Yesterday saw chimney sweep Jeff’s annual visit. At 62 and a former Coldstream Guardsman with an army pension, Jeff’s once taught fighting man’s physique had in retirement inflated to that of a leaden balloon, leaving him awkward and wheezing at the least exertion. Say what you like about Dick Van Dyke’s accent, his fancy footwork would have left Jeff asystolic. Still, as Jeff struggled, red-faced to shove brushes up the chimney and displace a year’s worth of our soot he seemed content enough. ‘I can live off the land you know. On camp in Germany I always got in with the waldmeister. Some of the other blokes had no time for them but I always kept them sweet with a bottle of scotch. One old fellow turned up, ‘ankommen’ he says, and in his truck was a wild boar. Me and the lads strung it up in a tree and butchered it there and then. Beautiful it was when we roasted it. The officers’ mess wanted some, we told ’em ‘Get away.’‘ Jeff was in his element recounting stories from three tours of duty, occasionally diluting his stream of North East vernacular by a perfectly enunciated German word or phrase. ‘So are you busy Jeff?’ I enquired. ‘I could work 12 days a week if I wanted, but the wife just says ‘You calm down Jeff!’ And she’s right, I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery. I do three days now. If I do any more the tax man takes the lot anyhow.’
I paid Jeff £45 for his hour’s work and considered soot removal as a more dependable source of income. I wondered if being an associate chimney sweep would scupper my prospective BGTW membership application?
Floating, looking up at the sky, my ears were occasionally muffled by cosseting Caribbean swell entering the sheltered cove – God, is this really Haiti?
In early December 2009 I was on freelance assignment in Haiti. Here are a few reflections upon my experiences.
Floating, looking up at the sky, my ears were occasionally muffled by cosseting Caribbean swell entering the sheltered cove – God, is this really Haiti? Well, it was certainly Cyvadier Plage, a few kilometres beyond the south coast town of Jacmel and given its derivation from ‘Ici va Dieu’ there remained the outside chance of divine confirmation. Lobster sautéed in garlic butter, a green salad and banane peze (fried plantains) digested pleasantly in my stomach assisted by the waves’ gentle rocking and the semi-euphoric effects of a cold Prestige beer. Yes, this was indeed Haiti.
Given half a chance, Haiti and Port au Prince in particular rush to confirm preconceptions; crushing poverty – tick, piles of refuse – tick; crumbling infrastructure – tick; a highly visible UN military force – tick; and bad French… However, a country should not be measured solely by the extremes of its capital and it’s all too easy to allow media ‘analysis’ to define real life, spoon feeding us infantilised pre-chewed portions of reality. Few have heard of Jacmel’s beautiful New Orleans-style architecture, the laid back resort of Port Salut, the pretty fishing villages of Île à Vache, and the Caribbean’s most remarkable castle of Citadelle Laferrière? The truth of Haiti has long proved an awkward story to process, and even before Tuesday’s earthquake, one that has suffered from misleading packaging.
Last month, passing the pre-earthquake catastrophe of Citie Soleil’s slums, I watched a stream of Port au Prince’s characteristically colourful tap tap buses. One bore the epithet ‘Le Bon Samaritan’, another a flattering portrait of Barack Obama, behind it ‘Chuch Norriss’ – right now amidst settling dust of 12th January Haitians are still waiting, increasingly desperate for any of these buses transporting salvation to arrive.
During my time in Port au Prince I stayed at a guesthouse attached to St Joseph’s Home for Boys. Funds from travellers using the home as a base supported the work of St Joseph’s to bring impoverished boys off the street and into a safe and stable environment. The earthquake has almost levelled the seven-storey building undoing much of the good work started in 1986. To find out more and to donate towards St Joseph’s see www.heartswithhaiti.org