Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Day 56: Responsibilities & Dancing

Day 56 eh? Closing in on two months it seems. Strange to think about. It doesn't feel like that. In some ways it feels like I've been here longer, given my comfort level now, and in other ways it feels like half that time. But the results of two months are making themselves felt - Paddy, Lauren, Will & Leah (all of the full-time biosand water filter team members) have returned to their respective countries (US & England) and that leaves me as the sole full-time biosand team leader, a role which I'm really going to enjoy. Project management isn't something I have tons of experience in, but as all things here in Haiti, the full-immersion, crash-course style of learning leaves me exhilarated for the speed at which I can learn, exhausted (but in a good way) and thankful for the fact that I even have the chance to do this to begin with. A big thank you to Hands On Disaster Response for that, as it isn't normal. From what others have told me, very few organizations will embrace with open arms people who have no relevant experience nor even much travel experience. That's what Hands On does day in, day out. Who knows how many people, who may never otherwise have had the opportunity to put their toe in the pool that is relief work, have since committed themselves to it in one way or another. That's an incredible thing. If even 2% of the world's population committed themselves to doing what they can to improve the lives of other people, this place would be a helluva lot better of.

So yes, responsibilities. And dancing. Lots of dancing. The folks here at base have, for the most part, some damn good taste in music. And, while yesterday I may have lost my iPod & portable speakers (say it ain't so!) up until the point they dissapeared, I made sure wherever my team might find themselves working, they'll have music. It makes everything better. Take this little piece of loveliness for example (be patient, 3:08 is worth it):

Try not to dance to that. I dare you. Isn't going to happen.

So yes, all good over here. I'm getting behind on the writing, but that is a side-effect of taking on a larger role here. Downtime is harder to find (which is fine with me - I came here to work) and when I do have it, sometimes writing is too tiring a proposition to take up. I'm thinking the mornings are going to be when I write. I love waking at about 5:30, the sun creeping just over the mountains, and the base quiet. So then, until the morning...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Day 52: Leogane --> Port-au-Prince --> Santo Domingo --> La Romana --> Bayahibe --> La Romana --> Santo Domingo --> Port-au-Prince --> Leogane --> Port-au-Prince

Nope. Still alive. Didn’t die in the Dominican Republic, nor on my reentry into Haiti. On the flipside, had an absolutely incredible time and now here I sit with friends in Port au Prince. Just finished mixing the hell out of some concrete to reinforce a dome that has lots of medical supplies stored in it. Relaxing. Smoking Haitian cigarettes (apparently I’m smoking again…) and drinking luke-warm Prestiges and listening to a radio station I only wish I could find in the States.  Excellent electronic music. The sky is grey, which is welcomed given how hot it is when the sun has the chance to do its thing in this country. There’s a hen running around, a couple of wheel barrows leaning, and a solid group of people taking it easy in preparation for what promises to be a rowdy night. Paddy leaves on Monday, so I opted to accompany him down to the GrassRoots United basecamp here on the outskirts of the airport. Simon, Jodie and Sinead are expected to arrive from Leogane soon and tonight we’ll be rolling en masse to Distinction, a club here in Port au Prince that is supposedly one hell of a good time. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s been two weeks since any updates. I had a great time in the Dominican Republic, so let’s rewind it a bit…

Actually, this isn’t the right time for a rewind. Too many distractions. I should be enjoying my company. More to come soon. Here’s a little fun from two nights ago:

Friday, August 6, 2010

Day 37: A La Dominicana

Touchdown Santo Domingo. God it feels good to be back in a Spanish-speaking country. I love being able to communicate with everybody, and man I love speaking Spanish. It was just as much my first language as English, only it has decayed from neglect and a lack of formal study while my English and my ability to write in English solidified into something I'm proud of. One of these days I will call a Latin country home and Spanish will begin its comeback.

I'll tell you, if I hadn't experienced Port-au-Prince already, I'd report Santo Domingo to be a hustling and bustling and all over the place kind of city. It is, in fact, just that. Only now, with Port-au-Prince available for direct comparison, Santo Domingo is unquestionably a few rungs down on the "Holy shit." ladder. I like it here. It's hot. I like that now. It makes the ice cold Presidentes that much better. I'm writing this as I enjoy that very thing and wait for my food at a diner type placed called Grands, recommended by Patricia, the manager of the low-key, backpacker-oriented hotel I'm staying at - Foreigners Club. Normally I'd likely steer clear from such a named establishment, but the internet masses highly recommended this place, and the internet masses were once again right. Within five minutes of my having checked in, a local guest named Bien (the dude is named "good"!) handed me a coconut he just bought off a street vendor's cart. Bien indeed! Super refreshing. Coconut milk is a wonderful thing. I drank it and chatted away with an English girl from Manchester who's name I forgot to get, and who was very likely the object of Bien's affections, and then, once they departed, struck up a conversation with a guy who looked Haitian, but is Dominican. Seemed a really nice guy, until he hit me up for money. Predictable, but dissapointing nonetheless.

This is the more diverse side of Hispaniola. Dominicans can come in light-skinned (Spanish likely), beige (Spanish / Indian?), mulatto and black. There are also Asians here, and you'll see a lot of places that sell Chinese food and fried chicken. Reminds me of the East Village. Ah, NYC, thou art a special place. Then of course, there are the straight up pales - me and my northern European brethren (although now, with my Haiti tan, I definitely don't qualify as leading the pale pack).

The roads here are all concrete, and stop signs / street signs exist, both of which are very limited, if not all together missing in Haiti. You can immediately feel the European influence here (not that concrete and street signs are of European descent, I'm just playing mental hopscotch), which is as it should be - this was the first European city in the Americas (actually, is this technically the Americas?). Let's just call it New World. First European city in the New World. After the Taino people, original natives of Hispaniola, burned down Columbus' first choice for a capital city on the island, which was along the coast of what is now northern Haiti, he chose Santo Domingo as his replacement. A few decades later, the Tainos were virtually extinct - wiped out by slavery, a Spanish policy of basically genocide, and Old World disease. Columbus was a major dick, in case you didn't know. I'm going to go visit his grave tomorrow. I'm tempted to spit on it, except I'm afraid that may lead to crazy fucking Dominicans spitting on me later that day in prison. I'll silently spite him. It won't matter, dude did what he did. He's certainly not the only one who has destroyed people along a path to personal grandiose. Hell, I think that's basically written into elements of the human code, certainly the male code anyway. It has been that way since we've been here, and continues still. I'm reading this book, Emergency Sex & Other Desperate Measures: A True Story From Hell On Earth. It's about UN relief workers, and places like Cambodia, Somalia, Uganda, and yes, Haiti. Proof positive the major dick gene is alive and well in us homosapiens.

But enough about dicks. I just met a solid dude. He's from Brazil - Dorian DaSilva - and he's a DJ. A progressive house DJ. Oh really Mr. DaSilva? Fancy that, I was once that exact thing. As a matter of fact, I just spent this afternoon walking around Santo Domingo rockin' out to Nick Warren. We hit it off, he loves New York, and he gave me a free pass to "Fashion Day" later tonight. Modeling show + afterhours party that he'll be DJing. Hey, when in Santo Domingo... Sounds fun, and I'm always down for good music. Models... meh. Fun to look at, but usually a major pain in the ass, and without the ability to see beyond their own silhouttes. Of course, that's NY and LA. This is the DR. Maybe the models here are a little more fun. We shall see.

Of course, this means Q must go pick up some proper attire. These New Boots and the stained ass shorts and t-shirts I brought with me are designed for Haitian rubble sites, not Dominican fashion parties. Just as well - I'll need the clothes for the resort as well. They may just straight toss me out if I roll up like this.

So yes, there you have it. Traveling, as always, proves to be awesome. Life is short people. Give up the cubicle jobs. Give up any shitty job, period. Sell your shit, it isn't that important anyway, and pay off your debts, or, if you're totally fucked for debt, just declare bankruptcy and be done with it. That's a hamster wheel you don't want to be on. The world is big, and for the most part, friendly. Couchsurf. Drink cold beer in really hot places. Make an ass out of yourself speaking a language you don't know how to speak. Smile. Laugh. That's universal. It'll work itself out in the end.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Day 33: Reflections On A Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 33: One Month & Counting

Yesterday marked one month for me here in Haiti. It was celebrated properly:

On a completely unrelated note, why do I like this song so much? Guilty pleasure for sure: