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.