Arrival in Haiti

Trip Start Dec 06, 2014
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Trip End Dec 18, 2014


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Monday, December 15, 2014

I was not to have traveled so quickly after my most recent trip, but tragedy struck among those I serve. Mr. David Eugénie died in a car accident on December 1st. He was a "larger-than-life" man, originally from Martinique; a loving husband, and father of a six-year-old daughter. David showed a natural leadership, a calm confidence, and a sparking good-natured humor that was often remembered by his friends and family since his demise. He was firmly committed to his family and to God. I considered him a friend as well as a Christian brother.

I have served the family for many years, since David was a teen; I was honored when they asked me to officiate at his funeral. It was a sad honor, but an honor nonetheless to be included in the family's grief.

First indications were that the funeral would happen the following Monday, so I hurried to find transportation to Martinique in time. Flights were full, and the only openings to get me there on time had me arriving Saturday evening December 6th. We learned later that the wake would not take place until Tuesday evening and the funeral Wednesday afternoon.

I could not give an account of the week in this blog. Our hearts were too full, and it would not have been appropriate in any event. But I can say that the necessary events went as well as can be expected at such times and the whole family displayed extraordinary faith, grace and dignity through the ordeal.

David and his small family lived near Castelnaudary in the south of France, but he was laid to rest in the village of Ducos, in Martinique, where he grew up. Somewhere around 350 people came to commemorate his life and lasting impact.

I stayed on through Saturday, to be able to gather with the family and study the Bible together before taking my leave.

For some months I have been waiting to answer a visit request from Haiti. A Haitian man found us on the Internet, had become quite interested and had called me in our headquarters office several times to ask questions and to ask for a personal visit. He intimated there were one or two others who would also like to meet. I had decided to make the visit on the next occasion I went to Martinique, which I did not expect to be so soon. But in checking flights, it was possible to add a stop of several days in Port au Prince at very little extra air cost, just about two hundred dollars. And so here I am now.

Yesterday, Sunday, I flew out of Martinique on a small Saab 340 turboprop flown by Seaborne Airlines, a codeshare partner of American Airlines that operates around the Caribbean. After a two-hour flight, I had a two-hour layover in San Juan Porto Rico, enough for a quick meal, and then connected to a three hour flight to Miami, where I arrived in the night. On the way I finished Henry Kissinger’s new book World Order which is quite a fascinating and important read for understanding major changes going in the world today.

I caught a hotel shuttle to a Holiday Inn Express near the airport and should have been able to sleep about seven hours. But since I needed to be up and ready in time for the 05:00 shuttle back to the airport, I woke about 03:00, too early, as I often do when worried about missing an early start. I tossed and turned until 04:00 when I finally got up to get going.

The airport was a bit of a mess which in my experience is not unusual in Miamai. There were already lots of people at 05:15, and Miami is not the country’s best organized or most smoothly run airport. The airport code is MIA, for Miami, but I often think of it as Missing In Action…. I was told to stand in the wrong line twice before getting through all the formalities, but those are minor inconveniences compared to many other possible airport mishaps. The airport doesn’t even feel entirely in the USA since one hears much more Spanish spoken than English.

The flight left on time at 7:15. The passengers were an interesting lot; many Haitians who apparently hadn’t traveled by air very much. Many of them brought way too much hand luggage. I don’t know how they managed to escape the attention of the ground staff but several had three large carryon pieces, too large for any to go under the seat in front. One fellow just put his large duffle bag on the seat next to him and complained when a passenger arrived with a boarding pass for that seat. Just where was he supposed to put his luggage, he complained aggrievedly to the stewardess!

I was seated on the aisle and had to keep a hand up next to my ear to protect my head. Many people came aboard wearing voluminous backpacks, which they forgot about when suddenly turning around. Of course in the cramped space their bags hit seated people in the head. There seemed to be more elbows present than usual, and quite a number of flying bags. It’s clear many people are not used to waiting their turn as our custom is, but rather they go by a modified king-of-the-hill approach: “heaven help the hindmost, because no one else will.” This made for fascination watching when one was not directly involved – when directly implicated it was much less fascinating….

The boarding and inflight announcements were made in English, French and Haitian Creole, quite a fascinating patois which I can understand much better (though certainly not completely) that when I came to Haiti. That was 32 years ago for a Feast of Tabernacles as an Ambassador College student, and that was when I gave my first sermonettes in very approximate French. It doesn’t seem possible that I can clearly remember events like that from 32 years ago. I’m too young for this….

It took us two hours to reach Haiti, the nation which shares the Western side of the island of Hispaniola with the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic. The whole island is quite large, the 22nd largest in the world, only slightly smaller than Ireland; it’s also the most populous island in the western hemisphere. On the flighty I started a new book by Robert Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, which has some interesting overlap with Dr. Kissinger’s book.

The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is clear from the air. Haiti has been almost entirely deforested. The population is dense and very poor, so the trees have all been cut down for firewood and other uses. Tropical rains can easily turn into mudslides.

As we began our initial descent, the Haitian sitting next to me ask the stewardess to come over. Actually he yelled for her to come over. There was a fair amount of yelling on the plane, not the angry kind, just of the kind common in places where it’s considered normal communication. He handed his passport and blank arrival papers over to the stewardess and told her in creole to fill them in for him. He could not read. She was used to this and calmly filled in his forms. He didn’t understand the process though and thought he needed to make his own copy of what she had written for him. He turned to me: “ay!” he said loudly. He motioned for the pen in my shirt pocket and motioned for me to hand it over. I had been more than half expecting that at some point. I gave him the pen and he began laboriously copying letters he didn’t know. He put the pen in his mouth several times, I couldn’t help noticing, and I silently debated whether I wanted it back or not. I decided to wait and see if he would give it back on his own.

While he was working, I saw the flight attendant filling out the papers of several other passengers, including one who was traveling on a US passport.

When my neighbor had finally done, he asked me in incomprehensible Creole and gestures if he should leave one copy of the papers in his seatback pocket (at least I think that’s what he meant). I said it French that he would need to present them at the immigration desk. He seemed to understand. He handed me the pen, dry, I noticed. This began a conversation. He looked at me and said “oo Bishop.” I knew “oo” (or “ou”) was Creole for “vous” or in English “you.” Was he asking me if I was a Bishop? I always felt more like a rook, or a knight, but well….

I asked “Bishop?” and he nodded his head and said “oo pasta.” Great, now I’m resembling linguini. Actually I’ve been called “pasta” more than once, because that’s the English African pronunciation of “pastor” and it would appear to be the pronunciation in Haiti too. So I said, “si, pasta.” He smiled, and immediately pulled out his “church faithfulness card” (that’s what it said in French), attesting that he regularly attended church. It had a stamp and signature on it; very official. Then he pulled out his passport and showed me his name, and asked me to repeat it, which I did. Maybe I’m supposed to put in a good word for him, although we couldn’t communicate well enough for him to ask. I nodded and smiled. He said in Creole I could understand “you preach the word of the Lord!” and I nodded again and said “oui.” “Ben, ben” he encouraged me. By this time we were close to landing and the conversation ended. This promises to be an interesting few days.

Deplaning included a great deal of pushing and shoving and poking with luggage and yelling of instructions and the stepping on of feet not one’s own. The airport was much more modern than the one I remember from 1982. Expats had to pay a $10 tourist fee, although hardly anyone comes here as a tourist. Overhearing conversations, its obvious expats come to help on various projects or in other ways. But we’re still considered tourists. At least there’s no visa fee for US and most Western citizens. And it is fruitless to go to a dry cow for milk.

When I arrived at the immigration desk the officer looked through my passport for any previous Haitian stamps. I said it had been 32 years since my last visit. He was instantly curious. “What was it like then?” he asked in French. I didn’t know what to say, but said “poor, hard, difficult; misery.” He nodded. “And the airport?” he asked. I said “chaos, pushing, shoving, shouting.” He nodded again and stamped my passport with a smile. I still remember arriving in the country, one does not easily forget one’s first chaotic, often somewhat frightening visit to “the developing world.”

Outside I was assailed by hordes of luggage porters who insisted on helping me. Several told me they were supervisors in charge of making sure everything went well…. I shooed them off. Because of the current instability in Port-au-Prince, I had asked the hotel to send a taxi driver known to them, with a sign bearing my name. There have been several instances of arriving passengers being robbed even killed on their way home from of the airport. They’ve mostly been expat Haitians coming home for a visit, but not all and I try to take all reasonable precautions, especially in unknown situations and this is quite unknown. In such circumstances it’s very important to be able to trust the driver.

Right outside was a well-fed fellow holding up a sign with my name on it. Excellent. As Shakespeare had Julius Caesar say:

“Let me have men about me that are fat,

Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.

He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.….”

He was named Hippolyte, after a Catholic “saint,” and he spoke good French. I could relax. As we wound our way toward the hotel through side streets scattered with rubble and garbage, I thought about the current situation in the country. Robbery is not the only concern at the moment.

There is an ongoing political impasse occurring which is increasingly leading to violence. There should have been legislative elections in 2011. But passing laws on the procedures necessary to hold the elections have been blocked by six opposition senators. The legislature’s powers will run out in January and the president will have to rule by decree if there are no elections. The six senators claim the proposed procedures are too favorable to the incumbents. Meanwhile elements of the population fear a president who rules by decree; they fear a return to dictatorship. So there are increasingly violent protest marches and mobs are even throwing stones at UN peacekeepers, who’ve fired into the air to disperse the rioters. If nothing changes things will really get bad in January when the impasse will come to a head. There have already been people killed in the demonstrations which are becoming more violent all the time.

The Prime Minister, who apparently was doing a pretty good job, has resigned or will soon, to try to calm things down at least somewhat.

P oor Haiti can’t seem to get a break. It was the first French colony to gain its independence, and the only nation to be established by a slave revolt, which started in 1791 and culminated in independence in 1804. But since then it has had one bad leader after another, constant political infighting and had little early help by more advanced nations. Most colonizing, or slave holding nations refused to recognize the new country for fear of fostering slave revolts in their own backyards. President Thomas Jefferson refused to recognize Haiti for this reason.

And things never have gotten much better governmentally for any significant period of time.

Then there was the earthquake of January 2010 which killed anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 people and created massive destruction in the capital. In the mess that followed Cholera broke out, killing over 8000 people during the next few years. More than 5% of the entire Haitian population has had the disease. I’ll be careful with what I drink.

Things are still not going well here in spite of all the money and effort spent. Some problems have been such a long time in the making and are so immense; there may not actually be full solutions in this world, only palliatives.

We arrived at the hotel, and I had a short wait will the room was cleaned. After unpacking as much as seemed reasonable, I had a chicken sandwich in the restaurant. In the afternoon, I talked with the man who requested the visit. He said he would come during the day or let me know if he couldn’t make it. I spent the afternoon catching up on some e-work, there are articles to write, other editorial planning to follow, research to do, and e-mail communication from widely scattered countries to be initiated or answered.

The power went off about 4:00 pm and the hotel generator fired up immediately to take up the slack. It’s powerful enough even to keep the air-conditioning running, which isn’t always the case in Africa.

About 5:30 my contact called to say there was a monstrous traffic jam between the airport and the Pétionville quarter where I’m staying. He said it would take so long to arrive he would be quite late, so he proposed coming tomorrow late in the morning, which should work just fine.

I’ll have an early dinner and an early night, to catch up from the last.
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Comments

Marguerite Evans on

Nice to hear that you are in Haiti and safe there. As usual, I enjoyed the way you described what you have encountered in your travel. Thanks! Looking forward to hear about your visit with an Haïtian tomorrow.

Nita & Huey on

Very Interesting!!! Thanks so much! We're praying for you! We love you!

mary on

We're sorry to hear of the untimely death of Mr.Eugenie. Thank you for the background information about Haiti and the difficult conditions that grip the country. As you mentioned, it will take more than human power to bring peace, order and prosperity to Haiti. We pray that your visit will bring some hope to the individual who has made contact with you.

Edna May Ware on

Please post the address where we can send a card....

Tess Washington on

Thank you Mr. Meeker! We'll be looking forward to more of this Haitian trip! Our prayers for your safety and success of your trip and to remember the family of David Eugenie.

Myrlande Pierre on

Very interesting read. As one born to Haitian parents and one that has travelled to Haiti a few times, I can relate to some of the things you're experiencing during this trip. I pray that God continues to guide you during this trip and may His will be done in the life of this individual who requested your visit.

Nancy Diraison on

This story is absolutely fascinating, and I can't wait to read the sequel. Not a boring moment or sentence, I see! I do pray for your safety through these journeys. :)

Jill Clouthier on

So sorry for the family of Mr. David Engenie and for the loss of such a fine church member.
So excited re: a request from Haiti. I have been praying for 'us' to give the people in that country and the Sudan hope for the future. Can't wait to read the result of your meeting. Stay safe.

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