Sunday, July 27, 2008

More Haiti: Nou Komanse Travay -- We Start Work

After a scant three hours sleep, five o’clock came around fast. It was still dark, but it was time to get on the road. The Ford pickup was out of alignment, due to a bent tie rod from the accident the night before, but Jim O’Brien still drove like a madman down the narrow, twisting mountain road. It was important to get to the job on time, hopefully before Doug got there.

On the way down I got a fleeting glimpse of our new environment, signs in French and Creole, women walking downhill from the mountains to market with enormous, artfully arranged baskets of vegetables carried on their heads.
We passed though the upscale suburb of Petionville, past the offices of the Voluntaires pour la Securite National (the Tontons Macoutes), and into Port-au-Prince itself. The city was already awake and bustling, despite the early hour. Once downtown, we headed west through the coastal settlements called Carrefour, where Wirkus’ contingent of Marines had come ashore sixty years before. The road was large enough for three vehicles to drive abreast, but sometimes there seemed to be two lanes going in one direction, then two lanes in the other direction, with traffic dodging handcarts and pedestrians in what seemed a haphazard pattern.
After a while we were outside the built-up areas and into the countryside. We passed what looked like an abandoned factory. Jim said it was an uncompleted sugar mill started by Cubans some time before. At length we left the paved highway, and went on a dirt road for a few miles toward the small village of Darbonne. Sugar cane was growing on both sides of the road.

At the end of the road was the job site, several acres that had been bulldozed flat, exposing the river bed rock and gravel that underlay the whole plain where the mill was to be located. On a small hill overlooking the site was our "office," a small cinder block building with a tin roof. Outside a silver Peugeot 504 was parked. Doug was already there. Nearby there was a crowd of about 200 men, so many that they kicked up a cloud of dust as they headed toward the office. We parked and hurried inside, just before they caught up with us.

"Gentlemen, what kept you?" said Doug, spitting Skoal juice into a paper cup. Apparently word had gotten out that we were stepping up construction activities, and that we would be hiring more people. Word travels fast in Haiti, even without the advent of modern communication. It’s said that when the revolution that led to Haitian independence broke out on the northern peninsula in 1791, the message to revolt-- spread by word of mouth, conch horn, and drum-- reached the southern peninsula within twenty-four hours, quick enough to make Paul Revere look like a slowpoke. By this time the office was surrounded by people. I can even remember one man who pressed his face against the office’s one window, with one eyeball looking in, as if that act would guarantee him a job ahead of the others.
Amid the chaos we made arrangements for the welders on the job to straighten out the tie rod on the Ford. (They fixed it in an hour’s time–no lack of talent there!) Little by little we managed to sort out the prospective job applicants, arranging them into several groups according to the skills that they claimed to have. We already had a steel foreman, and we let him pick out his crew. We had a surveyor, who was told to hire a few helpers. We had a head mason, and he also had his crew lined up. A few of the applicants actually brought tools–most of these were hired as carpenters.

All of these people were actually going to be signed on as "temporary" workers, employed by our company’s Haitian counterpart. (This "temporary" designation was something that was going to cause trouble later. In most of the world, designation as an employee means far more than the casual, duration-of-the-job relationship that was common in the construction industry back home.)

There was another group of carpenters who had come down from Cap Haitien in the north. Our Haitian partners’ company set the rate of pay for the workers. Laborers would get $3 per day, for example, and carpenters $5 or $6, depending on their skills. The Cap Haitien men wanted at least $15 per day, and acted as an organized unit. Doug explained that he wasn’t authorized to pay that much. "No way, fella!" The Cap Haitien men stood their ground, and said that was their price, that they were worth it, and that if we wouldn’t pay them that much, then they were leaving. People from the Cap, I found out, have a reputation for being hardheaded, especially among the people in the south. O’Brien surmised later that we should have hired them, (the situation being a little like the story in the book of Judges about Gideon’s winnowing down his forces from 32,000 to 300 –quality over quantity). But the company wouldn’t pay more than the "going rate," so they left en masse.

We also hired a few who had references as equipment operators, a couple who were electricians, a few specialized helpers, including one guy whose nickname was "Easy Money" as a general factotum. The rest were signed up as laborers. Before the day was over, O’Brien also hired a man who had been pestering him for weeks, an older guy who was originally from Jamaica and fluent in English, with the improbable name of Bobby MacBean. MacBean was to be my assistant and interpreter.
Later in the day Doug had me ride with him into Port-au-Prince to meet the people at our Haitian partners’ offices, and to fill out some paperwork. As we dodged through the traffic of Carrefour, he commented on the merits of the occasional female form ("Look at the ass on that one!"), occasionally spitting tobacco juice out the window, and offering me a drink of "sipping rum" from a bottle he kept in the glove box of the Peugeot. I never knew either Doug or O’Brien to be affected by what normal people would call a hangover. And both of them seemed capable of going for days without normal amounts of sleep, or food. It was apparent that I had left one Marathon for another.

Next: We start to build

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