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Archive for January, 2011

Pinotage

I usually don’t like to post twice in one day, but this was just too good not to share.  I got an email from my friend Elizabeth today with a link to a new website called “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like”.  Always interested in a good laugh, I clicked on the link and found that the most recent post has pretty much nailed me (and some of our close friends here) right on the head.  What do Expat Aid workers like today?  Motorcycles!:

Expat Aid Workers love motorcycles.*

Riding motorcycles underscores an Expat Aid Worker’s “freedom” and simultaneous (not to mention ironic) “connectedness” to the local geography and people.  Nothing says “I am in solidarity with the attainable aspirations of the poor majority” quite like weaving through traffic on a Honda Dream II or Soviet-era Minsk.  At the same time, an Expat Aid Worker astride a motorcycle declares both a risk-embracing approach to life and sexual availability to potential partners (expat and locals.)

While I may not be sexually available, this is spot on for about a trillion reasons, first and foremost because I JUST wrote the post about how “when Duvalier moves, the only way to keep up is by motorcycle.” (It’s just below, or here)  There is no doubt that this is about the funniest thing I have read in a long time, but it’s kind of weird how at the same time I feel slightly embarrassed.  I have definitely told multiple people that one of the reasons why having a motorcycle is awesome here is because the people seem to connect with you better.  There’s also this gem:

A motorcycle can also help distinguish Expat Aid Workers from non-EAWs (normally foreign extractive industry professionals, diplomats, or private security contractors) who exclusively rely on white SUVs (preferably Landcruisers) for transportation.

I SAY THAT TOO!!!  “Riding a motorcycle keeps you from being in the box that the big SUVs put you in,” I tell passengers on Pinotage who have no option but to listen to me talk, “Driving a motorcycle allows you to connect with your surroundings.”

So there, now that I’ve been pegged I don’t know what to do, as I’m about to jump on the moto to pick up Jillian, but will now be incredibly self-conscious when driving by, well, practically anyone.  But it’s cool, my whole life here can’t be a cliche, right?  I just hope they don’t write one about having dogs and cats….oh wait, they already did.

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OLIE!

On May 27, 2010 a small chocolate lab puppy was smuggled into Haiti and given to Jillian and I, thus starting the year of the Brown Dog.  The year was a tumultuous one, marked by an accidental poisoning, a mouth-stick injury, and ending with a nasty case of hook worm.  But the year did not end in vain.  The Brown Dog, better known as Olie, took a voyage to a distance land known as Connecticut.  There he found land to run and play, but was forced to battle a vicious adversary, aptly named Jack “Attack”, in an effort to allow him to call the land his home.

Olie-Jack-Battle

The battle lasted for days, with only brief breaks for naps, or a bowl of kibble.  Day and night the two fought, defending their ground like the Hatfields and McCoys.  Only when the sun set would they rest (with one eye open, of course), but when the day broke, the fighting began again.  Even when the winter weather brought inches of snow, the two did not tire, and the battle continued into the cold winter tundra…

Jack

Perfect-Olie-Specimen

Olie-and-Jack

Tug-of-war

Snow-Wipeout

But in the end battle fatigue set in and the war ended.  The two shook paws and accepted the terms set forth by the Geneva convention: a war with no purpose cannot last forever.  They trotted indoors and for the first time were able to rest with both eyes closed, and the townspeople were able to walk the streets without having to constantly listen for the rumbling of puppy paws in the distance.

Olie-Head

Snoozin-Jack

But while one war was ending in Connecticut, another was brewing back in Haiti.  Having waited long enough in the pregnant tummy of Beatrice for 8 weeks, a turd sized ball of fur exploded into the world set on leaving a path of death and destruction in its wake.  The turd was named Bumble Bea…

2Bumble-Bea-at-the-Door

When we returned to Haiti after the Christmas break, there were rumors on the street that such a vicious creature had entered the world.  In a country rife with political turmoil and ex-dictators, the last thing Haiti needed was a ruthless animal trolling the streets in search of tiny children to prey on.  Unfortunately the rumors were true, and on the eve of the country’s independence day, the creature was carried by its mother into our house and placed into an empty cardboard box in our closet.  The country was independent no more…

Under-the-Covers

Little-Bumble-Bee

The reign of terror began immediately, with a shrill meow that seemed to penetrate the deepest caverns of your ears at the most inopportune times.  The cries began early in the morning, and ended never, leaving those within a 5 mile radius with nothing but groggy days, and sleepless nights.  And once the creature gained enough strength to escape the cardboard box that was imprisoning it, we knew the end was near.

Bumble-Bee

Soon the creature began recklessly running around the house, and attacking enemies that weren’t there.  “She was soooo cute!”, explained Jillian after being released from the hospital where they had attended to her kitten-attack wounds, “Who would have ever thought she could be so vicious?”  Someone had to reign the kitten in, someone had to step-up and take on the beast.  It was a call heard around the world, and Beatrice decided to answer it.

Chowing-Down

For Beatrice the decision was easy.  Bumble Bea had been eating her food, and the constant nursing was leaving her worn down and unable to kill the dozens of geckos that she is required to kill and then dump on the floor in our house (in an effort to meet a self-imposed quota).  The kitten had also begun running away in the middle of the night, hiding from Beatrice and leaving an already hungry mother, terrified.  This had to stop, this had gone too far…

Bumble-Bea-and-Bea-Fighting-2

Bumble-Bea-and-Bea-Fighting

Bumble-Bea-and-Bea-Fighting-3

While it appeared that Beatrice had Bumble Bea pinned and defeated, the kitten quickly twisted away, bat Beatrice in the face, and then ran away.  Bumble Bea had won the battle, but not the war…

The two began fighting at almost every chance they got.  Ruthlessly wrestling each other the ground, the two made Wrestle Mania look like an episode of Winnie the Pooh.  But eventually they also realized the harsh realities of war, and much like the computer in the 1983 techno thriller “War Games”, they looked at all the possible outcomes of the war continuing, and found that in every scenario everyone would fall victim if the fighting did not end.  Thus, they walked inside, shared a plate of Fancy Feast, and then fell asleep, snuggling like a pair who had just found love.

Snoozin

For us, the entrance of Bumble Bea has made the fact that Olie is back in the States much easier to handle.  We brought Olie to Connecticut during Christmas break because of a number of factors, and left him there to frolic with Jack and Jillian’s parents (wow, Jack and Jill, I just realized that…) until we figure out our next move.  When we came back to Haiti there was a kitten waiting there for us, and we have (inconveniently) become rather attached to it.  But because our landlady’s 4 year-old daughter experienced the kitten being born, she wants it, so we will be handing Bumble Bea to her rightful owner later today.

It’s amazing how an animal like Olie or Bumble Bea can have such a positive impact on your life.  The two have given us solace on hard days, and have always been a welcoming friend to come home to.  For me, I’m just worried that I will no longer have anything cute to take pictures of any more, and I know for Jillian, not having Olie around has really dealt her a blow.  But one of these days we will be reunited with our beloved Oloffson, and Bumble Bea will fall in love with her new owner (a 4 year-old who will manhandle her and change her name every week according to how she’s feeling), and the world will go on.  It’s just a bummer that, for now, the wars won’t be fought at home, with us.

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frankthorp

When Duvalier moves, the only way to keep up is by motorcycle.  That’s why our trusty chariot, Pinotage, has been working overtime to make sure that we get the best images to cover the story.  The photo above was taken by photographer Andrés Martínez Casares while we were traveling with Duvalier’s motorcade from the courthouse back to the hotel where he was staying. That’s Duvalier’s car right behind my head, and what you can’t see is that there are about 25 motorcycles all weaving in and out of the motorcade taking pictures and shooting video.  What you can see in the photo is some perfect motorcycle-driving-form, and the use of the proper safety equipment.  Bottom line, the photo is awesome.

You can see more of Andres’ work at his website here: www.martinezcasares.com

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In a dimly lit room at a guest house in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, the press anxiously awaited something that had been promised to them every day over the past week, but never delivered.  Since Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had mysteriously returned to Haiti on an Air France flight on the evening of January 16th he had not spoken to the press, not even uttering a word to any of the hundreds of journalist covering his homecoming.

Behind a over-sized wooden table in the dimly lit room stood a short older Haitian man in an olive colored suit, his hands on back of a large wooden chair embroidered with red fabric.  He looked down nervously as dozens of cameramen and photographers jockeyed for position in anticipation of what was to come.  The man in the olive suit looked to the side, saw someone approaching, pulled back the chair, and then stepped away.  From a hallway attached to the room walked Duvalier, he sat down on the chair and a paper statement was dropped in front of him.  This was it, this is what we were waiting for…

Duvalier Speaks

“Dear friends of the press,” he read in French as flash bulbs filled the room with light, “Thank you for having responded to my invitation today.  I take this opportunity to speak to my fellow citizens.”  His voice seemed strained, like he had a mouth full of cotton balls, but his delivery was better than expected.  Since returning to Haiti, he seemed to be unaware of his surroundings, and some even thought he had the look of someone with Parkinson’s, but when he began talking it made it appear that it was all an act.

The question on everyone’s mind since the bizarre return of the exiled dictator was why he had returned.  In his statement he inadequately answered that question: “I wanted to pay homage to the victims of the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010,” he explained while reading from his paper statement, “which caused, according to official estimates, the death of 316,000 people. Unfortunately, I did not arrive in time for the anniversary.”

Duvalier Fist Bump

For the past week Haitians, journalists and the international community has been speculating as to what the real intentions of this unexpected homecoming was.  This speculation was broken down into five educated guesses:

1) He missed Haiti, and wanting to see his buddies (according to his lawyers)
2) He was sick, and wanted to die in his mother-land (rumors were flying that he had pancreatic cancer)
3) He had returned to help Haiti, even though it was completely unclear how he would actually do that…
4) He wanted to be President again (but because he was named President-for-life before, technically he never stopped being President, right?)
5) He was broke, and he needed money…

In the end it turned out that number five, that he needed money, was the most likely reason.  Duvalier has returned to Haiti in an effort to unlock six million dollars in frozen funds in a Swiss bank account.  According to a new law in Switzerland, if he returns to Haiti without being prosecuted for crimes related to the money, his chances of getting it back into his own pockets becomes much better.

In addition, reports have said that he has until the end of January to do so, making this trip more strategic then heartfelt.  While I’m sure Duvalier would love to help this struggling nation get back on its feet after the earthquake, I’m not exactly sure how him getting that money, instead of returning it to the people who he stole it from, actually helps anyone other than himself.

Duvalier at Court

But Duvalier had a snag in his plan, and was asked to come to the Parquet (or courthouse) to be questioned.  There a judge opened an investigation into charges that he embezzled funds, took part in corruption, and other dastardly things before being released while the investigation continues.  In Haiti, charges are proposed and then investigated by a judge who decides whether those charges should be brought to court.  That investigation could take up to three months, after which a proper trial would begin.

The problem is that the statute of limitations in Haiti is between 10 and 20 years, and because he’s been gone for 25, it may be impossible to hold him accountable for many of the crimes he committed during his dictatorship.  Amnesty International thinks differently.  “There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity,” explained Gerardo Ducos at a news conference on Friday, “Duvalier needs to be held accountable for his crimes now so that others don’t think they can get away with this in the future.”  He’s right, but unfortunately for him there appears to be a major disconnect between how the Haitian people perceive Duvalier’s return, and how the international community perceives it.

Amnesty-International

“I think it’s a great thing,” explained one resident of the Petionville golf course tent camp speaking about the former-dictator’s return to Haiti, “When he was here there were jobs, the streets were clean, and there was no crime.  The country was good back then.”   And while there is no doubt that Duvalier was a tyrannical leader, killing anyone who objected to his way of ruling, the people here see those times as better than it is now.  “Preval has ruined this country,” he explained, “we should have Duvalier as our president now, he could bring change.”

And this message is echoed throughout the city.  Even our landlady, whose father was killed by the Duvalier regime, considers his return as insignificant.  “It’s just a distraction,” she explained, “We have so many other bigger problems to deal with, why would he come now and make things complicated?”  And she’s right.  The reality is that this story has distracted the country, and the world, from the more pressing issues that this country is facing right now.

Two weeks ago the Organizations of American States (OAS) concluded a review of the presidential election results saying that the Preval-backed candidate, Jude Celestin, should be excluded from the second-round run-off, and that Michel Martelly should be inserted in his place.  Since that announcement, Preval has come out and said that the review is just a suggestion, and it doesn’t need to be followed, and now the country is still waiting for the Provisional Electoral Committee (CEP) to announce who will actually be going on to the next round.  According to the UN, the final election results will be announced on January 31st, and Martelly said in a new conference on Friday that if the CEP doesn’t go with the OAS’s recommendation, then his people will be back on the streets fighting for their vote. (We all remember how awesome that was…)

Michel-Martelly

All of this coupled with the United States ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, coming out and saying that if the OAS review is not implemented then both US funding, and possibly funding from the UN, for future aid projects could be withdrawn means that this country is on the verge of another collapse.  Add the ongoing cholera epidemic and the continuous need to help those left homeless from the earthquake, and this whole Duvalier thing seems more and more ridiculous.

So after 6 minutes of talking, Duvalier finished his statement, stood up, and walked away.  The moment we had been waiting for had come, and was now gone.  As he finished his statement, about two dozen Haitians erupted in applause behind us, having snuck in while we were focused on the former dictator’s first speech in Haiti in over 25 years.  Later they told reporters that they had been paid to show up and show their support for Duvalier, and that his people had let them in so they could cheer for the cameras.

Duvalier at Hotel

What this whole debacle has taught me is to keep my logic at the door when operating in Haiti, as nothing seems to make sense in any way that you would typically expect it to.  If you would have told me two weeks ago that Duvalier would be here now, I would have laughed and called you an idiot (in a nice way…of course).  If you would have told me that Preval would shrug off a review of the election results (that he asked to be conducted, BTW) and said they were simply a suggestion, I would have scoffed and said that would be stupid.  But now I’m forced to prepare for the illogical in a place that could really use some logic.  Now there are rumors that Aristide may return, which seems TOTALLY ridiculous, but now, not so unbelievable.  God forbid there was some structure here, god forbid there was some order.

According to Duvalier’s people, he will be staying in Haiti until the investigation into his past offenses are complete.  “Everything that has a beginning,” explained one of his advisers, “must have an end.”  But for Haiti, this is just another speed-bump on the road to recovery, and a soap-opera that is diverting the world’s attention when it’s needed elsewhere.  Hopefully the “end” will come sooner rather than later, so that we can focus on what’s important, and not on what’s not.  Holding Duvalier accountable for his crimes is a necessary step, but it shouldn’t take precedent to the recover effort, because the past is the past, and the future here is grim.

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After almost 25 years of living in exile in France, former Haitian Dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier returned to Haiti today on an Air France flight that must have forgotten to check for IDs.  Ousted from power in 1986, Duvalier was notorious for ruling Haiti with terror and violence, torturing and killing political opponents with gangs known as the Tonton Macoute.

We were watching the Patriots-Jets game debacle at the hotel La Reserve when press started flocking the restaurant, as rumors were swirling that he would be making a stop there.  Not really sure what he looked like, every time an older Haitian man walked into the lobby everyone looked at each other and enthusiastically asked, “Is that him?! Go take a picture!!!”  Bottom line, he never showed, and we went home.

No one is really sure why he decided to do a reunion tour of Haiti at this particular moment, and there are rumors that he may hold a press conference tomorrow to flesh out the details.  I mean, with the earthquake, cholera, and a fraudulent election creating a political vacuum in Haiti, why not come back now?  The AP article that’s linked below did make a good point though: with over half of the population in Haiti under the age of 21, most of the people here weren’t even alive when Baby Doc was killing his opponents and ruling the country with terror.  Now, if we could only get Aristide back here too, then we could have a party.

Interested in reading more?  Click here.

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Woman-grieving-on-the-bars

Where were you on 9/11?  Or when you got your first kiss?  These are defining moments in a person’s life, moments where you cross over from one state of being to another.  On 9/11, we went from a state of peace to a country at war.  When you got your first kiss you went from being an awkward youth to someone who had broken the seal to maturity (or so you thought at the time).

On January 12, 2010, Haiti went from a struggling country with a shaky foundation to one that lost almost everything.  A day that no one will ever forget, Haitians lost an estimated 300,000 sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers and children.  To put this in perspective, imagine going to Arlington National Cemetery, and instead of having soldiers buried there, you had the victims of the earthquake.  More people died in one day on January 12th in Haiti, than all the people buried in the 624 acres of Arlington Cemetery over the past 150 years.  Imagine 624 acres, filled with 300,000 headstones, all with the same date on them.  It’s staggering.

Greiving-on-the-Grave

But what many Haitians are left with is no such ability to honor their loved ones.  Throughout the city you saw piles of rubble that a year before were houses or business, but are now donned with flower arrangements and pictures in an effort to honor those who are still entombed inside.  These are their final resting places, these are the tombs of the unknown victims.

MTPTC-RED

For most of the international community, the one year anniversary was used as a barometer for what has, or has not, been accomplished by the government and aid agencies to help the victims of the quake.  Only 30,000 transitional shelters have been completed, only 10 percent of the rubble has been removed, over 800,000 people are still living in tents.  These are all outrageous, and worth discussing, but when the day came, Haitians could care less about where they were getting their water, or where they were going to sleep, they just wanted their loved ones back.

Man-Crying

Woman-kneeling-on-the-ground

Man-Praying-CU

So on the day of the anniversary, most people weren’t screaming about their situation.  You didn’t see them taking to the streets to complain about how the recovery here can only be described as stagnant, you saw them flooding the churches and praying, you saw them taking the day to reflect.

But for many, and me included, while the actual day of the earthquake marked a life-changing moment, the days following the earthquake are at times worse.  For the past 72 hours, I have been looking at my watch and thinking about where Jillian and I were at that exact moment one year ago.  And while 4:53pm was when the earthquake hit, the hours following it were so much more poignant than the actual event itself.  At 8:53pm I looked at my watch, Jillian was still buried in the rubble of our house, I was on my way to PAP.  The next day, 6:15pm, we were boarding an evacuation flight on our way to spend the night in a hospital in Santo Domingo.  At the moment that I’m writing this we were on a plane flying to Miami, eventually on our way to DC.

For us the earthquake was a defining moment in many ways.  In the past year it seems that the quake has somehow added 10 years onto our marriage, and will eventually subtract 10 years from our lives.  We have had to tackle so many issues that made it seem like we were taking AP Calculus while in the 3rd grade.  I don’t know how to work out these problems, and by the time you eek out the answer to question number 1, questions 2-15 are already waiting to be answered.  Maybe no one knows the answers right away, and no matter how wise you are they are always going to be hard, but in the midst of a recovery it just seems so overwhelming to think that you are on the verge of failure.

But most of all, this year has left me with an anger that I want to shake off sooo badly.  I get angry at the NGOs for not doing enough, I get angry at the government for being so inept, I get angry at the people for not picking themselves up by their bootstraps and fighting for themselves.  But most of all, I get angry with myself for not being able to control the anger.   I used to have compassion, I used to have patience, and it all has seemed to melt away since the quake.  I want to be back to normal, I want to not be on edge, I want to be confident, I want to feel good about myself.

At 4:53pm on January 12th, I was in a church to cover the minute of silence that was scheduled to be observed throughout the country.  The minute came, and the church erupted with cries and wails, tears streaming down almost everyone’s faces.  I held my breath, just waiting for the ground to start shaking again, let out a sign of relief, and then looked around me.  A woman was crying, holding the passport of her sister who had passed away a year before.  Another woman held a picture of three people who had died in the earthquake, another collapsed on the ground, wailing uncontrollably.  The priest asked that everyone stay silent, but it was no use, Haitians don’t mourn in silence.

Moment-of-Silence

And while we were walking out I suddenly became overcome with a sense of complete and utter compassion.  All of these people were mourning their loved ones, at this moment last year every single one of these people’s lives had been torn to shreds.  No one was to blame, there was no one to be angry with, it was just a situation where everyone here was an innocent victim, and they needed that moment to mourn.   In my new angry, cynical mind I searched for a reason not to care, for a way to step back and not have compassion, but found myself overcome with grief, and I began to cry.  The last time I cried was when I was home after the earthquake, it’s been that long, and it was an amazing feeling.

We left the church and met up with Jillian, who was at a memorial service at the Hotel Montana.  It was just so wonderful to be able to hug her and have her there, and not have that day be the anniversary of her death as well.  We are the lucky ones.  January 12th at 4:53pm will forever be one of those moments where we look back and think about how our lives changed, how we entered a new phase, and how we became who we are today.

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Haiti-Pap-Peri-2

The vanishing of a scar is what most would consider a positive end result from a healed wound. The complete disappearance of an unappealing mark that most often represents a negative experience is what people use Neosporin and other ointments to accomplish. As the 1 year commemoration of the January 12th earthquake in Haiti dawns, I have been reflecting on the status of my scars.

The external scars on my back, right foot, and lower right leg are still there, but are much lighter. They no longer properly represent the experience that put them there, and while I thought this would bring me comfort, having no outer blemish, I find myself anxious over their decreasing presence. How do I tell the story to new people without being able to point to something? This ultimately leaves me exactly where I do not want to be. No longer able to deflect questions of my experience with a quick flash of my shin, all that is left is the way more harrowing emotional scars that I rarely discuss.

In a country so full of undesired blotches, tent camps, piles of rubble, and collapsed buildings that seem to serve more as catalyst for the blame game than a continued call to action, I have taken solace in the constant reminders of the disaster. I am in no way suggesting that I want these things to remain, but rather acknowledging that dealing with the tangible is more straightforward. While these feelings might/are odd, when discussing the earthquake with Haitians I find them responding similarly. In talking with World Concern beneficiaries over the last week in preparation for the 1-year-later update, the answers to questions like “how did you feel?”, “describe your greatest frustration”, “what are your greatest needs?”, were physical. Beneficiaries, regardless of their earthquake experience, pointed to cracks in the walls, rubble piles, or items stored in tents, but no lingering sadness, grief, or anger were mentioned.

During an interview with a Quartier (neighborhood) Committee member, Pascal Jeune, who helps World Concern implement our projects in Nazon, the avoidance of anything below the surface was obvious. The 27 year-old father of one who brought his son home the afternoon of the earthquake to friends and family, of whom 13 of would die when his house would collapse hours later, is still clearly as uncomfortable as I am when asked about his feelings. Naturally, when I interviewed him, the death of 13 of his relatives was discussed and the only response I could get from him is that “their absence makes me the head of my household and that makes things very difficult for me.” I tried to continue the conversation after the formal interview was over, but his serious face and welling eyes proved to me that his emotions about the 12th are just as raw as mine.

Now, I realize that having 6 foreigners standing around with video equipment does not create a relaxing environment where one might feel secure enough to open up, but I believe it is more than that. I have been asked about my experience by strangers, friends, and family members and my reaction is always the same. Look at the ground, take a deep breath, think of something light-hearted to say…and then point to the scar.

In rare moments of complete security, usually shared with Frank, I might reveal more. The helplessness, fear, and pain of facing losing everything I loved remains. The constant inundation of images from the earthquake, while I reminder I am not alone, makes my increasing sensitivity to those suffering painfully acute. And in the deepest of places, where I rarely want to go myself, I face the fleeting moments of horrific doubt that I am still under that house and that I never made it out, that this is all a dream. So much for scars fading…

The certainty of life is things move forward whether you are ready or not. While I can so easily transport myself back to that potential coffin of rubble and the emotions that go along with that reality, a year has passed and my exterior marks are fading. I know that my scars on the outside do not have to mirror those on the inside, but their slow departure feels like pressure to move on and I am not ready. So what to do?

I guess the first thing is to be thankful for the support and love I have received and continue to receive. For all of you, who stopped your lives for my and Frank’s recovery, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I would not be where I am today without you. Another thing is to realize how lucky I am that my scars are healed and fading while the physical destruction as a result of the earthquake is still the most prominent thing you see as you travel throughout Port-au-Prince. Lastly, is to accept that one year has past and that my recovery and reconstruction has the same status as the Haitian people’s, incomplete.

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