Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupy SF- Who Was There

Young men wearing flannel shirts and dark hoodies sat on their skateboards in a circle on the lawn in the middle of camp.

TV reporters pointed cameras and shoved microphones into the faces of the weirdest people they could find and prompted them to say inevitably outrageous things.

Legal volunteers wandered the camp making sure everyone had the phone number of the legal hotline. I scribbled the number on my hand just in case the police rushed in and I got swept up with the people being arrested.

A pack of drag queens sashayed by lisping “drag queens for social justice”.

An enthusiastic guitar and mandolin duo entertained the crowd by singing “All you fascists are bound to lose!” to a cheerful melody.

Former City Supervisor Aaron Peskin sat on the ground linking arms with others who were willing to get arrested tonight. Mayoral candidates Leland Yee and John Avalos were also present, often with digital recorders shoved in their faces seeking saucy sound bytes.

Gray-haired Boomers wearing Land’s End fleece jackets marched in a circle and reminisced about past marches, actions, and demonstrations.

Garden variety San Francisco hippies huddled together pinching joints between their thumb and forefinger.

Drunken homeless people plopped down to sleep smack-dab in the middle of all the milling crowds, probably wondering what the hell all the noise was about.

Canine occupiers were well represented. Two puppies wrestled in the center of camp, and on the outskirts a kitten on a leash ignored the action long enough to lick herself a nice bath.

Young people clutched cell phones, social networking at lightning speed with blurred thumbs.

Earnest social justice and activist leaders prepped crowds of people on the north and south ends of camp. “Mic check” one of them would yell. And the crowd repeated “MIC CHECK”. Then a series of staccato instructions would ensue—one sentence at a time—while the crowd repeated each sentence. “We are going to role play.” WE ARE GOING TO ROLE PLAY. “When the police come we will form 3 rows”. WHEN THE POLICE COME WE WILL FORM 3 ROWS. (you get the idea) “The first row will be seated.” “The second row will be kneeling behind them.” “The third row will be standing.”

We were instructed that if you were willing to get arrested tonight you should be a part of the first row sitting in front of the camp. Those who weren’t willing to get arrested were instructed to stand on the sidewalks on the sides of the camp and alternate between two chants: “The-whole-world-is-watching” and “They-may-be-violent-but-we-are-nonviolent”. And as a final instruction, the activists told us “the police will succeed if they raid the camp tonight. So when we are dispersed, reconvene tomorrow at noon in front of 101 Market Street.”

There’s a lot of smart, brave, committed people at that camp. I’m going to bed hoping that my prayers made a difference for those who may be arrested or injured tonight.

Occupy SF- Walking Laps Around the Camp

Arriving at Occupy SF at 9pm I got it in my head to walk seven laps around the camp and pray for all the people who may very well be subjected to violence or jail tonight should the rumors about a police raid turn out to be true. Seven is such a nice sacred number, and besides, walking seven times around Jericho seemed to work (Joshua 6).

So I strolled the walkways, ramps, make-shift highways and byways through the camp at Justin Herman Plaza, towered on different sides by the Ferry Building and the Embarcadero Center.

First thing I noticed is that the camp is clean and tidy. I don’t know what the SF Dept of Health was looking at this week because I didn’t see any vomit, feces, or really any trash at all except for two empty Peets cups with tea bags hanging off the sides. Scattered on cement walls around the perimeter of camp are lots of black glossy buckets with neatly printed signs labeled “cigarette butts”. In one corner of the camp there are 4 porta-potties and a sink. And recycling bins are located throughout the camp.

The camp is organized. There are a variety of tents and some structures of dubious construction made out of tarps. A couple of doors rest horizontally on crates to form low communal dining tables. There is a lost and found area. Someone is even paying attention to decorating because carved pumpkins that would make Martha Stewart proud are scattered throughout camp. There are also art displays, and feathers hanging from overhead strings.

Lest an occupier get bored and stir up trouble, the camp appears to have an active social calendar with various activities to keep occupiers occupied. One tent advertised “Free Massages Here.” I saw a sign informing occupiers of an upcoming “Paper Mache Committee Meeting”. They have formed a committee for paper mache! Taped to a lamp post was a poster board “Sign Up To Teach a Class” which advertised the following upcoming classes:
o The military industrial complex
o Anarchism theory
o Book reader circle- The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
o And my personal favorite, although I have no idea what it means: “Workshop and group discussion on the society of the spectacle, commodity fetishism, and the situationist international.” (if anyone understands that, let me know)

There is a large drum circle tent, where the rhythmic faithful are pounding out beats for the cause. A medical tent stands in the southwest corner of the camp, where volunteers ripped strips of gauze and gave instructions for people to tie them over their mouths and noses should they be confronted with pepper spray.

My favorite sign was “Standing for a More Just, Moral America”- probably because it echos my beliefs and explains why I was there to pray for the camp. A more just and moral America is something that people of faith have been desiring for many months and years- long before the switch was flipped on the first megaphone at Occupy Wall Street.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Five Senses of Pescadero

While driving down the coast from San Francisco to Pescadero…

Skinny tow-headed teenagers lugging surfboards to the beach; pelicans flying in formation; bicyclists hugging the shoulder of the road; bright yellow kayaks in the harbor; a tall blue heron hunting for lunch; driftwood forts constructed on sand; fat lizards sunning on driftwood; hovering Red-Tail Hawks, coyote scat, coastal wildflowers.


Coastal sage; fennel; eucalyptus trees; salt water marsh; beach BBQ’s; fresh baked cinnamon bread.
Cream of artichoke soup; crusty sourdough bread; olallieberries fresh off the bush; succulent tender flounder sandwich; peach-apricot jam.
Sun-dried crab legs; empty snail shells cast away by satiated sea birds; gray feathers; hot sand; a bench made out of driftwood; Indian Paintbrush flowers; thorns on berry bushes.
Scurrying lizards; Jethro Tull singing “Thick as a Brick”; elephant seals barking; farm workers hoeing around plants; seagulls squawking their warnings; waves crashing through a natural bridge in the rock.

Road Trip to Pescadero

As a city-dweller without an automobile, I often yearn for the freedom of open roads and a day-long adventure that will supply me with a steady stream of simple pleasures. So on a recent Friday I gassed up a borrowed car, pressed the radio buttons to a classic rock station, and shrieked to Styx’s “Come Sail Away” as I put the car into gear. “I thought that they were angels but to my surprise, they climbed aboard their star ship and headed for the skies….” 70's rock and roll was so dramatic. With the Pacific Ocean on my right, and wildflower-dotted hills on my left, I headed south on coastal Highway One past small beach towns with pleasant names like Pacifica, Moss Beach, Montara, El Granada.

After an hour of driving, my legs needed stretching so I pulled over to a parking lot to explore the Pescadero Marsh Preserve- an area I have passed on multiple occasions but haven’t taken the time to explore. The marsh is a low wetland of brackish water, which I learned is a mix of salt and fresh water. Over 68 species of birds live in the marsh, but they must get a kick out of giving birdwatchers a run for their money because all I could see with my binoculars were white herons and blue herons (which I can see in Golden Gate Park five minutes from my apartment).

While the marsh didn’t have much action (that I could see), it was peaceful and pretty with a winding channel of water meandering through the grasses and reeds. A larger river curved its way around sand dunes and fed into the ocean. Seagulls and other sea birds stood in groups on the river bank, facing the same way and squawking like banshees whenever anyone or anything approached them. Driftwood of all shapes and sizes was scattered on the sandy river banks, and some enterprising explorers had built simple driftwood forts large enough for 2 people to sleep in.
After hiking through the wetlands and tiring of the uneventful bird watching, I got in the car and headed further south. Fields of artichokes stood between the road and the sea and it was visions of artichokes that motivated me to turn left onto the road that leads to the small town of Pescadero.

Pescadero is an old Portuguese town that was founded in 1856. Pescadero means “fish seller” and I assume that after California’s initial Gold Rush of 1849, San Francisco grew so large so fast that those who were disenchanted with gold mining moved south of the big city to fish for seafood to sell to San Franciscans, and ended up planting agricultural crops (like artichokes) as well. In all of my reading about California Gold Rush history, it is clear that the people who sold things to the gold miners usually made more money than the gold miners.

Pescadero’s current population is 643, which must triple or quadruple each day as tourists swarm in. There’s not much there—a couple of general grocery stores, a few artisan shops that sell the works of local artists, and Duarte’s Tavern.

Pronounced by locals as “Do-arts”, Duarte’s Tavern was founded in 1894- so about 40 years into the life of the town. It isn’t cheap but it has delicious food and fantastic pie, as evidenced by the fact that everyone who was leaving the restaurant was also lugging along 2-3 pies to go. I took a seat at the counter and was ignored for a while by my brusque waitress, who daily deals with demanding tourists and cranky old timers- like the one sitting next to me at the counter. This man- who appeared to be one of the town’s founders from 1856-- ordered a slice of pie and a cup of coffee, then complained bitterly when he was presented with a bill for $9.74. He paid with a $10 bill and departed, giving the waitress just cause to roll her eyes over her whopping 26 cent tip—which was probably a decent tip in 1856, but not so much in 2011.

My lunch started with a bowl of cream of artichoke soup, perfectly accompanied by steaming hot sourdough bread and unsalted butter. That would have been enough but I also ordered the flounder sandwich, earning the title as the juiciest, best-cooked fish sandwich I have ever eaten.

Craving more exercise than a lap around the tiny downtown, I got in the car and drove south to Swanton Organic Farm. Stopping first at their strawberry fields, I chatted with the attendant who was sitting behind a make-shift table with a scale, and was reading an organic chemistry text book. Since no one else was around, he seemed glad to have some company so I listened to his animal facts about the nearby barking elephant seals and the pelicans(in the 1960’s pelicans almost became extinct because pesticides ran from the crops into the ocean, contaminating the fish they ate and affecting their reproductive systems).

But since I can get strawberries at my own farmer’s market, I drove to the olallieberry patches. Families with children fanned out amidst the berry patches, and the kids alternated putting one berry in the communal container and one berry in their mouths. I happily strolled the well-tended rows while berries practically leapt into my Tupperware.

After paying for my U-Pick berries, with visions of the jams I will never get around to canning, I shifted the car into gear with my purple stained hands and drove north up the coast towards my San Francisco home.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Five Senses of Haiti

In Haiti…..

I touched: A whole goats’ head wrapped in cold plastic in the refrigerated meat section of a grocery store; a tattered deck of cards; a farmer’s worn machete; a handful of tiny planting seeds; conch shells lining the top of a wall; banana leaves slick with rain; rain drops sneaking through a tin roof onto my bed; rough wooden carvings; calloused hands and leathery cheeks of countless Haitians; a non-electric iron that grows hot by inserting pieces of charcoal inside.

I smelled: Small charcoal fires in cinderblock houses; pigs wallowing in mud; grilled chicken at a street stall; trash rotting in the streets; shared chunks of watermelon in a crowded van; Caribbean ganja; propane stoves; homemade meat turnovers being cooked at a street stall; incense; trucks sputtering exhaust; sulfur flats where President Duvalier used to dump the bodies of his enemies; freshly woven shopping bags.

I saw: mangroves lining the coast; a Benedictine monastery nestled atop a hill; cars and trucks crushed by earthquake debris; chartreuse lizards clinging to walls; trees heavy with fruit; armed men piled in the back of United Nations Land Rovers; piles of sticks prepared to make charcoal; flying fish skimming the sea like skipped stones;fridges turned horizontally to be re-purposed as ice chests from which to sell cold drinks; children bathing in rain puddles; scraggly dogs searching for scraps; children dancing; cock-fighting rings; the sun setting over Florida; men and women donning cheap shower caps to walk in the rain; coffee and manioc plants, street art on public walls.

I tasted: Madam Antoine’s delicious homemade donuts; dried breadfruit chips; fresh mango; Haitian rice and beans; hot coffee from beans hand-ground by the neighbor next door; homemade peanut butter; tangy lime juice sweetened with sugar cane; Prestige Haitian beer;
manioc dumplings; fresh passionfruit juice; conch meat with hot sauce; goat meat; spaghetti for breakfast; spicy hot tea with ginger and anise; sugar cane peanut brittle; hot chocolate with spices; chaka stew (beans, veggies, milled corn).

I heard: impassioned preaching and singing from outdoor tent churches; children singing and playing drums and wind instruments at school; gentle rain on a tin roof; roosters who start in at 4am; children chanting “blan! blan! blan!” (white!) whenever we went by; the soothing waterfall next to Carla’s house; goats bleating for food; a dot-matrix printer spitting out receipts; cats meowing in the night.
Mesi, Haiti. Pita. (Thank you, Haiti. See you later. )

For other Five Senses posts, click on any of these:
The Five Senses of Tanzania
The Five Senses of San Francisco's Chinatown
The Five Senses of San Francisco's Presidio

Haiti and the USA

I’ve been avoiding writing this post because there is huge potential for coming off as sanctimonious, “preachy”, or judging. Some people aren’t going to like it, but it's a post I have to write.

We don’t want to admit it, but the United States is hugely responsible for many adverse conditions in Haiti. Other Western countries also do their share of the pillaging—but that doesn’t let the U.S. off the hook because that’s like being a part of a gang who beats someone senseless, and pleading afterwards “But I wasn’t the only one hitting him.” Besides, my belief is that the U.S. owes more to Haiti because of its close proximity- it’s only a 1 ½ hour flight from Miami to Port au Prince.

Anyway, there is this giant called the United States of America, and we have a functional government (I know, it sounds like an oxymoron) that very successfully looks out for our own interests. Then there is this pee-wee named Haiti that has suffered from a long string of dictators and failed leaders, and who most recently elected a Haitian pop star as their president, in an attempt to give someone a try who hasn’t come from a corrupt political career and thus may look at things differently. (Kind of like Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected in California)

So whenever there is a situation when the U.S. can benefit from something related to Haiti, the U.S. inevitably wins, and Haiti loses because the U.S grabs for what it wants like a two-year old in a sandbox. And the American people probably don’t even know this is happening because the trade agreements and political alliances happen on levels that we have no access to or that we find so boring and beyond our realm of influence that we don’t bother to keep informed about them.

But the fact is that I could physically see America’s adverse influence on Haiti while I was there. How?

Rice. All over Haiti I saw 50 pound bags of rice in white canvas bags labeled “Made in the USA”. Haitian farmers used to grow all their own rice, but for years buying imported U.S. rice has been cheaper than buying locally grown Haitian rice. So Haitians buy “Miami Rice” (get it?), Haitian rice farmers are out of a job, American rice farmers off-load their subsidized product, and the U.S. bags more money.

Chicken. Haiti has chickens running around all over the place. Sure they are scrawny—but chickens nonetheless. Tyson Foods takes the dark meat that Americans don’t want and exports it to Haiti. Guess who makes a lot of money on that? Tyson! Guess who loses out from raising local chickens? Haitians! To be fair, right after the earthquake in 2010 Tyson donated $250,000 to Haiti’s disaster relief efforts. But on the other hand, this is a company that makes hundreds of millions of dollars per quarter, so you be the judge on whether a $250K donation is significant or not.

Travel advisories. Some world travelers have long been distrustful of the United States’ travel warnings posted on State Department websites. “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risk of travel to…” It is suspected that there may be some less-than-truthful or some politically motivated reasons why American’s are discouraged from traveling to certain countries. One highly cynical theory- and I don’t know if it is true- is that U.S. Embassy employees get extra pay for living and working in a high risk area. Who writes the travel advisories? U.S. Embassy employees. Thus, to issue a warning about a certain country may work to the financial benefit of the person issuing the warning. My main point is that- partially due to travel advisories-- Haiti doesn’t seem to have any tourism. I’ve been to poor countries before but many of them have some sort of tourism infrastructure that brings in at least a little money. In Haiti I saw a few sub-par “resorts” along the beach where United Nations soldiers go to shed their camouflage and drink beer, but as a rule, tourism for pleasure is pretty non-existent in Haiti.

Volunteer Tourism. However, volunteer tourism (volunteering for a charitable cause) is rampant. And America spends a lot of money in Haiti through church groups, NGO’s, building projects, and medical clinics. But before we pat ourselves on the back too quickly, 12 months after the earthquake the Associated Press shared information that out of every $100 spent by U.S. organizations in Haiti, only $1.60 was won by Haitian contractors. In other words, Americans' charitable service to Haiti lines the pockets of Americans- not Haitians.

Trash. Port au Prince is covered with trash. There is so much trash because the Haitian government doesn’t have a handle on things like sanitation. Most Americans can’t wrap our heads around this reality because we enjoy regular sanitation pick ups once or twice a week. (In 2007 Oakland had a trash strike and the trash wasn’t picked up for weeks. Homeowners threw a tizzy fit, people were confronted with their waste consumption, and politicians were calling it a “serious health crisis.”) Not once did I see a public garbage can in Haiti. And even in places where there were huge trash bins, they were overflowing because the government doesn’t have someone pick them up regularly. I distinctly remember being in developing countries in the past, looking around at all the trash and thinking “if everyone is unemployed, why don’t they rally themselves to gather up all the trash and get rid of it?” But now I understand that there is nowhere for the trash to go.

But there is also trash in Haiti because American companies sell things to Haiti that exacerbates the trash situation. Haitian locals told us that in the last 15 years the trash has gotten worse in Haiti. Previously, Haitians used recyclable glass bottles for Coca Colas and other sugary drinks, which they would return back to the place of purchase. Now there are worthless, empty plastic bottles strewn everywhere. Previously, the Haitians wrapped street food in biodegradable banana leaves. Now there are Styrofoam containers tossed all over. Coca Cola and whoever manufactures and imports styrofoam gets money while the Haitian countryside gets litter.

Wood and gold. Haiti is completely deforested in part because long ago other countries took most of their wood to build houses in France and other lands. Canadian mining companies are scattered all over Haiti, taking Haiti’s natural resources and leaving massive soil erosion as a gift.

So the United States and other key Western countries are directly responsible for much of the tragedy and poverty in Haiti. Countries like the U.S. have what we have because countries like Haiti don’t have what they don’t have. Taking it up a notch- Melanie has what she needs (and wants) because a woman in Haiti doesn’t have what she needs. I'm currently sitting with that.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Things I Like About Haitians

“Bonjou!” and “Bonsoir!” I like that Haitians greet one another with a robust “hello” and a hug and kiss on the cheek like they haven’t seen each other in weeks or months—even if they saw each other earlier that day.

Strength. While I don’t like the conditions that keep testing them, I do like and admire the physical, emotional, and spiritual strength of the Haitians. It’s astounding how they endure things that would have made most of us crumble long ago.

Patience. I like that Haitians don’t fret traffic jams, they patiently tolerate the fumblings of foreigners trying to help, and I watched this Haitian fellow patiently and kindly help Yvonne learn some Creole for quite a long time on the patio.

Sharing. In the van one day, Carla bought us all a bunch of chips in plastic bags. When we stopped to pick up some Haitian friends of hers, she gave each of them a bag to eat too. When one man was dropped off first, he took his unopened bag with him. “See that?” Carla shared, “he’s taking that home to his family to share with them. Haitians always think of others when they receive something.”

Big is Beautiful. Upon arriving at the wharf for our ferry ride to La Gonave our van was swarmed by a dozen men wanting to carry our bags to the boat. Hot and sweaty, in NO WAY looking my best, I climbed out of the van under the stare of 12 sets of eyes. “Big woman!” one of the men said appreciatively while the others nodded. All righty then.

Artists. In Port au Prince-- a city where there isn’t much natural beauty-- public art stands out as a lily among thorns. I admired much of the graffiti, and their public buses are fancied up real purty too!
Local Heroes. All over Haiti there are people like Mona and William who have other passions and responsibilities, yet remain committed to their communities and work hard to raise the quality of life around them. I can only guess at the massive number of local heroes who share their food and water, offer their personal space for a stranger to sleep in, care for orphans who lost family members in the earthquake. Heck, I considered Madame Antoine a local hero for cooking over open fires in this “kitchen” and churning out delicious meals for us guests every day. Average Haitians rise up every day and make good things happen.

A Great Saying. In Creole—as in English—there are a large variety of responses you can give when someone asks “How are you?” My favorite response is “Map bat zel mwen” (I’m still beating my wings!)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tent Camps

In one month I’m going tent camping with my sister. We’ll pitch my fine REI tent on a carefully tended campsite in a lush forest, toast marshmallows over a fire, sleep on comfortable mattresses, and consider it a fine vacation.

In Haiti there is a completely different situation going on with tents. Driving around the countryside we saw plenty of tents pitched on hillsides or out in fields. Many of them were stenciled with “PR China” and the names of countless other governments and NGO’s providing housing to the Haitian people after the earthquake. In Port au Prince there are tent camps scattered around the city. There’s a big one by the airport, there are tent camps in spaces where there used to be parks or public squares, there are tent camps built on top of the rubble from fallen buildings, and Sean Penn’s famous tent camp in Petionville (a suburb of Port au Prince) is situated on a golf course and houses and cares for 50,000 people. Check out this before and after satellite photo.

We drove by many of them, but it is difficult to take photos while cruising in a van, and I also didn’t want to be a voyeuristic jerk, obnoxiously taking photos of other people’s misfortunes. So I don’t have great photos. I have ones like this:

But I have vivid memories.

One of my host Carla’s good friends is a man named Mona who is a remarkably gifted painter, poet, musician, and song writer. He is a classic Renaissance man. On January 12, 2010 the earth started shaking, walls and ceilings came down all around Mona, and despite being in a basement room on the bottom of a house, he miraculously survived.

Out of necessity, a tent camp sprung up in his neighborhood and 300 families currently live there. When my group visited his camp we walked through muddy, narrow walkways past rows of tents and shacks made out of plywood and scavenged materials. Tent flaps were tied back to reveal 5-10 people sitting in tents about 15 feet wide and long. Older children came out to shake our hands and offer cheerful “bonsoir’s”, while naked toddlers laughed and twirled in the rain.

Our group gathered in a make-shift community center built out of plywood, and listened to Mona and his co-laborer William speak of their experiences helping to run the tent camp. Shortly after the earthquake, a pastor from San Diego had showed up with a wad of cash, asked the tent community what they needed, and peeling off $3,000 had commissioned them to build the community center in one week so that he could take a photo of it before leaving to show his church what they had paid for. Mona and William had hired Haitian workers and moved heaven and earth to complete the room in one week, with a painted sign “Rev. James W. Smith Memorial Community Center” being the finishing touch. They also built a small medical center so tent community members could get medical attention, and they want to stock it with more medicines but they need to save up for a cupboard with a lock so that the medications will stay safe. They’d also like to hire a Haitian nurse to provide care-- especially since there are so many Haitian medical practitioners currently out of work.

Of the 300 families living in the tent camp, there are a handful of men and women who participate in a committee that makes decisions for the community. It is difficult for Mona and William because they are looked at as people who can give other people work if an NGO approaches them with a project. So they hear a lot of desperation and get a lot of requests. Mona and William have a computer with spreadsheets of hundreds of names of people who want work, and there is a lot of pressure to ensure that the distribution of work and resources is fair and just.

Seeing that the tent community had taken initiative to build a community center (as a gathering place for meetings, and for a space for children to play and learn), another NGO gave the tent camp a water tank and built toilets and showers. The NGO pays for two people to clean and maintain the public toilets and showers, but instead the community chose four people to work part-time so that more people can make a little money. With an 80% unemployment rate, cleaning toilets is a prized job.

Friday, June 24, 2011

First World Problems Rap

Great perspective in light of the other things I'm writing about lately.

Healing in Haiti

I’ve traveled to several developing countries and the truth is that with the exception of the Philippines, I haven’t had great experiences. India was the absolute worst. I don’t even talk about what happened there, except to say that after a week I left there with severe post-traumatic stress syndrome that I recovered from by sitting in a guest house garden in Katmandu for a week.

When I’ve traveled to developing countries, I’ve been prepared for the fact that they will be poor, that there will be people asking me for money, and there will be sad things to see and experience. I accept those realities. But what I’ve never been able to accept is the cheating, lying, scamming, stealing, and the constant feeling that everyone sees me only as a walking ATM machine, everyone is trying to get one over on me, or everyone is trying to befriend me just to get something from me. In those countries I feel like I can’t trust anyone.

Haiti wasn’t like that. In my 8 days of traveling Haiti, only about 2 people asked me for money—and they didn’t really even ask—they just pointed to their stomachs and said they were hungry. I never felt pounced upon or unsafe in Haiti (except for maybe seeing all the U.N. soldiers with automatic weapons resting on their knees). And the Beyond Borders staff brokered all the relationships, so I never felt like anyone was trying to shake me down or get something out of me.

So the disturbing things that have happened to me in other developing countries didn’t happen to me in Haiti. But Mother Ayiti took it a step further—she healed me.

On my final day with my rural hosting family on La Gonave, our group had to leave unexpectedly to catch a boat across the water before a bad storm hit. At my hosting family’s house I quickly packed my backpack, said reluctant goodbye’s, and slung my backpack over my shoulder to walk back to the truck. After a minute I heard a child yelling “Mel-a-nie! Mel-a-nie!” One of the children from my house ran down the trail with my shoes in his hand. Someone had put them outside the door of the house, and when I packed I didn’t notice they were gone.

I can’t describe how healing that moment was for me. I was profoundly touched. Any other country I had been in, the person finding my shoes would have probably thought “that damn American has other shoes. I’m keeping these.” But in Haiti- the poorest country in the Western hemisphere-- this beautiful child knocked himself out to return my stupid, old, beat up shoes (that I was planning on leaving in Haiti anyway).

It's easy to ascertain from my vague narrative above that I carry some heavy emotional baggage from past travels. Fully aware of this, in the months leading up to my departure for Haiti I had been filling up a flip chart on my living room wall with prayers for me, my fellow travelers, and for Haiti. Here’s what I had written in one corner:
How’s that for an answer to prayer?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Children in Haiti

One of the best things Mother Ayiti has going for her is her children. Haitian children have something special going on.

Number 1- Haitian children are not lazy. If an adult needs to send a message to another person in the village (or even the household), they flag down a kid and the child runs to deliver it. With no TV's or video games to plop down in front of, Haitian children actually apply the old-fashioned practice of physical movement.

Number 2- Haitian children are hard working. At Carla’s guest house, all of the children- whether they were 4 years old or 14 years old—carried adult-sized loads of enormous bags and supplies from the van to the kitchen. Without complaint. They grow them strong in Haiti.

Number 3- Haitian children take school very seriously. In a country where there is no free public education, families who make very little money struggle to scrape together at least $150 a year to send each child to school. So the children study hard to honor their parent’s sacrifice. Late on Friday nights at our guest house, older children could be found fretting over mathematical equations scribbled on a chalkboard.

Number 4- Haitian children are uncomplaining. While staying with my rural hosting family, the family was standing up looking at the postcards of San Francisco and photos of my family that I had brought to show them. The youngest son- a little guy no more than 4 years old— well, here is a photo of him….

…the youngest son stood underneath everyone and clearly wanted to see the photos but they completely ignored him. He jumped up and down a couple of times to try to get a peek, but came up a good 2 feet short of being able to view anything. Eventually I saw that he was being left out, so I lifted him up to see. But the whole time he never said a word- he never cried or whined or complained. Now show me an American kid who acts like that.

Creatures in Haiti

Most of the non-humans occupying Haiti are of the domesticated kind. Haiti is only a small island, so there aren’t any deer or bears wandering around. The animal I saw the most of was goats. Goats are everywhere- sometimes roaming freely and oftentimes tied up.
The rural family that I lived raised these lovely pigs.
And on the more appealing side, I saw a few baby animals like this adorable horse.
It being a Caribbean island, there were a lot of lizards scurrying around the guest house.
But the animal that reigns at the complete bottom of the totem pole is dogs. In Port au Prince dogs could most often be seen pawing at trash piles, searching for something to eat. My rural family had a little puppy whose mother had died weeks before. This scrawny puppy lived a miserable existence fending for itself and trying vainly not to get stepped on. We visitors petted him, but you could tell that it wasn’t used to anyone paying attention to him. The rainy season had just begun, and while I didn’t think it was cold, everyone else- including the puppy—thought it was freezing. The puppy was often found huddled up shivering, and once I woke up in the morning and found the puppy sleeping curled up on top of some coals from a fire that had burned out the night before.
Did it break my heart? Of course! But the sad reality is that in a country where people are struggling to survive and they barely have enough to eat, feeding and loving dogs is not a top priority.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Haitian Market

The streets of Port au Prince are crowded with street vendors selling what they can. Imagine every square foot of the your city’s sidewalks filled with people squatting beside blankets on which they have neatly arranged items to sell- shoes, clothing, food, cooking utensils, mattresses- I literally saw kitchen sinks for sale on a sidewalk. Lucky vendors who stake out prime sidewalk space get to hang their items on a fence or the wall of a building. Of course there are no official standards, no permits, but there probably are mutually understood rules. I have no idea how anyone carves out a living selling the exact same mangoes and bananas that the person right next to them is selling, but somehow it works.

One day our whole group drove Madam Antoine, our amazing cook, to the market in her old neighborhood so she could pick up a few days of food to prepare for us. Madam Antoine brought along 3 children to help her at the market, since she essentially bought the equivalent of a big Costco run and needed help lugging her purchases from place to place.

This is what the market looked like:
There were pyramids of papayas, mangoes, oranges, coconuts, pineapples, melons.
Tables were heavy with piles of pigs feet and chicken feet.
There were wheelbarrows of charcoal for making fires, and other wheelbarrows of 3-4 foot rods of sugar cane (Haiti used to be the sugar cane capital of the world).
Most interesting to me was that men and women stuffed scrawny live chickens head first into black plastic bags, and walked around with them tucked under their arms.
Platters of smoked herring glistened in the heat and Madam Antoine picked up the biggest sweet potato I had ever seen: (this isn't Haitian Madam Anoine, by the way. This is Anne, of Virginia. But that is the sweet potato)

Later on in the day when we returned for Madam Antoine and the children, we had 15 people, all the market purchases, and two propane tanks crammed into a van with a passenger capacity of 12. We were so packed that the sliding door of the van threatened to come off. At one point in the van I yelled “Stop! The window just fell out!” and we drove slowly along in traffic as a random guy on the street trotted alongside us and gave us back our window.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Getting to Know the Aldors

My hosting family was Monsieur and Madam Aldor and their 5 kids—3 of whom were actually theirs, and the other 2 belonging to a sister or cousin or something- it wasn’t totally clear.
The Aldors farm for a living, and have plants, crops, and fruit trees scattered throughout the hillside. They also have relatives scattered throughout the hillside- they told me that basically everyone in their little community is related. The family pointed out the papaya and mango trees on their property, and Monsieur let me swing his machete and plant some seeds.

One afternoon, Monsieur and one of his sons taught my fellow traveler, John, and me a card game. They pulled out this beat up, raggedy deck of cards (I have around 6 brand new decks of cards in a drawer at home) and John and I gamely tried to catch on to the rules despite us speaking English and our hosts speaking Creole. Every time I made some points, I slammed my cards down on the table like I had observed the son do, and this made for some great fun and laughter no matter what language we spoke.

Indeed, with dozens of pairs of children’s eyes watching me at all times, I found that really all you have to do is smile, pat them, and occasionally shake your booty in order for them to think you are the most hilarious person in the world. I don’t do a lot of booty shaking in San Francisco, but I figured give the people what they want. Here are some of my local followers.

Our last evening together, I showed the family two postcards of San Francisco- one of the Golden Gate Bridge, and one of the downtown buildings. They really liked the Golden Gate Bridge. I also showed them a photo of my family, and they wanted to know exactly who everyone in the photo was- sister, brother, mother, nephew, niece…..

After us visitors had showed off a few photos of our families, Madam brought out a treasured photo album, and we went through the album page by page, with Madam Aldor pointing out and naming every single relative in each and every photo. It took a while, but I couldn’t help but note that when an American pulls out photos to show strangers, they preface it with “oh, you don’t want to see all these photos… it’s boring.” Whereas, family is so important to Haitians that they were proud to identify everyone and happy to share their extended family with us.

Even after only a few days with them, I felt a real bond with the Aldors, and certainly a lot of admiration for them. Make no mistake about it- they are poor and they struggle to put food on the table. But they welcomed strangers into their home, they sacrificed their own comfort and probably some of their own meager resources to house and feed us, and hopefully they enjoyed us as much as we enjoyed them.

Living Like the Haitians

One of the best parts of my trip to Haiti was that I got to live with an average rural Haitian family for a few days. After arriving in the village, we had a little get-to-know you time at the school, and then three different hosting families took 2-3 of my traveling partners to their homes. After wandering down a dirt road and then up and down a pleasant dirt trail, we came to our family’s compound. It was composed of a couple of crudely constructed buildings, a cistern for collecting rain water, and a canopy made out of branches and dried banana leaves. It was on a small hill, with a terrific view of surrounding mountains covered with green trees and bushes. Chickens clucked nearby, and a welcome wagon of curious neighborhood children came over to line up and stare at us.

My host mother showed me how to take a bucket “shower” behind the house. After scooping up water and washing the day’s travel grime off of my body, I was ready to explore. The main house was a little bigger than my living room, had no windows, and was divided into four sections by walls, with doors of hanging fabric. Three of the four rooms had a bed in them. The whole family gave up their beds and slept together in a storage shed so that we 3 visitors could sleep comfortably. The 4th room had a small kitchen table and 4 chairs alongside a shelf storing all of their eating utensils.
After serving us a dinner of rice, beans, fish and fresh lime juice, we sat with the family under the canopy. I asked them what the family does on a typical evening. “We sit here and talk until the sun goes down. Then we get sleepy and go to bed because there is nothing else to do” replied Madam Aldor through our translator. The sun went down at 6:30pm so bed time was early. (Every morning of my time in Haiti, everyone was awake with the sun at 5am, and the place was totally hopping by 6am)

Lying in bed the first night, some relief from the sweltering heat eventually came with the arrival of some gentle pitter-pattering rain. I thought it soothing to hear the rain drops on the tin roof of the house, until a real downpour arrived causing a racket beyond anything you could imagine. The wind whipped around the house, the rain poured on the roof and rushed down the gutters directly into the cistern. We later found out that we had survived our first tropical depression, or a light cyclone. All I know is that you could be in the house screaming at the top of your lungs and no one would be able to hear you over the rain pounding on the tin roof. It’s been a long time since I’ve appreciated the fulfillment of a basic need like shelter.

The next morning it was still lightly raining, which the family decided was good reason to have one of the boys escort me up the hill to the outhouse with an umbrella. I’ve never been big on processional ceremonies to the toilet, but I let this one go. Furthermore, call me shallow and spoiled, but the outhouses and toilets were the one thing in Haiti that I couldn’t wait to be done with, and I truly missed Western plumbing. Here are outside/inside photos of the outhouse. It ain’t for the faint of heart.