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Haiti and the Failure of Aid

Haiti and the Failure of Aid

A year after the earthquake, a former aid worker reflects on the industry's mistakes in one of the world's poorest countries.

"Tout tan têt pa koupé, li pa dezespere mete chapo"
As long as your head isn't cut off, you can hope to wear a hat.                                                                                     
—Haitian proverb

"Villa Therese Hotel welcomes you to its beautiful facility, situated in a peaceful environment."

For many months, Villa Thérèse's website remained up, seemingly ready for room reservations and inquiries about rates. The homepage featured a photograph of a pastel-coloured building, and next to it the words, in stylish italics, "Auberge/Bar/Restaurant." There was a hint of the Provence about it. Almost a year later, Tripadvisor still listed seventeen satisfied user reviews. The last entry, with pictures of the lobby and the pool, was filed by a guest from Madison, Wisconsin, on January 8, 2010. It had nothing but praise for the "outstanding service" provided by the hotel manager, Monsieur Duplessis. There might be some construction noise in the morning, wrote the guest, but nothing to "deter visitors to Port-au-Prince from staying here."

Villa Thérèse had four days to go before the earthquake of January 12, 2010. Damage around Port-au-Prince was uneven and often unpredictable; many buildings had crumbled while others more or less withstood the shaking, especially on higher ground, where the seismic shockwave was less brutal. For weeks I kept looking for information about the hotel where I, too, had been a happy guest a year earlier. Could it have survived? Eventually I found an official-looking website with dots on a map of the city. One of the dots was Villa Thérèse. I clicked on it and it turned red: hotel collapsed, bodies under the structure. By then, the bodies had been removed and a few more clicks revealed their identities: people from Holland and a Haitian child they were adopting. Dutch blogs led me to an eyewitness account of how the main building was flattened in a matter of seconds. An American-born kitchen chef was also killed. It was his first day on the job.

Monsieur Duplessis survived. It appears the hotel collapsed just as he turned around to see what was happening. Gone. As the soil rose in anger, it also swept the water out of the swimming pool, flooding the area. I remembered how I used to have that pool to myself before breakfast and how Monsieur Duplessis commended me, pro forma, on my healthy morning routine. Today, the Villa Thérèse website is back, announcing reconstruction scheduled for spring 2012.

Until the earthquake, life in Port-au-Prince was well ordered. Poor below, rich on top. Elevation was important: it provided physical separation and psychological comfort. From the stinking waterfront and the decrepit downtown, the city rose toward the more welcoming heights of Pétionville and beyond. The terraces of Pétionville offered sweeping views of the worst slums of the Americas, but the slums were so far away that their misery was no longer visible. From up there, slums like Cité Soleil seemed almost fictional, especially after a few drinks. You needed to have been "down there" to know, and having been there you’d rather not think about it.

When the quake hit, it killed mostly in the poor areas. Down there. This was not a divine affirmation of the existing social order, but a consequence of seismic logic. (The softer soil by the sea easily transmitted and amplified the tremors.) Still, it might as well have been, and many Haitians firmly believed they had been struck by the hand of the Almighty. But then the Almighty had been unkind to Haiti for two hundred years, ever since the republic was founded. Which is why Haiti was chronically dependent on foreign aid to survive, and why I had come to Haiti: to provide technical assistance.

No one worried about earthquakes when I arrived. Security was the big thing, particularly the fear of kidnapping. The capital was a dodgy place and the foreign non-governmental organizations operating in Haiti weren't taking chances with their expensive foreign staff. L'insécurité, they called it, a pervasive nervousness that was mirrored by guards who never let go of their shotguns, by the beefy Nissan Patrols in which we traveled with windows rolled up and doors locked. That is what procedures called for. From the service flat to the office, and from the office to the restaurant, and back. More armed guards at the supermarket. A city on edge. You could walk into Avis rent-a-car and get yourself an armour-plated SUV. No one walked anywhere.

Hysteria, I thought. Not me. I had been to other presumably dodgy places and I knew perfectly well that the risk of accidentally walking into the path of kidnappers was minimal. Real risks were much more mundane: traffic accidents or malaria or walking into an open drain at night. Dumb stuff. Earthquakes. I had been in one in the north of Pakistan. Yet I too fell for l'insécurité. I had been infected with fear and could not shake it.

For the sake of convenience I was first put up at a hotel close to the NGO where I worked. The Hôtel La Réserve was a pleasant place, especially after dark when sensuous calypso music rose from the garden restaurant, mingled with the oohs and aahs of the inebriated aid workers celebrating birthdays, arrivals and departures. Or nothing in particular: Haiti was classified as a hardship posting and many of the aid pros received bonuses. (The prices on the hotel menu confirmed this.)

Located on a quiet back street in a diplomatic enclave, the hotel entrance was less than fifty metres from the gate of my office. But I was told not to walk from A to B.  No, wait for the driver to pick me up. After two days, the absurdity became too much and I decided to make the "crossing" on foot, accompanied by a colleague. First, one of the armed guards came over and asked us where our vehicle was. "We're just hopping over from the hotel next door," I explained. He took his shotgun, walked us down the ramp to the edge of the road, tut-tutted a little more and watched us go. About halfway through the crossing, a Land Cruiser pulled up and the driver offered to take us to our destination. "Non merci, ne vous inquiétez pas!" Don't worry.

A week or so later I ventured further afield, a daring twenty-minute walk up and down a few residential streets, past luxury villas and the deserted consulate of Uruguay. Nothing happened. Yet the young Haitian men standing around looked suspect—they might have been spotters for a kidnap gang. A quick phone call and a minute later a car might pull up behind me and I would be snatched from the streets right there and then. I arrived at the office drenched in sweat, feeling both relieved and ridiculous.

It took weeks for me to calm down, to start looking at other people in the street as ordinary pedestrians like me, simply going somewhere or sitting around because they had nothing to do. Many people in Haiti had nothing to do.

Somehow I had slipped into the neo-colonial lifestyle of Pétionville, Upscale and uphill, Pétionville was where many expats lived, in places like Villa Thérèse or La Réserve (which survived the earthquake). When downtown Port-au-Prince turned into a danger zone during the Aristide years, Pétionville became the ersatz capital for foreigners and the local money elite.

It was true: life was more bearable here, the air cooler, reality not as stark. I enjoyed looking down towards the airport, observing the American Airlines planes approach from the sea. Or just watching them taxi around on the single runway in the hazy distance. Watching the airport was subliminally reassuring since it held the promise of escape to Miami or Montreal, should the need occur. (I actually kept a map in an office drawer with the shortest route to the airport, or failing that, to the Dominican border.)

"We see no reason for immediate concern," a woman from the US embassy had told me over drinks at La Réserve, but she moved around the city in an armoured vehicle driven by a bodyguard. Still, it was something to talk about: shootouts, car-jackings and the occasional abduction of white people (although the kidnappers would generally grab Haitians). The security situation had actually improved a little. Torture was rare now and the kidnappers usually settled for a reasonable ransom, which the insurance would probably cover (something few wanted to admit). As for walking around: well, I was told to join a fitness club to prevent loss of muscle mass.

I had experienced this kind of silliness before, in countries like South Africa and Israel where people were forever looking over their shoulders. The state of siege turned life into a never-ending conflict, one in which walking was a “wellness activity” performed on a treadmill. People with guns always stood nearby and everyone pretended such paranoia was, if not normal, then at least necessary. In Haiti, it also served to keep the "internationals" on a short leash.

"Have a drink" was the next piece of advice I got.

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS I learned about Haiti is that it ran on six-volt batteries. Anyone who was worth anything in this country had a smoky diesel generator (le delco) and attached to it a row or two of big truck batteries, usually brown in colour and of the old variety that needs topping up with distilled water. Haiti did have a power grid that, in theory, covered the capital and the other main cities. However, the word “power” didn’t mean much—the supply from Électricité d’Haïti was as minimal as it was intermittent. A few hours a day, if you were lucky and assuming someone had paid for oil to be delivered to the big reservoirs in Port-au-Prince’s harbour.

Hence the need for the private delco, batteries for storage and the all-important AC-DC box connecting the two systems, l’inverteur. All of these required maintenance and were likely to malfunction at any time. Life in Haiti seemed to revolve around things like l’inverteur. Unless of course you were poor, in which case there were no batteries and no inverteur and you just lived in the dark. Most of Haiti shut down after dark.

At first, I wasn’t aware of this daily power drama—waiting for the lights to come on, turning levers up or down, worrying about the food in the fridge, checking the fuel level of the generator—although I had noticed that hotels added a ten- or fifteen-dollar daily power surcharge to their already considerable room rates. I learned more when I moved out of the hotel and into a private house.

The Villa “Comme chez soi” was a secluded property set in a walled, razor-wired garden. The sort of place that was practically invisible from the outside but suggested the discreet comforts of expat life within. The delco lived in its own shed in a far corner of the garden and it stalled shortly after dark on my first night at the villa. Not knowing what to do and unable to communicate with the watchman in Creole, I spent my first long, hot evening with a candle and a glass of wine. (And with the sorrowful, nervous dog who was somehow part of the villa deal. The dog supposedly answered to the name Flakko, but I immediately renamed her Stinky.)

The next morning the caretaker explained how to restart the engine, which switch to throw and which green lights to check on the inverteur control panel. After that, I never stopped worrying about it.

Dealing with the delco or keeping Stinky at bay wasn’t the only problem. The house also came with two servants, as well as a rotating roster of night guards. The staff obsessively hovered about, waiting to be given orders that would justify their employment. I was no good at dealing with the servants. I hid from them. The very idea of hired help was painful to me. Gladys was the thin maid who showed up early in the morning to serve breakfast, except that I made my own breakfast and ate it sitting in the doorway that led from my bedroom to the rear sundeck. Still she would always shuffle around, waiting for me to show up and want something.

On one of my first mornings at the villa, I walked down the stairs to be driven to the office. (Rules did not allow me to drive myself.) Standing at the bottom of the stairs, Gladys gave me one look of alarm and said, “Mosieu Déwek, wepassé chemiz?” (“Does the gentleman want his shirt ironed?”) I indicated that this would not be required and boarded the vehicle without any improvements to my attire.

Vladimir, the gardener and handyman, arrived later in the day and I never saw him do much, except repair ghetto blasters or VHS players which he brought from home in plastic bags. It had been suggested I lock the booze cabinet to prevent abuse during the long, slow afternoons.

When the domestic staff went home, one of several different watchmen arrived. Security was evidently a flourishing business here. There were guards by the thousands; they worked for peanuts and they had a working-for-peanuts look about them. All my guards ever seemed to say was “OK, pad’poblèm,” which could mean just about anything: no problem; don’t worry; thank you; yes; no; see you later.

For the first hour or two, he sat quietly with his shotgun under a tree until the last light faded behind the wall. From this silent position he telegraphed such acute misery that I often felt compelled to share my dinner with him. After returning the empty plate (“OK, pad’poblèm”), he withdrew with a bottle of water and a hand-cranked torch to an unlit hut by the gate and that was it for the night. A little later, the exterior lights went off (to save on battery power) and I dared not venture into the garden for fear of being mistaken for an intruder or a werewolf and blasted with buckshot.

On weekends, the servants were off and this was about the only time I got any privacy at the villa. But without access to a car or public transport, the Villa "Comme chez soi" then turned into a golden cage. The villa could not be left unattended for any length of time—security, again. Nor could the neurotic dog. I found myself babysitting not only Stinky but the damn real estate. I felt like the solitary warden of a prison in which I was the only inmate.

Even Stinky got bored on weekends.  She was desperate for attention and her only way of communicating was to lick everything: cups, plates and glasses, the lens of my camera, my buttocks when I sat on the toilet—one lick and everything stank of Stinky. She was even fond of mosquito repellent. But she refused to bark.

MY GRIP ON REALITY continued to weaken. I wondered if the SUVs were there for security or if they were simply a matter of rank. A class issue. It wouldn't look good if we, the dignitaries of the aid business, bearers of free money and good governance, were to be seen walking around just like that. It would be undignified, incompatible with our important missions. Apparently, there was a proverb here: “Great gods cannot ride small horses.”

They used to be called charitable organizations, but in today’s world non-governmental organizations are serious business. Aid programmes are “data-driven” and managed as if they were companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange, with strict quarterly targets to be met and baselines generated to satisfy project bureaucracies and, ultimately, the funding agencies and their corporate auditors. This is, of course, done to prevent the misappropriation of funds (not an unfounded fear), but it could have a perverse effect: the blind pursuit of quantifiable results—numbers—to match previously established objectives. Never mind the actual hands-on usefulness of the project. As long as the reports glowed and the numbers looked good, everything was fine.

For instance, when financing an irrigation project in Haiti it was easier to measure the miles of pipes laid than to evaluate their long-term agricultural impact, which depended on many external factors. If your NGO was supporting rural radio stations, it would be faster to tabulate the number of transmitters or computers handed out than to monitor what sort of programming was actually produced, if any, and what good those programmes might do over time. It is not hard to imagine how this also applied to projects that were a little vague to begin with, like those meant to encourage democracy or promote minority rights.

So when the NGOs in Haiti reported back to their overseas managers on how things were going, the reports tended to dwell—sometimes to a desperate extent—on measurable “outcomes” or observable “performance indicators,” which might have included such “activities” or “initiatives” as wearing T-shirts stamped with the NGO’s logo, or the singing of songs by workshop participants. Or the writing of reports. Again, this wasn’t hard to understand, as the activity reports were the first step to project survival. They made their way up the funding hierarchy, all the way to the ivory towers where aid projects were reviewed and, possibly, renewed. Eventually someone would say: ”Haiti’s a hard nut to crack, but they’re doing solid work down there. We can’t pull out now.”

In case the figures didn’t add up or the indicators turned out a little soft, there were consultants in Port-au-Prince who, in broad daylight, advertised their skills at “aligning reports with donors’ requirements.” Failure wasn’t an option. And so the delusional wheels of humanitarian assistance ground on and the international community’s “commitment” to Haiti was renewed, year after year.

Once another year’s funding had been approved, the money had to be disbursed as per the plan submitted. I was undoubtedly naïve, but I was surprised at the number of seminars and workshops routinely organized in luxury hotels and beach resorts—until I figured out that this lollipop approach made sure targets were met and that money got spent in a controlled fashion.

But the sheer allure of the seminar business did not become completely clear until later, when I visited some of the workshop participants in their remote home villages. They had no jobs and lived in miserable adobe huts with their large families. It was obvious that an invitation to a leisurely seminar in the capital, with air-conditioned hotel rooms and three catered meals a day, was a little dream holiday.

Something at the office caught my eye: the peculiar Haitian taste for milk powder. Given the state of things, it was not surprising that Haiti didn’t have much of a dairy industry. Milk and cheese were luxuries shipped in from Europe or the US. Same for powdered milk (usually from Holland), which was a treat to most Haitians since a tin sold for $15 at the supermarket. There was a good supply of milk powder downstairs in the office kitchen, but I noticed how quickly it tended to vanish. Everyone was enamoured of milk powder. It seemed to be the drug of choice. Security guards and drivers snuck into the building and helped themselves. Staff consumed it with mixed with a few drops of coffee or water, like a kind of edible mortar, a delicacy eaten with a small spoon. The big tin was always running out and one of the drivers had to make a trip to the supermarket to get a fresh supply. This struck me as quite charming: the aid donors over in Brussels or Washington fantasized about “capacity building” and  “empowerment of civil society,” but their precious funds actually served to buy Dutch milk powder from the Lebanese grocery store. Perhaps this was not such a bad thing after all.

A TOKEN ILLUSTRATION of the rich world’s commitment to Haiti could be observed by driving south from Pétionville to a small place called Furcy on weekends, around lunchtime. A twisting road rose high above the capital to Kenscoff, past ever-fancier properties with ever-grander panoramas of the Caribbean, until the air became distinctly cooler and the last vestiges of urban misery gave way to enough pines to make a small forest—the ultimate luxury in a treeless country. The dirt road narrowed and ran along a ridge at 1,500 metres above the hazy sea. Traffic was scarce, except for a surprising number of big, white UN vehicles. Port-au-Prince had just about vanished from memory when you finally pulled up at the destination: the local incarnation of a remote Indian hill station, or a Scottish highland retreat, complete with a soft, refreshing drizzle.

It was called “The Lodge,” a woodsy American-run hostelry oozing white Rhodesian charm and comfort. This is where all the official jeeps were headed. Here, at last, the visitor was free to relax and wander about without fear, hassle or perspiration. Endives with gorgonzola on the menu, followed by New Zealand lamb; wireless internet; green leather sofas by the fireplace; cozy log cabins for those ladies and gentlemen who required overnight accommodation.

This kind of escape from the hardships of a Haiti posting was so common around Port-au-Prince that no one thought much about it. It was the same in the many upscale restaurants of Pétionville, where all semblance of social conscience was left at the door.  The fussing, fawning, bowing and whispering waiters—it was all taken for granted. “La vie de château dans une mer de pauvreté,” as a Belgian infrastructure expert described it: a life of plenty in a sea of nothing.

I used to be an outsider, an occasional observer of the international aid industry. Now I was part of it, at least for the duration of my contract. Haiti had been deep in trouble for so long that it had become a playground for the world’s NGOs. Or worse, a theme park of philanthropic imperialism, as it has been called, jointly operated by the big players in Haiti: the United States, the European Union, Canada and the United Nations. Billions had been poured into Haiti with little to show for it. A weary diplomat summed it up like this: Haiti was a graveyard of failed aid projects, a wasteland of good intentions gone bad.

How much of the humanitarian enterprise was finally of any real use? How much was white make-believe, a feel-good operation by overseas governments and religious groups, or just an attempt to contain the long-running Haitian problem? Who was bona fide and who is blabbermouthing about “doing useful work” while leading charmed lives in comfortable villas for as long as the money kept flowing? It was a touchy subject in polite company, a boat not to be lightly rocked.

One day I looked at Pétionville and it hit me: perhaps this was what the old Belgian Congo had been like. Of course, life in Haiti went beyond neo-colonialism. Reality was more complex. But one Haitian told me, “There is no such thing as reality here. It doesn’t exist because no one can agree on it.” Indeed, things were rarely straightforward in Haiti, with its tradition of endless arguments, of bickering, stonewalling and self-important politicking. In the end individual survival came first, and the country’s collective slide into slum status has exacerbated the politics of greed. You grabbed what you could.

When it came to foreign assistance, Haitians sometimes displayed the same hot-and-cold ambivalence that I had come across in parts of Africa: aid was expected and resented at the same time. Haiti had become so addicted to outside help that it had developed a culture of entitlement mixed with rejection. The United Nations was a case in point. The UN had been operating in Haiti for almost twenty years and its “stabilization” force had grown into an occupying army of ten thousand peacekeepers and bureaucrats. Many of the soldiers were from Brazil. They drove around in jeeps or armoured personnel carriers and their presence was meant to keep the lid on political tensions; the UN also ran a parallel police service with officers from as far away as China and Romania. They usually looked frightfully bored and every Haitian had figured out that they cost a great deal of money. Unease about the UN mission hinted at a wider malaise as the international community ineffectually fiddled with a thousand projects that, over time, seemed to make little difference.

EVENTUALLY I MOVED OUT of my golden cage at Villa "Comme chez soi" and into the relatively modest Villa Thérèse, located on a side street near a busy market. It was a new beginning. I no longer had to hide from the servants. I went out shopping and exploring on foot. People stopped me in the street, asking for money to top up their mobile phones—I felt accepted in the neighbourhood. I walked to work, venturing into Pétionville's main square, Place St. Pierre, past the cathedral and city hall (“Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”) and on to the vaguely disreputable restaurant Le Bistro. Fading white regulars usually sat around picking at their steak frites and watching Canadian satellite television. Two bar girls smoked the afternoon away. There was a soothing shabbiness about the place, unlike the expat eateries that spoke the softer language of other people’s money.

It was hard to imagine the days when the rich and powerful from Havana and Santo Domingo flew to Port-au-Prince to wallow in its pleasures. Now there was no better way to measure Haiti’s decline than to head across the border into the Dominican Republic, a country that, until thirty years ago, was on economic par with Haiti. While not exactly wealthy, the Republic had moved light years ahead of its neighbour. An air of Latin-American normalcy pervaded Dominican life—so normal it was bewildering when you arrived from the other side.

Rather than cutting down their forests to make charcoal, Dominicans had access to subsidized cooking gas. Dominicans had things Haitians could only dream about: modern toll motorways and, in the capital Santo Domingo, a subway. (Port-au-Prince didn't even have an adequate bus system: it made do with “tap-taps,” tatty pick-up trucks embellished with pious invocations: “Merci Jésus… l’Éternel est grand…l’Espoir fait vivre.”) The Dominican Republic relied less on Jesus and more on its huge tourist industry; it also had modern manufacturing and agriculture and, perhaps most remarkably, a still-functioning ecosystem. And when you drove back to Haiti, through the obstacle course at the Malpasse border crossing, the shock was even worse as you came face to face, once again, with the sheer mess, chaos and improvisation.

Someone suggested Haitians actually liked chaos, that it was part of the country's undeniable joie de vivre, but I thought of it as bad cinema. Haiti’s horror movie had been playing for too long. For over two hundred years, the country had survived in a fascinating parallel universe, a place beyond the boundaries of Western care or comprehension—and all this within a few hundred miles of Miami, as people never tired of saying. It simply was not plausible. Outside the capital, there was little to remind you of the modern world, except for the odd petrol station with faded signs that read Texaco or Total.

In the remote southern peninsula of Grand'Anse economic activity was hardly perceptible, cars few. Women and children walked in single file along the road, fetching firewood and carrying water in dirty buckets or old oil canisters. They sat under trees, keeping each other company, or looked after stalls selling mangoes, soft drinks and lottery tickets. Bales of charcoal stood stacked by the wayside, waiting for transport to the capital. Charcoal was one of the very few sources of income; I noticed people chewing sugar cane, a sign of hunger.

A mountain road, officially designated la D 214 (a bit of fiction lifted straight off a French Michelin map), ran from Les Cayes in the south to the northern shore at Jérémie. The unsurfaced road wound its way across the central highland ridge, 2,447 metres above the sea. The scenery was as beautiful as the going was rough, even in an all-terrain vehicle. It took me seven hours to cover eighty-one kilometres in dry weather.

Old Mack trucks with recycled school-bus bodies bolted to their frames made the run to and from Port-au-Prince. People rode on the roof to escape the overcrowding inside. Of course, accidents happened and the death toll was high when the brakes failed or a truck was swept away by flash floods during the hurricane season. Unless you were rich or important enough to fly, options were limited. A coastal ferry ran to Port-au-Prince, but when the Neptune sank here in 1993, about a thousand passengers drowned.

At the end of this stretch of road was the seaside town of Jérémie. Transatlantic liners once sailed from here to Le Havre, in France, and the town was known as a showcase of Parisian life. It was a city of salons and consulates, a centre of literature. Now it is a smelly slum, worn ragged, the last bits of architectural flair barely visible amidst the rubble. In the morning, peasants descended from the hills walking beside their charcoal-laden donkeys. Some brought bananas to sell. One day I saw a sick man being taken to hospital on a donkey’s back. His eyes were closed and he swayed in an improvised saddle, holding an umbrella against the sun.

I was the only guest in a hotel where the musty rooms had names like “Honeymoon” and “Romance.” but the beds looked more suited to slow death than to protracted sex. Decaying magazines about astrology lay around, as well as a veterinary handbook on “Pigs and their Diseases.”

Even further down the coast were smaller towns: Abriko, Dame Marie and Anse d'Hainault, scenically hidden in verdant bays where big steamers once docked. Now only a few rough sailing sloops made the risky journey along the coast to Jérémie. Life was hot, stagnant and hopeless, which explained the exodus to the capital, or the boat people who still drowned off the Florida coast. With diesel fuel around $6 a gallon, even private generators remained silent at night.

In Abriko the dispensary was the only place that had a functioning refrigerator, but it was used for chilling bottles of Prestige beer. I made my escape from Abriko (yes, it does mean apricot) on the back of a trail bike taxi as a hurricane bore down on us. Despite the threatening clouds and the swollen rivers we had to ford, the driver insisted on stopping in every hamlet to pick up bets for the lottery. We made it to Jérémie in the nick of time: as I staggered off the motorcycle outside the hotel the sky opened up.

I remained stranded for days, eating steak frites, the only choice available at the hotel.  Every now and then I went to have a look at the airstrip, just in case the flights had resumed. Even the short taxi trip to the airport was complicated in some way. One day I had to wait while the driver, Joseph, went home to look for trousers. “Une minute,” he said. When we finally set off, the engine died on the first slope. Joseph tilted the motorbike to the side, shaking it, hoping to coax a few drops of petrol into the carburetor. Nothing. All the while he kept pulling up his trousers because he had no belt. Together we pushed the bike up the hill, looking for someone willing to sell us half a litre of petrol from an old Barbancourt rum bottle—the usual method of refueling around here. Somehow we got to the airstrip, only to learn that the flight had been cancelled. On the way back to Jérémie we ran out of petrol again.

Those were the good old days, before the earthquake.

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