This series of blog entries concerns a trip I took to Haiti to evaluate the possibility of creating a plastics recycling process in the city of Cap-Haitien (Cap-Hah-see-ehn) on the northern coast (see map). The back-story here is fairly long, so I'll begin on the day I left and try to fill you in on the important details as we go.
The trip began in Minneapolis with a phone call from Jusko. I'd been gathering all the insurane and passports for the trip and, somehow, his hadn't arrived. I jumped out of bed and Jesus watched me as I ran down the stairs past the seventeen Virgin Marys (I was renting, and the pictures came with the house - they provided a sort of comfort on dark nights when you heard disembodied footsteps); I didn't have the card either! My parents had driven in for the relatively thankless task of dealing with last minute travel preparations and so happened to arrive at this moment. As we drove in, I ascertained that the insurance had, in fact, been arranged… only the card was missing. After a half-hour of forgery with the computer, that problem was solved.TODO: Paul's kitchen

Gift-giving is an important element of travel and we were bringing several for SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods), the NGO with whom we were working. Foremost was a box of spices. Haitian food, they'd told us, was delicious in every way, but you got hungry for change after a while. Change is epitomized by a box of spices - remember that.

The other gift was a five-foot diameter solar collector, one of three that had been lying around the office. Our intention was to use the collector to heat oil in which the plastic would then be submersed, melted, and, later, extracted and reshaped. The collector collapsed into a cardboard box maybe 2'x6'x5" and weighing around thirty pounds. Given this, it seemed wise to transport the collectors over the course of several trips. Hence, a gift.

Naturally, a large metal-filled box raised some questions at the airport. They couldn't run it through the scanner, so it was taken aside to be opened and inspected. Jusko'd wrapped nearly an entire role of tape around the box to prevent it from opening during flight and the inspector, left to deal with it, picked for a few minutes before simply shoving it onto the luggage run sans inspection. So much for security…

The flight to Charlotte was unremarkable, though the baby grand they'd left out in their airport for travelers was. From there, we ended up in Fort Lauderdale.

The last time I'd been through I'd been able to take a dip in the Atlantic, but this time it was late and our flight the next morning was due out early, early…

So we settled down to sleep, our backs to a jungle-like terrarium. I stayed up to finish a few chapters in my book and was therefore prepared to leap up as wildlife began to crawl past me from the terrarium. The cockroaches were scuttling out in full-force, so we beat a retreat to another wall, only to discover them there as well… in a potted plant. Nowhere was safe! In the end, we used the line-guides to make a box in the middle of the floor and fell asleep in the middle of a desert of utility carpetting.

Morning came too early and brought with it an awkward shuffle as we edged through the line which had grown to encompass our box; you know the feeling. Dunkin' Donuts was open and served up a delicious last meal before we went to find the LynxAir counter.

To get there, you walk past American Airlines' counters, enough to line a football field or too. Then there's United. Not only do they break guitars, but their counter's long enough to break your feet.

LynxAir has a counter that's perhaps ten feet wide and, when we arrive, no one was behind it, although there are some suspiciously dark-skinned people standing around talking in front of it. Could these be Haitians?

About ten minutes before the flight left one of the talkers jumped over the counter to weigh our bags, and then us. A uniformed man indicated we should all follow him down a hallway indicated by a large "Terminal 12" sign. At the end of the hallway was a number-coded door. He typed in the code without checking to see if anyone was looking and we walked out directly onto the runway. There were no metal detectors or security people anywhere.

The plane was small. Very small. There was a piece of duct tape on the fuselage. We climbed inside. There was one seat on either side of the isle and no door to the cockpit. Our twenty-five year-old (looking) pilot climbed in and the plane sprinted down the runway and leaped into the air.

Because stories aren't telephone poles, we'll now go on a tangent…

A few weeks before the trip, REI had their Scratch and Dent sale and it drew Jusko like a moth to the flame, with similar results. REI's return policy is legendary. You can return anything at any time for almost any reason. The returned item will then be resold at a ridiculous discount. This was why Jusko was at the REI. Walking among the items he saw something… something wonderful: a $400 GPS discounted down to $70. He bought it.

REI writes the reasons why items are returned on the labels. The GPS label read "Possessed by Demons". That was all.

I had been planning on taking the GPS to a church for holy water and a blessing before the trip, but amongst all the other preparations that minor, but extremely important, detail had been forgotten.

And now, ten minutes after take-off a violent clucking sound began to emanate from the rear of the plane and, as we began to spiral downwards, I began to very much regret the omission.

Luckily, the engine hadn't actually broken up. Craning my head around the chair I identified the source of the death-sound: a man with a live chicken on his lap.

See, tangents ain't so bad!

The Caribbean was a deep blue fading to light green around the Bahamas. Cuba slid by and then Haiti appeared. There was lush green in some places, but also many fields. The fields had climbed up and denuded the hillsides along impossible angles and improbable slopes. These slid by for a while and finally the ground opened up into the first large, flat field we'd seen - now this was farming! Either that, or this was the airport…
Facing our younger plane stoically was a much older plane, as we walked away and eight Haitians began to slowly push our plane around so it could take off again, the older plane seemed to sigh. There was a customs tent. Someone noticed that they were reading some of the papers we had upside down, but probing questions made up the difference.
"You have cough?"
And then we were in.

In the airport we didn't speak Haitian and they spoke only broken English. US security had been daunted by the tape on the collector, but the Haitians were not. A knife came out and - slit slit - the box was open. The customs official stood there staring down at the glistening metal. "Invoice?", he said. No, we didn't have an invoice. After batting the word back and forth a few times, he beckoned me into his office.

We sat down in chewed up leather chairs. Above us whooomp whoomp went the ceiling fan. The desk was an avalance of papers. The man typed 200 into his calculator and followed it up with "*10.75/6.23/3.3". Looking up he asked me for the $104 tax. I sat in silence and my face, which speaks French better than I do, said "Quoi?". The man smiled and said, "$54". At that moment, Jusko managed to ignorance his way through the two men guarding the door and said, disarmingly, "It's a gift!", while I reached for the calculator saying, "How did you get this number?"

Still protesting that due tax must be collected, the "tax" dropped to $25. We continued to argue and Justin left to try to find our translator, who hadn't arrived yet. The man leaned back in his chair and said, "I am your friend, what do you want from me?" I leaned back in my chair and asked, "If you are my friend, why do you want to take my gift?" At that moment a smiling, hugging, quite female Sasha drifted through the two guards and began speaking in rapid Creole and suddenly her godson, the man, no longer wanted any "tax" at all.

Sasha in Shada

We left the office and began arranging to head to the house, as three men picked up the solar collector box and booked it for the exit. Scuttling after them through a throng of people gathered by the door and gates of the airport, a crowd which seemed to simply be waiting for the pleasure of watching people arrive and leave, I found them trying to flag down a car while asking me for money in exchange for their hard work.

The rest of the group, Sasha included, made it out and she took hold of the situation somehow getting us into two taxis, and we were off. The ride to the house was a montage of dust, horns, people, and shops rushing by at a slow, if dangerous, speed. When we were let off the second car explained how someone had shouted something and thrown a bag of poop through the window. Well, that's what we were here to address…

The SOIL's headquarters (and home) was newly built in the old city and on the second and third floors of the building. I don't have pictures from the outside, so our neighbours across the street (at left) will have to give you the idea. We were separated from the street and our adjacent neighbours by barbed wire and bars. Alas, these did little to keep out the humidity.

We went out that afternoon through the big, impregnable iron doors of the house passing Haitians lougnging by the water, roads, their houses, and porches.

And then we passed by the plastic-covered beaches…

The sunken, beached, and make-shift boats…

Not to mention ruined cars that had never made it off the streets…

We climbed up hill to a little fortress where the Haitians had installed cannons many years ago to discourage the French from visiting.

A different woman
On the way back down we passed a girl carrying a pop bottle on her head. It was only the first of many things we'd see carried, but it struck me differently and I thought that, someday, I too would have to learn that skill.
Walking past the venerable Hotel du Roi Christophe, a relic that's survived untold turmoil and two hundred years of weathering, and barbed-wire encrusted UN compounds, we made it to the main square. The citadel, on one side, loomed over the tiny town hall (where the city's three garbage trucks were parked).
As we walked through the square a small family stopped us, saying, "Chuck Norii" and pointing at me. That was a first!
We stayed home to set up mosquito netting and drink lots of water. As night fell, Sasha and Sarah invited us out to dinner. On the main road, the two lifted a hand a motos pulled over. We rode, three to a moto (driver include) to the waterfront restaurant of La Kay's for kipy (a falafel-like food), goat-soup, and beer. Haitian music played in the background.
Walking home, we were careful to avoid the open pits in the road and sidewalk which lead, without warning, to the sewers below. Sasha related how, after a concert one night, the mayor of Borgne and had to pull her out of one. Earlier in the day, we'd seen someone snorkling in one of the holes, so they were survivable, if unpleasant.
My bed (center)

When we weren't watching for dark holes in a dark sidewalk, we were able to look up to the dark sky, stuffed with thousands of stars - a strange sight in the middle of a city of hundreds of thousands of people.

After 30 hours of being awake, sleep was most welcome. And lying there, beneath only a sheet, cocooned in mosquito netting, with a fan occassionally puffing a cold draft through the humid night, it came quickly.

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