may have additional wooden slats, again heavily painted.  Even the windscreens in some cases would be adorned with stickers, transfers and tinted glass to make them impossible to see the destination board.  Many countries have painted mini buses or buses that either cheer up the journey or case dreadful eyesores depending on your point of view or mood, but in Haiti the embellishments were fantastical.  In one or two cases, you could just see a trace of the original vehicle and realised, stripped down, it was an ordinary ISUZU minivan.



The other element that dominated the scene in the streets of Port Au Prince was the fight for dominance of mobile or cell phone networks.  Again, I have seen how cell phone companies have overtaken the old cola drink wars for plastering the landscape in their marketing material in many countries, but in Haiti it appeared to have reached saturation point.  Not just the kiosks and stores selling phone cards, but every market stall umbrella, people’s t shirts, hundreds of metres of walls, telegraph poles, flags, vehicles.  And their seemed to be distinct zones.  It was like it was general election time, but instead of political parties being supported it was Digicell , Natcom, Haitel and Voila, and each with their distinctive colours.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Memorial to the workers

We eventually found our way to the entrance to the National GIS (or CNIGS), on an affluent hillside.  I walked up to the reception and asked for my contact, Bobby.  The centre was housed in a number of buildings, many of which seemed to be prefabricated and modern.  The walkways between the offices were all in good condition and seemed new.  There was a good reason for this.  CNIGS had moved from its old offices after the earthquake; the old building of a typical simple concrete construction had pancaked during the quake and killed the director of the institute and nine other staff members.  A large part of the building was destroyed and as well as the horrific loss of life, much of the equipment and the large reserves of data about Haiti were also lost.  I noticed on my way out that a memorial to the staff who lost their lives had been placed against the outside wall of the first building.  On a shiny brass plaque the names of the dead staff were mentioned, and a map of Haiti had been made out of jagged lumps of stone.  I never asked, but I suspected that in fact they were pieces of rubble from the original building.

It was not the first time I came across a personal impact of the earthquake.  Here were a group of people doing a job very similar to mine, working with maps and GIS and data to help the decision makers, the visitors, the community at large, to have the best available spatial data for their meetings, studies, atlases or websites.  They were in their offices doing all those jobs at the time of the quake and in a flash their lives were wiped out.  Standing in front of this tastefully minimalist monument  was a solemn interlude in my busy day, and its positioning on the first building as you came in the entrance meant that the staff were reminded of their dead colleagues every day they came to work.

CNIGS had considerable support from the global GIS community who donated equipment, training, volunteers and then helped them find this new temporary home.  A new permanent building was being designed elsewhere in the city, and new procedures to keep safe the valuable archive of mapped data were in progress, and hopefully safeguarding the lives of the staff too.

I had obtained most of the data that I needed from CNIGS, for which I was very grateful as it saved me a lot of time.  I was so used to spending days scurrying round many offices spending hours explaining the project, gaining the trust of the staff, trying to get data and in many cases being frustrated when either bureaucracy or downright pigheadness got in the way.  I am always amazed when I find generous people who understand that releasing the data in to your hands will add value to its existence, help the nation you are in and you are not robbing anyone of anything.  The next day was spent by me in the hotel  sorting the huge amount of data into something that I would be able to use in the next visit for the final outputs.  Christophe and Jean Luc headed north to visit some existing fish farms.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – A ride around the hillsides

We escaped the office early enough to make it back up the hill to Ibo lele in less than 90 minutes and the ride gave me a chance to catch up more with Christophe and Jean-Luc.  Already settled in to a routine, we had an hour to catch up on email and relax, a shower, out on the terrace  for a quick sundowner beer followed by dinner orders and eat.  The sun set over the Caribbean Sea to our west, momentarily lighting up the mountains facing us, the bare rock glinting in the light at times.  A plane took off from the airport and soared above the city and the light caught it too.  Then the mix of mist and smoke from thousands of cooking fires below obscured most of the detail of the valley till the streetlights started to shine through.

Next day my colleagues headed back to the ministry, while I waited around for our driver to return and headed west to my appointment with the national GIS.  The route took us through the centre of Petionville and down a grid of streets with a Bohemian mix of cafes and shops.  Several walls along the road were coated in vibrant coloured paintings ; thickly layered canvases with both naive but rich interactions of natural scenery, people, products, agriculture, market scenes, and coastal scenes.  Another section of road was adorned with metal work on a massive scale – large wall hangings of suns, free standing sculptures and sheets worked into grand designs.


Driving round the hillsides

The road wound around the precipitous ridges coming off the mountains, down one side of a valley, zigzagging to the river in the middle, crossing a small bridge and zigzagging back up the other side.  In some places high walls shielded large compounds with luxurious villas; right next door I might get a glimpse down a track into a valley to a dense huddle of shacks with men, women, children, dogs and chickens busying themselves with the mid morning chores.  And when the view opened up, I would get glimpses of houses clinging to every space on the steep hillside and nothing but footpaths linking them to the rest of the city.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – At the ministry

I was glad of the sleep, despite being several hours behind UK time, I was fatigued from nearly two days on the go.  It meant the next morning I was not too groggy to wake up for an early breakfast.  Jean Luc insisted we travel as early as possible to the office; any later than 8 and we would spend the whole morning on the road.  So after a quick breakfast we met our driver at the reception and descended the windy road into Petionville.  We got through the town centre quite quickly but soon had joined the steady line of traffic down the main road towards the airport.  We did well though, it took only two hours to get to the Ministry of Agriculture compound at the back of the airport.

The ministry’s building was a large colonial style edifice with striking yellow painted plaster walls, a green roof and white highlights on the large window frames and balustrades.  Mainly two storeys but with an extra storey on stumpy towers and surrounded by tall shady trees; it must have been one of the grandest buildings in the neighbourhood.  It also showed that agriculture had had high status at one time in the country, no doubt related to its plantation history.  From the appearance of the buildings at the back; 1960’s and 70’s construction there had been some investment in agriculture then too, but it was to these newer constructions we headed towards.  For the main building had been a victim of the earthquake, its facade badly cracked in several places, surrounded by a wooden fence it was out of bounds to everyone.  Regrettably I could not see that Haiti would ever have the money to rebuild it.

So behind one of these buildings a small door took us in to a series of modest rooms that acted as the Fisheries Department’s national headquarters.  I met the staff including the chief fisheries officer and we had several meetings.  My main intention was to establish the meeting with the national GIS office and this achieved I talked with staff about what data they did have.  A GIS had been established in the office, as I find in many places, but the staff were not confident in what existed on it or how the software operated.

We lunched in the staff canteen, as far as I could make out, but it was quite unlike any canteen I had ever been in.  A short walk across the compound under the shady trees brought us to a house, little more than a chattel house with gingerbread roof and balustrades.  The main seating area was an open terrace with room for about twenty people.  We sat and had our dinners ordered – that old Caribbean thing about having a big plate of hot steaming rice and peas loaded with some hot spicy meat or fish.  Washed down with the sweetest soda you could imagine.  But the ambience of this location; a quiet oasis in the Port Au Prince valley and the good quality of the food made it a pleasant lunch.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Meeting my coworkers

The tall thin figure of Jean Luc came out from the reception area and greeted me with a large hug.  Our ability to talk to each other was limited.  Jean Luc – although from Canada and had learnt his English at school, rarely got to practice it.  For me, I was terrible at learning languages at school, and although I had worked a lot with Linguaphone CDs and tried to practice when in francophone countries, the big time gaps in between trips to French speaking countries meant I lost a lot of the syntax and rhythm.  Consequently it would take several days to get back to a general conversation level and, when ordering food and drink, anything out of the usual patter would confuse me.  Added to this in many countries there was a local patois, often Creole, both the accent and dialect would obfuscate any French in amongst it.

But we had to work together off and on for the next few months, so we had to make the effort.  Jean Luc was supremely patient with me but I soon realise we did share a language – in a stupid sense of humour.

Christophe, as well as his own excellent technical specialism, was the lubricant for the whole team – patiently translating back and forth from French to English, and organising much of the interaction with the Haitian clients for the field work elements of the trip.  When he emerged from his room that first evening,  we ordered some food then Chris and Jean Luc briefed me on the situation so far.  The plan for the work was coming together but there were still a series of bottlenecks to solve.  And now I was here I needed to try and source all the data I needed.  Fortunately, Haiti was well organized for GIS and there was a centre which housed the repository of all Haitian data.  I thought that a visit there was the major thing I needed to do in my week on the ground.  But I also had to visit the Department of Fisheries so they knew I was on the ground and I could fathom out if they had any useful data, and I wanted to get a feel for the fish farm and fish cage industries that did exist.


Jean Luc and Chris

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Looking down on the city

It is curious in consultancy to come in cold to a project and meet your collaborators for the first time.  When I was with NRI it was common to work with outside agencies, but you often had a team of in house people supporting you.  As an independent, I am often thrown together as the GIS expert in a team of other specialists.  In this case, although Christophe lived in Brighton he was an economist from France, and Jean Pierre was from Quebec and a fisheries expert – we had to very quickly build our personal relationships, understand each other’s technical backgrounds, and throw ourselves in to having a  united front with our clients and donors to meet the requirements of the project.

To turn up at the donor’s office for that initial meeting with my team was quite a challenge in itself – especially since I had come direct from the airport after many hours of travelling.  But I managed to hold it together while we talked with the EU delegation and then I was driven off to the hotel.  The Ibo Lele Hotel was up a long winding steep road above Petionville.  It seemed to be common in Haiti to drive in the back of the hotel, against the hillside. The functional areas were all hidden away here including reception, and the rooms, the restaurants and the pools were out front, hanging on the edge of the hill with stupendous views across the city.

The Ibo Lele Hotel had a kind of Spanish feel to it, hacienda style, but with a Haitian twist and the poor construction of many a hotel I had visited.  My room had several routes to it, all of which means going down and up stairs.  Maybe it was the lie of the land that had stopped them building  a single storey across the whole plot; more likely it was just jerry-building and ad hoc extensions that led to the maze of corridors and alleyways.

I spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from the travel in my room.  Towards dusk I got a call from Jean-Luc, he and Chris had got back from their meetings and would meet me in the restaurant in half an hour.  I went out to grab a beer and wait and look out over the valley from the terrace.

The huge throbbing metropolis was laid before me, from the sea in the west to a large salty lake to the east.  A mass of houses interspersed with occasional industrial units, intensive farm activities, fuel storage tanks, and in the centre the long green strip of the airport where occasionally I could see planes landing or taking off – the silvery American Airlines plane in particular glinting in the low angle sunshine.  The noise of traffic, a few boom boxes and heavy thuds from building sites or dumper trucks somewhere out in the suburbs, drifted up to my hilltop viewpoint.

Behind the city a wall of mountain reached as far as the eye could pan.  In some places houses clung to the hillsides, in others great landslip scars were clearly visible with the naked eye.  A covering of grasses was discernible on these hills, but so few trees.

Directly below heavily walled compounds shielded the villas of the Haitian rich, glimpses of swimming pools and tennis courts in amongst the thick lush ornamental trees.  To my left, the distinctive steeple of a yellow church in Petionville – in the central square – poked out above the other buildings and trees.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – On the Streets of Port Au Prince

It gave me a chance to see the melee around me.  The streets were full of both pedestrians and hawkers.  Everything was for sale along the narrow strips of pavement or sidewalk, shoes piled high, clothes of all sorts jumbled on any surface  – maybe just a sheet of cloth or tarpaulin on the ground.  A pot pourri of  skirts, shorts, shirts, dresses, blouses, knickers, bras, briefs, socks, caps, jackets, suits, wraps, children’s school uniforms, t-shirts, vests, trousers, swimwear, beach shorts, Hawaiian shirts.

There were small stools with old women or young boys selling a couple of peppers, pineapple, bananas.  There were traders of other goods; maybe just a couple of plastic buckets, utensils, pills, dope, phone cards.

But then I saw a mismatch.  Hundreds of pedestrians walking up and down past these stalls, and hundreds of stalls and people trying to sell their wares.  But rarely did I see any transactions.  Amongst the ordinary people of Haiti there was not enough money in circulation to make markets thrive.  And yet people were also desperate to earn whatever they could that they would spend all day trying to sell their meagre crops on the streets of Port Au Prince, or work for peanuts to sell the usual mix of wholesale goods from richer middle men.


Hawkers line the roadside

Through a lot of nerve on the part of my driver, we inched out a taxi to join the main thoroughfare and crawled up and up the main road.  It was near straight and the scene hardly changed along its length.  A complex mix of cafes, shops and small businesses fronted by rows of market stalls and people, bikes, animals, cars, and belching buses and trucks crammed together going up or down the hill.  At one point a broken down lorry stopped our progress for ten minutes, and my driver found a gap between the buildings to head round one block – for a second or two we reached about 30kmh-1 but then we had the joy of trying to rejoin the traffic once more.

As we got up into Petionville itself (there was no gap between the capital city and the ville), the houses were more substantial.  In the central square (which took ten minutes to navigate round) there were some trees, the first public greenery I had seen since leaving the airport.  We continued on upwards in a much more suburban, well constructed and greener environment.  High walls concealed the high status housing .  Up some steep cobbled roads off the main route south out of Petionville, we veered off down a red dirt driveway and stopped next to a high white wall with a heavy metal gate blocking an entrance.  I walked over to the gate, where a small shutter was scraped open and I made my introductions.  I had to hand over my passport and wait a few moments in the blistering heat.  Two heavily armed security guards were ambling around on the driveway.  Eventually I was let in to a  narrow courtyard packed with diplomatic cars and through a glass lobby into an amazing house.  The back was converted to administrative offices, the front was a huge open plan area fronted by three storeys of glass looking out over the city.  This was the European Union’s offices in Haiti, our funders for the project, and my two colleagues were already deep in a meeting here.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Negotiating the traffic

That little disaster over, I sat back and let the driver take me to my colleagues.  I was aware we were going to drive about 10 kilometres, but that it might take up to two hours.  Haitian main roads are in bad repair, they are clogged with traffic made worse by people trying to be clever and gain advantage ending up clogging the road even further when they get stuck – for example by dropping into a storm drain, crashing into a market stall or just being wedged at a curious angle against the general direction of traffic.  My driver was almost resigned to this, but he said he knew a few short cuts that would hopefully get us up the hill faster.

The first stage was not too bad – a wide dual carriageway leads from the airport along the valley bottom towards the city centre of Port Au Prince.    But soon this became clogged with lunch time traffic.  My driver veered off the main road on to some rough back streets – at best untarmacced, at worst a minefield of craters and piles of rubbish, stones, bricks, and rubble.   Yes the rubble.  It was two and a half years since the earthquake and yet on every street corner there were small hills of concrete, rebar, stones that had once been houses, shops, walls, people’s property.  In many areas they had simply been bulldozed to one side of the street to allow access, and left there as no-one could pay to have it moved away, and maybe the sites where they could be dumped were already full.  Some enterprising souls had scavenged in these piles and extracted materials to build again, but mostly the rubble was mixed with so much detritus, dust and dirt that it was futile to try and recycle.


Finally a quieter street

We zigzagged up these steep side streets for several minutes, progress circuitous as we avoided the worst of the potholes.  Occasionally we would have to slow to a crawl to work our way round another vehicle coming down the hill – neither wanting to give up the better road surface meaning wing mirrors would touch as you squeezed past.

The use of the backstreets did mean we appeared to make progress for a while, but we were heading to the town of Petionville  perched on the side of the main valley.  The limited options for getting up the slope meant at some stage we had to rejoin the main road.  Not only was the road itself choked with traffic but few vehicles would give way to joining traffic, and when we got within 100m of the road, we had to sit patiently in a queue of our own.