The Haitian earthquake was what greeted me when I got online this morning.
Haiti has never had it easy and the last few years have been especially rough. The country has had to deal with the Gonaive floods, the horrible school collapse in Port-au-Prince, the political strife and social anarchy that followed the ouster of Aristide and led to Haiti playing host to a UN peacekeeping deployment, and now this earthquake. It’s too early to say how bad this earthquake really is. Maybe the casualties are light. Probably they run into the thousands. Key government buildings in Port-au-Prince have collapsed, and the devastation is almost certainly far worse in the shoddily built slums that dominate the city. Life in Haiti is difficult even at its best, and this latest event is simply tragic.
Now seems an appropriate time to mention a couple of things about my visit to Haiti that I somehow never got around to writing about earlier. . .
A sad fact of life in Haiti. . . Access to clean water appears to be one of the perks of employment. Certainly in both the hotels I stayed in, staff would carry canisters of water home at the end of their shift. It must be tough to spend your day cleaning beautiful rooms, preparing extravagant meals, and pouring drinks with silly prices, then stagger home carrying 20 kg of water for your family. Actually, since Haitians are used to all this they don’t really stagger. But from my comfortable vantage point at the bar it still looked like hard work. That was just a little thing I happened to notice. For some reason it has lurked in my mind ever since, lurking a little larger than most of my observations about Haiti.
Another thing. Although I never wrote about it, possibly the most memorable sight from my Haitian visit came during my flight from Cap-Haitien to Port-au-Prince. This was right after the Gonaive floods in 2008.
I was flying Tortug’ Air into Port-au-Prince, sharing the plane with one of those dressed-in-her-best-because-today-she’s-flying Haitian girls. This example was in a kind of white gauze fairy outfit, decorated with the obligatory ruffles, plus real forest leaves and an outlandish trail that her mother had to hold off the ground to keep clean. Our flightpath meant Gonaive should have been somewhere off to our right. There was no obvious city there though, just a mass of water, a mass of water creating chaos for invisible people somewhere below.
The day was gray. We flew through oppressive gray skies, gray water covered corpses in Gonaive, and Port-au-Prince revealed itself as a sprawling gray slum. As we circled the airport before landing, a formation of US Navy helicopters swept up from the tarmac, tilted their noses, and began clattering north to the disaster zone. Our own little plane touched down in the hive of activity the helicopters had just left. As I strolled across the tarmac with my bags, vaguely worried about what awaited me in Port-au-Prince, US marines scampered back and forth a hundred meters away, busy loading and unloading more helicopters. The tarmac at Port-au-Prince airport that afternoon was an inspiring sight. The fairy skipped through the middle of it, entirely oblivious to the harried Marines, and mostly obvious to her mother’s struggle to preserve the cleanliness of that dress.
I left the airport and found my driver. The fairy and her mother stood forlornly arguing (about money?) with a taxi driver. I tried to have my driver ask them where they were going, thinking we could maybe give them a lift. But his English was bad and by the time he understood the taxi rank was already behind us. Somehow it seemed too much effort to have him turn round, so I got driven to my hotel and the fairy vanished from my life as fully and finally as a pebble tossed in a river. I’m sure she and her mother made it to wherever they were going. But did the taxi driver rip them off? Should I have had my driver turn back?
I am not American, and I do more than my share of bitching about America’s foreign policy, annoying Americans, and so on. However, in places like Haiti at times like this, America is the best thing out there at just going in and getting the job done.
The U.S. Red Cross looks to be perhaps the most organized outfit in terms of responding to this current Haitian disaster. Apparently they are in the process of taking all sorts of stuff from a depot in Panama and getting it over to Haiti. Haiti barely has enough stuff at the best of times, even without the disruption caused by an earthquake, so I’m sure this effort by the Red Cross will help things. They have the stuff, the reach into the places that really need it, and no hidden agenda.
Now comes the bit were I mercilessly tug at heart strings, reducing my readers to incoherent, barely consolable, blubbering wrecks of inebriated charity. . .
As drinkers, whether of rum or of cocktails, we surely recognize how much Haiti has contributed. Rum drinkers should give heartfelt thanks to Haiti for Barbancourt, and while they are at it they should probably say something polite about Clairin – lest they be forced to down some. Meanwhile, cocktail drinkers should graciously thank Haiti for its bitter oranges, without which we wouldn’t have Cointreau and Grand Marnier.
So what better way to express your spirited gratitude to all things Haitian than to raise a glass and donate to the American Red Cross Haiti Appeal*? [UPDATE: The New Zealand Red Cross has now formally launched its own Haitian Earthquake Appeal, so that's a handy option if you happen to be in New Zealand.] Better still, donate first and then raise a glass, since raising glasses is known to exert a disruptive influence on good intentions. Modern technology makes parting with one’s money frighteningly easy, and those in the U.S. can donate $10 simply by texting HAITI to 90999. I have pitched in $100 – about the cost of a really nice bottle of rum.
Now I’m not sure if gin, whiskey, beer and wine drinkers have very much to thank Haiti for (Prestige Beer anyone?), but if you’re feeling generous please donate.
Finally, lets hope La Maison Barbancourt, including all staff, family, warehouses and plant, has survived the quake.
* I linked to a U.S. based appeal because most people reading this blog are in the U.S. However, that U.S. website appears to have issues accepting non-US credit cards. If you’re not in the U.S. but want to donate you might need to think about alternatives. I used the New Zealand Red Cross.