Source : Google photo
I was met at the Port au Prince airport by a Haitian employee of the AID who took me to the hotel called Castel Haiti up on a steep hill and helped change some money in the local currency called gourds. It was indeed very nice of her to receive me and fix me up in a hotel although I was quite used to be on my own anywhere.
Port au Prince is partly in the plains and partly up the steep mountains that rise just behind the waterfront .From the airport to the town, we passed by the most horrible bidonville I had seen anywhere. This is where the multitude of very poor people lived in the capital of Haiti. The streets here were strewn with garbage and gutters overflowed . People in rags were everywhere reminding you that you are now in one of the poorest countries in this part of the world.
Near the bidonville which is a French term for slum made of tin can houses, there were scores of minibuses preparing to leave for the provinces or arriving from somewhere .People were on top loading or unloading charcoal and bananas or firewood among other things. Live animals like goats were also carried this way not to mention basket full of quacking chickens .
There were a lot of women selling food by the roadside and trying hard to keep the flies off. People seemed not to mind the filth, flies and the sewage that flowed and went about their business . I could see little cardboard cubicles everywhere painted with gaudy colours and called borlette where they sold lottery tickets .It displayed a sign called mariage meaning wedding so I thought that they were perhaps some kind of marriage offices wondering who could get married in such offices. Why there were so many of them?
The answer was that it simply meant a marriage between the lucky number and the jack pot which they assured every lottery ticket buyer. I noted that poorer the country, more desperate the people were to buy lotto tickets hoping that their luck would change . This was Haiti.
The airport is modern and set back in a vast plain but as we approached the town, we saw shanties and ramshackle buildings everywhere and the streets were choked with traffic. The main artery was called Boulevard Jean Jacques Dessalines although such names did not mean anything to me . I had only heard that the dictator of Haiti was called Papa Doc Duvalier who had left his son in charge after his death. His name was Jean Claude Duvalier and he ruled the country with same ruthlessness as his father.
One never failed to notice the brightly painted buses or mini buses. Most of them showed some painting of a religious nature although once in a while the artist got carried away and painted big breasted women in skimpy clothes in provocative gestures. It was techni color and very visible and also very crude but then a fine artist did not waste his time painting mini buses.It was done by amateurs who not knowing the sense of proportion made funny drawings that no one paid any attention to.
The changing of dollars into the local gourds was easy and could be done anywhere and you could get 10 % more than the going rate as the AID girl explained but she forgot to mention if it was legal or not. I suppose it was not by the sound of it . Later I learned that there were many things illegal in Haiti but no one appeared to worry too much about them.
It was for example illegal to bring in luxury good like tape recorders and cameras without paying duty but I saw at the airport people passing through without any problem . How much money changed hands under the counter was hard to tell but obviously the policemen were in cahoots.
Huge Haitian women called Madame Saras plied between Port au Prince and Miami every week and brought in suitcase filled with contrabands that they sold at high price in Haiti .
The taxi drivers were no different from the ones I knew in Marseilles or Delhi. Their meters never worked and they tried to bring you to your hotel for twenty dollars when the fare was only two. These people only tried to make some money from the unsuspecting . If you wanted to pay the minimum fare for example in Manila , you said you were going to the Saudi as a carpenter or mason . It was the same everywhere.
It was warm in February .People wore colourful light clothes and women usually wore a piece of colorful cloth wrapped around their head. Many women wore fine straw hats they called panama. They were tall and walked with a certain grace . We saw people dressed in carnival costumes and feathers and dancing in the streets to the beat of drums, flutes and cymbals.
Their faces were painted and they frequently sipped from bottles that was not coke by the looks on their faces. Women dressed in very colorful and low cut attires displaying a good deal of their body and danced in a sexy way. Men wore outlandish costumes as well and cavorted with women.
They were the Ra Ra bands who were warming up for the upcoming carnival called Mardi Gras for which Haiti was famous although the event was many days away. Carpenters were busy fixing up roadside stands .There was an atmosphere of gaiety although most people paid little attention to the Ra Ra bands and the loud music some people played using loudspeakers.
I saw brightly painted artwork for sale on the sidewalk but they did not look to be of good quality .What impressed me most was the profusion of it. There were other handicrafts for sale as well near the traffic bottlenecks. Shiny wooden boxes with Haiti carved on it in big letters, brown or black jars, figurines, bowls and many such things were sold on the streets. They knocked on the car windows to show their wares but were not persistent.
I did not speak Creole but understood many words as it was close to French that I spoke well. I noticed that they addressed each other with “my dear or darling or mama or papa “even if they did not know them . It sounded very nice as compared to “hey you there” in some countries. I did not know all these things on my first day but I was a keen observer .
The hotel where I stayed was on top of a hill overlooking parts of the town and the wharf but what struck me most was the cemetery and the sheer size of it . I was given a complimentary bottle of Haitian rhum in the hotel as well as a straw hat and was told that the Haitian rhum was very good and was exported to many countries. The restaurant had conch meat on the menu called lamby in Creole .I had never tried Lamby before so soon a plate appeared . It was like India rubber but the Haitians chewed it like cows chewed cud and said it was good. I was not so sure.
I did not like the Haitian rhum either although an American fellow from Naples that is in Florida urged me to drink it glass after glass to the great dismay of his wife or girlfriend . Americans also have Athens in Georgia and Delhi and Madras somewhere . The Castel Haiti was not a very good hotel for the price they were charging .I learned that the cost of living was astonishingly high although the country was very poor. It was like in Mali or Senegal where the same thing happened.
Like in many countries, the population was divided into the minority rich and the vast majority poor people . The small minority of rich people lived up in the cooler mountains called Petionville in fancy villas while the vast majority of Haitians lived in the sweltering heat of the plains below ,many in bidonvilles or vast slums that surrounded the capital .
The rich were very ostentatious and drove around in fancy European cars while the poor swarmed around their cars trying to sell them something. Then there were the mulattos .They were the legacy of the French or other Europeans like in many countries in Americas. These mulattos considered themselves superior to the natives and looked down on them .
I had lived in Mali where the poverty was very real but here in Haiti it seemed to point to you very directly .The contrast between the rich and the poor was very visible indeed even on the first day . I wandered around the town on foot and found that people always asked for money if you asked them for direction .The beggars and street urchins followed you everywhere.
The large number of vehicles were mostly either government vehicles or belonged to projects that displayed their stickers on the side like Foster parents or UN etc. The poor people just walked or rode in mini buses called Tap Tap here. There were also some jeepney like public transport that plied certain routes . Haitians often quarreled in jeepneys over something minor and fist fights broke out so the driver stopped and waited until the matter was sorted out on the street. Once I found myself in the middle of such quarrel and tried to be a peace maker but it was much later when my Creole had improved.
The Presidential palace is gleaming white building with the background of green hills which gives it a good contrast. In the front there is a statue of a Haitian slave raising a conch shell to his lips to blow and had shackles.
Not too far from it stands a statue of a Carib Indian in loin clothes and feathers. I was told that the name Haiti came from the Carib Indians who named the country . The other half of the island of Hispaniola is Dominican Republic or in short DR .
To learn more about the country one had to read Graham Greene but I was learning as best as I could by observing and talking to people. Just outside the hotel I met with a group of Haitian boys and girls who asked me to find work for them and then asked for money .The girls suggested that they were also selling something else .It was the same as in many African countries.Only the degree varied. Here there was not much of prostitution because of their strong Catholic beliefs.
Yes, there was no doubt that the Haitians were very religious . I had already noticed the religious paintings on their tap taps as they were called. The churches overflowed on Sundays and on many other days as well. There were many grottos in Post au Prince where the Catholics prayed but now there were Protestants as well thanks to the North American missionaries everywhere in the country.
The AID people who had approved my appointment made it clear to the new team that they expected good work and would not hesitate to “kick us out” if we did not perform. It reminded me of the Algerian Agricultural ministry but Americans were cruder people and did not mince words. They showed no respect to a person’s qualification and background . Some of them however , invited the team to their house once as a part of the routine and mentioned casually that I had a friend in Port au Prince.
I was naturally surprised .It was the old rascal Hubert of Ba Xuyen. He was now working here as the head of a pig repopulation program and came right over to the Hotel .He did not look like a scarecrow any more but I still did not trust his driving. The last time I had seen him was in Washington, DC in 1971 so it had been many years . He said that he was very busy with the project because all the pigs in Haiti had to be slaughtered due to the African swine disease so now he had to replace them with American pigs from Iowa.
Later the Haitian farmers told me that it was a great conspiracy by the Americans to sell their pigs to Haiti so they invented the swine fever theory to kill off the native pigs but it is hard for me to know the truth.
Anyway Hubert and I talked endlessly trying to catch up with the news about our mutual friends. He said that one of them was working at the US embassy and I should go and see her but I never found the time.
He then took me to a Chinese restaurant where we ate with chopsticks like in the good old days . I wrote to Jasmine that I had met an old friend of mine here. She had heard about Hubert before so sent her regards. Another American also invited the team to his house but I knew it was merely a formality and never went back there during our long stay in Haiti.
One day we drove to Jacmel to see the project site .I did not like the idea that people decided for me where I should work before I had a chance to assess the situation on the ground. Jacmel is about two hours drive from Port au Prince over steep mountain roads that zigzagged through very eroded hills. It was a small town on the coast with a small market and few houses. We drove up to Haute Cap Rouge and other places to see how the rural folks lived and how or what they cultivated on these mountain slopes.
Most of the road to Jacmel is in bad shape and steep . People planted coffee and manioc everywhere .They lived in sturdy but simple box like houses on hills and worked very hard to grow food. They painted their crooked doors and windows in bright colors . Women carried water in jars on their head which they must have fetched from the valley below and slowly climbed up the hills with the load. People carried everything on their head reminding me of the hardship of rural Malian women.
The Haitians smiled easily and said hello in Creole . The hotel in Jacmel was on the waterfront called la Jacmelienne and was pleasant but the Canadian manager was greedy because it was obvious that she was losing money. There were hardly any tourists staying there or anywhere in Haiti for that matter. They were scared of AIDS although it was not true that Haiti was endemic .There were more AIDS patients in the United States per thousand population but the label stuck.
So the tourists stayed away although the beaches were lovely and people so friendly . At the Jacmelienne hotel lobby people sold ceramics and papier mache handicraft as well as masks and little figurines but the price was high.
After Jacmel I went to Les Cayes in the west .It is some 200 kms from Port au Prince on the lower arm of the country. If you look at the map, the shape of Haiti looks like a crab with two arms . Here the road is excellent and passes through scenic coast of Zanglais .It was a small town with a jetty and old houses with rusty tin roof ,unpaved gravel roads and a small Catholic church in the centre of the town with a park where old people sat on benches and looked at new comers with interest. There was a statue of someone in the park with peeling paint and terrible eyes.
From the waterfront one could see the distant island called Isle a Vache and a few rusty hulk of boat wrecks and very few boats. There used to be brisk sea trade here in the past but now the port was closed and the custom’s office looked dilapidated facing the small post office. But Les Cayes was in the plains and in the middle of an agricultural area where the farming was intensive .They grew rice all around Les Cayes and had some irrigation. I could sense that some wonderful work could be done here and decided that it was going to be where I lived.
The next thing to do was to look for a house to rent . Again I was lucky to find a beautiful beach house built like a Swiss chalet just outside the town but we had to ford a few streams through bad gravel roads to get there.
But the house was new and had water, electricity and even phone. You could sit on the front porch and see the ocean 50 meters away and feel the constant breeze . The smell of sea so close was exhilarating . The house was set back on a huge expanse of lawn of blue grass which is not blue at all but thick green Korean grass. I liked the house right away and took it.
Now the next item on my agenda was to look for a school for the kids so I met the American Missionaries who lived up the hill where they also ran a small school for children . These people told me that my kids could not be admitted there .It was meant only for their children which I found very odd and unfriendly to begin with but the school administrator told me that my kids would be welcome. They needed more children to pay for the cost of a teacher . So with the housing and schooling problem solved in a short time ,I wrote to Jasmine to prepare to come to Haiti right away.
A school meant the difference between having my family here and spending the 4 lonely years alone so why the Americans were so unfriendly when they needed more children in their school ? We would get to know these people better in the future and understand them better.
Now it so happened that my landlady worked in the telephone exchange in Port au Prince so one night I tried to call Jasmine and told my land lady that she did not have a phone but her cousin Ramon who lived nearby did .
Could she ring up Naga City and ask the operator there to look up his number and give him a call ? This she did. Naga is a small town where people know each other so Ramon was contacted this way and I told him to send a car to fetch Jasmine right away .The long distance was costing me an arm and a few legs so please hurry.
Jasmine was very surprised to hear Ramon banging on the gate late at night. She finally came to the phone after what seemed like a long time and was very happy that we could hear each other clearly over vast distance of oceans. I said that she should pack up and come to Haiti because I had found a beautiful house and most importantly a school for the kids.
She said that I should fetch her from the Philippines but this I could not do. Then she said that I should meet her in San Francisco but that too was not possible so finally we compromised. I said that I will meet her plane in Miami ,Florida so she agreed on a date. I then called the office to wire her the tickets to a Manila Travel agent we trusted and I also called the travel agent to know the exact date and time of her arrival in Miami and flight number etc. and told them to call Jasmine in Naga .
When I asked the landlady who was listening how much I should pay, she said it did not register on their exchange computer. She laughed and said that working in the Phone company had certain privileges. She had many long distance operator friends.
I now had to go back to Port au Prince to send her a few documents by DHL so that she could be granted a US visa by the Manila embassy. The Haitian visas could be obtained in Miami. Then I had to look for the furniture and all things Jasmine would need. The project then ordered a house full of furniture and appliances from a factory outside Port au Prince which promised to deliver in a month . I had accomplished a great deal just in a few days time and felt really good.
My Haitian counterpart who lived in Les Cayes kept the project jeep so I had to walk back and forth from the house to the town but this was later resolved and I got the Jeep . He was not very friendly but that too would change later. In town I met a Chinese American who was a very nice person and often invited me to his big house where he lived alone. He was a fantastic cook as well and gave lavish parties that the expat community enjoyed at his expense . He introduced me to all of them that included mostly the missionaries who lived uphill in Cite Lumiere but also some Haitians.
The Ideal Guest house in town served meals to people who had not found a house yet .This is where few expats met for meals everyday. I got to know the French Canadian and his Bolivian wife this way but their cross eyed brat was intolerable. I had never seen children so ill behaved. I later helped find a house for them in town but they were aloof.
Soon I returned to Port au Prince where the carnival was about to begin. On the road you could see a number of Ra Ra bands beating drums and dancing in the middle of the streets .They also stopped cars and demanded money for their rhum that they sipped constantly. It was dangerous to pass because in their drunken state they took offense quickly and were not above stoning passing cars so we had to wait .It was prudent to pay these people and move on. The band included women as well.
In Port au Prince the carnival fever was reaching its climax .Now the streets were full of people in colorful attire dancing to the beat of drums and other instruments . We met an American woman who said that the best place to watch the Carnival from was the balcony of the Holiday Inn so that is where we went .The crowd now was elbow to elbow but we somehow managed to squeeze through.
The floats were numerous and some of them well made on which sat pretty girls throwing candies to the wild crowd . There were many foreigners who mingled with the crowd and danced with abandon. It seemed that everyone was having a good time dancing and drinking. Bottles changed hands freely and once in a while some fist fights broke out but were controlled quickly.
The policemen were out in great numbers to control the crowd which in general was orderly and moved on slowly in the long procession passing the Holiday Inn . The bands played so loudly that it hurt the eardrums but I enjoyed watching the crowd from the safe distance . It was also to be my last carnival but I had no idea at that time what lay ahead in Haiti. Judging from the way people danced and sang, one got the impression that the Haitian people had nothing to worry about in life and were very happy go lucky people but this was only the appearance.
People said that the carnival was the only outlet for the repressed masses whose problems were many to say the least. It was a country where there were no civil liberties and the blue denim clad militia were the dreaded Ton Ton Macoute who were the main instrument of repression in the hands of Duvalier. Their ruthlessness would have shamed Idi Amin.
In Les Cayes I shared a corner of the office of the district agriculture because we did not have an office of our own. The agriculture office was a very dilapidated building with leaking roof and full of huge rats and spiders . The agriculture chief resented the project because he had no control over it or its finances . But luckily we did not have to stay in that awful office because our field work had started with the reconnaissance survey in the plains of Bereault and the hills of Maniche . The roads were bad .We often had to ford the streams in Maniche and Bereault that damaged the jeep but we carried on the work in spite of the difficulties.
Soon we got the know the rest of the team that worked in Jacmel and Port au Prince but Les Cayes team worked somewhat independently of others because the rainfall pattern and the agriculture was different from Jacmel so the priorities were different as well. Rice and sorghum, corn and beans as well as sugarcane were the important crops here . They grew a great deal of coffee in Maniche up in the hills.
I think it was the 10th of April ,1984 when a truck was found to bring all the furniture that I had ordered from Port au Prince . I loaded up six motorbikes for the project as well, arrived late in Les Cayes and dumped everything in the house .I had no time to unpack and arrange the furniture because I had to return to Port au Prince with the truck.
Jasmine was arriving the next day in Miami so I had to reach Miami before she did . Hubert was also going to Miami but he disappeared into the crowd soon after arrival there on his way to pick up more pigs somewhere so I stayed near the airport . I had to find a department store to buy a few things before Jasmine arrived but here I started experiencing the bad side of America.
The bus driver yelled at me because I was too close to him to ask a few questions and the kids in the streets on roller skates tried to push me off the sidewalk shouting something in Spanish that did not sound pleasant. A huge dog tried to chase me and possibly bite that scared me because I could not find anything to defend myself with .
I knew nothing of Miami but from what little I learned, it was not a pleasant place. People spoke Spanish more than English and one could see the Cubans everywhere. They ran hotels, motels, shops and tour buses. They drove taxis and they ran Miami or at least that is how it seemed to me. They were impolite people who took offense if I did not understand their poor English . Miami did not look like an American city except the big wide freeways and incessant traffic .
What annoyed me most was the arrogance of the Cubans or the Hispanics . I had lived in the United States where I had not known this sort of arrogance but then I had lived in a mostly white town of San Luis Obispo in California. Now I was seeing another side of this country although to be fair, one must not judge a whole country by the behavior of a few odd Cubans .I didn’t .
Anyway Jasmine and the kids were arriving that night so I went back to the airport and asked the Pan Am agent to let me go to the arrival lounge. This he would not do. He said that there were restrictions due to security problem etc. but I insisted .I said that my wife and kids were arriving after traveling a very long distance so they will be very tired and needed my assistance.
He still did not relent .Finally I said how could I get inside ? He said that I needed a pass so I asked him for a pass and he gave it to me. Americans are very logical people.
The arrival lounge was deserted at 5 pm .The announcement board said that her flight was delayed and would arrive late. I had a long wait until 11 pm when finally the flight arrived and I saw Jasmine emerging from the plane holding Ashis and Jayanti and looking absolutely fatigued . She was also very surprised to find me there right near the plane and obviously very relieved.The kids came running and kissed me showing great joy.
We went to the hotel nearby and after giving the kids warm milk and some food went to sleep. They did not need any prompting .Their little bodies had taken a pounding on very long distance flights and showed. I really felt sorry that the plane travel was so awful . Jasmine was probably more tired than them because she looked ready to fall apart.
The next morning we went to the Haitian consulate to get them visas and then to the airline office to get them tickets to Port au prince because the office had sent them tickets only up to Miami to my surprise. Then it was time to relax a bit . I thought a trip to Disney Land in Orlando would be fun for the kids. The Cuban hotel manager of course had a tour bus leaving the next day run by who else ? The bus driver was impolite but we tolerated and arrived at the Disney Land passing through some place called Kisseeme. Jasmine asked me if most Americans were like the bus driver to which I said I hoped not.
The Disneyland and the Epcot centre in Orlando is a very big place that tires adults .I could see from the faces of Ashis and Jayanti that they were still tired but enjoyed being photographed with Tigger and Micky Mouse and Fowlfellow .They knew all these characters by heart and were delighted. Jasmine and I strolled holding hands and enjoying watching our children.
They pulled the tail of Tigger and hugged Micky and played with Winnie the Pooh . We took the moving carousel to enter the caves full of witches who lived in castles and brewed frogs in giant cauldrons to make their potions. We took the toy train ride through the wild wild west and mining towns roller coasting through caves and water falls. Then there were paddleboats and Nautilus of Captain Nemo. The attractions were too numerous to count and see in one day .The Epcot centre itself takes a long time.
We took the carousel ride through its dome to see the world history through figures, scenes and animated models . It was all very well done .Their computer room was enormous that controlled each and every aspect of the Disneyland but was far beyond the comprehension of the kids. It was time to go back to Miami and rest.
The crowd was very thick and lines endless but it was a good break for all of us. On the way back we ordered some hot dog and french fries but were surprised when the waiter brought us enough food for an army which we left nearly untouched . It was too much and a waste.
The flight to Port au Prince takes only about 90 minutes making Haiti seem like the back door or the front door of the United States which it probably is. Jasmine had lived in Mali where she learned to like the black people so she felt at home in Haiti . For the kids it was a new experience. Soon we drove on to Les Cayes through Petit Goave, Miragoane and the beautiful coast of Zanglais . The Zanglais coast is spectacular with white sand beach and azure blue waters with small islands dotting the ocean. The tall eucalyptus and pine trees line the highway and there are white or pink blossoms of some plants by the roadside making the scene breathtakingly beautiful.
One could see the fishermen and women pulling nets from the ocean while others in little dugout canoes paddled in the water. People sold steamed lobsters by the roadside along with a variety of other foods and smiled in a very friendly manner. After Miami it was a welcome sight . Jasmine was very pleased with the beautiful countryside and said how different it was from the drab and colorless rural Mali full of jungle.
For one thing Haiti was very small compared to Mali with as many people making Haiti very densely populated . There was no virgin forest of any consequence in the country because people lived everywhere and cultivated even the uncultivable land . At one time the country was very green and covered with tall trees everywhere but that was a long time ago. Now people had chopped down all the trees to make charcoal or burn them for fuel. I had seen the Tap Taps in Port au Prince loaded with charcoal and firewood .The effect or denudation of the hills everywhere was very shocking indeed.
One could see the heavily eroded hills on which people planted beans and other crops. Sisal was also planted on some slopes but on many hills we could see vetiver growing. Haitians extract its oil from the roots to make perfume . We drove through many small villages where people dried corn or other grains on the road side. One could see enormous crowds of children in neat school uniforms carrying their books in bags or in their hands.
We arrived late in Les Cayes and found the house a complete mess. I had no time to fix anything before I left for Miami so we decided to eat downtown that night and locked ourselves out of the house by mistake. Now we had to find a locksmith and bargain with him to come and help.
But Jasmine in the next day or two made wonders and arranged everything neatly and made it the most wonderful house while the kids ran around on the beach making sand castles . The Cite Lumiere workshop fixed our stove so soon we were cooking good meals.
The ocean was just in the front where the fishermen pulled the nets and women and children milled around . Their hands were raw because pulling a net was a very hard job that yielded very few fish but they tried day after day. Ashis and Jayanti loved the ocean and ran around everywhere reveling in the new surroundings while we sat on our front porch in easy chairs savoring the sea breeze . The kids had a long summer vacation because their school in Cite Lumiere was to start in September so we took them to swim in the ocean often. They loved catching small crabs.
They also tried to make friends with the Haitian children who lived nearby and tried to imitate their language. But our house was too far from the town and isolated . Jasmine often walked to the town but said that we should look for a house there . This happened when the Chinese American gentleman told me one day that his house will be soon vacant as he was moving to Port au Prince . This was a good opportunity so we moved to the rue Gabion house.
It was certainly very convenient for us to live in town because now she could walk to the market nearby or to go to the post office. She also attended the Sunday church service regularly and the kids started their schooling .It was a very small school of about 9 or 10 kids of various ages and one school room with one teacher who walked around barefoot but it was better than no school at all. In fact the small size of the school meant that Ashis and Jayanti got individual attention and personalized learning. Their classmates were the children of the missionaries and one or two Haitians .
The emphasis in their school was on religion but they were taught other subjects as well so it was ok with us . The missionaries who at the start were so pessimistic about our children attending their school , remained aloof and unfriendly but it did not matter. One of them refused to teach our kids piano saying that they only taught American children but shamelessly tried to borrow our video camera. We too refused.
I had a great deal of experience dealing with the American missionaries in Mali and formed a very poor opinion of them. It did not change here and was probably worse . When we invited them to our house, they all came and watched video movies after sumptuous dinner Jasmine had prepared but never in the fours years returned the courtesy. It was also true in Mali.
One woman in particular was very offensive who would invite Jasmine and later cancel the invitation. Once would have been enough but she did it many times so we remained apart from them.
It was perhaps not difficult to understand their attitude towards us. We never attended their prayer sessions or other religious activities because they were Protestants and always used such times to do a bit of Catholic bashing which offended Jasmine being a devout Catholic. They were also not interested in the heathens of Africa and found excuses to leave when I showed some slides on Mali one day .
Their naked intolerance to other people and culture had to be understood in the context of their mission to convert Catholic Haitians into proper Protestants and weed out the voodoo culture they hated. They were also very ignorant people who went around telling people not to buy Proctor and Gamble products because they were devil worshipers .
They also felt ill at ease with us. Our deep appreciation of the Malian animist culture was anathema to them who believed that the Africans were savages and had to be “saved” . Among the missionaries the American and the Canadian missionaries were the toughest lot who openly showed a great deal of racism and intolerance. As I said earlier they were also very ignorant.
They often mistook me for a Haitian and started talking to me in Creole even if I replied in English. One of them thinking that I was a Haitian closed the gate on my face but did not apologize when she learned of her mistake. They were by and large very arrogant people but were eager to take any advantage they could get anywhere .
One woman in particular made me very angry by her bigotry and self serving talks. She was the type who knew all the answers so we came to a head a few times over unimportant topics .I told Jasmine to be wary of such people but she wanted to belong to the expat community that frequently arranged for pot luck parties to amuse themselves. There was nothing else to do in Les Cayes. I stayed at home to baby sit the kids . Bad people were no longer welcome to our house once we got to know that they were bad.
Our next door neighbors were also such people who kept coming and asking Tipin for favors all the time. This woman was such a pest that we sighed with relief when they moved to Port au Prince but sighed again when the replacement turned out to be just as bad. This white woman had an illegitimate mulatto child who was very ill behaved. She often asked Jasmine to baby sit this brat .
I had written earlier that Jasmine had a golden heart and could not refuse anyone any help so the missionaries were very surprised when one day we brought home a woman and her boy friend who had an accident and needed home care . They asked Jasmine if she knew these people whom she tended when Jasmine answered that no she did not know them but helped them anyway ,they were all the more surprised.
They never helped anyone in distress unless they knew them ,not even their own countrymen as was the case here but enough about the American missionaries. Only Jasmine could be nice to such rotten people and I loved her for it.
One day we went to Saut Mathurine which is a magnificent water fall some 20 km from Les Cayes .It was lovely place for a picnic so we packed some lunch box for an outing. The waterfall was well known in Haiti but it was more beautiful than what one learned from the guide books. The water fell from a height of 50 or 60 feet into a blue lagoon that was the source of Maniche river emptying into the Cavaillon bay further east.
Children climbed up the rocky edges near the fall and jumped into the lagoon which we understood to be quite deep. It was astonishing to watch small children climb up so high and jump but apparently they did this all the time.
Down the stream some boys and girls caught shrimps that hid under the rocks. Soon a crowd of women and children gathered around us so we share some food with them. Americans were always annoyed with such crowd but we were used to it and did not mind them. They did not mean any harm.
Among them we found a girl of eighteen or so and asked if she was willing to work for us and live with us. She showed interest but her father wanted to make sure where his daughter was going so came with us to Les Cayes , saw our home and was satisfied. Thus we found a maid who did cooking and cleaning which was a tiring job for Jasmine . The maid ate with us and was treated as a member of the family which some foreigners living next door found intolerable . The Bolivian woman treated her maid like dirt but we did not have to follow their example.
We hoped that they will treat their servants more humanely but that did not happen. People were a product of their culture and did not change easily. How the maids were treated by women in India or the Philippines ? It was the same but we made our own rules and Jasmine was very kind hearted.
I had written in the mean time to Dr.Singh at IRRI to send me some rice varieties that I could test in the Les Cayes area. We had always kept in touch over the years and often visited IRRI during our home leaves. I planted these seeds near Les Cayes on a missionary farm and watched the crop grow anxiously. These were the high yielding varieties developed by the IRRI scientists and I was testing them for the first time in this part of the world .
The 7 different varieties grew well but one or two showed better results. I started naming them such as Colette, Amina , Ti Marie, Yole,Ti Rose etc. and waited for the harvest to determine the yield.. The USAID officers came and were impressed by what they saw. It could greatly help the rice farmers throughout Haiti if these IRRI varieties out performed the local ones. It could have profound implications .Our project staff from elsewhere also came to see and appreciated my effort .
Many farmers came as well and looked with interest at the heavily laden panicles of rice that bent with its own weight. They asked me how soon I could give them some seeds to plant . I had planted the other half of the seeds at a village called Charlette where they also grew well . Little did we know at that time that one or two of these varieties would do exceedingly well and spread to many parts of Haiti in a short time. It all had started from only 500 grams of seed for each variety. I wrote to Dr.Singh and sent him the results. He was very pleased and promised more help if I needed.
I soon built a simple rice thresher to facilitate threshing .The grains separated only after three or four beatings on it which delighted the farmers. It meant that they could now harvest the rice plants at the base and beat it on the thresher holding the bundle of stalks .It was easier as compared to their method of cutting the panicles one at a time and saved tremendous time. Later I had many of these threshers built at a workshop run by an Italian and sent some of them to other parts of the province.
But it was Amina that proved to be the winner and spread far and wide in Haiti in three year’s time making it the success story of our project. Some farmers also like Colette and planted large area with it.
I would later get funding for a seed multiplication project in Bruny where we built a huge warehouse with self help and the funds provided a brand new power tiller, seeds of Amina for propagation and fertlizer. I had set up a cooperative of farmers who would grow Amina here and sell to other farmers as seed.
But some farmers liked other varieties that I had introduced. In Foscave the farmers grew nothing but Ti Rose and Colette but by and large it was Amina that they liked because of its quality and high yield. I also started working on sorghum and black beans called Tamazulapa in Bereault and installed many field trials but it was the rice trials that gave very good results.
I asked and got a Nubian Alpine cross breed goat from a goat project in Hinch to start a local breeding project for goats and sent few farmers to Hinch for training . The project also built some pig pens in study villages to start the pig breeding as well with the introduction of improved breeds of pigs from Iowa that our friend Hubert supplied. Next was the rabbit breeding program that I started and built a large number of hutches for the farmers in many villages . Thus I was involved in many things at the same time.
I was picking up a lot of Creole by this time but was not fluent. I came to know hundreds of farmers in project area and names like Charlette, LaForce,Gauvin,Macieu ,Boudet, Bereault ,Jogue, Dassemar ,Melon,Dame Marie, Fond de Freres became very familiar to me . We developed close relationship with the farmers and specially in Fond des Freres up in the hills where we set up contour terracing planted with napier for erosion control and also set up a nice nursery of fruit trees to be planted later on .
A Peace Corps girl helped the project with the pig repopulation and rabbit breeding program in Maniche and Fond de Freres for whom I had brought a motorbike and a helmet. She also had a huge crush on my friend Hubert that was very amusing because the rascal never looked at her .
Often we organized field days for the farmers when we showed them the rice or other trials . The field days were a lot of fun for everybody . The farmers often brought musicians who sang and played guitars and danced . Food and drinks were served after the field visits and long discussions were held under the trees when we learned about their reactions to what they saw. Often their comments changed our focus of research during the next season so we considered the field days to be very important .
Then in December of 1984 we decided to go on a vacation to Mexico .We found the girls at the Eastern Airlines in Port au prince were rude but I had to wait patiently for them to write up the tickets by hand but finally it was all done and we were set to leave for Mexico City via Miami.
This was our first trip to Mexico . We arrived late at night but the welcome was not good. They inspected my passport very carefully and made us all wait. They even wanted to see and count how much money we had . Finally they were satisfied and answered sulkily that there were many cases of Indians who used Mexico to get to the United States illegally so they had to be careful.
From my experience in travel around the world I knew that the worst part of any country was the airport where people were unfriendly to begin with and more so if you carried a passport they did not like. The rules were not universal . Some nationalities did not even require a visa while others were not admitted without one and still others were admitted reluctantly even if they had proper visa like here in Mexico.
Others were denied entry if the immigration officer did not like the looks or suspected that the person did not have enough money or spoke like the Japanese with deep grating sound . They all had to look carefully in a thick black ledger to check if your name was there and you were wanted for some offenses somewhere. In the USA for example it was not enough to say that you were a tourist and going to stay at a hotel. You had to give them the name , address and the phone number of someone you knew there.
Then they often asked to see the money and even counted to make sure you were not telling lies like in Mexico city airport. Gone was the glamour of jet traveling and the deference with which people treated an international traveler. Now every Tom, Dick and hairy person could travel .Often the planes were full of janitors, maids and laborers who gulped down free booze and looked in the toilet rooms to see if they could take away the cologne or aftershave lotion bottles. The airlines now had to remove the bottle caps to prevent stealing and often ignored passengers stranded in strange cities.
They were not going to pay for the hotel room any more . It is so bad in the middle east that even a business class passenger is denied a hotel room if the passenger is from a certain country . Now they treated you like a criminal and searched your bags and your body a number of times and even x -rayed your hand bags . A simple letter opener could make those metal detectors ping like crazy . I suppose no one wants to take any chances what with so many international terrorists on the loose but it does not make travel any easier or enjoyable.
Anyway we finally got out of the airport and took a taxi to reach a downtown hotel called Ontario which was right near Zocalo which in Mexico meant the center of the town. It was an old hotel but the location was very good and we were only minutes from the subway station. There were many restaurants nearby and a very good ice cream shop. We did not speak Spanish but it did not matter that much . Jasmine and I got to know all the subway stations thanks to our Fodor guide book.
The Mexico city subway is a world class subway. It is very clean and beautiful .The trains are shiny and comfortable and to get around the city is really very easy .Some stations had a nice underground market .People were well dressed and did not shove and push .No one wrote graffiti on the trains or vandalized anything like in New York. You did not see the derelicts sleeping on the platforms or begging or urinating in the corners .The Mexicans had a right to be proud of their subway.
We found many things in Mexico they could be proud of .Their civilization was very old and their city had many well maintained parks and museums. The Anthropological museum was of world renown and the Opera hall called Palacio del Bellas Artes was a splendid building in architecture where we saw the Mexican ballet that is world famous . We did not find the city full of smoke or smog as is often mentioned in the western press and enjoyed walking in the Chapultepec park where kids rode on horses or we took the boat to row in the big lake.
Mexicans like to eat all the time like in the Philippines so there were food stands everywhere . Here you could find the authentic Mexican food and not the watered down version I used to get in San Luis Obispo ,California. Near Zocalo we saw the excavated pyramids of the Aztecs and a huge round slab that was their calendar. The huge cathedral in Zocalo was very ornate and sinking on one side because the Spaniards had built the city on a lake bed with the rocks of the pyramids they had destroyed .
Aztecs were smarter .They had built Tenochtitlan in a beautifully laid out plan and used causeways to join the city with the outer parts. It had the most spectacular pyramids and temples ever built in the Americas .There is a model of the city in Zocalo. There was no city in Europe in the 14th century that could compare in grandeur but the Spaniards came with swords and put people to death . They destroyed what was beautiful and converted the people to Christianity by sword . But that is the story of the Spaniards anywhere . Remember Magellan ? He did the same thing in the Philippines but was put to death by Lapu Lapu .
The Spaniards could not believe that these so called savages could build such a city and were actually very advanced in astrology and mathematics. One needs to go to Teotihuacan to see what the Aztecs were capable of. Their guns and the greed for gold sealed the fate of these proud people that their national artist Diego Garcia so lovingly depicted in murals after murals in a palace nearby .
We found Mexico city a delightful place . In the parks the clowns entertained the large crowd and came over when they spotted my video camera . They made fun of us to the great joy of the crowd but it was all very friendly .
We really enjoyed watching the Mexican ballet .They showed different dances from different regions of Mexico but they started out with dazzling dances of the Aztecs in their spectacular dresses . I could tell that Jasmine and the kids enjoyed it too . Outside the palace one could buy Aztec paintings. Later we found that the artwork and handicraft was plentiful no matter where you went. One could get tired of going to all the art galleries and museums but we did manage a few.
But a tragedy was waiting for us in the Chapultepec park where one day Ashis while swinging from a swing just fell off and landed on his left elbow. We knew right away that he had a broken bone and looked frantically for help. Soon a social worker arrived who could speak English , called for an ambulance immediately . The ambulance arrived but would not take us with Ashis so we worried where they were taking him . We then decided to take Ashis to the Red Cross hospital by taxi where a team of doctors interviewed us at length and then decided to operate on him right away. He was just a small boy who had never been alone but they assured us that they will take good care of him .
We returned the next morning to find Ashis in a cast .He must have been terrified being alone in a hospital room not speaking the language but his roommate was a sweet girl called Elizabeth who was recovering from an auto accident and it was she who kept company with constant chatter.
We were greatly relieved . Ashis was given the best medical care possible by the best doctors in the Americas and wonder of wonders, they did not charge anything for it but in gratitude we donated some money anyway.
The doctors spoke excellent English and assured us showing the x ray that they had joined the bone perfectly and it should heal in a month when the cast could come off. Our vacation had turned into tragedy but we were glad it had happened in Mexico City . We stayed with him everyday as long as possible until the day he was discharged . We came to know the family of Elizabeth through our misfortunes and I often sat with her or helped change her clothes or bed sheet .She could only say gracias but we understood the human bond that had developed.
After three days we brought him back to the hotel where his arm in cast had to be hung up with a cord . He complained and sometimes cried but put up with it very bravely just the same . I bought him a colorful poncho to wear covering up his cast but we had to be very careful and protect his arm from people accidentally bumping into him.
Jayanti was also very protective toward her brother and kept an eagle eye on him all the time. One day we all went to see the pyramids of Teotihuacan about 20 kms away . These pyramids were the largest in the Americas and were built many centuries ago by the Aztecs for perhaps some ceremonial purposes . They compared well with the Egyptian pyramids in grandeur and had steps built into it to climb to the top although the steps were at a scary angle. We marveled at the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon on the avenue of the dead and bought some handicraft before returning back to the city.
The hills were full of obsidian , malachite , onyx and many other semi precious stones that the Mexicans used to make beautiful objects but one had to bargain for everything.
Of all the Mexican sites, Teotihuacan was the most impressive. The neatly laid boulevard called the avenue of the dead leading all the way up to the Moon pyramid and many smaller structures on both sides were built with precise astrological orientations . The marvelous planning with very precise measurements in laying out various buildings was quite impressive . The government was slowly restoring some of the ruins but more discoveries were being made constantly. There is a museum nearby showing what they have found so far in the area.
The Mexicans rightly took pride in their Aztec heritage and often showed the pride through the ballet or public folk dances at religious places .They collected old artifacts and displayed them in their museums and spent a great deal of money and time in restoring what can be restored . Yet we found a paradox almost as soon as we arrived in Mexico.
The descendants of the Aztecs now called Indians lived in poverty and could be seen selling flowers and homemade dolls . They had the unmistakable Aztec features and could be spotted quickly as compared to the rest of the Mexicans who were of mixed blood . The fair skinned mestisos looked down upon the darker skinned Indians because they felt superior to them.
It was the same story everywhere. In Haiti the mulattos behaved worse.I found this hard to believe while the Mexican people took pride in their Indian culture or at least that is the impression one got anyway.
The native Mexican women did not like to be photographed and hid their faces with shawls or turned around. Their children had shiny black eyes ,black hair and oval faces . I found the natives very attractive and full of character they way they walked or held their head high but they were nevertheless sad people whose ancestors had ruled the land long ago . Now all that remained was some ruins but they carried on their tradition of colorful weaving and basket making or pottery.
In the United States the Mexicans were derided as wetbacks and poor but here we found a proud people living in a clean city that was well planned and had one of the better transport systems in the Western hemisphere. We saw a city that was full of manicured parks, gardens and lovely buildings. We saw a city full of lively people , shops and bazaars.
We found everything cheap and could buy anything for a lower price than elsewhere but perhaps it was not cheap for the Mexicans. The peso fell almost daily against the dollar making inflation grow fast. Except for the accident that Ashis had, we had a good stay in Mexico but now it was time to go back to Haiti .
The whole of 1985 went by without any problem . Ashis’s cast had come off and the fracture healed perfectly thanks to the good doctors in Mexico but he was accident prone and had run into Jayanti one night playing in the dark when the electricity failed . It left a gash on his right eyebrow that had to be stitched up and he would have other problems later but it was a part of his growing up .
Jayanti did better and became very good in recitation . She had tried to write words just by the sound of it not knowing the spellings yet so we made a lot of fun of it. She wrote things like brid for bird and moon wid star instead of with star or gril for girl etc. Now she is all grown up but we still call her a gril for fun. For a 4 year old to write anything just by the sound of it was very remarkable indeed. Her first reaction in Dakar Senegal to the ocean was “Look papa very big swimming pool ” which had made us all chuckle .
The project in the mean time made good progress and we settled down in the routine of living. The kids made steady progress in their school and often brought home some of their classmates to spend the weekends with us. Jasmine got to know the Mexican wife of a local doctor who made wonderful Tamale and we often got together. Others remained aloof.
In May or June I went to Fort de France in Martinique to attend a meeting and found the Creole spoken there somewhat similar to Haitian Creole. But the similarities ended there. Martinique was a part of France and their banana trade was mainly for France so made money. It was also a very expensive place. The meetings were attended by people from many parts of the world but I found their way of handling the question answer part of any session tedious and proposed changes. This was quickly adopted by the President of the session, a professor from Surinam although the French didn’t like it . The French always had to have the last word in anything.
Haiti became independent in the 1800s and was the first free republic of former slaves .The slavery by contrast in the United States would continue until much later and only the civil war and Lincoln would bring about its end. But Haiti was ruled by despots like Henry Cristoff who ruled Haiti from his castle in Cap Haitien in the northern most part of the country.
We went to see the castle .It is perched high up on a mountain and is massive in construction . We rode on horses to reach the top and saw the massive ramparts and the canons pointing towards the north from where Cristoff expected an invasion by France that never came. The history says that many people died building the castle and manhandling the massive canons up on the slope but the king was ruthless and did not care.
The ruins of his huge palace down at the foot of the mountain shows that he was ambitious in its design and lived in style while the rest of the population lived in poverty. Haiti at his time did produce enough sugarcane and other things to be exported and the country at his time was not so denuded. There were forests and wild games and a lot of fishing.
The legacy of ruthless tyrants still continues to the present day although they had brief periods of elected government .Most Haitians could not remember when was the last time they had an elected government .The present regime has been in power for over thirty years and showed no signs of relinquishing it through the ballot box . I had earlier mentioned that their power base was the militia called the Ton Ton Macoutes that terrorized the rural folks .Some peasants joined their ranks so that they would not be the victims.
They were mostly illiterates but then literacy had never been a requirement to oppress people . We lived next door to the police barracks in Les Cayes where people were brought in, beaten and jailed. We noticed that more and more people were being brought in lately. We also now felt more than we saw the general unease among the population with the political system. The factory workers demanded higher wages, students demanded more academic freedom and farmers higher prices for their produce .
The farm workers demanded the end to their exploitation by the rich landlords and in fact everyone complained about something. Life had become very difficult for the average Haitians. People went on strike everywhere but such strikes were broken up by the government using brutal force often killing the demonstrators. Jails started to fill up more rapidly and the Macoutes and the military took a more offensive posture if that can be imagined but the grievances were genuine.
The suppression of people by force made them more determined so we could feel the tension everywhere . Often there were road blocks where poor people demanded ransom from passing cars or they stoned the vehicles.
The farmers with whom we worked complained that the price they got for their produce did not cover the cost of production because the fertilizer price and labour was so high.
In Camp Perrin area many people were killed in fights over water rights because the rich and powerful farmers who were also Macoutes took the lion’s share of water from the canals leaving farmers downstream dry.
The schools were closed because the teachers went on strike . We all felt that the country was heading towards more and more social turmoil the intensity of which increased by the end of 1985 . We avoided going to Port au Prince where such troubles were frequent now specially in the Carrefour area where most of the poor Haitians lived .
The most disturbed area in Haiti was Gonaive north of Port au Prince where people set up road blocks and confronted the army with stones and home made weapons .The body count started to rise but in Les Cayes it was not so bad yet. Duvalier came to Bereault once to inaugurate the irrigation canal system built with the US money . The AID director came from Washington for the ceremony but it was a hired crowd that cheered Duvalier. The soldiers with automatic weapons pointed their guns straight at the crowd to make sure that no one had any funny ideas.
When the local AID director said that he wanted me to meet with his boss, I found the boss busy talking to his effeminate son so the local director lost his courage to approach and introduce me . I was appalled at his temerity and subservience . While the minister of agriculture was making a speech, the wife of Duvalier kept up the chatter with someone .It was very rude and disrespectful . She was the Madame Ngu of Haiti and was known to be ruthless. She was the woman behind the downfall of Duvalier .
People could sense that Duvalier’s days were numbered .We heard this through the grapevine .People said that something was going to give soon because the situation was no longer tenable for the poor masses. The government tried to drum up support by asking for a referendum but again the hired crowd cheered and voted. Most stayed away.
Our project staff met once a month in Port au Prince to discuss the progress of the project as if nothing was happening but we all knew better. Damien was a mess where the faculty of agriculture had shut down .There were changes in the Ministry of agriculture and everywhere but changing ministers did not change anything .The frequent changes made the matter worse .The country was now heading towards a cataclysm .
In October of 1985 we went on a home leave to the Philippines and India via Seattle . My old friends Roger and Lauren from Vietnam days now lived near Seattle so I wanted Jasmine to meet them. I also attended a meeting on the Farming systems in Manhattan, Kansas passing through the head office of my employer in Arkansas.
The secretary of the director general kept me waiting in the outer room for hours until she came in bursting with excitement saying that the DG will see me now .He has just found a few minutes. The DG was a typical fellow who looked at my resume to know my name and a few other details, asked a few silly questions and stood up. The five minutes were over . It left me with the impression that no one at the head office cared a great deal about its personnel in the field . It was very reassuring.
I wanted to have some computer analysis done there so I brought a lot of field data but the head office with its room full of computers and full time experts could not do simple analysis and left me with massive volumes of manuals to sort it out myself. I was very disappointed and soon left for Kansas. Jasmine in the mean time was waiting for me in Seattle.
In Manhattan, Texas my friend Abou Diabate from Sikasso was also attending the meeting. The head of that project was also there along with the Dutch fellow but after saying a half hearted hello, they all disappeared. But Abou was not like them. We were good friends and it was Abou who had found the lovely village outside Sikasso where we had built our beautiful adobe house. I was naturally happy to see him again and helped him in translation during sessions because he did not speak English.
Jasmine had called from Seattle saying that the airline had misplaced her luggage but otherwise she was ok and staying with some relatives. Filipinos have lot of relatives in the States but more on them later. So I arrived in Seattle and we all went to spend a day with Roger and Lauren. It was great reunion. They met my family for the first time although Roger had sent me a long telegram on the day of our marriage saying how he regretted not being able to attend our marriage. Now we had two lovely kids and they had a kid of their own .
Ashis and Jayanti had great fun picking strawberries and selecting pumpkins for the Halloween . The relatives of Jasmine let us stay with them but insisted that we carry huge boxes for them to the Philippines called balikbayan boxes. This is a tradition among the Filipinos .They always send box full of things for their poor relatives which keeps their social relationship well oiled. We had no choice in the matter and carried the boxes to Manila. Filipinos always demanded payment in some form if they did something for you.
Back in the Philippines, we noticed a few changes . One of them was that the younger sister of Jasmine had married in the mean time and they lived in our house in Naga . I disliked the fellow the moment I met him and found him greedy and dishonest . They had to move out. We were there only for a short while so I did not make any fuss but made a mental note of keeping a distance from this fellow who had demanded that we pay him for house sitting . They had also gotten rid of the wonderful maid we had.The house looked pretty run down but we had no time to fix anything and soon left for India.
I wanted Jasmine and the kids to see TajMahal and other parts . She greatly enjoyed visiting Agra to see the wonder of Taj Mahal , the fort where the king Shah Jahan was kept in prison and the ruined city of Fateh Pur Sikri that Emperor Akbar had built near Agra , the mausoleum of Akbar in Sikandara which is an Arabic version of the word Alexandria and many such places. The kids were still small so I do not know how much they really enjoyed . They would again visit Agra when they had grown up.
The Buland Darwaja of Fatehpur Sikri which was the tallest gate in India, the mausoleum of Sheikh Salim Chisti with its jewel like mother of pearl canopy on the grave and its fine lattice work, various royal palaces and the huge Panchmahal, the royal stables and the royal chess board, the execution ground and many such places were of great interest to Jasmine who listened with rapt attention the history of Moghuls.
The visit to Sri Ram Pur was nothing remarkable except that we attended the marriage of one of my nieces whose elder sister compared the gift we had given her to that of her younger sister now and found it cheaper. Such petty things caused jealousy among women . Poverty made women mean and the relationship was always judged by the value of the gifts we gave and nothing more. It is not that different in the Philippines as I had just mentioned. We had not forgotten the sad episode of our previous stay here so were anxious to return to Haiti once again.
There were more road blocks and demonstrations than before . The police and the military frequently opened fire on people to kill so the body count rose everyday. There were mass strikes everywhere closing down factories and offices .The reaction of the regime was always the same . More repression to fill up jails where the prisoners were tortured and often killed.
Now the Haitians wanted a fundamental change which meant the fall of the regime but Duvalier held to power tenaciously with the help of the Macoutes and the army. In Les Cayes we had seen peaceful marches but how long they were to remain peaceful ? The shops were ordered closed by people so the town looked like a ghost town . Then the violence started one day.
Scores of houses were looted and burned , some on the street where we lived. The Haitians wanted revenge on people whom they considered haughty and insulting towards poor people. One mulatto woman was a victim. It was true that rich business men and women treated poor people like dirt so now they paid for it with their lives. One hotel was burned down. People burned tires and barricaded the roads making circulation difficult.
Anyone driving around was just asking to be stoned so we stayed indoors for a while .More and more military people were brought in who patrolled the streets with machine guns and the army barrack next door was full of soldiers all the time. I was anxious because of Jayanti and the kids and waited to see what happened next. All the expatriates were asked to return to Port au Prince for evacuation just in case but we stayed in Les Cayes where we felt somewhat safer.
We did not dare pass through Carrefour near Port au Price where the angry mob always milling around surrounded cars or stoned vehicles but one day the dam burst . We were ordered back in Port au Prince just in time. It was the month of February of 1986.
We arrived in Port au prince not knowing how long we had to stay or if we could ever return to Les Cayes . We found many families gone to the United States so they urged us also to leave but we decided to stay. There was a place in la Boule in Petionville where we could stay but it was very isolated Besides there we could not get any food or water so we stayed in the apartment that the project rented .At least it was near the market from where our maid to get us some food somehow.
All through the night we could hear the gunfire every where and people shouting and running with torches. The military declared curfew and patrolled the streets so no one could move about . I thought I could go back to Les Cayes alone and pick up some essential stuff but I was ordered not to leave town. It was very dangerous .
Then on the morning of February 6th, 1986 the rumors spread that Duvalier had fled the country. This was the moment people were waiting for so now they poured onto the streets everywhere and attacked the hated Macoutes whose protection was gone. Right near our apartment we saw the crowd attack the house of a Macoute who escaped in the nick of time in his underclothes from the very angry mob .
They looted the house in minutes and carried away anything that they could carry. First they smashed the window glass after destroying the grills to enter the house. Then they carried away furniture and fans and even the door of a refrigerator .A mangy dog was seen grabbing a sandwich in the melee while we watched from our balcony.
But the real tragedy was taking place elsewhere downtown where people attacked and killed hundreds of Macoutes and paraded with their severed heads on stakes shouting and looting .Houses were burned and many scores of shops looted and many people killed. Streets were strewn with debris and often covered in blood . They looted the house of Duvalier and his cohorts all through the day and night and fled only when the military came with guns but they could no longer control the crowd.
The relative calm returned only after a week or so when a new government was formed and people were allowed to move around more freely. At last the storm blew over and we were allowed to return to Les Cayes once again. We were told that many macoutes were killed here and their houses burned down but we could sense that it was not over yet.
Soon after our return a macoute was spotted near our office and knifed to death .There were others killed near the hospital and many more in the countryside .People were in a very angry mood and asked for money or food so we fed a few of them .
Now the people wanted the new provisional government to remove all the pro Duvalier people from power and install a more acceptable government which they refused to do so the agitation continued throughout 1986.
Back in the Philippines a similar drama was playing out and Marcos had fled the country but that is where the similarities ended. The revolution in the Philippines was largely peaceful but here it was bloody.
People had tasted victory here so they kept the pressure up by demonstrations and road blocks. One never knew when they were going to close the road and for how long so any travel became risky. This exacerbated the fuel crisis. We had to fall in line for hours to get a few liters of gasoline.
I started working again with the farmers who in general went about their business of planting and harvesting as usual so our project continued in spite of what was happening in Haiti. At this time I submitted the proposal to set up a seed multiplication cooperative in Bruny which was approved and funded to the great anger of the whore turned missionary woman who demanded money for her project of saving souls and was refused.
In fact Haiti was the ideal country in turmoil where these American missionaries came in droves to save their souls now .They came with loud speakers and tents for these revivals and held their show in stadiums
where their counterparts translated their harangue in Creole for the masses in rapid fire style. Haiti was being overrun by them . You could see the white American women wearing only bras and panties sun bathing in remote villages where they had come to establish a church as if Haiti was short of Churches . I had previously written a great deal about the missionaries in Les Cayes who were more established but there were a great number of itinerant ones who descended on Haiti like plague .
My seed multiplication program was a great success thanks to the funding and the farmers who worked tirelessly to build the warehouse, threshing cum drying floor and filled up the huge CARE truck borrowed with sand ,gravel and rocks in the river bed. I taught them how to operate the new Kubota power tiller and got them the seeds of Amina. Later I was approached by other donors to establish similar programs for corn and beans but I had no time. Our project became well known for its positive actions so many people came to visit us from other parts of Haiti.
The kids started schooling again now that peace had returned temporarily. Jasmine lived through it all knowing that I was there to protect her and the kids although in her heart she must have felt anxious at times. She even bought tee shirts printed with Vive Haiti that were selling like hot cakes . But we were surprised at our so called friends in Les Cayes who never even phoned to know if we were alright or how we had managed during the revolution in Port au Prince.
Jasmine and I often talked about the Haitians and the expatriates in Les Cayes whom we had now known for more than two years and in general about their apathy. These are the people for whom Jasmine did great favors all the time inviting to them for dinner or lunch but they remained aloof except when they wanted some other favors.
The tradition of potluck party was now discontinued due to lack of participants or someone taking the responsibility of organizing one but everyone showed up if Jasmine organized it. They wanted fun but shirked responsibility . The Camp Perrin people formed their own clique and the Peace Corps people had their own group. Then there were the missionaries in Cite Lumiere who did not mix with any one .
I was more and more engrossed in with my work with the farmers because many of my efforts had started to pay off . The corn, sorghum, sweet potato, black beans and the soil conservation project in Fond des Freres all were on track and doing well. I also helped push the construction of our office cum residence in Maniche for our field assistants and helped set up the peace Corps girl in Maniche for her animal science work there. In short the year 1986 was a momentous year when so many things good and bad happened.
We often heard the voodoo drums late at night but had never actually seen a ceremony so one night I followed the sound to its source and found a large crowd in a hut swaying to beat . There was a houngan who is a voodoo priest doing some chanting in the middle and a few women dancing as if in a trance and writhing on the floor . The Haitians practiced Voodoo as a form of ritual worship and considered it a part of their Catholic faith .
They assembled in great numbers in a place in Central Haiti each year to celebrate the Voodoo ceremony there so I took Jasmine there once. But closer at home the drums beat every night . The missionaries hated it and said that it was devil worship but in this they failed to understand the Haitian people.
Voodoo had come to Haiti from West Africa a long time ago and had now become part and parcel of the Haitian people who saw no contradiction in their practice of Voodoo and their Catholic faith. The two went hand in hand. The missionaries thus sowed disharmony in the Haitian society by turning Haitians against Haitians .
One could see the fanaticism of new converts in the countryside who would go around the villages cursing the sinners and frothing in their mouth doing so while the villagers just looked . I had seen this sort of thing in Bamako where the Muslim zealots cursed loudly standing outside restaurants that served beer to patrons. The fanaticism was not limited to American Protestants .It could be found anywhere but in Haiti which is a small country in size, its effects were deeper on the society.
In 1987 we took our last vacation in Mexico and the rest in the United States . I will not write about Mexico again because I wrote enough already so let me just mention our stay in the US. In Washington ,D.C. we met our friend Hubert who had now found a job there. Jasmine had met Hubert before and he had come to stay with us in Les Cayes for a while .The kids were happy to see their uncle Hubert again.
So we saw the usual places in the capital like the Lincoln memorial, Jefferson memorial etc. but the kids were more interested in the Air and Space museum , the Smithsonian and the zoo . I showed them the place near the Dupont Circle where I used to stay learning French from Nicole but that place had closed in the mean time . The next stop was New York where we went to the Liberty island , saw the Bronx zoo and the Metropolitan museum. We climbed up to the top of the World Trade Centre which does not exist any more ,to see the 4th of July fireworks. We were not impressed although many tourists oohed and aahed as if they had never seen anything like it. They probably had not.
Jasmine was very disturbed by the poor people sleeping in the subway stations on card board or urinating in corners. The trains were full of graffiti and often obscene words but the stations were also spray painted by vandals.
We saw poor homeless people sleeping on card boards and covering themselves up with rags or news papers in the Central Park which was also shocking to her. Filipinos believed that America was rich .
We then took the train to Niagara Falls passing through the countryside full of derelict factories and abandoned hulks of machinery or cars. The names like Poughkeepsie etc. did not mean anything to the kids who observed everything with keen eyes . But Niagara falls was wonderful . The roaring water falling over the precipice was spectacular .It made a mist catching the rainbow .
In fact everything seemed to be named rainbow there like rainbow helicopter service, rainbow hotel, rainbow shopping mall etc. Some people even went up near the falls in boats called Maid of mist wearing yellow raincoats but we stayed above . There are some museums nearby but we all had seen enough already.
The shop keepers in Niagara where I bought some records were rude. It was just like in Miami . The waitresses in restaurants who were usually old and dour looking always engaged in small talks like ” your kids are cute etc.” but gave us worst seats when there were very few customers and expected big tips. I learned that the waitresses had certain tables assigned to them so they made sure that they all got equal share of their tips . Their chitchat was a part of their commercial jargon that did not fool Americans but there were many rich foreigners in Niagara.
Back in New York we found a hotel but they had no fix rates. The rate for the day depended on demand so it went up double during the 4th of July. This was another aspect of commercialism we came to know about in the US. Jasmine was disturbed by the aggressiveness of the African Americans. We saw a fellow pull a knife in a street brawl so we walked away quickly. The filth in the subway that stank of urine, the mud caked derelicts in the Central Park and elsewhere showed a different side of New York to her .
Black women spoke or laughed in the subway trains in loud exaggerated voice while bantering with what sounded like sex talks with younger ones. We felt uneasy and were glad to leave New York. It was time to return to Haiti. We did not like New York at all.
While in Mexico we had decided that Jasmine should return to the Philippines with the kids to start schooling there and asked our office to wire the tickets to the agent in Port au Prince. When we arrived in Port au Prince, we found the streets deserted . The airline had warned us that there was trouble in Port au Prince so they had to cancel previous flights. The airport was also deserted but someone came to pick us up .
In Port au Prince we could feel a sense of desperation now .
One fellow told me to leave for Les Cayes immediately because he had information that the road was going to be blocked starting the next day .
He was wrong. We saw the first road block outside the city. They demanded money and the rabble wanted to smash the head lights of the car. I could see the tense face of Jasmine and the kids but somehow I managed to talk my way out . There was the second road block further down the road where again they demanded money and were very angry so again I tried to talk my way out and finally paid a few dollars.
The third road block had a bigger crowd and many women to whom I explained that I was an agronomist going back to Les Cayes with my family and my two children were really tired so they should let me pass . Jasmine was on the verge of tears and very tense but somehow we mollified the people and they let us pass. This is how we reached Les Cayes late at night. There was a road block just outside the town but we again explained that we were almost home so they let us pass.
The very next day Jasmine started to pack when we received the phone call that her tickets were all confirmed all the way to Manila so she must leave Les Cayes immediately .It was not easy to pack so quickly so I said that I will ship the rest later because I was staying behind. So hurried good byes were said to a few and we drove right back to Port au Prince .
It was a Friday afternoon when I got finally the tickets and rushed to the bank that closed at 1 pm to get some travelers checks .The bank manager was about to close the doors but gave me the checks just in time .Now everything was ready for her to leave next morning but nothing was easy in Haiti anymore. At 4 am next morning I found road blocks on the way to the airport and had to get down in the rain to remove the logs and burned out tires . We arrived in time and Jasmine and kids flew off to Miami while I looked at the disappearing dot in the sky sadly.
Now I found a puncture in my tire. I was so glad that it had happened after she left .Now I had all the time to take care of punctures .It was a big weight off my chest .She was safe and on her way to her country where the kids once again will rejoin their old school and where we had a nice well established house in Naga city. I was not worried any longer.
I had one more job to do in the project. The Americans had asked me to prepare a comprehensive final report on all the work I did for the past several years . So I got back to Les Cayes to prepare this report. I had kept meticulous notes on the experiments and trials so I did not have too much trouble putting it all together in a final form. I finished this job and submitted the report in October of 1987. I had asked to be relieved of my duties now so that I could rejoin my family in the Philippines although the project ended a few months later. They agreed .
The construction in Bruny of the warehouse, threshing cum drying floor had been completed so the farmers were really happy. They said that it is the first time they had seen the money faithfully and honestly spent for a noble project like this. The Haitians were noted for their corruption who always kept something for their own pocket .
But a few more unpleasant things were in store for me. At this time thieves broke into my house several times and carried away almost everything of value including the video camera, record player and the radio . It was always known to them that now I was living alone and often out in the field so they took advantage. They also knew that I was leaving so could not stay behind to find justice. Nothing worked in Haiti anymore .It was just a total loss that I had to accept. The thieves even left a pair of military handcuff on the roof.
They had come prepared to hand cuff me if I woke up and caught them red handed . They also stole the project motorbike from the office and a motorboat engine just behind my house. The thieves were very active with no one to stop them or catch them. I did have a night watchman and a maid but never knew if they were in cahoots and had left the kitchen door open on purpose . I was relieved that they did not harm me although perhaps they could have if surprised.
The Bruny farmers arranged a farewell party for me in their village. Their daughters wrote poems for me that they read. The farmers sang songs on their guitars that they composed praising Doctor Anil for all I had done for them and offered rhum to me. It was all very touching. I recorded their music on tape that I still play sometimes .It brings back nostalgic memories of a proud people who were going through hell.
I danced with them but in the gaiety there was sadness in the knowledge that I was perhaps never to return here and never to see these wonderful people again. We had all come a long way since I had first arrived here. We had accomplished much working together but it was the time to leave.
The girls came one by one and kissed my cheek and I hugged the farmers and said goodbye. I liked the country and its people in spite of my personal misfortune in the hands of thieves. I thought that the Haitians were a courageous people who suffered needlessly . It was a great country and they were great gentle people . Haiti will remain my favorite country for the rest of my life.
I left Port au Prince on November 1 of 1987 for good. There was no one from the project to see me off at the airport but that was nothing new. I did not make any friends with the expatriate project staff so naturally they were aloof. The national project director who was a Haitian had spoken on the national TV about my work in Les Cayes and showed great appreciation so it was something. He died soon afterwards.
Thus the chapter on Haiti came to a close for me.
Note : The following links are given here for you to read Anil’s biography in French,Japanese,German, Spanish and Russian languages as well.
Anil’s biography in French.
Anil’s biography in Japanese
Anil’s biography in German
Anil’s biography in Spanish.
Anil’s biography in Russian
Note : My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links :
Blogs in French
Blogs in Spanish
Blogs in German
Blogs in Japanese