The Embassy, the UN Base, and the Digicel Building

by admin on March 16, 2010

(posted by Erica Gralla, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti)

Today was a day of contrasting locations. As usual, I awoke in a khaki-colored army tent, on an army cot with an army mosquito net zipped around me. My hair, washed last night, was nowhere near dry in the humidity here. I stopped at the bathrooms next to the pool, already starting to feel the oncoming heat of the day. When I reached the heavy Embassy doors, I braced myself for the blast of cold air. Usually it’s a welcome change, but mornings (and evenings) here are just perfect weather. Only in the morning and the evening do I remember that I’m in the Caribbean, practically next door to beautiful beach resorts. It’s pretty easy to forget, here.

The Embassy is beautiful, with a big open area reaching up through the whole building, and a café on the ground floor. The walls are white, with red wood accents, and big colorful artwork on the walls. Each morning I walk up the stairs and into our “fishbowl” of an office (a converted training room). The air conditioning, the fishbowl windows, and the PCs make it feel a bit like MIT, which is good for productivity but perhaps less so for context. We can watch people walking by – it’s a random selection of army personnel in camo, well-dressed regular embassy staff, USAID in their matching khaki polos, and random others like us in boots and t-shirts. We have access to a large-format printer, so we have maps all over the walls and the slides from a briefing tacked across the windows with scotch tape. Our tents don’t really keep the rain out, so most of us have left our luggage against the walls or under the tables in the office. We also have a box of water bottles and a couple boxes of MREs. It’s getting a little crowded.

At 11am, we headed over to the UN Log Base for the assessments working group. The UN base is an adventure of a different sort. You enter down a long road with two checkpoints, where they check vaguely whether you have some sort of official-looking badge (twice for extra security) and then wave you on. Most of the action (for us, anyway) is over by the exit, where the UNICEF and WFP offices are. We headed in that direction, grabbed our laptops and notebooks, and went to find the meeting area. We were directed to a large tent with sides of netting, a floor of wooden boards, and a random selection of folding chairs. It was hot. We all fanned ourselves with whatever paper we had on hand and waited for the meeting to start. We heard from four different groups conducting assessments. At the embassy, we can meet over laptops around a table. In this tent, we had no table (not for such a big group, anyway). When someone wanted to present something, there were two options. IOM dumped a big poster-size map on the floor in the middle of our circle of chairs, and we all peered down at it. WFP passed around several paper copies of maps and reports for us to look at. And it worked just fine. The UN base has such a different feel from the embassy. No US Army, and people from everywhere, dressed every which way. As Jarrod wrote earlier, all the work is done either in big tents or tiny pre-fabs, with struggling air conditioners and folding chairs and three people crammed in a tiny space. And it works! We went to the UN restaurant for lunch (burgers!). It’s open air but with a roof and shade over half of the tables. You wait in a line to order your drinks (first), then your food (second) and pay (third). The order, apparently, is very important, as I was informed on my first visit. They hand you a slip of paper, and you take it over to the proper station. A grill for burgers and a kitchen for everything else. You hand it to someone and eventually your food materializes. Despite the heat, it’s a nice place to recharge.

After lunch, we piled into the car for the third location of the day – the Digicel building downtown. Dr. Louise Ivers has office space there. The drive was sobering, since the destruction is much greater in the downtown area. There are lots of buildings leaning at crazy angles, and more that look more like dust with chunks of cinderblocks. But the one that sticks with me the most was a building where the walls had collapsed and the floors had simply collapsed on one another, looking like a stack of pancakes. It’s too easy to imagine what happened there.

The Digicel building is tall, at least ten stories, made of glass and metal. It stands alone, taller than anything else around, in the middle of a big parking lot with a high wall around it. We walked in and the guard told us to head up to the seventh floor. The elevators had red “danger” tape across them, so we took the stairs. The floor tiles had red ‘x’s marked all over them, there were cracks on the walls, and there were people working on most of the floors. We joked about what the red x’s might mean, but at every floor we could look out and see all the collapsed buildings around us. Definitely didn’t instill much confidence as we climbed to the middle of a tall building. The earthquake was suddenly a bit more real. Digicel is a major cell phone company here, and its offices are nice – cubicles like anywhere in America. But it was ghostly quiet, just a few people in a giant empty space. Our meeting was in one of the wall offices. We met Dr. Ivers, and went over plans for the questionnaire.

We stopped at the UN base on our way back, to get ideas for our assessment methodology from WFP, then headed back to the Embassy. We had dinner with the Colonel in charge of our project, at a restaurant across from the Embassy. The food was extremely slow in arriving, and after at least half an hour they returned to say they did not have “lambi” and would we accept something else. It took them half an hour to realize this? Someone tried to ask for a free beer in compensation but apparently, they didn’t understand (or did they really…?). But the conversation was good, the beer had arrived, and the weather was perfect (the table was outside) so the time passed quickly. Everyone eventually received their orders, mostly meat-or-fish-or-shelfish in “sauce creole” with “bananes”, or fried plantains, and rice. After dinner, we made the short walk back to the Embassy and into our air-conditioned, tiled and carpeted home away from home.

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