Friday, June 04, 2010

Hispanola is a Bird #3

My brother came to Port-au-Prince two weeks ago. He was checking out a place where his church might send a work team, but we were lucky enough to have a few days together.

Here's us at the airport:

I took him to a house up in the mountains above the city where people on my team go to take a break from the crowded streets of Port. After I showed him around and we started eating the tasty (greasy) fried street food we had picked up, he said, "okay, I'm not waiting any longer to hear the end of the story from your blog. What happened next?"

First of all, I'm sorry that I wrote the first two parts of this story back in January and February and am only just now getting the next part out there. Second, I imagine that some people who know me and have read this blog are much more interested in what's happening in Haiti right now, considering that it's not in the news much anymore. But I'll try to sum up what I told my brother up there in Kenscoff.

For me, the story of those first couple of days is closely tied together with the story of J and R who miraculously survived the collapse of their 5-story apartment building. When I saw them on the back of B's motorcycle, I could hardly believe it. Even though I would have spent all night looking for them, I couldn't imagine how anyone could survive that fall. B told me that their next door neighbor, an American woman, was at a hospital down the street with M, and that her back was probably broken. They were lying in the yard with a few hundred other people, the hospital staff long since overwhelmed. B told me I should go check on another hospital that was closer to downtown to see if they could get her admitted there.

So I got back on the motorcycle and headed down that way. I got to Champs de Mars, the huge public space where the palace is located. It was already filling up with people. Before turning the corner to swing by the other hospital, I thought I should check and see if it's true what I had heard about the palace. From my memory, it was actually fairly intact at that point, and for the first couple of seconds I thought that its collapse may have been only a rumor. But once I saw the minaret-type rooftops on the left and right sides slumping towards the front lawn, I realized that it was just a matter of time until it would be demolished.

Today Champs de Mars looks like a refugee camp that's been there for years. The palace continues to decompose slowly. It appears to have had a few truckloads of rubble hauled away from the front of it, but otherwise it remains a poignant national symbol of What the Hell Do We Do Next?

I turned around and drove back up the hill towards the CDTI hospital that would hopefully at the very least have a few beds set up out in the yard where we could get J and R's neighbor set up with a neck brace or something. A block before I arrived at the hospital, I looked to my right and saw the Sacred Heart cathedral. The face of it had dissolved into a slope of bricks, coming up around the ankles of the life-size sculpture of Jesus on the cross which was perched on the corner of the front of the lot. This was another jolting moment, and I thought about the wedding I'd been to there back in 2007 which I wrote about here.

I wanted to be further along than this, but my battery is almost dead and it's probably best to just publish this and keep writing more later. My calendar program is now set to remind me each week to write on the blog, so I don't intend to leave this story hanging for much longer.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hispanola is a Bird #2

I handed the baby to a man who clearly had some practice holding kids. They decided it was best for him to get away from the wrecked building and over to the gathering of people where they could hopefully find some someone with a bottle and formula. The baby couldn't have been more than 3 months old.

The mother was almost free of obstruction. She had become much calmer, and was instructing us about where to dig. Her husband had died in the collapse and now laid next to her with one arm slumped over her midsection. I still think about this family. The man was large. He had probably died from a sharp blow to the head, since we could see most of his body and it wasn’t pinned down under anything. He had given his life to protect his family. And his wife had suffered lots of scrapes and cuts to protect her baby. And because they reacted automatically the way they did, without any time to think, their baby was alive without so much as a scratch.

We dug around the mother’s legs a bit more and moved some big chunks of the concrete flooring before we were able to lift her out. We sat her down on a flat piece of concrete. We gave her some of the bottled water that had been in that sideways crushed refrigerator. She had been stuck in that building for probably five hours at that point. When she caught her breath, she looked up at us and asked, “what happened to this building?” A younger guy bluntly replied, “This building?! This whole country has been destroyed! It’s finished!” She stared at him blankly, unable to process what he was telling her. After another minute we carried her down a path of concrete, twisted metal railings and a fallen telephone pole to get her over to the crowd that had spontaneously formed.

I asked around again if anyone had seen a younger white couple, and still nothing encouraging. I realized I had no choice but to move on and check on the rest of the team. I walked back up to where my motorcycle was parked. My t-shirt was still with the man from the other building, all covered in blood and concrete dust. But I didn’t quite realize that I was half-naked until I got on the bike and was hit with the wind-chill.

I was climbing up Canape Vert, on my way to check on another American couple, A and B, when I heard honking behind me. I pulled over and there were A and B on their motorcycle. It was an incredible relief to see them. I told them that I had been down the hill looking for J and R, and that I was afraid that they might be gone. They said they were just down there as well, and that someone had told them that J and R hadn’t come home from work yet when the earthquake happened. I wanted to be encouraged by this, but it was difficult.

I got around to explaining why I didn’t have a shirt on, and B told me he had one in his backpack. I’ve never told B this, but I always saw him as the number one person I would want with me after some kind of apocalyptic event. He’s always as cool as a cucumber yet prepared for whatever. And sure enough, at that moment he was able to give me the one thing I needed most, other than cell phone service.

We traded all the information that we had, and made a plan to check on the rest of the expats. I showed up at M and E’s house and there was already a small gathering of team members and other friends. We all told our stories. E was the group mother, full of positive energy and seemingly unfazed. She encouraged everyone to drink water and at least have some bread and peanut butter. We all hurried to process what we knew of the situation. Every now and then someone would say something that would remind us all that there were surely thousands of people alive but trapped under concrete. And we all responded with silence. I learned that the supreme court building had collapsed, that the Caribbean supermarket had collapsed, that the Montana Hotel had collapsed. I heard that the national palace had collapsed, but then the word was that it was only a wing of the national palace that was damaged. We all figured that the way rumors travel in Haiti, we should maybe take all this news with a grain of salt.

After A and B showed up, we came up with a plan to go back down the hill looking for J and R. I would go check with their coworkers who would have seen them last, and then check the office where they worked in case they had gone there for shelter. M and B would go drive around their neighborhood.

I left E and M’s house to drive down Delmas, the biggest arterial in Port-au-Prince. The street had become a vast campground. Where there used to be four lanes divided by a median, there was now two, and in some places only one, snaking back and forth between the two sides. Everywhere people sat on mattresses or blankets or just sheets on top of the asphalt. They swayed back and forth with their arms in the air, singing.

I drove by the corner where the Caribbean supermarket used to be visible high above the 15-foot walls that surround its parking lot. Now I could see nothing beyond those walls. Some buildings had fallen right onto Delmas. Others had collapsed sideways. It was very dark, and I remember at times seeing the silhouettes of buildings that seemed perfectly intact, but were several degrees off kilter.

I arrived in the neighborhood where some of J and R’s coworkers live. Everyone had brought chairs and mattresses out into the street and were talking in hushed tones. Because there were no working streetlights I announced myself. I couldn’t see anyone but I asked them to tell me who all was there. Then I asked if anyone had news about J and R. They said that no, the last time anyone saw them was at 4pm, when they left work. I told them that I had seen their apartment building, and that it was completely collapsed. There was a heartbreaking silence. It may have lasted only three or four seconds, but it felt like forever.

Then someone said, “They probably went grocery shopping after work.”

Someone else: “No, they liked buying things on the street, they were probably outside when it happened.”

“They’re probably safe with some friends of theirs who live in the area.”

It had probably been eight hours since the earthquake, and maybe seven hours since I saw J and R’s apartment building in shambles. I’d been through all of these possibilities over and over again in my mind and was craving some certainty. I took off again for their neighborhood. This time I went along the roads that I knew were relatively clear. When I arrived back on their street, I went to talk to people at that same improvised gathering where we had brought the mother and baby. I asked the first person I saw if he had seen a white couple. He said no. I started running towards the building to climb back up and see if I could maybe hear something. As I ran away I heard someone say, “Blan!” (white guy!) I ran back. A man told me that he had seen a young white couple.

“Did the guy have a beard??”


“Did she have long hair??”

“Yes! And glasses.”

“Glasses?” R didn’t wear glasses. But I thought, what are the odds this isn’t them? “Where did you see them last?”

“Just around the corner in front of the police station. The guy had some blood on his face.”

We ran together up the hill and around the corner to the police station. As we were turning on to Canape Vert I heard Theodore shout from one of the groups of people huddled next to a floodlight there. “Hey, did you find your friends?”

“I think so! I hope so!”

And right at that moment I saw B – shirtless himself this time – coming towards me on his motorcycle with J and R perched on the seat behind him. I don’t know what sound I made, but it was probably something between a shriek and a laugh. I bear hugged them and told them how happy I was to see them. They told me that they had been at home, in their apartment on the fifth floor, when the earthquake came and it all fell to the ground. I was dumbfounded. At one point I remember I was so happy I slapped the tops of their helmets, perhaps to make sure they were really there. J, in his typically kind manner asked me to take it easy with the slapping, and that’s when I saw the dried blood on his face.

B told me to go check on M, who was waiting in the parking lot of a hospital with a woman who probably had a broken back. We made plans to meet up later, and I took off down the hill in that direction.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hispanola is a Bird (title to be explained later) #1

I can't sleep. Tomorrow will mark the second week since an earthquake forever changed the lives of everyone in and around Port-au-Prince.

When the earthquake hit at 4:50pm, Tuesday the 12th, I was in the MCC office/guesthouse. Everyone had left for the day, and I was sitting down to write a couple of e-mails when it came. At first it felt like intense nausea. I hung on to the ironwork that surrounds the porch area of the office and rode it out. Having experienced a pretty strong earthquake in Seattle back in 2000, I quickly figured out what was happening, but was still baffled. Natural disasters come with the territory here, but they're usually weather-related. After the shaking stopped, the first thing I noticed was a rising cloud of dust everywhere I could see. I ran around the house to survey the damage: a bunch of broken glasses on the kitchen floor; the library turned upside-down; water gushing out of a broken pipe in the tank on top of the house; the wall that separates the back yard from the ravine behind it simply disappeared.

Immediately, everywhere, shouts rose up. People waved their arms around and screamed, desperately, "Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Thank you God!"

No, it wasn't sarcasm. It was, from what I could tell, two things - thankfulness from those that were spared, and a surrender to the second coming of Christ. And in those first disorienting moments, I was ready for anything, and wouldn't have been much more surprised to see the sun blotted out of the sky. It felt biblical indeed.

But soon enough I felt able to focus my thoughts and I went to speak to the people who live in the rickety lean-tos in the ravine behind the house. Looking through the huge gap where the wall had fallen into the ravine, I asked them if anyone had been hurt. They said no, thanks be to God. "Are your houses okay?" "Yeah, they're fine." and sure enough, everyone's houses looked fine. I could hear people wailing in every direction, but at that moment I saw very little destruction, only a large dust cloud that continued to rise and dissipate. I thought to myself, maybe it wasn't so bad.

I went up on the roof and plugged the hole in the water tank with a felt-tipped marker wrapped in a t-shirt. I tried making a few phone calls, but none would get through. The same exact thing happened after the Seattle quake, so I knew it was no good trying after that. I grabbed my backpack and prepared to head out on the motorcycle and check up on everyone. Right after I put on my helmet and locked the front door, J, our Haitian administrative assistant came running through the front gate. He was hysterical. He was weaving around, as if no longer in control of his tiny frame, clutching his bible in one hand. He was alternately speaking to God and wailing in anguish for his family that he had not yet seen and for whom he feared the worst. It was almost as if he didn't see me, but he came towards me all the same and his legs gave out from under him as soon as his head collided with my chest. I sat down on the driveway and held him like a child. He spewed out a dreamlike narrative of the utter destruction that he had seen.

After maybe 15 seconds, I told him that we would go immediately to his house and make sure that his family was okay. We took off on the motorcycle and were soon driving through shell shocked crowds, and everywhere people with their arms in the air and faces turned upwards. The road was littered with cinder blocks from fallen concrete walls. Here and there were wrecked cars, already abandoned. As we neared J's house, we drove by what used to be a large, beautiful hotel. Only a third of it remained, and a boy was dragging a lifeless woman out of its parking lot towards a growing, awe-struck crowd. The sense of nausea and disorientation came back in force and J amped up his semi-coherent rambling.

A minute later we were at his house where he collapsed into the arms of his wife and two kids. Thankfully, they showed no signs of injury. I said goodbye and took off towards the apartment building where one of our team's couples lived, the one closest to downtown. Now on major streets, there were wrecked cars everywhere, giant buildings reduced to rubble, fallen trees, and downed power lines. I can hardly believe that I made it through the surging crowds of people, almost all of which were trying to get up the hill and away from the city center as quickly as possible. It was very dark except for my own headlight and the illuminated cellphones all around. At times it seemed like there was no way to get down the hill against the rush of people, and yet even turning the motorcycle around seemed impossible, so I pushed on with a lot of honking and apologizing. Eventually I arrived in what was my old neighborhood. I gave J and R this apartment so that they could be walking distance to work. I came around the corner and saw, in the place of what used to be a five-story building, a pile of concrete no more than twenty feet high. My old apartment, J and R's place, had been a corner unit on the fifth floor. My heart sank. I stopped the motorcycle and ran to the nearest person and asked him if he'd seen a white couple in the area. "I saw an older white woman being pulled out of that building there," he said pointing in the direction of J and R's place. "You're sure she was old??" "Yes, white hair."

I scrambled up to the top of the building, standing on that same spot of the roof where I used to go to watch the sun set over Port-au-Prince bay. I shook and staggered and screamed J and R's names as loud as I could. I felt like I was dying. I thought of J and R's parents, and how they might not even know yet that there had been an earthquake in Haiti. I got down on my knees to see if I could hear anything. A baby's cry came out from somewhere under the concrete.

Just then a man came climbing up on top of the building. He was shirtless and carrying a hammer. He asked me if I could come help him. I told him that my friends might be in this building. He said that yes, they might be there, but we had no way to know, and there was someone pinned under rubble in a building a block away, and that we could save him. I think this man is the closest thing I've seen to an angel. His name was Theodore. He was calm, but insistent that I come help him save someone who wasn't a friend or even an acquaintance of his. Just a total stranger. And he kept referring to the trapped man not as a man or a person or a victim, but as a life. "We have to go now, we can save a life."

"But can't you hear that baby crying?"

"Yes, this building is full of people. We'll come back. But right now we can go and save a life."

I still don't know how to feel about what I did next. It's as if the distinctions between all people were erased. I am personally responsible for some 23 national and international staff, and at this point I only knew that one of them was safe. And where I was standing at that moment, I could hear a baby crying under the rubble. And yet I stood up and told Theodore that I would follow him, because we could save a life.

We walked across the roof of the building and down the other side and up the street to another collapsed building that before the earthquake was almost identical to the one where J and R lived. Sure enough, there was a man, lying on his left side, with his right arm and right leg pinned under a mess of concrete and rebar. The man was calm and coherent, definitely in shock. Theodore began hammering away. He asked me to take off my t-shirt and put it over the man's face to protect him from flying bits of cement. We were positioned right at the bottom of a big concrete avalanche waiting to happen. Every ten minutes or so another tremor would come and we would stumble down the side of the building to safety, wait a few seconds to catch our breath, and then climb back up. I don't know how long we worked to free the man, but it was probably about 90 minutes. After a half an hour, we all exchanged names. Other people came and went from time to time, sometimes shining a flashlight so we could see what we were doing. After about an hour, both limbs were still pinned. His right arm was clearly broken in several places. When we dug out his right leg so that we could see almost to his ankle, we realized that it was another person's arm that was wrapped around his foot. This was the final obstruction. At one point I was yanking on this arm as hard as I could, literally trying to free this one life from the grip of death. When we finally got him free, we carried him down to the street, and laid him out.

I told Theodore I had to go and he said he wouldn't be far behind, but that he had to make sure the man got some medical attention. I ran back to J and R's building. The baby was still there crying. It seemed to be coming from under a smashed, sideways refrigerator. I don't know if it was a really cheap refrigerator, or if this was one of those super-strength adrenaline moments, but I ripped that refrigerator apart with my two hands. Then I was lifting big chunks of floor and rolling them off the side of the building. Soon a few other guys joined me. A woman began screaming for help. I told her to save her strength and that I knew where she was and that we were coming, but she just kept screaming. After digging for maybe 20 minutes we lifted a huge slab of concrete and could see into a space under a section of floor the woman on her back with a tiny baby almost perfectly upside-down against her waist. I laid down on the floor slab and reached down and under and got a single hand grip of the baby's onesie and pulled him out using the other hand to cradle his head. He was by all appearances unharmed.

Well, shoot, that felt good to get down in writing. But it's late now, and my computer battery is almost dead. I'm still sleeping outside, as is everyone I know. The aftershocks just keep coming, at least one each day. But we're all feeling phantom aftershocks every now and then too.

I guess I'll have to tell this story in a few installments.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

On the long and winding road in Haiti

This may well fall under the "you had to be there" category, but here is a video - a trilogy if you will - of myself, dad, and Tad coming back into Port-au-Prince after our motorcycle trip in southwest Haiti.

Enjoy (I hope!)

And the photos (I'm hoping to get some captions in there before too long)...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Awesomest camera ever

Here's some photos from my amazing shock- and water-proof camera, which my folks got me for Christmas. The girl is Hillary, who many of you know and love already. My next post will be about our trip to Gonaives.

And you can click on this picture to see a video I took:

Oh yeah, and here's my favorite picture of Gabriela:

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Go fly a kite

I just had a lovely experience. April is a windy month in Haiti, and that means that it's kite flying season. Anywhere you drive around Port-au-Prince, you'll see kids on rooftops and hillsides and running around in dirt soccer fields flying colorful, hexagonal kites. Most people who read this blog (though it's so outdated now that I've probably lost even my own mother's attention) know that I'm a bit of a kite fanatic. I've got a few kites at home, mostly the two-string steerable variety. They're a far cry from the very disposable kites you see for sale all over the city these days. They're made with sticks and colored crete paper or cellophane. They usually cost somewhere between 10 and 50 cents, as they come in a range of sizes, from as small as an LP to as big as an umbrella. But the shape is always the same - three sticks tied together at the middle, with a string connecting the tips, wrapped in some sort of material. I've seen kids whip these things together in a minute using twigs and a plastic sack. I've always loved that about Port-au-Prince, and looked at those hundreds of kites fluttering above the slums as a welcome sign. Unfortunately, I didn't bring any of my kites, and besides it seems to be a kid thing. I guess it's kind of a kid thing in the states too.

However, I was getting on the motorcycle to leave the office today when I looked up over the front gate to the roof of a house some ways away, where I saw a full grown man with one hand at hip level and another one in a fist held up, doing a downward tugging motion that could only mean one thing. I was seized with inspiration that if this guy could enjoy flying a kite, or "monte kap" as they say in Creole, on this cool and breezy afternoon, so could I.

I blazed home, since it was already 5:30 and the sun wouldn't be up for much longer. I stopped on the way and picked out a nice blue, orange and black kite. I got to my apartment building and walked up to the roof where I passed some of the neighbor kids, hanging out in their usual spot in the stairwell. "Wow, nice kite!" they admired. "I'm going to go fly it right now, you can come watch if you want," I said, thinking to myself, yes, come and learn from the master.

It was a total debacle. I thought, how hard can this be? I tied the roll of string to the short piece coming out of the center of the kite, and hung it over the ledge of my five-story apartment building, which was plenty windy as usual. The kite kind of went in circles but mostly dove downwards. I reeled it in and tried again and again with no luck. The kids hadn't shown up to watch yet, but I was beginning to attract a crowd of people in the building next door, who were slapping each others backs and laughing at my pathetic attempts. Then I lost the roll of string over the side of the building. Eventually I got the attention of a passerby who knotted the string so it wouldn't unravel anymore, allowing me to pull it back up to the roof. By then the three or four kids from the stairwell had shown up. They could see that I was getting nowhere with this. Humbled, I asked them what I was doing wrong.

Well, duh, my kite didn't have a tail. At first, I thought this was a purely ornamental thing, and therefore unnecessary. But in reality, it's more of a rudder that keeps the kite moving straight up. One girl delegated another to go get something to use for a tail, which in this case ended up being a scrap of lace. Then, it was pointed out that I hadn't rigged up the standard little string harness. Pretty soon, there were ten kids buzzing around, prepping the kite and giving me a remedial course about how this is done in Haiti. The ringleader, a gangly teenager who was as tall as me and clearly the authority in all things kite, was like a master crafstman - a Stradivari of crete paper kites. He attached the tail, tied up the harness, carefully measuring the amount of string needed in proportion to the radius of the kite. Pretty soon, he was flying it, making it do all kinds of cool tricks. At one point, the leash was at least 100 meters long. By then, dusk was fading into evening, the moon was rising, and I was surrounded by a gaggle of kids cheering me on as I took a turn flying, pulling off a couple of loop-di-loops, slowly regaining my kite ego. It was fun.

Here she is:

I'll write soon about other current affairs, like my new job as the representative of MCC in Haiti, my wonderful girlfriend, and the cool underwater camera I got for Christmas.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Ding, dong. It's the stroke of midnight, Christmas Eve. I'm sitting at gate C14 in Dulles National Airport, where I'll soon be lying down to sleep. Early tomorrow morning, I'll be on my way to San Francisco, and then on home to Medford.

It's not how I planned on spending this Christmas, especially since it's the first time I've been able to travel home in three years. My plane from Miami was late because of weather in Chicago, and through the domino effect of delayed flights, that translated into me spending the night in Washington D.C.

But really, all told, I've got it pretty good. I've seen plenty of people who are much more exhausted, and have been put through much more than I. And I feel the most sorry for the United Airlines customer service people, dealing with countless travelers who are missing their loved ones, stuck on the wrong side of the country, and on the verge of tears.

And the best part of the day by far, was commiserating with a woman on my same flight from Miami to D.C. I was worried about missing my connection to San Francisco, she was trying to figure out what to do since she wouldn't make her flight to Montreal. It wasn't until we were getting ready to deplane that I saw her Haitian passport. So then I got to wish her a merry Christmas in Creole and talk Haiti for a little bit. Most people I know who have lived in Haiti and then visited Miami, New York, or Boston have some story about hearing people speaking Creole on the subway or at a store or something like that, and getting a chance to say hi as an honorary member of the Haitian diaspora. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend it.

Just being a foreigner in Haiti and speaking Creole is always a lot of fun. I can't count how many times people have been amazed to hear me speaking their language, and tell me stories about other blan they know who lived in Haiti for years and never learned anything other than hello and goodbye. It's always immensely appreciated. If you try speaking French, you're likely to get corrected on a number of things, but say it in Creole and you're golden. But speaking to a Haitian expatriate who might not get the chance to speak their native language often is like showing up at a stranger's house with a rare gift for them, and being warmly received for making the effort.

Tomorrow I'll be enjoying my first white Christmas since I was maybe 10 or 11, if memory serves. To everyone out there who is celebrating Christmas, either alone or with loved ones, blessings be upon you. I hope the season finds you well.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

No excuses

Now that I've been so lazy in posting things here that there's only one person even checking it anymore (yes, mom, that would be you), I'm determined to get back on the ball. At the very least, I should point you to the blogs of two new couples who are on the team, who are still relatively new to Haiti and taking it all in. The first is of the Thompsonowaks, Sharon and Bryan, who are from Philadelphia, and now live in Dezam where they work on the reforestation and environmental education programs. The second is Ben and Alexis Depp, who live here in Port-au-Prince. She works at a Haitian human rights organization like me, and he is a photographer for a microfinance organization called Fonkoze.

I know it's normal for people in my situation to spend a lot of time thinking, and communicating with people back home, about the new, exotic place where they find themselves living. But as the months wear on, the mind is less boggled and the senses are less saturated. Crossing the street no longer makes the heart race.

But Haiti is an unending feast of observations. There's no shortage of things to write about. And really, I'm often just as amazed and baffled by this place as I was when I first arrived. In addition, I've just moved into a new place. It's a fresh, new experience. I'll post photos or a video soon. It's an apartment on the fifth and top floor of a large, concrete building. From down the street, the building looks just so slightly off. The up-down lines don't quite run parallel. The floor plan of my apartment would resemble a slice of pizza, with the shower tucked into the tip, followed by the kitchen, living/dining room, bedroom, and finally the terrace as crust. It's got access to a walled-off section of the roof, also shaped like a wedge, where I dry my clothes. And there's a nearly steady breeze which keeps it nice and cool.

The most interesting part, for me, has been living without an inverter and batteries. The state power grid generally gives about six hours of electricity every 24 hour period. People of means usually have an inverter system, which charges 4-8 car-size batteries during those six hours, and then provides energy, hopefully, for the rest of the time. When you're using a system like this, florescent lights and energy-conscious habits are not a proud badge of environmental stewardship as much as they are a very practical strategy for keeping the lights on. Living like that was interesting for those 18 months in my first apartment. But now, I'm trying something new. I'm seeing how the other half lives, even if only in a limited capacity. After all, most people in this city can't keep typing on their laptops that have their own built-in battery, connected to someone else's wireless internet that is itself connected to an inverter, as I am doing right now. But it is an interesting exercise in appreciating randomness, because you never really know when the power is going to come on. Or if it's going to come on at all. Sometimes a good 48 hours will pass with no power at all. And when it does come on, you can hear a collective shout of joy from the surrounding houses. Now I'm one of those happy shouters. The state power company is called EDH, for Electricité d'Haiti, and their logo is a big lightning bolt over a gear. Fitting, I think, because the role EDH plays is much like that of Zeus - lounging on his cloud, lightning in hand, arbitrarily deciding when to strike. The difference, I guess, being that people look forward to the lightning that EDH sends. Today, it was already on at 6:30 when I got home, which is much earlier than usual. I think it was because there was a big soccer game on. And I have noticed that customarily in the week before Christmas there will be very little electricity each day, but then it comes nonstop for a solid 24 hours at least. The gods of EDH are apparently not without sentimentality.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Summer round-up

There's been no shortage of drama for me in Haiti, nor for Haiti in general, for the last three months. The MCC team has gone through some big changes, including the resignation of our country director, the arrival of four new service workers, and the celebration of 50 years of MCC in Haiti.

I moved out of my apartment, fell in love, busted my tail working on a huge grant proposal from the European Union, and got malaria. These items are listed chronologically, not in order of significance.

And Haiti? Well, let me tell you. Haiti, which generally has a conservative attitude towards homosexuality (as I've noted here before) managed to end up with a prime minister who is a lesbian. What's more, this is after several other candidates for the position, nominated by President Preval, were rejected by Parliament on technicalities. Prime ministers here go through much of the same process as nominees for the supreme court in the United States.

Not that the prime minister's private life is anyone else's business, but it's kind of an open secret. While Prime Minister Pierre-Louis has publicly denied these rumors - to not do so would be political suicide - every media outlet in the country held an open debate all summer about whether or not Haiti would be ruined if its government was being run by a homosexual.

The turning point came about halfway through the summer, shortly before the Senate was set to debate whether or not to confirm the nomination. One day I showed up at the office and went to say hello to the director, Pierre. In his office was a woman standing up and screaming into a telephone while Pierre held his hand over his mouth and gave me a look that said, "don't ask." I came to find out that the woman was the mother of a sixteen-year-old girl who had been raped by a sitting senator. It just so happens that this senator had said on the radio, just a couple days prior, that his Christian faith would prevent him from voting to confirm a known lesbian to run the government. Apparently the United States does not have the market cornered on shocking levels of hypocrisy among it's elected leaders. I can't say for sure that this turned the tide, but I think it took the wind out of the sails of those who were trying to make a moral case against the nominee.

And then, right around the time that the new prime minister was assembling her cabinet, a series of devastating hurricanes and tropical storms hit. Many of you have written to check in on me and express your grief at the images you've seen or the stories you've heard. Thank you. I've been fine. Port-au-Prince was not hit very hard other than Hanna, which caused a few trees to fall over. One day on the way to work I actually had to ride my motorcycle over a fallen telephone poll. But Gonaives is in especially dire straits. Just yesterday MCC sent a delegation out to survey the damage and determine how aid money could be spent. They had to switch vehicles about seven times because of damaged bridges, flooded roads and the like. The photos they brought back are heartbreaking. People are living on their roofs. The streets are filled with water. Some actually had a flowing current.

In the midst of the onslaught from Hanna, the UN actually abandoned its post in Gonaives. But for the people without tanks and amphibious vehicles, it's been a day-to-day struggle living on their rooftops and occasionally foraging through the mud in what used to be their living rooms and bedrooms for salvageable belongings. According to the official count, there have been 700 bodies recovered. The receding waters may reveal many more. It's unlikely it will approach the 2,000 killed by Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004, though by all reports the flooding this time has been worse.

Please continue to keep Haiti in your prayers. Some of you have written asking how you can help. It's been frustrating being right here, and yet having few options for ways that I myself can help the victims. As relief efforts get more organized, I'll post information here for those of you who would like to contribute.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

At long last, photos from the motorcycle trip with my dad and John Mills way back in April. If it's going too fast, hit pause and go through at your own pace. You can click on pictures to see them full size.