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Report 1651: Haiti, a Troubled Beauty

By Andrew from MO, Winter 2009

Trip Description: February 2009: a family trip to Haiti.

Destinations: Countries - Caribbean

Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Independent Travel; 3-4 people; Adult Children w/ Parents

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Page 1 of 4: Flight and arrival in Port-au-Prince

photo by my father Jim

Port-au-Prince, Hotel Oloffson

In February 2009 my parents and I went to Haiti to visit my sibling Flo, who since the previous fall was directing FOSAJ, a cultural center to nurture artists in Jacmel. We planned the trip with many worries about the reputation of Haiti, but also knowing of Flo’s enthusiasm for the place. Still, the worries were enough to put me on some medications.

There was not a lot of advance planning for what we would do there, because we could count on Flo to make most arrangements, and there isn’t a lot of travel information out there. I devoted the planning efforts where I have a lot of interest to the details of our flights. We arranged to converge, my parents from Boston and me from Kansas City, to get on the same flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince. The only option to make this trip on the same day was on American Airlines, and the fare was high for the distance. In my detailed planning I kept a spreadsheet of the gates that all the flights used for the previous month, and major delays. In this winter season, there were days that one or the other would have missed the connection to the last flight of the day, so we hoped for the best.

So I take note of flight details, but on these not-so-long segments, I’ll forgo listing all the door-closing and takeoff times for flights that were more or less on time. I spent the night at a nearby motel before my 6am departure from KCI. I found that the check-in counter opened at 4:30, and hoped it was o.k. to take the motel’s shuttle that left at that time, not worrying too much about extra time for an international trip. American still doesn’t have online check-in for international flights; I checked in at the kiosk, which read my passport and had the boarding passes promptly, asking me to go to the counter to get a “docs OK” stamp. I was carrying on my main bag with clothes, but checked (free on the international trip) a bag where I was bringing a few donated items for FOSAJ; I also put my topcoat into that bag. So that check-in was done promptly at that hour, as was clearing security; I saw that, as boarding time got closer, there was a long line at security, and the flight was completely full, as I wouldn’t have expected on a 6am mainline flight on a Tuesday in February. I’d last flown American when I took an award trip to Italy in 2006 (now I was banking their trips in Qantas’s program, but I eventually learned that the fare codes for most of these flights weren’t eligible for credit with them) and I took note of some new practices of theirs, in particular having a screen showing the first part of the names of people on the list for upgrades and standby.

I had a first connection to make at Dallas/Fort Worth airport (DFW). There had been extensive remodeling since I was last there, and I’d seen for the previous month that the connections could be all over the four terminals that American uses. I had chosen Au Bon Pain as a place to have breakfast, having noted their several locations including one close to my arrival gate. I had a cheese and egg sandwich, and I’m not sure that it was better than an Egg McMuffin. There are many connections at DFW that one may as well walk, but mine from Terminal A to D was one where it was best to take the Skylink train, which runs overhead offering a good view of the grounds and is inside security. Terminal D is the most extensively remodeled terminal and very nice-looking. There I took the flight to Miami.

I arrived there, which is about the last major U.S. hub airport for me to visit. On the previous day, the airline web site had posted our two arrival flights and the departure (on our day) as using three different concourses, but they wound up being close together in Concourse D, so not much trouble in that airport, which gets bad reviews. I got to the gate for Port-au-Prince and found my parents, who had just arrived. They’d spent the previous night with friends in Boston, and had their story about MapQuest directions there not working, so they asked a police officer for help, and he had them follow his car. I proposed that we pick up Cuban sandwiches at the nearby stand for La Carreta, which also has reportedly the best restaurant at the airport but it’s outside security. We had sandwiches at the gate and I was surprised, since I didn’t know they’d be joining us, at the arrival of my mother’s friend Tricia from St. Louis, with her friend Steve.

One thing mentioned in blogs of people going to Haiti was to take note of how many white people were on the flight; I noted a few. It got to be past the boarding time with no boarding call, and I got a cell phone alert of a 20-minute delay. There was a boisterous mood when the flight finally boarded. This was an A-300 plane, the oldest-generation Airbus wide-body, which AA will soon retire. There were empty seats, and people were still getting up as it was pushing back. On the safety video, I noted the subtitles in Kreyol. In flight, there was a cheese-cracker snack, and a landing card to fill out. The flight made up most of the delay, arriving at Port-au-Prince about five minutes late, at 4:15pm, so the time in the air was 1.5 hours.

On arrival, there was no jet-way; there were stairs down at both the front and rear. We exited from the rear; I was ahead of my parents, and on entering the terminal I was surprised to see Flo, who had asked to get to the baggage claim area to help us and was in fact taken through the diplomatic hallway to greet us before passport control. Flo thought he’d have to go back the same way, not carrying a passport, but he accompanied us through passport control explaining himself and showing his U.S. driver’s license. At passport control they tore off a section of the landing card for us to keep with our passports until we left the country. Then there was baggage claim, where we got our bags including my parents’ big bags of supplies to be given to FOSAJ, as many Haitians were bringing big bags. A month before, according to Flo, it was $1 to get a porter with a cart; now, with new carts, it had become $2.

Flo had hired a van and driver and had come with several people from FOSAJ. On exiting the terminal, we walked there as people approached us for rides; from what I’d read, the barrier from general people meeting flights had recently been moved to allow more walking space. Flo says that anyone going to Haiti really needs to have someone who knows the ropes who can meet them. We were to spend that first night at the Hotel Oloffson, where Flo designed the web site and could get us complimentary rooms.

As we were in the van and took off, I noted the crowds of people in the streets everywhere. One boulevard was on the edge of Cité Soleil, as if to put the shantytown up for view. We then went by the Champ de Mars, the central park by the presidential palace, slightly uphill and on to the Oloffson.

There was some indication of surprise at the check-in desk, and we were invited to sit on the terrace, taking in the warm weather as the sun was setting. Before too long, we got word that they’d misunderstood the reservation. Flo had said “arriving the 10th, leaving the 11th,” and they took it down as a reservation for the 11th. The one room they had with a double and single bed was not enough for all of us. Some people in the group wondered if that was the true story; there was a large group of French people there, and maybe our one comped night would get in the way of the large group staying several nights.

Anyway, we stayed on the terrace to have dinner while the people familiar with the scene figured out what to do. I ordered what would be a favorite, lambi, or conch, on a filling platter with rice. The lights went out briefly and came back; we could see lights around the city generally on. While we were enjoying the meal, Flo and the others were working out the options. The first thought was to go to Jacmel that night, but there are some warnings about being on the road at night, and the driver (who had been partially paid and was giving the round trip at a price low in the one-way range) wanted more money to do that. The group finally reported that one of them had located two nice apartments for us. This illustrated that when Haitians become your friends, they go to extraordinary lengths to help you, even as people in service occupations come across as surly.

While we were eating, our bags had been brought back and forth between the hotel and the taxis. There were various cab rides, some exclusively for the luggage, each at the $20 fare of any ride within a city. We had our ride to one of the nicer areas of town, with the apartment building where many people were waiting but there was no light. There were flashlights to get around. We were led up to the apartments, which had beds but were otherwise stripped bare. We each had a packet of purified water: with no receptacle into which to pour it, it would need to be consumed as soon as it was opened. As we’d get used to, there was a shower that was barely a trickle.

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