Living in the Community – Light and Fire

The lack of lighting in the evenings was mesmerizing.  The pin pricks of light from the phones just about lit up the chests and chins of the people walking by with them.  One or two houses might have a Coleman lamp, but most of the domestic light came from the fires and was both a dim orange and constantly fluctuating.  Then the odd headlight from a car or a dimmer front light on some of the bikes.  That was it.  The ground around was dark, the trees only just discernible against the night sky.  And of course the night sky itself was intense; whether it be from the myriad stars of the Milky Way when we arrived to the first slivers of the new moon on subsequent nights.

One other light would make an impact on us.  Some nights we would look out and the silhouette of the nearby hill was clearer than usual – a red glow behind gave away that a fire was burning up in the distance.  The glow would burn quite intensely, pulsating for many minutes.  It was difficult to gauge how far away the fire front was, but one night, we had been watching the glow getting stronger and could then hear crackling.  The active fire must have been several kilometres across and it was having an effect on the air around us.  First we noticed that we were being rained upon by black cinders, then there was a whoosh from the west and a rush of wind blew straight out of the forest, down the road and out to the east, taking with it a huge swirl of cloud and ash.  The air around us was being fiercely sucked up into the fire front.  We had to hold on to our papers on the table to stop them joining the wind.  It blew for a couple of minutes, the trees violently tugging at their own roots in the maelstrom, before something happened which turned off the wind.  The fire never reached the village but it was another reminder of how vulnerable these places were.  As part of the project, the village had been encouraged to have fire wardens that kept watch for fires in the dry season, and a store of beaters and other equipment was kept in the community centre in case there was a need to protect the properties in the village itself.

Fire became an increasing hazard as the dry season went on.  Not only was there little water on or in the ground to dampen any sparks, but the luxurious growth of understory that built up over the wet season dried out to be perfect tinder.  The scrunching noise you hear as a fire whips around a forest is all caused by it catching a frond of dry grass and exploding along the parched stems and into the dry undergrowth.

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In the dry season this vegetation can burn so quickly

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.

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Bus

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.