Monday, December 26, 2011

Day 207: Closing Out 2011

2010 opened my life to me. 2011 gave me the perspective and confidence to live it authentically.

2010 gave me Haiti. 2011 gave Haiti me. 2010 gave me love. 2011 tested my resolve to continue to believe in it. 2010 brought one of my closest friends back into my life. 2011 allowed us to see just what we were capable of doing together. 2010 began my process of becoming a man I can respect. 2011 made it possible for me to say that I am.

I don't know how I'd try and write about this year in any coherent way. Not yet anyway. I think in some ways I'm still just trying to make sense of it all. It's been a year that has been more challenging than perhaps any other, and also the one I can feel the most proud for having lived. The highs have been incredible, and the lows intense. I've been many places this year: Haiti, New York, London, Oxford, La Paz, the Dominican Republic, North Carolina, Los Angeles, San Francisco, a small storage unit in the Sierra foothills full of mom's things. Those places all have memories, some good, some bad, some meaningful, others not. I'm not ready to try and make sense of it all, if I even have to. I suppose I just want to give 2011 a small thank you before it passes. So thank you. The man I am ending this year is much stronger and more grounded in himself than he was when he started it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day 202: Ovwa Belval Plaza

And so the final morning dawns here at the base, and Project Leogane, as I've known it, begins its final day. Just said goodbye to some friends, and many, many more will be leaving tomorrow (I'll be leaving with them, but they won't be coming back) and the base is looking skeletal, with only a few people left here until Friday, when the move-out is complete. Tonight is going to be a powerful night. No time to write more now, but I'm sure I'll want to once I'm in the Dominican and have time to relax and feel everything.

Next year is near, and I'm excited, but this year was huge, and so much of that has to do with this place. While I'm ready to move on, I will miss it.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Day 186: Transitions & Reflections

This is a strange time for Project Leogane. In two weeks, the vast majority of the people here will be gone, and the project will transition into its final phase. Belval Plaza, which we've called home since February 2010, will be gone. We're shrinking, and we don't need this big, broken, and yes, even beautiful space anymore. The memories I've had here won't ever leave, but I'll be. No, I'm not leaving Haiti, but many of the people I've come to call friends are. It will be something akin to a skeleton crew come 2012 - people running programs, a few skilled international volunteers, and our local staff.

I don't have it in me at the moment to write something like a retrospective, both because it's late and I'm tired, and because I'm not done yet so the motion would be premature, but I am aware that much of what I know of what it means to be in Haiti will change significantly in two weeks.

Paddy and I and a few good friends will leave the country for fourteen days, heading east to the Dominican Republic for some much needed R&R at a house we are renting. I am looking forward to it, but in the back of my head I can't help but know that come December 22nd (the day we leave) I will have said goodbye to something that has, perhaps more than anything before it, defined my life. It won't be here when I return. In some ways it is sad, in others it is needed. I can't help but be excited at the prospect of once again having my own room, however small it may be, in a house that allows a certain level of privacy. That is needed. For all of what I might project, I'm in some ways a private person. When I cannot find a place to let that part of myself come out, when it needs to come out, it begins to wear on me. Tents don't work. Yes, they offer some private space, but under limited conditions. No sane person would dare go to their tent to seek privacy in daylight hours. The sun turns them into saunas. At night, they are welcoming, but the walls don't get much thinner than a tent. You're still far from private.

But still, even though I need some escape from it, the communal element of this place will be missed, and more than that, what this place represents for me. I came here to see if what I thought I might want to do with my life is in fact something I want to do. I do. I came here looking for fundamental shifts in who I am. They've happened. I didn't come here looking for a deep and sometimes painful yet ultimately beautiful connection with someone, but Haiti, in her frustrating and yet somehow knowing way, gave me that too. All of that happened in this place. It has been the richest experience of my thirty years.

I've been harsh recently, frustrated with this country and her people, but I've come to recognize the ebb and flow of life here. There are moments of true joy - a sense of belonging and being that cannot be matched anywhere I've been before. There are moments of intensity that can be both beautiful or sad or both, which work to expand the possibility and understanding of what it means to live. I've written of this before. When you allow yourself to try and be integrated and aware of life far outside the realm of what you know and are comfortable with, deep shifts in the fabric of character happen. There are also moments of sheer frustration or disgust. I used to write them off as some different something I didn't know and needed to respect, because after all, I am a foreigner and this isn't my country, but I've let that go. Some things are universal. Cultures and countries can become excuses hidden behind. Allow yourself honesty and you'll know what should or should not be. Haiti has a powerful way of breaking that truth open in people.

I went lambi diving with some local kids the other day. After a week of work that left the BSF staff exhausted, I managed to get my hands on the keys for the Mahindra. Paddy and Billy and I piled in and we took off. It felt great to drive. I love driving in this country, despite having this unnerving feeling that if Haiti is going to do me in, it will be on her roads. But not then. We drove for an hour, out to Petit Goave, simply to get away from everything, to a place we barely knew. Our original plan was to find a beach, any comfortable one, and buy seafood and beer and eat and drink and let it be. We didn't manage to pull that off in Petit Goave. Despite having a few beaches that apparently blow the mind, we couldn't find them so we doubled back around and headed to Paradise Beach, a place I've been many times before, but gets the job done. It was nice. It is very much a tourist place, if anything in Haiti can be called that, choked full of international NGO workers, and we didn't set out looking for that, but we were happy to settle in regardless.  Wanting some alone time and loving the water, I grabbed my fins and mask and went out, and met two young men hunting for conch (lambi), one of my favorite foods in Haiti. I asked them to show me how they did it, and they tried. After an hour with them, I realized I was far beyond their capability to teach. Some things cannot be learned in an afternoon. But, failure aside, it made me appreciate Haiti a bit more, which has been needed these days. It made me feel something akin to a connection to her people, which I haven't felt much in the last month. It made me happy, and made me smile, as ridiculous as that must have looked with a dive mask on.

I didn't catch any lambi, but I walked out of the sea renewed, and with some needed perspective. I'll never make excuses for this country, but I won't allow myself to settle into the comfort of stereotypes either, despite how tempting it proves to be as the months here continue to erode the fascination, leaving the real. Life and people and places cannot be expressed in black and white. I cannot allow myself to believe that they can.

Haiti, and All Hands, thank you for what you've allowed me to develop, and let's make the next eight months memorable yea?


In other news, listen to this.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Day 183: Easy Haiti...

Sometimes this country has a way of grouping together events that can challenge you or break you in some way or piss you off. These last few days have certainly been that.

Day before yesterday, early in the morning en route to the Port-au-Prince airport and then on to Pierre Payen to pick up some members of the BSF team, I saw my first murder victim. He was a man, maybe in his thirties, hard to tell, dead on the side of the highway. At first I thought he was a victim of a hit and run, but when I asked Edzner, our driver, he pointed out that the man's hands were bound behind his back. He looked roughed up, deep cuts likely from a machete all across his body. His skull was opened. Someone had tossed a tire on him. He was just there, on the side of the road, very much dead, very much not seeming to cause concern for anyone. We didn't stop. Some things you don't get involved in. Edzner told me he'd seen it many times before. "Haiti is a violent country. People kill each other here."

Yesterday spared me reminders of death, but brought plenty of frustration. Out in the field in the afternoon with the field team, we had a difficult time getting back to the base. First we were slowed by a traffic jam caused by a UN team from Korea trying to pull a torched UN dumptruck out of a riverbed. Seeing things burned by angry mobs isn't something new for me, but the stupidity of destroying one of only a few large, heavy-duty dumptrucks now in Leogane helping to clear rubble so people can rebuild got to me. Have a problem with the UN, or specifically, with MINUSTAH? I can understand that, to a point, but in torching a dumptruck, the community was only slowing down recovery efforts. It seemed short-sighted and ignorant. After finally getting past the wreck, waving hello to the Koreans, who looked worn down, we got stopped again. This time, some fool driver decided, that, since he had a flat tire, he would change it in the middle of the narrow street. The tiniest bit of planning would have made it possible for the road to be open for cars to get by, but no, everyone was blocked. I was frustrated enough that I let him have it in Kreyol. "Genius aren't you? You couldn't think to move your car five feet in that direction? Now nobody can get by, and you're taking your sweet time changing that tire. You're really not that smart are you?" As I wrote about in a previous entry my patience for stupidity is at an all-time low, even if I understand that this country doesn't teach people to think the way First World countries do for their citizens. Still, this wasn't a byproduct of a shitty educational system, this was someone just deciding to do things the easiest way at the expense of everyone else. You see that a lot in Haiti. People can have the tendency to do what will help them, so be it if others get screwed or inconvenienced. After my yelling at him, the guy just stood there with a stupid grin on his face, looking at me. Nothing. We turned the truck around, and took the long way back.

Thirty minutes ago, sitting here in the office, I got news of a terrible accident near School 19, the newest school All Hands is building. In front of 31 of our volunteers, a school bus and a dumptruck somehow collided on the freeway, plowing into numerous motorcycles full of people waiting at the intersection. A lot of them died or were knocked unconscious. A telephone pole was knocked down, bringing live power lines down with it, electrocuting the people caught in the mayhem. I can't image what that must have looked like, but the base is quiet now, with a lot of shell shocked people who witnessed and tried to help now trying to process it. It reminds me of when Chris died. It reminds me of how I felt the day after the little girl died. One of our BSF production team members had a cousin die in the accident. Caritas Czech, our current partner for BSF, lost their cook. Thankfully, we didn't lose any of our volunteers or staff, but it still has a chilling effect. I've waited, on the back of a moto, at that exact intersection many times before. Timing, as it tends to, has so much to do with how a life unfolds.

I don't share this to be grim, even though I know I can be fascinated by the macabre. I think, like I have before, that for me, when something truly sad or bad happens, it is important that it is remembered, particularly when innocents are lost because of it. These last few days feel as if they are deserving of being remembered.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Day 173: So Just How Good Are Biosand Filters?

Something happened recently in regards to the biosand filter program that just made me smile and reinvigorated me - we finally got our water testing kit up and running, and could begin to get some results on exactly how well our filters peform. Thought I'd share.

Before I post the photos, you need a bit of water testing knowledge to understand what you're looking at, so take out your notebooks people, it's time to get schooled. (If any of you happen to be microbiologists, and I messed any of this up, by all means I invite you to mock my incompetency in the comments.)

When you test for biological contamination in water, there are different tests you can do, one of the most common being testing for thermotolerant fecal coliform, a type of bacteria that is found in feces. That's what our testing kit is designed to test for. If you find that in water, it's pretty safe to say other nasty stuff is in the water too, things like vibrio cholera, the bacteria that causes (can you guess?) cholera, which is something every Haitian is all too aware of and rightly concerned about. Thermotolerant fecal coliform is measured in how many colonies they form per 100 ml. of water tested. Basically, you gather your sample water and then put 100 ml. of it through a small filter paper that will trap any bacteria present on it. Then, you put that filter on a pad full of food that thermotolerant fecal coliform like and put the petri dishes with the filters and pads in the incubator and to let them cook at just the right temperature for the fecal coliform to grow. The next day, you pull the petri dishes out, open them up, and count how many fecal coliform colonies you have on the filter paper to get your results, which are again measured in total colonies per 100 ml. of water tested. In the US and other First World countries, the acceptable level is zero. None. In the developing world, there doesn't seem to be a set standard, so opinions vary but a lot of organizations say less than ten is low risk. Anything over ten is not good. Fecal coliform colonies appear as little yellow dots on the filter paper you grow them on during testing.

OK, so now you know the basics of the technical stuff. Onto the other side of testing - what we test. In terms of our program, we test three things: the source water (the beneficiary's pump, well, river, etc. - whatever they get their drinking water from), we test the water coming directly from their filter, and we test the water in the container they use to store their water. We test the filter water twice to make sure we get accurate results. What kind of results? These kind of results:

The results from testing 100 ml. of water from the river in Barriere Jeudy, our first beneficiary community. This is very, very dangerous water. It is impossible to count the amount of fecal coliform colonies present. (You can see the individual colonies around the edge of the filter paper.) A lot of people drink this water.
Another view of the 100 ml. sample taken from the Barriere Jeudi river, this one without the camera's flash.
When you have so many fecal coliform colonies that it becomes impossible to count them, you can try and make it more manageable by testing less water, counting the coliforms, and then multiplying the result by the amount that you lessened the water tested. In this test, we ran 10 ml. of river water through the test instead of 100 ml. It is still incredibly contaminated, maybe between 300 - 500 colonies, so I'd guesstimate the river water has somewhere between 3000 and 5000 fecal coliform colonies per 100 ml. of water (300 to 500 x 10 since we only used 10 ml. of water for this sample). Again, the acceptable level in the First World is 0. In the developing world, roughly 10 or less. More than that is dangerous. However, when the river water is run through the biosand filter... I don't count a single fecal coliform colony on this filter paper. Zero. Totally safe to drink. Amazing. And just to make sure...
...we tested the filter water twice using two samples. Same result. However, perhaps the most interesting test is...
...this one. The water used for this test came from the storage container the  family uses, and  highlights why education is the most important part of the biosand filter program. Clearly, this water is contaminated. It isn't nearly as contaminated as the river water, but it has fecal coliform present (the yellow stuff, the other colors don't matter). This is unsafe to drink, which is frustrating because, as we've seen, the water coming directly from the filter is totally safe to drink. For whatever reason (either our failure to teach them correctly, or their decision not to heed our advice) this family is not properly collecting and storing the water their filter produces, putting them at danger for waterborne illnesses. They were not using the container we give to all of our beneficiaries, which is one of the best receptacles to use with a biosand filter, and instead were using an open bucket. Unfortunately, most of our recipients are poor, and the bottles we provide are worth over $5US, so I expect they sold it, even though it is written into our beneficiary MOU that they can't do that. Clearly, open buckets are not a safe water storage solution. 
So there you have it, a quick run through some initial testing results we've seen. To be clear, this doesn't mean every filter will perform like this, and to do any sort of serious testing, we need to collect far more samples before we can draw conclusions (which we are going to do) but this initial finding is both promising, and eye-opening, both because it shows how effective biosand filters are if used correctly, but also how education and proper water hygiene practices are just as important as having a working filter. The family whose tests results I just highlighted are still drinking dirty water because they don't know (or maybe don't care, but I don't believe that) how to properly store their water once it has been filtered. The next time I head to Barriere Jeudi I will be bringing my laptop to show the family these pictures. People are visual learners. Seeing this, as opposed to me telling them, could make all the difference. When I showed this to the BSF team today during a training session, you could see they understood it in a way I couldn't have made clear without the photos to back me, and that is exactly what needs to happen for our beneficiary families as well.

As always, life in Haiti proves to be unpredictable - some days are amazing, others not so much.

Today was a good day.

Day 173: All Hands Holiday Appeal

Looking to do something different this holiday season? Sure, gift-giving is fun, but I encourage you all to support an organization that is making real, lasting change:


You can support All Hands here. Thanks.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Day 169: Photos

It has been a while since I've posted any photos, and unfortunately it looks like my little handheld video camera is lost and/or stolen so videos may not be as often. Still, I've had a couple of fun trips recently, thought I'd share:

Days of the Dead [Nov. 1st & 2nd, Gonaives, Haiti]

Sunday Coffee @ Hotel Oloffson [Nov. 6th, Port-au-Prince, Haiti]

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Day 149: The Honeymoon Is Over

A few days from now I’ll have lived and worked in Haiti for a year. I’ll have lived in Belval Plaza, in our base, an unfinished nightclub, for a year. I’ll have called two small tents home for a year. I’ll have met, and said goodbye, to too many beautiful people to remember. I undertook this adventure, if that’s even an accurate description of what this is, hoping for something big to shift in me. It has. Haiti has fundamentally altered who I am, how I act, what I believe, what I put out into the world.

How? In some ways, my skin is much thicker now that in was before. My patience is not what it used to be, nor my willingness to play nice to avoid potentially sticky situations. I am far more inclined to just tell it how I see it, be damned if feelings get hurt in the process. I have a hard time playing at things that don’t hold meaning to me. It makes me remember a question I answered when I was filling out an old Blogger profile – “If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?” I answered shapeshifting, and at that point in my life, that was the truth. I could wear any number of masks, each tailored to advance me in any given situation or relationship I found myself in. I suppose that now retired superhero evolved from the upbringing I had – a constant changing of locations and friendships that demanded I expand outward if I wanted to be accepted, if I wanted to belong. I got very, very good at it. I still am very, very good at it when I choose to engage it. I am willing to bet if you didn’t know me, and you met me, I could make you like me, and make you think I like you, even if I found you repulsive. The difference is now, I won’t, because even before that superpower developed, before maybe even I was aware of my own identity, I’ve had one quality that defined me and continues to define me – sensitivity. Haiti, in breaking me open, which she has, and I knew she would if I gave her the time to, cut through those countless layers I’ve allowed myself, and exposed the core. For that, I’m thankful, even if, ironically, it has made it harder for me to be here, to continue to try and give of myself, to find a way to love this country and hold onto hope for her and her people.

Haiti is broken. I’ve written that many times before. But during my honeymoon with her, I found something redeeming in that, and in some ways I still do, because, in being broken, you are not awarded the luxury of a front. A truly broken thing cannot hide her brokenness from those who are willing to take the time to study her, and have the sensitivity to see the truth. But a broken thing is more often than not an ugly thing, and there is so much ugliness in this country. I don’t want to define her people that way, because, while many Haitians infuriate me with their mentality - “You’re white. Give me something. Give me money. Give me food. Give me your iPod. That’s what you’re supposed to do.” – I also know they are victims. They did not choose to be poor. They did not choose to be without proper education. They did not choose to suffer from the trauma that follows an event that kills 300,000 of your fellow people - mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, children, friends. Many of them are innocents. The little girl I watched die was far too young to have made any mistakes that would deserve her punishment. She was simply born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In writing this I get confused. My feelings for Haiti have become a twisted mess of love and hatred, of empathy and the total lack thereof, of hope and of hopelessness. I suppose navigating that in a way that enables me to continue to be useful here it is a matter of perspective, and allowing myself blinders. I have to focus on the small changes I am making. If I look at Haiti in her entirety I feel a sense of defeat, because I know that I cannot fix her, nor can any of us that do not call ourselves Haitian, and because, and I hate to admit this, I do not place faith in the idea that her people can rise to the challenge and fix her themselves. It reminds me of something I read in Jeffrey Sach’s “The End of Poverty”, in which he compares human development to a ladder – all of us on a rung somewhere. The First World sits at the top of the ladder, the highest rung. That’s me. That’s most of you who are reading this. Then follows the developing world, those countless millions of people struggling, some more successfully than others, to reach one rung higher, then another, then another, slowly but surely improving their lot. Finally there are those other countless millions that cannot reach the ladder to begin with. They can see it, they know it exists, and cruelly, they know what the top rung looks like because most of the mass-produced culture bombs that get dropped all across this fucked up, beautiful planet of ours are manufactured by those of us at the top. It comes as no surprise to me that so many of Haiti’s young men have bought in 100% to the bullshit mainstream hip-hop culture that comes out of the United States and offers absolutely nothing of value. It is a vapid, empty pipedream, and yet so many of my Haitian friends, and hell, so many of the people I know in the US for that matter, buy it hook, line and sinker. But here it is particularly cruel, and absurd, and ultimately sad. Haiti isn’t on the ladder at all. Her people can only see it, but cannot reach it. The lowest rung is beyond them. Be it through their own actions, or the realities of their situation, or usually both, they can only simply stay where they are, in a truly exhausting, repetitive, difficult existence, and know that it isn’t this way for other people, left with little hope or even the know-how to see themselves joining those others – to find that lowest rung and start climbing.

And yet even in writing that I feel like I’m shortchanging this place because now, having been here for the time that I have, I know that there are always exceptions, that there are people here who have the know-how and the will and the ability to make this place better. Some of them are my friends. But can they? I like to think they can, but the skeptic in me is always there, on my shoulder, reinforced daily by the beggars and the thieves and the filth in the streets and the dogs with their permanently broken legs scurrying out of the way of the motorcycles and the people who will kick them, by the people I met in July 2010 who have no more to show for themselves now than they did then. Still, there is a resilience in this place that I must acknowledge. The people here persevere. They may not seem to do much to improve themselves, but they do continue. I have respect for that. I have not traveled to any other countries as poor and devastated as this one yet, so I have no way to compare how other people in equally difficult situations behave, but I do know this – if the United States had to switch with Haiti for even a week, maybe even a day, the entire place would fall to pieces. We may have once been the people who could have risen to the occasion (I think of my grandparents and their generation) but that generation is old now, and tired, and passed on. The people of today would collapse in a mound of self-pity and defeatism, angrily placing blame as they wallow. Patriotic aren’t I? Fuck it. It’s what I believe. It’s one of the core things driving me – to prove to myself I’m not one of those people, that I can carry a burden that, while never matching what countless millions carry every day, still puts me apart from some of my more pathetic kin. I went to Malibu High School. I’ve done the bottle-service nightclubs. I’ve watched Paris Hilton make her way down a flight of stairs at a house party, and felt the absurdity in the energy that it created in the room. I reject that wholly. I will never buy into it. I can’t. It’s wrong. I’m at the top-rung of this ladder partly through my own actions, but mostly because of the conditions I was born into. I didn’t earn it more than anyone else. I didn’t deserve it. It just was. The die was cast, and I came out on top. Another die was cast and a little girl came out on bottom. She died alone surrounded by strangers and was left on a porch in a coffin any of us would be ashamed to bury someone we love in. It’s wrong not to acknowledge that simple truth. So many of us who feel we deserve the success we have need to wake up. It has far less to do with us than we'd like to think. Life is so much a game of chance. Yes, we all have choice, and that is a beautiful thing, but it is a naïve man indeed who believes choice alone determines fate. Who knows how many amazing people – people who had drive and intelligence and sensitivity enough to drive them far beyond anything we could hope to be – were snuffed out before they could ever rise because of the crushing conditions into which they were born?

Confused indeed. As the title might suggest, I started this entry to come to terms with the reality that maybe Haiti is fucked because her people are fucked. And yet here I am at the end feeling something different. Yes, Haiti makes me angry, and yes, my honeymoon with her is indeed over, and yes, many of Haiti’s problems stem from her people, but that doesn’t change the fact that I cannot simply write her off. “It’s Haiti…” That seems a cop-out to me. It’s an easy cop-out, and one I hear often, sometimes from myself, but the truth is far more elusive. As is usually the case in living, there are no black and whites here. Shades of grey define this place. Shades of grey define most everything. They define this entry. So no, I have no answers, and no, I’m not done yet. I’m not throwing in the towel. Yes, I’ve been beaten down by this place, but as I wrote before, I’m thankful for it, because in being beaten down I’m being forced to choose which parts of myself I want to devote my energy and time to, and which I want to discard. It brings to mind the final verse of Rainer Maria Rilke's The Man Watching - "Whoever was beaten by this Angel (who often simply declined the fight) went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand, that kneaded him as if to change his shape. Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being beaten, decisively, by constantly greater beings." I no longer desire shapeshifting. I am retiring that superpower. I opt to pull out those parts of myself I know to be closest to who I really am, and strengthen them. The others I’ll shed, and that is a good thing. It only brings me closer to myself. Comfort allows people to choose who they want to be. Hardship exposes people for who they truly are. Haiti is not a comfortable place. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Day 142: Rambles

There are moments in my life where I wait. They are usually fleeting, and come in unexpected hours that pass quickly. I sit and drink my beer and I think that maybe, in those moments, I’m trying too hard. It’s an uncomfortable but important process in trying to continually define myself, to decide what matters and what is superfluous, to allow myself distraction, to come to terms. It isn’t something unique. Anyone hoping to breach themselves, to find something akin to peace, which I’m not entirely convinced plays any role in an awakened presence, does this. We manifest it differently, but the goal is the same.

I think often of the people I love. I think of what makes me happy. I think of the little girl I watched die this week. I think of what that means, what she could have been. I think of what she did to me, what she did to those few people there that bore witness to her death. I think about what kind of man I am, do I live up to what I propose to believe in? I think about my father. I think of about my grandfather. I think about my mother. I think about my brother. I think that maybe I’m incredibly selfish. I acknowledge the fact that I’ve left them, I’m far away, and I don’t want to come back to where they are. I miss them, badly, but they aren’t where I feel I need, or want, to be. “You are doing the work. You are amazing.” People tell me. I believe that, maybe, but it’s easy. Just go somewhere people don’t go, do something people don’t do. When you do, you’ll hear the same. It might be true. It might not. Their opinions cannot bring peace. That is something we all have to do alone.

In writing this I feel the limitations. I realize I’m telling my own story. I know it isn’t the entirety, it’s my interpretation. I feel lonely. I know I want to share. I know you can read this, but it’s not yours. It’s mine. I want to share it intimately. I know right now, I can’t. This public confession doesn’t keep me from a tent I sleep alone in most every night. It doesn’t stop the desire for  connection.

I feel incredibly capable, and completely out of my league, but I know I’m alive right now, really alive, and that gives me hope. I cannot become the man I want to be if I cannot write this.

I know I’m drunk, and I’m OK with that.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Day 138: How To Build A Coffin

I've always known the work I do here in Haiti shields me somewhat from the most painful aspects of what this kind of poverty can produce. Yes, it is hard not to be affected when you see a family of five sharing a tiny, dirt-floored shack, or an old woman stooped over knee-high in a filthy canal digging through the waste looking for ... what? I don't even know what you could find in that cesspool that could be of any value. Haiti, now as before, does not attempt to veil her troubles.

But I hadn't seen death, even though I know it is all around me. With the exception of a horrible motorcycle accident I passed by in January that left two young men dead in the highway, I hadn't had any relationship with it. I know it's there, the statistics are well-known and the spectre of cholera looms over this country. Inevitably some of those caught in its shadow won't find their way out again. Still, to know something exists is very different than to witness it.

I've been spending some time with a girl I met a few weeks ago, Sabrina. She's here for three months and is volunteering at a very small NGO that operates out of a house in Chatulet, near the Route National. The NGO, Espwa Berlancia, is run by a young woman, Rhyan, who I met last year when I installed biosand filters in an orphanage she was helping. Since then, she's transitioned into focusing on helping pregnant women and infants who are HIV positive. It's a tiny operation - right now just the two of them - but it's clear they are passionate about it. When I came over to visit them a few nights ago and forgot the money I needed to pay the moto-driver, a young man in his late teens or twenties, the girls offered him the choice: 50 gourdes (just over a dollar), or an HIV test. He chose the test. So, 9PM at night and the four of us are sitting on the porch as he waits to get his results. After a false-positive scare, he could breathe a sigh of relief: negative. He left smiling.

But that isn't always how it ends. A few days ago, Sabrina told me that a baby girl had been dropped off at the orphanage and was to receive no care because they didn't think she'd live. When you don't have a lot to work with, you have to make ugly choices. But Rhyan and Sabrina weren't having that, and brought the little girl back to their home to try and pull her back from the brink. She was somewhere between one and two years old, a skeleton in every sense of the word, and HIV positive. Her mother abandoned her at the orphanage when she thought death was inevitable, maybe to avoid the pain of watching it, and maybe to avoid the cost of burying her. Probably both.

The first day the girls had her, they didn't think she was going to make it. She wasn't eating, wasn't drinking, and was slipping in and out of unconsciousness. Sabrina committed herself to that little girl, and spent the whole day with her, holding her, sleeping next to her, feeding her and changing her. I didn't see her that day, she had her priority.

The following day, Saturday, the little girl began to turn a corner. Her eyes cleared, going from yellow to white, and showed focus where before there was drift. She stopped moaning and began to make noises that babies are supposed to make - gurgles and giggles and squeals. Most importantly, she ate. Mac and cheese and avocado and other assorted delectables. When Sabrina came out that night to go dancing with a bunch of us, she looked happy, and told me the good news.

Yesterday morning I could tell Sabrina's mind was elsewhere. She was thinking about the little girl. We walked back to her house together, and I got to meet the little one for the first time. She didn't look healthy. She'd taken a turn for the worse over night and wasn't eating again. Sabrina began to feed her Pedialyte, which she kept down, but as I held her I could feel it pass right through her and into her diaper. She was tiny, her head rolling weakly into the nook of my shoulder where she settled into a half-sleep, making her little moans again. The smell coming off of her smelled of sickness. After another attempt at feeding, she vomited, and the reality of what it means to try and care for an incredibly sick baby hit me. We had to leave her on the cold tile floor as we put on gloves to protect ourselves from the virus she carried, and was in her diarrhea and vomit. It felt so cold. Clinical. Rhyan, who has been in Haiti for four years and has been exposed to this many times before, was doing what needed to be done - cleaning, organizing, doctoring. Sabrina and I were more focused on trying to show the little girl affection, to push back against the cold tile floors and injections and baby wipes working methodically to "make things better". Things weren't getting better, and I knew it was time for me to leave Sabrina and Rhyan alone with her.

After a morning that saw me back at the base feeling ready to burst into tears at any moment, and an afternoon of meeting with an interesting NGO that wants to potentially partner with our BSF program next summer, I found myself en route back to the house to bring the girls some BBQ chicken platters. My friend Andy, who just moved to Leogane and is getting the lay of the land, was driving. Thinking the little girl would likely be doing better or perhaps be asleep, I'd brought a few beers and a bag of Doritos, simple pleasures really, but they go a long way sometimes.

Knock knock. Rhyan opens the gate. "Do you have a driver? I need a driver, I think she's dying. I need to go to the orphanage." OK, this is happening. "Quinn, stay here with Sabrina, I'll go with your driver." OK, this is happening. I went inside, the house was dark, as the electricity to it hadn't been turned on yet. I found Sabrina in her room, huddled over the crib where the little girl was laid out with a wet cloth on her chest. A tiny clip-lamp was attached to the lip of the crib, casting pale light down on her. She looked much, much worse than when I'd left her that morning. It brought back images of my mother in the final moments before she died, lying in the adjustable bed provided to her by hospice. The little girl's eyes were open, weakly, one more than the other. She didn't seem to see anything. Her ribs expanded and sank gently, pushing against the skin. Her old man legs coming out from her diaper were collapsed outward, her arms at her sides, palms up. There was a tube in her nose. My mom had a tube in her nose when she died.

Sabrina was quiet, her hand on the little girl. I didn't know what to do. I put the chicken platters down on the ground, but had forgotten to close the front gate and soon enough had a rowdy puppy wanting to get into everything. "Sota, out!" I took her out, closed the gate, came back to the crib. "Hey little one. How you doing?" Stupid question to ask her, hand on her swollen belly, both because it was clear how she was doing, and because I said it in English. We just sat there with her for a while in silence. I thought to myself, "This is Haiti. This is the true reality just under the surface." For every smiling kid asking you for a sip of your soda, there are children like this little girl. I thought of my friend Christina, a nurse here last year who worked at a field hospital. She'd sometimes come back from work and cry. "We lost a baby today." I didn't really know what that meant then, but was now in the process of learning.

Andy and Rhyan came back with Madam Claudia, who runs the orphanage. Andy looks down at her in her crib. "Ah, poor baby." It's a little awkward, but genuine - Andy's a bit of a cowboy. He pulled bodies out of buildings in Port-au-Prince. He drives a heavily-armored car. He smokes a lot. "L'ap mouri." "She's dying." Madam Claudia would know, she's seen this before, many times. I ask her questions. She tells me she lost a baby yesterday, and another just before. She tells me about a woman who has given birth to a total of nineteen children, all premature. All of them were brought to Madam Claudia. All died. "This is Haiti." It's stuck in my head.

The little girl is getting worse. She's vomited. They take her out of the crib, she's completely limp, stick-figure arms and legs hanging. They face her forward, one hand under her, her head down, and they slap her back. Vomit comes up - yellow brown and full of feces. There's a lot of it. We put our gloves on. I'm crying quietly. Sabrina is silent. Andy's holding Gup, Rhyan's adopted toddler, in another room so he doesn't have to see it. Rhyan and Madam Claudia sing a song from the Bible. They say a prayer in Kreyol. They pour a little water over her head, and it trickles down her skull into the vomit bucket. They lay a towel down in the crib and put her back in it. Andy says goodbye. "Give my chicken to Madam Claudia. I'm not hungry anymore." I do. Madam Jimmy has joined us now, the young wife of a man named Jimmy who is a neighbor and helps Rhyan and Sabrina with random odds and ends. She and Madam Claudia eat the chicken on Sabrina's bed as Sabrina sits by the crib with me. We talk in Kreyol. Madam Claudia states the sad truth - "It doesn't have to be this way. If she had someone who could afford to care for her, and HIV medicine, she wouldn't die." That's true. "This is Haiti."

The sadness has abated a bit, the shock with it. Sabrina and I go out to the kitchen and try and eat our chicken with the aid of a flashlight. We manage to laugh a little bit - "I don't really know what I'm eating right now. I can't see anything." Me neither. I'm drinking one of the beers. Sabrina's happy about the Doritos. There's a baby girl dying in the room next to us. Should we be doing this? I don't know what the rules are.

The electricity comes on. "Yes! Mesi Jezi!" Rhyan says it, but I'm the one who confuses it. Jezi? Is that the name of the electrical company here in Haiti? No, it's Jesus in Kreyol. Sabrina laughs hard. That makes me happy.

The little girl and her crib are moved from Sabrina's room to the living room. Madam Claudia is talking to Rhyan, Sabrina avoids the living room, Gup has been put to bed. I'm by the crib, talking to her. "You're a little fighter you know that?" She is. Her breathing is weak, but her heartbeat is strong. It's the first time I've used a stethoscope. "What were we saving her for?" Rhyan asks the question. "She's an HIV-positive orphan in Haiti. What kind of life will she have even if we could save her?" It's a question I imagine all of us have been thinking, and is clearly one that has tortured Rhyan before. Sabrina's still quiet. "I'm OK, " she tells me, "I just don't want to look at her like this anymore." I get that. I think about the day my mom died.

"Her heartbeat is a lot weaker now." A few minutes have passed. The little girl is still alive, eyes open but unseeing. "She doesn't see us anymore, she sees Jesus." Rhyan says it, Madam Claudia and Madam Jimmy nod. I have my hand on her belly. "Be careful, when she dies she might vomit on you." She doesn't. Her passing is peaceful. The breaths come short and drawn out, her eyes still open. Her little jaw works in a three-part jerk as she sucks for the final bit of air, then she's gone. Rhyan begins to close her eyes, which are still open. I try and help her but do it wrong. "You have to hold the eyelids down for a while."

I go out to the porch where Sabrina is smoking one of her menthols. "She's gone." She nods. Gets up and goes inside. The waiting is over. We start doing things again. The girls bring some clothes up from the basement to dress her in. As they lift her out of her crib to put her on the ground to clean her, the image burns into me - a dead skeleton infant, surrounded by nobody she knew when she was alive, lifted and set down like some morbid ragdoll. No amount of tenderness, of which there was plenty, could have changed it. "This is Haiti." Rhyan is careful with her as she removes her diaper and cleans her wrinkled legs and butt. They dress her in a white fluffy gown. Her hands are bound together in a prayer shape, as is Haitian custom. They've forgotten the bonnet, so I go down to the basement and bring up the suitcase with the death stuff in it. It's full. Two others are down there, empty. I don't know what that means.

We need to get the body back to the orphanage. How? Jimmy doesn't want to take a dead baby on his motorcycle. It's too far to walk. It's too late to find another moto. Rhyan approaches me, "Quinn, do you know where we can get a coffin, or build one?" We could build one on base, but it's late on Sunday and none of the people who know how to do that are around. Lots of people have gone to the beach to camp for the night. I try to call Elivert, but he doesn't answer. I try my other local friends. They don't answer. I don't know where we can buy one. Jimmy says he can go get wood, and Rhyan has a circular saw and some nails. We'll build one.

Jimmy and I do our best cutting the wood but it's cheap plywood and damp and the electricity running to the house isn't enough to fully power the circular saw. It jams a few seconds into every cut. The lines are all wrong. Jimmy does his best to fix them. Once we've cut the pieces we realize the nails are too small. They don't have any others. "I'll go get them." "OK, while you do that, can you call Andy and ask if he'd be willing to drive us to the orphanage with her?" I do. He is.

I walk out the gate and head left up to the Route National. It feels like a long time since I brought over the chicken and beer and Doritos. It's only been a few hours. I walk to Ocean Grill, a restaurant nearby run by my friend Jacques, a Haitian guy who lived in Boston for many years and makes some mean seafood. He recognizes me as I come in and jokes, "Hey Quinn! You look hungry." "Nope, sorry Jacques, not tonight, I'm just hear to ask a favor." I tell him what happened. He nods quietly, finds some nails but they are used to nail tin, and too big for the little coffin. They'd split the plywood. "Ah man, I'm sorry to hear the news." "It's OK, life right?" "Right." Right. Right? I'm not sure if that's true, or if it is, if it should be. I buy a beer. He lets me take the bottle with me. I grab a moto and stop by Klinik Kominote, which is run by my friend Jason, to see if they have nails. Nobody is there. I get back on the moto and head back to base. Joe's, the bar next door, is blaring music, as usual. Black Eyed Peas. "Tonight's gonna be a good night, tonight's gonna be a good, good night!" People are laughing. I hate the Black Eyed Peas. I grab a can of nails, a bucket of paint and some brushes. Paddy and Dylan know, offer to help if we need it. I'm OK. I'm back on the moto, and then back at the house.

We finish the coffin. It's decided there isn't enough time to paint it, so we opt to line it with some white cloth. The little girl is bound up in a shroud now, a rigid something on the floor next to the crib. There is a note taped to her releasing Rhyan of any responsibility for her death, signed and stamped by the orphanage. She has to take photos. Sabrina is still quiet. Andy is there. "That's a good coffin. Quinn the carpenter eh?" Anything but, really, but it'll have to do. It's better than a suitcase, which is what they had to use last time. The orphanage can't afford wood or coffins. Sabrina lifts her. "She's stiff." She sets her in it. The lid is too small, it doesn't fit right. There are gaps. Duct tape? No, they'll just have to open it up again anyway to check her.

I carry her in her coffin to Andy's SUV. I'm afraid the nails will slip. I have a vision of the bottom falling out or the walls giving way and her falling and hitting the street. The coffin holds and I put her in the back. Madam Jimmy and Jimmy leave, Madam Claudia is gone. We drive to the orphanage. I recognize it. We installed filters in it last year. It's late, people are asleep. "You need to let me carry her in." Rhyan does. She talks to the orphanage staff for a bit. She unwraps the baby girl and shows them her face. They nod. It's decided that she'll be left in her coffin on the porch. That's it then. There's nothing else to do. We leave. Andy drives us back to the house and says goodbye, offers to help dig a grave the next day with one of his excavators if need be.

The house is quiet. Sabrina and Rhyan are talking. I'm exhausted. Sabrina makes me a bed on the couch. I grab a book about village medicine when no doctors are present. I read about malaria and dengue and typhoid fever. Sabrina comes and sits at the end of the couch. She tells me stories about her scars. I want to listen but I'm so tired I can't stay awake. My eyes are closing. She laughs. "Fine, well if you don't want to listen..." She's kidding, and we both know it. "Goodnight." "Night."

It's 8:30AM. I need to get back to base. Paddy and Jenni, my two BSF coworkers, are both leaving for a vacation tomorrow. I have a lot of things to do. I say goodbye to Rhyan. Sabrina is still asleep in her room. I leave her be.

I'm on the motoride back and I'm thinking about something I saw on TV the day before. An Indy car driver named Dan Wheldon died in a car crash. The sports world is in mourning. It's all over the news. I can't help but feel a bit jaded. He drove race cars. He knew the risks. He made the millions. He died doing what he loved. I think about the little girl, maybe still in her hacked-together plywood coffin on the porch. I don't even remember her name. I doubt many people will. It seems wrong.

I take a deep breath and refocus. The motorcycle engine whines and the kompa music blares and the people are everywhere and I'm still alive and moving, on and away, and this too is Haiti.

- - - - -

R.I.P Little Girl

- - - - -

Edit: To be clear about something I unintentionally omitted in writing this -  yes, Rhyan and Sabrina attempted to take the little girl to get medical treatment at numerous hospitals and clinics. None would accept her given her HIV positive status, and the belief that she would die regardless of any care received. 

Edit: Rhyan updated her blog to write about her experience with the little girl, who's name was Miguerlene. Read it here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Day 132: To Make It Official...

All Hands Volunteers - 250 Biosand Filters Installed In Leogane

250 down, a lot more to go.

Day 132: Things To Celebrate, And Things To Miss

2AM here in my tent. It’s raining, has been for hours. It was a wet weekend.

Why am I awake? I don’t really know to be quite honest, I went to bed exhausted and fully expected to sleep through the night, but every now and again that doesn’t happen. It usually has to do with a certain someone I tend to think about a lot in my quiet moments, and tonight is no different. It’s frustrating, and whereas before it still hurt, as it does now, it also seemed to nurture some sense of connection between her and me that gave me hope for an eventual re-connection. It felt like I was simply paying my dues for still having the desire and capability to continue to love her. As anyone who’s been there knows, it is anything but a painless process. But now I’m mostly just annoyed with this. There isn’t anything to be done right now with these feelings, and there won’t be for a while still. Graduate school is still just under a year away, and by then, who knows? Life is nothing if not a changing proposition, and this is a two-person dance after all. There's no guarantee that, if my feelings remain unchanged, her's will be too. I suppose if I do what I always intended to do – put myself back into a situation where I could be physically close to her again, thus cutting out the main reason for us having to grow apart to begin with – then one way or another I’d get the answer to what has been and continues to be a giant, lingering question mark in my life.

But again, that’s quite a ways off, and I might get a different answer than I expected I would when I first made the decision not to go to London and instead continue to try and be out in this kind of work, doing it, and becoming someone I can honestly say I’m proud to be. And in the end, it was the right decision, because that is exactly what is happening, and if I didn't give myself the chance to do this, I'd have regretted it, no matter how happy I might have been with her. In truth, I'm incredibly happy right now because as of Wednesday just past, the biosand filter program has hit our primary objective: building and installing 250 filters in three months. That’s 250 families with clean water, over 1000 people. The organization is proud of the program, and I can honestly say Paddy and I worked our asses off, sometimes truly winging it as we learned on the fly, and the results followed. A lot of people didn’t think the task given to us was something we’d be able to pull off. But, we did, with two days to spare, and despite the best efforts of two hurricanes and other things that shut the base down for multiple days at a time. In the process, I've managed to get a small monthly stipend which takes some of the pressure off financially, and, most importantly, I've settled something inside me that had been bugging me since I first left Haiti in January - the feeling of having squandered a fantastic opportunity. So yes, this is a good time in my life, all things considered, even if I do still have those moments where the gap that she used to fill in me makes itself felt. That's not something I'll probably be rid of until the I take the steps needed to get an answer to that question, and that's in the future, so hey, nothing to be done about it now. Accept it and continue.

Filters 248, 249 & 250 are loaded for installation...
...which makes Quinn happy...
...because he's part of a truly kick ass team...

...that got a lot of families safe, clean drinking water. Bon bagay!
Speaking of bon bagay, even more good news in regards to the work being done here: a decision has been made from the All Hands Volunteers board to extend Project Leogane into 2012. That means that three core All Hands programs will continue into next year, with biosand filters being one of them (the others being our school build program, and our livelihoods program). We’ve purchased four more molds and are ready to double our rate of production, and we are playing with the possibility of quadrupling our production output to 16 filters a day. If we do that, I believe that would make us the largest biosand filter program currently in Haiti, and would see us able to get clean water to over ten thousand people in under six months. That’s no small accomplishment. However, quadrupling production poses some significant challenges and would require a total rework of our production yard. It can be done, but at the moment Paddy and I need to figure out if it is worth it give the timeframe and the fact that we both know All Hands will eventually leave Haiti. Regardless, we will, at the very least, be doubling our production and will have a longer time-frame in which to install the filters, so we'll be able to get clean water to far more people. That's a good thing.

Another side project I'm working on is helping a friend of mine get back into high school and get her diploma so she can pursue her dream of being a nurse. At the moment, my friend Prakash, who I went to high school with in California and who now works for Google, donated enough to get her prior school debts paid back, and I got her set up with her books and school uniforms, so I'm happy to say as of last week, Jenny was back in high school. Seeing her turn up to the base after her classes got out in her school t-shirt made me smile. But tuition for this year still needs to be paid, and I'd like to raise enough money to see her through the remaining years of high school she has left (three in total) and maybe even help fund her if and when she gets accepted into nursing school, so yea, I'll post more about that project when I'm done setting up a website for it, and getting a fundraising campaign live on one of the online fundraising websites.

3AM. Tick tock tick tock. Online now, down in the office, but not much to do, truth be told. I could use a day off this week to refocus on graduate school applications, as powering through biosand stuff has been the top priority. I'd also like some time to plan a trip I'd like to take before I head over to London or somewhere in the UK to start school. A good friend of mine, Nuria, who worked at the Oxford study abroad office but is originally from Spain, extended an invitation to me to come and stay with her at her house in Madrid, no cost to me. It's an incredibly generous offer, and I really want to take her up on it. She's from Madrid, and the thought of spending a month or two with her, getting my Spanish back into shape after the beating it has taken at the hands of Creole, and just reconnecting with her after ten years, sounds wonderful. She and I have managed to stay in touch since my time at Oxford, and we've always had a special something in how we relate to each other. Before mom passed away, we both wanted to reconnect with each other in India and go hiking around there for a few months, but that never came to pass - mom's health was in decline and that wasn't something I was going to risk not being around for. But mom's gone now, and if I'm frugal I can save up enough cash to get to Madrid no problem, and once I'm there costs will be minimal, so hell, if the pieces fit...

Right then, if I don't at least attempt a return to my tent and hopefully the sleep that will follow, I'm going to be useless tomorrow. 

Until soon.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Day 117: Welcome To The Leogane Market

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


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Day 115: The Fourth Decade

Alright, well, I'm thirty.

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

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

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

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


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Day 109: Reflections From A Distance

Hello from Miami.

Every three months, non-nationals are supposed to leave Haiti to renew our visas. Last year I did both visa runs to the Dominican Republic, but this time a friend of mine and fellow Haiti volunteer, Yaron, extended an invitation to come and spend a week or more w/ him in Miami. Having never been I took him up on the offer. It's been a fun trip. Yaron makes me laugh a lot, and has been incredibly generous, so being here has been exactly what I was hoping it would be - relaxing and fun. I met a cool local girl (originally Colombian but has been living in Miami for eleven years) at a cigar shop in Little Havana a few days in and, as is often the case once you meet people from a place, she showed me some of the local hotspots I never would have found otherwise. Much obliged.

My supposed-to-be last night in Miami (Friday) was so rowdy it resulted in me completely sleeping through my early morning flight back to Haiti the next day. Considering the airline (InselAir) didn't charge me anything to put me on another flight going out on Wednesday, I have to say it has proven to be a blessing in disguise. A week goes quickly, and I could use a few more days to just relax here and get a few things done that need to get done before I jump back into it. I need to beef up on updated biosand filter information released by CAWST in preparation of improving the educational component of our program, and I also need to begin emailing schools in the UK about Masters degrees I'm interested in in preparation for applications. This time next year I fully intend on being in or around London, back in school and learning something I love, close to wonderful people I care about.

Still, even at a distance, Haiti is always in my thoughts. I woke this morning and spent an hour or so looking through the All Hands Project Leogane Flickr album. Doing that made me realize how much time I've actually spent in Haiti with All Hands, and gave me a deep appreciation for the organization, and for the many friends I've made along this wild ride. Max, Mathilde, Leslie, Margot, Simon, Jodie, Cassie, Dan, Dave, Caelin, Chris, Christina, Kate... I can't even begin to name everyone, there are far, far too many. It has become something of an extended family. It isn't so much that I stay in touch and close w/ everyone, but rather the simple truth that once you do something like this, you have a common extremely uncommon experience that cannot be explained but rather lived. It isn't something most people can find in the social circles they return to once their time in Haiti has passed. I know I couldn't. There was a reason, during my four months away from Haiti, that I was on the phone with Leslie nearly every day. Besides being a close friend, she, like me, was feeling the post-Haiti fallout to a certain degree, and having one another to confide in about that and basically anything else we wanted to talk about was needed. The fact that Leslie makes me laugh to no end was also a big plus.

One thing I began to think about when looking through the photos was our local volunteers. They come and go, as do the internationals, but, also like the internationals, there have been a few locals that have truly committed to Project Leogane and been with All Hands for well over a year now. Two in particular come to mind - Emmanuel and Junior. They are young guys - I don't think Emmanuel is even out of his teens yet - and both have jobs with the organization now, driving our two Bobcats, which is fantastic. Jobs are the hardest thing to come by in Haiti, and the most desired, and the fact that their dedication to Project Leogane has made it possible for them to get them is something they should be proud of, and something All Hands should be proud of as well. Still, I know, as I suppose I always have, that this crazy, wonderful, frustrating, exhausting, exhilarating, beautiful project will end eventually. Whether or not I'm there to see it is as of yet an unknown. Regardless, I try and picture in my mind's eye what it will be like for our local volunteers, who in many respects have become something akin to family (Junior, for example, took shelter with us during the hurricane scares), when All Hands leaves. It isn't so much that I worry that they won't be OK, they are resourceful people and now have marketable skills and experience they can put to use for other NGOs. I think it is more the thought of having so many of their close friends leave all at once, and their commitment to the organization end suddenly, without their desire for it, that makes me feel for them. The idea is painful, but maybe that's just how it goes. I suppose it's only natural that we leave.

Haiti is not our country, and love it as much as we may, I doubt many of us would choose to make Haiti our permanent residence. I feel guilty typing that, because I know I fall into that category, but I am only being honest. As beautiful as Haiti is, it is also a very difficult place, and it would be even more difficult without the support of an organization to provide food, shelter, etc. Trying to live like an average Haitian would exhaust all but the most resilient (or stubborn) among us. One trip to the Leogane market is testament to the nature of the daily grind in this place, and Leogane is comparatively mellow. When I drive through Port-au-Prince, my heart breaks a little every time. Old women stooped over, ankle deep in fetid, likely cholera-carrying gutter water, sweating in the heat and trying to scrub the stains out of the once-upon-a-time American-imported rice sacks now used to carry charcoal. Nobody in their golden years should have to do that. "Golden" years don't apply in this country.

But still, broken as it is, Haiti has something so visceral and real to it it makes many of the places and things the First World champions look cheap. It is a near-impossible thing to shake once it has taken root in you - the acknowledgement that so much of what those who have the most, and the ability to do something good with it, is wasted on themselves and on glossy false-philosophies that create nothing good. So many of the people I see when I look around the First World seem lost in, and yet still committed to, a sad cycle of misguided self-realization - a cult of ego. I could go off an a tangent right now about marketing and materialism and entitlement, but I don't want to. Suffice to say, Haiti is a broken place, unquestionably, but the United States and many of it's First World siblings also have a feeling of brokenness. It's different. Haiti's is unmasked and obvious - physical devastation from the earthquake, extreme poverty, blatant corruption... The list goes on. The United States hides its brokenness. I can't help but feel that under the smooth pavement of our interstate highways and out of reach of the reflection of our high-rise buildings, America suffers from a subtle sort of disease. We're turning in on ourselves, shrinking our perspective, allowing ourselves to be fitted with blinders. We're not looking at other people, we're looking in the mirror, telling ourselves how beautiful we are. We aren't asking how we can be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are the biggest thing. There is none bigger. By the nature of our privilege, we no longer have to rely on each other to make it. We can go it alone, just us and our credit cards. Without the need to look at things from another's perspective, is it no surprise we're losing our ability to empathize? It's sad, but so be it. If the First World has to degenerate, succumbing to the vacuum it has created, than that is what will happen. In the meantime, Haiti and her siblings remain - those damaged places lacking privilege, struggling alive and without the benefit of being able to look in the mirror day in and day out. If self-realization is truly what you seek, go find them.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Day 98: Four Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 26, 2011

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Day 84: Nearly Three Months

Strange to think it's been nearly three months now since I returned. The time is going by faster this time around. Perhaps it is to do with the fact that Haiti feels more normal now. It has lost some of its wonder, which isn't a critique so much as it is a simple fact of life - exposure breeds familiarity. I've also been almost entirely focused on what it is I came back to do, that being the biosand filter program, and unlike before, when I met M, I don't have anything here that holds enough meaning to me to pull my attention away in any significant way. That will change in a month or so, once graduate school applications begin. That is a priority for me. I want to be in England next year, at a great school, studying something amazing. But still, that is easily manageable. I can do both.

I'm rambling. In some ways I think that's probably the most appropriate final product of the last month and a half. It has been a turbulent ride. Chris passed away, which shook this place to its foundations. Then Paddy and I had to sack Reginald, our field supervisor, for something that we didn't see coming. It was very disappointing, and took the wind out of our sails for a few days. I've never had to sack a friend before. What we've come to discover since makes me want to discredit him as a friend to begin with, but that'd be a lie. I liked Reginald, at least the side of himself he showed me, and he truly felt like a good friend. Escorting him to the front gate after taking away his badge was a really uncomfortable thing to have to do. Immediately following that Tropical Storm Emily opted to threaten Hispaniola and the base went into lockdown. Everything got packed up and stowed away, shutting down all programs for three or four days. As it turns out, Emily was a bust - she died as soon as she made contact w/ the island. Never made it to Leogane. Back to work we went, hoping to play catch-up. But, as it turns out, Emily has a big sister by the name of Irene. So, two weeks later back into lockdown we went. The second time was much smoother than the first - we were all well-practiced - but regardless, another three days lost, and again, the storm didn't happen. Irene missed us. Unlike Emily, she's not done though. Some of the northern Caribbean islands are being battered by her, now a Category 3 and soon expected to be a Category 4, as I type this. We dodged a bullet.

Irene cometh, except, she doesnth.
Paddy has been away in New York for a week and I've been doing his job along with my own, which I enjoy. It is busy, and sometimes I need to remind myself to slow down and chill for a bit, but all said and done I enjoy the planning aspect of this program, which is something that has largely been handled by Paddy until I feel confident that all of our staff, especially our supervisors, are trained up to the level that they can work mostly independent of me. Once that happens, I'll transition into a role that more directly supports Paddy w/ the meta-level stuff. The end-game is important. What exactly IS going to happen with this program come end of year? At this point in time that isn't a question Paddy and I have ever gotten a clear answer to so we are planning for a couple options. No real need to get into the specifics of it, but the most important thing for both of us is to find a way to keep the program going, but it under the All Hands' banner or with another NGO, and to keep our team employed. The ideal end-game would be to help the team become their own NGO, recognized by the Haitian government, and run entirely by Haitians with support from outside funders. That was our original plan, but given the time-frame, I don't see how we can get to that level before All Hands' is set to leave. Still, if we can get another NGO interested in biosand filters to take the program, that should keep the jobs and keep the filters coming. Bon bagay.

Chris's family is arriving on Saturday to take part in the opening ceremonies for Schools 12 and 13, which Chris worked on the entire time he was here. They are being dedicated to him. I look forward to meeting them. If they are anything like he was, they'll be wonderful people.

Until soon then.

Ile-a-Vache, Haiti. 5:30 AM. July 2011.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Day 80: A Quote

"I'm at this river the other day, and here's what I see: three men washing some Land Rovers in the water, two pigs having sex, a group of children gutting some pigs and cleaning their intestines right next to the pigs having sex, and a few women washing clothes and bathing — all in the same tiny part of the river. And next to all of that was a hand-washing poster put up by some NGO to teach people good hygiene."

Rolling Stone - How The World Failed Haiti

Ah Haiti, you crazy, broken, beautiful place you...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day 48: In Remembrance

“Hey, you want to go to a bullfight?” You smile as you finish the sentence, half-excitable puppy, half-proud young man.

“A bullfight? They have those in Haiti?” I didn’t know that.

“I guess so. So you want to go or what? Jenny told me it’s right near her house at four this afternoon. Her mom is going to make food for all of us. I’ve already got it all set up.”

Wow. Impressive. I remember not more than three weeks ago sitting down with you over a few cold Cokes and trying to help you get a basic understanding of Haitian Creole. You approached me the next day, lighter held high, and threw out a triumphant, “Briket!” Yep, that’s a lighter alright. You were beaming. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me then that, a few weeks later, your enthusiasm for digging into this place would get you an invite to something us long-termers didn’t even know existed.

“I’m in.” That smile of yours man. It’s infectious.

Marie Michelle, Jenny’s mother, is excited. I wonder if she’s ever played host to a bunch of internationals before. It’s doubtful. She’s proud to have us meet the rest of her family, to invite us into her community and her home. We’re really out here. I didn’t know this place existed. The smells of food cooking come from within. It smells good. Outside she’s set up a big table for us. We sit. “Kikote Chris?” she asks.

“He’s coming. I think he said he was going to the beach.” You did, but before too long the familiar whine of the motorcycle engines announce your arrival.

“How awesome is this!” You’re excited. You’re always excited. I love that about you. You’re smiling. Of course you’re smiling. Marie Michelle runs over and takes you by the hand, she wants to show you everything she’s cooking. “Man, look at all this food!” You aren’t kidding. For a family of limited means, Marie Michelle and her daughters have pulled out all the stops on this one – fried chicken, plantains, fried fish, piklis, a bucket of cold sodas. It’s a feast.

“Chris, Chris!” Jenny calls out to you. She wants to show you her room, her things. She wants to show you her life. Her little sister Onella takes you by the hand. “Chris, I have something to show you too.” You compliment her on her English as they take you around to the back of the house where the tent they sleep in is. You come back five minutes later and sit down next to me.

“Man, that was so cool. They just showed me all these family photos they have.” Having talked to Jenny before, I know that Marie Michelle lost her husband and son in the earthquake. They are in those photos. They wanted you to see who they were. I understand why. There is something that radiates in you. It’s warm and natural, and it’s rare. With you, it’s effortless. It’s just who you are. I could feel it that first night we met, when I was making sure that, should you ever need one, you’d know exactly how to ask for a lighter in Creole. It doesn’t surprise me at all that now, a few weeks in, everyone can feel it, including this beautiful family you’ve befriended.

We eat. It’s fantastic. Marie Michelle is beaming. You’re complimenting her after nearly every bite. You’re sensitive to her situation too. I know you’ve made sure she didn’t have to pay for this. We finish eating. You buy some of their artwork – gifts for your family and friends back in California. It’s late afternoon. “Alright, we doing this or what?” You’re up, that smile on your face again. That’s right, we do have a bullfight waiting for us, don’t we?

It’s a different bullfight than any I’ve ever been to. There’s no ring. There’s no matador. It’s just a riverbed full of bulls. They’re excitable. I’m guessing it’s the female cows the locals have brought with them. There are quite a few people gathered. You’re talking to Jenny, talking to me, talking to the rest of the people you’ve brought with you. We decide to get a closer look at one of the bulls.

“C’mon Chris, ride it!”

You’re laughing, keeping a conservative distance from it. “Oh heeeell no!” We all laugh with you.

Two of the more excitable bulls decide to do something with their energy. They clash heads, pushing each other back and forth, kicking up water. It goes on for a while. Eventually one bull accepts he’s not up to the task at hand and turns tail. We all cheer. “Man this is so cool!” You say it but we all feel it. This is Haiti. This is something entirely new. This is a door you’ve opened for us.

They fight a few more bulls. One establishes himself as the winner. Some of the locals are getting a kick out of us, but most of them are too busy betting on bulls to be bothered with the group of blancs. Marie Michelle, Jenny & Onella are braiding our hair, talking to us, talking to you. The sun begins to set and we make our way back to their home. You thank Marie Michelle, she embraces you. She’s beaming again. You have that effect on people don’t you?

“I’m coming back, I promise!”

“OK Chris, OK!” The family waves farewell after helping us find motorcycles. The engines rev into life and we’re off. It’s a ridiculous path back to the main road and you’re loving it. Perched on the back of the lead motorcycle I can hear your voice behind me. “Oh man! Here we go! This is crazy!” You’re laughing, alive and here, in this moment, and now I’m smiling again. I can see that Haiti, as is her nature, is giving you as much as you are giving her. You’ve been giving her a lot.

Ten minutes up a dry creek bed and we’re back on the national highway, back in Leogane, back home. It’s been an amazing day. Everyone feels it. Thank you for that.

A few weeks later you invite me back. I can’t go this time around, but you do, as you said you would. Marie Michelle mentions it to me. She mentions you a lot. She asks me where you are every time I leave the base and she’s there. “Kikote Chris?” “I don’t know. I think he’s working on one of the schools right now. They don’t come back to base for lunch.” Jenny wants to know too. She calls me to ask when you’re coming back to visit their house again. “He is leaving soon. He has to finish school.” “Li benzwen ale?” “Yes, he has to. He loves Haiti though. He’s going to miss it.” “Mwen pral manke li.” Me too. We’re all going to miss you. You’ve made a lot of friends in two months. I imagine that’s a pretty easy thing for you to do.

The base has just been told the news from Miami. We don’t know exactly what to do. It doesn’t seem possible. Jenni, your adopted big sister from Los Angeles, is devastated. I take her away from the group. We sit alone for a while, thinking about you. She tells me about the time you demanded that she learn how to properly use a hammer, and committed yourself to teaching her until she got it. She’s laughing and crying. She’s not alone. I’m thinking about you. It’s hard to stomach that this is happening.

I think about the day of the bullfight and realize there is someone I need to talk to, someone I know loves and cares about you. I leave Jenni and walk toward the entrance of the base.

Onella is there. She approaches me. They’ve heard about the accident. They want to know if what they’ve heard is true. She looks up at me. “Chris mouri?” I don’t even know what to say. Onella is eight years old. “Yes sweetheart, Chris is gone.” She is silent, her face still. She turns and walks to the truck behind her, leans on it, head down. Marie Michelle is there.

“Mama, Chris mouri.”

It hurts to watch, but it needs to happen. Marie Michelle begins to cry. She’s sobbing now, sitting on the bench. The men next to her are solemn. They remember you. I sit with her for a bit, but I know I can’t do anything to help right now. We’re all in the same place. We’re in shock and we miss you. I go back inside. Marie Michelle’s older daughter Jenny calls me. She’s heard. She wants to know if it’s true. I tell her. She’s silent for a while. 

“Mwen tris.” “Me too.” Everyone is sad.

I’m back at Joe’s, sitting at the table where I helped teach you some Creole. We’re a small group, together thinking about you. We’re telling stories about you, and laughing remembering the myriad ways you brought laughter to anyone around you. You radiate. You still radiate.

A local friend of mine asks me for a minute. I walk with him to meet another local man. They tell me they know about what happened. They tell me the community wants to do something. They want to gather here and pay tribute to you. “He came here to help us. We want to remember him for that.” I smile. You sure made an impression didn’t you?

The base is silent now. Night has come. People are quiet, huddled together. We all feel you. I overhear someone say that the community has left flowers and a candle burning outside the base. I find comfort in that. You did what you came here to do.

I walk outside this morning. The neighborhood is quieter than it normally is. Haiti is never quiet. I have to smile a little at that. People here respect you, and what you’ve done for them. The smile grows when I see the flowers, a little pile of them underneath our public info board. They grow in number as the day goes on, and we continue thinking of you.  You’ve still got me smiling. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me anymore. It’s who you are.

- - - - - -

Godspeed Chris. You’re an incredible young man, and I feel lucky for having had the time with you that I did.

The day of the bullfight. (Mid-June, 2011)
Chris (closest to the fire) with some of the All Hands family. (July 3rd, 2011)
The tribute inside the All Hands base. (July 20th, 2011)
The tribute outside the All Hands base. (July 20th, 2011)
Chris with the kids at Plaza Playtime. (June 24th, 2011)
Chris & Onella at Plaza Playtime. (June 24th, 2011)

All Hands Volunteers - Remembering Chris Zahuta