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Friday, September 30, 2016

Travel Log 2

Haiti Fact #6:
Elections for Haiti’s next president will take place on October 9, and the campaigns are in full swing.

Santo Domingo
            It happened fast, but on October 7 we will hit the three month mark.  A tourist visa in Haiti only is good for 90 days, after which one must leave and reenter the country to get the required passport stamps and a new visa.  The approaching deadline to leave the country coincided with a lull at work, so we decided to make an adventure out of it.

            I majored in Spanish and have always wanted to spend some time in a country where it is spoken.  So Eli graciously agreed to make our destination Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic.  Through a sister of a friend we got some basic information about the city but ended up just going with less of a plan than even I would like.  We got hit by surprise fees and taxes at the border both times, but our passports got the necessary stamps and the legal reason for the trip was satisfied.  But who cares about that?  We had a great time.

            We ended up staying at a hotel/casino that might have exceeded our price range but ended up being worth it.  Staying there meant free breakfast on the patio looking at the ocean and palm trees just before the day starts to get hot.  And at the end of the day, day to day living in Haiti is cheap so a little excess just once didn’t break us.  After almost three months in Haiti, it was great to hang out in a modern city like Santo Domingo.  Every day brought a new surprise. 

The view of Santo Domingo from the hotel

I used to hate the mall in the US, but going to a huge, gorgeous Agora Mall made me reconsider my position on malls.  Just taking a subway and hiking around a state park felt so much like home.  We managed to find a movie theater that even had one (terrible) movie in English, that we enjoyed nonetheless.  On top of all that, there was an Episcopal church around the corner with an English service.  It had been months since I experienced any of that.  It also surprised me how air conditioning, good internet and hours of sitting around the hotel helped me recover from months of challenging transitions.  But most importantly, I got to speak Spanish. 

Mirador del Norte Park

            The sister of a friend I met in Cap-Haitien made all of this possible, but if I didn’t speak Spanish it would not have worked out either.  Thanks to her we saw a lot of the city and avoided a few rookie mistakes.  But as in any travel situation, the best part about hanging out with a local is getting to skip the tourist traps and have some real experiences.  It wasn’t always poetic, for instance the time she took us to a grocery store to buy tons of junk food not available in Haiti, but it was always awesome.  After a day or two of running around, Eli preferred de-stressing in the hotel.  That gave me an opportunity to dive deeper into the culture of the city. 

            The trip peaked at a pasta dinner with five Dominicans yelling over each other and mostly ignoring me.  For one thing, no one ever ignores me in Haiti and the stares get tiring after months.  But to simply sit and try to pull some meaning out of so many conversations without being expected or pressured to respond was exactly what I needed.  It was a glorious moment to relax and eat while surrounded by chaos that I didn’t have to try to understand.  I could choose to engage or choose not to.  It got even better when I started to pick out what they were saying.  That experience completed the trip, and I learned so much just in that moment. 

So while getting better at Spanish over a few days was awesome, it can’t top the experience of hanging out with some Dominicans and getting a taste of how they live.  I rode the subway, helped out with some English homework and sat at an outdoor park on the waterfront drinking cheap beer and almost blending in.  That was a real vacation after the past few months.  It doesn’t have to be climbing mountains every day, but it’s better when it’s not staged.  So yeah, we took a little risk just heading off to a new city without much of an idea what we would find.  There are a thousand things that could have happened.  But those unknowns and surprises took the trip from relaxing to recharging.  Now we’re back in Haiti and I am re-energized to make this job the best it can be.     

A special thank you these donors:

The Corbett family
Meg Mitchell                           

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Travel Log 1

Haiti Fact #5:
Haiti was the second nation to gain independence in the New World, declaring independence on January 1, 1804.  The revolution was a long and difficult struggle but completed the first successful slave revolt.

Although this is still technically my first time having been to Haiti, which people ask all the time, I no longer consider going between Cap-Haitien (where I live) and Terrier Rouge (where I work) travelling.  Actually travelling therefore requires going outside of that comfort zone.  So now I will describe some of the travelling we did over the past two months.

Cormier Plage
            Although I live near the ocean, there are actually no nice beaches around due to uncleanliness.  So going to the beach requires an intense drive over a neighboring mountain to get away from the city.  There’s nice beach hotel there called Cormier Plage that I’ve been to twice for the day.  The beach is gorgeous and surprisingly inexpensive, with a nice breeze that never stops.  Sunscreen is a must though.

The Palace and Citadelle
            One of Haiti’s founding fathers, Henri Christophe, left two buildings in the north of Haiti that guarantee his legacy.  After crowning himself King of the North, he began the construction of a fortified citadelle in the mountains as well as a sumptuous palace for himself and his family.  The two structures are now open to tourists, and anyone here as long as we are will likely go several times.  We went a few weeks ago and loved it.  The palace was severely damaged in an 1842 earthquake but still has a lot of stories to tell.  It really only retains some of the skeleton of what it used to be though.  But visitors can still learn about and look at the history, as well as imagine how unique a character Henri Christophe was. 
            To get to the Citadelle requires a hot, strenuous hike with enormous altitude gain.  I just barely made it all the way up on foot and needed a long break at the top, but it was absolutely worth it.  Sitting on top of a mountain, this impenetrable fortress gives a defender a view of Cap-Haitien and the harbor, all the roads leading up to the fortress, and even into the mountainous interior.  It is formidable and even weathered the 1842 earthquake fairly well.  Additionally, its history is unusual and even ironic. 
The historic forts I have visited in the USA are in either in terrible condition or have undergone extensive renovations that entirely change the original appearance of the structure.  But the Citadelle has not had significant structural renovations and still has most of its original cannons.  It is beautifully preserved.  Ironically, it was never attacked, although Haitian leadership had good reason to expect another incursion on their independence after ousting all the Europeans in 1803.  They built the Citadelle because they would never go back to being slaves.  So Henri Christophe, in those two structures, left a legacy as a memorable, if not fiscally successful, Haitian founding father.  As a visitor, I loved the experience and if any reader of this blog comes to visit me in Haiti, I will gladly go again.

Dajadon, Dominican Republic
            This was a work trip two weeks ago.  Dajabon is a border town in the north where Haitians can get by without speaking Spanish and where people go to buy things not available in Haiti.  On this particular trip, our mission was to find and get prices for a chainsaw and weed whacker.  I came as a translator alongside Eli and Mr. St. Ange, the operations director of CASB.  Crossing the border turned out to be the most exciting part.  I was excited to add another stamp to my passport and to see how trilingual I actually was, but as we approached the border I heard a different story: don’t talk to the agents at the border, walk fast, and have small bills ready if they stop you.  We parked and then set off.  My boss started walking faster into chaotic two way traffic consisting of people and small vehicles.  Meanwhile, I nervously kept going and tried not to get run over by anything.  All of a sudden my boss reappeared and said something like, “We’re in the DR now.  It helps to separate at the crossing because they’re more likely to stop groups.”  With my heart still racing but with a realization of what just happened hitting me, I felt like a secret agent.  The rest of the trip was nowhere near as interesting.   
            One might imagine the egg miming incident prompting me to translate the necessary vocabulary prior to leaving for a shopping trip.  Not so, however; upon arriving at the power equipment store I realized did not know how to say chainsaw, weed whacker, bush or even grass in Spanish or Creole.  Fortunately the actual tools were there so they did not need to be alluded to, but it might have been tough.  Translating between three languages was more like translating between English and a blend of Creole and Spanish, but I got the extremely simple points across and relayed the important information.  We went back across without incident, and called it a success. 

            Earlier this week my boss invited us to accompany him on a trip to meet the bishop.  So on Thursday, he picked us up in the morning and off we went.  The road quickly transitioned from a flat road full of potholes to a mountain road full of potholes, which was not an improvement.  After crossing the mountains, we drove along the west coast of Haiti and got a chance to see large parts of the country, all totally new to me.  We eventually arrived in Pétionville after a six hour drive and checked into the hotel.  The air conditioning and especially the shower in this hotel brought such a smile to my face.  The shower at our house in Cap-Haitien is powered by gravity, which is great when the electricity is not reliable.  But I had forgotten how amenities such as water pressure and AC are so nice. 
The restaurant we ate at and almost everything else in Pétionville made me: 1) Remember and miss living in the US, but more importantly, 2) Realize that so many Haitians do not live like that.  Even as expats making a relatively small amount of money by US standards, we make at least as much or more than many working people in Haiti.  So on the one hand I’m working on adapting to this new standard of living, but on the other hand constantly living around people who would give anything to live at that same standard.  This leads to an endless internal conflict that has no easy answer.  But anyway, we met the bishop the next day, had a nice meeting, and headed back that afternoon by bus.  The potholes and the mountains weren’t necessarily better by bus, but I don’t regret the experience.  So after two months we got a quick taste of a few nice amenities before heading back home.  Personally the most important thing was seeing my simultaneously clashing reactions to the same thing and realizing that this experience will change a lot more than my tan and openness to new ideas.  This experience will change me in ways that I cannot predict today.

A special thank you to these donors:

Ed and Suzy Burke
Richard and Donna Honan