Category Archives: Discovering Haiti

First impressions of a new land

The ‘Haiti’ few Haitians will ever see

I was struck by this description of Royal Caribbean’s private Haitian port – or should that be “private port on the north coast of Hispaniola”.

Labadee® is Labadie, incidentally, near Cap Haitien. But it seems a tour company can rename somewhere and then trademark it without too much trouble these days.

On the north coast of Hispaniola, surrounded by beautiful mountain slopes and exotic foliage, sits Labadee®, Royal Caribbean’s private paradise. This exclusive destination offers pristine beaches, breathtaking scenery and spectacular water activities. We even have an amazing new Aqua Park for kids. Regardless of where you go, you’ll find yourself embraced by the beautiful landscape. Labadee’s native charm, along with its natural beauty, make this a destination not to be missed, and only Royal Caribbean can take you there.

The One Thing You Don’t Want to Miss

It’s impossible to choose just one thing that’s special about Labadee®. The sandy beach and coral reefs provide a perfect place to relax and have fun. Whether you’re interested in kayaking, snorkeling, parasailing or you just want to lie on the beach and relax, you won’t want to miss Labadee®.

Other Fun Things to Do

Paddle along the gorgeous coastline of Labadee® on a relaxing kayaking tour. Your guide will lead you through beautiful coral reefs, where you’ll witness an abundance of exotic marine life. You’ll also pass various fishing villages that have been unchanged for decades.
Ahoy, mateys! Become a pirate for a day at Labadee® Luc’s Splash Bash. Get drenched by ground geysers and water archways, battle other buccaneers with water cannons aboard the pirate ship, or explore the treasure map trail.
Soak up the sun while you float on the waves on a beach mat.
Enjoy the fun-filled floating Aqua Park as you bounce on trampolines and climb and slide on inflatables.

Sporting Adventures

Grab a bird’s-eye view as you soar 400 feet above the beautiful peninsula of Labadee on a thrilling parasailing ride.
Paddle through the enchanting Bay of Labadee® on a kayaking tour. Absorb the breathtaking surroundings and learn a bit about the Haitian culture.
Take an exhilarating ride aboard a waverunner down the scenic coast of Labadee®. See your ship from a perspective rarely enjoyed by other guests.
Go shopping for beautiful handmade local artwork, woodwork and crafts. You’ll want to bring cash so you can take home a beautiful memento of this private paradise.

Get a Taste of Local Flavor

LabadeeOur special “Labaduzee” is waiting for you – our signature frozen drink that is out of this world. Order yours from a shady hammock to capture the true spirit of Labadee®.

I plan to ask a few Haitians what they think of the Labaduzee, that “true spirit”, “taste of local flavor”.

Bah… I should not be so cynical. I am sure this walled off private tourist mecca provides some employment and can help build confidence here. A catalyst. And who can blame tourists from wanting a bit of hassle-free pampering.

Given that, why does it feel so weird?

I leave you with a note written by “lefonceur26” below the youtube speed boat video, written 9 months ago. “Lol it’s hard to know how others are enjoying my country while I can’t…I’m so pissed right now”.

FYI this piece from Conde Nast Traveler, on concierge.com, is worth a look.

When will Haiti truly be able to celebrate its independence day?

Happy independence day, Haitians: a powerful act of emancipation for which you have been made to pay so dearly, and have never been allowed truly to savour.

Jean Jacques Dessalines, Haitian independence leader

In 1789, revolutionary France’s National Constituent Assembly declared the Rights of Man, but did not extend these great principles to the slaves of Saint-Domingue – producer of 40 percent of the world’s sugar, and the Caribbean ‘s most profitable colony.

By contrast, they were punished severely for daring to assume such sentiments might be universal, and years of conflict followed.

Haiti was consequently born of a revolution, a slave rebellion which threw off the planet’s most brutal system of oppression.

Its declaration of independence on January 1, 1804 made Haiti the second free country in the western hemisphere, and the world’s first black republic: an extraordinary achievement, testing the western world’s new spirit of enlightened people-powered government to the limit.

Battle on Santo Domingo, a painting by January Suchodolski depicting a struggle between Polish troops in French service and the Haitian rebels

As it turned out, the ‘international community’ (of white people) was horrified, and put in place a global boycott of Haitian goods and commerce. It was a devastating start for the fledgling nation.

In July 1825, French ruler Charles X sent a fleet of fourteen vessels and troops to reconquer the island. In order to survive, Haiti was forced to pay 150 million francs in return for French recognition. (The amount was reduced to 90 million in 1838).

It was a crippling toll; and the debt plagued Haiti’s economy for decades. The French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher wrote at the time: “Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that they had already paid with their blood.”

Tragically, ordinary Haitians were from the very beginning treated with equal disdain by their new black and mixed race leadership, who mimicked their former European oppressors in brutality. Venality and cruelty became the hallmarks of a new Haitian elite.

Dealing another blow to Haitian independence, the United States occupied the island from 1915-1934. Woodrow Wilson clearly did not believe that his vaunted principles of self-determination applied to Haitians.

After its departure, the US continued to meddle intensely in Haitian politics. Years of dictatorship and instability were to follow.

The most recent challenge to Haiti’s independence came in 2004, when it was placed under a Chapter VII UN peacekeeping mission. There are many good reasons why the mission should be here, but it has been controversial and the simple fact remains: Haiti today hosts more than 9000 international troops and police.

Even if they see it as the lesser of potential evils, no free-spirited independent people ever enjoys the presence of foreign security forces on their soil.

So, happy independence day, Haitians. Few ‘independent’ peoples have had less opportunity to enjoy that phrase. May a day come soon when you can truly call it so.

(Note – this is necessarily a very simplified history, and if you think I have made mistakes, please feel free to correct them.)

FYI This is what Hillary Clinton had to say this year about Haitian Independence Day)

Night Demons

There is a powerful scene in the Tracy Kidder book about Paul Farmer, where the doctor and his chronicler are caught deep in rural Haiti late at night. A friend is sent to fetch a car. The duo start walking down the dark road alongside Ti Jean, a Haitian colleague.

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Roosters crow in the night. Now and then a dog barks. Then we hear a strange sound coming towards us, like something scraping the road. ‘What is it?’ Farmer asks Ti Jean.

Ti Jean says, ‘Job pa-l.’ The literal translation is: ‘Its own job.’ He means, ‘Don’t ask.’ In a moment, the shapes of a pair of men appear, dragging some lumber down the road towards Casse. A few minutes later we hear a squeaking sound approaching. Farmer asks Ti Jean what it is and Ti Jean answers more emphatically. ‘Zafe bounda-l!’ Which means, ‘It’s own ass!’ He’s telling Farmer to shut up and mind his own business. A moment later the shape of a person on a squeaky old bicycle passes in the starlight.

This continues. Another person passes, and Farmer says, ‘Bonsoir,’ and Ti Jean shushes him, then issues these instructions: If someone passes you at night and doesn’t speak, you too must remain silent, but if the person asks who you are, you must say, ‘I am who you are,’ and if the person asks what you do, you must say, ‘I do what you do.’

What’s the danger? Farmer asks.

Ti Jean says you might be talking to a demon who will steal your spirit. Then you’ll wake up in the morning with diarrhea and vomiting, and the doctor will say you have typhoid or malaria, but in fact the problem will be more complex. ‘You should take the medicines,’ says Ti Jean. ‘But then you should also go to a Voodoo priest.’

I sympathise. My demons come at night also.

I lie in bed and they appear, taunting me with things undone, ambitions unrealised, with decisions poorly made, conversations badly handled.

I did not need to come to Haiti for these demons. They were there in Brooklyn also. But they traveled with me and have taken on local powers.

Now they whisper to me about potential break-ins, about doors unlocked. About how to make my way on this troubled island.

I get up in the dead of night after one demon convinces me to move my MacBook from the study to the bedroom, which feels safer, behind a barred gate.

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I read once that some Haitian superstitions could be traced to medieval Normandy. The colonists also imported their demons, it seems. They intermingled with those of other cultures, taking on new forms, new habits.

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I pad around the house at 4 am. Petionville glistens below. Noise drifts up the hill. The occasional honking car. Snatches of music. The bustle of a city on partial power, of people still working.

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But rural Haiti is never far off. I can see it in the shadowed hills which frame the city. The cock crows at night here too, dreaming of a dawn far off. Insects sing loudly, chirping their dominance over people; a light breeze hushes the blossoms.

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I take some photos. Somewhere our night guards are prowling, or sleeping. A demon whispers that they may shoot me by accident, so I turn on some lights. I am here! We have electricity! The demons scuttle into corners.

The camera gives some control, some purpose. I consider what I might write in my blog the next day. Intention offers solace, and the demons retreat further.

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I head back to bed. The demons return; teasing me with yearning dreams, reintroducing me to old friends, colleagues, places, even as Anna sleeps beside me and the children breathe peacefully in the adjoining room. I lie with eyes open, the faint light of the city streaming through the window, thinking of the next day.

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And yet, ultimately, I remember I am comfortable here. My concerns are minor. How much more powerful these demons might be were I born Haitian, concerned about my next meal, my children’s health.

So I empathise with Haiti’s night demons. They are very real.

Kidder continues:

We stroll on. Farmer says that Ti Jean’s discourse has reminded him of his first ardent explorations of Haiti and the dozens of Voodoo ceremonies he attended. Contrary to almost everything he’s read about their luridness, he found them long and boring. ‘The majority were held because someone was sick.’ He asks Ti Jean his opinion. Are half of the Voodoo ceremonies attempts to drive away illness?

‘Three-quarters,’ says Ti Jean.

‘Isn’t it amazing,’ Farmer says to me, ‘that this simple fact has eluded all the many commentaries on Voodoo?’

The rain in Haiti

We had a little storm last night; my first glimpse of rain in Haiti. It continued into the day.

Nothing to write home about per se; blustery winds, a bit of rain, but still – even this minor blow seems to have brought a good part of town to a relative standstill.

Haiti was lucky this year; after a dreadful hurricane season in 2008, which undid much of the grudging economic progress of the previous two years, in 2009 the weather was relatively benign.

But I got a small sense of why storms wreak such havoc here. One relatively unremarkable windy rainshower, and the roads turn into slippery deathtraps, covered in branches, rubbish, gushing drains. (Sadly, my camera – which I stuck out the window on occasions – was covered in rain, and most of my snaps were unusable.)

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Finante, our nanny, was a no show, as were some of the people needed to put the finishing touches of our house (ie, water pump, which is still not working properly). I got the sense that much economic activity comes to a halt with the rain. I am not sure if it was related, but the internet was also down most of the day – apparently some issue with the cable to the Dominican Republic, Anna was told.

On the plus side (for me), the evil Route de Freres traffic jam was mercifully light, but the drive to our new house remained an exercise in caution – as the remaining vendors darted in and out of the road in all directions, skirting collapsed walls and rubble, skipping past torn overhead advertising banners (which hung perilously in the middle of the road, brushing passing cars).

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Sadly, the colors on new orange and pink building I have watched painstakingly painted over the past couple of weeks were already sporting runny blotches. Some parts of the market, garbage-strewn at the best of times, appeared pestilent.

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No wonder so much time is spent by aid workers here preparing for the next storm. But one hears worrying things – that despite Haiti’s increasing disaster preparedness, new developments are creating accidents waiting to happen: roads perched beneath piles of mud and rock, people living on deeply unsafe landfill and so forth. I dread what will happen when a real storm hits. That said, judging by one facebook update from a friend of mine in the UK, Haiti is not alone. “Snow, frost, rain, thunder and now a power cut…” it read. The veneer of civilisation is thin all over.

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Teaching Dorian about soldiers, resources and poverty

Dorian is increasingly curious about soldiers and guns. Given Anna’s job, and the number of UN peacekeepers we see patrolling around here, it’s inevitable.

Peacekeeping tap-tap

But it’s tricky to explain, without getting into uncomfortable territory.

D: “Why do they have soldiers?”
M: “So they can stop people fighting.”
D: “Why are they fighting?”
M: “Um. Because they don’t have enough money”.
D: “So they shoot them?”
M: “Well, they try not to shoot them.”
D: “Why do they have guns?”
M: “So that people listen to them.”
D: “Do they shoot the bad guys?”
M: “Well, they try not to shoot people. They try to put the bad guys in prison.”
D: “I wish we had a soldier in our house, to stop the bad guys”
….

Why don't they make toy peacekeepers?

D: “Why don’t they have enough money?”
M: “Because they are poor.”
D: “Why are they poor?”
M: “Because things don’t work so well here. And because some people ran away with the money.”
D: “Is Haiti broken?”
M: “Well, maybe a little bit… but you shouldn’t really say that. It’s not nice to say that.”
[Dorian has – to our great embarrassment – already explained to strangers that Haiti is broken and that Mummy is here to help fix Haiti]
D: “Why?”
M: “Because it might make some people sad.”
D: “Why does it make them sad?”
M: “Because they live here, and it is their country.”
D: “Do we live here?”
M: “Yes.”
D: “Why?”
M: “Because Mummy’s job is here.”
D: “Why?”
M: “Well, it is an interesting job.”
D: “She’s going to fix Haiti?”
M: “You shouldn’t say that.”

…..

D: “Poor Haiti is broken”.
M: “Well, it’s not really broken; but it needs to get better. You shouldn’t say that. Just to Daddy.”
D: “The pavement is broken. The electricity is broken. The road is broken.”
M: “Yes. They need to fix things.”
D: “Why can’t they fix them?”
M: “Because they don’t have enough money.”
D: “Did someone run away with the money?”
M: “Some people did.”
D: “Why?”
M: “Because they were greedy.”
D: “Do we have money?”
M: “Some.”
D: “Do we have lots of money?”
M: “Not really. Just some.”
D: “I don’t want the people to run away with our money.”

There is a purity to these questions, and I wish to encourage them. At the same time, some of it is so sensitive, and Dorian will inevitably repeat these things at inappropriate moments.

Also unsettling – he has quickly grasped some of the new power relationships in our world. Only this morning, he casually told our day guard to move his car seat from my temporary runaround to Anna’s UN car. He unquestioningly complied. We had to explain to Dorian there were certain things he should not do.

Still, I like to think all of this is positive, and will contribute to the education of a globally aware child. As long as he doesn’t turn into Little Lord Fauntlelroy in the meantime.

Little Lord Fauntleroy at the new 'Montana Village'... a striking drop of St Tropez chic in PAP

Moving house: a check-list

Looks like we will finally be moving into our new home over the next couple of days. Never the easiest of tasks, in Haiti it is quite the logistical challenge.

A quick clean, and this will be a delightful place to eat lunch

By way of illustration (not a moan – I realise these are the challenges of the privileged), this is the list of things we need to do:

– Check gas canisters for cooker. (No gas mains).
– Buy diesel cans, and fill with diesel for the generator. (No electricity. We need enough fuel to last us through potential shortages)
– Check that the generator has been fixed. (It would not start when previously checked)
– Ensure the batteries for the inverter have been replaced. (Haitian households mostly run off ‘inverters’. These are banks of twelve to twenty four batteries – a bit like car batteries – which store electricity from the generator, or from the one or two daily hours of Haitian mains electricity, and are then converted back to AC in order to run basic appliances.)
– Buy distilled water to keep inverter batteries topped up.
– Check water supply. (No running water. We will regularly have to pay for a big truck to fill up the cistern).
– Disinfect water supply.
– Check on installation of new security gate (following the UN security assessment).
– Hire day guard and two night guards.
– Check protective fence around the house.
– Check fridge works on inverter. (Only specific energy light fridges can run off the limited power supply).
– Check water pump works. (Water will not travel to taps unless this is in good order).
– Purchase and install satellite internet system. (No cable).
– Make arrangements for garbage removal (very limited municipal waste management)
– Stock up on Culligan drinking water. (Everyone uses these giant plastic bottles of Culligan. We need around 6 or 7.)

This aside from the obvious stuff like signing for the shipment, overseeing its delivery etc etc

Chances are at that at any one time, one if not more of these items will need fixing.

One notable exception: telephone. Thanks to the mighty Digicel, the cellphone operator which has taken over this country in the space of three years, we no longer have to worry about making a call. Hooray for technological leapfrogging.

Still, no wonder so many people choose to stay in hotel complexes. They include all amenities ready to go and are intrinsically safe. But these apartments also tend to be small and expensive, and if you can get a house up and running, it can be a much more memorable experience. Quite something after living in a New York box.

The house we have chosen has a fantastic view of Port-au-Prince below. Very much looking forward to moving in.

More colours on the Route de Freres

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Aid, priests and sexual misconduct

International assistance and sexual exploitation have, sadly, often gone hand in hand; during the middle part of this decade, I was one of the reporters who covered the story of misconduct by UN peacekeepers in Congo and beyond, while Anna worked on a seminal report on the issue with the charismatic Jordanian UN ambassador Prince Zeid.

At the time, the scandal was used as a stick with which to beat the UN by its detractors in the United States – although that same country subsequently led opposition to UN efforts to create a more effective disciplinary system. The UN has nonetheless, within its limited powers to control the troops of member states, implemented an official ‘no tolerance’ policy, and the rules in Haiti appear quite strict – we quickly learn a long list of no go zones, such as certain bars, where officials may not tread.

But the UN has no monopoly on such practices. Abuses occur wherever powerful people from rich countries find themselves in proximity with the poor, and it comes as no surprise to discover this piece in the  Windsor Star (thanks to Povertynewsblog for finding it).

Youth who claims he was abused by a Canadian aid worker - according to the Windsor Star

“He was 16, and like most Haitian teens, surviving on street smarts. One day, he accepted a job helping a humanitarian aid worker carry supplies to his home.

‘After I finished he asked me to come back for a talk,’ recalled the man, now 23, speaking Creole through an interpreter. The aid worker offered him money for sex, the man alleges, and a relationship began.

‘It was to pay for school for me. That was the main reason. If you do it for me I pay for school.’

Mission sex — it’s Haiti’s dirty little secret.

The western world’s poorest country is, according to one aid worker, a ‘perfect storm’ of socio-economic conditions for abuse by visiting humanitarians. Its tropical temperatures and breathtaking natural beauty are easily, and cheaply, accessible from North America. Heavily dependent on foreign aid and with virtually no regulation of its schools and orphanages, Haiti’s justice system is ill-equipped to deal with a rising tide of sex tourism.”

[UPDATE – The Montreal Gazette has also written on the matter in this piece ‘When evil is cloaked as good

His 12 years of good deeds with impoverished kids prompted Association Grandir, the humanitarian group to which he was aligned, to dub him “a true Father Teresa.”

“You have to see him among the people, eating and sleeping as they do, to understand that a commitment like his is a rare thing,” Grandir said on its website.

Five years later, Father Teresa is a Quebec prison inmate.

Huard, 65, was sentenced to three years for sexually assaulting young Haitian boys while a second Quebecer, Denis Rochefort, 59, received two years.]

Sex tourism appears to have been fairly prevalent in Haiti during the Duvalier era, but took a dip after the Aids epidemic – and subsequent (misguided) claims that Haiti had exported Aids to the US. Most likely, it was the other way round.

These cases remind us it remains a serious issue, and might become more so as Haiti grows a little more stable. Most disturbingly, two priests are separately facing sexual abuse charges:

John Duarte, 43, former leader of the Windsor-based Hearts Together For Haiti, was recently arrested by Dominican authorities on a warrant issued in Canada, on charges of sexually abusing teenage Haitian boys – according to the  Windsor Star. Douglas Perlitz, 39, was indicted in September by a grand jury in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and faces 10 counts related to the sexual abuse of nine boys for about a decade, CNN reported.

Joao Jose Correira Duarte, a former Windsor priest, is now facing extradition to Canada, where he's expected to face 12 charges in the sexual abuse of Haitian youths, age 12 to 17, the Immigration Office and National Drug Control Directorate said in a statement sent to Canwest News Service. Photograph by: Handout, CNS Source Windsor Star

One is left wondering about the religious sector in general.

Despite the Catholic priest scandals of the past decade, I am not aware of any major focus upon missionary work. Haiti is awash with religious groups, largely unregulated and unsupervised.

One suspects the vast majority of such endeavours – as those of UN officials and NGO staff – is extremely well-intentioned. But wherever power is wielded without scrutiny, abuses occur.

With so many missions in Haiti, it might be a valuable endeavour to take a closer look at the spiritual, as well as the profane.

Haitian humour

The comedy of other cultures is tricky to write about at the best of times; in a new land, any commentary is fraught with potholes.

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Take this photo of a bus, for example. A giant “Thankyou Jesus”, a little love heart, and two middle fingers.

To my eyes this is a splendid piece of comedy. I like to imagine that – apart from the fact that I should keep back as a fellow road user – this tells me something along the lines of: “Thanks, because I have to give thanks – but this is what I get? Stuff that.”

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What I want to see here is a shrugging recognition of the implacable powers that shape life, married to a profound sense of the ridiculous. A parody of praise, underwritten by satire.

However last night someone far better informed than I told me – upon listening to my fledgling theories on Haitian humour – that this was all rather unlikely; that Haitians did not make jokes where God was concerned, and that this bus was probably a simple example of someone being rather rude.

Ho hum.

Still, I do feel that a number of Haiti’s famously fabulous proverbs do feature a certain cynical irreverence.

Makak pa janm kwe petit-li led.
A monkey never thinks her baby’s ugly.

Sel pa vante tèt li di li sale.
Salt doesn’t boast that it is salted.

Santi bon koute che.
Smelling good is expensive.

Lanne pase toujou pi bon.
Past years are always better.

Sa k rive koukouloulou a, ka rive kakalanga tou.
What happens to the turkey can happen to the rooster too.

Bel anteman pa di paradi.
A beautiful funeral doesn’t guarantee heaven.

[A topic for a later post, certainly; I need to study these proverbs more deeply, under the tutelage of an expert.]

Am I making assumptions, fueled by my origin? Sure. Am I an ingenue here? You bet.

Yet I suspect there is a joyful grumbling fun-poking at life’s inanities to be found in Haiti. How else would the human spirit survive?

Webcomics for good – Starthrower

I have always been a huge fan of comics, from my childhood days – when I used to treasure the occasional delivery of 2000AD, that great British institution, to my home in Argentina.

Seeing as my two countries were at war, those comics used to arrive with nasty scrawls on them, denigrating me as an Argie-Bargie and worse. A curious sensation being Anglo-Argentine back then. My teachers in Argentina decried me as a British imperialist. The British postal service attacked me for being Argentine. I suppose it informed my world view.

Anyhow, I stumbled across this nice webcomic about Haiti, which hopes to raise money for an education NGO.

A page from Starthrower in Haiti

On the site – Starthrower in Haiti – Daniel Lafrance says he hopes the webcomic will raise funds to sponsor young Haitians adults for high school education. “$600 gives one Haitian the chance to go to high school for a year. This sponsorship is provided by the Starthrower Foundation and includes school fees, school supplies, uniforms including shoes, socks, underwear, transportation if necessary,tutoring, drop in centre, hygiene products, medical and dental support, potable water and when available food sacks,” he writes.

I cannot say much about the NGO itself yet: I have not visited it. But I love the use of the webcomic, and commend people to have a peek.

I always knew this day would come; when my two great lifelong loves – comics and video games – would lose their “for children only” tag and be recognised as the extraordinary communications tools they are. If only I could draw! (Or make video games for that matter).