Saturday, May 31, 2008

The transition

May 27, 2008

Last night in DC, I told some of my best friends Estera and Elizabeth that I am at a point in my life where I have a lot of love to give, that I am happy, doing exactly what I want to be doing with my life right now. At times like this when I feel overcome with love for the people around me, I just want to cry. Which in fact is what I am doing now as I sit in the Washington Reagan airport, at 5:30 am waiting for a flight back to Lafayette, LA.

The last time I felt this surge of teary love was actually about four weeks ago, standing in my sister’s bedroom, just after she left the house. Since that time, I’ve had the chance to have a virtual People I Love Parade. I’m flying back to Lafayette after a three-week tour of DC-and-everywhere-in-a-6-hour-driving-range: Charleston WV, Roanoke, Charlotte, New York, some woods in WV… it has been busy!

At this time yesterday, I was sleeping in a tent on cold roots and rocks in a West Virginia campground, surrounded by 15 friends, both old and new. It was a weekend that so perfectly typifies what my life in DC has been during the three years before I moved to Haiti. I’m still amazed at the new people I meet here, and thrilled to watch the mingling of those I’ve known for years, with those I’ve known only for months. I love discovering new friends of friends, who I would steal for myself if I were in DC longer! I told Estera last night that a weekend like this is like a Veggie Delight sub from Subway, where every bite tastes different, a unique blend of assorted vegetable goodness—one bite lots of olives, another is a huge chunk of cheese... So is each moment a unique blend as my diverse friends come together to share, bond, and form a whole new type of veggie camping combo.

Many people have asked how I’ve felt to transition from the shock of poverty that is Haiti, back to the known territory of the US. The transition has been so much smoother than I might have expected, mainly for two reasons. First, I know my time in the States is temporary. As I sat in a fabulous restaurant for dinner with a friend recently, I fully enjoyed my surroundings, at the same time holding a twinge that said, “Thank God I won’t be expected to do this on a regular basis, this is exactly the type of luxury my colleagues in Haiti could only dream about.” Knowing I won’t be splurging for fancy dinners in Cameroon made it easier to enjoy my time in the States, partaking in dinners that would have seemed entirely normal to me six months ago, pre-Haiti. It’s this same knowledge of temporary-ness that has allowed me to buy the $2 cups of coffee I’ve consumed every other day of this trip. If I were back in the States for good, I would have to, for my own good conscious, do more to reconcile my American lifestyle with what I experienced in Haiti.

The second reason my transition out of Haiti has been less awkward is the joy I’ve felt in being with my family. Three times now, we’ve asked, “Does Dad have cancer?” and we’ve had to assume the worst. For now, after months of medical tests and the stresses of uncertainty, the answer is no, and another layer of gratefulness is added to my life. I can go to Cameroon not wondering how I will tell the Peace Corps that I need to leave and get back to Louisiana. When Dad was first checked into the emergency room for tests in March, I knew, “if Dad were in Haiti, he’d be a dead man. Period.” My family’s access to health insurance and the best medical care available have made me embrace the seeming excesses of American wealth, as opposed to shunning them as I might have done otherwise. When it’s your Papa on the line, you’re reminded why living in a developed country has its advantages.

Less than a week, and I’m off to Cameroon. Holy cow. :)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dominican Republic

A few weeks before I left Haiti, my friend Estera hopped down from DC. We met up in the Dominican Republic, the nation that shares the other side of the island with Haiti. It was fabulous to discover a new place with an old friend. The people of the DR are a beautiful mix of colors and races, like in Brazil. Estera and I still stuck out as pale tourists, but it was a relief to be able to drop my guard a bit from Haiti.

The Dominican Republic is acutely more developed than Haiti. I went wild seeing all the chain restaurants I hadn't seen in months--Baskin Robbins?! KFC?! What is this place?! I was happy to see their lush greenery, developed infrastructure (lane markings and street signs!) and significant amounts of foreign investment. At the same time, it's disheartening to see what Haiti could be...

Yep, that's my boarding pass--laminated and re-usable!

This nice Dominican soldier volunteered to take a picture with me at some important monument. :)

Mangoes are gifts from the gods!!! (At least Estera and I think so, and eat them freely on Dominican national monuments.)

That plant must have said something really funny.

Roadside snow-cone stand!

The oldest cathedral in the Western hemisphere! Santo Domingo, the capital city, was a base for many of Columbus's explorations.

The island of Hispaniola. Haiti takes up the western third, the Dominican Republic is the eastern two thirds. I'm pointing to where I live in Port-au-Prince!

A group of friendly Dominicans kindly volunteered to take our group of gringas out dancing! Despite my warnings of being an awful dancer, they persisted in teaching us the meringue, and it was a grand time!!

Playa Rincon-- a totally isolated beach in the northeastern corner of the country. We had to take a boat just to get to it! I have never been so red in my life as I was after a day here--like a LOBSTER!!

Hanging in the back of a guagua, the trucks that criss-cross the country, our favorite muy cheapo form of transportation. (Thank goodness Estera could speak Spanish and help us get around!!)

You're never too old to be a monkey in a banana tree.

Estera busts a dance move after we hiked to the base of a waterfall. Hot!! :)

favorite last Haiti pics

As a last view of Haiti, here are some assorted pictures. Hope you enjoy!

THE taptap!! This is how you get around in Haiti! Plop in the back of that sweet-smelling truck and pay a fat twelve cents to get yourself across town!

Sunrise view from my balcony. In the bottom left Gustav, my neighbor/the groundskeeper, is cutting the grass with scissors. The street where I could see the running during the riots is straight ahead, beyond the white gate.

Kanaval in Port-au-Prince!! That's Creole for... Mardi Gras! This was the day after I got back from Brazil, and so got more Mardi Gras/Carnaval in one year than I had since high school!

Kanaval parades and dancing in the streets!

A rara band, in front of the Presidential Palace. This is the same palace, about a 6 minute walk from my house, that got stormed in the food riots.

Kanaval parades

This is a hole in the wall. My kind of restaurant! Good spot for beer-drinking and people watching during Kanaval.

Cape Haitian-- looks like New Orleans!! No surprise, they're both former French strongholds.

Cape Haitian, second largest city in Haiti, on the northern coast. The city was burned at least twice in their revolution for independence.

Not posed! From a hike with the Hash group. I really am looking for a trail.

My dear friend Andy, post hiking.

Here, I'm about to get "baptized" into the Hash House Harriers. It's a group that hikes/runs and then most folks drink beer. I thought it was goofy and frat-like at first; I don't even like beer! Regardless, it's an awesome way to get out, exercise, and see more of Port-au-Prince and Haiti. I made some amazing friends through this group.

This was one of my most eye-opening weekends in Haiti--the reality of hunger and no job opportunities everywhere, evident in the desperate begging. Andy took me to a village where she's been working for years. Here she is with her god-daughter, Ludni. Every kid in the village is so malnourished they look about three years younger than their actual age.

A new friend! This smart little cookie knew exactly what to do with a pair of sunglasses she found lying on a shelf!

At Fonkoze, (note the ever-present peach-and-purple background!) my co-worker Ermithe in the accounting division.

In the kitchen at Fonkoze. Every morning, Milo here made juice and I would ask him, "Kisa li ye kom fwi la?!" What kind of fruit is that?! which is how I learned all the tropical fruits I'd never heard of: kowosol, kashimen...! He's always smiling and singing along to the radio, and I loved seeing him when I went to get my morning coffee!

On my street, avenue Christophe. I took this photo on the way to work, on my last day in Haiti. It was about 6am, before the streets got too crowded, and the vendors were just setting up shop. These folks were preparing to deep fry some Haitian tastiness, to sell to the passing school kids for breakfast.

This is the only picture I have of its sort and it's one of my favorites because it is so classically Haiti--the market women who sit all day, every day, waiting to sell whatever produce or goods they have. I first had to ask the woman permission to take her picture, then negotiate with her how much it would cost me (about 20 cents, which is all the Haitian currency I had left!)

It's also the type of picture I was so loathe to take... up until it was time to leave. Who wants to document poverty, singling yourself out as an outsider waving an expensive camera, when you are trying so hard to fit in and be part of a community? Thus, it's my perfect final picture from a country of extremes.