|Day 20, Leogane, Haiti. How is Haiti, anyhow?
||[Apr. 4th, 2010|12:40 pm]
I promised myself I'd write more this week, but I really beat myself up with a sledgehammer a few days in a row. Then I thought, if I can't write while I'm exhausted, I'm not going to write much about this experience. My defining characteristics over the last three weeks have been exhausted, filthy, and, what would you call a mixture of awe, horror, and sorrow at the destruction, awe, horror and sorrow at the general living conditions of Haitians, being impressed with Haitians going on with their lives, being impressed with my fellow volunteers for interrupting theirs, and exhaustion? Enough about me, though. I want to mention some events that have given me a little more insight into Haiti.|
Last week, I led a rubble team for the first time. Leading a team is not a lot of responsibility, really. There are just some things, like organizing tools in the morning and developing a vague plan for the job, that it's better for one person—anyone who cares to sign up to lead that day—to do. We drove about fifteen minutes to a fairly rural part of town, about eight of us and our green wheelbarrows, shovels, sledgehammers, and water bottles, in the back of a pickup, or “tap-tap.” The neighborhood is the site of a collaboration between Hands On and some other NGOs, including the ICRC, to replace damaged homes with transitional shelters that can withstand hurricanes and earthquakes. We'd already worked on a few home sites on the road we went to that morning, and knew some of the neighbors, which was good because there are no addresses in Haiti, so the only way anyone finds anything is by asking directions every couple hundred yards. I had a list of four or five homes and residents that had been assessed by our team earlier in the week, and we visited them one by one. At each stop, the driver, Mackinson, our translator, a volunteer from HODR's project in Gonaive, James, and I got out and asked all the neighbors for the homeowner we were trying to find. This invariably resulted in a lot of head scratching, pointing in different directions, cell phone calls, and, eventually, someone who looked like they happened to be passing by claiming to be the person we were looking for. Things did not go as planned.
The first house we stopped at was fine. I definitely have had to change my standards for what makes a habitable house, but four undamaged walls and a roof are a lot better than some folks have here. The second house was damaged, and would have been good work for us, but the person we had contact info for was a renter. Is the owner around? No, I don't know where he his. Can we call him? No, I don't have a phone, his phone number, or anyone's phone number. Well, sorry, but we can't tear down the remains of the house without, y'know, asking him first. The third house was just a wattle-and-daub shack, but a sound shack. It's pre-medieval squalor, but, we don't want to demolish a house while we don't know how long it will take another NGO to put up a shelter in its place. I don't blame anyone for this confusion. The assessment team did all they could, and the residents of these houses just wanted something better than the unsafe homes they were in. The last house we checked that day was a little different, though.
Mackinson, James, and I piled out of the tap-tap, and found the lady named on our list right away. An older lady in a mumu with wild hair, her house was about twenty feet by thirty-five, was one large room, had a wood-and-tin roof, painted sky blue on the outside, and had one fully and two partially collapsed walls. The inside was gloomy, and looked like it still had all her belongings in it. A large shrine with what looked like the Virgin Mary still hung on the one intact wall. As we approached it, though, she shooed us away. Translated through my poor (and James' worse) Spanish, she told me that anyone who removed anything from the house, or damaged it in any way, would be killed by an evil spirit that lived in it. She was a renter, and only the owner could exorcise the spirit, which wouldn't be for another couple of weeks.
Naturally, we didn't work on the house. James, a quiet, young, really strong guy, seemed sort of embarrassed by this. He said that vodou was a lot more common here, in the South, than it is in Gonaive, and that he didn't really believe in it, but, “I'm not going to work on that house, though.” No kidding.
I'm starting to do site assessments, which is great. I'm really happy to see a little more of the workings of the organization, and vary my days from pushing a wheelbarrow or organizing medicines in the hospital. I went on my first assessments yesterday, in our local neighborhood and in a nearby one that used to be the nice part of town, called Caboulet, but nicknamed “Cite Bourgois.” The houses there are still the cinder-block and concrete that are common in Haiti, but these were poured into fancier molds and the yards have walls topped with razor wire. The fancy concrete forms fell over just like every other building, though, and the razor wire surrounds piles of debris. The owner of the first home we assessed was a proud man, almost fifty, and neatly dressed with a silver chain around his neck. He said he was a mason, but there was no work, and that he was living in a tarp shelter up the road. His bank with his savings is destroyed. His work truck is in his front yard, crushed. His situation illustrated the point that Haitians didn't just individually lose their houses, possessions, jobs, and family members, but, here in Leogane, almost everyone did. If I lost my house, I could go live with friends or family. Here, everyone's support network was destroyed. No one, not president Preval, not Sean Penn or Danny Glover, not the UN, knows, really, what to do in this situation.
Last Sunday, a group of us went to Jacmel, a resort town on the southern coast. It's about 25 miles from here, over the Massif de la Selle mountain chain that splits this lower peninsula. In imitable Haitian style, it took us four hours to get there and two to get back, in the back of an open pickup. First, we had to check every gas station on the highway for the one that was open, then wait over an hour in line for gas. This was fine, as we bought candy bars and Pringles in the air-conditioned gas station (which also had four kinds of corn flakes, a real staple here) or hung out in the shade. Once we were on our way, there were still lots of stops for, let's see: picking up a spare tire, that we had to squeeze in amongst ourselves and our gear; picking up a spare driver, who drove most of the way over the mountains and back; changing a tire, which blew out almost as soon as we started up the mountains; and a couple stops for photos. We were a flexible group though, and stayed cheery through all of it. What other choice was there? I've traveled in the third world enough to realize that nothing goes as planned, but I've always gotten where I'm going.
Jacmel itself was startling. Compared to the mass destruction in Port-au-Prince and Leogane, it was, from what we saw, almost entirely intact. There were, of course, plenty of visibly damaged buildings, but there were also paved, narrow streets with views of the Caribbean, power lines that I believe were carrying electricity, a traffic light, open storefronts (instead of the occasional palm frond shack on the side of the road), and, in general, a functional city. On the beach, there were crowds of Haitians goofing off, cliff diving, and playing in the water. We went to a beach just outside of town for dinner with more, bigger crowds listening to loud reggae and hip-hop, eating lobster, and sitting in the breeze while the sun set over the water and palm trees. Seeing a part of Haiti that was functioning with a semblance of normality was incredibly unexpected and refreshing. It recharged my batteries for the work I'm doing and gave me some hope for Leogane, which is in far worse shape.
That's it for now. I'll send more soon.