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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Conclusions


Haiti Fact #16: The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) will withdraw its peacekeeping troops in October 2017 after thirteen years in Haiti.  The withdrawal comes after a successful presidential election, demonstrating a departure from the chaotic elections of 2010 and 2015.  A smaller peacekeeping mission will replace MINUSTAH.

            I have been in Haiti for almost a year now.  The past year has changed my life and has changed who I am.  First and foremost, this year has blessed me with experiences that simply are not available to a white kid in Connecticut.  Whatever happens next, I am thankful for this chance. 

Haiti abounds with challenges and stress, especially because people treat foreigners very differently than they would treat a local.  Not surprisingly, I saw countless instances of conduct that would just not be acceptable in the US.  But I just had to figure out how to get over it.  If my expectation conflicts with what is accepted here, it is my problem.  But that line of logic does not help when a random person yells at me over some perceived offense and then just walks away.  Moments like that still make my blood boil, especially when bystanders do not seem to think that anything out of line has just happened.  For better or worse, dealing with that type of unnecessary anger and aggression in public shapes a lot of what I do.  For example, people do not like foreigners to carry cameras or to take their picture.  Carrying a camera in public makes me the target of a lot of hate, so I don’t take pictures.  Most of the time it’s like that: not hard to make the changes, so I just make them.  But some of them have not stopped irritating me.

            People in Haiti treat foreigners differently.  The fact that people do this because I look so obviously foreign can really get annoying.  Driving in Cap-Haitien has also been a constant source of frustration.  The chaos, heat and traffic of the streets exist in an uneasy calm that perpetually lies in wait for its chance to erupt into mayhem.  I understand some of what causes this but I still struggle to adapt.  However, my frustrations with the culture here really boil down to a separate issue: people neither leave me alone nor do they respect what I want.  It is just assumed that I want to hear their advice or criticism and that I will accommodate whatever it is that they want from me, no matter how demanding it is.  In other words, the “right” to say whatever you want to a random person in public ranks far higher than the “right” to just exist without getting harassed.  Not surprisingly, this makes one more callous and less friendly in public.  After a year of constant unsolicited feedback from strangers, I look forward to Connecticut where people will just leave me alone (a manifestation of privilege no longer lost on me).  But moving to Haiti for a year presents challenges and frustrations like these and at some point one just has to deal with it.  And although the difficulties currently obscure the positives, I know I will miss a lot of the fun parts of this life once I leave.

            Life in Cap-Haitien involves a lot of walking.  The narrow streets and total lack of parking complicate driving, making it easier to walk everywhere.  I walk to work, to the market, to restaurants and to go hang out at the square.  This has been a blessing that I will not forget.  Secondly, I have some really good friends here.  We have taught each other little things; for example, we teach one another our languages and our cooking styles.  We of course teach each other a lot more than that, but it will take time to appreciate what I learned from Haitians and their culture.  So that will have to wait.  Certain situations led me to assume that my presence was not appreciated or desired, simply based on the amount of disrespect and problems that people gave me on a regular basis.  But even in some of those situations people are now saying that they will miss me.  That indicates that even after all that I learned, much of the nuance remains unclear.  Fortunately, this year has lessened any shame I feel in losing.  So the confusion is alright.  I don’t mind it as much now and am a lot more confident in general. 

This job forced me to reestablish myself outside of the traditional social context that has defined a lot of who I am.  Away from home and in an exhausting and unforgiving job, I had to figure it all out again.  Out of that frustration and difficulty, every bit of progress made me a little more confident.  Those little tastes of progress kept me going.  I believe that I put as much as I could into this job and I am proud that Eli and I overcame even a few of the obstacles that we faced.  But now it is almost over: I am leaving Haiti for the US on July 6.  The magnitude of the moment is daunting to the point that I just try to stay busy and focus on the short term.  But even with a year’s worth of practice in letting the future be what it will, I am still struggling to do anything but think about going home.

A special thank you to these donors:

Geri Lyon
Bob and Barbara Profenno
Brian Hedges and Mark Terreri

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Cange


Haiti Fact #15: Cap-Haitien has lots of marching bands (ra-ra in Creole).  One will march by once or twice each month.  They like to play “Stand By Me.”

From April 23-29, Eli and I were in Cange, a small town in the Central Plateau.  It is the home of Zanmi Lasante/Partners in Health, and plays an important role in Mountains Beyond Mountains.  We went to Cange as translators for free clinics that were held in the surrounding villages over the course of the week.  The week I spent there provided a unique opportunity to break the routine and have an adventure.  It did not disappoint.

We met the group at the airport in Port-au-Prince and then took a van up into the mountains.  The group for which we would translate included doctors, nurses, and a pharmacist, among others.  The week moved quickly: arrive on a Saturday, plan and prep on Sunday, clinics Monday through Thursday.  None of the four villages we went to are accessible by road, and two are up in the mountains.  We even had to cross a lake to get to one of them.  It suffices to say that these villages have neither easy nor regular access to doctors.  That was the objective of the trip: provide free medical care to those that need it badly but have a hard time accessing it.  All of that being said, Zanmi Lasante (ZL) does a great job maintaining a network of health staff in remote villages such as these.  ZL health agents provide medication (especially for blood pressure) to those who need it.  The visiting medical professionals from the US came to support and enhance the services already in place.  Basically, a diverse network of people committed to providing care to this region made all of this possible.  By regularly returning to the same region and maintaining relationships with the people who live there, doctors and nurses from the US can improve the health of entire communities in the Central Plateau.  Participating in such an awesome project changed how I see Haiti and the role of foreigners here.

            “Baptism by fire” accurately describes much of the experience I’ve had here, and this trip was no exception.  The days started with long hot hikes, transitioned into hours of translating for patients before they went to see the doctor, and then finished with more long hot hikes.  And then the following morning we got up early to do it again.  This was the first time I’ve ever translated at a clinic too.  But I expected to be physically and mentally exhausted.  I was not, however, remotely prepared for a different kind of challenge.  Hanging out with people from the US (other than Eli) for the first time in months left me confused and kind of freaked out.  It took days for me to feel comfortable interacting with people from the US again.  I even found myself seeking out the Haitians in the group just to recharge.  Thinking and feeling that was unsettling.  As the week went on we all had fun together and had great conversations, but I briefly worried that I had forgotten how to talk to Americans.  An experience like this challenges one in a variety of ways, which made it a blessing to have such a fun group to share it with.

            Haiti offers exhausting but rewarding opportunities that change a person.  Sitting here today, I have no idea what I am going to do with all the memories, new ideas and random skills that living here has provided.  For the moment I just try to stay thankful that it all happened.  Months ago, I finally read the entire New Testament.  One verse from it stuck out to me so much that I put it up on my wall.  It goes like this:

We troubled on every side, yet not distressed.  We are perplexed, but not in despair.  Persecuted, but not forsaken.  Cast down, but not destroyed.  Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body (2 Corinthians 4: 8-10).  

That verse has served as a compass and an objective to guide what I do here.  It’s an ideal that helps get me back out there to try again the next day.  Cange was a more intense and concentrated version of the kind of challenges we face here that leave me needing guidance and support like that.  But regardless of the stress that came with it, I am thankful for the chance to get involved and to try to make a difference.  I still have some time left here and I want to keep doing exactly that.

A special thank you to these donors:

Constance Cliffe
Nancy King
Petrone/Whittaker Family

Friday, March 31, 2017

Something Different

Working in Haiti provides opportunities to do things that I would not otherwise do.  Writing this blog is one of them; it's fun to tell stories about life here as well as share some of the images and ideas that I encounter.  But I want to do something different with this post.  This job provides a decent amount of free time, and I have occasionally used it to do some cool and exciting stuff.  The additional time to read has opened my life up to several new and intense books, which I have mentioned in earlier entries.  But in addition to reading, I have been writing a little bit.  So in this entry, I am sharing The Oasis with you.  I hope you like it.


The Oasis

The needle had been threatening to drop below E for a half hour when Jared finally saw The Oasis.  He relaxed as the sight of gas pumps shimmering under the heat banished undesirable outcomes from his mind.  He glanced over at Tina, who would not have hesitated to make everything his fault in a dilemma.  But even she seemed tranquil, so he exhaled again and pulled into the station.  The station looked about thirty years old, free of trash but devoid of life.  Despite the lack of a canopy, Jared eagerly hopped out into the withering sun to start pumping.  As he approached the handle, a voice stopped him.
“Hold on there, sir, you’re at a The Oasis and we are a full service station.”
An almost smiling man separated himself from some statues near the door of the adjacent store and came over.  Dressed in cowboy boots and jeans, his steady glance seemed to barely regard Jared much before he remarked, “We don’t see people from the city here often.  You folks lost?”
“No, we’re heading back home the back way,” said Jared, hoping to avoid the stereotype of the millennial seeking an authentic experience.
“Well you won’t see much this way, just oil fields and scrub brush.  You better get some water while you’re here, too.”  Walking a short distance away, Jared took another look at the sign.  After wiping the dust from his eyes yet again, he noticed an interesting message painted just below The Oasis.  In faded green cursive letters, it promised “Free Lunch When You Fill Up.”  Tina probably wasn’t hungry, but when else would they ever try the cuisine of this dried up county?  Reassured that this whole venture might yet yield a drop of authenticity, Jared approached the pump and, despite the attendant’s ignoring him, asked, “So is there lunch available today?”
“Fresh out of lunch, sorry bud.”
“That’s a bummer.  But is there any food at all?”
“We have sodas and soft pretzels for two dollars each.  There’s cigarettes and other snacks too.  Go ahead in and have a look.”
Walking into the store, Jared passed between two wooden statues: one of growling bear standing on two legs and the other of an Indian casually looking toward the horizon.  The two statues threw a shadow over the attendant’s chair.  Jared emerged with two bottles of water, disappointed by how boring his idea had turned out.  He thanked the attendant and asked his name to be polite.
“I’m Ray James.  Thanks for stopping by The Oasis.  Have a safe trip.”
“I appreciate it.  Before I go, is there anything worth seeing around here?”
“The old Stevens family oil fields are off to the right a few miles down the road.  They slowed down fifteen years ago and haven’t produced a barrel in five, but they sure used to be worth seeing.”
“Sounds good, thanks Ray.  Take care.”
Back in the car, Tina remained as unenthused for this stage of Jared’s plan as she had for each previous stage.  He offered to get on the highway at the next opportunity and that at least got a nod of approval.  The engine started and Jared’s stomach sank as the reality of work on Monday mingled with three more hours of flat interstate.  But as he pulled off the lot, he heard something snap in the engine and the car stopped accelerating.  Tina looked beside herself as Jared stared perplexed at the dashboard of the stopped car. 
“I told you this car wouldn’t make it all the way.  We should have rented a car,” she snapped, putting in headphones and refusing to say another word.  Figuring it would be unwise to point out that it was lucky to have a breakdown at a gas station, Jared just hopped out again to ask Ray to help him push it back onto the lot.  Once it was safely in a rare shady spot, Tina turned up her music and checked out.  Ray took a quick look at the car and saw which belt snapped. 
“That’ll do it,” he said.  “It might be a little while before we can get one like that in here.  I’ll go make a call though.”  Waiting for Ray, Jared glanced at the statues again.  The bear looked characteristically savage, while the Indian looked dimly aware of the world’s existence.  It looked like he knew something but that it was too late.  Ray came back out with his calm fully restored.
“McIntyre Auto Parts will be out here in two hours with the belt you need.  They’ll check everything else too.  It’ll be $15 for the belt and $15 for the service.”
“Thank you, that sounds amazing.”  Work on Monday was beginning to sound increasingly pleasant.  Ray grabbed an extra chair and then sat down.
“So, Ray, do you see a lot of business out here?”
“Back when those oil fields were operating you had to get here early just to get gas.  The vehicles filling up here in the morning ran us dry a few days a week.  The Stevens family operated the fields and their kid ran this station.  He got kicked out of school so they stuck him here to grow up a little.  They came up with the free lunch idea to try to get people to wait until the lunch break to mob this place.  But that kid didn’t care.  He resented his parents for something but really only had one way to get at them.  He never ordered enough lunch stuff so after a few free sandwiches, the counter had to close down.  He would stand out there himself to personally tell the oil workers that there wasn’t any lunch today.  I think it was the only part of life he enjoyed.  And he enjoyed it for fifteen years.  It took that long for them to give up on him.”
Ray fell silent as stronger curses festered unsaid.  Bitterness and dusty heat flooded Jared’s mind.  Ray’s eyes and lips may have forgotten the feeling of humidity, but Jared’s protested constantly.  Time started to slip away.  The lines on the Indian’s face deepened as Jared imagined the Indian gazing at the old boss abusing his tiny authority to irk those around him.  The bear, mad as always, held no specific grudge.  But the Indian had identified the problem.  As Jared gazed off into the distance, he was startled by a door opening.
“Visitors!  What can we do for you today?”  A man wearing a polo shirt tucked into khakis stood before them.  He went straight to Jared and introduced himself as Ryan Woodley, the manager.  “So you guys had a breakdown, huh?  Well I hear Ray took care of it for you.  Rachel McIntyre is the real deal, I’ve never had a complaint.  She’ll get you back on the road.”  Ryan might have had something to say about belts, but Jared cut him off.
“So after this oil field dried up, what happened to this place?” 
“Well I wasn’t technically here at that time, but it certainly had a slowing effect on the local economy.  We hadn’t seen a regular tourist presence here in decades and with the oil workers gone, well, it just all dried up.  But here we are today, reinventing ourselves again!”  Seeing a chance to poke at Ryan’s façade, Jared posed another question.
“Did you take over for the previous owner’s son?” 
After a pause, Ryan erupted again.  “Technically, Mr. and Mrs. Stevens handled the affairs of The Oasis for a few months after the oil field shut down.  But their son and I were friends back in school, so when they ran into me at the town parade that year they offered me this position.  I had recently left a job and gotten divorced, so the opportunity was much appreciated.  I moved in to help my parents out and then I got a job right here in town.  What a gift.  They’re great people, the Stevens’.”
As Jared nodded, Ryan’s phone went off.  “Oh! That’s Mr. Stevens.  I’m going to have to take this.”  Ryan walked back into the building, discussing the latest dilemma facing The Oasis.  Glancing at Ryan’s back as he disappeared, Ray spat on the pavement.
“That man is either deaf or stupid,” he snapped.  “Anybody with a round head around here knows that that kid was stealing from the drawer to buy cocaine for his girlfriend.  She got him kicked out of school in the first place.  But he never got over her.  Back when she had something going for her, she would lead him on for fun.  But then her life fell apart and the two of them collapsed back together.  She never quit the cocaine though, and maybe got him to try it too.  When the oil workers stopped coming around to ask about lunch, he started disappearing for days at a time to go to Vegas with her.  It spiraled from there, until the fields stopped making money and he was stealing so much out of here that his parents told him to go to hell and took the place over.”  He spat again, adding, “But I’ve been here for it all.  Every damn minute.”
Silence fell again, but not for long.  McIntyre Auto Parts showed up, opened the hood and had the problem taken care of in twenty minutes.  Ryan came back out to see if they needed anything else, and Ray sat there the whole time doing nothing except quietly chatting with the mechanic and confirming that their lives remained the same. 
The car started up again.  Tina had taken a nap and seemed satisfied with Jared’s desperation to just get back on the highway and get back to work on Monday.  Jared went out one last time to shake hands with Ray, back on duty in his chair.  Next to Ray stood the bear and the Indian.  The bear looked mad as always.  But now he saw a trace of a smile on the Indian’s face.  
  

Monday, March 6, 2017

The eight month mark


Haiti Fact #14: Tropical fruit is available at very low prices in Haiti.  Visitors should try a variety of fruit, especially mangoes and papayas.

This job lasts a year, which initially encouraged me to forecast what would change over the various intervals.  I started doing this almost immediately after arriving.  Where would I be after four months?  How about after nine?  When would I understand the sermon in church?  How about the songs on the radio?  All of these questions had and have answers that change over time as expectations turn into experiences.  Not surprisingly, the detailed plans ended up not working out how I imagined.  Reality swept us up into it and hasn’t let go yet.  It’s as though we’re floating down a river and can’t see anything beyond the upcoming bend.  But that mindset works pretty well here: specific expectations consistently lead to disappointment or frustration.  Additionally, a lot of good stems from that necessary mindset.  Opportunities open up once the urge to have expectations fades into the background.  I can read books and just let them affect me how they will.  I can study French because it’s fun, even though I don’t know if I’ll ever need it or use it.  I can build relationships with people and just enjoy getting to know them.  None of this was impossible before but I love it now that I’m actively doing it.  I still have plans and expectations, but living in the moment and reducing stress has become a higher priority. 

The first four months here came with big doses of stress that took huge quantities of Netflix to mitigate.  Life was a roller coaster between soaring highs after successes and crushing lows after embarrassing failures.  The second four months started out like a grainy, out-of-focus picture.  As minor details of daily life began to make sense, I appreciated mundane places and routines on a whole new level.  Less obvious small joys unique to this job and situation popped up everywhere.  Over the past few months I really got established and comfortable here in Cap-Haitien and as an English teacher.  But now that I’m at the threshold of the final third of this year, I have no idea what to expect.  I want to focus on three goals: caring about people, giving time and energy to what is important and having faith that God has my back.  To do those things requires a blend of beliefs and priorities that the past eight months have so gloriously forced upon me.  So I continue to ask for your prayers and your support as I strive to care, to give, and to trust. 

I am so thankful for this job and its many perks.  That being said, home is on my mind too.  The Creole word for to remember is sonje.  But mwen sonje peyi m does not mean I remember home.  Rather, it is better translated as I miss home.  Prior to Haiti I would have doubted that I’d ever say something like that.  But here I am saying it.  So while I look forward to four more months of dizzying and gut-wrenching (but awesome) experiences, the memories of home are not likely to fade.  I can say with perfect honesty that I am as excited for the next chapter of life in Haiti as I am for the return home.  It’s a win-win situation. 

A special thank you to these donors:

Mr. and Mrs. David Pittsinger
Karen Honan

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Turbulence


Haiti Fact #13: From 1915 to 1934, the US occupied Haiti.  Concerns about German aggression during WWI and Haiti’s proximity to the Panama Canal led to the occupation.  The US also occupied the Dominican Republic and Cuba during the early 20th century.

The past two months have been turbulent.  Four separate sets of visitors provided a chance to share our knowledge of Haiti and show off our Creole, but also left me exhausted.  My family got to see the pros and cons of life in Haiti, reminding me how cool this job is.  The abundance of fresh food, beautiful weather and friendly people genuinely led me to say to my parents that I’m spoiled here.  I realize that someone in the USA might vehemently disagree, citing the non-potable groundwater or the intermittent electricity.  But I stand by what I said.  It doesn’t take long to forget about the lack of some amenities considered essential in the USA.  Additionally, limited access to the Internet and smartphones quickly becomes a blessing.  Fewer distractions open up new chances to read and write, and to just think about everything that is changing.  The slower pace and the amount of space to think make any “concessions” in living standards worth it.  Thanks to the abundance of time and lack of distractions, I have read a lot of books recently.  

I started January with Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.  That book hits hard.  It tells the story of Paul Farmer, whose dedication and unapologetic commitment to the equality of all people changed healthcare standards for some of the poorest people in the world, especially in central Haiti.  Mountains Beyond Mountains is a fantastic read.  Then I read The Big Truck Went By by Jonathan M. Katz, a book investigating the shortcomings of aid efforts to Haiti following the earthquake.  Learning about the Haiti’s complexities makes it difficult to form a concrete position on the issues.  I feel less confident assessing what Haiti “needs” with every book I read about it.  After reading even just one chapter, I have needed to go do some domestic chore to better process what I read. Washing dishes or doing a load of laundry are time consuming and labor intensive enough to let my mind wander and hopefully process the most recent challenges to some long-held worldviews.  Reading about Haiti leaves me confused, but with a renewed passion to keep trying.  So life has been turbulent.

Around New Years my sister came down to visit.  It was great to have her, especially at the halfway point of my time here.  We went to the big tourist spots here: the Citadelle and the beach.  We did more than just tourist stuff though.  I showed her the market and we went to CASB, my school.  I figured that the poverty and abrasive nature of Haiti would challenge her, just as they would any first time visitor.  But I did not expect to be shocked by how much I have changed.  Seeing Julia, whom I know better than I know anyone, threw my life now into stark contrast with what it used to be.  It’s easy to forget that I used to take hot showers and drink tap water when I’m with Eli because we basically met each other here.  Without a reminder of developed world experience, memory of home fades surprisingly quickly.  But after a few conversations with Julia, everything came rushing back.  It hit me how different everything is.  For one, I am less relaxed now – not surprising.  It’s hard to say anything else definitely but I feel something.  That realization joins an ever-mounting list that exceeds the time to process it.  And once again, I’m thankful for menial household chores that provide space to try to make sense of everything.

By the time my parents came in late February, Eli and I had become pros at guiding tours of greater Cap-Haitien.  While sister's visit plunged me into confusion about how to reconcile life in the US with life in Haiti, my parents’ visit was seamless and fun.  We did the same activities as with we did with previous visitors, showing them both the beautiful and the ugly parts of reality here.  But my parents are back at home now and there aren’t any visitors coming for a while.  A window of opportunity is open once again.  I speak Creole fairly fluently and have enough free time to invest myself even further into the community here.  With the turbulence of the past two months subsiding, I can recommit to working hard at this job and seeking to connect more with my friends here.  Life is good.  As always, thanks for reading.

A special thank you to these donors:

Roy Black
Debra Brown

Monday, January 30, 2017

Travel Log 3


Haiti Fact #11: 
The president-elect of Haiti, Jovenel Moise, is slated to take office at the beginning of February.  He is part of Parti Haitien Tèt Kale, which translates as the Haitian Bald Head Party.

Port-au-Prince          
We spent last week in Port-au-Prince.  One doesn’t hear much of anything good about that city.  It is overcrowded, hot and choked by traffic jams, as well as not safe at night.  Plus, the trip was for work.  So I did not expect to have fun.  It started with an overnight bus ride down from Cap-Haitien.  Despite the driver’s swerving all over the empty roads to avoid potholes, I actually slept a little bit.  Leaving the bus, we got a taxi to the hotel.  I picked a driver who seemed nice and who gave us a great price.  But when we arrived, he ripped me off with a trick so simple that I had honestly forgotten about it because I’ve never actually encountered it.  After that, the moto we took to a grocery store ripped us off to a similar degree.  So after only an hour in Port-au-Prince we had already achieved clueless foreigner status.  That night we went out to visit with our coworker who was in town for the week too.  Just walking down to his hotel without a problem made everything feel more doable.  After one day in Port-au-Prince we could at least walk around during the day.  I took that as a badly needed victory.

It turned out that the synod (church governing body) would not start until later than expected, providing some time to explore.  Unfortunately, Port-au-Prince offers very little to do.  But there is a history museum, so we went to that.  The Museum of the Haitian National Pantheon (MUNAPAH in French) is small but worth seeing.  That afternoon the synod started with a church service in the national cathedral.  I even understood a decent amount of what the bishop said during his opening message.  The following day was the main meeting.  After hours of listening to Creole I found it increasingly difficult to try to understand.  But the church government meeting was more exciting than I expected; even matters such as church laws and election procedures sparked passionate debate.  A central purpose of our attendance, a meeting with the bishop, came at lunchtime.  The meeting went fantastically and wrapped up work for the day very nicely.  I went out with a few friends in Pétionville, which is to Port-au-Prince as Greenwich, CT is to NYC.  I had a great time.  Just the moto ride up to Pétionville was an experience.  When I say “up to Pétionville,” I mean up.  Port-au-Prince is located on a fairly small patch of flat land that quickly gives way to mountains as you go inland.  On the way up, as the moto wove through traffic, I caught a birds-eye view of the grey concrete sprawl rolling over the foothills and up the moutains.  I actually saw how massive Port-au-Prince is.  Later that night I took a moto back down and saw the city lit up at night with the wind on my face, grateful for the experience.  With the week’s work and meetings finished, we took one day to sightsee.  

Like I said earlier, Port-au-Prince doesn’t offer much for sightseeing.  We tried anyway though.  One particular point of interest was the Nèg Mawon statue, which we managed to see despite it being formally closed off.  Many of the previous tourist sights in Port-au-Prince collapsed in the earthquake.  The mostly collapsed former Catholic cathedral is still fairly striking, while the ruins of the former Episcopal cathedral have been razed while reconstruction talks take place.  The Presidential Palace, a former symbol of governmental power which collapsed in the earthquake, is another formerly iconic Port-au-Prince building that is gone now.  So, like many aspects of life in Haiti, our experience took place in the shadow of the 2010 earthquake.  We wrapped up the week by doing the most commonly recommended activity that Port-au-Prince offers: the band Ram at the Hotel Oloffson on Thursday nights.  The show went late as I hung out and appreciated the music and unique atmosphere of the hotel.  After a few strenuous days it made everything a little better.  After a week of not so much vacation but rather of experiences, Ram was the grand finale.  Only the journey home remained.

Herman Melville writes, “there is no quality in this world that is not what it merely is by contrast.  Nothing exists in itself.  If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.” When I first read that in Moby Dick it resonated with me but seemed difficult to implement.  How does one intentionally put discomfort into life?  I learned about that on the way home.  For the seven hour bus ride over the same speed bumps and mountains while swerving to avoid a different set of potholes, we had the added pleasure of listening to a group of guys in the back of the bus argue at the top of their lungs for at least four hours straight.  It rotated between several topics: philosophical (“The problem isn’t Haiti, it’s Haitians”), sports, asking me if the USA would restart the draft, and accusing one of the verbal combatants of being bourgeoisie.  That conversation proved that after a long enough, consistent exposure, the brain can tune out anything.  The bus had more to offer though.  Not only was it smaller and bumpier but the air conditioning broke and the only windows that opened were at the very front.  But somehow, the windows kept ending up closed.  Around five hours into the trip, one of the verbal combatants went up to open the window himself.  But the guy sitting next to it slammed it shut again.  A general outcry of rage was met with his promise that he would stop shutting the window as soon as they shut their mouths.  The combatants defied this at first, for show I think, but conveniently quieted down within ten minutes.  The rest of the trip, remarkably, was uneventful.  Considering that the heat and yelling eventually became funny, I agree with Moby Dick on the importance of discomfort.  Fortunately for me, in Haiti one does not need to seek it out.  

A special thank you to these donors:

Rich Lammlin
Darlene James 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Cap-Haitien


Haiti Fact #10:
The national money is the gourde (pronounced goud).  The exchange rate is currently around 67 gourdes to 1 US dollar.

            A year ago I had never heard of Cap-Haitien.  Today it constitutes such a huge part of my daily life that it is hard to ever forget about it.  It’s a unique city, even within Haiti.  The “iron market” covers a full four blocks under one roof, creating an open space not accessible to vehicles.  The market sprawls for blocks in all directions, dominating the streets that vendors have claimed.  Going to the market has become one of my favorite parts of Cap-Haitien, or Okap as people usually call it.  While never a relaxing experience, going to the market is still fun.  The fact that produce is available so cheaply never fails to make me smile.  However, the market’s complex layout overwhelmed me at first.  But with a better understanding of how it’s set up, shopping trips are easier and faster. 

It still surprises me that I like shopping there.  Very few expatriates descend into the chaos of the market, making it so that I stand out a lot.  Combined with the fact that expatriates are (correctly) perceived as wealthier than average Haitians, my lack of anonymity makes me the target of endless sales pitches.  It used to really overwhelm me when someone would yell at me in a language I only somewhat understood.  Fortunately, improving in Creole and persistently trying again has made it so that I usually understand the sales pitches and have no problem issuing a quick “No thank you” and moving on.  As soon as the more aggressive, intimidating elements are filtered out, the market becomes a cool place. 

Food that I have never seen, let alone tried, is available for an insanely low price.  Most recently, I started buying eggplant and squash called meliton in Creole and making a sauce for rice out of it.  The best part is that I haven’t gotten around to trying everything that’s available so there’s so much experimenting left to do.  I like the market so much because it is probably the most tangible reminder that, despite a mountain of setbacks, I can function normally here and do things that outsiders almost never do.  Cap-Haitien’s market is rough on the edges but is worth experiencing if you have the time to learn how it works.  For shorter visits, the restaurant scene is a must-see.

The iconic restaurant in Okap is Lakay.  Translating as “house” or “home,” Lakay is where we see expatriates on a regular basis and hear a surprising mix of languages.  The good food and laid back atmosphere make it my favorite restaurant in Cap-Haitien.  There’s a lot more to try, though.  The “boulevard” or “carenage” runs along the ocean and has several restaurants drawing in the expatatriate community, groups of visitors and middle class Haitians.  The restuarants compete amongst each other to bring in music acts and entertainment, all for prices far below what you would pay in the USA.  In the sit down restaurants you can find a little bit of American food with plenty of Haitian food.  I’ve just started expanding into more options outside of the restaurants that draw in expatriates, simply because there is a lot to try just within that group. 

I’ll have to write more about life in Cap-Haitien in a later post.  Moving here changed how I live.  Cap-Haitien is hot, dusty, old and rarely smells good, but, similar to its market, has a surprising amount of redeeming qualities as you get to know it better.  There will be more posts about Okap coming up.  It’s a unique place.

A special thank you to these donors:

Emelia DeMusis
Rev. Folts and Family