Hello from Miami.
Every three months, non-nationals are supposed to leave Haiti to renew our visas. Last year I did both visa runs to the Dominican Republic, but this time a friend of mine and fellow Haiti volunteer, Yaron, extended an invitation to come and spend a week or more w/ him in Miami. Having never been I took him up on the offer. It's been a fun trip. Yaron makes me laugh a lot, and has been incredibly generous, so being here has been exactly what I was hoping it would be - relaxing and fun. I met a cool local girl (originally Colombian but has been living in Miami for eleven years) at a cigar shop in Little Havana a few days in and, as is often the case once you meet people from a place, she showed me some of the local hotspots I never would have found otherwise. Much obliged.
My supposed-to-be last night in Miami (Friday) was so rowdy it resulted in me completely sleeping through my early morning flight back to Haiti the next day. Considering the airline (InselAir) didn't charge me anything to put me on another flight going out on Wednesday, I have to say it has proven to be a blessing in disguise. A week goes quickly, and I could use a few more days to just relax here and get a few things done that need to get done before I jump back into it. I need to beef up on updated biosand filter information released by CAWST in preparation of improving the educational component of our program, and I also need to begin emailing schools in the UK about Masters degrees I'm interested in in preparation for applications. This time next year I fully intend on being in or around London, back in school and learning something I love, close to wonderful people I care about.
Still, even at a distance, Haiti is always in my thoughts. I woke this morning and spent an hour or so looking through the All Hands Project Leogane Flickr album. Doing that made me realize how much time I've actually spent in Haiti with All Hands, and gave me a deep appreciation for the organization, and for the many friends I've made along this wild ride. Max, Mathilde, Leslie, Margot, Simon, Jodie, Cassie, Dan, Dave, Caelin, Chris, Christina, Kate... I can't even begin to name everyone, there are far, far too many. It has become something of an extended family. It isn't so much that I stay in touch and close w/ everyone, but rather the simple truth that once you do something like this, you have a common extremely uncommon experience that cannot be explained but rather lived. It isn't something most people can find in the social circles they return to once their time in Haiti has passed. I know I couldn't. There was a reason, during my four months away from Haiti, that I was on the phone with Leslie nearly every day. Besides being a close friend, she, like me, was feeling the post-Haiti fallout to a certain degree, and having one another to confide in about that and basically anything else we wanted to talk about was needed. The fact that Leslie makes me laugh to no end was also a big plus.
One thing I began to think about when looking through the photos was our local volunteers. They come and go, as do the internationals, but, also like the internationals, there have been a few locals that have truly committed to Project Leogane and been with All Hands for well over a year now. Two in particular come to mind - Emmanuel and Junior. They are young guys - I don't think Emmanuel is even out of his teens yet - and both have jobs with the organization now, driving our two Bobcats, which is fantastic. Jobs are the hardest thing to come by in Haiti, and the most desired, and the fact that their dedication to Project Leogane has made it possible for them to get them is something they should be proud of, and something All Hands should be proud of as well. Still, I know, as I suppose I always have, that this crazy, wonderful, frustrating, exhausting, exhilarating, beautiful project will end eventually. Whether or not I'm there to see it is as of yet an unknown. Regardless, I try and picture in my mind's eye what it will be like for our local volunteers, who in many respects have become something akin to family (Junior, for example, took shelter with us during the hurricane scares), when All Hands leaves. It isn't so much that I worry that they won't be OK, they are resourceful people and now have marketable skills and experience they can put to use for other NGOs. I think it is more the thought of having so many of their close friends leave all at once, and their commitment to the organization end suddenly, without their desire for it, that makes me feel for them. The idea is painful, but maybe that's just how it goes. I suppose it's only natural that we leave.
Haiti is not our country, and love it as much as we may, I doubt many of us would choose to make Haiti our permanent residence. I feel guilty typing that, because I know I fall into that category, but I am only being honest. As beautiful as Haiti is, it is also a very difficult place, and it would be even more difficult without the support of an organization to provide food, shelter, etc. Trying to live like an average Haitian would exhaust all but the most resilient (or stubborn) among us. One trip to the Leogane market is testament to the nature of the daily grind in this place, and Leogane is comparatively mellow. When I drive through Port-au-Prince, my heart breaks a little every time. Old women stooped over, ankle deep in fetid, likely cholera-carrying gutter water, sweating in the heat and trying to scrub the stains out of the once-upon-a-time American-imported rice sacks now used to carry charcoal. Nobody in their golden years should have to do that. "Golden" years don't apply in this country.
But still, broken as it is, Haiti has something so visceral and real to it it makes many of the places and things the First World champions look cheap. It is a near-impossible thing to shake once it has taken root in you - the acknowledgement that so much of what those who have the most, and the ability to do something good with it, is wasted on themselves and on glossy false-philosophies that create nothing good. So many of the people I see when I look around the First World seem lost in, and yet still committed to, a sad cycle of misguided self-realization - a cult of ego. I could go off an a tangent right now about marketing and materialism and entitlement, but I don't want to. Suffice to say, Haiti is a broken place, unquestionably, but the United States and many of it's First World siblings also have a feeling of brokenness. It's different. Haiti's is unmasked and obvious - physical devastation from the earthquake, extreme poverty, blatant corruption... The list goes on. The United States hides its brokenness. I can't help but feel that under the smooth pavement of our interstate highways and out of reach of the reflection of our high-rise buildings, America suffers from a subtle sort of disease. We're turning in on ourselves, shrinking our perspective, allowing ourselves to be fitted with blinders. We're not looking at other people, we're looking in the mirror, telling ourselves how beautiful we are. We aren't asking how we can be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are the biggest thing. There is none bigger. By the nature of our privilege, we no longer have to rely on each other to make it. We can go it alone, just us and our credit cards. Without the need to look at things from another's perspective, is it no surprise we're losing our ability to empathize? It's sad, but so be it. If the First World has to degenerate, succumbing to the vacuum it has created, than that is what will happen. In the meantime, Haiti and her siblings remain - those damaged places lacking privilege, struggling alive and without the benefit of being able to look in the mirror day in and day out. If self-realization is truly what you seek, go find them.