Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy Independence Day, Haiti

I’ve wanted to come to Haiti since 2003. I first heard of an opportunity to volunteer here with a group from Clemson. I was living in France at the time the trip was first proposed, and I immediately knew I wanted to go. I remember thinking “I’ve had a chance to see Europe, and these beautiful developed countries. I need to see how the rest of the world lives.” And that twitch never went away.

The trip was scheduled for the second week in March, 2004. I made plans, raised money, and bought the plane tickets to come. Meanwhile rebels were ravaging the North of Haiti, and civilians were erecting roadblocks around the capital, just blocks from where I live now and buy my roadside pikles. Foreigners were supposedly getting kidnapped from the airport right and left. About ten days before my group was to leave, Haiti’s president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was taken from his home in the middle of the night by American and Haitian security forces.

My trip to Haiti was canceled and the group went to rural Kentucky instead. Meanwhile in Haiti… the situation deteriorated. Since then, my curiosity has expanded. Not just to “Why is Haiti so poor?” But also to “Why is Haiti so violent and unstable?”

I just finished my sixth book/movie on the subject of Haiti, An Unbroken Agony. I’d bought the book because I wanted an accurate recent history of the country, the unclear events of 2004 through the present day, and I’d stumbled upon it at my favorite trusted local bookstore in DC. In Haiti today you’ll still get very different opinions depending on whom you talk to regarding former President Aristide, his ouster, and the surrounding political violence that has wracked the country. Sorting out the facts is an on-going project for me.

The book made me so angry I had to put it down and walk away—twice.

What made me so angry? My own government. George Bush, Colin Powell, Condeleeza Rice. The wealthy Haitian elite who live in such a stratified world that it’s unimaginable to them to share in the plight of 90% of their country. The American media that continuously distorts, inaccurately reports, or completely neglects the events in Haiti—part of the reason I never know what to take as fact or fiction.

Let me give you a few examples, quotes from the book, of what set me off.

On Class:

Carl Frobrum, 74, was a fair-skinned society columnist, socialite, and longtime prominent member of South Florida’s community of upwardly mobile Haitian professionals. When his well-to-do peers demanded that Aristide resign his presidency, Fobrum would not go along with them: “I was called a traitor to my class.”

The book describes in detail, based on eye-witness accounts, the events surrounding the kidnapping of President Aristide on February 29, 2004. The book’s author Randal Robinson, along with US Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a Jamaican Parliamentarian, and others flew half-way around the globe to convince the President of the Central African Republic (CAR) to release Aristide and his wife (who is actually an American citizen.) The Aristides were being held indefinitely in this remote and unstable country.

When Senator Waters arrived to speak with President Bozize of the Central African Republic, he asked,

“Do you have a letter from President Bush?”

For a long moment, the room was completely quiet.

“Mr. President, I do not represent President Bush. We are supportive of President Aristide, but this is not true of everyone in the United States.”

For the first time, the Bozize’s expression changed. He looked down at his hands and then straight at Waters. He said two words in French. The meaning in his tone arrived before Aristide’s translation.

“Eh bien” –well—his voice marked with reluctance—he proceeded to confess what we already knew—that he had agreed to detain President Aristide as a favor to the French and the Americans.

“I would have to ask the French who asked me to let Aristide be here. I would have to ask the Americans. Without discussing it with them, I couldn’t just let them go, you understand.”

Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, the works, deny having anything to do with Aristide’s removal from Haiti, which is a load of ****. It was a skillfully orchestrated maneuver, which even included the American media showing footage after the abduction of Aristide, departing on a plane in broad daylight, waving to a crowd. Aristide was in reality taken at gunpoint in the middle of the night in an unmarked plane, which then provided false information to customs officials in Antigua. American personnel on board the plane refused to allow Antiguan customs officials onto the plane for inspection, when it stopped there to refuel en route to CAR. The plane’s personnel later reported that Aristide had met with government officials in Antigua. Not only did the Aristides not even know they’d stopped in Antigua, they were neither allowed off of the plane there nor informed of their destination until moments before arriving in the CAR.

The author states beautifully the conclusions I had come to long before the end of this book:

Lastly, the evidence decisively showed that the United States, with the assistance of France, methodically undermined the political and economic stability of Haiti before abducting its democratically elected president and overthrowing its democratically elected government.

Owing to an extreme imbalance of power and influence between the small middle-income countries of the Caribbean region and the large industrialized nations of North America and Western Europe, calls from Caribbean leaders for an official investigation of the events of the early morning hours of February 29, 2004, were ignored.

The people of the democratic Caribbean were forced, due to their ironic proximity to democratic America, to accept certain realities.

As between the big and the small (i.e., the rich and the poor) nations of the world, there exist no checks and balances. No fair panel of last resort, no higher court before which to petition for recourse, no hierarchy of enforceable rights, no scheme of natural equity or fairness. As long as one member of the global family of nations is free to behave toward a fellow member nation with lethal impunity—to bully, to menace, to invade, to destabilize politically or economically, to reduce to tumult—no country, so threatened, can hope to enjoy the social and political contentment that ought inherently to attend democratic practices.

Since Haitian slaves won their independence from France in 1804, the United States has loomed over Haiti like the sword of Damocles. The record of this abuse of power is well-known to the steadfastly democratic, English-speaking Caribbean nations that have little choice but to heed the chilling implications of this for their own survival. Their leaders have learned the hard way that, within their well-managed tropical island states, no election verdict, no constitutional custom or habit, no parliament’s decision, no ordinary citizen’s commonplace prerogative is safe from an intrusive America whose caprices and policies are neither fairer, nor more predictable, nor more morally conscionable than the vagaries of hurricanes.

My mission of gathering the facts on Haiti and my dear US government is far from over, but I took a moment to write to the author to thank him for the book.

On a much lighter note, I’m going to celebrate my birthday today (26!!), New Years, and Haitian Independence Day from France (Jan. 1, tomorrow!) by camping on the southern coast with friends for a couple nights. Woohooo!! Bring out the rum :) I thought camping was a pleasure I was leaving behind stateside—I can’t wait to go see the stars and enjoy the waves!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas in Haiti

Christmas—about 3:30am!

Fonkoze’s deputy director, Alexandre, had earlier offered to take me out on Christmas Eve. I’m always curious to see how other cultures celebrate their big holidays. But when I hadn’t heard from him by 8:15 tonight, Christmas Eve, I was in my pajamas, in the process of making something weird with peanut butter and the army-sized container of oatmeal I had treated myself to for Christmas. Once my hands are completely immersed in peanut butter glop, Alexandre calls. “I’ll pick you up at nine, ok?” “Great, thanks, uh Alexandre, what do I …” click dial tone. Not only do I not know what to wear but I have no idea what we are doing.

The last time I went out with Alexandre it was with his wife and two small children and we went to see handicapped kids in Santa Clause hats riding horses on a Saturday afternoon. At this event, I had somehow ended up participating in a relay race where I ran with a raw egg on a spoon and jumped over horse hurdles. (I am not joking! Thank goodness for high school track.) So I’m expecting some more good clean family fun.

Alexandre had earlier mentioned going to mass. I’m hoping for a serene midnight mass, lit with candles, like the ones I loved from my childhood. Midnight mass is the ideal chance for a meditative moment with yourself (especially if you don’t understand what’s going on in Creole!) and to let your mind wander to everything it needs to contemplate, potentially even including the Baby Jesus/his virgin birth. So I put on a dress for the event. And my chacos.

Christmas Eve in Haiti is no serene lull of midnight masses, shivers, and thoughts on faith or the year to come.

The streets are packed with pedestrians and the clubs are blasting in full force! No one is staying at home. We made a first stop at a semi-family party, ate pikles (pick-leez), griot, and bananes pesés (smooshed and deep-fried plantains, tasting mildly like cardboard.) I love the pikles though—spicy carrots and cabbage, which you put on top of everything. I’ve learned that most all parties in Haiti are family parties. Most ppl live with their parents for a long time, so parties will inevitably be… at your parents’ house! Which means the invitees are ages 5 – 65. (Totally unlike my usual DC-party age range of roughly 23 – 33.) This does not stop the mamas from serving their little daughters kiddy-size wine—out of a shot glass!

The next stop of the evening was home to the AWKWARD MOMENT award winner of the month! I got plaqué-d next to a dude I didn’t realize at the time was in fact Alexandre’s cousin. But he kinda creeped me out. Shortly after our arrival, Alexandre disappeared at the party and I didn’t know a soul there but him.

So the Creepy sitting next to me starts asking me questions in sorta-English. I should mention here that I have a bit of a noise meter, and I get really embarrassed when people I’m with are YELLING in public. (Yes, Dad, this is coming from the kid you often had to remind of inside voices :) And Creepy is YELLING when I am sitting a foot away from him—less by the time he’s leaned/leered my way. As if I weren’t already the painfully obvious sole blan foreigner, the sorta-English shouting is attracting plenty stares. Please, I ask him, you don’t have to yell, I can hear you very well!

I must have asked him about six times to PLEASE, je t’en prie, I BEG of you, stop yelling! Maybe he was deaf and didn’t realize it? “When you yell at me everyone stares. It’s very embarrassing.” Maybe I was the dumb foreigner who couldn’t speak Creole, and therefore needed to be yelled at so that I could understand? I have worked with many people who seem to think this strategy works… (nope!) This went on for oh… about 2.5 hours.

Normally I’d flit around and talk to anyone else. I didn’t feel comfortable plopping down in the midst of a family I didn’t know without introduction, though, to escape! I also don’t like speaking French to people who don’t know me, I feel like it comes across as bougie snob foreigner, there’s a bit of a stigma about that here. I definitely should have used the bathroom escape trick. Hallelujah when Alexandre came back to the table, asked how I was, and I only hesitated once before I pulled out the “I’m tired” card. It was after 2am…

End of Awkward Moment Report.

Next day—Christmas night

I’m happy to report Christmas today was smashing. J When I got up at 2pm today, I treated myself to my peanut butter concoction from the night before. I though of it as the healthy substitute for my mom’s wonderful Christmas coffee cake and brought some of it over to my friend/co-worker Shaila’s. I love that I celebrated Christmas with a Bangladeshi Muslim, at her swimming pool—not like I’m used to White Christmases is Louisiana anyway! (This + last night’s debacle tops Christmas karaoke with the Korean girls in France!) Even though last night was awkward/slightly painful, I never regret a new experience. Then I went by to say hi to my Cameroonian neighbors, who generously fed me, and the kids all showed off their dolls. Chouchou, the 4-yr old boy, couldn’t seem to decide whether to name his baby doll Lalula or Lolita. My little Haitian neighbor Lovelyn had accordingly named her new doll Lovena—I love that kid!

Christmas bisous to everyone!!! My dear family, have some rum for me on the 28th at the pig roast (as I have definitely had enough griot—the deep-fried pig pieces that are a Haitian favorite—for all!) love,

K :)

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Saturday, December 15

I had my camera out today to take a picture of the most recent victim of my peanut butter habit. (Yes, I eat a LOT of peanut butter here!) Just in case you missed it, or hadn’t realized you were in the PEANUT BUTTER AISLE of the grocery store, this vendor put a picture of the peanut butter container on the label of that same peanut butter container. A little trippy. Like I said, I love Haitian art.

AND, it turns out I have an artist next door! When my little neighbors Katilyn and Lovelyn bounced over today, Katilyn picked up my camera. I thought she did some great work for her first time ever with a camera!! Here ya go for some photo documentary of me in Haiti.

But first, The peanut butter!

Lovelyn = Cutest Haitian kid EVER! She’s got the most amazing smile. Even when she bonks my computer, takes my keys etc, I just can’t seem to get mad at her.

Lovelyn workin it on my computer.

Trying to check my e-mail with a Lovelyn on my lap…

Katilyn and Lovelyn. And yep, that’s my exercise ball.

Me pointing to my eyes to tell Katilyn that the “eye” of the camera has to look at me for it to take a photo. While mastering this concept, she took a lot of pictures of ceiling, floor, my ugly feet…

More computer 101

Me telling Katilyn that to take the picture, “turn it like this and push the button!”

Lovelyn and Katilyn. Look at that protective big sister :)

Tonight is a FREE WYCLEF JEAN Concert! It’s a 5 minute walk from my house to the concert, on the lawn of the Presidential Palace, the Champ de Mars. For those of you in other generations who don’t know the ‘Clef, he’s Haiti’s most popular musician, and has been really well-known in the States for years now as well. I can already hear the festivities rolling. I can’t wait!! I’m not used to this much social life! (Last weekend, I bookwormed the entire weekend.) Last night, I got invited out to dinner with a whole posse of the equivalent of the French Peace Corps. (Even after 15 months living in France, I hadn’t realized this existed!) But my neighbor is their country director for Haiti, so it means lots of young Frenchies come trooping in and out of here, which I love.

OK, I’m back from Wyclef, and went to an American friend’s Christmas party afterwards, then scored myself an invite to somebody’s cousin’s BAPTISM tomorrow! I love family celebrations. Fortunately (since it’s now 2:30am) I don’t have to wake up early for the church part, but get to go afterwards for the food and drink and drink and food part. Perfect!!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Haitian art is kickin’

The uniform winners!

Haitian art is lively! I love the colors. The same applies for the kids’ school uniforms. All Haitian kids who go to school are required to wear a uniform. Here’s my favorite ensembles I’ve seen thus far:

3rd prize: Kelly green shorts/skirts (Girls always wear skirts!) with pink shirts. (The boys looked macho.)

2nd prize: Kelly green shorts/skirts with pink, green, and brown plaid shirts. (Uber-macho.)

Grand prize winner! Red shorts/skirts, orange shirts, and the yellow socks-plus-hair-ribbon combo! ALL Haitian school girls under about age 12 wear hair ribbons—LOTS of them, sprouting from all over their heads! They are cute like I never was and never will be. Socks are typically white and frilly. How can you argue with yellow knee-high socks as part of this overall warm-color scheme?

The bus combos

How many nights did I wait for the 14th St. bus in DC for 20, 30, ++ minutes, impatiently craning my neck into oncoming traffic, hoping to spot my ride home approaching in the distance? Well nothing would have put a smile on my face like a Haitian bus! DC has yet to catch on.

First, no neck craning required. I’ve never been to Vegas, but these busses must put on a comparable light show. You can spot them from 9 blocks away. Reds, blues, flashing white lights. Little lines of lights dancing up and down the sides. I did think the police were coming after me the first few times they approached from behind. And what do they light up, you ask? Let me just tell you my favorites. I was coming through the suburb of Carrefour one evening. The traffic was a nasty stand-still, but bus-watching was spectacular. The richness of bus art comes from the combos. The aim is to assemble all the things that interest you, and draw them on one bus. Step 1: Pick your biblical character of choice. A bloody Jesus, a friendly Jesus, Moses with Commandments. Next, pick your favorite modern-day luminary. Could be Michael Jordan, Matadona, Che Guevera, or Shaq. You can even make Jesus and Shaq shake hands. Also spotted is the full ensemble from the Lord of the Rings. I personally would choose my mother. So do many Haitians! A wife or significant other is likewise an acceptable motif for the large empty space in the back of the bus. And if you can’t get enough of yourself, sure you can just draw yourself on your bus, too. Last step: if you’re really inspired, paint a motif on every window. No worry that passengers get no view, the view is on the outside looking in! A “♥ Jesus” in every window is a winner every time. If the bus crashes, guaranteed direct ascent to Heaven for driver and all passengers*. You better believe that’s my bus!

*Mom, I’m not a heathen yet.

PS—I’ve made amends with little Lovelyn who lives behind me. She and her sister Katolyn were back to frolicking and flopping around on my couch last weekend, until I let them know it was time for me to get some work done. When Katilyn saw me at my computer, she was curious. I pulled up some maps of Haiti online, and showed her where Louisiana was, too (of course!) We also had typing 101; good times with a keyboard!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Walls: created in mortar and mentality

Here is one of my favorite quotes. It’s from a Chilean theologian, at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall.

We are aware that another gigantic wall is being constructed in the third world, to hide the reality of the poor majorities. A wall between the rich and the poor is being built, so that poverty does not annoy the powerful and the poor are obliged to die in the silence of history… a wall of disinformation… is being built to casually pervert the reality of the Third World.

I had an experience the other day that made me go ugh and really question what I am doing here.

Lovelyn’s hand.

I’ve been asking myself some serious questions lately. One of the first relates to the job offer I’ve received. It makes me question my values. In general, I try to espouse a minimalist mentality, and work for the good of folks other than just myself. But I also like to buy expensive plane tickets to visit my sister or friends in really far off weird places. And I like to have money to do a few other things like buy good books, or see an interesting movie. But mostly to travel. The difference between my lifestyle and the average Haitian is apparent when I look at my neighbors.

The woman who lives behind me, Isa, washes my clothes. I’d thought I’d take this one on myself, but after sloshing around in my pseudo-bathtub for half a Saturday morning when I first arrived, I was relieved when she offered to sell her clothes-washing services! (I have to say, I still wash my own undies, and once a week they are hanging all over my apartment, adorning every doorknob in sight. It’s just too much for me for somebody else to be hand-scrubbing my undies!)

Isa’s husband, Gustav, is the groundskeeper in the little compound where I live. Isa and Gustav have a couple really cute kids and one of them, Lovelyn, is about 4. Lovelyn and her sister Katilyn have in the past bounced into my apartment uninvited, when I really want to eat my dinner in peace, or do my goofy sit-ups on the floor without gawking Haitian kids. At first I hadn’t known what to do, so I just went about my business, while the girls sat on my couch or looked at my books.

Later during an evening with a few American acquaintances though, the subject of where and how to set personal limits came up. These other folks’ stories really took the cake! One American woman had a security guard who broke into her house and was making himself eggs in her kitchen. (The typical security guard here hangs out outside, and doesn’t have keys to the house!) Another chica came home to find the security guy of her house wrapped in her towel, lying in her bed!! I brought up my very-friendly neighbors, and received some encouragement from the group that it’s ok to nicely remind the girls that sometimes it’s time to go home.

So the next evening I got surprise visitors in my living room, I gave little Lovelyn and Katilyn a mini-explanation: “In my country, people do this.” Knock knock knock! “Then I come to the door while you wait, in case I was naked or busy or something, I open the door, and then you come in.” The explanation, which was in French and I’m not sure they understood, kinda worked.

Last Saturday, I went to drop off a few hangars to Isa. She and about four other women were in her yard washing clothes. As I left, I made a subtle attempt to avert future unexpected visitors, and was closing the gate between our two yards.

Lovelyn had followed me to the gate, stuck her hand in it, and I accidentally crunched her fingers as I closed the gate. She screeched and started crying. The ladies hunched in Isa’s yard stopped washing their clothes and looked at me. Of course I felt like ****. I profusely apologized in blobbery Creole to little Lovelyn and tried to explain I hadn’t seen her hand. But I was haunted as I walked away but what was I doing anyway, why was there a need to put a wall between me and them? And my favorite quote above eerily ran through my head. I haven’t seen Lovelyn since.

On the other side of the fence Isa and team continued to wash away, hopefully Lovelyn’s hand didn’t swell, and I wondered what they thought of privileged white girls who got to spend their Saturday’s reading books while they worked away.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Haiti: Should I stay or Should I Go?!*

*Sung to the Clash, please.

Two Surprises:

I’ve always been bad at making choices that feel like forks in the road of my life. Quit the marching band? Go to Clemson or Roanoke? (OK, the first one was when I was a sophomore in high school and it did feel monumental at the time.) I’ve got another choice now, and being the big grown-up that I am living in a country with about no one I know, this one is all for me to decide!

Surprise numero uno

The basis for the stay or go decision: I already have a job offer to stay in Haiti beyond the end of my 6-month volunteer internship. For a couple of reasons. First reason, how many people from the States want to come down here to stay, live, and work? It means that there are a lot of opportunities for advancement and responsibility. Second reason, the woman who had been in charge of financial reporting to foreign donors/working on Fonkoze’s overall budget announced her resignation shortly before I arrived. Her departure has already affected the scope of my internship. Oh yeah, I’m in the weeds of digits and spreadsheets galore. (OK, Stop drooling guys, I know it sounds tantalizing!)

Surprise numero dos

I have a running buddy! Major breakthrough! Michel is the security guard/mechanic at the school of the husband of a friend of a former co-worker of mine. That’s how I make all my friends. As a member of a motley crew assembled this weekend, Michel asked me how I’m liking Haiti. I was feeling pretty honest and told him I miss running. And soccer. “Oh you miss watching soccer?” “I miss playing soccer. I know Haitian girls don’t do that. In the States, girls play soccer.” “Oh. …well I could take you running.” “Really?!”

Apparently, he runs everyday. At 5:45, the sun is starting to rise, and the “sidewalks” aren’t yet overflowing with vendors selling bananas, unidentified fried objects, pencils, and spaghetti. So you can run. I should note here that my three-block to walk to work at about 7am is a real adventure—I dodge animals, potholes, LOTS of school-goers in their jaunty uniforms, nasty water puddles, trash, vendors, anyone who thinks they’re going to kidnap me, AND cars that honk and don’t slow down. And lots of exhaust. So the idea of finding a place to run… haha, not priority, plus I just didn’t see it as realistic given the security (lack there of) situation.

With a real Haitian bodyguard buddy, I feel a lot safer. And I’m so slimy sweaty, I don’t think anyone would be able to grab me anyway! I’m really lucky that I live right downtown. There’s a beautiful huge park area called the Champ du Mars that’s right across from the Presidential Palace. It has real sidewalks—DC style! (unpotholed and more than 1.5 ft wide.) That’s about the only spot in town that does have sidewalks, and so folks apparently drive in from all over town to run. It was a pretty happening locale at 6am today. Michel and I ran for the first time this morning, and it really felt great.


So I’m not even going to try and make a decision yet about extending my time in Haiti. I’m in no position to know how I like the work, the place, and the friends, yet. It would mean figuring out a way to push Peace Corps back by a year. It also is making me ask, where do I really want to go in my life? Is staying in Haiti the best way to get there? To be continued. Feel free to register your vote! I might or might not listen. :)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hermit Crab

Disclaimer: If you have a tendency to grow gray hairs, this posting could cause a few more of them to sprout.


So what set me off was a phone call I got the night of November 14. I didn’t sleep too much that night. Was shaken enough that when I finally did fall asleep after three hours of tossing, it was with all the lights on.

The call was from my friend Ross who works for the World Bank, and had just arrived in Port-au-Prince on mission. I’d been looking forward to the company and DC camaraderie. We were planning a time to get together and he asked if I ventured out of my apartment at night. “No, I’m not at that point yet.” Only earlier that evening I’d stood on my balcony and desperately wished my skin were any color but white so that I could blend into a crowd. I could hear music and hooting and laughter in the distance. I badly wanted to join in the fun, but just stood on the balcony and regretted the sides of Haitian culture I might never get to see. Foreigners as well as some Haitians don’t walk outside after dark for fear of getting kidnapped.

“Five kidnappings today, three yesterday. Carrefour neighborhood. Broad daylight,” Ross told me. Shivers down my spine. “I thought the kidnapping had been down since last December?” “Yeah, but it’ll probably spike again around Christmas. Literally, people need the money then.”

The UN cracked down hard on kidnappings since last December and the numbers have significantly dropped. I’d seen a UN security report before I even made the decision to come to Haiti, so I knew kidnappings still happen. I just didn’t want to hear it’s going to get worse again before it gets better. The overwhelming poverty I can stomach, it’s why I’m here. The unstable security is the hardest to digest. Yet the latter is a result of the former.


So over the next few days my nerves about kidnapping have calmed. Those first few nights after Ross’s call I was on edge, and realized how many kooky sounds are around my apartment. When a coconut falls off a tree and hits my roof, it’s thunderous. Sounds like a paratrooper jumped out of a helicopter (or so I assume it would sound.) If you know me or my sister, you know we’ve got some really jumpy genes. Don’t even take me to a scary movie. So all the ka-thuds are taking getting used to. The other weirdest sound is when it gets windy right before rain. I swear it sounds like someone standing outside my front window snapping their fingers, “What the @&%$ is someone doing outside my window, are they snapping some kinda code?!” But then with more wind, it sounds like 10 ppl snapping fingers, and I realized… yet again, it’s a plant. (We don’t have the snappy-leaf species in the States!)

So I’ve figured a few strategies. You have your fire escape plan. I have my kidnap escape plan. I know it sounds extreme, and yes, it’s extremely unlikely I would have to put it to use. But I like to know it’s there—kinda like health insurance. (I do live in a compound with barbed wire, locked entrance, and a guard, skinny as he is.) So my plan: Bedroom door locked at night (in addition to downstairs deadbolt), to slow any potential intruder, while I go out the balcony, over the railing, and shimmy down a drainage pipe on the side of the house, then cut through the neighbors yard. Hide in another neighbor’s dark yard while I call for help on the cell.

Instinct says if ever someone wanted to abduct me, this is my chance to show off the many years of high school track/cross country and nights in the gym: kick, scream, yell, flail, so they’d leave me alone and regret they touched me! In the States, the typical advice is do anything you can to avoid getting in a car with an abductor. Buuut, State Department and most major international orgs here have advised to go calmly and without a fuss. Hmmm. I’ve always been a little dramatic though. In Haiti, the kidnappings are virtually always for a ransom, so you behave, don’t cause trouble, pay up, and go free. Most people are definitely shaken, but not physically wounded. Some leave Haiti for good, but I also know of some who’ve been kidnapped and still stayed.

So, through December, I go into hermit crab mode. Please send jokes, warm fuzzies, and prayers this way, that I don’t end up as a means to earning someone’s Christmas gift money! And take a minute to think on the folks whose poverty and desperation fuel the motivation to kidnap.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pick your pothole: thoughts from the road

Traveling across Haiti: headlights optional

There are a lot of things that are optional in Haiti, headlights maybe the least of those. After crossing this country and back, over a fair share of thought-jarring potholes, it sunk in why the average life expectancy in Haiti is in the range of 49 – 57.

Good life?

Yet, it’s possible to have a comfortable American-style life in Haiti. This can potentially be achieved by owning your own business, (as my neighbor does), being a corrupt leader, or funneling money from some foreign bank account or overseas employer. I’m choosing the latter.

I didn’t realize to what extent I’m living the good life here until my recent trip across the country. I would love to see the reactions of some of my persnickety former colleagues if they saw the hotels I stayed in. The roads out of Port-au-Prince are rough. We followed the coastline north, and you could see the Gulf de Gonave and the huge island of Gonave to the West, and fields and mountains to the East. Potholes did not slow our diligent driver, who was determined to get to Gonaïves by nightfall. I felt like my guts were getting in a blender! I don’t have a weak stomach, but I was glad I hadn’t had a lot to eat. Steve, my traveling companion, warned me that this road was far from the worst.

Haiti: dust or mud

Further in the North, I understood Steve’s point. Gaping holes covered the entire road, and were sometimes two feet deep. Worse than Mali, worse than the Northern Marianas roads. We drove at a pitching 12 mph for hours on the northern roads, near Cape Haitien. My first realization of my good life is that there were NO other private passenger vehicles out. I was congratulating myself for being tough/holding my lunch down, until the realization dawned that I was a blan in a private vehicle, with air conditioning if I so desired. All the other vehicles were overloaded taptaps or trucks. I saw busses with folks packed in like sardines, no standing room, and folks sitting on top, traversing the same sets of potholes at half the speed and far less comfort. (The taptaps are pick-up trucks where ppl jump on and off as needed. You just tap the back window to let the driver know when you want him to stop.) I’d be scared for my life pitching and tossing on continuous craters, perched on top of the cab of a truck, or hanging on the back bumper. Somewhere coming south between Cape Haitian and Gonaïves, I began to wonder about what the reaction would be of an average Haitian to the US interstate system. They’ve grown up on potholes and crowded taptaps. And what have I done differently to deserve guaranteed smooth rides at 70+ mph? I pay my taxes, yes, but so do they (if they have a job.) I’ve lived under a government that wasn’t setting aside $15 million a month into personal bank accounts in Switzerland (Merci, Duvalier.) These people have fought and fought again for good governance while I’ve done my minimal finger lifting at the voting booth. I’m not typically a patriotic person and deplore a lot of the US’s foreign policy. But I became a bit more grateful of living in the US, and the things folks have done ahead of me to keep Duvalier-style dictators out, and roads paved. The Haitians who handle hours of potholes everyday, poverty, and thatched roofs are a lot tougher than I am.

Forsaking the good life:

And then there’s Steve. He’s Fonkoze’s Education Director I mentioned in my earlier posting about Cite Soleil. He knows Haiti better than some Haitians because he lives it. Gradually over the course of our trip snippets about his lifestyle began to surface. First, he mentioned he didn’t like the hotel in Gonaïves because it was excessive—it had electricity. Like everyone else in his neighborhood, he doesn’t have electricity. “When it gets dark, I light a candle. I probably go through about 5 a week.”

After about 6 hours and having crossed much of the country without a bathroom, I was so relieved when at dusk the guys in the truck spotted a shady banana field where they wanted to “take a break.” So I darted into the banana field, “took a break,” and came back feeling grateful! I mentioned to Steve I now understood why several other women at Fonkoze said they just don’t drink water when they are traveling outside PAP. He replied, “Yeah, my mom told me later that the first time she came to see me in Haiti, she didn’t drink a thing the entire day before.” “Oh, you have no toilet?” “No. There’s a neighbor about 100m away who has a real toilet, ceramic and everything. My mom will only use full ceramic. There’s an outhouse not far from me. I’d rather have no plumbing than the bad plumbing.” Again, I was humbled. Even with the small lakes that collect either in my living room or in the bathroom of my apartment as a result of my indoor plumbing, I wanted nothing more than a shower at the end of this trip.

I don’t know if Steve gradually threw off the conventional trappings of an American life or if he dove in cold turkey. I also owe him my introduction to Haitian street food. Most blans will warn, don’t eat it! But Steve is a vegetarian, and speaks fluent Creole so can make sure he’s not getting 3-day old meat! The morning of our first meeting, we wandered outside the “university” and got coffee from a vendor standing in a muddy patch on the side of the road. Haitians roast the sugar at the same time they roast the coffee beans, so the coffee has a dark color and caramel-y flavor. It’s really sweet, you just drink it standing up for a whopping toll of about 20 cents, and hand the lady back your mug when you’re done. And it’s so much better than Starbucks! If only they offered a green leafy interior and Caribbean background music… We then moved across the dirt road and sat under a tree to eat some concoction of vegetables and a hard-boiled egg, deep fried in dough. Deep fried = delicious! In general, Steve eats a lot of rice, spaghetti, fried plantains. Fonkoze serves us lunch everyday. We blans get a special plate with vegetables and a minimum of meat delivered to our desks. The Haitians get a standard rice and beans, plus plantains. Unsurprisingly, Steve joins the Haitians on the benches outside for rice and beans.

Another note from Steve as we were almost home in PAP… by this time it was dark. “Do you go out often at night?” “Not so much.” “It’s a little scary when the headlights light up the air and you can see what you’ve been breathing all day.” It’s true that emissions controls are the least of Haiti’s worries. Most cities smelt thick of exhaust, and this coming only from public transportation vehicles—if Haitians drove as much as Americans do...! The road into Port-au-Prince seemed to vary between smells of putrid, burning putrid, and my favorite, wet putrid. At no extra charge, a healthy dose of dust to coat your face and hair (dreadlocks before you know it!!)

The cost of forsaking the good life?

If I ate deep fried dough everyday as opposed to vegetables, took my products daily to market on the Haitian roads, came home to no indoor plumbing, and shared a mattress with my four siblings, I understand why my lifespan would take a hit of 20 years. Steve noted that in the States, he had been a real health fanatic and a runner. Now, he surmises that other American colleagues here are decidedly healthier than he is.

The benefits of Steve’s Haitian lifestyle: He also shares a small room above the bakery in Cite Soleil. Rent is about $100 a year—occasional electricity (more when the gangs ruled the neighborhood, because the energy company was scared of them) no running water, bucket baths in the street. We dropped him off there yesterday when we got back to PAP. It was clear how much the neighborhood loves him, and the boys and men started swarming around and giving him hugs. He can identify with them better than anyone I’ve seen, because he is one of them. I went home and took a shower.

If I were to live here long term, would I protect myself from a Haitian reality and 49-year lifespan, under the umbrella of a good life that American money can buy? To be determined.

Sunday, November 11, 2007



Haiti is surprisingly calm… for the moment. I’ve had the chance to move around in Port-au-Prince way more than I thought I would in my first week here. When I was first planning to come to Haiti, I looked at teaching in a school outside of the capital. The rule: staff does not leave the walled compound that is the school. That’s when I let go of that idea.

Only a couple of things so far have surprised me. Open sewage running in streets and piles of garbage—expecting it. But one of my first surprises was the confidence with which some of my fellow blans move around the city. Their comment to me, “it has improved here so much since this time a year ago.” My roommate of the first week was an older American who’d spent 13 months here and managed to learn virtually no Creole. My first week here was her last week, so I got invited to a lot of farewell festivities. Dinner out in Petionville (the nicest part of town where all the foreigners but me live), dinner at a co-workers house, taking the neighbors’ kids to school on the other side of town, (although I have to admit I still have very little sense of the town. Most streets aren’t marked and directions resemble, “turn left at the big hole in the road… oh wait, that hole got filled in, mmm…) grocery shopping with co-workers, dinner at another co-workers house, a trip down to Cite Soleil, and the Saturday market with my Cameroonian neighbor this morning…

A few spots have pushed my comfort zones, but as someone put it to me here, “Fear breeds fear.” At this time a year ago, no one was outside past dark, period. The streets are teeming now at most all hours, and another blan colleague of mine said she was out on the Champ du Mars (big open plaza by the Presidential Palace, very near my apartment) drinking until 3am one night, and the place was packed. Kidnapping apparently hit its peak last December, and although it does still happen, the UN has cracked down hard, and the Haitians are welcoming the relative tranquility. Just like they are heartily welcoming traffic lights, which apparently only beat me to Port-au-Prince by about two months...

The other surprises

On Wednesday morning Cite Soleil, the notorious slum in Port-au-Prince said to be one of the most dangerous in our hemisphere, was tranquil, quiet. I went with a couple colleagues to check out a bakery some folks affiliated with Fonkoze are financing. One of the people I was with is Fonkoze’s Education Director. You can just tell what a way this man has with the boys in this neighborhood. When we got to the bakery a flock of young Haitians came around, the littlest hugged and clung to him, and he greeted them with a smile and twisting their noses. My first site of the bakery was a young man taking a bath in front of it, standing in his shorts covered in lather, a bucket of water and a cup in front of him on the ground. The bakery itself surprised me. It’s the only one in existence in Cite Soleil, population roughly 300,000. It’s two tiny unlit rooms, one room including a small gas-powered oven and a stove that you could find in any kitchen in the US. The other room had makeshift tables, and the flour and ingredients were stored in a closet in the back. My point—it could have been any kitchen in the US, without even the added bonus of electricity. I wasn’t expecting Parisian style pastries under glass display cases, but the simplicity of this place hit home. Of the roughly 20 boys who gathered in the tiny space, they all could have been in school… if they could have afforded it. There is a free school in PAP, but it’s on the other side of town. Even the tap-tap to get there and back, 20 cents each way, was too expensive for most.

A last note on Cite Soleil— The Haitians call American hand-me-down clothing “Kennedies. As we walked out of the Cite I saw a Haitian girl roughly my age wearing a bright purple t-shirt with an orange “Clemson” emblazoned across it. My guess is 99% of Clemson has never heard of Cite Soleil, and not a soul in the Cite knows what Clemson is. I smiled to myself and kept walking.


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Byenvini en Haiti

“Watch out, Haiti can get its claws into you. The thing is, you feel you have a disproportionate chance to make an impact here.” That’s what my new next door neighbor, a wisened American who’s lived in Haiti for 24 years, told me last night.

My first night in the country consisted of the neighbor, my current roommate, and me, discussing my roomate’s most recent venture into the field. Both of these women are about 60, single, obvious adventurers. An image of me at that age flashed through my head... wrinkled and alone in a sweaty country? (In comparison to the three newlywed couples that surrounded me on the flight to Miami, two of which were decidedly younger than me, girls sporting obscenely large rocks, all on their way to their honeymoons.) Last night the gals and I were sipping a concoction of Haitian rum, lime, and ice (a luxury!) while rain tapped the roof outside and a breeze blew through the apartment. These women are incredible, brimming with ideas and action, from renewable energy to building a new port in the South.

In my first 18 hours, 3 power outages in the apartment, one cold shower (don’t plan on hot water… good thing this is the tropics and not Barrow, AK) and one toilet that won’t flush. Welcome home J. I’m excited to be here, excited to learn the language, and get my hands on some of the financial reports, my main function here. You won’t here much from me in coming days—I’m off to the Island of Gonave, on the inside of the claw that is Haiti. Gonave (37 miles by 19 miles) has been described as a dustbowl, and receives the highest amount of remittances in the world. I’ll also be out in a few other small towns in coming days with the Education director.

I have to say, flying in, going through customs, the visa process, I was nervous as hell. Butterflies in my stomach. Scared of Haiti. Who do I trust? I think a bit of fear is healthy, and will keep me safe. Less than a day later, I feel I’m getting my bearings, but have a ton to learn, obviously. And I shouldn’t have worried about customs. When I opened my suitcase for inspection tampons just flew out everywhere. The dear gentleman didn’t ask to search my second bag. I think I’ve just discovered a winning strategy.

For now, I’m writing from the orange and purple painted walls of the inside of Fonkoze. ( It feels like a Clemson bonanza, only in Creole, and with good Caribbean music playing in the background. More soon, and love to all—K.

PS—for the curious, here are quick facts, courtesy our noble government: