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Jacmel's unofficial department of public complaints Add to ...

A strange little trend has taken root over the past few days right in my hotel lobby. It started on Saturday, when a large, sweating woman in her mid 60's trundled into the open air entry where I happened to be waiting for our fixer. I had stopped back at the hotel for a quick regroup after a morning of interviews and was just going through some notes on a couch across from the check-in desk when I looked up to see her walking towards me.

"Jessica?" She said my name with a French accent as if she knew who I was even though we had never met. And I wasn't expecting her.

"Yes," I said, standing up to greet and shake her hand. She shook mine, then held out a torn, white piece of paper with my name written on it in black marker.

"They told me you would be here," she said, chattering on without explaining who, exactly, she was referring to. Aside from James, our fixer, nobody else knew exactly where I was. And it was only by chance that I happened to be there at that moment - I wasn't originally planning to return to the hotel at all during the day.

I felt puzzled, but nevertheless sat down while the woman explained that she used to live in Quebec. Now, she lives on her own in the hills just outside of Jacmel and is convinced, she told me, that there has been volcanic activity on the mountainside behind her house.

She saw plumes of smoke after the earthquake in January, she said, throwing her hands up in the air to mimic the 'poof.' There was fire, she said, and something that seemed like lava pouring out of a hole she tracked with her wide angle binoculars.

Since the quake, she has been growing steadily worried, apparently, and with the Canadian military now gone, she didn't know who else to tell.

Someone suggested she tell the foreign journalist staying in town. And so she hopped on her motorbike and came to find me.

I've had enough strange coincidences during my month and a half in Haiti that I tend now to pay attention to these kinds of things, however random. You never know what kind of gold you might stumble across … and I'm superstitious enough (especially in a pro-Voodoo nation) not to brush anything off.



Late by now for my next interview in town, I told the woman, whose name is Marie, that I'd come to her house later to see for myself.

James and I set off on his motorbike (the most expeditious mode of in-town transport) for our interview. Afterwards we sped off in the direction of Marie's house near Cyvadier, just east of Jacmel.

Our directions were spotty, having something to do with passing a hotel sign and an auto parts shop and crossing a bridge before we should ask the kids for the old woman on her motorbike (Marie is one of few ladies I've seen here riding a bike, and she more than held her weight with James in a talk about fancy motorcycles). Still, we eventually found our way to the rock and dirt path that was supposed to lead us to Marie.

Midway up the mountainside, beyond the point where it was safe to drive, we found her, hollering from the front of her house with a barking Chow dog at her side.

We hiked up a treacherous stone path to reach her patio, which offered a rewarding view of the bay as we huffed and puffed and wiped our brows. Next to her chicken coop we sat on a mish-mash of old garden chairs scattered beneath a cluster of failed almond and mango trees. She pointed up the hill at the "volcano" and had me peer through her binoculars. I did see a patch of sulphur that seemed to have stained the mountainside, but it was impossible, from Marie's yard, to come to any conclusion.

"There," Marie grinned, slapping her knee. "Now you see. You have your story."

Well, not exactly.

What saved me from having to explain the pains of what it would take to do a legitimate story on her "lava" was the arrival of another grinning woman named Pollyanna who, along with an entourage of well-built young men, was making her way up the hillside.

She came up and told me that she wanted to show me her land, a seaside property down below. And she, too, had a story she wanted to tell.

Following Pollyanna, James and I made our way back down the hill (I nearly fell about four times as the rocks loosened and gave way beneath me) and I got into her SUV. We crossed the highway and wound our way through a few grassy lots towards the sea.

To make a long story much shorter, Pollyanna toured us around a house she is building out of seashells and rocks (not joking) and then sat us at a plastic table in the middle of it. She offered us marshmallows, crackers and mayonnaise (!) and began to explain how she lost 17 family members during the earthquake in Port-au-Prince. That number included her only son, who was alive, she said, until the UN backhoe trying to free him squashed him to death.

Hers was a horrible story, one that seemed to get steadily worse over the course of an hour in which she was alternately sobbing, laughing and confessing she needed mental help. The whole thing culminated with her begging me to help her track down a documentary photographer from the city who took footage of her for days after the earthquake as she struggled to save her family. The man disappeared, she said, without giving her any compensation or even the images. Angry, she picked up her phone and began dialing contacts for me to interview. One woman on the other end of the line seemed equally taken aback, so we agreed to talk later and hung up.

For me, it was all just too much. I began to explain to Pollyanna that I can't drop everything I'm working on right this minute to do her story on command - although I did say I would try to do what I can to help her when I get time.

Almost instantly, her eyes seemed to take on electricity.

"I think this is losing time," she said snappily, hazel eyes flashing at me.

I shot a confused glance at James, who also looked taken aback. He habitually hesitates to translate things for me sometimes if he thinks the speaker is overly offensive or impolite (you have to applaud the guy for growing up with manners, but at the same time, that can get in the way of communication). Before I could argue with him to explain though, the realization of what she meant crossed my mind.

Even though she trekked up the mountain to get ME she was accusing me of wasting her time.

We left shortly thereafter, me apologizing for no logical reason (I think that's the Canadian in me) even though she refused to see me out - something which, in Haiti, is a indicator of dislike and overt disrespect (more on manners in Haiti in a later entry).

Back on James' bike, we wound our way back to the road. Both of us were dumbfounded. We had cleared the back half of our afternoon for this?

Both women seemed to assume that just because they came to see us, we'd do their stories.

Back at the hotel, both of the meetings were replaying in my mind.

When I woke up Sunday morning I was still thinking about them and wondering what all of it meant. I was sipping coffee and trying to write when there was a knock at my door. It was the hotel security guard, who told me a white woman was waiting in the lobby for me with a little Haitian boy.

I looked at him quizzically. I wasn't expecting anyone, but grabbed my pen and notepad anyway and made my way down to the lobby where a cluster of curious hotel workers had gathered to spectate.

Waiting for me was Diane Thibadeau, another middle aged Haitian Canadian woman with rotting teeth, glasses and a braid that stretched down to her buttocks.

I'll get to her saga tomorrow. I will say though that, in the absence of Canadian military here, my hotel has just become an unofficial post-quake department of public complaints.

Follow on Twitter: @jessleeder

 

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