Sunday, June 23, 2013

Under a June Haitian Moon

Under a Haitian Moon
Fok ou konnen kote ou soti pou ou konnen kote ou prale.

You must know where you come from to know where you’re going.
Haitian Proverb

Hello, friends, and welcome back!  Given the kind of cold, snowy and wet spring experienced in large portions of North America, I’m quite certain people are plenty happy to have warm summer days finally upon us (excepting the deadly thunderstorms and tornadoes of late, to be sure).  As hurricane season has just begun for us here in the Caribbean, the daily weather has taken a turn as well, for now it’s typically 91 degrees and sunny every day instead of the usual 90.  So it goes.  However, the rains and storms are certain to come (some already have; more on that later), and predictions have it that this season will have more serious tropical storms and hurricanes than in the recent past, which does not bode well for this country and its people.  Stay tuned, it’s going to get hot and heavy soon.

Since the last note a couple months ago, we’ve managed to visit a bit more of the city and country, and had a nice trip to the neighboring Dominican Republic as well.  Given the lack of independence and mobility regarding life in this city, these little trips have been very welcome indeed.

Tommy had spring break in late March, and flew into Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic where we met for the first couple of days of our little vacation.  We walked freely (unaware of the relative dangers there, although in relation to Port-au-Prince, it’s a comparison not quite worth making); visited the home of the son of Christopher Columbus; went to a modern shopping mall (none of those here); spent a day visiting with friends who are stationed at the Embassy in Santo Domingo; attended Easter vigil at a cathedral built in the 1500s; did the traditional Easter lunch at Taco Bell (yes, yes, I know how awful that sounds, but there are no American restaurants – fast-food or otherwise, except one Domino’s Pizza shop – here in Haiti, and Taco Bell … you know … just kind of presented itself to us that day); saw an actual movie in an actual theater (none of those here either); and generally enjoyed being together again walking through the historic colonial zone and visiting with friends from Haiti who happened to be there at the same time.  

Good to have you back, T!

My girls.
Old church bells in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo.

The first home in the Americas for the family of Christopher Colombus, occupied by his son Diego.

Tommy and his new little friend.

Easter Vigil at the Cathedral in the Colonial Zone, dating from the 1500s.

After a couple days in the capital, we drove our rental car about three hours all the way to the eastern-most point on the island of Hispanola to a resort town called Punta Cana.  We chose a three-bedroom apartment found on the TripAdvisor website instead of an all-inclusive resort (of which there are many in the area), and spent six days just steps from a beautiful white sand beach, complete with warm turquoise seas of the Atlantic, swaying palm trees and open air cafes on the edge of the sand, and even spent a pleasant hour conversing with a Dutch ex-commando who owns a small cigar shop right on the beach.  (I think I found my retirement plan!)  We took several day-trips to go horseback riding and zip-lining in the nearby mountains, snorkeling and picnicking on a remote island (well, remote except for the 2000 other people brought out there by boat for the same reason), and Tom and Sophie even went swimming with dolphins!  All in all we had a splendid time.

The view from our apartment balcony.

Pretty darn happy.

The Dish was a bit surprised by his sudden appearance.
Hand-rolling Dominican cigars.

Team Panetti on the way to "make snorkeling."

There are several similar resort-type beaches within a few hours’ drive of Port-au-Prince, and we’ve now visited two of them, recently Club Indigo, which is really the former ‘Club Med’ from back in the day when tourists actually frequented Haiti in rather significant numbers.  There we enjoyed a day of tropical drinks in the sun on the white sand beach, cooled off in the refreshing waters of the Caribbean, and watched a local guy selling fresh conch and lobster from a surf board just off shore.  We also engaged in an exciting little multi-national sand volleyball game with some nice computer tech volunteers from Ireland, Columbia and the States as well as a few diplomats from the Chinese Embassy in PAP.  A good time was had by all.

Mr. Paul selling fresh lobster and conch (lambi in Kreyol).


Club Indigo.

Over the long Memorial Day weekend, a small group of us from our Embassy caravanned to the south-west coast about five hours and spent the long weekend on Île á Vache (Cow Island), a beautiful little island about five miles off the southern coastal town of Les Cayes.  No cars are allowed, but there are several hotels and little villages that co-exist there, connected by sea routes and walking paths.  The beach at Abaka Bay Resort recently made the list of CNNs 100 best beaches of the world (coming in at something like #57), and the resort offers three meals a day (included) and nicely appointed, comfortable cabanas right on the beach.  We spent three days in more clean turquoise waters and soft white sand; explored the rougher coastal areas and ‘pirate’ caves; hiked the small hillocks through small rural villages attracting the attention of residents and school kids; talked to locals building wooden fishing boats and mending fishing nets by hand; enjoyed cigars and pretty good rum punch on the cool evening breezes, and generally decompressed from the workaday week and the struggles of living in Port-au-Prince.

Our sturdy boat, The Minnow.  Not really.

Abaka Bay Resort.

Welcome to Cow Island - here's a Rhum Punch!

The view from our cabana.

Aaron and me with local fishermen.

Typical home in the village of Ile la Vache.

Really, who needs clothes?

Typical home in the village on Ile la Vache.  Goat extra.


Madame Jean Marie, proud principal of Star of the Morning school.

Each boat is built by hand and takes about three-months to complete.

Sophie and I joined a small group of expats from the Canadian Embassy and ours on a hike in the mountains east of the city one Sunday afternoon when Kate was visiting Minnesota to see Tommy.  We drove up into the hills for about two hours on some pretty scenic roadways (well, the roads themselves were far from scenic, but the surrounding countryside was).  We hiked up and down into some rural areas, always accompanied by a couple of enterprising unofficial ‘guides’ who hoped to earn a few bucks from the outsiders.  While straining our leg muscles and lungs, we encountered villagers who seemed to be easily hiking the steep grades in bare feet yet also in their Sunday best coming home from church – some carrying little kids, some clearly more elderly than me – almost always attracting attention as the blan (the Kreyol word for white but also used to describe any foreigner – white or not – including African-Americans).

Some homes outside of Petionville are painted bright colors as part of an effort to  brighten the area, as most homes are just concrete-gray.

The hills and terraced farming south of Port-au-Prince.

Beyond the mountains are more mountains.

Returning from church and easily managing the climb.  We, on the other hand...

Taking a dip in the Petite Bassins Bleu.

The price one must pay in order to enjoy these unexpected tropical oases here in Haiti is that one must actually be in Haiti to enjoy them, entailing difficult drives in uncertain conditions, often on less than ideal roads, in incomprehensible crowds and traffic through some areas of Haiti that are striking in their poverty and where living conditions are frankly inconceivable.

Even with those nice trips under our belts, it’s not terribly difficult to remember where we’re living, as the challenges of living in a developing, third-world country are very real, and of course nothing for us as compared to the average Haitian, most of whom will never experience some of the places we have visited.

Into the “zone”
One rather “in your face” example occurred one weekend in May when Sophie was visiting Minnesota.  Kate and I signed up for a ‘windshield tour,’ one of many events coordinated and sponsored by the Community Liaison Office at the Embassy.  We met up with another dozen or so participants on a bright Saturday morning and boarded the two armored fifteen-passenger vans for a trip into a “yellow zone,” followed close behind by another armored vehicle in which were half-a-dozen armed Embassy guards to keep us safe.  We drove though several areas of Port-au-Prince which, under normal circumstances, we are highly discouraged from entering, not to mention stopping or exiting our vehicles.

Crowded market scene in downtown PAP.
The market area near Cite Soleil, often cited as the largest slum in the Western Hemisphere.
This area is in a red zone.

Damaged building in downtown PAP, still standing and with markets under its unstable structure.

The crush of people all seeming to sell the same products to one another alongside the road and down every side street, the trash piled into small mountains or scattered across the roadway for miles on end or filling the small canals that pop up in the city periodically, the buildings that look as if they survived (or didn’t survive) an aerial bombing raid even if they’re still in use, all the stray dogs and barefoot children provide a glimpse into this third world country that, despite this giant run-on sentence, almost defies description.  And then amidst it all is Le Marché en Fer (The Iron Market), a recently renovated large, open air market where commercantes (vendors or small merchants) sell everything imaginable, from mangoes and other fresh produce to homemade vodou potions and statuettes or talismans made with real human skulls.  We were allowed to wander this market for about an hour or so, closely followed by our very nice, very large armed guards, at least one of whom hadn’t yet been there despite working for the Embassy for the past six years and, you know, being Haitian.  I’m sure we gave them indigestion at least when we broke off into several small groups and they then had to find a way to keep an eye on all of us as we wandered the narrow aisles crowded floor-to-ceiling with all manner of goods.  Unfortunately this beautiful and interesting market isn’t someplace we can take visitors given our status with the Embassy, which is one of the ways in which the necessary regulations to provide us with protection serve to limit our independence.

And this was in a yellow zone, not even a red zone from which we are expressly forbidden from venturing other than to simply pass on through on the way to somewhere else.

The Marche en Fer, which was originally built to be a rail station in Cairo but was moved to PAP in the mid-1900s.
The market was largely destroyed by the earthquake in 2010 and was recently renovated and re-opened.

One can find nearly anything at the Iron Market.

Scary-eyed voudu icon.

Voudu talisman with a real human skull.

Home-brewed concoctions for voudu ceremonies.

He had a bad day, methinks.

On that same trip we visited the Museum of Haitian National Pantheon where we saw a very large, very old anchor theoretically from that famous little ship Santa Maria among other important historic artifacts and displays.  Just down the road is the famous monument dedicated to the revolt of slaves (le Marron Inconnu / Neg Mawon / the Unknown Brown), which is located across the street from where the National Palace once stood before it was destroyed in the earthquake.  Disturbing as the area is, it was nice to have an opportunity to see areas of Port-au-Prince that one normally only hears or reads about.  Of course our experience might have been quite different without the armored cars, drivers and armed guards.

The ceremonial tomb containing the interred remains of Haitian heroes
Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

The Bicentennial Tower in downtown PAP, constructed by the
Jean Bertrand Aristide government yet never completed.

The Marron Inconnu, the Unknown Brown, a monument commemorating the only successful slave revolt.

Here's a short film of our trip through the city:

The Perfect Trifecta
So before we arrived in Haiti we were warned about many things:  the poverty, the garbage, the traffic, the wonderful people, the systemic dysfunction, the many coups over the years, the traffic, the beautiful countryside outside of Port-au-Prince, the occasional violence and lawlessness, the traffic, and more.  And then one day it rained.

Back in May I had agreed to do a radio show at a small station called Radio Ibo, which has an English language show on Thursday nights (the world is nooot quite ready for me to be doing such a thing in French, and certainly not in Kreyol).  The show was about 30 minutes long and the subject was Memorial Day (which was not a bad fit for an old Civics teacher), and had the added benefit of being a fun and interesting distraction.  An Embassy driver came by to pick me up (since it was an officially sanctioned event a driver was arranged for me) around 400 pm, and we arrived about six miles later in just under an hour.  (Remember that thing about the traffic?)  While waiting to start the show it rained for a little while.  I looked out the window and watched the rain for a bit, and while it came down pretty hard for a few minutes, nothing seemed out of order.  The rain was over when I left about 45 minutes later (about 630 pm) and there were slight sprinkles off and on during the ride back, so I wasn’t particularly concerned. 

Little did I know that on the other side of the hill from the radio station (where the Embassy, and Canne a Sucre, are located) the rains came somewhat harder and lasted about 45 minutes.  To me it seemed a bit like a summer thunderstorm in the Midwest:  It rained hard for a little bit, then stopped and wasn’t a big deal any longer.  Unfortunately in Haiti, you can’t count on things to work like you expect them to.

Fortunately (!) the Embassy was built on a flood plain, and due in no small part to that, the deforestation in the hills above the city, the lack of a complete storm drainage system and the pretty heavy downpour that occurred on this side of the hills, the street in between the Embassy and Canne a Sucre was completely flooded and traffic came to an absolute halt.  That happens from time to time at home, but this … this was something else.

The normally chaotic traffic had indeed come to a halt, but now traffic along the entire length of the road for miles in either direction was not only stopped, but the road was chock-full of cars and trucks (some of which stopped working and were subsequently abandoned right where they stalled), motorbikes and people the entire width of the street and sidewalk, with several feet of brown, trash-filled water rushing down the street – also the entire width of the route, and then some – at a frenetic pace.

My trip back was fairly typical of PAP traffic.  For the first hour.  Then we hit the road which connects to Boulevard 15 Octobre (the street where one will find the US Embassy), and my life was utterly and completely arrested on the spot.  Recall that I was about six miles away from Canne a Sucre & the Embassy when at the radio station.  Recall also that traffic isn’t the greatest here.  Add in such a storm and what you get is the perfect trifecta:  An absolute mess.  Five hours later (you read that correctly), at 1130 pm, I was back in our humble abode in Canne a Sucre #30.  Five hours to go about six miles.  About 60 people were stranded at the Embassy until 1100 pm or so, as they couldn’t get their cars out of the parking lot onto the street due to … well, due to everything.  Some of them were even from Canne a Sucre, just a short walk across the street, but couldn’t even cross on foot for the same reason.  I’ve never seen anything like it, and veterans of Haiti said that storm was even worse than Hurricane Sandy (in the sense of flooding on the street by the Embassy, not overall death and destruction in the country).  Tommy mentioned a rather big storm that passed through Minnesota recently that caused some heavy, localized flooding.  The big difference is that flooding like that is generally gone in an hour or so; here the water flowed at quite a clip for about 12 hours, and there was still water flowing the next afternoon.

And hurricane season hadn’t even begun yet.  Keep your fingers crossed!

The view from the Embassy looking toward Canne a Sucre.

It's worth noting that it is not raining at the moment.

The water spread well beyond the width of the road.

Haitian Whiplash
So just five months have passed since our arrival, and while it’s normal to experience highs and lows in rapid succession when there are major life changes, this has been something quite extraordinary.  Consider the following:
1.  Weather.  As you now know, most days are sunny and warm.  Others, not so much.
2.  Environment.  The city is very dry and dusty (except when it rains, of course), and there is an abundance of garbage strewn virtually everywhere.  Outside the city it’s quite beautiful, and while not exactly lush, is certainly far more green than in Port-au-Prince.
3.  People.  There are many wonderful people in Haiti, and everyone I’ve met at the Embassy has been very friendly and works very hard doing the work of the US government.  Then out of the blue a friend has her purse snatched by a thief on a motorcycle in one of the nicer parts of town.
4.  Language.  After a year of learning French, and then essentially re-learning the specific grammar and vocabulary to conduct interviews for non-immigrant visas, now I’m trying to incorporate Kreyol into my interviews, which should be easy (so they say), but it requires me to now ‘un-learn’ all those rules of French grammar.
5.  Crowds.  Many streets are chock-a-block full of people at all times of the day, and then we return to our compound in Canne a Sucre and one could roll bowling balls down the streets as we hole up in our air conditioned homes.
6.  Wealth.  The poverty here is astounding and widespread, with GNP per capita of about $700 per year.  The gap between the haves and the have nots is equally astounding:  One percent of Haitians control 50 % of the economy, and the 500 top taxpayers generate 80% of the tax revenue in a country of 10 million.
7.  Work, part I.  Just as I start to get comfortable with the routine of a days’ worth of interviews, someone will present themselves at my interview window with something so unusual as to eat up 20 or 30 minutes of my time instead of the expected – and now somewhat normal – four to five minutes.
8.  Work, part II.  Just as I start to get comfortable with the routine of working in the Non-Immigrant Visa Unit, I move to a new one.  I’ll be changing to the Immigrant Visa Unit in July, about the time I’ll have mastered many of the NIV issues.
9.  Work, part III.  Sophie arrived in Haiti at the end of January, and did some volunteering a few days a week, leaving long periods with nothing much to do until May when she started her summer internship at the Embassy, where she now works 40 hours a week.
10.  Mental health.  This life is very interesting, but very challenging.  Having built up 20 years of social capital with family and friends, starting all over building up similar capital in a foreign country can be quite exhausting.

Keeping the ‘Fun’ in Dysfunctional
I met a guy recently who told me a story.  A rather incredible – common yet uncommon – story.  It started with an accident, and illustrates the larger narrative here in Haiti, I think.

Driving his car one day on the crowded streets in Port-au-Prince, he worked his way around corner at a busy intersection.  As often happens, a motorcyclist came from nowhere and managed to squeeze into a space he had no business trying to squeeze into.  Almost inevitably, there was a collision, and the biker went down, although he was fine.  Unfortunately the biker had a passenger, as motorcycles are often used as a cheap form of public transportation around town carrying three or four people at a time, and she was injured quite badly, with several broken bones.

Now, according to our friend, what commonly happens in such situations is that the driver of the car would speed away, never to be seen again and leaving the others to fend for themselves.  Uncommonly, however, he got out of his car, and with a potentially hostile crowd of onlookers gathering, made his case that the motorcyclist was the one at fault (the crowd evidently agreed with him).  Then he did the only thing he could think of, which was to put the woman in his car and proceed to a local hospital, a risky endeavor in and of itself (ambulance service is essentially non-existent here). 

On the ride to the hospital, he learned that the woman was a teacher, and the pain was causing near hysteria for her life and the life of her son based on her perception of the severity of her injuries.  Upon arrival at the hospital, immediate up-front payment was required for her treatment, as this type of pay-as-you-go system is the rule here.  Of course she couldn’t come up with the fee, and once again – uncommonly – he called his business office to have his assistant bring some cash over to the hospital (credit cards are rare here too).

The assistant brought several hundred dollars in the local currency (Haiti uses the gourde), and the doctors admitted her, performing surgery on one broken limb.  However, her injuries were such, and conditions in the hospital were such, that the other limb couldn’t be operated on, and the next day our friend decided to move her to the Doctors Without Borders clinic for better care, where she remains almost a week later.

When retelling the story to us, you could see the despair and sorrow in his eyes, both for the injured woman and for Haiti writ large, for there are so many systems in this country in need of repair it is hard to know where one should start.  A mon avis, the triple systems of education, health care and physical infrastructure are the most critical in order to rebuild Haiti, and such reforms were under way when the earthquake struck and reversed most if not all of the progress that was made during the first decade of the new century.  It turns out that, since independence in 1804, the only governments in all of Haitian history to complete full terms without a coup d’etat or something, have occurred under the occupation of the US Marines or the United Nations.  However, our new friend sees elements of progress returning, and does in fact have hope for his country.  He is proof of that, as he could have left years ago but instead has remained here to do his small but critical part.

SMDT, continued
Another glimmer of hope comes from the SMDT orphanage we continue to visit.  Each week we hear the right things from Carlo, the Director, and we see evidence of his efforts to do the right things as well:  He has built a chicken coop and stocked it with almost 100 chicks to sell in order to raise some funds; he has a nascent garden in one corner of the lot; he has rebuilt a latrine with a proper toilet and has plans to plumb it; he is giving some of the kids responsible roles for caring for the building, the younger kids, the chickens and the garden; and he has created a schedule of chores and tasks so the kids have some structure to their lives.  Sophie has arranged for a collection of goods from Jefferson High School in Bloomington and I’m working with a group in Prior Lake to do the same in the fall, all of which – combined with the work of Carlo, his family and the team of volunteers from the Embassy – will serve to help rebuild this one little corner of Haiti.

Should you be interested, copy this link into your browser and see a short Public Service Announcement Sophie made to use at Jefferson:  We’re trying to help Carlo run a summer school program for up to 80 kids, and if you are so inclined, contact us offline and we’ll talk more about what items are needed.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
Alas, here we are, at the five month mark of our time in Haiti.  Sophie has now registered for fall semester of freshman year at Gustavus Adolphus and is working full-time at the Embassy in the Community Liaison Office as a summer intern.  Kate and some colleagues from the Embassy are planning to take on a Saturday English-language program at a local Catholic girls school in the city, and she is hoping to be a regular at SMDT during the summer to do some teaching.  Now that I’ve done more than 3100 non-immigrant visa interviews, I’ll be moving into the Immigrant Visa Unit the first week of July, just after the Embassy Independence Day Celebration at the Ambassador’s residence that I’ve been planning and coordinating.   (Pray along with me to the weather gods for good weather!)

So far we’ve managed to avoid cholera, malaria, dengue fever, accidents and injuries, and have had nothing more serious than a little touch homesickness and Haitian Sensation – known in other parts of the world known as Montezuma’s Revenge, or even Delhi Belly in India.  There was a big black spider we had to deal with in the house one day, but the Hoover took care of him right quick, karma be damned.

Life is a bit complicated, but good.  We hope you can say the same.

Not interested?  Send me a note and I'll take you off the list, no harm, no foul!  :)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are my own and not those of the U.S. Government.  Please do not disseminate widely without permission.

1 comment:

  1. I love reading about your Haitian life! Interesting stories, well told.