Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Under a February Haitian Moon

Under a Haitian Moon

Fok ou kon kote ou soti pou ou konnen kote ou prale.

You must know where you come from to know where you’re going.
Haitian Proverb

There’s Mango Tree in My Driveway
After a long year split between Washington, DC and Minnesota, we finally arrived in Haiti (“land of high mountains,” as named by the indigenous Amerindian people here) on January 24th after a two-day stopover in Miami where I had a couple meetings.  The weather that Thursday in Miami was delightful:  80 degrees with sunny skies dotted by puffy little cotton ball clouds, so our expectations were for an uneventful flight.  And an uneventful flight we had, save the American Airlines flight attendant who disconcertingly but conspicuously made the sign of the cross at take-off.  (That was a first for me, but I took as a good omen; I mean really, what choice did I have sitting there strapped into that aluminum tube as we were about to launch into the sky?)  We left in mid-afternoon, making our arrival at our first overseas assignment just over 90 minutes later.

Leaving Miami, and the US

One of our first glimpses of Haiti

 Toussaint Louverture Airport (named for the Haitian Revolutionary leader), is a one-runway international airport and the busiest in Haiti.  It was damaged but remained serviceable in the aftermath of the earthquake three years ago, and just this past November, Haitian President Michel Martelly attended the opening of the newly repaired and renovated arrivals terminal where we disembarked our plane to the sounds of a ‘twoubadou’ compas band (twoubadou takes its name from the Haitian peasantry and the troubadour bands of old; compas – kompa in Creole – is a modern meringue, and the national musical genre of Haiti).  President ‘Sweet Micky’ Martelly made his name as a singer and keyboardist with such a band, and still occasionally makes appearances on stage.

We were met inside the terminal by a representative from the Embassy who expedited our customs and immigration, and retrieved our considerable pile of luggage.  He led us out of the terminal another 100 feet to the “VIP” parking area (really just a gravel parking lot surrounded by Century fence), where we saw our friends from A-100 who were waiting for us in the midday heat and dust.  They have been – and continue to be – crucial to our successful arrival and immediate move into our new residence, and to our positive integration into the Embassy community.  They stocked the fridge with basic supplies and goodies, organized a detailed schedule for my first two weeks at the Embassy, and planned a welcome party our second day here, among other things. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed, and will certainly be paid forward in the future should we have the opportunity to serve as office or social sponsors for new incoming officers and their families.  Everyone should be so lucky.

Our Little Slice of Heaven
The six of us and our driver piled into a massive, armored SUV with all of our suitcases and carry-ons, and proceeded on our 30 minute ride to our new residence, in the same neighborhood and just across the street from our friends.

“Neighborhood,” in the normal sense of the word, is a relatively universal concept understood by most Americans.  Urban, rural or suburban, I would wager most of us – regardless of our state or region – have a fairly standard, pretty accurate idea of what a neighborhood looks like.  And just as the idea of a neighborhood might be well understood to your average American, so too is the picture most Americans have of Haiti – or at least Port-au-Prince, I would think – even if it is based only on routine news reports or coverage of hurricanes or the 2010 earthquake.  But there is a cognitive dissonance that exists when one considers our neighborhood here and the city surrounding it.  Our little slice of heaven is decidedly not what most Americans – us included – would think of when considering just about anywhere in Haiti.

As a result of the long history of corruption & violence, superficial government services for the public good, general level of societal disorder and of course compounded by the massive earthquake, housing stock for Americans working at the US Embassy here is quite different from that of the average Haitian.  Something like 150 Americans work at the Embassy, and housing for us ranges from apartment living to single family houses, spread out within about a 15-20 mile radius of the Embassy.  Our little island of tranquility is a small neighborhood just across the street from the Embassy, approximately a three-minute commute on foot.  It is called Canne a Sucre (‘sugar cane’ in French, after an old plantation called Chateaublond that was once on this site), and consists of about 35-40 single family Spanish style houses/townhomes (those with the terra cotta roof tiles), attached to two or three additional homes forming several blocks of housing scattered throughout.  The homes are surrounded by quite a few mature mango, palm and other native trees, divided by quiet streets of pavers and lit at night by street lights, and all is surrounded by a ten-foot stone wall topped with concertina wire and with controlled access at several points, manned 24 hours a day by local Haitian guards employed by the Embassy.

This compound is in an area of Port-au-Prince known as Tabarre, a rough equivalent to an inner ring suburb, I suppose, about 13 kilometers from the National Palace site in the center of Port-au-Prince.  Nearby are several United Nations bases (MINUSTAH is the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti),  a 120-bed pediatric hospital (Our Little Brothers & Sisters), a tour bus company, a hardware store (a bit like a small, rather less well organized or stocked knock-off of a Home Depot), a small grocery called Belmart, interspersed with lots of local street-side shops, vendor stalls, a number of plots of land with active construction taking place, plots of land with an array of structures on them (Are they homes?  Businesses?  I’m not quite sure, but probably some of both), and vacant lots.  Just outside one of the gates is a small shopping mall, and across the parking lot is a small historic park telling the story of the old sugar cane plantation, which includes some cool old farm implements, an old steam train engine & coal car, some reconstructed historic buildings and a small museum and restaurant.  In the middle are a large stage and little bowl for seating spectators where concerts are often held.  (Sean Paul played here recently, for example. Evidently that’s a big deal.)  What’s outside the other areas around our compound is difficult for me to tell, as I’ve not visited them yet (which might actually be discouraged; more on that later).

A couple of the old sugar processing structures at Canne a Sucre.

The homes in this compound are really nice.  The State Department does what it can (with the housing stock it has available at posts all around the world) to provide accommodations for people based on their needs.  For example, there are three of us here in our house, but Number One Son remains on my orders, so we have a four bedroom, three bathroom place, with a full kitchen, second-floor laundry, and a living and a dining room.  It’s a bit hard to imagine, even though I’m here right now, but this house could be just about anywhere in America, other than the fact that there isn’t a basement or an attic, nor is there a ventilation system (each room has its own room air conditioner, presumably with a very useful heating function included).  Really, there are little quirky things about it (some ill-fitting doors, some odd plumbing work, stuff like that), but otherwise we have absolutely nothing to complain about, especially when considering that most – but certainly not all – Haitians don’t live in anything like it.   Haven’t been to homes in any other areas yet, but I hear tell they range from small but nice to even bigger and nicer than ours (however, I have been to the Ambassador’s residence for an office retreat already, and it is really nice).

Our neck of the woods in Canne a Sucre.

It’s quite something to have the roosters’ call drift through the mango trees, serving as an alarm clock each morning, and to look out in the distance and see those fabled mountains by which the nation of Haiti takes its name. 

Our house with the mango tree in the driveway (Sophie
is walking the neighbor’s doggie).

The view from Sophie’s bedroom.

 US Ambassador’s residence.
 Controlled anarchy
Our airport walk to the car and subsequent trip to our new residence was our introduction to something akin to the real streets of Haiti.  Let’s start with this:  There are people absolutely everywhere.  All the time.  Now, I haven’t anything like extensive experience out in the city yet, nor have I been out at odd times of day (which isn’t exactly allowed; again, more on that later), but each trip has been punctuated by not hundreds, but thousands of people walking up and down the sidewalks (if there are sidewalks); up and down the roadside or road itself (if there are no sidewalks);  in between the cars (sometimes even when they are stopped!); selling or shopping at roadside shops and vendors; just hanging out waiting for something to happen; walking to or from appointments, work or school, occasionally carrying large items that look incredibly heavy on their heads; or anything else you can imagine.  And that’s just people on foot.  Now add to these narrow, two lane roads all the cars and trucks, motorcycles (almost never with just one person), overloaded Tap-Taps (a curious private form of public transportation; more on those later, too), stray dogs, children (some who wish to perform a service for you buy pushing the dust around on your windshield with a dry, dusty rag), piles of rubble that sometimes obscure a whole lane, and the occasional cow or goat and what you have is nothing like anything you can imagine, even if you’ve been properly prepared by studying the country for a year before arrival (that would be me).  It is really quite something to behold.

In my limited experience, I have come to believe the following things are virtually non-existent in Haiti (or at least in Port-au-Prince):
  • Stop signs
  • Traffic lights
  • Speed limit signs
  • Speed limits
  • Driver’s licenses (although curiously, I have seen several “auto ecoles” advertised, which presumably are driver training schools)
  • Traffic laws of any kind

Ok, ok; that might be a bit hyperbolic.  Once in a while a stop sign or traffic light will appear in a seemingly random place, and I have seen traffic police trying (valiantly, but perhaps somewhat desperately) to direct traffic at some intersections.  But really, it’s kind of “every man for himself” when on the roads, and there truly appear to be few if any real traffic laws.  Oh I suppose there are laws, but someone needs to enforce them, there needs to be a criminal justice system to decide on guilt or innocence and mete out punishment, a functioning bureaucracy is necessary to collect fines, and a working penal system is needed to carry out the punishments.  Our car hasn’t arrived yet, but I have driven a friend’s car two or three times to go to the little grocery store nearby, and it seems that you have to be ‘defensively aggressive’ on the roads, and there is no room for inattentiveness or distraction and even less room for error.  They say baseball is a game of inches, but I argue that driving on Haitian roads is a matter of centimeters – or less.  And while it seems that chaos reigns on the roadways, Haitians are really, truly remarkable drivers.   In the States we talk of traffic loads for roadways, in Haiti they make it into an art form of remarkable proportions, putting three or four lanes worth of traffic on roads designed for two, passing at any time and anywhere, then adding all the other aforementioned users of the road into the mix, and while I fully expected it, I have yet to see an accident or anyone lying dead alongside the road.

A variety of street scenes taken over our first two weeks in country.  In my limited experience, this is what it looks like all the time.  (The overloaded, decked-out pick-up trucks are examples of Tap-Taps, a curious private form of public transportation, often crammed with people.)

 The Embassy of the United States of America in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (from

“Quick!  Get me to the US Embassy!!”
Contrary to popular belief, embassies around the world are decidedly not the sole, sovereign territory of what is called the sending state.  (In other words, the above US Embassy is not a little piece of the United States here in Haiti.)  I’m certain the low-hanging fruit of Hollywood movies is to blame for this mistaken, oft repeated belief, but it is simply not the case.  They are inviolable (host nation officials are not allowed on the grounds without permission), but they exist in the host country only with an agreement between nations, and the host nation retains legal jurisdiction of the space, of course with special privileges (diplomatic immunity, for example) negotiated in international treaties.

Our embassies are organized around departments (called Sections) like Economic, Political, Management and so on, with the Ambassador serving as the Chief of Mission.  I work in the Consular Section, which in some countries is located in a different city (and therefore is called a US Consulate; for example in Australia the US Embassy is in the capital city of Canberra, but there are several US Consulates around the country in other principal cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Perth).  As one section within the embassy structure, a consulate serves to deal more directly with individual people and business, rather than on a more official, government-to-government policy level.

Consular Sections around the world are divided into three units:  Non-Immigrant Visas (NIV), Immigrant Visas (IV) and American Citizen Services (ACS).  Each part does essentially what their name implies, but of course it’s never quite just that simple.

My role at this post is as a Consular Officer.  Technically, my title is Vice Consul, and I hold the rank of Second Secretary within our diplomatic mission.  But the reality is that means not a whole lot in the day-to-day goings on in actually carrying out my duties; I’m just the new guy in the office (which will last only until the next new guy shows up to post).  But what, exactly, does a Consular Officer actually do?  Glad you asked!

Let’s start with a simple premise:  Citizens of Haiti often wish to visit the United States.  As such, they will need a non-immigrant visa in order to travel there legally.  (If they wish to move to the US permanently – to immigrate – they deal with the IV unit.)  After Citizen Jean Valjean or Marie Antoinette registers online and pays a $160 fee, an interview at the Embassy is scheduled.  (Side note:  Imagine the real cost of a Haitian citizen paying $160 in a nation where the vast majority earns $2 a day, then imagine if a whole family wishes to apply.)  They arrive at the appointed time (often hours earlier, usually in their Sunday best) on their interview day, go through security and pre-screening, get fingerprints taken, and wait in line some more.  So far, all intake has been either computerized or conducted by locally hired Haitian staff, known around the world as Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) or Locally Employed Staff (LESs – not a particularly desirable acronym).

Now imagine a bank lobby, with its cordoned-off lines snaking their way through the waiting area, and a large bank of teller-like windows in the front of the room, guards controlling the flow of people and standing watch for misbehavior.  If that makes sense to you, then you have a reasonably accurate picture of the waiting area in our NIV and IV units.

A visa applicant normally will have waited for hours in this line, just for the chance to talk to me for a few minutes behind bullet-proof glass and through a temperamental microphone.  (Well, talk to me or one of four or five others.)  This is the crux of my job at the moment:  Entry Level Officers (ELOs – the government does love its acronyms!) interview the applicant for five minutes or so, in the native language, eliciting responses that will assist in our decision as to whether or not to grant a person a US visa (legal permission to visit the US).  Really, these interviews take only about five minutes (once I get into the swing a bit more, a really efficient interview should only take two or three minutes).  Imagine the questions:  Why do you wish to visit the US?  What family do you have there?  What family do you have in Haiti?  Where do you plan to go?  How will you pay for this trip?  What is your job in Haiti? And so on.  This is the essence of the process at US Consulates all over the world.

My first few days at the Embassy were spent largely doing intake paperwork and meeting people, learning more about the structure of the place.  Then I observed a more senior ELO conduct interviews for two days, and – Voila! – I was ‘on the line’ doing interviews while being observed for two more days.  Last week I was ‘all by my onsie,’ conducting interviews and making decisions about the granting of visas with little direct assistance.  To be sure, the learning curve is incredibly steep for this particular activity, and the counsel of my peers was basically constant throughout each day, but if I had no particular technical questions, I was on my own.

I’m reasonably certain that my rusty French (I have no Creole – yet – and I haven’t really used French since November) and uncertainty in my own skin as an actual, working Officer meant that my interviews and decisions were somewhat suspect, but on Day One I managed to conduct a total of 32 interviews, with a 44% / 56% ratio of approval to refusal of applications for visas.  Everyone assured me the numbers are pretty standard (both the total number of interviews and the refusal rate), but in my mind it isn’t at all clear that I had any idea what I was doing.  At the end of the day I was physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted, and felt rather demoralized that I could actually do what I have trained and waited so long to do.  But that passed, and day two was much better (47 interviews, a bit more confident in the interviewing, technical and decision-making processes), and after five days of doing the actual job, I have done 174interviews.  Didn’t track my refusal rate, but I don’t suspect the first week of any Officers work is predictive of their overall patterns.

And so there you have it!  That’s the core of my job in Haiti for the next five months, and then I’ll rotate into the other units during my remaining time here, although once I get some time and experience under my belt I’ll be tasked with or will seek out other opportunities outside the Consular Section and within the mission, and hopefully will get to experience more of the country and its people instead of only from behind the thick glass of an interview window.

The Big Transition
Our transition to Haiti has been quite smooth so far; in fact it’s on par with our transition to Australia back in 2000.  Hard to imagine given the vast differences in culture, employment, economic situation and so forth between Australia and Haiti, and between our lives at that time and now, but it’s true.  We have visited a couple restaurants (there is even an honest to God Irish pub in the hills above PAP – and they have Guinness on tap!), watched the Superbowl live in our neighbor’s back yard with hamburgers made on his Weber grill, started receiving some of our packages sent through mail to ourselves and from, and basically have just landed safely and squarely into this new life.  True we don’t have our own vee-hickle just yet, and so our independence is somewhat limited, but nonetheless neighbors and friends have been instrumental in making this transition so smooth, with visits to the local grocery stores (really quite nice, but smaller than a big-box grocer in the US, and of course quite expensive), the hardware store, local restaurants.   (In fact, last week Sophie and I had quite the multi-cultural experience. We joined our friends on a trip to a Japanese restaurant on the UN base, which is run by a Peruvian-Japanese guy who speaks English, Japanese, Spanish, French & Creole.  It is staffed by local Haitians, was showing Harry Potter and English soccer on the TVs, and as we left we walked past Korean UN soldiers there for dinner.)  We get together with our friends and neighbors for movies and dinner in, have dinner at home just like we always did, and generally make life as normal as possible within the confines or our particular situation.  It’s been good so far, and with upcoming travel plans and more independence, should only get better.

In the short time we've been here so far, Kate and Sophie have been busy organizing and taking inventory of our furnishings at the house, taking advantage of opportunities at the Embassy (an after work fitness class, participating in a Gangnam-style flashmob in the Embassy cafeteria, coming by for lunch with me, visiting the Marine House one Friday for Happy Hour), visiting a local store and lunching with the mom of a colleague, pick-nicking by the pool at Canne a Sucre, and practicing their Creole lessons.  Sophie is applying for a summer internship at the Embassy, taking an online course through the University of Minnesota, and seeking other possible employment or volunteer opportunities.  Kate just left late last week to visit Minnesota and see Tommy swim in the upcoming Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference meet, and will look for part-time work and volunteer opportunities here as well upon her return next week.  Team Panetti will reunite in the Dominican Republic at the end of March for Easter and Tommy’s Spring Break.  All three of us will be taking Creole lessons starting soon (I’m sure hoping for next week already), and we are planning a big trip home in late summer to get Sophie off to college. 

So far, life for us is good.  We hope you can say the same. 

More photos can be viewed here:  

And here's a little video of some driving adventures in the PAP area (for this you'll want volume):


Not interested?  Just send me a note and I'll gladly take you off the list, no harm, no foul, no hurt feelings. :)

Disclaimer: This opinions expressed above are my own and not those of the U.S. Government.  Please do not disseminate widely without permission.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog Dave! I am very interested in your blog as I am looking to come to bid on Haiti next year as I still need to test out of French at FSI. Ha I was reading along with a 90% surety this was your blog - glad to have found it - actually it was the first blog I pulled up. What luck! Wishing your family the very best and am hoping to land on the island sometime next Fall.