Sunday, April 25, 2010

Haiti Through My Eyes

The following are some of the stuff I saw during my trip to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. These are just a few random shots I have and will post part 2 soon once I get my photos organized.

Collapsed building in Port Au Prince, they are still working hard to clear the collapsed buildings and debris

We had to go off road when travelling from Jacmel to Port Au Prince because a road was closed. Unfortunately for these guys infront of us, they got stuck in the river!

Looks like here you cannot prevent the power company from reading your meter by locking the gates like we do in Kenya!

Notice how they serve you the beer with a serviette to hold your bottle? First time I have seen anything like this!

This kid get jiggy with it as the DJ does his thing before we begin a screening at Labidou, one of the tented camps in Jacmel. I will be posting more about the FilmAid screenings in Haiti on the FilmAid blog

The colourful streets of Port Au Prince

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Of Haiti and Culture

My time in Haiti has been quite exciting, especially attending the outdoor night screenings in both Port Au Prince and Jacmel. One thing I have noted travelling through Haiti is that it does not seem very different from some of the places I have travelled through in Africa. In fact if I just closed my eyes and woke up in Haiti and someone told me that I am in a location in Africa, I will easily be convinced. It is less developed than some parts of Africa and more developed than others. So I have now tried to observe anything that might be different from Kenya in the way business is generally conducted. One curious thing I have noted is how money is handled.

Here you will notice that there are 3 different currencies in use but only 2 manifest themselves physically. There is the Gould (gd), the US dollar and Haitian dollar (H$). But you only get to see the US$ and the Gould. So if you for example have a meal in a restaurant, you might be told that your bill in 100 Haitian dollars. Of course you will say that you don’t have any Haitian dollar. What you are supposed to do is convert it to either Gould or US$. You will thus have to pay your H$ 100 restaurant bill in 500 goulds or in US$25. When I inquired why they need to calculate bills in a currency that does not really exist, the answer was because many people find in difficult to calculate in higher figures, dividing by 5 makes the figures manageable. 5 Goulds adds upto 1 Haitian dollar.

The other thing I found out that was quite peculiar is how they run the schools. Students actually go to school in shifts! The first bunch goes to school very early in the morning and leaves at around noon, while another shifts starts at around noon! So at around noon you find lots of kids and parents at the gate, some picking up their kids while others are dropping them off. I recall a similar thing in India when I lived there in the mid 90s! It must be a lot of work for you as a parent if you have kids on both shifts!

Then there is the way phone cards are bought. While back in Kenya it is the phone company or dealers who pay the retailers a commission, here it is the customer who pays a commission. The first time I bought a card for 200gd, the guy asked for 220gd. For the guys who load credit directly to your phone, and they are quite a lot especially in the streets of Port au Prince, if you give him 200gd, he load your phone with 180gd worth of air time. One thing that we seem to have in common is that their music is kind of similar to ours, its like benga or lingala. I actually heard a lingala music playing and when I asked whether they knew who the musician is, all that they knew was that the music was from Africa! Finally, I did notice that quite a few of the barber shops had the term “Good Looking” attached to their names. It made it easy for me to get a shave because all I needed when looking for directions is to ask for “Good Looking” given the difficulties with language!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Of travels, Visa and Colour

Naughty boy, naughty boy...I thought to myself as he gave my passport a very casual glance and then pulled me out of the queue and asked me to wait for a minute. I was among the first on the line in Doha, Qatar as they asked those on the flight to Paris to board. I then waited until all the other passengers had gone in before they checked my passport further. My passport did not have a visa for France and I duly explained that I was merely transiting to Santo Domingo, and I did not need a visa for the Dominican Republic because I was en route to Haiti, where I also did not need a visa because I was not going to stay for more than 90 days. He seemed perplexed then waved me to go through. So did he pick me out because I was black or simply because he wanted more clarification? And could I not have offered the same explanation when he first stopped me instead of making me wait all that time?
Fast forward a few hours later in Paris. Checking in and picking my boarding pass. The Air France lady does not look convinced that I should be travelling without a visa. I offer the same explanation I had offered a few hours earlier to the young man in Qatar, only that she is not buying it as readily as the Qatari did. She tells me that she does not think this is right and picks up the phone to call her supervisor. The supervisor looks at my passport then at the ticket and sadly shakes his head. He looks at me and I just shrug my shoulders before explaining, again ,that I do not need a visa to go to Haiti through Qatar, Paris and the Dominican republic. He tells me that if I am travelling through a European country I need a transit visa. I tell him that if I am only going through one European country and stopping for less than 8 hours then I don’t need a transit visa. Then he notices that I have an American visa and he sees his way out. He tells the lady that she can check me into the flight because I have an American visa, but when I get to the Dominican republic, I must buy a tourist card for US$10. He asks me whether I have US$10. I tell him that I cannot be travelling all the way from Kenya to Haiti without $10. He did not notice that my American visa was due to expire in a few time, before even my return journey (hence the reason I was taking such a long flight!).
11 hours later when I get to the Dominican Republic, a very beautiful lady at the immigration desk tells me that I don’t need to pay anything because I am on transit, stamps my passport and wishes me a nice stay in Santo Domingo.
So how many people get stranded on trips simply because some ignorant immigration or airline officers don’t really know the rules? From my experience, a lot of times immigration officers in most of the countries I have visited just stamp your passport entry or exit, they really don’t have time to scrutinize who you are and why you are entering their country. With the exception of the US of A. They are the only ones who seem trained to really check out who is getting into their country and why. In third world countries, they simply stamp. I wonder whether it will get worse now that the US are going to start profiling travellers? If you are a young man travelling from Pakistan to the US, or if your passport, like mine, shows that you have been to the Middle East and Somalia, then expect a tougher time.
For now, let me enjoy my stay in Haiti, where they immigration guy did not bother reading the immigration form I had filled. He just took my passport, looked for an empty page and stamped.