When I consciously decided to go to Haiti, I set my expectations quite low. Generosity, middle-class guilt, first world problems—call it what you will, but something deeper compels me to look for ways by which I could share what I can do or what I have. I am not a stranger to tragic events befalling communities and the corresponding pitfalls of organized aid, either.
In the middle of the night in 2011, while my hometown, Cagayan de Oro, was fast asleep, a horrendous tropical cyclone called Sendong brought on a wrath so ridiculous an unimaginable amount of rainfall and flash floods claimed billions in property damages, and quite significantly more for the irreplaceable loss of twelve hundred lives and the indeterminate number of broken families and relationships. 1,200 people. Nothing like that ever happens in CDO. We are a university town of good people, strong private industries, and an above average standard of living, relative to the rest of the Philippines. But I digress; to speak more of CDO would require another blog entry.
Cut to Port-au-Prince. The year previous to Sendong, I remember clearly, Haiti lost upwards of two hundred thousand lives to a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. It was debilitating to see aid workers pull out dust covered babies and grandmothers from the rubble. There was the obvious urge to reach out and try to connect to Haiti to make sense of it all. When that failed perhaps because of the distance, there was the immediate act of pulling out the debit card and donating to the Red Cross an amount I could not afford to take out (but could not afford to keep, either), thinking that, that little amount in the larger scheme of things, might be the final drop to make the bucket full.
When I fasten my seatbelts and listen to the French Creole part of the safety announcement aboard an aging American Airlines 767 out of Miami, I am filled with hope, romance and the desire to put a face to the effort I chipped in, thereby validating my idealistic views on the human experience.
At Tousant Louverture International, I fall in line to get my passport stamped. The two guys behind me start asking why I have a backpack and where I plan to backpack in Haiti. I tell them I really don’t know, and that I will only be staying a couple of days to find my bearing so I could come back next time and do something more significant. They are accountants from the Bahamas who fly to the city to audit the finances of a local bank, and I remember asking them if they’re hot in those jackets and neckties. They laugh and say they are. They offer me a chauffeured ride to my hotel, which I politely decline. First, I don’t have hotel reservations. Second, I need the exercise. From the looks of the Google map back in Miami, Haiti Communitere shouldn’t be more than two miles away. I also decide to forego the handy guidebook and wing it. Without telling me outright, they put in a word or two of taking extra precaution. I like how other cultures perhaps sugarcoat discomfort and inconvenience. It is so much nicer compared to the hysterical, “OMG are you seriously effing kidding me right now walking around Port-au-Prince alone for the first time and don’t tell me I didn’t warn you and OMG you are Asian they’ll think you’re a loaded Japanese” kind of rhetoric I’ve gotten used to in the States. I know there is a reason why foreign aid encampments put up barbed wires over already massive concrete gates, but I am not here to not interact with the locals. I am never in any place so I could avoid the locals. That is so South Beach.
I also reserve the right to be cocky because I am from the Philippines. If a thief can’t successfully rob you blind in the streets, politicians can do that job for you by basically not making streets and making you pay for them anyway.
Left after the rotunda, right after three blocks and then the place should be to the left. Too easy. At the rotunda, I make a dash for my life to get across the road without getting hit by Tap taps—colorful public transportation that could give the Manila jeepney a run for its money. Dust settles on the potholed road and in my throat. I cough a little and resolve to get to my destination. This is the kind of urban adventure that fuels me.
Every couple of minutes, I would confirm with my utilitarian Où est Rue Pélican? A man would point forward and then a couple of minutes later, a school girl in uniform would point back. The streets are not marked which makes the walk doubly hard. But it is an opportunity to observe pedestrian life. Folks selling rugs on a wire set up between two trees, a lady fying what looks like mid-afternoon snacks made out of some root crop on a street corner. I am transported by the sensory stimulation of fried plantains, meat and onions slowly withering in the sun, the smell of exhaust from trucks that need to have their oil changed, my sweaty hair beginning to cake in the gray dust, friendly banter and school kids screaming over a football game interrupted by ambiguous honking, open canals and pedestrians automatically jumping over them. Sensory assault if you must, but this is home to me.
I buy a bag of fried carbs from another street stand that also doubles as a printing service for a school one wall over. A portable generator whoops and whirrs two feet away. I finally find the Rue and proceed to knock on the iron gate. A peep hole opens, an eye (maybe Samuel’s?) examines my backpack, the peep hole closes and the gate recedes. I say hi to everybody, check in with the lovely Caroline, and then proceed to my Geodesic Dome—something straight out of a Star Wars desert settlement. The mosquito nets I find in each bunk bed remind me that I should have gotten my malaria prophylaxis before flying down, so then it’s going to have to be a DEET fest for me.
Jessica who is the project head for Haiti Communitere introduces me to everybody—a mixed group of dedicated transplants and locals. Conor who’s from Ireland and Taylor from Indiana get me up to speed with the things I need to be wary of. Chris, another volunteer from New England, joins us and we agree on walking a couple blocks to a supermarket to get some supplies. On the way there, I notice Conor being greeted and waved at by random locals. He seems to be well-known in the area and he is evidently fluent in Kreyol. He tells me about his project helping local communities build sustainable vegetable gardens and his brilliant plan to bike across Haiti planting trees along the way. This might seem trivial but Haiti is one the most severely denuded countries in the world. After generations of slash and burn, over-cultivation, reparations in the form of timber exports to France and soil erosion, only 2% of its land mass is forested. Due to extenuating circumstances like poverty, more than half of the people today still cut trees to burn into coal to cook with. And since they are almost out, they head across the border to the Dominican Republic to cut theirs, which contributes to a growing conflict on foreign policy largely rooted to history and xenophobia. It is a sobering divide that validates my plan of coming over, no matter how short. It would be hard pressed to learn these issues if I were sipping salted caramel frappuccino reading about Haiti on Wikitravel.
We walk past the high, whitewashed walls of a UN camp towards the store, befriending a kid on the way. He insists on holding Chris’ hand, asking for money all the way to the supermarket. I give him a pack of crackers and peanuts from my flight in while Chris freaks out. The kid is limping so badly. On the way back to the resource center, I give him half of the bananas I bought.
On a corner, a white UN tank sits idling like a squad car, two peacekeepers sitting on benches outside giving us an indifferent nod.
I needed some cash so Conor and Taylor take me inside the base for the American ATMs. I am surprised, if a little bothered, at the completely different world we find ourselves in after the obligatory security checks and scanners. This is like a small town in Maui. Or Subic. Perfectly paved streets, hibiscus blooming everywhere, people jogging, grass and trees and zebra crossings. Conor points to a decommissioned DC-3. That’s a bar. I party there once in a while, he says. Can locals come here, I ask him. He says not usually.
The next day, and after a copious bath of mosquito repellent, I meet with my guide, Woody. He doesn’t speak a lot of English so I try my best French, which is basically an expansion of grunts and nasal sounds and animated arm flailings based on Où se trouvent les toilettes? I merely replace toilettes with how I think whatever it is I am looking for sounds like in Kreyol. Easy breezy. 30% of the time, I am successful. The rest, I’m just a quacking mallard.
I clamber up his motocross bike which is the best vehicle for navigating the city, as roads are either dirt, or poorly paved. Woody is a skillful driver, weaving in and out of traffic jams, up and down hills of colonial homes leaning precariously to one side, rubbles of concrete buildings still waiting to be rebuilt or cleared up, and through pop-up street markets selling random salvaged car parts, peacocks (yes, real live ones), wooden handicraft, tire-rubber flip-flops and colorful vegetables. People gamely step to the side to let us through, and once in a while, a lady with a child would scream at us presumably to be more careful, until we find ourselves in Champs-de-Mar—Haiti’s main park.
Woody gestures at me to get off and check out the National Palace. It is surrounded by gates, reinforced by vertical GI sheets and barbed wires. I cannot make out the National Palace from here, so I go around to look for a crack to squeeze my goPro in. I take a shot and look at the viewer and am disappointed to see a mound of rubble, and a couple of back hoes frozen in disrepair. It seems like a whole lot of time to rebuild the palace, but what do I know? I am still learning the pace at which Haitians carry on to. Next, he takes me to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. It is quite beautiful even if I am only admiring a literal shell of its former self. Plants are forcing themselves out of the crevices of the cathedral and some people have their heads bowed in prayer just outside.
The Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien is a curious building in that it is a museum exposing Haiti’s grand history through intricate murals; a good reference point to measure how varying the degrees of the ups and downs of Haitian civilization were, and by extension, how tremendously challenging it was for its proud people to get back on their feet each and every time. It also holds the remains of the land’s founding fathers and heroes, Toussaint Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henry Christophe and Alexandre Pétion, effectively making it a tomb. It helps too that the museum is built underground.
Back outside, Woody leans on a tree and throws me a plastic pouch of water. It is ice cold and very welcome on this scorching day. After tearing it with with a tooth and drinking the last drop, I take good time to look for a trash bin to throw it into. Woody gets impatient and asks me for the pouch and together with his, I watch in horror as he chucks them to the sidewalk to join its petroleum based cousins.
He is excited to bring me to Marche de Fer, an 1800’s iron market housing every imaginable hawker from vendors of chicken breasts to herbs and spices to dried turtles to fertility formulas to voodoo soaps that can make your object of interest fall in love with you (now to find a product that would allow you to put soap in his bathroom without him calling the cops). Every possible site I’ve read about the Marche warned me of the perils and the horror stories. One even wrote it is not for the faint of heart. They have obviously not been to the old Valencia Public Market or Lovers’ Lane in Bukidnon, I chuckle. I fancy the illustrations of the voodoo products best. It is like handing the spell (i.e. love potion or enemy bad luck potion) to a nine-year-old and ordering her to interpret it with a box of Crayolas with eight shades.
I might be on the wrong side of the market but I love the idea that I hardly see invasive China-made products such as the ubiquitous air-filled plastic beach balls that effortlessly ruin the sense of location.
In markets like these, someone will always find their way into your face and aggressively sell you something you don’t foresee yourself needing in the next fifty years, but what can one expect? An overpriced $25-dollar voodoo mask might mean several meals for the family. Pay for the meals, and make the voodoo mask your receipt (my mom will love these masks even more with the backstory, anyway).
Back at Communitere, I am assigned to help build chicken coops for hens to lay eggs in. They will be used to help feed the volunteers in the center and the locals living around the area. I’ve always wanted to raise backyard chickens for organic eggs, but you know, local health codes. My British team leader hands me a digging bar to bore 3-foot holes into the ground, from which the coop posts would rise. Done.
After that, I and Chris are assigned to clear up rocks and pebbles in the area with a shovel. A little back-breaking considering Chris is staring at a wall, but done. Then I chop several bushes to make way for the fence. My team leader asks if I can cut a hardwood tree. I try,
but after the aid of an axe, a bolo, and a steel hack saw, I give up. I tell him a chain saw is his best option. Or that screaming guy from the Old Spice commercial.
That night, we gather at the patio to partake of some Riz et Pois Rouges and local salad. It is a humble plate of rice and red beans and locally grown lettuce. It is good, hearty and enough to build strength back into my poor, poor arms. Someone hands me a Prestige, the really good local beer, and introduces me to Sophia, a volunteer from Harvard, and Stephanie, the director of English in Mind Institute. We talk about Haiti’s infinite potential, fueled by its people. I tell her I seem to have noticed a significant number of resigned faces. She explains to me that there is reason for that but the vast majority is working extremely hard to improve their lot. We talk about the tendency of big aid to reinforce a culture of dependence and self-entitlement among the local polity as well as its people; the tendency of church groups to evangelize in exchange for help; and the absence of support to organizations that promote ground roots initiatives. Stephanie’s program brings in volunteers from the US and other English speaking countries to help locals practice their conversational skills. The aim is to make the locals proficient enough to earn a shot at the tourism industry by becoming local guides, among other things. She is invested in redirecting the Haitian narrative from helplessness to self-reliance, and I couldn’t help but well up during our impassioned conversation.
She tells me her program has had enough success to allow her to acquire a plot of land nearby for a brick and mortar school. I volunteer to haul water and gravel to the site for stability testing which, I find out the next day, is not an easy task if you have a herniated spinal disc and only pails to work with. I also dig with my hands, because I forgot my gloves back at the center, which is triggering an allergic reaction, making my fingers look like ample hush puppies. But that night, I sleep with a poignant sense of happiness, not so much for the things I’ve done but for the things I’ve learned.
On my last night, I go around the center and take pictures of the nice little things I would like to remember—the methane gas burner that has a pipe running from the toilet; the other toilet with wood shavings in the bottom, the Earthship building I am familiar with due to a road trip to Taos with my siblings years and years ago, the work shop where volunteers and locals alike can do metal work to build instruments to help their occupations, Deke’s bottles of home made alcohol, the 3D printing lab that local youth and programmers have come to love, and the chicken coop taking shape in the moonlit night. Before bed, Sam Bloch, Haiti Communitere’s founder and Executive Director, pays a visit in my fabulous Star Wars tent. I find out that he has built a center in Leyte in the Philippines as well in response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which decimated towns and villages, taking in its wake twenty thousand lives and a couple of billion dollars of damage and loss of livelihood. I immediately like the guy, dreadlocks and all, because I find in him the same personal desire to bring together like-minded people to effect a far-reaching impact of help and leadership. He has acted upon his, while mine remains a desire.
Back in 2011, in Cagayan de Oro, my cousin, Juvylove, was on the phone with me, while I was on Facebook chatting with her mom in Chicago. She could not reach her mom with all the rain and overburdened cellular network, so I was a go between. I was giving her mother a blow by blow update on the flooding situation of their district in Balulang. But I never told her mom that the water is up to her, her husband, and her ten-year old daughter’s knees. And I never told her mom that they were standing on the roof of their water-logged house. But I promised that if I didn’t turn into a ball of helpless pajamas the next day, I will drive down to CDO from Bukidnon to help, whatever that meant at that time.
My cousin and her family survived, unlike a good number of their neighbors. I went down to CDO, and with the help of my high school classmates who are based locally and around the world, students from the school my family runs, the Valencia City Department of Education, my friends from the Philippine Madrigal Singers, my friends in Italy, the US, the UK, Spain, France, Australia, Singapore, and countless other places, oraganized two army truck loads of donated clothes, drinking water and anything I could find in my closet. It was dire, but I wanted to be able to sleep at night. In Cagayan de Oro, I learned that there is no more sense in heroism than the promise of poignant sleep.
In Port-au-Prince, I learned quite oddly that there is no face to the money, nor the help that we send out to, other than the one we look at every morning when we brush our teeth. In helping others, we ultimately help ourselves.
I am now back to the old routine, eat too much sugar, rack up a little more carbon footprint than I’m supposed to, and bury myself in books and senseless preoccupation. But everyday is a battle to stop myself from asking, Où se trouvent les toilettes? Où est le sommeil poignante?
All photos ©M. Sanchez