As is usually the case, the image that one has about a place has little to do with the reality on the ground and everything to do with the extremes highlighted by the media. So it was for me on my first day in Haiti.
There was some level of anticipation on my part, unsure as I was about how “rough” it might be. The day started with a very short flight to Panama and then onwards to Port au Prince.
Once we landed, I saw some of the classic visuals of trucks full of aid packages being unloaded and scores of volunteers, each sporting its distinctive colored T-shirt — blue for this Christian group, red for that group of Canadians, green for another group of Latin American rescue workers etc.
The only less than optimal aspect was the tediously long delivery of suitcases in the make-shift airport, since the “real” airport was completely destroyed by the earthquake on January 12.
After waiting nearly 2 hours for my bag, I make my way outside to try to find Gilbert to tell him I am still waiting, and I meet a serene and handsome man, waiting patiently in the chaotic buzz that surrounds the airport
Gilbert informs me that he was unable to find a hotel room, so I adjust to the idea of cozying up in someone’s tent. Gilbert starts driving and within 5 minutes, I am completely at ease. Whatever qualms I had about being here, are gone…
Sure the street is speckled with debris. Sure there are ever-present signs of life interrupted by a seismic jolt. But Gilbert is immediately in work gear, giving me a sense of what we should do during the 4 days I am in town and, in a very Nica way, it all starts to come together.
He gives me a brief on several of the players he feels I should meet. He drives Parisian style with his powerful 4×4 and we go up and down hills into a seemingly endless set of alleys and corridors carved out of crumbled buildings. We make it to his father’s land, which is in what must have been an upper middle class neighborhood, pre January 12.
I cannot begin to imagine how traumatic the seismic jolt and its after-effects must be for a life long resident of neighborhoods that are no more.
Every market square or “parque central” that we pass has been claimed by scores of tents. While there appears to be some level of economic activity (i.e. fruit stalls along the roads), it is clear that it will take months and years for normalcy to return.
Gilbert is smart, articulate, friendly, cool – overall charming and the kind of guy I know
I can work with. He doesn’t seem to sweat the small stuff and seems perfectly at ease multi-tasking. I like this guy, a LOT. But wait, there is more….
Gilbert mentions that we should try to connect with two possible future colleagues Kevin and Regine who will be part of this weeks activities. But before we meet them, Gilbert intends to find me a hotel. We do a few stops, to no avail. Then, at one hotel, he starts schmoozing a French girl whom he knows, and next thing I know, he tells me that she is moving out of her room tomorrow night and perhaps I should just pick up her room.
That’s the plan then, starting tomorrow. What about tonight? He doesn’t say it, but the tone is a familiar refrain of the Nica expression “tranquillo”.We go to an agreed meeting place, which is a restaurant with a leafy outdoor patio. I start making sense of the meetings we have talked about, and Gilbert says “ah, here is Regine”. In walks an attractive and stylish woman.
Regine is an architect and for several years has been increasingly attracted by sustainability and ecomaterials. She makes a living designing traditional homes, but she yearns to become more directly involved in bamboo housing. She is smart, articulate and just charming. Gilbert and Regine are longtime friends and there is a really nice vibe all around.
Kevin, who is a recently arrived American, is a builder from San Francisco who has several jobs. In one of his jobs, he helps a European sculptor build massive bamboo sculptures. In another job, he is all about using natural materials for home construction (mud, local trees or shrubs, clay…). Kevin is mission focused, appears to be quite knowledgeable in terms of eco materials and quite adept at networking with the Gringo parallel universe of UN missions, Shelter Cluster etc.
So, if all goes according to plan, I should be able to meet the following:
– A priest in Leogane who intends to build homes
– A German NGO with bamboo reforestation intentions
– A hardware store chain owner who wants to build a house and maybe could become a source of local hardware instead of buying all in Nicaragua
– A Haitian/American woman who is doing some sort of reforestation
– Leaders of a program funded by Taiwan, that introduced bamboo into Haiti 10 years ago
– A British NGO with large home building requirements and funding
– A nursery manager to whom I will be delivering seeds from Nicaragua- And the representative from the French Red Cross
That’s a pretty full schedule for the next 3 days.
Then, to my surprise, Regine offers for me to stay at HER place. WELL, that’s sounds like a better plan than being in the street. After drinks, we drive back to her place. Meanwhile, she is a wealth of information. She is very politically alert, so she briefs me, on the current political situation in country.
We go to her house, the street where she lives was fortunate to escape destrution, and it’s a fabulous roof top circular house. The best part of the house is the kitchen, which is open air. It has a sun-oven. The garden is next door and pre January 12, was rich and full.
It now has been left wanting and will require some attention to restart. She is into yoga (in fact has gone through teacher training), is a vegetarian, reads voraciously and is a painter.
Peta would really like her, I know it. At her house, she introduces me to her son, who is equally engaging even though I am not understanding about 70% of his languge. By the time it’s time to turn in, Regine gives me her bedroom and she goes and bunks with her son. I try to push back and am told I need to accept Haitian hospitality as it is. So I do, a bit awkwardly as I kick her out of her bedroom.
Wow, that was a full first day… can’t wait for tomorrow…