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Archive for September, 2010

Open-Wide

SETTING: While sitting outside on the porch, Olie interrupts what was a nice, relaxing afternoon.

OLIE: Dude!  Check out how wide I can open my mouth!!!
ME (unimpressed): Wow…way to go buddy…
OLIE: But seriously! It’s crazy!!!  And look how long my tongue is! How long is your tongue?!
ME: Woah, you do have a HUGE tongue.  Mine is not as big as that…
OLIE: I know, right?!  Your tongue sucks!
ME: Dude, why do you have to say things like that?
OLIE: Because I’m a puppy!  Have you seen how long my tail is…..

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Girl-looking-at-Destroyed-Tent

On Friday afternoon I was drinking a coke while lounging around the UN Logistics Base restaurant, discussing an interview with the UN’s spokeswoman I was going to shoot for the International Federation of the Red Cross.  In the background was CNN reporting on how terrible the republicans are for not voting for some bill, and above us were oscillating fans spraying cool water mist down on the patrons drinking espressos and eating the daily lunch specials (on Friday it was grilled lobster).

The sky above us was clear and blue when we arrived, but 15 minutes later the clouds rolled in, the winds picked up, and the rain started flying horizontally through the open air restaurant.  I looked at the UN spokeswoman, and she said to me, “This is not good…we had been so lucky until this point.”  And she was right, until now the rainy season had failed to bring a strong enough storm to cause any widespread damage, and every tropical storm that had evolved into a hurricane has turned away from the island of Hispaniola, almost as if they had sympathy for what Haiti has been through and decided to go pummel Bermuda instead.

Billboard-Down

But while the strong winds and heavy rain lasted only 30 minutes, the damage was already done, and the team from the Red Cross and I ran through the rain and jumped into the car.  We drove out of the UN Log Base and past the airport, avoiding huge billboards that had toppled into the streets.  That morning I had debated whether to bring my rain gear for my camera, and decided against it, so I asked the driver to stop while I ran over to some street vendors who had hunkered down to protect their cooking supplies from the storm.  I bargained down the cost of a plastic bag from 100 goudes to free, wrapped my camera in it, and we started taking video of the aftermath.

But rather than writing out what happen over the next 24 hours, I’ll just show you this video that I put together for the Red Cross about their response:

For those of you wondering what it is that I actually do here in Haiti (other than take pictures of Olie and write in this blog), that video above sums it up pretty well.  I shot the video, wrote the script (with Red Cross staff), and then voiced it over and edited it together.

The other thing I did that night was a phone interview with The Weather Channel.  They asked two questions. The first was a status update about the damage, and the second was one that I wasn’t expecting (but probably should have been…): “So what did the clouds look like during the storm?” the anchor asked curiously, “Did they come in from the North?  The West?”  OMG…I personally could not care less what the clouds looked like, or from what direction they came from, so this question totally threw me off.  “Ummm, the clouds came from the South (this turned out to be an incredibly lucky guess), and they came suddenly,” I responded, with my authoritative broadcast voice, “The storm came in quickly and left quickly as well. At one moment the skies were clear, and minutes later the winds picked up violently and dark clouds had rolled in.”

Destroyed-Tents-2

But the next day while the Red Cross assessed the tent camps that they oversee, you started to realize that most of the damage to the tents and tarps was not because of the storm at all, but simply from the wear and tear of months of sitting out in the hot Haitian sun.  The camp managers would explain that more than half of the tents and tarps needed to be replaced, which was completely true, but because it was not a result of the storm practically none of them would actually be replaced after the assessments.  The storm just acted as a way to remind us that life in the tent camps is miserable, hot, and borderline unbearable, but now you were just adding ‘soaking wet’ into the list of adjectives to describe these places.

Wailing-Woman

The night of the storm we went out with a team and quickly were surrounded by a group of several hundred people chanting, “We don’t need you, we need a house!”  They were angry, and I totally understand their frustration.  The camp grounds are now almost completely covered in mud, and a musty mildew smell waifs throughout the tents and tarps that will now take days (if not weeks) to dry. We went back to the same tent camp the next day to shoot video of what was going to be a distribution, but things went badly and we were forced to leave.

Because the Red Cross was choosing to provide aid to those who had lost everything, the people who hadn’t lost everything, but who had structures that still suck, started to get upset because they weren’t getting help too.  While walking back to the distribution point a group of men approached us with angry eyes and asked, in Kreyol, why they hadn’t gotten bracelets (you didn’t get aid if you didn’t have one).  I explained I didn’t have bracelets, so he jabbed me in the arm with his elbow, got up close, and yelled something in Kreyol that I didn’t understand.  I yelled back, “WOAH!” and then we started to move a little faster towards the cars.  They stopped and threw daggers at us with their angry gazes, while one of them yelled “I kill you! I kill you!”  So we left.  The next day the Red Cross spoke with the local camp managers and negotiated security so that the distribution could be carried out.

Child-with-Destroyed-Tent

In the end the storm had killed 6 people and destroyed nearly 15,000 family’s tents and tarps, and considering it only lasted 30 minutes it’s scary to think what a hurricane could do to this place.  They still have 1.3 million people living in tent cities, and if a storm produces sustained heavy winds, like what we experienced during this storm, for a day or more, this place is going to fall apart.  And while the storm has reminded the NGOs and others that the camps are still miserable, it’s just one more nudge to push the people actually living there closer to the edge.  Nothing has changed for so many of them, and a storm like this reminds everyone just how vulnerable they are.

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Pakistan-Needs-Help

While riding around the city today on our trusty steed, Pinotage, I started snapping photos of some of the recent work that local graffiti artist, Jerry has been doing.  I mentioned him before after I interviewed him for a yet-to-be completed video project on the work he’s done after the earthquake, and his work just gets better and better.  I plan on writing a full post about him soon, but I thought I would share this photo because it seemed so different from the rest.

As you remember, there was a huge flood in Pakistan earlier this month which left millions of people homeless and stranded, creating a humanitarian crisis that many were saying was larger than the one here.  One of the problems they were facing was a terrible case of donor fatigue because people had already given so much money to help Haiti after the earthquake that they didn’t feel obligated to also send their cash to Pakistan.

Well, Jerry is clearly a very clued-in individual, and deviated from his usual “Haiti Needs Help” mantra to help everyone remember that other people need help as well.  It was kind of shocking (in a good way), and it made me realize that it’s so easy, when you’re living here, to forget that this sometimes isn’t the worst place in the world.  There are people struggling other than Haitians, and if the local graffiti artist doesn’t forget that, then neither should we.

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Rubble-Car-Revived
*Car may have been crushed in the earthquake…

If you’re looking to buy a car in Haiti and need a beautiful new (looking) SUV, then look no further!!!  Above is Jillian’s old co-worker, Dom, and his Mitsubishi Montero, which he was given recently by Jillian’s old organization because it had been damaged in the earthquake.  The car looks great, as he’s made some major improvements that make it look nothing like what it looked like before.  He’s debating on selling the car to make some money, considering all NGOs in Haiti want to do is buy more and more huge SUVs to stamp their logos on.  But, let me tell you, buying a used car in Haiti is shady business.

Jillian and I earnestly attempted to buy a car here for about 2 months before throwing up our hands and surrendering to the motorcycle that we already had.  Every car that we test drove either felt like you were constantly driving over dead bodies, or was given terrible terrible reviews by the mechanic we would check them with.  “You’re going to need new gaskets…and probably a new radiator,” he explained of one car, “So if you do that and fix the wheel alignment and the brakes this car is perfect!”  HUH?!  No car is perfect if that much work has to be done on it!  After about half a dozen of these we gave up.

But you often wonder where they are getting these cars, and why it appears they decided to sell a car that drives like they’ve been commuting to Miami every day…underwater.  We would try to find cars that had come directly off the boat from the States so that we wouldn’t have to deal with cars that had been ruined by driving on the terrible roads in Haiti.  And it’s possible, but they’re hard to find.  When used car salesmen in the U.S. have a car that they can’t find a buyer for, or that is just illegal to drive because of its poor condition, they ship them off to countries like Haiti where there are no emissions laws and the standards are low.

But sometimes you find a gem like Dom’s car, and you just want to snatch it up right away.  The only thing is, it used to look like this…

Car under Rubble

I took this screen grab from the video I took of the house Jillian and I were living in before the earthquake.  That’s right, it’s the same exact car, just fixed up a bit.  The keys were in a safe that had shot out of the house when it collapsed, and once the staff got around to breaking off the concrete roof above it, they drove it home.  Yes, the car still drove.

So when Dom drove it to our house recently when we had him over for dinner, it was kind of like seeing a ghost.  Of all the things that had been lost in that house, this car was probably one of the last things that I expected to be recovered.  Yet here it was, in pretty much new condition, the only sign that it had been completely flattened in the earthquake was a scratch on the door handle.

So let this be a lesson to all of you buying used cars…get a Carfax on that junker ASAP.  And while I’m pretty sure that the tiny mishap that you see above probably wont show up on a Carfax, I’m hoping that the buyer of this car knows full well what they are getting themselves into.  “Has the car ever been in an accident?” you ask?  Well, no, it hasn’t.  The earthquake was no accident at all, it was just God’s way of testing all those people whose cars were crushed to see if they’ll be honest to the people who want to buy them.  Tell the truth and you go to heaven, forget to mention that the car was practically totaled in the quake and you’ll be a used car salesman in “the other place” for the rest of eternity.  The decision is yours…

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Giant-Exterior

As if Haiti needs another way to flaunt the economic disparity amongst foreign NGO workers and the people they are trying to help, a rich Haitian family has decided to open what is now the Cadillac of grocery stores smack dab in the middle of Petionville.  Just blocks away from not one, but two tent cities, the behemoth of a building aptly lives up to it’s name: “Giant.”

Meats

Produce

You walk inside and enter another world, one that’s filled with happiness and overconsumption.  It’s almost like when you walk in the doors you leave Haiti and enter Whole Foods in America, in which every item is priced 10 times higher than you would buy the same items on the street (if they are even available on the street).  The men stationed at the cold-cuts counter wear chef hats, the produce section is laid out like a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits that they decided to import from other countries, instead of buying locally, of course.

But the real reason this grocery store stands out from the rest is the sheer amount of choices.  In most grocery stores here you can usually get what you need, minus the hundreds of options we are allowed in the States.  While Jillian and I could not find refried beans for about 6 months here, everything else is cyclical, almost like every grocery store here lines up at the same shipping container every month and all of a sudden they all have Ginger Ale for a week or two.  But at this place they always have ginger ale…in about 15 different varieties.

Cereal

Chips

Soda

But you walk around with your little European style shopping trolley/basket and fill it with items that cost more than Haitians make in a day removing rubble.  “Oh!  Some brie!  That would be delicious with some brown sugar and walnuts!”  You pick it up, throw it in your cart, and bury your intense feelings of guilt knowing that the local population usually only enters this store to buy one item they urgently need because they don’t have time to locate it in the sprawling street market just blocks away.  At another grocery store I was approached by a man in the milk section: “Will you help me buy formula for my baby?” he asked.  “I’m sorry,” I awkwardly said and then walked away to go pick up pre-shredded cheese for Mexican night…bury, bury, bury.

Devon-Shocked

I went with Jillian and my’s friend, Devon, who was visiting the city from the country-side town of Jeremie, and she almost couldn’t handle the choices.  She walked through the store like a kid in a candy shop, realizing that if they had 75 different kinds of cereal, that was 74 more than the store has where she lives.  She couldn’t believe her options, and decided to shop simply to stock up on cookies and other things that don’t reach the rural outskirts of Haiti.

But as you walk through the isles you notice something, or the lack of it.  Where are the toiletries?  Where are the cleaning supplies?  Where is everything that is not edible?  Well, that’s easy, you see.  You simply take the ELEVATOR to the next floor!!!

Elevator
(Yes, that is Devon getting excited to go up the elevator…)

Now, I haven’t been in Haiti for long, but I know for sure that this is only the second elevator that I’ve EVER been on while living here (the other is in the US embassy).  This place has two, one to bring you to the second floor, and the other to bring you to the parking lot underneath the building.  (Judging by the recent history of this country I will not be parking our trusty chariot, Pinotage, in the garage downstairs…)

But you go to the second floor, and it’s just like the first, but with every non-edible item you would ever need.  You walk down the isles wondering if you are in a dream, until you turn the corner and see it…they have a wine shop!  As if they needed to add to the incredible ridiculousness of this place, they have dedicated an entire area just to wine and liquor.  It was here that I saw an employee bring a customer what appeared to be a piping-hot espresso…in a silver cup…on a silver tray…in a grocery store…in Haiti.  I could not make this stuff up.

Level-Two

Wine

So like a Nickelodean Toy’s R Us Shopping Spree, Devon and I barreled through the isles as fast as we could, grabbing what we could hold, and sprinted to the counter, hoping that we weren’t just going to wake up.  We checked out to bills that were far too expensive considering the country-context, and left feeling slightly overwhelmed.

And while getting excited about a grocery store may not make sense to many of you readers in the States, for those of you in Haiti, you will totally understand.  Like I said before, there are a handful of grocery stores here already that have the items that we’re used to eating, so it’s not like we were struggling before.  But this place makes all the rest of the grocery stores look like amateur-hour, and it could probably fit all the other grocery stores in it’s two stories of awesomeness.

But it’s funny, because when Jillian and I go to the States to visit it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choices and the excessiveness that is the
capitalistic U.S. of A.  After living in Haiti, that lifestyle is hard to swallow, but because everything there is like that it’s easier to accept.  But here, this store, with it’s choices and it’s sheer humongousness, seems so out of place in a country that is inundated with poverty.  It’s almost a good lesson to make you realize how ridiculous that lifestyle is, without the ability to write it off because everyone lives that way.  You cannot avoid the tent cities on either side of this place, so no matter where you’re going after you just dropped 50 bucks on fun sauces and cheese, you are forced to remember how bad it is for the people that can’t afford to shop at a place like that.

Starbucks-Ice-Cream

Now I’m not saying that I won’t be returning to Giant, in fact I’ve been there again since I went with Devon, but I don’t think that the guilt will be going away anytime soon.  It impossible not to feel bad buying such expensive food when others don’t even have a house.  But having this little sliver of excessiveness is nice in some ways, because it’s comforting to know that if you had a really really bad day, you can just head over to Giant and grab a tub of Starbucks’ Signature Hot Chocolate ice cream, curl up by the oscillating fan, close your eyes, and think about home.

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Beatrice is Hungry

Beatrice-is-Hungry

Yes, what you are seeing is Beatrice with her entire head in her bag of food.  The idea was to feed her only enough so that she would survive, as we need her hungry enough to hunt for rats, but she clearly has other ideas.  The kicker is that she doesn’t wait for us to leave before she dives in, she just does it right in front of us, and then pops her head out and looks at you like you’re in her house.  Excuse me, Bee, but that’s just not the way it works…

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Olie-Laying-Down

SETTING: While washing the dishes, I suddenly get the urge to listen to some tunes to help pass the time.

Me: Olie, could you turn on the music on my computer?
Olie: Dude, I’m tired, do it yourself.
Me: You’re tired!? You haven’t done anything today, in fact, you ate your lunch sitting down.
Olie: Woah! Chill out man, I’ve been crazy busy.  I chewed on that rope toy you gave me for like 20 minutes straight, then I went outside to pee.  I’m exhausted.
Me: You know that doesn’t count, so would you please just get up and turn on the music?
Olie: Would you feed me a second lunch?
Me: Negative, that’s definitely not going to happen.
Olie: Then I’m afraid you will be washing the dishes in silence, amigo.  I’ve got some napping to do.

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