Monday, August 2, 2010

Day 33: Reflections On A Month

One month has passed since I've been in Haiti. Technically, one month and one day. Today is Day 33. 168 days remain. 201 days total. It is going quickly. I feel comfortable here now, I'm acclimated, the discomfort of the first few weeks has passed. My body has even adjusted to the notoriously evil malaria pills. I never had much of a problem with them - some people report insane dreams, feeling like they're on hallucinogenics at times, even severe and manic depression. I didn't have any of those symptoms, just an upset stomach, and even that has passed. My skin tone has darkened, the hair on my arms has lightened, and while I'm still susceptible to sunburns (as my time yesterday at Paradise Beach proved) they really don't bother me. I'm comfortable.

One thing that isn't easy to get comfortable with, and hasn't truly been much of an issue for me until now because it takes some time to establish itself, is the loss of friends as they return to wherever they came from. HODR basecamp is substantially smaller now than when I first arrived. There were well over 100 people here when I arrived, probably closer to 125, maybe even 150. Now there are around 80. As summer winds up and the volunteers return to school or work or whatever it may be, the camp will continue to shrink. HODR wants to stabilize it at 65 people. That's quite a difference.

Come this Friday, I'll be headed into Port au Prince to spend the night with friends of mine that run a small NGO there - Grassroots United - because I have a very early bus to catch come Saturday, headed into Santo Domingo. It will be my first venture into the Dominican Republic. I'm excited to once again be in a country where I can communicate with people. I'll be spending a week there with my friend Aaron at a resort he booked. He is visiting the Dominican Republic solo, and apparently his room comes with everything completely paid for two people. He invited me to join him about a week ago - easy decision to make. I think traveling with Aaron will be a lot of fun, because as much as he appreciates the luxury lifestyle, he's also made it very clear he wants us to get out into the real Dominican Republic. I'm 100% with him. So, needless to say, I'm excited for the break, but it will be a bittersweet one, because when I return, many of my closest friends here at HODR will be gone. Christina, whom you met in the video from two days ago, is leaving tomorrow given the field hospital is now closed, which was her reason for being here. Lauren is going to SASH to work with them for a while, then leaving. Leah, my friend from Pierre Payen and fellow biofilter protege, is leaving. And then there's Paddy, one of my oldest and closest friends, who is really the person who got me inspired to pursue this work in the first place (he's been at it basically nonstop since the tsunami of 2004). He leaves while I'm in the Dominican Republic. That will be hard to come back and not have him here. We're lucky in our friendship - it doesn't matter time or distance, when we reconnect it just happens. Natural. There isn't a break-in period like I have with some other close friends. We just pick up where we left off.

And yet, there will be wonderful people still here. I've become close with some of the staff now, particularly Chris and Henri, and many of the long-termers, as well as Simon and Jodie who are here until September. In this environment, it is difficult not to bond with people. We all come from such incredibly varied backgrounds, but there is something about this kind of work that attracts a similar type of personality to come and do it. That type of personality is a pretty extraordinary one. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to spend time with the people here, both local and international. I also like to think I'm of value to others, given I too am here for the long haul. We all keep one another going, we make each other laugh, we appreciate this together. We also help each other when the unexpected happens. Earlier this week, during the evening meeting, the mood was somber. Two separate events had really shaken up the staff. In one, the brother of one of our local volunteers was kidnapped and held for ransom. The ransom was paid and he was released safely, thank god. In the second incident, the shuttle that drives us back to the Port au Prince airport when we leave was targeted for kidnapping. The driver, a non-regular HODR driver, received a phone call from a mystery number as he approached the city. "Turn around at the next stop light, come back to the previous street, and take a right down it. Bring the blancs. If you don't, we'll kill you." Click. Thankfully, the driver did the exact opposite - flooring it straight ahead until he made it to a police station. None of the five volunteers, including my friend Gage, were hurt. But it is a stark reminder of some of the darker realities of being in such a poor and destabilized place. What happens to one of us can affect all of us. The group dynamic is powerful here.

I wouldn't choose to be anywhere else right now. Having been here for a month, I feel I am more integrated into the organization, and can be of more help to people here that may not be quite as comfortable as I now am. I am also committed to the work we're doing, and am excited to get the biosand project started in earnest. We're close now - a few more tweaks to our worksite, and we should be good to go. But more than anything, I'm falling in love with the Haitian people. Yes, they have some incredibly frustrating elements to them, particularly their relaxed attitude about time and organization (something I've noticed in many hot locales, I'm calling it equitorial time), but their spirit is magical. The fact that they can continue to smile and laugh and dance and sing and hug, like that random man in the truck when I was out in the rainstorm - I am in awe of that. I can't see us First Worlders being so capable of that in the wake of such a catastrophe. We're proud, arrogant almost, and far too self-assured. It is an ugly quality, and centers the world around our own interpretations of how it should be in regards to us - our homes, our communities, our countries. It also makes us feel that, when bad things happen to us, they are undeniably unwarranted and deserve some form of retaliation. "You're either with us or..." Fuck off, we don't straddle the world like a general on his horse. The people of Haiti have been under the heel of world powers since before Haiti existed. They were also the first people to establish an independent nation in Latin America, throwing off their slave masters, and in doing so, became the first black-led republic in the world - one that was virtually unrecognized by other nations, particularly the wealthy white ones. They've been crushed economically for centuries. They've been persecuted, both by their own government, and by others. In 1937, Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the neighboring Dominican Repubic, cooked up a lie to warrant a slaughter of Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border, now known as the Parsley Massacre for the sprigs of parsley his soldiers carried with them and made people pronounce to determine who was a native Dominican and who wasn't. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Haitians were murdered as they scrambled to try and escape west. His true motivations were based in racism and power - he wanted to spark a war with Haiti to allow him a chance to control more of the island of Hispaniola. Roughly twenty-five years later, Trujillo was gunned down in Santo Domingo. Well deserved.

I share this not because I'm versed in Haiti's history - I'm not, I only know bits and pieces. But what I do know is this country has suffering woven into the fabric of its being. There are many reasons to believe that it will be there until this country unravels into whatever follows it. And yet, the people here are warm. They smile at me, and get excited when I smile back. They laugh with (and probably at) me, and I laugh back. They huddle with me in the rain and tell me their names. They ask me mine - "Como ou rele?". "Mwe rele Quinn." They can't pronounce that, so in Haiti, I'm Qwen. I suppose that beats Mexico, where I'm Queen. I love the humble strength these people have. Are they perfect? Of course not. As I wrote earlier, there are definitely elements of Haitian culture I don't see myself ever accepting - the seeming disregard for how they treat animals, the machismo, the stubborness at times to allow themselves to think differently than they have been. But all in all, the people here give me hope. They give me hope that, even if Haiti doesn't recover, if Haiti truly does have suffering in its bedrock foundation, her people will perservere as best they can, and find time to smile and laugh along the way. Nobody on this planet is promised happiness. It isn't written into the human contract. The Haitians know that. We'd be wiser if we did as well.


  1. why would you be going on vacation, missing the celebration of paddy's end of time there and other functions that you went there to do?

  2. Actually, looks like Paddy's flight change isn't going to go through (too expensive) so I get another three week with him. Happy about that. As to the vacation - those are mandated by the organization. Every month you have to take at least a three day mental health break.

  3. Nice,
    So ordered
    Keep up the good works!
    Check out Samana in the DR
    Love, Unck