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.)