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Sunday, March 25, 2012

I have been away for a while - Travels in Haiti part 1

It has been a while since I have posted a blog. I have had a remarkably busy two months, perhaps highlighted by a trip to Haiti in mid February. I traveled with an established group from a church which had developed a long standing relationship with the Episcopal Church on the island of LaGonave. This is off the coast of Haiti and is considered a back water by Haitian standards. There is basically no functioning state. There is so little wealth there is also little or no crime. The people are resourceful.
The trip to get there was interesting to say the least. Our flight into Port-au-Prince was unremarkable. I was struck by my initial impressions from the air. I was expecting a tropical and lush environment. I saw what looked like eastern Colorado, dry, rocky, and barren. The airport in Port-au-Prince was in the midst of reconstruction. It was filled with what the Haitians call the "blancs", a continuous flow of volunteers from all over the US and Canada. This was very heartening.

The trip to LaGonave requires either a brief flight or a ferry ride. We had lots of luggage, including medications,  shoes, hats, and sewing machines in addition to our individual personal items which meant the air route was out of the question. The ride was an eye opener for me. Immediately upon leaving the terminal, I felt as though we had entered an alternative universe where a different history was unfolding.  As crowded as the terminal was, outside was a sea of people, all looking to make themselves useful to those visitors entering the alternative Haitian universe. There were UN soldiers intermixed and also cruising in jeeps, all armed to the teeth and distinguished by their North Carolina Tar Heel colors. While I perhaps should have felt anxious, for whatever reason I did not.   We were met in Port -au-Prince by representatives of the Episcopal Church of LaGonave who had arranged for ground transport to the ferry, about a 1.5 hour drive from the airport.

Port-au-Prince was crowded, dusty, and filled with litter. It turns out that having trash receptacles requires a background infrastructure which can collect the trash and take it somewhere out of site. This is something we take for granted and as far as Haiti is concerned, anything which requires infrastructure likely does not exist in any sort of robust form. The Haitian perspective on waste disposal is any given place is as good as any other place. Why make an effort to collect trash when there is no way to get it to where it can have less impact.

Traffic is a mess, but no more so than other lesser developed countries. Our trip to the ferry was interrupted by an accident involving two truck and a large bus. The road we used was a "two lane" road, ostensibly one lane in each direction. The wreck we encountered appeared to have happened when one truck attempted to pass another and at the same time a bus, traveling in the same direction attempted to pass both at the same time. The road was not wide enough to accommodate the three vehicles, prompting all the parties to side-swipe each other, the bus (filled with passengers) careening into the ditch. The trucks were immobilized, now occupying the entirety of the road and traffic backed up in both directions.

No HERO units patrolled these roads and those marooned by the wreck were left to their own devices. There was single lane on one shoulder that could serve for traffic to pass. This lane was quickly undermined by the game of chicken played. If you waited to let traffic pass in the other direction, your lane going in the direction you wanted to go would never get a chance to pass. Thus the only remaining lane came to a standstill. Ultimately, someone seized the day, prompting enough cooperation to take turns. I am not sure how the trucks were moved and by whom. They were not there when we came back through next week.

We arrived at the ferry terminal late, but our ride was still waiting on us. We all piled into a modest motor boat, the type I regularly associate with water skiing on Smith Mountain Lake.Twelve people, 2000 lbs of luggage, and one small oversight. The boat was not rated for this weight load. Perhaps 1-2 miles into the 30 mile trip, we were taking on water and what appeared to be an alarming rate. Our captain turned around and intercepted a slow moving ferry filled with Haitians, desperately wanting to unload his passengers and cargo, and I mean desperate. We approached the lumbering ferry, basically ramming it twice, I believe to convince them we were serious. We tied up briefly, launching ourselves and our luggage on top of a boat filled to the gills with people, charcoal,and  produce. We crushed a few poor souls and tomatoes. The Haitians welcomed us on board and appeared to be concerned with our welfare.  I held on for dear life for the next 2.5 hours while the boat slowly inched toward LaGonave.

We arrived as dusk was falling. My arms were stiff from clinging to the boat. I was sore from sitting on something hard and uneven. The Haitians appeared to be completely nonplussed. This was every day life for them. I ostensibly came to aid them. They had saved my butt on day one. We entered the harbor and the boat docked in A L'Anse-a-Galets. We were met by our hosts and transported to the Episcopal compound a few miles away where we settled down for the night, taking inventory, and looking forward the week ahead.

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