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: