Wednesday, March 04, 2009

As I write this, half a dozen people are working in my house, cleaning mud and water out of the first floor. I've been in Haiti less than a week and already a flood in the house. It's not even the rainy season yet.

It's been a long time since I updated my blog, and that's mostly because I haven't felt like my life had been exotic enough to interest anyone. I continued working and living in Italy, then started working in the United Arab Emirates, which in spite of having some pretty big cultural differences, feels so much like a suburb of Los Angeles that it's hard to believe anyone would care about my impressions of it. Drinking a tall mocha in a Starbucks in Abu Dhabi (the capital), is only slightly more interesting for the fact that the guys at the next table are wearing the ubiquitous Arab dish dash (the white robe and head scarf that you can't help but imagine when I say the word 'sheikh'). Of course, if I were thinking about it more carefully there are many things I could write about life in Abu Dhabi. The honest fact is, I've grown tired enough of traveling that it is hard to get motivated enough to write about it.

But that changed last night with the flood. Or rather it didn't change, but the events of my first five days in Haiti combined with not having electricity today and being somewhat trapped upstairs with a muddy pool on the ground floor means that there is little I can do now but write something while the battery on my laptop holds out.

So, first, I'm in Haiti. My contract in Abu Dhabi finished and I've come to Haiti to stay with my girlfriend, Anne. Because of all the traveling we both have been doing for work, we managed to be together less than half of last year. We want to do better than that this year. Maybe I'll find work here, maybe not. It's a gamble, but the time seemed right to take it.

When I told people that I was moving to Haiti, they have usually mistakenly thought I said, "Tahiti", the green of envy fading fast from their faces when I corrected them. Although both are tropical islands and former french colonies, one has become synonymous with paradise and the other falls somewhat short of the mark. I've just moved my life to the latter.

Haiti is famously poor and prone to civil unrest and street crime. It's one of the few places that the Lonely Planet guidebook manages to be somewhat discouraging about. And I've used the LP for some tough places. I think the phrase "armed gangs roam the streets of the capital with impunity" was in their description.

As usual, the situation is not quite as dire as it would look from the outside, but it is dire. We have a beautiful house, full of windows and sunlight, surrounded by trees, but there are bars on every window, even the top of the garden wall is attached to house by a grillwork to prevent intruders. It's essentially a prison but also an architectural miracle that I can be inside it without feeling the weight of all those steel bars. We have two guards outside at night and one in the day. They have guns, or at least a gun, a pistol that looks like a prop from a western. It does have bullets, I checked.

Walking around the streets too much is not advised, as kidnappings for ransom have happened, though not so much lately. We have the use of a work car in the evenings and weekends, but when Anne is at work, I'm basically trapped inside the house. Again, I'm thankful for the beauty of the house and the trees around it.

Having a house in a place like this isn't easy, though. We get electricity about 3 hours per day normally. To compensate, we have a set of about 10 car batteries that charge when the electricity is on and keep the fridge, lights, and computers running the rest of the day. At the moment, even those have run dry after 3 days without power. And if this sounds strangely familiar to an earlier blog post about being on a sailboat with electrical problems in the middle of the Indian Ocean, well, it feels that way to me too.

Internet access is through a cellular modem that is rather finicky about where it is placed. Although I don't feel the presence of all those steel bars, the modem apparently does. I spent the better part of a day trying things with aluminum foil to make a reflector and boost the signal strength. And although aluminum foil can definitely block the signal, I can't seem to use it to enhance the signal.

There's no city water, we have a huge concrete cistern that refills from rain captured on the roof. That water is then pumped back up to a smaller tank on the roof which provides water pressure inside the house. Of course the pump doesn't work without electricty, so right now we are out of water except what we pull up by buckets from the underground tank. And we need a lot of water right now to clean the mud from the ground floor. Which brings me to the flood last night.

It rained hard last night. The first hard rain since this house was built. Uphill from us, another house is being constructed with a fairly barren slope in between. The rain brought mud down the slope at such a rate it jumped over the wall and ran under the door into the kitchen, through the living room and out the front door. It's an example of what is happening everywhere in this country as most of the forest has been cut for cooking fuel in the last 30 years. There are massive erosion gullies that can be seen along the slopes surrounding Port au Prince.

Not having much furniture yet, we managed to save everything, only to notice that some water was coming in around a window, dripping on the wireless router that I had so carefully placed earlier in the day. I'm still not sure it will work when the power comes back on. Part of the driveway collapsed also as the rain washed out the sand underneath. The mosquitos seemed rather happy to have an egg laying pool located so conveniently to their feeding grounds (us, that is), and acted like senior citizens at the Old Country Buffet, keeping us awake most of the night.

Of course, it's not too serious. Only a small fraction of this country's population has housing as sturdy or secure as ours. I shudder to think what happens in the shanty towns that cover the sides of the mountains when the rains get going. And although the flood made a colossal mess, I don't even have to clean it up. We have a house cleaner and a gardner who are working on it. Still, in a country where even going out to buy groceries is not easy, it feels like one more thing to deal with. Our morning coffee was somewhat more difficult to enjoy with the mud squishing between our toes while we made it.

Ok, enough whining. But it seemed a good opportunity to point just how unglamorous this expat life can be. Haiti is safer outside the capital, and we plan to explore a bit on the weekends. Hopefully I'll find some nicer things to say about it.

Update: The mud is gone and some repair works made that will hopefully stop the problem. The electricity came back on and the internet is working again. The ice cream seems none the worse for thawing and refreezing. We went shopping over the weekend and bought lots of tropical plants, which we planted in our garden, work we both enjoyed. But new things keep happening in the house, including flames shooting out of our electrical meter today. So, life goes on.