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.