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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Island Time- La Gonave

As those who got an A in geography know, Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island, and on the Haiti side, to the northwest of Port au Prince, there is a smaller island called "La Gonave". I was told that the people from Port au Prince look down upon people from La Gonave, but I don't know why. It is picturesque, peaceful, rural, and it doesn't smell like automobile exhaust. Haitians probably consider it provincial, in the same way that I turn up my nose at Bakersfield.

Our group took a leisurely ferry ride over to the island in the bright sunshine, and a few days later took a speedboat back in order to avoid getting stuck on the island in a possible hurricane. But that's another story. For now, views of La Gonave:

Goudou Goudou

Many people have asked me what signs of the January 2010 earthquake are still present. Well, a year and a half later, there is quite a bit of physical as well as emotional rubble. Referring to the earthquake as “Goudou Goudou” (when you say this a bunch of times in a row, to the Haitians it mimics the sound of buildings shaking) everyone has an earthquake story.

People took care of each other and shared what they had. My host family had 17 people sleeping in their house for a while. This is a house the size of my living room.

One woman near my guest house is living in a tent in her yard because the roof on her small house is concrete and she is afraid of it falling on her in another earthquake.

Most people have seen this on the news, but the presidential palace is still in a shambles. I couldn’t help but think that a country like the U.S. would have bulldozed that eye-sore long ago. But on the other hand, some Haitians say that some bad shit went down in that presidential palace in the past, so it is fitting that it stay there as a symbol of evil getting its due.
In downtown Port au Prince there are some vacant lots where I was told demolished buildings had been cleared, but there is still loads of rubble EVERYWHERE. It was difficult to get photos of all that I saw because we were driving through and it seemed voyeuristic to stop and take photos of misfortune, but these are pretty typical scenes of the rubble:

The government has gone through and painted these signs on all the buildings- commercial and residential. If the paint is green it means the building is all right and you can go in it; red paint indicates that the building is off limits.

I know what earthquakes are like. In 1989 I lived in an unstable loft and was home when the Loma Prieta earthquake shook with a 7.1 on the Richter scale. It was scary. 63 people died in that earthquake.

The 2010 Haitian earthquake was 7.0 on the Richter scale. 316,000 people died. Even after seeing the rubble with my own eyes, I can't wrap my head around that number.

Beyond Borders- Transformational Travel

I have nothing but good things to say about the organization that arranged my travels. Beyond Borders’ Transformational Travel program is offered so that people can travel humbly to Haiti with the intentions of learning the culture and history, and getting to know the people and how they live (rather than relying upon CNN to feed us info). There is mutual give and take among Haitians and visitors, and they discourage the typical paternalistic approach where visitors come to Haiti with a wad of cash intent upon doing things for Haitians that the Haitians could very well do for themselves.

In additional to Transformational Travel, Beyond Borders has an apprenticeship program in which people live with a typical Haitian family, immersed in the culture and Creole for one year. Two of the people on my trip- Sarah and Courtney—were two months into their apprenticeship, and their Creole had excelled so rapidly that they joined our trip as our translators. These young women already knew plenty about Haitian culture and I admired their courage and sense of adventure in signing up for a year.

Knowing that Haitians are competent, innovative, passionate people, Beyond Borders partners with Haitian organizations and local individuals to tap their expertise, their relationships, and their street credibility. They raise awareness and organize movements around issues such as reproductive rights and violence against children. They were instrumental in helping families find each other in the aftermath of the earthquake. They support grassroots community actions and help “mobilize and unite” Haitians. And much more.

My group was in constant contact with amazing Haitian people who were knowledgeable and professional. We had language, culture, and history lessons from 4 young men- Manno, Yaya, Jean David, and Routson—who were patient and proud to share their country with us. In addition, our trip employed Haitian drivers, teachers, cooks, hosting families, boat captains, facilitators, artists, musicians—all to give us an accurate view of what Haiti is like. In addition to the privilege of being introduced to true Ayiti (Creole for Haiti), I was happy that some of the fees for my travels helped so many Haitians work an honest day and make a living sharing their expertise.

This is a photo of my travel group, along with the two apprentices and a couple of Beyond Borders staff.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

First Glimpses of Haitian Reality

My first glimpse of Haitian reality was in the Miami airport. I smiled at an elderly Haitian woman who was dressed in her Sunday best for traveling with some family members. She looked frail yet adorable in her big white hat and fuchsia suit. When we came to the first escalator the woman stepped up to the moving staircase, froze long enough to back up a long line of people, and at the urging of her family members (who couldn’t help her because their arms were full of luggage) she awkwardly stepped onto the escalator and her feet flew out from under her. But she clutched the railing as if her life depended on it (which it did) and she fearfully watched for the moment when she was going to have to step off again.

I realized that most Haitians have never experienced escalators.

I watched helplessly while she disembarked awkwardly, and then there was another escalator with a repeat performance of stumbling and gravitational realities until finally some of us Westerners feared for her life and we tightly held onto her as she staggered on and off five different escalators. Touched by her bravery, yet shaken by the danger for this poor woman, I raced ahead to get on the airplane.

The flight to Port au Prince was uneventful, but as I completed customs paperwork on the plane I caught a second glimpse of Haitian reality. Seeing that I had a pen and that I was writing on my customs documents, the two Haitians sitting next to me said something in Creole, smiled shyly, and passed me their passports and blank customs documents.

They were illiterate.

So comparing my English documents with their French ones, I gamely did my best to fill in the correct blanks for them. And I sent up a quick prayer that they wouldn’t get detained at Immigration because I didn't study very hard in my high school French class.

Departure Gate

After a red-eye flight from San Francisco, I arrived in Miami at 5:00 am and wearily awaited my next flight at the departure gate. The waiting area was bustling with early morning activity. With a quick glance around the room I estimated that about 15% of my co-travelers were Haitian, and 85% white.

There were more than a few middle-aged men whom I imagined were managers or engineers of various NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations). With their gray wavy hair, clean blue jeans, t-shirts, and multi-pocketed khaki photographers’ vests they emitted an air of expertise. They rested their feet on brand new backpacks as they pecked away at battered laptops.

There were various teams of 8-12 people whom I guessed were church groups. One team wore bright yellow t-shirts that said “Love a Child Construction Team”, and another group wore blue t-shirts proclaiming the obvious “Here to Serve Haiti”. The team leaders bustled around in baseball caps, offering firm handshakes and peppering their conversations with questions such as “what’s the weather like?”, or “what are you working on?”, or “how is the drainage working now?” One by one the church groups migrated inconspicuously towards some quiet corners to clasp hands in a big circle and pray.