|Local charcoal sellers. Just not the right ones.|
Just a two-hour flight from the American wealth and comfort of Ft. Lauderdale or Miami, Fla., flying into Cap-Haitian is akin to dropping off the end of the world. The poverty is mind-blowing, the city nothing short of an intense experience of sights, sounds and smells.
From the sky as you descend the horizon is filled with thin columns of smoke rising from the countryside that's home to innumerable crude, tin-roof homes. Alongside the airport runway is a collection of wrecked, inoperable airplanes. It's not exactly the type of welcome you'd expect from the Cap-Haitien Chamber of Commerce. When you step out of the plane, you're hit with a blast of heat and humidity and you have to get used to sweating because you've pretty much left air conditioning behind.
Everywhere you go in the city you'll find the charm of colorful French colonial architecture reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Yet the streets are often lined with garbage and everywhere is the pervasive aroma of smoke -- fire is used to cook food in homes and along the streets and burn trash in smoldering heaps -- mixed with the combination of rotting refuse and sewage. And always the streets are filled with people. Extraordinary amounts of people clogging the sidewalks and spilling into the road. It's a very young collection of people -- 55 percent of the population is under the age of 25 -- and a very poor collection of people where 80 percent of them live in poverty and more than half live in abject poverty.
Vendors line the streets and jam the alleys, selling all manner of clothes, shoes, food, medicines, household cleaning products, soaps, shampoos and everything else. It's like a roofless Wal-Mart Supercenter -- Haitian-style -- everywhere you go. And they sell charcoal. Lots of charcoal.
Haiti has largely been stripped of its trees, hacked down and burned to charcoal that fuels the fires used to cook the food that attempts rather futilely to feed the 10 million Haitians. It's an environmental disaster, but in a country where electricity is basically a luxury -- a very undependable one at that -- fire and the charcoal to produce those flames is absolutely essential.
Largely like fuel in America, charcoal is a commodity that is central to the local economy. There are fuel stations, but supply can be sketchy, it's almost a luxury in the impoverished nation and you have to get used to seeing guards armed with automatic rifles and shotguns guarding the pumps against thieves.
Each time I've been to Haiti I've had the privilege of being hosted by the same friend, a dear Haitian man who is kind, generous, gracious and everything you'd want in a host. I've stayed with local families and experienced first-hand Haitian life in what I'd call a middle-class setting. Check out this video I shot and edited: Life in Haiti
On my last trip to Haiti, one afternoon the house we were staying at on the edge of the city was short of charcoal. So my friend offered to go buy some. I figured it was a short trip into the city to one of the ubiquitous roadside purveyors to secure a big bag of charcoal. I was wrong. As we journeyed ever farther into the Haitian countryside to find the right charcoal, I learned three things about what it means to truly buy local. And I think the lessons I learned on that day apply to the American ideal of buying local.
1) It's about relationship: Buying charcoal in Haiti should be easy. It's everywhere in the city. Buying charcoal from vendors lining the streets is as simple as buying food in America, whether it's a grocery store, restaurant or convenience store. If you have even a little bit of money you won't go hungry in America -- although you very likely won't be eating nutritious food. But on this particular day we were on a mission. We were going hard-core local charcoal buying.
We traveled probably an hour-and-a-half or more deep into the Haitian countryside for our charcoal. I was seeing signs for the Dominican Republic, that's how far we went. It's like driving 90 minutes to a 7-Eleven for a hot dog and passing dozens of 7-Elevens along the way. We drove past charcoal sellers at road junctions, past them in the town of Limonade, past them in no-man's land on the highway. Somewhere just west of the Dominican Republic we stopped on the road. Down a long driveway I saw a cinder block house with a tin roof, pretty much like a thousand other cinder block houses with a tin roof we passed on the drive.
Our host made a quick phone call. Down the driveway came some women and young kids trundling charcoal crammed into bags like you'd find at Home Depot loaded with 50 lbs. of grass seed. In went two and then three bags of charcoal, along with ants and other bugs on the bags. There were exchanges of warm greetings, the exchange of Haitian money and then the women and kids peered into the SUV I was riding in, apparently awed and humored by the sight of a couple of white guys -- me and my American friend I was traveling with.
After some more small talk we headed back to our home in Cap-Haitien. Past the women and children washing clothes in the muddy river, over the speed bumps that appeared out of nowhere in the road, past the droves of people waiting for rides along the road, past the myriad charcoal sellers, past the naked man with no legs next to an overturned wheelchair. (We passed him both ways. The first time I asked if we should stop and help him. No response. On the way back again I inquired about him and my host gave us the indication the man was crazy and we continued on. Some things from Haiti you never forget. And will never understand.)
I never got the full story of why we went so far for our charcoal. I can only surmise that it was extremely high-quality charcoal sold by people very dear to our host. Or maybe it was just your average charcoal sold by people very dear to our host. Whatever the case, it was very important to him that we get that charcoal from those people. It was about the relationship and about how much it meant to that family. Our trip probably meant they'd eat fairly well for a while. In a world of Amazon and Jet.com and Wal-Mart, there's a lot to be said for supporting the local economy. Whether it's the family-run business in your town or in the Haitian outback.
2) It's about determination. As you read in the previous paragraphs, our charcoal-buying venture was quite the journey. It took determination. It took resolve. Obviously it cost extra. But the final result is that our host was happy, an entire family supplying the charcoal was happy and the people we delivered the charcoal to were happy. Everybody wins. That's the way it should be, even if it requires a little more time, effort and money.
3) It's about the trickle-down effect. A family way out in the Haitian countryside suddenly had money. The kids we saw were literally dressed in rags. They were dirty. The house was primitive. But that family suddenly had an infusion of cash. They could buy food from someone out there in similar circumstances. Or catch a ride from one of the "tap-tap" drivers passing by on the highway looking for customers. Or buy a shirt for a kid. Or whatever. The point is that in a place of desperation there was a glimmer of hope. Things got a little better. I wrote before that some things in Haiti you never forget. One thing I'll never forget is being hot, sweaty and confused, but pulling away from a house in the middle-of-nowhere Haiti and waving to a group of smiling and laughing women and children. With an SUV full of charcoal.