Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Postscript (2) Haiti deals another blow

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


Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Recce of the Montana

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.

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.

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- 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 – 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 – 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.