Saturday, January 19, 2008

Petite Annonce

January 17, 2008, 12:30 am
Wayyy past my Haiti bedtime.

I’m sitting at my computer with 24 internet browser windows open. That’s what you do when you have no clue when your internet is going to cut off and you just found out where you’re potentially going to spend the next 2 + years of your life.

I got my Peace Corps assignment.

I was waiting for the e-mail in my box. Earlier today I’d had my heart-to-heart phone call with my Peace Corps placement officer, while sitting outside on the front steps of Fonkoze, the Director looking for a budget from me. I'd been nervous about the call for most of the week. I cajoled the placement officer into believing that I’m ready to give up a few details of Americana in the big move. She was ultimately quite satisfied and told me she'd send my official invitation (the country assignment!) by snail mail today. Since patience is no strong suit of mine, I negotiated for e-mail and instant gratification instead. When I saw her message tonight, before opening it I tried to give myself a last reassuring pep talk that I could handle and be successful in any country… but instead tore straight into the e-mail.

So the pieces fall together. A dear friend from Clemson there, a New York Times write-up on it, a friend of the family who ended his service there and is violently opposed to the program. The cherry on this sundae of Africana: my next door neighbors here in Haiti—yep, they’re from there too.

It’s the furthest I could possibly be from Louisiana—in both latitude and longitude, hardly even in West Africa. Not even fully French! Part former British, former French colony. There was more than a 50% chance my assigned country would be one in which MCC (my former employer in days of Washington glory) works. Nope. So I’m pushed out of the minimal comfort zone I’d developed in my mind. Good—I won’t be anyone special and I’ll have the typical and classic PC experience. (I would have been sooooo well connected in Mali.)

Loo loo loo loo looooo :) (little typewriter noise)

Here’s a hint. It starts with a C and ends with an Ameroon!!!

I’m assigned to Cameroon!!!!!

Now I actually have to decide upon, confirm, and accept my invitation. I plan to say yes after a few more questions to the placement officer to at least hold my spot. This is exactly what I needed to know before I started any serious discussion about a potential permanent employment with Fonkoze! Time to go to Brazil!!!

(Yes, I am skipping off to Brazil for 10 days. :) I have to make up for having missed Mardi Gras every year since I left Louisiana at age 18. So I get two Carnivals this year: Rio de Janeiro + Port-au-Prince! I should mention I have friends traveling there, one native Portuguese speaking, and a place to stay!! Yippee to making major life decisions on a beach!!)

January 21, 2007

PS - I had my first taste of Haitian Carnival last night--WHOA!! Five minutes from my house, still more than two weeks away from Mardi Gras, this place makes New Orleans Mardi Gras look a semi-civilized town-hall meeting. Streets are PACKED! The music is so loud it shakes the windows of my house and makes my internal organs rattle--no lie--like an unrequested deep-tissue massage. And only two no-thankyou-I-really-don't-know-how-to-dance-like-a-Haitian speeches (more like lots of gesticulating and YELLING!!)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Stats 101: extremely methodological

Haiti statistics for the curious

- Number of get-out-of-the-way-or-be-a-pancake honks per ten minutes of walking on a Haitian road: 10

- Average # of tablespoons of peanut butter I eat a day: 4 -5 big ones. It’s REALLY good here!

- Number of times I wash my hair per week: ‘bout 2 (I still brush and floss teeth regularly!)

- Average age to start sending kid to school: probably about 3, or the Haitians are just stunted and TINY! (If you can afford school, send ‘em as soon as possible before $ runs out cause it’s not free in Haiti.) If you can walk, you go to school!

- Average cost for box of imported healthy bran cereal: 6 + US dollars

- Cost for a mug of coffee off the street: 14 cents

- Cost for 1 pint olive oil: $10

- Cost for a gallon of gas: about $6

- Cost for roughly a gallon of milk (imported in BOXES from FRANCE!) : > $6 (I’ve taken to the powdered stuff—not bad!)

- Cost for a bottle of good Argentine red wine: < $4 (yay!!!)

- Number of spray bottles of deet I consume per month: 3/4

- Number of cell phone card vendors per 10 minute walk outside in Port-au-Prince: 5

- Age I probably resemble when I speak Creole: about 6 by now! And this is how I request technical accounting procedures…nice!

- Cost of a can of black beans (available at most American groceries for 59 cents): $2

- Cost for a bag of uncooked black beans that will make a LOT of beans, and make me feel smart and economical: < $1

- Number of times I have successfully cooked the cheap black beans: 0/2

(The first bean bake fiasco almost resulted in burning down my apartment in Paris. Tonight was a close call deja-vu. And this is after I specifically asked my mother how to avoid another Paris incident. What is it about me and black beans abroad?!! Tomorrow night: Garbanzos!!)

Yes, I did used to work at Census Bureau, source of all things statistical. Can you tell?!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Peace Corps and Mauritania Madness

Wow! Check out this article by the former head of the Peace Corps for Cameroon. Interesting and valid. Makes me refine my answer to the question (for the 37th time!) just what is it I want to get out of Peace Corps, and in tandem, what do I hope to contribute?

All this said, I read this article within 5 minutes of hearing from a dear friend who just finished her 2 years of PC, also in Cameroon. She just opted to extend her time there for a third year in their health programs. I think the experience is what you make of a realistic set of expectations. A combination of optimistic altruism and accepting the fact that you may leave no tangible or lasting effects. I’m old enough to know I’m not going to save the world… but hope to contribute to a little corner of it.

The Peace Corps placement officer (responsible for picking the country where I would potentially spend the next 2+ years) is currently DRILLING me on why I don’t want to go to Mauritania! Whatever happened to Just Say No and leave it at that? Damn. That is my sole request! Quota filling? I don’t want to go there because it’s probably the most Muslim of the West African countries I could end up in, and it’s almost entirely rural. No even moderately bustling capital where I could hope to find more progressive views on women! I told Peace Corps from the get-go that I don’t want to go to a place where I won’t be taken seriously as a woman. In Jordan, for example, women volunteers in some places cannot leave their houses without a male escort. If a woman is not capable of walking alone in the street, how would she possibly be considered capable of running an organization, managing a project, or just making decisions? I don’t want to go where my gender will cause me to be less effective.

A little more entertainment for ya! This article sure left its impact on me. Fatty in Mauritania:

(If you're not registered for NYT... parents, just do it so you can read this article.)

I also told the PC placement officer (I had limited internet, had to respond fast, and just went with straight honesty!) that my athletic involvement is synonymous with community involvement. It’s true. I made friends and contacts, and sure learned more about France and the French when I played on my university’s rugby team there! I told PC it would be a waste to both me and the Peace Corps if they sent me to a place where there was no way a girl could kick a ball/putter around on a field somewhere. I’m not asking to go to the Olympics, and am ready to make some serious lifestyle changes, as I already have in Haiti. But don’t send me somewhere where I have no hope of doing as much as twitching in public.

That said, my friend Charles talked to the soccer team of a local university here where he teaches and plays ball. They said I can play with them. :) I might be asking for a real wupping here—I’m not in running shape! Haitians are also intense on the soccer field—no call goes uncontested and passionate arm-flailing arguments are apparently the norm. It’ll be good for my Creole. :)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Fun with Pictures: Happy New Year!

A couple really cool things happened recently. So cool in fact, I took pictures!

The first was the chance to host an amiga Americana, Ellie, who was in Haiti for a few weeks researching. She was an awesome exploring buddy! The combination of her presence here + the tapering-off of peak kidnap season was a great chance to get out! She and I took the sardine taptaps, enjoyed lots of street food (pickleeeeees! plus a few other unidentified things that looked tasty and made for mostly pleasant surprises,) and haggled with the street art vendors, (which I’m not good at yet—too nice!) We walked from one side of Port au Prince literally across town to chez moi—about an hour and a half of pothole-dodging, winding through the hills! When we got home it hit me how incredibly liberating it was to just be outside and walk—I hadn’t realized it until I didn’t have it.

What I really appreciated about Ellie’s visit was bouncing ideas off of someone who has been in similar situations in rough countries, being the obvious minority assumed to have lots of money. When I first arrived here I aimed to lay low, keep my head down, go about my business. Hide myself away and hope no one noticed me. In talking with Ellie and meeting other blan Americans she knows here, I realize it’s ridiculous to think that everyone and their brother doesn’t already recognize me as the sole blan of the neighborhood, and know where I live, whether I know them or not. So why try and hide when I’d rather embrace being here. In reality, I think I am safer this way, as the Haitians watch out for those they know, those who are a part of their neighborhoods or lives, even if that’s just a smile and bonjou as you go past.

From Ellie’s visit:

Ellie with our feast of roadside food (I realize it does not look like a feast in this picture. We were hungry!) She helped me discover some great vendors right out my front door! My apt, and Haiti map in the background (courtesy my friends at MCC!)

Are those flags flying in the background?! No no, just my undies in the backyard.

My neighbor Lovelyn’s Christmas present, babydoll Lovena, sitting on my clean laundry. Even white dolls can have dreadlocks!

Lovelyn (with cornflake dribble on chin), mwen, Lovena (her clothes were reportedly dirty at the time), Ellie

Other cool event: Camping on the beach on the southern coast, over New Year’s/my birthday--really not much explanation needed! It was ideal. Ocean stars ocean stars ocean stars. And cremas! You can already see the stars here in Port au Prince, but looking out over the edge of the mini-cliff that was our campsite and into the night sky is almost addictive, where you can just stand lost in your thoughts for ages, with the sound of waves crashing below. A new year + a change of scenery spurs plenty contemplation. And the cremas. J It’s certainly one of my new Haiti favorites: sweetened condensed milk + rum + a few other magic ingredients is good—dangerously so :) Just don’t spill it all over your black pants like I did and get made fun of for it for the rest of the weekend! Or consider bringing more than one pair of pants! My cell phone was also a victim to the festivities—lost in the revelry. So if anyone calls me and a Haitian man answers instead, just wish him happy new year!

I got to swim everyday. I can’t say I’ve ever been surrounded by as much quiet as when I’d dive under the surface and towards the blue deep. It’s so incredibly peaceful (especially compared to the non-stop rara and music of downtown PAP!) Coming back up to the surface to break through to fresh air and blinding sun—feels like entering another world.

The people make all the difference in any good celebration, and I wasn’t let down. J The crowd at the campsite was mixed Haitian and American, from different places and backgrounds. Like in DC, in Haiti everyone has opinions on politics and progress—but the variety of attitudes is more marked here. I lit into the campsite owner when he said that all NGOs are in Haiti for the money, and the average Haitian’s poverty keeps the NGOs in business. There can be truth to that statement, but I won’t stand for a blanket stereotype of the sort of institution for which I moved here to work. (He’s pictured below showing his sense of humor…) All said, I found buddies for soccer-playing (yippee!), book-reading, and more explorations!

Camping Pics: Pooja and me at the campsite, eaaaaaarly into the long New Years night!

My friend Charles the well-dressed pirate.

… but I don’t think real pirates wear yellow. Just out of range of this pic is a 40 foot rock cliff I jumped off of… :)

The campsite owner, a Haitian dude, is at least as much of a character as my Uncle Chris.

A deep last thought: Spotted on a T-shirt at a roadside market en route to the South: CAMPING: A great excuse to eat beans and not shave.


Now I go into super-rural central Haiti most of next week with one of our projects—like camping for work! I’m really looking forward to it. And the beans :)

So happy 2008 to all my dear friends and family—I hope you find what you are seeking, or at least learn from the search.