Saturday, July 24, 2010

Washed away

It's truly incredible on this Friday night. I'm sitting on the sofa looking at our big bay windows overlooking Port au Prince. A few minutes ago, I could see the lights of the entire city sparkling back at me, tempting me with the adventures and human lives that hide under each light.

Now I see nothing but gray. Dark, dark gray. I guess my house - my mountain - is in a cloud now, but it looks like the city has been washed away.

Just like the story in my heart. Just like the words in my soul. The thoughts and emotions that are usually competing for space in my mind and begging to be put in words on paper - or a computer screen, as the case may be... they've been washed away - or at least are hidden by the cloud in which I stand.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Woodstock in Haiti

When you hear the word "Woodstock", what do you think? Here's my list:
- tents
- music
- crowds
- activity
- drugs
- an incontrollable number of people
- rain
- festival

When you hear the word "Haiti", what do you think? Here's my list (trying to imagine 3 months ago before I'd actually set foot in this beautiful land):
- poor
- earthquake
- needs
- homeless
- survivors (moral as well as physical)
- Latin dance party
- Caribbean
- fun

So, pretty much, put these two imagines together in your mind, through in a ritzy golf course and an earthquake, mix in a bit of Hollywood drama provided by none other than Sean Penn, and you have the PetionVille Club Camp for Internally Displaced People. Music, bustling activity, thousands of tents, rolling hills, Brazilian soldiers and Chinese doctors, a movie star or two, constant construction, muddy hills in rain, 50,000 people... these are the sights and sounds that greet me as I pass the golf club clubhouse and head down the hill into the camp.

I honestly don't think photos would do it justice, nor could I think of a better way to describe it than Woodstock done Haiti-recovery style.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Americans + church + extra seating outdoors

This morning we visited an English-speaking church in Port au Prince. Being our first time there, we drove around in a few circles before we actually found the place. When we arrived, almost half an hour late, the only seats available were outside the church building on some extra chairs that had been set out.

This was fine by me, the girl who can't sit still, so who has a history of volunteering to do refreshments on my very first Sunday in a new church.

Even so, I felt like I was the calmer and more well-behaved of the folk outside. I don't really know, but I got the impression that most of the other latecomers were short-term visitors in Haiti, maybe part of a week-long volunteer mission of some sort. What I do know is that they had made sure that they were utterly self-sufficient and safe from any hint of boredom.

The first thing I saw were a man and a woman with cameras. Not just cameras, but the big professional type cameras. The woman's camera was complete with one of those ultra-optical-major-zoom lenses that is almost a foot long. (And she was really skinny so the camera dwarfed her even more.) Whenever children appeared, she'd pick her hyper-lens and start snap-snap-snap-snapping. She captured two girls playing with each other, a baby sleeping, a father with son, and who knows what else.

Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a granola bar. She ripped half off and scarfed it down, folding the wrapper on the other half and putting it back away.

Just a moment after that I noticed the woman three people down from her pick up her brand-name-outdoors-company water bottle and take a few swigs. It was decorated with a map of the world, so it kept me entertained for a few moments...

...until the woman next to her drew my attention away by picking up her own designer water bottle. It was lime-green with a flip top. She unscrewed the top and held it awkwardly with the same hand as held the bottle. With her free hand she reached into her purse and pulled out a little packet of some powder. With difficulty as she juggled all these items on her lap, she ripped the packet open and dumped the contents into her bottle. Then she screwed the lid back on and gave it a shake. Looking into the bottle and deciding the powder was adequately dissolved, she took a sip and put it all down on the ground.

I was about to comment to my friend, who was sitting next to me, about this liberal behaviour when she too pulled out a granola bar and started eating. I guess this is just what happens when Americans go to church and are relegated to the outdoor seating. And distractions or no distractions, it was a rather good worship service!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

second-hand bling

There is something that has caught my eye time and time again since I've been in Haiti, evoking a chuckle or eye-rolling or bewilderment. It comes up over and over and has me truly fascinated.

I'm calling it second-hand bling.

Or things-that-could-not-possibly-have-arrived-in-Haiti-new.

Usually it's t-shirts. I figure they are the donations given to Salvation Army or Goodwill in the U.S. which don't get sold. Someone must put them on a boat and ship them to Haiti, where they add colour to the already-colourful life on the streets.

What makes these articles of clothing, hats, bags and other bling so distinct is their local nature. They speak of events that happened years ago in some small town in Iowa, or advertise stores that sell hardware in New Jersey. They are too obscure to make international commerce, and too locally-bound to have originated in Haiti.

The other day I was standing by the main walkway in one of the bigger camps in town. As I half-listened in on the discussion about needs and NGOs and communication and technical things like 'beneficiary accountability', I entertained myself by writing down some of the second-hand bling.

Here I copy some of the writing off of the bling I saw during one typical hour on a walkway in Port au Prince. Unless otherwise noted, they were on t-shirts:

- Pineview Cardinals (baseball team)
- Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (a brown cap)
- D.A.R.E. Woodlands Middle School Chapter
- Sexy (this was on a black cap and was decorated with white hearts)
- Bloomington Hockey, #60: Vandeville (this black and white shirt went with the Sexy cap)
- Val-U-Point - HomeRun, #90
- Fallon Community Health Plan (this was a bag)
- Kids Foot Locker (the shirt Foot Locker employees wear)
- Bahama Mama (the restaurant - this was the cap worn by Bahama Mama wait staff)
- NDC Golf Classic 2006
- I ONLY DATE RICH BOYS (bright green shirt, white letters, worn by a 12-year old girl filling her water buckets)
- University of Illinois (varsity shorts)
- Mickey Online
- I <3 Jesus
- Operation H.O.H.: Honoring our Heroes
- Newark Academy Hockey (this was a tie-dye shirt with hockey sticks)

Monday, July 12, 2010

In which I remember that I like my hair

After spending yesterday pondering the theoreticals of race, today I'm remembering of one of the greatest inter-racial encounters that has happened to me so far in Haiti.

I was accompanying an international visitor on a visit to one of the IDP (internally displaced people) camps where we work. He sat down with a dozen women to talk with them and I stood on the outside of the circle listening in on the discussion.

A few minutes in, I felt a light tug on my head. It felt like someone was playing with my hair and hoping I wouldn't notice. I turned around and saw a cute cute cute ten-year-old girl with about six pigtails and big green ribbons tied around each one. That's the typical school get-up for girls here in Port-au-Prince: the ribbons match their school uniform.

She looked up at me, not at all sheepishly after being caught red-handed, and told me admiringly that my hair is so long. If I'd been irritated before that, I couldn't have held onto my wrath. Instead, I smiled, said thank you, then mentioned that my hair used to come all the way down to my waist.

Her eyes grew enormous. "Really? Wow!", she said. Then she added, "But what happened? Did it fall out?"

I told her that no, I had chosen to cut it. After all, it's a lot of work to have a lot of hair.

(For those who don't know: the texture of Black Haitian hair, like that of most African descendants, is such that it breaks and falls out very easily past a certain length; the texture of straight Caucasian hair like mine is such that the more I trim it, the faster and longer it will grow.)

She nodded as if she understood what it's like having long hair like mine, then she asked me if she could cut off a bit of my hair. She held out a little fistful which would have shortened my mane by several inches. I giggled a bit, shrugged, then said, "No."

She shrugged back and ran off to listen in on the grown-up discussion. As did I, although I couldn't help reaching back every few seconds to make sure no girl was holding scissors up to my head.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

icky icky racism

Herein lies a rant, a bit of written processing...

I just hosted the most lovely dinner party. I wish you could plan evenings like these, but that never seems to work. This morning my housemate and I woke up and decided we needed to invite people over for dinner. We thought of ten or so names and gave them a call. Most of them showed up, and it turns out that there was a charming, say, chemistry: funny people who fed off of each other and got even funnier, lots of joking and banter. If only I could figure out a formula for planning such evenings...

The conversation did turn to a more serious note at a few points. One of those points was in response to a mention of racism. On this particular evening, uniquely, all but one of the guests were from the United States. The non-American was Italian. Among the US citizens were an African-American, a Black-American (yes, there was a distinction made) and a Mexican-American. The rest would fall into the vague undefined category of White American. And me - racially I suppose I'm White American, but a sociologist who was raised abroad has a hard time seeing things from any perspective other than from outside.

The Italian innocently asked if the issues regarding race that he'd learned about with regards to the Civil War of the 1860s were still of significance. He got several responses. One of the White Americans suggested it's getting better, to which the Black American essentially accused her - or better, us - of not understanding what it's like to walk in his shoes. It's really tough being Black in America, he said.

That's when I jumped in with my passionate opinions on the matter. In summary, I really really believe the following two things:

- There is good and bad in every issue. Focusing on the good usually yields better results. This is an opinion I developed after a few years being the tiny minority White chic in a Black majority inner city setting. I was certainly not the dominant one, but I was accused of being the dominant one. Even this I could accept. What I couldn't accept was that the sense of victimhood flowed so thickly through those halls and underscored every conversation. I saw people fail because they were too scared to try - this at the very moment that their attempt had the possibility of really really counting for something. If they'd thought about the possibility of succeeding instead of the possibility of failing, they really could have done something amazing. Instead, somehow I felt they blamed me.

- Our Italian friend illustrated this better than I could have, although I'm not sure the other Americans connected with his comment as much as me. Europeans get this better than Americans, I think. It's something I learned living in the Middle East and then in England. There are countless ways to divide people and some of those divisions run deep deep deep. Our Italian friend mentioned the enormous differences between Northern Italians and Southern Italians, something most of us non-Italians would never think of. Then he spoke of how his identity as a Southern Italian with Northern Italian roots (or was it the other way around? Oh-oh.) affected the way he interacted with people from various parts of Africa. And how his understanding of a given culture would be changed forever after he had the experience of truly getting to know a person from that culture. We can play the dividing game forever, but at the end of the day, we're so diverse that each person is different from the next.

Nonetheless, I understand that as a White girl from America, I have lots of opportunity that others don't. I tend to believe this has more to do with being American, and with having parents who stood up and did what they believed in, and who worked hard to earn the right to do it, thus paving the way in the culture of our family for me to do the same. And I think it has less to do with the colour of my skin. Perhaps the struggle wasn't as painful for my family as it is for an African-American family. I accept that. But I do not accept that the opportunities aren't there at all. I have seen the opportunities, and they are colour blind. It's the process of realising those opportunities that is colour-coded. I feel very culturally insensitive saying this, but I strongly believe that it needs to be said so that people will try to access those opportunities.

Our Mexican American friend sat quietly and politely through the conversation. He comes from a part of the country which has historically been quite mixed. But when I've lived in Washington, D.C. or in Baltimore, it seemed the Mexicans or the El Salvadoreans, or other Hispanic communities, were even a rung below the Blacks. I wonder if that's true. There's a lot less literature on race in America with regards to Hispanics. I'd like them to weigh in. What's it like being a Hispanic-American in White America? in Black America?

Is there any way at all to just get along? Besides reminding people of possibilities, is there anything at all I can do to help alleviate this mess that just won't go away?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Defining beauty

I live on a mountain. Behind my building, there's a slight valley before the hills swoop steeply up. The hills are covered with greenery, foliage, flowers, and pathways connecting people's homes. On our property, a vast variety of flora lines the road, fills the median, and decorates the parking area. A planter or a garden fills every available space. Out our bay-sized living room windows the city spreads out below, and the contours of the bay are clear as long as the gusts of rain and clouds don't fuzz the view.

Is this beauty?

Down the hill, in a camp, a woman begs for help. She's been given a list of vaccines she needs to get for her son, each one with a price. She asks us if we can help because her son is sick, and doesn't understand that vaccines are meant to prevent illness, not cure it. So we go with her to her tent where her son lies sleeping. We walk by the latrines, down sandbagged trenches, to a tent built out of blue tarps. She steps in, over a knee-high gate, walks over to a double bed covered with white sheets, and picks her sleeping baby up from the white bed. She brings him out and attempts to straighten his hair as he rubs his eyes and goes to sleep. We decide he's not sick after all, just tired. She hugs her baby and looks up at us and smiles.

Is this beauty?

At an upscale restaurant in the nice part of town, wealthy citizens and NGO workers converge at a bar-restaurant. Their meal is served in dainty quantities in seamlessly artistic designs on white plates that show off the food's colours. The drink beer and wine and joke about the local gossip of the day. Each person arrived in an SUV, each woman's hair is perfectly coffed, and each man's cologne smells expensive. The evening out costs an average of USD$40 per person and the waiters wear tuxedos as they navigate through tropical decor to serve the customers sitting on lush white cushioned seats.

Is this beauty?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

WC update and teardrop

This World Cup has ended in a few surprises and for a while there it was looking like some real underdogs had a shot. But today was a supremely disappointing day, and I don't really want to cheer for anyone anymore.

That being said, a game between Germany (my number one rule being to cheer against Western Europeans) and Argentina (my number two rule being to cheer against Argentina) is due to ensue tomorrow. I think this is just about the only scenario in which I'd actually find myself supporting Argentina.

Today was tragic because, first, Brasil lost. But I comforted myself with the fact that Ghana still had a shot, and my true loyalty in this WC lay with Ghana.

Then Ghana lost - in overtime+ penalty kicks! In other words, they tied with Uruguay but the scale tipped to Uruguay. Argh! Now we're down to Western Europe and some of the usual Latin suspects.

Guess I'll cheer for the Latins, but here I am in a Brazil that's in mourning, and once again I see that the true underdogs, the ones who really really care, don't get a break.

In memorium of the underdog, I here copy the lyrics to Shakira's Official WC2010 song, WakaWaka:

You're a good soldier choosing your battles. Pick yourself up and dust yourself off, and back in the saddle. You're on the frontline, everyone's watching, you know it's serious. We're getting closer. This isn't over. The pressure is on, you feel it. But you've got it all. Believe it

When you fall get... And if you fall get up
Tsamina mina Zangalewa
Cuz this is Africa
Tsamina mina zangalewa Anawa aa
This time for Africa

is our motto, your time to shine. Don't wait in line. Y vamos por Todo. People are raising their expectations. Go on and feed them. This is your moment, no hesitations. Today's your day, I feel it. You paved the way: believe it. If you get down, Get up Oh oh... When you get down, Get up eh eh...

Tsamina mina zangalewa Anawa aa
This time for Africa