Friday, December 19, 2014

Under a December Haitian Moon

Under a Haitian Moon

Deye mon gen mon.
Beyond the mountains there are mountains.
Haitian proverb

The mountains beyond the Citadelle, a fortress at 3000 feet elevation
built by Henri Christophe in 1820 after defeating the French
and gaining independence.
It is the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Haiti.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

The days are markedly shorter round these parts, as of course they are all across the northern hemisphere each December when the sun makes its annual pilgrimage south to the Tropic of Capricorn. Even so, it remains sunny and warm most days here in Port-au-Prince, despite the reduced hours of sunlight.

And these days of reduced sunlight put something of a fine point on the reduced number of days we have left in Haiti, as – amazingly – we can now count them in single digits.

It seems such a common human condition to arrive at a turning point of some big important period in life – the end of a school year, a change in careers, even the passing of seasons or a change in the calendar year – and wonder where the time went. I suppose in this new life we’ve chosen such transitions of somewhat greater import occur more often than perhaps is typical, as our tours of duty change every one, two or three years. And with those transitions from one post to another we not only change our specific jobs, we also change countries, residences, and the circle of close friends with whom we have bonded over the experiences in this crazy life. It would further seem this path we’ve chosen is not for the faint of heart.

To be sure we’ve had an interesting, challenging, fun, frustrating, difficult, rewarding experience. We did tell ourselves we wanted a new challenge after all, and that we have had in spades. Maybe it’s this way at every post, maybe just in developing countries, I don’t know. What I do know is that, as we paused from our old life and launched ourselves into this one, we experienced more of a roller coaster of emotions in a more concentrated period of time than we ever have before.

And so now we’ve come to the end of our first tour, and are about to transition to Washington and Minnesota for a few months before embarking on another crazy adventure, this time in the Republic of Moldova. In attempting to tie up some loose ends in the Haitian chapter, I present to you a series of short stories omitted from previous editions, either because they happened since the last one, or perhaps because I simply forgot about them in the mix of all the other stuff swirling around in my gray matter.

The Fraud Trip
In June I spent a few interesting days traveling in the north of Haiti with a Haitian colleague investigating suspected cases of immigrant visa fraud by several of our applicants.

One version of the various suspected fraud stories goes like this: An American citizen or legal permanent resident in the US petitions for their unmarried adult child here in Haiti. Now suppose this adult child applicant has young children too. When those third-generation children are born here in Haiti, their birth certificates indicate the marital status of the parents. To apply as an unmarried child of an LPR or citizen is a faster process than to apply as a married child of an LPR or citizen, so occasionally these adult child applicants try to game the system by changing their marital status on their children’s birth documents, or by hiding their marriage in other ways. Sometimes an officer interviewing this applicant believes this marital status should be investigated to see if there truly is fraud involved, and requests such an investigation from our Fraud Prevention Unit in the Consulate.

This is where my trip comes into play. We had several cases across the north to investigate, some like the one described as well as several other types of cases. Two embassy drivers in two embassy vehicles, one Haitian colleague, one college student intern and I all set off for four days and three nights of travel to various churches, local government offices and schools to conduct our investigations in Gonaives (B), Port-de-Paix (C) and Cap Haitien (D).

Some highlights:
The road from PAP to the far north coast. The total distance from Port-au-Prince (A) to Port-de-Paix is about 300 kms or 190 miles, which would take about three hours at 60 mph without stopping. Of course you know by now this isn’t how things work here. On the map below you will see most of our route. We did stop a few times for short investigations in the town of Gonaives, but those only took about an hour total, maybe two max. No lunch stops, no potty stops (other than when we were already stopped: no convenience stores or public restrooms readily available). In the end the trip north to Port-de-Paix took a total of almost 12 hours.

The road from Port-au-Prince to Port-de-Paix. Kind of a tough, mostly unpaved road through some very rural parts of Haiti, punctuated by tiny villages, some no more than a handful of Haitian homes, where the roadside was occupied by mango vendors, some tidy looking small agricultural plots, small packs of kids and the occasional stray dog or goat. If that were all, that would most certainly be enough as the trip was, as you know, quite long. However, of course you also know by now this isn’t how things work here. As it happened there was a protest taking place in between Gonaives and Port-de-Paix that day. Evidently citizens had become very frustrated with the lack of sufficient progress on reconstruction of their road, so they decided to dig a very large trench across the full width of said road and then proceeded to fill the trench with various flammable items and set them alight.

Viewing the trench cut in the road, thwarting our forward progress.

As a result, we needed to take a slightly different path. And “path” might be a pretty accurate word to describe the goat path we took to make our way around this obstacle. We proceeded through the vegetation pressing against the sides of the car, along a rough and tumble, rock-strewn, slightly vertical one-lane side road amidst several homes crowded alongside. However, local villagers were truly determined to make their opinions heard on this matter, so they had rolled big rocks in the middle of this little lane to prevent forward progress. Our two-car convoy was stuck, so our driver rolled down his window and chatted with the locals, explaining (not without some element of risk) that we were from the US Embassy and needed to get through for our business. Fortunately, they told him they had no beef with us, and so rolled away the rocks and let us pass.

Rolling the rocks back in place.

Immediately after we passed through, the villagers rolled the rocks back into place, as seen from the rear window of my car.

The road from Port-de-Paix to Cap Haitien. After our stay in Port-de-Paix, we had appointments in the northern port town of Cap Haitien. While the map above makes that look like a relatively easy proposition, of course you know by now this isn’t how things work here. Evidently, the road between Port-de-Paix and Cap isn’t passable by car. In order to go from C to D one has to backtrack to Gonaives (B), which takes about two hours on a good day, then turn back north on a road not identified on that map toward D, another two-plus hours away. This, too, would be all well and good, other than the fact that as we prepared to leave Port-de-Paix, the alternator in one of the cars went on the fritz, leading to …

The switch-out. Our drivers made some adjustments with the extra car batteries in one car in order that both could proceed south to Gonaives, and contacted the Embassy motor pool for relief. My assumption was that the Embassy would send a car from PAP up to Gonaives to meet us, and then we would swap out the car with the bad alternator for a replacement with a working one, and then we would proceed back north to Cap Haitien. We drove the two-plus hours over the bumpy and bouncy gravel/stone/dirt track, back across the now repaired trench in the road to Gonaives, where we pulled to the side and waited for the replacement car and driver. Maybe half-an-hour went by until the other driver arrived, and all the drivers conferred while we passengers sat in the air conditioning and waited to go forward. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Fully two hours went by as we sat in the car (there are no fast food restaurants or really any kind of convenient place to just wait) while the drivers/mechanics actually replaced the dodgy alternator, and THEN we proceeded to drive the two-plus hours back north to Cap. Needless to say, it was a very, very long day on the road.

And then there was the investigation. So you may have heard that Haiti is a developing nation. The roads and critical infrastructure are still developing. Civil society is still developing. The business climate is still developing. The agricultural sector is still developing. Pretty much everything, I guess; technology included. As we would make stops at churches, schools and local government offices to research the births, marriages, schooling and deaths of applicants and their families, we were always confronted with a severe lack of technology. One might even say a total lack of technology. Records have been and still are hand-written at the local level (only the National Archives issues civil documents on secure, tamper-resistant paper), kept in large ledgers, and stored in less than optimal conditions, often kept stacked high in offices with no controls for humidity and what appeared to be no rhyme or reason to their organization. Judges, church and school officials often had to manually search through several file cabinets or cupboards, and then leaf through dozens of ledger books to find the appropriate record we sought. Often the right person wasn’t present or wouldn’t be for some time, and of course no one else was charged with the responsibility of an assistant.

Official records at a local church in the far north of Haiti.

It was a laborious, long, slow, and occasionally fruitful process, very resource intensive and overly complicated. But this is the way the system is today, and despite those difficulties and hardships, our investigation did yield some results. Plus I got to ride in the car for a bit.

And so like my epic car ride, this story has been unexpectedly long, and has finally come to an end.

I had one other pretty interesting opportunity while working in the Consulate when I traveled north again, but this time by air and with the US Coast Guard (USCG). In October, 15 Haitian migrants were apprehended off the coast of Florida trying to enter the United States without permission. The USCG interdicted them off the coast of Boca Raton after they paid a smuggler about $6000 per person (where the money came from is anybody’s guess, but probably from family living abroad) and sailed in less-than-seaworthy vessels more than 1000 miles from Haiti. I visited the far north town of Cap Haitien for a couple days with the Coast Guard officer housed in the Embassy, popped out to the USCG ship anchored about ½ mile off shore, and got a tour of the boat. They then took me back to shore on a RHIB (Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat, aka Zodiac) where I observed the repatriation process and spoke to a few of the migrants.

A couple things struck me about this. First, it was pretty cool to take part in this operation at all, even if my role was very minor (I provided some language skills, as our Coast Guard guy doesn’t speak Creole). Second, the USCG treated the migrants with respect and care, giving them a couple meals each day, access to showers, cots and blankets, and the medical officer gave them a basic check-up. Some of the young sailors played games with the kids to keep them occupied on the week-long journey back to Haiti. Overall the migrants were treated fairly and well, and whether by policy or circumstance these young men and their captain didn’t just talk the talk of American values. Lastly the desperation: For a migrant to pay more than eight times the annual income of the average Haitian to take such a risk boggles the mind. (Evidently the fee paid to the suspected smugglers, who were removed from the USCG boat before my arrival, is for a “three trip package” should the first voyage be unsuccessful.) I suppose this puts a rather fine point on the migrant experience and the overall improvement in quality of life one can experience in the United States, if only one can manage to get there.

Several migrants being loaded onto an RHIB for repatriation in Cap Haitien.
 Photo courtesy of the USCG. 
The repatriation center.

Haitian Coast Guard Agent IV Weegens processing a migrant. 
A Haitian Coast Guard Officer chatting with a child migrant.

Mr. Red Shoe Guy was kind of unhappy with the United States.
About what I never figured out.

"They are selling lies!" screams the title.
As if the sharks and the floating coffins weren't enough.

Fun and Games 
Once in a while the good times seem outweighed by the difficulties of living in a place with so many challenges, and while it’s true to say we don’t exactly live or work in the same way as the average Haitian, that doesn’t diminish the difficulty of day-to-day life for everyone here. After all, rich Americans and rich Haitians alike have to drive on these roads.

So in the end, as is often the case in many places – even in highly developed countries, but especially so in Haiti where there aren’t as many distractions – you have to make your own fun. And much fun we did have these past two years.

Some examples:
Cigar Club. About 18 months ago some pals and I dreamed up the Cigar Club. We meet every Thursday, although occasionally it’s Friday, or sometimes even Wednesday. The group has no roster or membership cards, but we do manage to work on solving all the world’s problems. So far we’re at about a 0% success rate, but that doesn’t stop us from trying, enjoying a good cigar, and each other’s company in the process. Some of us even took a field trip into the Dominican Republic to tour the Davidoff factory outside Santiago. We’re a very forward thinking group.

All cigars are hand-rolled.

John, me, Rodrigo and Mr. Hendrik "Henke" Kelner, master blender and perfect host.

Me, John and Rodrigo outside a favorite cigar shop in Santo Domingo.

Canne a Sucre Social Club and Beer Drinking Team. A short-lived social club that sponsored outdoor movies on the green, a little park-like area in the center of Canne a Sucre. There we screened a few movies, had a few cold beverages, and perhaps indulged in a cigar. To keep the mosquitos away, yeah that’s it. I think we did this three times before the colleague who owned the projector and screen left post. Let me just say that Elf and A Charlie Brown Christmas were a bit more popular than The Bells of Saint Mary’s, despite the fact that we imbibed a bit every time someone said “Father.” Here’s to hoping the Club gains a new following with the recent addition of a new projector and portable screen purchased by the American Employees Association.

Book Club. Kate started a book club which proved to be very popular. There are about a dozen active members and many more passive members who may or may not actually know how to read. If I recall, books were discussed a bit, but the conversations generally centered on the high quality of the canapés and the wine.

Pick-up basketball at Marine House. Seriously, our fun doesn’t always center on wine and beer. In my somewhat stilted effort to be in some kind of shape other than roly-poly, I joined the pick-up basketball group who met twice weekly behind the Marine House (the dormitory where our Marines live on the Embassy grounds). Despite my long history of riding the bench, I managed to play quite often during our time here, and once in a while I even managed a basket or two before some part of me started to hurt.

A (Second) Very Marine Thanksgiving
One thing about which I am most proud is the effort a group of us made in putting on a Thanksgiving feast for the US Marine Security Guard Detachment each of the past two years. We have a group of seven Marines here (plus the Staff Sergeant), and many of them are away from home for the holidays for the first time. If someone were to invite the Marines over for Thanksgiving dinner, one Marine would always be left out as someone always must be on Post One (the main entrance to the Embassy). So last year a small group of us came up with the idea to host a full Thanksgiving meal – complete with turkey, dressing, wine and pie – at the Embassy itself so that the Marine on duty at Post One could join in the meal while at the same time ensuring there was coverage at the front door. It has been a smashing success, and I hope the Marines found it to be reminiscent of home, at least a little. We sure had fun doing it.

The Marine Security Guard Detachment honored
Kate and me with a Certificate of Appreciation.
We are incredibly honored.

Table for 45?  Smoking or non-smoking?

A Tale of Two Haitis 
So after two years, any number of things have struck me as either contradictory (as of course the society and culture of any country might appear to an outsider) or as paradoxical in this developing country. A small sampling:

  • A highly Catholic country, within which vodou is often practiced, creating an interesting mélange of practices for a people trying to make sense of the world. Occasionally in Canne a Sucre I can even hear the call to prayer for the local Muslims living on the UN base nearby who are here with MINUSTAH, the UN force in Haiti since the 90s. Sometime ago I interviewed a Haitian for a non-immigrant (tourist) visa, and he turned out to be from a small Russian Orthodox community, which is highly unusual in Haiti. An interesting concoction to be sure. 
  • The phenomenal disparity in wealth, punctuated by a small handful of powerful families, and where the vast majority of people have about a 4th grade education and earn around $700-$800 per year. The West has nothing on this gap. 
  • In combination with that gap, prices here are quite incomprehensible. We can give our housekeeper $10 US (yes, we have a local lady come to the house twice a week for light cleaning; evidently this is the norm for expats in developing countries and, you know, we just want to be like everyone else) and she can buy so much fresh fruit and vegetables on the local market that we can’t eat it all. Then you go to the local grocery stores frequented by the international community and come away like a stunned mullet at how much it all costs. A few quick examples: 90 Tide pods for the washer are more than $50. One Digiorno frozen cheese pizza: more than $14; one supreme pizza: more than $15. One 15 oz box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes: more than $11. One normal package of Oreos: $8. T-bone steak (not sure if it’s local or imported): $3.22 per pound. A 19 pound frozen Butterball turkey: $78.31. There are some exceptions, but suffice it to say prices are high. 
  • Some absolutely stunning natural beauty, overrun by virtually absolute deforestation, extensive pollution and a seemingly indifferent attitude toward care for the land. A peculiar observation is when seeking a particular destination (restaurant, hotel, private home, what have you) and driving through the crowded, garbage strewn streets mostly in one state of disrepair or another, one will ultimately come to some sort of large extensive wall with a gate in it. Proceeding through the gate often leads to well cared for gardens, clean grounds and often beautiful structures. Early on in my tour a local told me that Haitians care far more for the appearance of their clothes, shoes and cars than they do for their homes. I would add their public spaces to the latter side of that equation. 
  • Extraordinarily nice people who are working hard and doing their best with what they have, in contradistinction to many who will, at first sight of a ‘blan,’ hold out their hand (literally and figuratively) for aide of some sort. Maybe my time in the window of the Consulate has colored my view, for I spend my days interviewing people in a massively disparate economic equation (I control access to something incredibly valuable, and applicants will often do whatever they feel necessary to acquire it), but I find this element most disturbing. Driving up the hill to the somewhat tarnished but tony suburb of Petionville recently, we came to a stop at an intersection where Kate saw a small child of about three alongside the road with some family. As soon as the child saw an obvious blan, his hand shot out in that universal symbol of entreaty. Maybe it had nothing to do with our status as white strangers, but after two years of repeated similar events, I am not inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. 

I’m reasonably certain that similar observations will be made about every future post I will have, and by no means are these observations from a simple guy like me meant to be made in a vacuum, without context, or to be overly critical. Every person, city and country is a work in progress, and sometimes we take a step or two back in the process. The French have a saying, which of course has its equivalent in Kreyol: “Piti piti zwazo fe nich li.

“Little by little the bird makes his nest.”  We’re all just a work in progress.

Value added. Maybe… 
On my worst day teaching, when I sensed I was adrift and without focus (or my students were), I at least always felt that my presence in the classroom was adding some value to society as a whole. At least a little, anyway; but of course it was a type of value that is much more qualitative than quantitative.

Working as a Consular officer doesn’t quite provide the same sense of achievement or significance to society as teaching did, but it certainly is more quantifiable. (As a reminder, there are three basic kinds of consular work: Processing immigrant visas for those wishing to move to the US and become permanent residents or citizens; American citizen services work for those in trouble or needing civil documents while overseas; and interviewing non-immigrant visa applicants for those wishing to visit the US as tourists, which is the easiest to quantify.) I won’t speak for others who do such entry level consular work (although I think it’s pretty universal), but doing non-immigrant visa interviews is kind of a grind. In about four to five hours a day, one interviews from 60 to upwards of 100 people asking essentially the same seven to ten questions of every applicant. (This was in Haiti; your mileage may vary at every Embassy.) It’s rather mundane and can be very boring, and seems rather inconsequential when it comes to adding overall value to society in any kid of qualitative sense.

But the quantifiable-ness (quantifiabilty? quantifiabilitiness?) starts and ends with the numbers. I served two years in Haiti, with two separate stints in the NIV unit, for a total of just over eight months. In that time I interviewed a total of 7035 people, approving 3755 and refusing 3280 for an overall refusal rate 46.62%. At $160 per interview (paid for by the applicant), that amounts to $1,125,000.00, and I’m not particularly fast in this work. A colleague did 12 straight months of NIV work and interviewed over 16,000 people, adding more than $2.5 million to the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA). This more than covers the cost of our salaries and benefits, and so technically adds monetary value to the overall system, the balance of which is re-invested in technological improvements and pays for other expenses within CA. Globally in fiscal year 2013, more than 9.1 million non-immigrant visas were issued (it would seem this figure only includes issuances and does not account for refusals), totaling more than $1.4 billion dollars, helping make Consular Affairs completely self-sustaining, and resulting in CA requiring zero taxpayer dollars. And that’s just the revenue for NIVs, and doesn’t include the $50 per signature we charge – per signature – for our notary services in ACS, US passport replacements or renewals, or the fees for different immigrant visa applications or other services.

Did I add value? No doubt some. But it doesn’t quite feel the same to issue a tourist visa to a little old lady merchant or middle-aged farmer than it did to hear from a student who managed to pass your class when she didn’t think she would; who graduated from high school when he didn’t think he could; or who came back later and thanked you for making a difference.

The End is Nigh 
So we managed to avoid most serious maladies during our tour, and for that we are very grateful. Aside from one bout last year with E.coli after eating out at a local restaurant (me), and a smashed thumb in the hatchback of the car in the waning weeks of our tour (Kate), the worst thing to happen were short incidents of the Haitian Sensation, which usually just resolves itself after a week or so.

Kate left her position as a Consular Assistant in early December, after about 18 months on the job. Last June she was honored with a Franklin/Eagle Award for her work with two others to coordinate the assembly of the playground structure at SMDT. In addition to the high point of working with the orphanage, she certainly made some life-long friends during our time in Haiti.

Kate receiving her award from the Ambassador.

Sophie was back over the summer as an ACS intern, and returned to Minnesota in the fall for her sophomore year at Gustavus. She has her own campus radio show on Monday evenings, and recently had a poem and short story published in the bi-annual Gustavus Journal of Literacy and Graphic Arts. About to leave on a short trip to Ireland with some buddies, she’s really found a home in the Gustavus community.

Last fall Tommy short-circuited the plans of his parents and went ahead and signed up with the US Navy. We had thought he’d sign on the dotted line next spring, but the timing for his after-graduation plans made this a more appropriate choice for him. He’s off to Florida on a swim team training trip after Christmas, will graduate at the end of May, and he’ll ship off to basic training sometime next fall. We are so incredibly happy that he, too, found a home for himself in St. Peter.

We’ve now packed out our house, and most of our stuff is en route to Europe. It will sit in storage in Belgium or somewhere until our arrival at our next post in Moldova in September 2015. Kate left for Minnesota in early December, and so the house is pretty darn empty. If I think about it too much, the recognition of being all alone in an empty house and in a foreign country can be a bit overwhelming. So I just choose not to think about it.

End of Chapter 1
So, thanks for coming along for the ride these past two years. I’ve rather enjoyed your company, and hope you enjoyed reading a bit about this crazy new life upon which we’ve embarked. It’s been something of a roller coaster, which I suppose would have been true had nothing changed at all back in 2011 when I accepted this position.

It’s been quite a trip, and for us, life is good. We hope you can say the same.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

And for your viewing pleasure, here's a little Haitian Christmas song called "Vle pa vle," which means "Like it or not," and in the images where you see Santa you'll see some of the great kids from SMDT. It’s a rather catchy little tune which I quite like.

We're off to Minnesota and Wisconsin for the holidays, and I'll be heading to Washington early in January to begin training for the next post in Moldova. I'll stay in DC until July, and Kate and Sophie will join me off and on during that time for training of their own. Let us know if you’ll be in DC next year and we’ll have a beer together and catch up on old times.

Until next time, friends…

Jwaye Nwèl tout zanmi / Jweye Nwèl tout fanmi.

Merry Christmas friends / Merry Christmas family.

- 30 -

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


  1. I have enjoyed your blog. My husband is in process for testing as a FSO consular track. I think he will enjoy the work. He is a public defender attorney here in the states. I worked as a midwife in Cap Haitian for a period of time volunteering my services at a birth center there in 2012. I love Haiti and its people! Thank you for your service and the thorough explanations you provide on so many hard to find FSO topics.

    1. Thanks for the comment, and good luck to you both!