High-Tech Reporter In a Low-Tech World

NIVEAU-A' is made of sticks, formed in the shape of a giant A. A string hangs from the apex. During my stay in Haiti, that primitive instrument was the most intriguing piece of technology I saw.

Haitian farmers use it as a leveler. When the string hits the middle of the A's horizontal stick, farmers know the land is level. That's where they build barriers of straw and rock to keep the soil from eroding away.

Low-tech stuff, of course, but I realized these farmers depended on the Niveau-a for survival in a way that I would never depend on my notebook computer or professional cassette recorder. In this battle of third-world versus first-world technology, third world won. And perhaps it had something valuable to say about my own high-tech existence.

The Monitor's editors sent me to Haiti to cover the United States' military intervention there. That meant trooping behind US soldiers, running alongside Haitian demonstrators, and keeping my head up - and down - at the same time. An impossible task. But once in awhile the view would clear, and I'd catch a new glimpse of third-world perspective.

Gonaives is one of Haiti's poorest cities, and it has the highway to prove it. An engineer could not have laid out potholes more strategically. At any point, two wheels of our car were up on hard pavement and two were down in deep ruts. We bounced mercilessly. Top cruising speed: six miles an hour.

While we labored, the pedestrians, cyclists, and burros around us navigated just fine. Their technology was far more suited to local conditions than our Subaru. It struck me how much the cutting-edge inventions depend on a huge base of functioning, workaday technology that we take for granted.

Like electricity. When I first arrived in Haiti, power came from generators. Since fuel was so scarce, the generators ran only a few hours a night. When the electricity stopped, so did the water system. At one hotel, the maids brought buckets of water so we could manually flush our toilet.

Haiti's economic situation is especially acute after a three-year United Nations embargo. Food prices nearly doubled. Gasoline prices, sold on the street in plastic jugs, went through the roof. Depending on supply, it cost anywhere from $6 to $33 a gallon.

When filling your tank costs $300 or more, you look at the fuel gauge in a whole new way. What I would have called ``dangerously low'' in the US became, in Haiti, ``not too bad.'' Anytime the needle climbed above the little red bar with the ``E'' for empty, the tank was ``full'' as far as I was concerned. I vowed never to complain about the price of American gas again.

So when the day came to leave, I climbed aboard the plane and opened the flight magazine, looking for first-world familiarity. Instead, I found crassness. Ads touted one notebook computer over another or explained how their management system could save valuable time. For the average Haitian, who has no work and too much time on his hands, these things were useless.

Understand. I came home happily to a Pentium-class computer, fax machine, and a phone that worked. I still get excited by the new gadget and the laboratory breakthrough. But what really catches my eye these days are the simple things.

Those airport faucets that turn themselves on when your hands are underneath are interesting, but the big deal is the water that's always available and drinkable. That new sports car zips along, but my-oh-my look at that highway: smooth, dual-lane, and not a single pothole in sight. On-demand electric power, 24-hour gas stations, underground sewer systems - the list goes on.

None of this means I've slowed my quest for the newest, fastest, and best. But in our race for the cutting edge, let's not forget the rest of the knife blade - or those who are still reaching for the handle.

* Send your comments to CompuServe (70541,3654), America Online (lbelsie), or via the Internet (laurentb @delphi.com).

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