Bristling At Life In A Bubble
Still catching up on “old/lost” blog posts…
Of all the overseas jobs I’ve had, Haiti was the one where I felt most isolated from normal everyday local people and life. Initially, while working under the auspices of USAID, I was subject to embassy security policies which required that I always ride around in an armored vehicle. Usually it was an armored Chevy Suburban, sometimes an armored Land Cruiser, and sometimes it was an armored van. The windows were an inch thick and couldn’t be rolled down regardless of the heat, the doors swung low on their hinges from the weight of armor plating, and the back of each seat had an armor plate to protect against shrapnel or bullets from behind. Each one was packed with two way radios. Some of them had sirens and flashing lights behind the grills [the drivers loved to use the sirens]. Going up hills required full pedal to the medal power, and Port-au-Prince is almost all hills. I can only imagine what kind of gas mileage a Chevy Suburban with armor plating must get.
Port-au-Prince was divided into green, yellow, and red zones by the embassy security team. Going to or passing through a yellow zone required an armored vehicle. A red zone required an armored vehicle and armed escort. Going up-country by road required a convoy. There were lots of security alerts and lockdowns, and temporary no-go areas of unrest. The reports would come via radio or email or text. At night, all of the restrictions were greater, and we had a strict curfew. Sometimes I was glad for all of it, but much of the time the security felt ridiculous and unnecessary to me personally, especially going to work in an armored vehicle.
The funny thing was that different organizations had very different security zones. The Hotel Oloffson, which was in a red zone for us USAID folks at the time, was one of the only places that friends working for another organization were actually allowed to go hang out for fun. This just served to give the impression that the zones were entirely arbitrary and made up by each organization. I guess if there ever came a time when I actually needed an armored car, I would be happy to have it, but in general I feel like nothing makes you stand out more and be a more noticeable or likely target than riding around in black or white armored Chevy Suburban with embassy plates. Possible pick-pockets aside, riding in a tap-tap (truck taxi) with all the locals would make me feel much safer than riding around in an armored car with embassy tags. If I was working in a place with frequent bombs, or where people were actively trying to kill Americans, or where people were just generally shooting at each other or me all time, I would feel differently, but none of those scenarios were active in Haiti while I was there. It’s true that there were some kidnappings of Americans while I was there, but exclusively of Haitian Americans, people from the Haitian “big families,” being extorted for money. The one seemingly legitimate home invasion of non-Haitians while I was there subsequently turned out to have been a house’s two security guards waking up in the middle of the night, being disoriented, and shooting (unsuccessfully) at each other while scaring the crap out of the house’s expat residents.
Like many expats, I lived with other USAID people on a mountain overlooking the crumbled city in 2 adjacent houses with walls, gardens, pools, and 24 hour US embassy guards. my house had formerly been home to the European Union delegation in Haiti, and still bore the EU symbol on the front gates. There were a lot of us, so we shared bedrooms, two or three single beds to a room. Every morning, I was driven in an armored vehicle either to the Embassy (inside a guarded, walled compound), or directly to work in the bubble that housed the IHRC (also inside a guarded, walled compound). The only weekday respite from this routine was going to meetings at other places, which we did, a lot, but still always in the armored vehicle. We went to expat dominated restaurants and hotel bars after work, often within sight of (or just across the street from) earthquake crumbled buildings and squalid tent camps. We also had a cook and housekeeper in our big house. We drove in bus convoys on the weekends to Club Indigo, the one “safe” (according to the embassy) beach resort north of Port-au-Prince, a former Club Med, fallen into disrepair, but partially rehabilitated to cater to the thousands of expats who flooded into Haiti post-earthquake. We worked really hard, long, stressful hours, and also partied hard (sometimes at other fancy expat houses), but always inside the insular expat bubble. It was stifling.
After getting contracted by Chemonics, I was under a lot fewer security restrictions. We could drive (by which I still mean be driven by a hired driver, Pierre) in a normal, beat up old car that attracted less attention, (though the embassy still provided us with an armored land cruiser or suburban that we used frequently because it was free). I could go to parts of town I couldn’t go to before, and didn’t have a curfew, although our embassy drivers still did. We stopped for street food more often. We went to cheaper, less well known beaches. But, I still lived mostly in expat world. our range of activities and locations was artificially limited. I lived in a hotel for a couple of weeks, and then moved into a beautiful, Chemonics provided house that had been a former ambassador’s residence. It was also on a hill, surrounded by a wall, with guards, and a pool, and overlooking devastation. I had great housemates and friends, but it still was isolated. We each had our own bedroom. I got the master bedroom and bathroom, and it was bigger than Athena and I’s entire house in Tucson. I got out as much as possible from the house, and was the only expat (besides my fellow Peace Corps Response volunteers at the IHRC) who left the IHRC compound everyday on foot to get local street-food lunch, but all in all, it wasn’t much.
Though I was working at a very different level, and was engaged in work that had a huge impact on the earthquake reconstruction in the medium to long term, there were many days that I desperately envied the on-the-ground volunteers working in the field, directly with Haitian people affected by the quake. At many of the high level meetings I participated in, I often wondered if anyone in the room had ever been inside an average Haitian home, or eaten or normal Haitian meal, or taken local public transportation, or spent time in the Haiti’s rural heartland, or gone to any club that wasn’t de-facto expats and high-society Haitians only, or walked through any of the shanty town communities clinging to the hillsides around Port-au-Prince, or walked anywhere for that matter. Is it possible to help a place without really knowing it? Yes. But wouldn’t your help likely be so much more effective if you did actually know the place and the people better? Certainly there are people and organizations working in Haiti that aren’t as trapped in the expat bubble as the world that I was moving in seemed to be, but these certainly seemed to be the exception rather than the norm when I was there. (Of the course the flip side of that equation is that there were some organizations that were so off in their own la-la land that they were completely oblivious to disaster recovery coordination efforts and would have been much effective if they had actually engaged a little more with the international humanitarian relief efforts and development initiatives already underway).
In any case, I made a lot of good expat friends while living in that bubble, but I didn’t make a lot of close Haitian friends, and that’s a serious regret. It’s hard to be content in the expat bubble after having been a Peace Corps volunteer, but Haiti was one place where my destiny was controlled for me much more than I would normally like. I hope I did some good there, working on housing reconstruction, rubble removal, risk reduction, and environmental conservation from the top down. I hope and believe that some of the work we did at the IHRC has spurred positive development and reconstruction that will help thousands of people, but I really, really wish that I had been given the opportunity to take one week of my time in Haiti to help out by planting some trees or physically rebuilding a house for just one person or family. That would have added immensely to my personal satisfaction with my Haiti experience. Oh well… something I’ve learned for next time.