Friday, December 31, 2010

Day 187: 2010 Remembered

2010, you were a hell of a year you know that? It's going to take me a lot longer than this simple blog post to process and absorb all of what you gave me. Adventure, fear, desire, disappointment, hope, purpose, friendship, love - those words are all common to hear, and I'd be willing to bet just about everyone experiences near all of them throughout the course of spending a year on this planet as a human being. The same applies for me. The difference last year, for me anyhow, is the intensity of their manifestation.

Last year floored me in many ways. At the beginning of the year - February - I walked away from the best relationship I've ever had because I knew I wasn't ready to give up trying to begin this kind of work, and I knew I couldn't be to her what she deserved if I were to take off and do it, which I did. Ironically, in coming here I met another woman who sparked a real desire in me, but had to step back from her as well, for the same reason. 2010 certainly taught me that, despite the protests of the romantic in me, timing is important in matters of the heart. I don't like it, but I'm coming to learn to accept it.

Getting to Haiti, I had a reality check unlike any I've ever experienced before. The overwhelming brokenness of this country is hard to make tangible until you can be here, meet the people, see their lives, and see what they're up against. And yet, more than even the overwhelm around their troubles, the Haitians themselves - many of them my friends now - are what truly caught me unexpected. They're no different than any of us - smart, capable, funny, sensitive and imperfect - but they have a strength to them I find unique. I suppose you have to have it to stay sane in a place like Haiti. 2010 tested the will of the Haitian people. Jan. 12th was the earthquake. Over a quarter million Haitians died, and the capital city of Port-au-Prince was shattered. The months that followed saw the growing frustration with aid efforts, as NGOs worked slowly and only a tiny percentage of the tens of billions of dollars pledged for reconstruction efforts actually got through the system. Cholera hit Haiti in October, followed by Hurricane Tomas, which worsened the outbreak, eventually resulting in a full-fledged epidemic. Over 3000 Haitians have died of the disease, and over 150,000 confirmed cases exist. Every region of Haiti has it, and it is now confirmed that all regions of the Dominican Republic do as well. In November, the country had its third ever democratic elections, which proved to be anything but. The announcement that Jude Celestin, a government backed technocrat, had edged out popular candidate Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly through the country into a multi-day protest that shut down most of the roads, closed the airport, and sparked violence. Worse still was the reminder that their government wasn't something Haitians could depend on. The sentiment is echoed everywhere - "We need a leader."

Unfinished entry.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Day 182 - Videos From A Day Of BSF Assessments

Great day today, went out into the rural community of Masson, outside of Leogane, where School 3 is (which All Hands built). Before they left Haiti, Leslie and Jessica ran a community meeting out there introducing interested people to biosand filters (the school has them already) and getting names of anyone wanting to do a follow-up in-home assessment to see if a biosand filter could be a good fit for them. So today, I headed out there with a small team and did just that. Really cool to spend the day there (so beautiful) and get to meet the people. I'll write more later I'm sure, but for now, some videos will have to suffice. I'm tired.

Clearly, Haitian children continue to be a weakness for me. Can't... resist...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Day 180: All Hands Christmas

Day 180: ...

Yep. Life, you have a pretty fucked up sense of humor you know that? 6:21 AM. In the hammock. The mosquitoes are circling. Everything is basically the same as it always is when I'm up at this hour, except me. My mind is both quiet, and searching. Plans have changed. London isn't happening any more. Despite the abundance of real love for one another, there's no solution either of us can come to to make it have a chance. Not now. Timing won this time. Fuck you reality. My heart's a bit broken, and this is definitely going to be a boomerang - right now it's out there somewhere. We just threw it. I understand it in my head, but it hasn't come back yet to be caught and held. The reality of it. When it does, I'm sure it'll hurt. All part of it. Still worth it. Wouldn't change getting close to her for anything. Going to miss her. A lot.

So what then? Jan. 17th I get on a plane to New York City. My friend Elana is picking me up at the airport and I'll spend a night with her and her family on Long Island. That will be nice. She's a wonderful girl and her family rocks. Then it's a blank canvass for me. I won't stay in New York. I have some money in the bank, and I told myself I wanted to be out there, doing this. I'll continue. I'm thinking I'll head to Los Angeles to be with my family and Mike for a bit, maybe pitstop in North Carolina and Arkansas along the way to see friends, then connect with my godfather, who runs the Mexico Marine Program for the World Wildlife Fund. He's based down in La Paz. Maybe spend a few months with him, learning what his job is all about, then head out on my own again, down into South America, or maybe Southeast Asia. Africa. Fuck. I don't know. Find something online that interests me and allows me to continue to grow in this kind of work. Location isn't a big factor, unless I choose to start my own mini-project building biosand filters. If I do that, it'll be in Latin America. I need to be able to communicate.

Yea. These six months have been every bit as big and beautiful and challenging as I'd hoped they'd be. They've changed who I am. I spoke to my brother a few weeks ago - the person who knows me better than anyone in the world - and in the middle of what felt to me like a regular conversation he stopped. "Damn Quinn." "What?" "You've grown up."

That's step one. Step two: do something with it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Day 177 - Christmas Eve On Base

Chris is walking around wearing a Santa hat. There are red and green chain-linked paper rings strewn across the lounge / smoking area. Max was at the market today shopping for tomorrow's feast. Christmas is definitely in effect at the All Hands base.

It never being a holiday I much enjoyed, for reasons I don't really know, Christmas has a way of making me sad. Today I feel that way. Part of it is complete fatigue, as I've gotten very little sleep the last few days. Part of it is the fact that three of my favorite people here left this morning - Leslie, Dani & Jessica. Jessica got here the same day I did - July 1st. Strange to see her go. Going to miss her laugh. She has a great one. Dani is a Colombian bundle of smiles and dancing and wild hair. Love her energy. Leslie, a beautiful Chinese girl from North Carolina and my BSF partner in crime, put up with more shenanigans from me than any one person should ever have to. Funny enough, it just made us closer. I don't think anyone else on base made me crack up as much as she did. I'll miss that.

Leslie on All Hands Prom Night once again having to deal with shenanigans from yours truly.
Again, this is all part of the way of life here - the comings and goings - but to lose all three at once, especially given Leslie and Jess helped me a ton with biosand filter fun, hurts. But hey, three weeks and I'll be following. Don't know what's next from there. I'm second-guessing whether London should be in my immediate future any more. Time and distance, doing what time and distance do, have taken what was once a very simple idea in my head and injected it with a hard dose of reality. And while my feelings for the person I'd be going to see there haven't changed, a more practical side of myself is beginning to tell the romantic in me to take a step back, as incredibly frustrating as that is. I'm not a practical man. I don't ever want to be. It's the safe route. I'd rather risk it.

So yes, Christmas. I wish all of those I love and have been loved by a beautiful one. Me? I'm on the hammock hunt come lunch time - sleep time - then James and the local guys have recruited me to be part of their party committee. They're throwin' a proper shindig tonight. The timing couldn't be better. I could use a cold beer or ten.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Day 174 - Out & About In Port-au-Prince

If I'm totally honest, Port-au-Prince has always intimidated me. My prior time spent in this labyrinthine, sprawling, crowded city is something that both excited me, and made me nervous. Being the capital and home to about a quarter of Haiti's population, when shit goes down in this country, you can bet it'll go down here. The city recently shut down following the elections - the main thoroughfares choked with roadblocks, and smoke from thousands of burning tires looming over the countless collapsed and damaged buildings. Kidnappings happen here. Riots. It's home to Cite Soleil - Haiti's largest slum and one of the worst in the Western hemisphere. There's reason for the cautious approach. To be in Port-au-Prince is to be in the middle of a semi-state of chaos that never seems to completely abate.

So today, I decided to push my comfort level, and just go out and see what I'd find. Rose, my friend and fellow All Hands volunteer here with me for our break, had friends she wanted to see up in Petionville, a wealthier suburb up on the slopes of the mountains surrounding Port-au-Prince proper, and I was up to accompany her. We got some rough directions on how to tap-tap it up there, and headed out around 11AM. First we had a quick pitstop at a local business that changes American dollars for Haitian gourdes, then hit one of the main streets in the city, Delmas 33, and started walking. After a longer than expected wait for some freshly-fried pates (kind of like an empanada - fried dough stuffed with cabbage and meat and whatever else that particular vendor is feeling inclined to add) to appease my growling stomach, we took a breather on the side of the street to eat and see if we could hail a tap-tap. I could definitely feel how clearly we stood out, but it wasn't in an uncomfortable way. "Blanc!" People would call us, we'd wave and smile. "Koman ou ye?" I'd reply. "Mwen byen." "Tre byen." I don't have a truly working knowledge of the language yet, but I didn't need to. Simple phrases teamed with body language and a smile almost always elicits the same response - a smile and wave in return. The Haitians are fun in that way. Even with the countless NGOs on the ground here, most of the time blancs aren't out and about, mingling with the locals. Private drivers and gated compounds keep most of them removed. When the random blanc does end up out in the fray with everyone else, it is noticed, and maybe even appreciated. I felt comfortable. We were enjoying ourselves.

Pates finished and with no tap-taps having stopped to pick us up, we continued walking. Along the way I asked a Haitian guy probably a bit younger than me for directions - "Pardon misseur, eske ou kone kikote tap-tap la a Petionville?". He did know where we could find a tap-tap to Petionville, but instead of simply giving us directions, he opted to escort us. He was headed in that direction anyway. We got to talking. His nickname is Rudy (or, spelled the Haitian way, Roody) and he lived in the area. We told him a bit about us - volunteers, living in Leogane, in Port-au-Prince to visit friends. "She your baby?" he asked me, drawing my attention to Rose. "No, zanmi mwen." "No, my friend." I've come to find that any time I've been out with a female blanc, be it Rose or Cassie or Jess or Mathilde or whoever, the Haitian men will inevitably ask me if they are my woman. Depending on who I'm with, the answer varies. Rose is comfortable dealing with the male affection, so she's always just my friend. Jess wasn't so keen on having to ward off the advances, so she'd reprimand me whenever I forgot and failed to claim her as my own. With Mathilde, who I spent the most time out alone with, and was in fact my "woman" if that is to mean my romantic interest, we opted for the full defensive maneuver. "She's my wife." The lack of rings never proved problematic, but my lack of knowing how to say wife in Kreyol meant she'd be the one to have to make it clear in French, the language Kreyol is based on and largely understood by the people here, and one of her two birth languages.

Surprisingly, my acknowledging Rose to be just a friend didn't result in the expected chat-up that usually follows - Roody proved to be pretty quiet, a soft-spoken guy - and so we just walked together, every now and again trying to talk in my broken Kreyol and his broken English. Before too long he hailed a tap-tap and we piled in the back. Ah, the joys of tap-tap travel. If you can manage to get a seat at the end of the tap-tap, near the exit, or if you're riding the bumper by standing on it and holding on to the roof, the trip is fun. However, if you get packed into the belly of the beast, expect heat, very cramped seating, and very little fresh air. This time I got the latter. Luckily, it didn't last too long. We hit the main Delmas street (it seems every street in Port-au-Prince is named Delmas plus a number, except the main one that runs perpendicular through all the others) and hopped off, hunting for another tap-tap headed up toward Petionville, which we found before too long. Unfortunately, this one didn't go all the way, so we ended up somewhere around Delmas 50 (we needed to get to Delmas 91) and couldn't for the life of us flag down another one. Finally we decided to just grab a mototaxi, even though they are far more expensive (5 - 10 gourde for a tap-tap, 100+ for a moto) and get to where we needed to go. We thanked Roody for his help and a short moto trip later we were at our destination.

Arriving at Delmas 91, up in Petionville proper, above Port-au-Prince, we cut down the street - a small, steep dirt alley really - hunting for the organization Rose volunteered at five or six years ago. The organization, St. Joseph's Home for Boys, is run by an older man of faith (not sure which - Catholic I think) named Michael. He came here originally some twenty-five or so years ago with the organization started by Mother Theresa, but had a disagreement with how they were choosing to tackle their purpose - to help the street kids and restaveks (Haiti's slave class of sorts, always children) get a chance at a better life. Breaking away from that organization, Michael started his own, and now, twenty-plus years later, he currently houses over seventy boys and mentally challenged children (boys and girls) in multiple cities here in Haiti, and helps them get an education and training to benefit them once they hit eighteen and are on their own. It was wonderful to sit down with him and pick his brain for a while while he fed us baked bread from Jacmel, peanut butter, watermelon, sliced cheese (!!!), cold water, Haitian Oreos, and bananas.

Given my camera is lost or stolen, this is a photo I found online, but it gives a pretty good idea of the view from Petionville down on Port-au-Prince proper.
I didn't know it until she told me, but it was an emotional trip for Rose. The original St. Joseph's Home for Boys, a giant, seven-story house, had collapsed in the earthquake. What was left of it when we got there was nothing but a hole being dug out by local Haitian construction workers preparing the foundation for the future home. The new interim home is the neighboring house, also owned by Michael's organization. Luckily, the earthquake didn't kill any of the boys or staff living at the original house, but it did kill a visiting international man staying there to learn more about what St. Joseph's was doing. However, one of the boys Rose had known from her time there, a boy she had mentored who had since turned eighteen and left the house to go teach other young Haitian boys dance as a means of therapy and self-expression, did die in the quake. The community center he taught in came down. As we sat overlooking the hole where the original house had been, Michael pointed out the neighboring house on the other side, another big one, this a former three-story now reduced to two because the middle floor sandwiched. "There are still two bodies under that slab." Apparently the owner of the house, a French guy, never bothered to come back and clean it up, or remove the bodies. It was sobering to look at it right there across the way, staring at the cracks that faded into darkness under the concrete, knowing two people were still there somewhere, eleven months later.

After spending maybe two hours at St. Joseph's, which we closed out by climbing up to the roof to get a wicked view of Port-au-Prince, Rose and I decided it was time to start making our way back. Bidding farewell to Michael and Walnes, a Haitian friend of Rose's who is quite a talented artist, and the rest of the boys who were busy making jewelry for Walnes' jewelry line, we headed out. After getting some ridiculous prices from mototaxi drivers (pretty standard fare for Petionville, given that is where many of the NGOs, and therefore blancs, are based) we jumped on a big tap-tap instead - think moving truck with no back. Rose smashed in while I opted to ride the bumper. It was great. The truck was packed with Haitians, and one of them, a guy probably my age, cracked me up. "Hey my nigga', let me see your face!" It was said in friendliness. Apparently we were quite the spectacle. As he exited the tap-tap, he caught my ear for a second - "Hey my friend, don't mind it when the Haitians laugh at you. We just never see whites out here like this." I smiled, gave him a half-hug with my one free arm, and we went our separate ways as the tap-tap lurched into motion.

By total coincidence, after arriving back at Delmas 33 and making our way down what was apparently the clothing vendor section of the street, we bumped back into Roody. A sprawling city of two million and we walked right into him. He fell back in stride with us, trying to keep me up on the sidewalk after I got clipped by a mototaxi, and was in the process of helping us get a tap-tap when a random blanc came out of seemingly nowhere. He was a reporter from the Miami Herald on assignment in Haiti and wanted to interview us for a story. We agreed. He was familiar with All Hands, and had actually given my friend Annelie, who volunteered here for a month or so, a ride to Jacmel. Small world. He asked us questions, mostly about the volunteer experience and what we got out of it - if we thought we were making a tangible difference. He spoke with me first, then Rose, while Roody looked restless. After my interview was over, Roody took me aside and asked me if I had any money, if I'd give him some. Normally I'd say no, but he had been helpful and he settled on asking for 100 gourdes after his initial probing of twenty dollars American was totally shot down. "Mwen grangou." A saying all too common here. "I'm hungry." After finishing up her interview, Rose gave Roody 100 gourdes as I only had 250 notes or higher, and, given the sun was setting and I wasn't feeling a post-nightfall Port-au-Prince navigation, we flagged down a moto and headed back to the GrassRoots United base. A wild ride later, weaving in and out of cars and buses and dumptrucks, nearly scraping our knees on them, following a Haitian moto-policeman in military fatigues with a shotgun strapped to his back, we arrived with a smile. "What a great day." Rose said it, but we both felt it. I still feel it.

Again, not my photos, but good to help give a feel for Port-au-Prince.
Port-au-Prince: an infectious kind of madness.
In closing his interview questions for me, the reporter from the Miami Herald asked what I've gotten from this experience, what I've found most valuable. It's a question I've been asked before, and my answer has remained constant: "The reaffirmation in the general goodness of people." Today, getting swept up in the madness of Port-au-Prince, was just that. It was proof that, no matter how alien I may feel, how different my life and experiences have been from probably every single Haitian living in this city - the same Haitians all around me - I'm still sharing something in common with them. In our mutual smiles and laughter, in my terrible attempts at Kreyol and the laughter that follows it (or surprise if I actually pull it off - "Blanc pale Kreyol!"), our differences don't feel like a boundary. We're just people living our lives. I love that. It is that exact something which I can't completely explain that makes me want to keep traveling and pushing out into the myriad different places on this planet. Be it New York or Shanghai or Guadalajara or Port-au-Prince, most people out there are trying to live their lives as best they can, and let others do the same. It's easy to forget that in the negative blitz of popular media. Sometimes it takes getting out into the middle of the human flow, wild and intimidating as it can be, to remind you.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Day 173: Mental Health Break - Port-au-Prince

I'm writing this sitting at the wooden table at the rear end of the GrassRoots United (GRU) base here in Port-au-Prince. I've been here a few days on my mental health break, which was much needed. It's been largely uneventful, which is exactly what I want. I spent most of yesterday simply sleeping, or reading the book I brought down here with me - The Autobiography of an Ex-Couloured Man by James Weldon Johnson. It's good.

The people who run GRU are friends of mine, and I much appreciate being able to simply kick back here and see how they run this place. It's different than All Hands - much smaller and more loosely set up in terms of freedoms given to the volunteers, which is saying something because All Hands is very loose compared to the standard NGO. Of course, All Hands doesn't ask for any money to come and volunteer with them whereas GRU has a $15/night fee to be here, so I suppose All Hands has the right to ask their volunteers not to drink on base, when to have quiet hours, etc. I'm cool with both setups, I don't fault either, but right now this more relaxed atmosphere (largely due to the fact that there are far less people here) is really nice.

Last night, after finishing up a Skype call that turned my stomach in knots, I needed to get out, be present, try and keep my focus and attention in the moment. I got just that. Olivia, a new friend I met here, Rose, a fellow All Hands volunteer on break with me, and I went on a food hunt, and before too long we found ourselves sitting on a crowded street corner in Port-au-Prince, eating some incredibly tasty street chicken, and watching the charismatic chaos of this city do what it does. It was dark, the sun being down, and the headlights from the motos and the tap-taps and the dump trucks illuminated the smoke and dust in the air. The Haitians didn't seem to pay much attention to us. We simply got to be observers, which isn't all that common here. Most of the time, a random group of blancs draws attention. The last time I was here in a similar situation was with Mathilde, right before we went to the airport and she went home to London, and in that scenario the two of us got too much attention. It was a little unnerving to be surrounded by a large group of twenty-something Haitian men asking us questions and seeing if we'd be willing to part with some of the things we'd brought - Mathilde's boots, the Prestiges we were drinking, my money. It wasn't threatening, but it felt that way in moments, and I felt very protective of her, so we left to go into the gated area of the airport parking lot to spend the last remaining hour we had together in relative peace. But last night was nothing like that. I simply sat there with Rose and Olivia, eating my chicken and tossing the bones, drinking our beers, and watching. It was really nice. I wanted to blend in. I didn't want to be the focus of anyone's attention.

Today in a few hours I'll likely jump in the old yellow American school bus GRU recently acquired and head out to the main government-run storehouse for medical goods to pick up cholera treatment supplies. Cholera has spread at a rapid rate, particularly here in Port-au-Prince, and I'd like to see what people on the ground here are trying to do to aid those affected. Sam, the head honcho here at GRU and a friend of mine that I met through Paddy four or so years ago, is spearheading this little adventure and I like his energy and motivation, so it should be fun, if "cholera" and "fun" can ever truly be used together.

It's less than a month now that I have here in Haiti, and still the future remains unknown. It hasn't really set in for me yet that I'll be leaving Haiti soon. This feels like home now, even if it has been kicking my ass recently (abscesses, a nail through my shoe/foot, antiobiotics making me feel a bit loopy). Still, I feel the distance being here. I miss my family, my brother especially, and I miss my friends. I miss Mathilde. I miss my pup. So yes, I don't really know what is to follow this adventure I've begun, but I guess that's part of the beauty of it - allowing myself to accept that the unknowns are as wonderful as they are intimidating. In that, I'm trying, and truth be told, all hardships considered, I feel like I'm walking the path I want to walk, and have faith in where it might take me.

Until soon.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Day 166: Anpil Foto Yo

That'd be "Lots of photos." in Kreyol. These from the All Hands Base Lockdown Olympics & The All Hands Prom. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day 165: To Recognize A Wonderful Man

Today is the birthday of my grandfather, Warren Julian Zimmerman. He passed away a year and a half ago. He was one of the defining role models in my life, and I can never be thankful enough for the fact that he loved me as much as he did, and was there to help shape the better parts of my character. You're missed Grampa. I love you.

The hecticness of the post-election protests has died down some. Today was the first full day where we here at All Hands have been let out of lockdown. We had been in lockdown for four days. It'll start to wear on you. Yesterday, Will, a great volunteer that sadly left today to go back to Canada, organized the All Hands Lockdown Olympics in an attempt to boost morale and give us something to do. It worked. We broke all the volunteers that wanted to be in the Games into teams of three, ten total, and had a bunch of different activities we competed in. There was juggling, a ridiculous relay race in the JLB (Joint Logistics Base - a big space attached to the back of the base), tightrope walking, effective use of pick-up lines in a foreign language (in this case, Mandarin & Spanish), wife carrying, etc. My team, Team 9, was a powerhouse. We won silver. I'll post some pics of the shennanigans once I have them. Unfortunately, it looks like my camera has been either lost or stolen, so I have to rely on other people to get photos from here on out.

Mellow right now. Listen to Kruder & Dorfmeister's DJ Kicks album. Loving the current track, To Ulrike M. Has a flamenco-esque guitar over the beats. I've always liked that sound.

To be continued, heading over to Michael's house to take a much needed dip in the pool.

I love you Gramma. Thinking about you and Trudy today.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Day 161: Election Backlash

For those of you not aware, a few weeks ago Haiti had the third democratic elections in the nation's history. Since then, rumors of massive electoral fraud have surfaced, but the ruling government body overseeing the elections has said that, despite some issues, the elections were valid. Yesterday night they announced the results.

Leading up to the announcement, many people and organizations had Mirlande Manigat, an ex-First Lady of Haiti, and Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a musician, as the two front runners. They were expected to be the two candidates chosen for the second-round run-off that will happen in January. That wasn't what was announced. Instead, Mirlande Manigat and Jude Celestin, a technocrat backed by current president Rene Preval and his ruling Inite (Unity) Party, were announced as the two front runners. This has resulted in violent protests in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and demonstrations around the country, including here in Leogane. I'd imagine our base is once again going to be in lockdown today - nobody coming in, nobody leaving.

Sometimes I forget, because I get comfortable here in the bubble of the base, and because in the immediate vicinity of the base the local Haitians know me, and because I have a good circle of Haitian friends now, that this is definitely not my home. I live here now, but Haiti isn't mine. It never will be. To 99.99% of the Haitian people, I'm just a random blanc, and right now, that isn't necessarily a good thing to be. Recently, two of our volunteers, veterans that have been here for a long time and have been out and about in the community for months and months, were in the market shopping. People started pointing at them, saying "Li gen cholera.". "She has cholera." It was an accusatory statement, pushing the idea that we brought cholera to Haiti. Truth be told, blancs most likely did - it's expected that the UN will soon announce that the Nepalese UN troops brought in to Haiti are the source of the outbreak - but clearly that isn't our doing. It didn't happen here. It happened in the north - the Artibonite Valley. Still, when the level of fear surrounding cholera is a reality all over this country, paranoia and rumors hold more power than they should.

So yes, recent events here are reminders that I am indeed an outsider in this place, even if I feel comfortable enough in moments to forget that. I don't expect anything bad to come of that, but it can still be a bit sobering to be reminded.

I hope the post-election announcement violence isn't substantial. Until further updates though, it's time for me to retreat into my audiobook.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Day 160: Biosand Video Fun

At long last, some video lovin'.

First, the video that actually looks good, done by my friend Cassie, the photojournalist intern here at All Hands:

Now for some of my shoddy homegrown varieties:

Oh, and for those of you wondering if my prediction about lunch yesterday was correct...

Sadly, it was.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Day 159: The Wheels Keep Turning

And life in Haiti chugs along.

In terms of the day-in-day-out situation here, I've nothing all that new to report. Had a rather debaucherous weekend celebrating my friend Michael's birthday. He had a big party, brought in DJs and a nice stack of speakers, and we all spent the night dancing in the pool and enjoying many a bottle of cold Prestige. All said and done, a good time. It's nice to unwind. We need it.

Monday afternoon now, 11:30. Lunch will be served shortly. I'm willing to place money on the fact that it will include rice and beans. With the cholera outbreak, we're no longer eating anything from the ocean, so the fish stew we used to have is no longer on the menu, nor is lambi (conch). I miss it. Every single day it's the same thing - rice & beans, a piece of fried chicken, some red onion sauce, lettuce and tomato. Needless to say, variety would be nice. Every now and again they spice it up w/ a spaghetti entrĂ©e. Slather it up with mayonnaise and ketchup and call it a day. Fancy! Only the best 'round these parts.

The biosand project is getting ever more interesting. I'm bummed I'll likely be leaving right when it could significantly ramp up due to interest from other, much larger (and much better funded) NGOs. I'm not going to drop any names as nothing is set in stone yet, but suffice to say, some of the larger players in the NGO world have swung by the All Hands base and seem to always stop and want to ask questions when they see the BSF workspace. I talked to a gentleman from one of them at length at the end of last week, told him what we were doing, what the project is all about. He seemed interested. With the kind of funding those NGOs can provide, our little four-per-day-maximum biosand filter project could turn into something much bigger. I'm game. It will require a lot of planning and I'm sure there'd be some growing pains, but the need in Haiti is seemingly endless - half the population here doesn't have access to clean water - so if we can get more filters out faster, that's really the most important thing.

Actually, I think instead of writing the remainder of this entry, I'll go grab lunch quickly then do a video tour of the BSF area and you all can see what it's all about in a much more interactive way. To be posted soon...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Day 156: BSF BSF BSF

Living, breathing biosand filters (that'd be the BSF in the title for the uninitiated) and loving it. I was out all morning jumping from the baby orphanage to School 3, then School 1, then School 4.

The baby orphanage has a particularly nasty well they'll be using for their source water so I wanted to make sure they knew exactly how to use the filter they have, as their orphanage is home to many babies and infants, who are most likely to get sick and die from waterborne illnesses. I'll be damned if that happens on my watch. The good news is the staff there are very attentive to learning about the filter, and seem to be using it right. I only installed it last week so it is going to need at least another week before the biological layer, a key component in a biosand filter (hence the "bio" in the name) forms enough to adequately clean the water, so they aren't drinking it yet. I'll head back over some time after the two week mark to get samples we can then test back here at base. Once I get the results of those samples back I'll give them the all clear, assuming they come back clean. The samples we've run so far, for filters we've installed earlier, are coming back clean so I don't see any reason the baby orphanage will be any different.

The schools each have three filters in them - one per classroom. It was fun to head out to them and see the kids in action. I love Haitian kids. I don't know what it is. They have such a curiosity to them. I suppose all kids do, but especially so here. At School 1, the kids weren't actually in school, for whatever reason, so I put them to work fetching me water from the well and doing other things to help out. They loved it, and laughed at my terrible Creole as I tried to explain to them what I was doing.

The biosand filter workspace. My home away from home, even though it is technically attached to my home.
Spirits are really good right now. Spoke to a certain someone yesterday at length and got some clarity around that, which, given I've been thinking about it a lot, was needed. At the end of the day, we simply really miss each other, and have been trying to find our respective ways to navigate that. As it stands now, I'm still set to go out to the UK shortly after I leave Haiti, which I'm really happy about. It will be wonderful to see her, and to see my friends there. I'm also very excited to check out some of the graduate schools out there I'm interested in, and to head back to Oxford and walk those ancient streets again. That year there, now almost a decade ago, was a wonderful one for me. I haven't been back since early 2003. Kebab vans here I come! Alas, I won't be able to go into the Oxford Union pub anymore, where pints are cheapest, as I'm no longer an Oxford student, but hey, there's only like five hundred other pubs within the center radius of that city. I'm sure I can find a nice place to appease the palate. It'll be fun to show her around some of my old haunts - the Temple Bar, the Turf, the Eagle & Child (known as the "Bird & Baby" to the locals), New College (my college when I was there), my old houses (if I can remember where they are), South Park, etc. I also can't wait to see Paddy and Simon and Jodie, all good friends of mine. I've known Paddy since my time at Oxford, and Simon & Jodie I met here in Haiti. Good people the three of them. I'm also very much looking forward to seeing my ex-girlfriend-turned-old-friend Pamela. She's got a beautiful little boy now, and we're still in conversation, so yea, all good there. Ah, how time does what time does...

Thanks to the afforementioned young lady in London that I'm so fond of, I've now been turned onto The Hype Machine. Such a cool resource to find great new music! I've been digging around it, discovering all sorts of great tracks. You can check out my profile here:

Yea, you know you love it. My musical tastes are impeccable. Ha! To each their own...

OK, on that note, I have three more filters to install in an hour and a half, out at School 5, so I need to take some time this lunch to get another bag of sand washed, and the filters prepped. Hasta pronto. I've hatched an idea that I'm excited about. Share soon.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Day 154: Chateau Zimmerman

To celebrate five months of blissfully living in it, I present to you Chateau Zimmerman. What it lacks in space, it makes up for in character (and the fact that it's probably the cleanest it's been since I moved into the property). This amazing piece of Haitian home perfection can be yours! Bidding starts at $.25. Buyer can move in Jan. 17th, 2011.

Day 154: 5 Months

Today marks five months I've been living and working in Haiti. Wow. What a helluva five months. At six months and seventeen days I leave Haiti, at least for now, so the reality of that is always on my mind. That isn't to say I'm not focused on what I am still here doing, but the reality that life after Haiti can really be anything I want it to be, at least in terms of where I go - that's intense. It's incredible, but a bit overwhelming. A week or so I wrote as my Facebook status update: "Quinn Zimmerman... is beginning to realize having complete freedom is both an incredibly beautiful, and at times intimidating  thing. Haiti wraps up in two months. The future is... Yes, it is." That has been in my mind since. In some strange way, this time here has been as disconnecting as it has been grounding. I'm really out here alone, even though I'm surrounded by incredible people. That doesn't even seem to make sense, but it's true, and that's OK, I'm very comfortable doing my own thing, but sometimes I do miss those close to me.

I was in the back of the tap-tap on the way to the baby orphanage yesterday, en route to installing them a biosand filter. My friend and staff member here, Henri, was with me. We got to talking and she told me how it had been nice and a bit strange to go home for a few weeks. In talking about home, I realized that, yea, it would be nice to go "home" for a few weeks, except I don't have any true association when it comes to a place like that. The word "home" for me draws a blank. There's no obvious answer. Is home San Francisco, where my brother and my dog are, and where my mom lived for a few years before she passed away? It doesn't really feel that way. Is it Malibu, where my father and stepmother live, and I spent three years of high school? Again, it doesn't feel like that. Is it New York, where I was very happy and have a solid circle of friends? It could maybe fit the description but my history in New York is only two years old. The idea of "home" suggests a background, a longer history. New York isn't that for me. So then, is it San Miguel, place of origin, in Mexico? I doubt it. Not anymore. Nobody I really know is left there, and the town has been moving on without me since I last left it when I was eleven. Those are really the only four possible options, and none feel truly like "home". Home suggests a deep kinship with the place, and it being where old relationships still reside. My four options hold one of the two, but not both. So it made me think. I don't actually have a "home". For me, my home is in my relationships. It has to be, because no geographic place can claim that title. My "home" is with my brother, and my father and stepmother and grandmother and aunt. It was with my mother, before she passed away. It is with Mike and Helen and Brandon and Paddy and Blaine and the other people in my life who I am close enough to to just be myself without fear of rejection or misunderstanding. None of them are here. I don't need them to be, but I do miss them. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss personal intimacy, be it friendship, or something else. Haiti, while full of incredible people, doesn't really have that at the moment.

Actually, I take that back. I am very close with James, a Haitian friend of mine who I met in August. He and I can talk, and laugh, about basically anything. He's an anchor of a man, always there to let you share where you're at, and connect with it. I really appreciate that about our relationship. Something tells me when I leave Haiti, and James, that isn't going to be the end of our story. Some friendships you just feel will continue. I expect ours will. He's trying to get to Mexico (he speaks Spanish) to look for opportunities. Maybe I'll join him. I miss the country I most associate with my youth, and its people. I'm also close with Max, a guy just a few years older than me, who's from Arkansas and has the country twang. I love it. He and a certain someone hit it off immediately, and given how close she and I got, it wasn't too long before were a trio, all of us becoming very close. Once she left, and I was trying to deal with how much I missed her, something I'm still dealing with, he's been there. He gets it. Max has a great sense of humor, and is one of the most humble guys you'll meet. He's been wonderful to talk to, and just let shit out with. You can't carry everything inside. It gets too heavy. Max and James are pillars when I need them, even in spite of the fact that I tend to carry around this silly notion that I can do everything by myself. It's nice to lean, especially those times where you didn't even know you needed to.

James & me (on Short Shorts Monday).
Five months, yes, but I'm not done yet. The biosand filter project is still in full swing, and, given I've been running it basically since the day I got here, I'm committed to seeing it through to when I leave. I worked with Cassie yesterday to put together a video appealing for donations to support the project. It was funny - I really hate my voice when I hear it back recorded - but Cassie thinks it'll be good. It's also a bit awkward to talk from a script, but that's how they wanted it, as it needs to essentially be a short and structured fundraising pitch. We shall see...

Yesterday, another NGO approached me wanting suggestions on how to process a large amount of water (two 400 gallon tanks) for their base. At the moment they are using bleach, which is what we use as well, but they want to try and move away from that onto something more sustainable and non-chemical. We talked about biosand filter projects, and they're up for trying to make a big one - much, much larger than what I make here. I'm game. I know larger biosand filters have been made before, and I found a report on one such project in Africa, so I'm excited. I may not have time to do it during my regular work days here, but fuck it, I'll work Sundays. The project entices me. I don't see why a larger biosand filter wouldn't work just like a small one. We'd take a big plastic tank, layer it with gravel, coarse sand, and a LOT of fine sand (good lord that's a lot of sifting and washing) and introduce source water. In theory, it works. The materials to do the project are dirt cheap, so Richard, the guy who talked to me about it yesterday, is down to give it a go. I say let's do it. I'd like to leave Haiti with a really solid understanding of biosand filter technology, as it is something I can apply all over the world, and large scale filters are definitely valuable if I can get them to work.

7:10 now. The base is alive. People eating breakfast, getting ready for the day. Come 7:30, everything kicks off, including me and my team, so I need to sign off. These teeth aren't going to brush themselves.

Five months. I feel it. It's a mix of all sorts of something - powerful and beautiful and challenging. I told myself before I left that I wanted to go for it, to truly just jump into the deep end, to not hesitate. I did. It's been incredible, and opened many doors for me, and yet, and I suppose I should have seen this coming, those open doors leave me more confused about the next steps than when I started. My bigger, end-game goals are becoming ever clearer, and I know what I'd like to try and do with my life. That isn't where the confusion comes in. The doors I'm talking about are all those myriad options and paths one can take in reaching the end-goal. In truth, there are no paths, they don't exist until you create one through the act of choosing. And that's not a bad thing. Choice is never a bad thing. Choice is freedom, and yes,  that is both an incredibly beautiful, and at times intimidating thing.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Day 150: Cassie Captures Haiti

At long last, some photos from the mental health break I took w/ Deiy, Cassie and Max at the beginning of October. Clearly, Cassie is a much better photographer than I am. Check her out.

Day 150: And We Continue (Again!)

I wrote in an entry from months back that the early morning would be the time I'd likely choose to sit down and put pen to paper (not literally, being the age of computers and what not, but you know what I mean...) and it seems I've finally hit the point where that is the case. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm actually cold in Haiti at night now. I sleep in my tent up on the roof with a thin sleeping mat and two sheets. During the summer, even that was too much. I'd kick off everything, pull the rain cover back hoping it wouldn't rain, and strip down to my boxers to try and avoid the heat. Now, I'll be finally putting the sleeping bag I brought here to use.

I've been up early partly because it's been cold, and largely because I've had to get my thoughts together, or at least try to, around a certain someone who isn't here anymore, but who remains very much front and center in my mind. As I've written in previous entries, often the hardest part of this work is having to say goodbye to the people you become close to, and she and I became very, very close. Time and distance have a way of straining certain types of relationships, and we're both feeling that now. My default response in a situation like that, particularly when it comes to someone I care for deeply, is to try and do something about it, try and keep the relationship as it was, maintain what made it so special to begin with, despite the distance and growing time apart. That may seem like the right thing to do, but often it isn't - it adds even more strain to an already difficult situation. You can't force those subtle things that make certain types of relationships special. The real "best" thing to do, if such a thing exists, is to be as clear as you can with one another about where you stand, how you feel, what you want (or, if you don't know, that in fact you really don't know what you want) and be OK with accepting the separation. If it is supposed to be, or isn't for that matter, it will become clear. It can't be forced. It just has to happen. I know that in my head, but my heart, stubborn thing that it can be in moments, has a more assertive personality when it comes to this. It wants to figure out how to make it work. It wants to push and fight to stay close and hold on. I'm in the process now of learning how to acknowledge that's part of who I am, as I know myself to be a romantic idealist before a pragmatic realist, but refrain from engaging it. Hence the early morning wake-ups, which I actually really like (minus the mosquitoes). It gives me time to think, and be quiet. I'm sitting here at 4:51 with my headphones in, listening to one of my favorite tracks from the "Delta Heavy Essential Mix" Sasha & Digweed did back in 2002. Perfect for the mood. Not sad, not intense, just inquisitive.

The upside of trying to override the romantic in me is it does create more time and space for the pragmatist in there (not much of him, truth be told, but some) to get airtime and push forward with the work I'm doing here. As I wrote in my last entry, I had been feeling down about the biosand filter project not being running at the level I'd like, but that is going to change. It already has started to, largely because I've had a lot of energy swirling around this last week, and it's nice to have something to pour that into. A few days ago I went to install filters at a cholera treatment center set up here in Leogane. A few days before that I installed them in an orphanage, which proved to be tricky because all I really wanted to do was play with the kids. There's something about the kids in this country - they're incredibly beautiful, and so in need of love and affection. They soak it up like little sponges. You can't help but want to give them every bit of love you've got. They'll surely take it, and the effect is so immediate - big bright smiles, white teeth on dark skin, and eyes glowing. Laughter. It's wonderful.

Really though? This cuteness must cease.
Olivia, you had me at "Bonswa!". 
OK, that's it, I'm moving into a nursing home. I can't take it anymore.
I miss running the after-school program that I used to run, but it's OK, another long-term volunteer here, Aubrie, is running the children's programs (our after-school program, and the orphanage program) and there couldn't be a better person for the job. Besides, I really like my project, and the more I think about what I'm actually doing, the more I like it and it helps me to continue to stay interested and invested, even if in moments I wish I could just shed the biosand project for a week or two and be able to freely jump through the many other things All Hands does - rubbling, demolition, school builds, hygiene and sanitation training, a cash for work program, etc. But I actually think this is the program I'd choose to pick to run if I could pick any. The technology is so cool, and biosand filters are now a globally adopted solution to waterborne illnesses in the developing world. What I've learned here can be applied in Africa, Asia, India (technically Asia but fuck it, I'm giving it its own entry) and Central & South America. As long as the place doesn't freeze, a biosand filter will work. Sorry Siberia. You're on your own. Melt snow or something.

I've been looking around now, thinking about what the next steps are for me, and while I'm still set to go to London to see her and other friends, as well as check out grad schools, at the end of January, I do want to continue this work in the field. I've been wanting this for a long, long time, and now that the opportunity to do it is here, I want to grab it and run with it. In the next two years (the time-frame I'm looking at before I go back to grad school) I think it would be amazing if I could help with development projects in all of those places I listed before. If I'm careful with the money I have from selling my shares of a successful web start-up ( that I was part of, they may be able to carry me through up to a Fall 2012 return to school. I by no means have a lot of dinero (I can't seem to make it a priority) but that's the beauty of this work - you don't need a lot. Travel is the primary cost. Living in the developing world is cheap. So yea, school in 2012, although I'm still considering a Fall 2011 return if some amazing program or situation presents itself, but more and more I'm leaning toward getting more experience in the field, from the ground up, before pursing my Masters. Check out this degree for an idea as to what I'm interested in:

King's College London - Conflict, Security & Development (MA)

That sounds like such a cool degree, and it differs from a traditional development degree as it focuses on conflict zones. One thing I've come to learn about myself is that, despite the damage and unquestionable need natural disasters can cause, what I am most passionate about is people hurting other people. Conflict. War. Rape. Honor killings. Slavery. Torture. Genocide. That is the stuff that, when I read about it, my blood boils. It stirs up energy in me, every time. It brings out the part of me that cannot accept it as just "part of being human", even if, perhaps, that's true. I've always been that way. Many of my closest friends when I was a kid were the kids that were constantly picked on and made to feel bad by other "more popular" kids. It never sat well with me. And while I imagine most people in the world share my feelings around those things, I want to see if I have what it takes to put myself into those types of environments to try and help. It's harder to do that though, it isn't like this kind of work. You'd have to be very reckless to just randomly show up in Congo or Darfur or Somalia and "get to work!". Life is cheap, but particularly so in those types of environments. I don't have a deathwish. I can't help anyone if I'm dead. To do that work as safely as you can, you need to be part of an organization that can keep you alive. To do that, you have to have something to offer outside of just a desire to help, at least that's what I'm lead to believe. You need to know something and how to apply it - medicine, conflict resolution, security, engineering, etc. So that's why I like that degree I linked above, as it combines both development work, like what I'm doing with the biosand project here, with conflict studies. I think I could come out of that really set to find my place, and get my hands dirty. Haiti has shown me how rewarding that is - challenging and exhausting and exhilarating and overwhelming and worth it. Totally, totally worth it.

So there it is. We shall see. Life continues. Today is Haiti's election day. It will be the third democratic election in the history of the country. May it be a peaceful one.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Day 146: Challenges

I've gotten in the habit of getting up early in the morning. I like it. It's quiet, and one of the very few times of the day and night here where I am largely by myself. As sociable as I can be, I need that. My own solitude allows me to get into my head and begin to try and make sense of things, and now is a good time for that. I've got some challenges I'm trying to push through at the moment and this time to simply sit and be with my thoughts is appreciated.

I suppose it'd be unrealistic to expect that a six and half month commitment to living and being in a place like Haiti would come without significant challenges. By the nature of this place, challenges are everywhere. And yet, that isn't really what I'm talking about. The external difficulties of Haiti aren't something that, at this point, have really proven to be something seriously challenging for me to navigate. Yes, the infection in my foot was very painful, and made me a bit nervous, but that was taken care of. I've only been laid up for a day or two with minor illnesses. I've yet to get floored by malaria or dengue. In that respect I've been very lucky. It seems like every week a volunteer here comes down with something nasty and it really works them over. I've not yet been that volunteer.

No, the challenges I face now are based in many other things. I'm beginning to feel the disconnectedness of being here, particularly in regards to my relationships. I function very well doing my own thing, but I suppose that comes with the assumption that the people I love and care about are also doing their own thing and doing OK. For a while now someone I'm incredibly close to has had some particularly difficult times as of late, and I haven't heard from or spoken to him much at all. It is something that has been in the back of my head for a while now. Another relationship of a completely different nature has also become more complicated than I'd originally assumed it would be and I'm not exactly sure how to interpret what's happening with it.

Outside of my relationships, and the strain put on them by distance, I'm also feeling as if the project I'm running is falling short of where I'd like it to be, and, given I'm the sole team leader for it, I've really nobody to blame for that but myself. That is something I'm definitely struggling with. It makes me feel like I'm not capable, even though I know I am. I have and have always had the tendency to hold myself to a very high standard. When I hit it, I'm happy, but when I don't, I can go either way - push harder until I do, or retreat and lick my wounds, or distract myself to avoid having to acknowledge the wounds to begin with. I'm fighting at the moment to push myself past the weaker option, and make sure when I do leave Haiti and the biosand project I run here to pursue whatever is next in my life (that itself a giant question mark) that I leave behind a great project that is running well and will continue to in my absence. That is going to take a lot of work and a significant time commitment. It is also going to take focus, and that is something elusive for me these days. There is something in my life, something beautiful and at times challenging, that pulls much of my attention away from Haiti. It's nobody's fault for it, it's just the nature of the thing, but I have to pull that focus back, at least for now. At this point, given the realities of distance, I'm limited in what I can offer and what I can do, and while that can and I hope still will change shortly after I leave Haiti, for now there are plenty of people and things right here in front of me that can benefit from what I can offer, and there's no limiting factor in play. That is where I need to be.

Living and growing continues to reveal itself to be a process full of surprise, a dance that, as surefooted as you may feel, will still find you occasionally stumbling. And that's OK. Try and smile, find the pleasure in allowing yourself to laugh at yourself, and keep right on dancing. You only truly fail if you stop.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

Day 134: On The Cusp

It's been three months since I last left Haiti so I once again find myself at a resort in the Dominican Republic, this one discovered by another volunteer for $10 a night, renewing my visa. Cheaper than a hostel, and a helluva lot nicer ( Yay for promotions.

Still, I can't stop thinking about Haiti. Hurricane Tomas, luckily, was not nearly as damaging as it could have been, as it didn't hit Haiti directly but rather clipped the very edge of the country. No wind damage in Leogane or Port-au-Prince. However, it did complicate another very serious problem - the cholera outbreak. Whereas a few weeks ago it looked like the incident had been largely isolated and contained to the original outbreak location of the Artibonite Valley, Tomas did bring heavy rains and flooding to the country, which spread the disease, as it is waterborne. Leogane was largely underwater ( and All Hands is currently working to get mud and slime and everything else out of homes. That isn't the major problem though. In Port-au-Prince, the crowded and largely-destroyed capital, cholera has taken hold. Cite Soleil, the largest slum in Haiti, has confirmed cases, and all signs point to it spreading quickly. Al Jazeera and BBC News are reporting 1000+ new cases a day, and the death toll has jumped from the original 300 or so to nearly 1000 in just a few days. There are rumors of confirmed cases in Leogane, and the situation has me nervous. Being here 134 days now, I've made many very good Haitian friends. I know that, should the cholera situation get out of hand, I can and in all likelihood will be asked to leave by our organization. They are monitoring things closely, and given the intensely communal setup of our base here, cholera could be very dangerous for the volunteers. But we can leave. Many of my Haitian friends cannot. I hate the idea of having to go, and being able to really only watch and hope that the people I care about still in Haiti are OK.

It has been an intense couple of weeks. When Leogane flooded, I went out into the community with my Haitian friend Junior to check on his house and his mother's house. It is one thing to see a flood on TV or online, another entirely to be up to your waist in the water. I wasn't scared, but rather just kind of in a daze of sorts, watching people try and keep their lives going, or simply sitting somewhere above the water line, waiting. Even then, you'll find humor in the Haitians - a loved the guy who decided to turn his ice box into a canoe of sorts, paddling through the flow. Mototaxi drivers were still doing there best to try and push through the flood, sometimes carrying Haitian women still trying to maintain a nice dress code. It's amazing to me, but I suppose if you're from Leogane, a city prone to flooding, this isn't anything new. 

Flooding and mud and hurricanes aside, it's the cholera that's on my mind, and the minds of most NGOs and people in Haiti. Protests are happening, with people venting their frustrations with their own inept government, the UN, and the NGOs here. The scale of the problems Haiti is facing now is overwhelming, and has been for a long time. It's been nearly a year since the earthquake hit, and it seems that, despite all the work All Hands and many others organizations are doing, we've only scratched the surface. It isn't to say it isn't worth it - it unquestionably is - but change comes slowly here, and I'd like to see all other impending catastrophes put on hold until we can at least get the millions of people still homeless in camps back into some semblance of a normal life.

The work continues. I'll be back in Haiti on Sunday. I'm happy for that. There is no other place I'd rather be at this moment.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Day 125: Batten Down The Hatches. Tomas Cometh.

All Hands base, and all the volunteers here, are in a perpetual cycle at this point - wake up, get on our computers, head over to, and hope the news has changed for the better. Tomas, which can't make up its mind as to whether or not it is a tropical depression, tropical storm, or hurricane, is creeping ever closer to Haiti. This morning, the news was good - the storm has been downgraded in strength, and has moved slightly west from where it was yesterday. The eye of the storm no longer looks like it will be missing us by just a few miles, and whereas original predictions from a few days ago had it hitting Haiti as a Category 3 hurricane, it is now showing it as a Category 1 when it makes landfall. A hurricane is still a hurricane, and given the fragility of Haiti right now, damage is going to be done regardless of strength, but I hope the current trend continues, with the storm moving further west and getting weaker.

I'd imagine tomorrow we'll put in motion our plan for the storm, which involves moving anything and everything that could fly around and cause damage into a secure area, or, if it is too big to move, strap it down and pray the straps hold.

(Unfinished post.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Day 116: Mental Health Break? Check! [Part 2]

A bit overdue, given I was up doing the All Hands satellite project in Tom Gato, a tiny town way up in the mountains separating Leogane from Jacmel, but Part 2 of the Mental Health Break Chronicles is here. Let's recap shall we?

Last we check in with our four intrepid adventurers they were in their tent camped in the small town of Bassin-Bleu. Having been the victim of a midnight spider-turned-insanely large cockroach attack, I didn't exactly have the best night's sleep, but we all woke up fairly early regardless, as is almost always the case in Haiti. Jean, the local head of the tourist office in Bassin-Bleu, came to greet us with a "Bonjour!", and to invite us to his home for breakfast. We brought the remnants from our shopping spree the night before - mostly bananas and an avacado - and followed Jean back to his abode, where we found a big spread of spaghetti, bananas, little suckling fruit I don't know the name of, bread and coffee. The spaghetti was actually seasoned and had sauce, unlike the spaghetti we eat all the time at All Hands basecamp, so we tore into it. The coffee was also good, even if it did have way too much sugar in it (two things the Haitians love en masse: sugar & ketchup). Before too long, we were all fat and happy and ready to get up to something.

Max, being in a chilled out mood, opted to keep chipping away at "To Kill A Mockingbird" while Cassie, Dieh & I headed back down to the first of the Bassin-Bleu pools to get in a morning bath. It was intended to only be a quick dip, as we were ready to head back down into Jacmel and find ourselves a hotel for the evening (the thought of beds and the ability to take our packs off for a healthy chunk of time being too hard to resist) but the water was so nice we opted to adopt a more leisurely time schedule. The pool we were bathing in had a small waterfall feeding into it that you could push yourself back into if you could get strong enough footing, and we all took turns enjoying it. The next pool down had a larger waterfall, so I scrambled over the dividing rocks and again wedged myself into the flow, this one nearly ripping my swimtrunks off me. Dieh soon followed suit as Cassie watched from the pool above, content to kick it and not tempt fate with her gimpy toes. Half-inclined to just stay there all day, sleeping and swimming as desired, we nevertheless forced ourselves out of the water and back up the mountain path, and about an hour after leaving Max with his book, we found him exactly as he was before.

Striking the tent for the third time in two days, the four of us found Jean to get sorted out with our moto-taxis back down the mountains and into Jacmel. "Fifteen minutes." Haitian Time being what it is, we spent the next hour and change exploring the Bassin-Bleu gift shop at the behest of Jean, and then sitting on a wall waiting, surrounded by the town children and some of the people we had met the day before. Max, befriending the pastor who ran the school up in Bassin-Bleu, took off down the road to take a look at the school and get an idea of the needs the pastor told him were necessary. Eventually, the characteristic whine of motorcycle engines under strain crept up the path to us - our cue to to say our thanks and goodbyes. Deciding to stick to our original configuration, Cassie & I jumped on one moto while Max & Dieh straddled the other, and after some shuffling around of packs and bags to get properly balanced, we were off.

It became apparent within just a few seconds that these two moto drivers were in another league entirely when compared to the two who brought us up to Bassin-Bleu. Besides the fact that they actually got all the way to the town, whereas our original drivers stopped fifteen minutes short, it was the speed with which they descended that really got our blood rushing, and Cassie and I had unknowingly picked the alpha of the two, who pulled way ahead of Max & Dieh, not to be reunited again until we were in the river bed. Yes, I said IN the river bed. Having taken a different route down that we had up, we no longer had the quasi-bridge-like something that the original motos had barely managed to traverse the day before. Instead, our descending drivers dropped us off at the edge of the strongest part of the river, which they had no intention of attempting to cross on their bikes, and made it oh so clear that we'd be walking from there on out. However, they were gentlemen as well as speed demons, and began to take off their shoes and pants to aid us in getting to the other side.

Being tall and perhaps a little over-confident in my abilities, I opted to kick off the party, wading out with my pack strapped to my back and my shoes still on, despite the drivers' recommendation to remove them (a very smart decision on my part, as it turned out). Reaching the middle of the river, the current was definitely making itself felt, and I crouched down a bit, water at my groin, looking for balance. Nature, having the twisted sense of humor that she does, opted to plant the deepest and fastest-flowing part of the river not all that far from the banks of the opposite shore. Thinking myself to be home free after passing the mid-point, I nearly fell over as my right foot sank six inches deeper than it had been the step prior, and the current pushed against me. My feet, unable to plant themselves, were pushed a few feet downstream, rocks rolling around them (thank you shoes!). Arms stretched wide and trying desperately not to wreck the electronics in my bag, I simply drifted standing for a spell before my feet reestablished for their footing and I could continue, reaching the other side smiling and dry from the waist up. Thinking about it in retrospect, there's really no explanation as to why I didn't completely fail in my attempt, but hey, I'll take it!

Happy with myself and feeling semi-badass following my crossing, I looked behind me only to be yet again humbled by the Haitians. Whereas my wading was slow and anything but surefooted, our two drivers made it look easy. The first, our driver, had Cassie on his back and moved through the current without hesitation or any seeming difficulty. The second driver had Dieh on his shoulder, helping her keep her footing, and was loaded down with bags. Max, bless his heart, brought up the rear, also weighed down with bags, which proved to be problematic as he froze when he hit the deepest part of the river and waited for the first driver to drop off Cassie and return to relieve him of some of the extra weight he had, and ensure his safe arrival on the opposite shore. And all this they did in their briefs, barefoot. It almost adds insult to injury when people can make something you struggled with look incredibly easy while also looking absolutely ridiculous in the process.

After we were all deposited safely on the Jacmel side of the river, our two drivers bid us farewell and waded back across to where their clothes and motorcycles awaited them. Unsure of what our next move was, we briefly considered heading down river to where it met the ocean to spend some time on the beach. Dieh and I went ahead to scope it out only to realize that if we wanted to do that we were actually on the wrong side of the river and would need to re-cross. Without the help of our now gone drivers, and taking into account Cassie's bum foot, we knew that wasn't going to happen, so we settled on heading into Jacmel proper to see about a hotel.

Leaving the riverbed, we came into a shantytown of sorts on the outskirts of the city. Cassie, unable to fully put her shoes on given her toes, was looking at a particularly nasty trek through the place, so I handed Max my pack and had Cassie hitch a ride on my back. Lucky for Max and me both, the shantytown was actually very small, and before too long we hit a road. Not recognizing it as the same road we came in on from Leogane, I was a bit lost for direction, but we headed right (the correct choice) and in a minute or so came upon a little vendor's place. After our adventure down from Bassin-Bleu we were all ready to take a breather so we stopped to enjoy a few Prestige, sodas, and a shady place to sit. The fact that a Sapi Bon vendor (frozen flavored ice in a bag - think Haitian Otter Pops) walked by shortly after our arrival was icing on the cake.

During our pit-stop, we made some phone calls to other All Hands volunteers that had taken mental health breaks in Jacmel to see about a hotel recommendation. Unable to reach most of them, we finally got in touch with Marine Matt (America!) and he tipped us off about Hotel Cyvadier, telling us it wasn't the cheapest option, but was a really nice place to truly unwind and do right by the "break" in "mental health break". Having not been able to reach anyone else for further recommendations, we decided that Hotel Cyvadier sounded like a pretty good option, even if it wasn't the cheapest, so we bid our street vendor adieu, hailed two mototaxis, and about fifteen minutes later, outside of Jacmel along the coastline, arrived at our destination.

Hotel Cyvadier sits at the end of a long dirt road, and immediately upon entering the gates we knew we were in for a treat. A medium-sized hotel, Cyvadier is well laid out, with a parking area on the left, immediately upon entering, and a two-story building with one set of rooms to the right. The grounds are manicured and it is quiet. At the end of the parking lot and first set of rooms is the front desk, and to the right and behind that is the second set of rooms, sitting closer to the ocean, and the restaurant / bar and small pool. During check-in we were informed that the Leogane volunteers got a discount, so instead of $80/night per room, we paid $65. $32.50 a person (we split the rooms, with Cassie & Diey in one room and Max and me in another) for those accommodations was more than fair. They even had flushing toilets - an incredibly rarity here in Haiti.

The true selling point of Hotel Cyvadier is, in my opinion anyway, not the hotel itself but where it is situated. As you make your way to the back of the hotel, where the bar / restaurant & second set of rooms are, you'll see a stairway descending away. Following it, you'll pass under a few tree before the view opens up as the stairs end and you're looking at one of the most beautiful coves you've ever seen. The beach that the stairs empty onto is small and sandy, flanked on one side by green cliffs and the ocean on the other. The water is near-perfectly clear, which is pretty normal in Haiti unless you happen to go swimming where a river undoes itself into the sea, and out past the rock cliffs that form the entrance to the cove, the Caribbean stretches away in an easy blue line. The beach is largely empty, only a few locals and blancs floating around, and upon discovering this gem, all four of us immediately smiled and knew that, despite the unpredictability and fun of the adventures we'd had up to that point, this was exactly where we wanted to be.

A few hours later, after we had enjoyed some cold beers poolside and were down at the beach playing around in the water, we crossed paths with a colorful set of gentlemen. Originally striking up a conversation with Max, my attention was perked from a distance when I heard one of them mention they were in Haiti as part of a crusade. Given all three were fairly clean-cut, twenty or thirty-something white guys, they seemed to fit the stereotypical mold of the Christian missionary, and "crusade" used seriously has a way of sparking a heat in me, so I couldn't help myself and decided to float over to see exactly what the boys were talking about.

They were in fact missionaries, evangelicals from what I could tell, although they referred to themselves as non-denominational, and were part of an international Christian organization called Global Ventures or something along those lines. One of them, the most outspoken (and later, most determined to save my soul) ran a blog - Religion always being a potentially explosive and volatile topic of conversation, I actually think the seven of us handled ourselves admirably, particularly given the religious make-up of our own group, with Max & Cassie being strong Christians and believers, Diey being the preacher's kid-turned-skeptic, and myself being firmly planted in the "organized religion is not a good thing" camp. However, there were more than a couple of moments where I had to bite my tongue, especially when the guy put forth the argument that went something along the lines of, "Hey, we really respect what you guys are doing here to try and help, but don't you have to ask yourselves what's the point in the long run in giving people food and shelter if they don't have Jesus?". That's me paraphrasing, and those aren't his exact words, but the point he was trying to make was clear - why save people today only to have them burn in Hell for eternity tomorrow?

That argument in and of itself isn't anything new to me - religious types the world over use it ad nauseam, and it never makes sense. However, what I found particularly distasteful about this particular instance was that he made it in the context of Haiti today - a country still reeling from a devastating disaster, in which millions of people are homeless, hungry, sick and desperate. To go by his argument, the people of Haiti actually needed his particular brand of Christianity more than anything else. Right. My ass. Ask the young single mother living in a refugee camp, hungry and trying to care for her sick children what she needs more, Jesus, or food, shelter and medicine. And besides, faith is personal, or it should be. With or without you, if the Haitian people want to have a relationship with God, they will. Indeed, they already do. The vast majority of this country is unquestionably religious. The same can't be said about aid. The overwhelming majority of earthquake victims want homes again, want community restored and schools open for their children, want safe drinking water and enough food. Nine months later, most are still left wanting, despite all the efforts made by the countless NGOs and volunteers here in the country doing what we can. There is no way the "Jesus over basic human needs" argument can ever hold water in my book, but to try and pull it off here, now, in the midst of this, that's just incredibly condescending and insensitive. Such is the byproduct of adopting completely and without question a belief system that assures you you are right and those that disagree with you are wrong, that you are saved and others damned.

And yet, as ready as I was to make him choke on that argument of his, I refrained, mostly because I respect Max & Cassie and didn't want to make them uncomfortable, and also because hell, this was my mental health break. No need for that shit when trying to kick back, and truly, what was the point? I stood about as much chance in changing his viewpoint as he did in changing mine. So we kept it cordial, I once again silently thanked my parents for never pushing religion on me before I was old enough to understand it is a choice in world-view, not truth, and we went on our merry way.

For dinner, everyone except Cassie agreed that it had been far too long since we'd had a proper meal, so while Cassie spooned around her lukewarm MRE corn chowder, Max, Diey and I enjoyed Thai conch, grilled fish, and grilled conch respectively. We let Cassie nibble on the side order of French fries. Bellies full and eyelids heavy, we enjoyed one final round of rum punches (well, Diey and I did, Max wasn't feeling it and Cassie doesn't drink) and retired to bed.

The next morning, after eating a simple (but free) breakfast of toast, eggs, bananas and coffee, we checked out but were told it was OK to hang around if we wanted to have drinks or swim. We had originally hoped the hotel would approve letting all of us stay in one room so we could afford to stay another night, but that idea was shot down, so we settled for lingering a bit longer before heading out.

The highlight of the afternoon was taking the one-person kayak the hotel had out for a spin. Cassie took it out first then I commandeered it upon her return. Going out through the mouth of the cove, past where I had gone swimming the day before, I headed left and east along the coastline. The water remained crystal clear so even in the deeper parts I could see the reefs stretching away below me. Groups of Haitian divers were disappearing under the water, knives out and ready, on the hunt for lambi (conch). The entire scene was magical. I love the water to begin with, so being able to dart around in the kayak, moving much faster than I ever could swimming, was wonderful, even if there were moments where I wanted to bail out and go diving with the Haitians but refrained for fear of having the kayak drift away.

Once our ocean time was done, we ate lunch at the restaurant, this time Max & Diey going for a club sandwich and myself going for the "like a chef salad" salad (actual menu description). Not too shabby. As early afternoon began to fade into mid-afternoon we knew we'd have a potentially long tap-tap ride back into Leogane, so we grabbed our packs from where we'd stashed them, paid up our dues, and hit the road. One very crowded tap-tap and mellow mototaxi ride later, we were on the outskirts of Jacmel, at the bus station (if it can even be called that) and on the hunt for a cheap tap-tap home. Given all the tap-taps available were smaller and much faster than the giant truck we'd taken to get to Jacmel, the cheapest ride we found was 100 gourde per person, as opposed to the truck's toll of 50. Still, that's $2.50. Ridiculously cheap, yet you tend to forget that after you've been in country for a while, sometimes finding yourself haggling over 10 gourde (a quarter) on principle alone. It isn't a bad thing to do though, particularly in a city like Leogane, where so many internationals are present. If you let the locals gouge you, that gouging becomes the norm and then all of us blancs and our wallets are shit out of luck.

Anyway, getting sidetracked. So yes, in this case, 100 gourde wasn't a blanc-only price, all our fellow Haitian riders were paying the same, so the four of us scaled up the back of the tap-tap, again opting for the roof over the covered back, as the weather was holding and the views to come were worth it. We waited a long time before the tap-tap left, as the driver wanted to pack it absolutely full, so we ticked by the minutes listening to our iPods, reading, shooting photos, and watching a fight that broke out on the street below. It's a bit unsettling watching two guys get progressively angrier and angrier when there are machetes everywhere, but no blades ever came into the equation. Instead, one guy broke a wooden something or other over the other guy's shoulder, then they played the "I'll chase you then you chase me." game until everyone, including us, lost interest. Not long after, our tap-tap full and the four of us sharing the roof with many a local, the engine came to life and up into the mountains we went.

Once again incredibly scenic, we rode in silence until the time came to jump off on the side of the road as it passed the Leogane exit. A quick mototaxi ride later and we were back in All Hands basecamp, refreshed for the most part, and ready to get back into it.

And that, thank all things holy, is me FINALLY finishing the Mental Health Break Chronicles. I'm sure there are some fun errors in grammar, etc. but I can't be bothered to re-check everything right now. Pics and video to be added soon, but there are so many other things to talk about - cholera, my foot getting hacked into to remove a nasty infection, biosand filter fun, etc. etc. etc. This will be the last time I take this long to update something I wrote offline and get it online. Yes, I lost almost this entire entry (Google didn't save it even though it said it did) so I had to rewrite it all, but yea, done. Never again.

And we continue!