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!

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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 – 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.

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Jean Luc and Chris

The Adopted Dog – Edsel, Eduardo and me

My first encounter with Kingstown, St Vincent was in 1999 where I had a two day trip to try and sort out a consultancy attempting to fly aerial photography over the coral reef of the Grenadines.  From that trip I went back a few times to manage that project and do some training, and I have talked elsewhere about my field work in the Grenadines, and a couple of fantastic day trips to Bequia Island and up the windward side of St Vincent itself.

After working in the Virgin Islands for a couple of years and going back in to consultancy I found myself approached by the Ministry of Planning in Kingstown to develop an idea for a national GIS.  As with many of these contracts, and particularly since the funding was to come through the European Union, the bureaucracy takes many months to sort out before you can actually start out.  I was the main contractor and I partnered up with two people, Edsel of course, but also another GIS expert called Eduardo.

Edsel has introduced me to Eduardo several years before on one of my trips to St Kitts.  Originally from Argentina, he had worked in development in many countries before ending up as a consultant for a couple of projects in St Kitts and Nevis.  There he had settled down with a local girl and become part of the Kittitian GIS scene.  Although he worked a lot for St Kitts government he was keen to do more work up and down the islands.  Edsel and I had met up with him at a beach bar at the far end of St Kitts.  Originally the area had been called Mosquito Bay, but the beach bar owners felt the name was not inviting to tourists so it was being marketed as “Turtle Beach”.  Over the usual Caribbean tourist fare of beefburger, fries and beer, we discussed our interests in work and found a lot of overlap.  More so even than Edsel, Eduardo had a lot of experience with different agencies in developing countries and I could see that we could partner up t some time.

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Eduardo (right) and Tony Bowman on the Bequia Ferry

So when the project in St Vincent was advertised I was keen to get the two of them on board.  It was a different style of project than anything I had undertaken before, full project management for me, and having a couple of subcontractors meant I had to deal with their contracts and payments as well as my own.  And the plan was to have Eduardo be the main consultant in country, with me supervising and inputting on some fronts, and Edsel pitching in with training aspects.  This meant I had to get Eduardo set up to live there long term.  No way could the project afford hotels for the whole time he was due to be there; and I would not inflict hotel life on anyone for that length of time anyway.  Problem was that he was to be in and out of St Vincent several times over the 15 months of the project.  Eduardo did some hunting round in the first week of the project and managed to find a very good deal on a two bedroom villa at the back of Kingstown, and he could take it for the whole period for less than we had budgeted for the 8 months of his time on island.  So we were sorted.