Saturday, May 29, 2010

when your world shrinks shrinks shrinks

Many of my closest friends in Syria go out two or three times a week, maybe once a day on a busy week, but I'd guestimate they spend about 90% or more of their time at home. They've never indicated to me that they resent that. They seem to like having a bustling home full of family members, old and baby and everyone in between, guests coming and going, and sisters who are also the bestest of friends. Their world is small, but the television expands their world, and friends like me who spend so much of our time exploring also expands their world. It's not a bad way to live. They get to know a few things intimately, to a level of depth that's almost foreign to me.

That's very different from my life, where I'm in a new country every couple of months, getting out, seeing things, exploring, meeting people, doing an assortment of activities. So much so that now, when I visit a new city, I'm strangely content to sit in the hotel and enjoy the pool, or catch up with friends on the Internet, or watch a film. It doesn't bother me so much when I leave a lovely place without having seen the marvels it offers. I've still seen the hotel, the streets surrounding my office, and an assortment of new friends and coworkers.

That being said, my world has now grown almost as small as that of the aforementioned friends in Syria. I live across the street from my office, and with the security rules I don't go anywhere very often. When I go, I'm in a car with many other people, and then I come straight back home. I suppose it's good, because I enjoy my small world. But it's strange to not have an overload of stimulants hitting my brain!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

my driver

I could tell you about the skull-and-bones tattoo on his arm. I could describe his well-educated French and his account of his past career as an 'entrepreneur.' Or I could tell you about how he goes to church ALL the time. I could explain how he told me that what I see is what I get, and how he graciously thanked me for my comprehension after stopping on the way to put air in the tires. I could mention his cautious diligence pulling out of the office driveway after he heard that there were demonstrations on the streets today. I could try to describe his intentional and responsible driving style that still somehow seemed to lead to several near-misses in the afternoon traffic.

But I think what I really want to remember about my driver today, a recent hire, thought I was paying him deep personal compliments as we drove home. I commented on how traffic was lighter this week than last and that we'd made good time, and he said, "Merci", as if I'd expressed my amazement at his capable maneuvering of local streets. Then a few moments later I spoke of how we have quite a few good drivers on staff, and he said "Merci", as if I'd told him he was the best driver I'd ever had. Then he asked me if I would be requesting him as my driver next time.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Another picture

I'm sitting at a table with four other women. We've ordered three sorbets - strawberry, mango and lime - to freshen our palettes after a lunch of spinach ravioli stuffed with feta cheese and sundried tomatoes, accompanied by Argentinian red wine. In the middle of the table, two scoops each of the three sorbets sit on long-stemmed martini-style bowls. Each of us holds a silver spoon. We delicately, or greedily as you'd have it, scoop out a bit of lime, now strawberry, now perhaps a bit of mango.

The walls behind us are bright yellow with dark wood trimming and our table is at the edge of a large courtyard in an old plantation-style house. Each of our seats is decorated by a round brightly-coloured straw placemat. The walls are speckled with bits of local Haitian art, and in fact the back of the house is a little art gallery.

Our table is actually right next to the kitchen - we're separated from them by nothing but a grated window. This might have detracted from the sophistication of the afternoon, but instead it adds to the overall effect. The kitchen staff is producing gorgeous food with precise discipline. They are clean, efficient, and passionate about food.

As we sip our sorbet, I peek through the grated window and see the profile of a young Haitian woman in a green whispy blouse and a stout white chef's cap. With perfect posture she stands up against the counter and peels garlic. The contours of her face are twisted up in perfect concentration, yet at the same time relaxed with the confidence she has in her task.

It was hard to believe we were half a block up the street from one of Port-au-Prince's hundreds of tent cities. It was hard to remember the desolation we had driven past to arrive here. It was precious to have an afternoon like this.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Literally, a Picture of a moment

I'm sitting in the passenger seat of the dual cab pick-up. I'm being chauffeured to a meeting with some awesome middle-aged ladies who have big dreams for education in Haiti. We are stuck in traffic on the main road cutting through town; there's no way to avoid this back-up since our office is right off this road.

I was watching the various comings and goings around me, of which there were not few. An inconspicuous navy blue van passed by us, going in the other direction, and I was about to turn my attention to something more interesting when I saw a flash of colour. A man in bright yellow roller blades, yellow helmet, pink-and-yellow protective gear, and a bright blue bodysuit was holding on to the back of that van, whisking down the hill through the afternoon traffic, just like Michael J Fox's character in Back to the Future. But this guy was much more colourful. It was a Picture that few by me in a moment.

A few hours later, I was sharing the front seat of an SUV with a friend. We were headed to a lovely dinner out and other colleagues were crammed into the back seats and our vehicle was stuck in traffic at exactly the same spot. She observed: "I actually rather like being out and about in Port-au-Prince like this. There's always something interesting to look at out the window. "

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


A few glimpses of my everyday life here in Haiti (as if there is such a thing in such a constantly-changing environment)...

- Looking for a place that makes white rice with beans sauce, but settling for the beans mixed in to the rice - with a side of okra

- Entering the conference room in the morning and shaking the hands of the 3 new international staff who arrived since I was last in the conference room. And leaving the conference room in the afternoon ensuring I've said farewell to the 3 who are departing over the weekend.

- Discussions about mosquito repellent: everyone prefers natural, but which one really works? I somehow ended up with 100% DEET, which is poisonous.

- Calling 4 different drivers to get a ride home because we need to be in a convoy of at least two vehicles and two people per vehicle. Somehow all the switching of cars involved, and stopping in the street to re-organise the convoy at each person's house, feels inherently less safe than driving solo.

- Asking everyone else in the conference room wants to walk down the block to buy a coke or a sandwich, since we're not allowed to go there on our own. Field trips to Epi d'Or, the fast food joint across the street with an intriguing menu and an impressive track record for inducing stomach problems.

- The security guards for our office, our guest house and the Oxfam office next door playing dominoes on the street outside, until late. There's a bright light above them, and the table is 1 m x 1 m. The dominoes slap noisily on the table.

- Emails listing the off-limit destinations for the day. Then scrounging around google maps and interrogating colleagues to find out where those locations are.

- The constant stream of people walking through our guest house all day long. We're not sure who works here and who just passes through or why. But there's a huge church-sized coffee maker that always has a pot brewing for them.

- Calling for permission to leave town, calling for permission to re-enter town.

- Driving down highways with enormous cracks down the middle. Driving past piles of rubble and speculating about the number of bodies still buried.

- Using US dollars at local stores, since with all the humanitarian workers, it seems no one can be bothered with the local currency anymore. But outside the capital, local currency only.

- The Syrian and Lebanese ladies who look like they dropped out of a 70s soap opera, who manage the supermarket from behind raised counters.

- Constant discussions about the organisation, colleagues, management - when you live with colleagues and they're your only social circle, you seem to talk about work a lot.

- Snapple and Rice-a-Roni on prominent display in the supermarket.

- Mosquito net tonight or no mosquito net?

- Accepting without comment the airline t-shirt ("Tortug-Air Haiti") proferred as I boarded the airplane the other day.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lesson for living in Haiti: don't expect food to be served quickly.

I respect cultures that know how to enjoy every moment, I really do. I am a fervent believer in slowing down. Urgency, rush, business. These are not good things. Some of us take pride in being so busy, and I am even convinced some people I know are busy because they create work for themselves in order to feel busy: not good. Calm, peace, smelling the roses. These are good things.

But surely there is a limit.

Last night, an evaluation team presented the findings of the research they had conducted in communities where we work. It was a fascinating discussion about how to reach the neediest people in the community, and how fulfill the goal of meeting ALL their needs - not just give them one thing or another. After the presentation, we sat down to dinner together.

The presentation was 1 1/2 hours long, and we ordered the food before the presentation began. So when we sat down, it was with a general sense of anticipation that our food would soon be happily in our tummies.

Instead, we took our seats, then for fifteen minutes nothing happened. So our leader went up to the waitress and asked her to please start serving the food.

One foot in front of the other, she meandered into the kitchen. A minute or two later, she emerged with a tray that had two plates on it. With perfect posture and a relaxed look on her face, she arrived at the table and whispered, "Shrimp? Who wants shrimp?" We all looked at each other. What were the other options? Who would decide? Another team member rose to the occasion: he pulled out a list and told us that there would also be fish and lobster coming. Two people reluctantly accepted the shrimp and the girl ambled away.

A couple of minutes she came back with the tray again. This time with one plate. When she arrived we discovered it was also shrimp. I accepted. She left again and emerged eventually with one more plate of shrimp. No one else wanted the shrimp. They were waiting for the fish. So she just stood there and looked at us. The boss rolled his eyes and made some comment about the poor quality of service.

This pattern repeated itself for the next 15 minutes until all 15 people had a plate. I was desperately thirsty and accidentally mentioned this out loud. While the group gratefully dug in, the girl walked over to a refrigerator and pulled out a few bottles of soda. She didn't bring them to us, though; she put them on an empty table across the room. The boss pulled her aside and asked if there was any rice coming.

I kid you not: without answering him, she abandoned the drinks project and moseyed into the kitchen, emerging 3 minutes later with one small plate of white rice. She dropped it on the table in front of the boss. Then she took a few more bottles from the refrigerator, set them on the table, and disappeared into the kitchen.

The boss could take it no more. He started making comments in French to the extent of: "There's really no one here who can give you a hand?" "You can't finish one job?" "The owner must not pay his employees anything!" Everyone at the table could hear, and we all could see his level of exasperation rising.

To his credit, the boss then stood up and started distributing the sodas himself. He went to the refrigerator and pulled out some bottles of beer which he then passed around to the group. He kept fluttering around the restaurant until people's cups were filled.

He sat down and we all began clearing the last bits of food off our plates. Then the girl wandered in carrying a platter full of spicy rice.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


It's raining right now. Here in Port-au-Prince, this is fourth night in a row.

Yesterday, as we drove back to town from our field office, we arrived on the southern outskirts of town right as the rain started falling. It was also rush hour. Within a matter of minutes, the water was pouring out of the sky in buckets. We had crawled no more than a kilometre in the slow traffic when the roads started flooding. Then we turned onto a side road and passed people walking knee-deep in the water. Some of them were barefoot, some wore waterproof sandals, and others wore shoes that must surely now be ruined.

While they desperately sought to get out of the thick waves of water on the street, cars seemed to ignore the pedestrians wading through the rivers. We drove inland and uphill. The flooding never got worse than knee-deep, but in some places it was flowing down the street in rapids that we feared could overpower even our SUV filled with 6 passengers.

As we drove by the tent cities which now line every street in Port-au-Prince, we saw some people huddling in their tents, others taking shelter under the ruins of collapsed buildings. We also saw dozens and dozens of boys running through the streets with big grins on their faces. Even if you live in a tent and don't have any way of drying your clothes afterwards, warm rainstorms are inherently fun, aren't they?

Everyone here is worried, though. The rain is coming down seriously hard and the hurricanes haven't even started yet. Many of the tent cities are built onto steep hills so it's hard to imagine them not collapsing some time in the near future. No one wants to move back indoors, even if they have standing houses, and there's no space to build more solid shelters. So far, most people have smiles on their faces, but after a few days, running in the rain doesn't seem like so much fun anymore.

Monday, May 10, 2010

i'm glad today is almost over

I apologise in advance: this post is probably going to be very introspective. In fact, it's probably so introspective I shouldn't post it.

Today was not an easy day for me. It had all the fixings of an easy day and in fact should have been a perfect day, but it was not.

I choose to attribute it to two reasons: First, the hotel where I'm staying only has electricity before 7:30 in the morning and after 6 p.m., which means no Internet all day. Come to think of it, I can't remember the last time I've gone all day without electricity - no TV, no lights, no computer, no music.

Oh, but there was music, and that's the second reason. Since noon, there's been a dance party going on right outside. Techno mixes so loud that the doors in my room rattled and I had to shout my lunch order three times before someone could understand what I wanted.

I suppose that increased my irritation with certain other little things, like the hundreds of mosquitoes that buzzed in around my head starting about an hour ago, or the fact they forgot to bring the ice that I requested to go with my coke, or the fact the internet was so flaky even after it started back up.

On top of all this, I'm quite alone in a little town on the coast. It's lovely, but I'm getting tired of going to new places alone. I've learned to enjoy being on my own, but I think I may have crossed some threshold and it's just not working for me anymore.

This has me thinking that it's time for a change in lifestyle, but if you've known me a while, you know that I've thought this before and I've tried this before. I always seem to end up somewhere like where I am now, doing something like what I'm doing now. It's who I was made to be. But I still can't help but wonder if it's not time to start struggling against nature - if only I could come up with something else to do.

OK, enough of the instrospection. Seriously - a dance party all day long so loud the furniture and doors all tremble?! All day long? So loud I couldn't think? And no electricity or Internet all day either? I guess they just assume that people stay in the hotel at night only.

On the upside, I went for another walk this morning. Almost two hours long - I ran out of places to walk, since this isn't a particularly large town. I chatted with some children as we watched a funeral procession pass, bonded with an old woman who was walking alongside me as some guys shouted out marriage proposals in feeble Spanish to me, and stopped on the street to listen to some acapella singing in a church service. I would have liked to go in to a church, but everyone was so so so so dressed up!

And that there was an interesting observation. The icky feeling I had on a Saturday evening was quite different from the joyful feeling of a Sunday morning.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

I'm so embarrassed.

Since I'm out of the city and allowed to pursue a tiny bit of adventure, I went for a walk when I got back from work today. It started out lovely. I found the seafront where I saw couples watching the sun's last rays on the palm-lined port and men sitting around chatting. Then I walked inland through a very simple neighbourhood where the people were friendly and gave me directions to town. The smell of sewage was always with me, but so were the smiling children trying to make me laugh and smile back. I passed youth walking from or to work, teenagers playing football on the street and old women sitting in front of their homes. The ever-endearing village life.

Then I turned onto a main street and headed into town. I was enjoying the sense of freedom and the sun on my back. I passed a little girl of 7 or 8 and then - BANG - I felt a solid bump on my arm. Remembering my last weekend in Indonesia, a shiver passed up my spine. I looked back and saw that it was the little girl who had quickly reached out for my arm, apparently in hopes of making some contact with a white person. I decided I couldn't hold that against her.

I kept walking and after a bit, a young man of say 17 or 18 came up to me with his hand outstretched and the begging look on his face. I quickly thought and realised I didn't have any small change with me so I put my arms on my chest and said in my horrid French, "I don't have anything." Of course, I meant, "I don't have anything simple or small enough that I feel comfortable giving to you nor do I know why you young healthy individual are out begging." But I only told him I have nothing.

Before I could finish this short sentence, though, he cried out in English, "But I'm hungry!"

How does one respond to a pleading face saying that? Naturally, I kept walking. He was already well past me at this point anyway. But then I caught sight of the main target of my walk: a supermarket. I'd come to stock up on some food supplies before settling into my hotel for tonight and possibly all day tomorrow. How could I possibly go into the supermarket after just declaring I had nothing to someone who declared his hunger to me? He'd see me go in, I should buy him some food, I didn't know what to get him and wasn't confident enough with my French to discuss this with him. All these thoughts added up to a good set of excuses to not buy him food, and to a sense of guilt which led me to decide not to buy food for myself either. Never fear, I thought, they have some food at the hotel. It's overpriced, but I can manage.

As I walked on past the supermarket and turned the corner to return to the hotel empty handed, I realised just how horrid this experience had been. I had successfully evaded a chance to interact with a Haitian by avoiding another form of contact with a Haitian. I had opted for the isolated life of the aid worker lodged in a nice hotel who receives a per diem. I had increased just a tad to the distance between the world around me and the world I live in.

As I continued my walk, a few other people attempted to make contact. Mostly they were ridiculous attempts at intimidation, like bikes swerving in front of me or a young boy doing a little karate dance as he walked by. Even so, be evading their glance and refusing to shop in their stores or play their games, I realised that I'm taking more from them than they are getting from me. I expect to walk on their streets and see their way of life and tell stories about them when I leave. In exchange, I give them nothing. Sure, my organisation does great things for the people in this area, but must think the money spent on my hotel and per diem would be better spent by feeding a few hungry boys on the street.

Friday, May 7, 2010

the view from above

Have you ever flown in a 16-passenger plane in which you could watch the pilot peering out of the front window? It was a first for me and a fantastic experience. Not only did I not have to stow my bags securely or listen to constant reminders about turning off my mobile, but we flew at an altitude low enough that I could see the world below.

As we departed Port au Prince, I saw the checks of bright blue, sky blue, and blue-gray throughout the city, occupying almost as much space as the concrete buildings. The original homes of many people living in tents are still standing, but their owners prefer to live in the tents out of fear of another earthquake. The considerable amount of blue tentage I saw from the sky suggested to me that this was a lovely city not too long ago. Where blue tarps now sit would have been green wide open spaces.

As we landed in the southern city of Les Cayes, a very different sight greeted me. Unfinished concrete buildings were a common sight, as were bright blue rooftops. But these blue tops were not tents, they were graves and churches, it seemed. In the place of sprawling concrete urbanisation, I was greeted by rice, bean and maize fields.

When we alighted - me, 7 other passengers and the pilot - we collected our bags from the empty seats and climbed down the three short metal steps onto the tarmac that was about the size of your average driveway in the U.S.

In front of me, a stout older woman dressed all in black gathered up shopping bags and a plastic garment bag and accepted a young man's hand in lieu of a bannister. When she landed on solid ground she began wailing. "Oh Jesu, Mon Dieu!" I couldn't make out much of what she said and when I asked my colleaghe he said it appeared that this was her first trip back home since the earthquake, and that she had lost dear ones on that day. She was returning to her family in mourning.

She screamed and almost fainted a few feet in front of me. I picked up her black hat that had tumbled off her head and handed it to the security guard who comforted her as he tried to pass her off to her family members waiting in the building. I had been about to comment about how awesome the little-plane ride had been, but now that thought seemed crass and untimely.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Guest House Life

Sociologically, the life of an NGO worker is fascinating. If any TV producers ever come across this blog, here's my recommendation for the next hit TV drama: Humanitarian Life.

We all spend so much time sitting around listening to each others' crazy stories, some of which truly are crazy, that you could create a TV show that is both action-packed attention-grabbing AND realistic. How incredible would that be?!

Yesterday's most memorable story for me was the following:
There once was an aid worker in a little village in a small African country. She lived in a hut and slept under a mosquito net. Her mosquito net was a canopy over her bed, covering her completely from floorboard to headboard. Every night she'd crawl under her mosquito net in her dark little hut, curl herself into a little ball as far away from the mosquito net as possible, and fall asleep. If she didn't sleep, this is what she heard: hundreds of rats climbing on her mosquito net. She could look up and see the rats, she could look toward her feet and there they were. If she made the mistake of spreading her limbs, the rats would start biting at her toes. One day someone sent her some mousetraps and she set them out in her room, just to see what would happen. In one day she caught 11 rats, but there were still enough there that night to populate her mosquito net.

I'm enjoying living in my guest house with coworkers who have become temporary roommates. I miss living in the hotel where I was previously, because I miss the company there with other colleagues. They are all fun and intriguing people and, try as we all might to do the contrary, we end up spending a whole lot more time with each other than we do with the people we came to serve. Meanwhile, we feel we need our bottles of wine or beer, consumed while sprawling on lounge chairs under candles and rain, and the occasional karaoke night, to keep us sane as we realise we can't internalise the tragedies we hear of during the day.

How can I even start to process the thought that in the ruins of the hospital we support, an estimated 70 bodies of nurses and patients, many of whom were babies on the pediatric ward, are still buried in the rubble? If one of them were my family member, I'd dedicate my life to processing that fact. Because I'm here to help manage the recovery services, I have to move forward without coming to grips with it.

At the guest house, we all have stories to share. Many more stories like the one about the rats than stories like the one about the hospital. Sharing them helps us process, helps the nights pass faster, helps us feel normal - one of the crowd.

I'm sorry I don't have more thoughts on the Haiti tragedy to share. Much of what I've seen is shocking, but it's only as shocking as the hundreds of news articles that have already been written about it. The personal stories I've heard are tragic, but no more tragic than the stories already shared so far and wide.

So by day I try to get things done and by night I learn from the guest house.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

a picture

This morning I went to the gym with a colleague. Since exercise promises to be a rare outlet for me, I hope to do the gym thing on a somewhat regular basis. But the 5:15 departure will be a bit of a barrier!

What I loved most about it was the rooftop terrace. I suppose mid-day it gets too hot to enjoy, but since it was so early, after I finished my desperate attempt at a sprint on the treadmill, I went up to the roof with my yoga mat. The sun was shining and a lovely cool breeze was blowing.

Here is what I saw: up in front were rolling green hills with interesting-looking buildings and pathways on top. I was fascinated by the pathways and wondered what historical establishments they might be circling.

To my right was a landslide waiting to happen. They looked like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro - lots of houses on a very steep hill, but in Rio you can still see pockets of green here and there. The barracas in Rio are made of wood and tin, which makes them fragile yet earthy. They'd slide smoothly along with the land in the landslide of my imagination. The houses here were pure concrete. Hopefully that means they are strongly rooted and thus landslide-resistant. I guess if they're standing there today they've probably already withheld a good bit of land fragility. Just like Rio, it was rather breathtaking to be on the top of one of the buildings at the bottom of the hill, looking straight out at a mass of homes.

Behind me on the right side I saw the sea in a hazy distance. I love views of the sea. Nuff said.

The rest of my surroundings were other buildings like the one I was in: 3-6 stories high, of a neo-colonial architecture, trees sprouting out in gardens and streetsides. I imagine we were in a nice neighbourhood since the homes were surrounded by high gates and traffic was lively as we left the gym. Even so, two blocks away, the mass of sky-blue and white tents filled a park area. In so many ways, it reminded me of home - I pictured Praça da Republica before the police kicked all the squatters out.

I suppose instead of linking to photos of similar-looking things in Brasil, I should take some photos of my own. I'll get there.

It's really beautiful here, though it's been a while since I've lived in a place so split between the lovely gated homes in the valley and the favela on the hillside.