Monday, September 26, 2011

Day 117: Welcome To The Leogane Market

This video was made back in August, but it took me a while to get it uploaded. Welcome to the madness that is the Leogane market:


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Day 115: The Fourth Decade

Alright, well, I'm thirty.

Birthdays have never meant much to me before. I suppose it is an excuse to go do something fun. I actually can't really remember all that many birthdays. I remember my fourth or fifth one, it was in Mexico, I had a cake made in the shape of a boat. It was at a place called Cortijo (or maybe it was the other one who's name I can't remember), a popular swim spot outside of my hometown of San Miguel. I remember my twenty-first, for the fact that it was so completely insignificant - some stupid bar in San Diego, drinking because I was supposed to, and going home bored and lonely. My twentieth was pretty amazing - alone in a small flamenco bar in Tossa de Mar in Catalunia, drinking sangria, dancing with a rowdy full-figured Cuban girl and writing in my journal as I answered questions that the singer had for me when the clock ticked over and the 24th arrived. He asked me if I had any requests. I said Gypsy Kings. Seemed appropriate at the time, but in retrospect it is a rather embarrassing choice. My twenty-seventh found me helping my brother continue to exist after a particularly debaucherous previous day in Las Vegas (when he found himself having to help me continue to exist) during the tail-end of the three week roadtrip we took shortly after mom died. I slept that night in a tent at the Green Lake campground in the Sierras - mom's favorite place to take us camping when we were younger. We awoke the next morning to hike up to the lake and throw the small jar of blessed ashes she asked us to put on her body after she passed into the water. It was the final stop before we returned to San Francisco and our "normal" lives. Last year,  my twenty-ninth, was special too - a first-time trip to Jacmel with Mathilde, after having to rip her away from work for the day. Stubborn one, but one long, beautiful tap-tap ride later we were walking around the city, getting rained on and drinking Prestige and happy but sad because we both knew she was leaving the next day. "Thanks for making me do this." You're welcome. Come back, we'll do it again.

As for this birthday? No set plans. I'm sure I'll inevitably end up a bit shitty, speaking my broken but passable Creole at a speed that is a bit too fast for my brain to keep up with with who knows who at some silly hour. Paddy will be there. He'll inevitably laugh at me, and that makes me smile. But before that, we have a project management training course that runs all day. I'm looking forward to it. Always good to know how to do things better.

I didn't realize when I was in Miami how much I missed Haiti. Once the wheels hit the runway and the doors opened and I could feel the air - thick and hot and dirty - I couldn't help but smile. I sat next to a Haitian guy who hadn't been back to Haiti in years - before the earthquake. He was a funny one, praying before the plane took off and unsure of how to fill out his custom forms so I did it for him. "Is that Haiti?" he asked as we approached the island. "Wi. Sa se La Gonave, e Gran Groave la, Leogane la, Carrefour la, Port-au-Prince la men nou pa kabap we li kunyao paske li anba nou." He was a bit wide-eyed as he exited the plane, as was the pretty girl who caught my attention in the airport lobby in Miami. She was born in Haiti but left when she was four, having only returned twice, both times before the earthquake. I gave her a few tips - "Walk like you know where you're going as soon as you leave the front gate or you're going to get swamped. If you have sunglasses and headphones, use them." Shortly after I followed my own advice, big backpack strapped to my back, small one to my front, earbuds in pushing Netsky, sunglasses on. So nice to be able to ignore people you know are trying to get your attention and money without feeling like an asshole. The moto ride through the madness that is Port-au-Prince, myself and the driver both lost in our respective MP3 players, was beautiful. What was once intimidating now feels alive and vibrant. It's still incredibly sad, but it's special too. I missed it. There's only one Haiti, beautiful and fucked up as she is.

Until soon. In the meantime, listen to these, and mesi anpil to Paul for turning me on to them:


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Day 109: Reflections From A Distance

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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Day 98: Four Years

My mother loved knowledge. So many of the memories I have of her are anchored in her desire to learn more about the world around her, about herself, and about the bigger mystery that she was convinced is at play all around us, functioning in ways we cannot simply measure and calculate in the hope of understanding. She was an avid reader, her love of books a natural extension of her love of knowledge. She was also an avid student, and toward the end of her life, this place, Grace Cathedral, became her favorite classroom, in which she studied her favorite subjects – God, the great unknowns of the before and after, and perhaps most of all, the meaning behind her experience as a woman alive in this world. In a word, faith.

Faith was a very hard thing for me to find as my mother fought her cancer. To be honest, I was already pre-programmed with something of a faith filter, because as much as my mother loved to learn, she also loved to teach, and her favorite pupils? Myself and my brother. Be it proper table manners or tips on how to recycle correctly, my mother made sure we both received our lessons any moment we seemed available to receive them. And yes, while some of the lessons were simple and grounded in the day to day, the lessons she was most eager to teach us were those of faith. We were not always the most receptive of students. Her talk of holy beings, of afterlives and prior lives and traditions and ceremony, often times failed to connect simply because I was not convinced, and because I had the notion that those most valuable teachings must be taught to myself.

As mom got closer and closer to her final moments, I ground up against faith. I knew eventually I would. Mom’s last months were as difficult to witness as they were beautiful, and I could not bring myself to place faith in the process. I, like many of the people around me, was terrified that mom’s passing was going to be one that would be incredibly painful to witness, because I could not bring myself to trust that she would make her peace. As I wrote in my journal August 6th of this year, “Being with her… and being caught in the power and influence of her fear, made us all realize that this is probably not going to be a graceful passing. It could be a terror-stricken, wild eyes searching everyone's face for help that cannot be given, tethered to the insufficient oxygen machine, I don't want to die! death. Bearing witness to that from a place of total powerlessness is going to be the hardest thing I’m ever going to have to do. In many ways, it already is.” I fought with my own fear that what I wrote would come to pass, and hoped that mom would somehow remember and embody one of the most important teachings she received here, when, months before, we met with Dean Jones at his office and spent some time together talking. Mom had questions, as she always did, and most important among them was the question of what, more than anything else, could she could do for me and my brother to help us in this process. “Have a good death,” was the answer he gave her.

The last 24 hours of mom's life found me in peaceful grief amidst moments of complete and perfect beauty, the most beauty I have ever experienced. She had taken to her bed, and settled in to a semi-conscious state, the sound of her breathing rhythmic and unnerving both. It was powerful - unedited and raw and rare because the moment of someone's passing can never be experienced again, and you all know it, and you know what it means in your head but when it is actually happening some other part of life entirely opens its door to you briefly, to let you walk through, and when the door closes you've taken it back through with you, and no part of your prior knowing could have given that to you. It was the time in which my fear and faith and love all came together and sat in that room with me, all around me, and together we were involved.

Fifteen minutes before I held my mother as she took her last breaths I spoke silently to her. "I love you mom." She was at a place where I trusted she could hear me but did not expect any sort of a reply. But she did reply. She opened her tired eyes, looking around confused at all of it, seeming lost now in the land of the living, a land she was in the process of leaving, until she saw me. "I love you too." The words dragged themselves across her dry tongue and out her slack mouth, reaching me in a broken mumble but I understood them and in her eyes the fogginess and confusion was completely lifted and she looked at me with purpose and urgency, and she was there in her entirety, and she was so beautiful, and there was no fear. I think I started to cry and smile as I held her hand. She next turned to my brother, and with the same eyes looked at him and repeated the words. "I love you." Again, we all heard them. "I love you mama." He took her other hand. She closed her eyes. Shortly thereafter, she died with both of us at her side. They were the last words we ever shared.

Did I find my faith? I don’t know, but I do know something that was not open before has now been swung wide and other parts of life are coming in. Those parts of life mom loved so much to question and talk about and try and teach me. I guess I have to laugh, because in her ever determined way, mom once again waited for what she saw to be an opportune time to share her love of learning with me in the form of one final, perfect lesson. I have no doubt that mom saw the fear I had as much as she was aware of her own fear, and in having the good death that Dean Jones had spoken to her about, a good death in the midst of my doubt, she allowed me to trust in something bigger than myself, something I could not entirely understand, and open the door to all of that that she found to be so essential and beautiful. It makes me smile, and I like to think it has something to do with the smile that eventually came to settle on her face hours after she passed. That Mona Lisa smile that seemed to say, “Don’t worry about me, I’m just fine, and I’m on to my next lessons, the ones I couldn’t study before, as much as I wanted to, and the ones you all, in time, will come to study too." 
- - - - -

Delivered at my mother's memorial service on Saturday, October 13th, 2007 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the day after her 58th birthday. She passed away September 7th, 2007 at 4:48 in the afternoon after a five and a half year battle with lung cancer.