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Couple new posts [Dec. 8th, 2010|10:10 pm]
pentheus
Evidently not blogging in weeks makes me want to post. Maybe it's being stuck on lockdown all day. Regardless, two posts today at Digging Out Haiti.
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My other blog [Nov. 12th, 2010|11:43 am]
pentheus
I've decided to stop re-posting my blog entries here, since it's kind of a pain and everything's up over at Digging Out Haiti anyhow. More to come there about cholera, flooding, mud, heavy equipment, and life as an aid worker in Haiti.
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Cholera [Oct. 24th, 2010|01:30 pm]
pentheus
The cholera outbreak in the Artibonite valley is far from us here in Leogane. Well, far by Haitian standards, where the 40 kilometer trip from Leogane to Port au Prince routinely takes up to four hours. I don't know much more than what's on the news; Thursday night we heard rumors of sickness from contaminated food or water that was in the North but might have spread. Today, there are 254 confirmed dead and over 3,000 sick. Cases have been reported outside of the Artibonite valley, despite what seems like a large WHO, PAHO, UN, Government of Haiti, and NGO effort to contain the epidemic. From Leogane, there's not much All Hands can do besides watch. If you're thinking of helping, Partners in Health is probably the best situated to treat and contain the outbreak.

I've learned a lot about cholera in the last two days. It kills, and spreads, by intense diarrhea and vomiting. Maintaining sanitation and clean drinking water are the best ways to prevent its spread and are basically impossible in Haiti. It's a country of nine million people with no water or waste water treatment plant. Ditches full of fetid water, overflowing pit latrines, and tainted wells are common. In the IDP camps, which are everywhere in a large radius around Leogane, conditions are much worse. This map is a day old, but shows two key facts about this epidemic: Saint Marc in the Artibonite division, which is the area of the outbreak, and the location of the main IDP populations. The cholera is still, probably, miles and hours from the camps around Port au Prince. If it reaches those camps, though, it will be very difficult to treat and stop.


From Biosurveillance, where the IDIS scale is also explained

Update:

Blogging about this is tough because news changes so quickly. When I wrote the above paragraphs last night, there were no confirmed cases of cholera in the capital. A few hours later, there were five. It doesn't sound like there have been any more in Port au Prince since last night, and Alert Net says the outbreak may be stabilizing. The rates of new infections and deaths are much lower. People are concerned but not at all panicked, at least, not in Leogane. Yesterday we took the afternoon off of work, as scheduled, and had a super relaxing barbeque for lunch, with the best food I've had since I returned, three weeks ago today. The mood has changed from anxious planning on what to do in variously escalating scenarios, to a calmer wait-and-see. I admit, watching the updates on Twitter that are tagged #Haiti #cholera didn't help my nerves. Of course, it's as much a stream of inaccuracies and speculation as information.

Here are some links that I've found useful on the situation:

MSF's Definition and Treatment of Cholera

The US Embassy in Haiti's Warden Message on the outbreak

Twitter's semi-literate babblings, in which people apparently make up random facts, like "How did u let this hapn when u nu hait wud have cholra!!!" but, once in a while, has useful links.

And if you want more fodder for worry, and occasional hope, go ahead and google Haiti & cholera twenty times a day like I do.
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Island Time on This American Life [Oct. 17th, 2010|06:47 pm]
pentheus
This episode of This American Life rings very true with my experiences here:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/408/island-time

Little of it is very revelatory, but it does a pretty good job of explaining some of the many reasons why change and progress is so difficult in Haiti.
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What if there are zombies under there? [Oct. 17th, 2010|06:01 pm]
pentheus


I didn't expect Haiti to have changed much in three months. I think that would have been naive at best. I was surprised at how little had changed in three months though. The incoming customs barn, which was half-built when I first arrived in March, is complete now, with baggage carousels so narrow that all the bags fall off, fans that aren't turned on despite the crowds and swelter, little rooms for customs to search people and their luggage. But those changes are, at best, superficial. I didn't get searched, or even spoken to by customs or immigration. My passport and entry card were silently stamped and I lugged my huge duffel out of the building, into the face of dozens of porters clamoring to take my bag or find me a cab or whatever to earn a few bucks. Fortunately, I knew the drill, and looked for the porter with a sign with my name, then waited for the guys who were sharing my shuttle with me to get through the circus.

Port au Prince didn't seem to have changed even slightly. It's still a whirl of bright, colorful truck canopies and graffiti, covered in mud and rust and smog. The first time I made the trip, in March, I suspected that we would drive the whole 25 miles to Leogane through windy, hilly, congested, unpaved surface roads through crowded neighborhoods of half-collapsed, two-story buildings. But no, after a tour of downtown, including the ruined national cathedral and presidential palace, we reached the national road. When I left Haiti in July, the large, central dome of the palace had been demo'd and cleared by heavy equipment. No visible progress had been made on it when I returned two weeks ago on October 3rd. Half-collapsed buildings in Port au Prince are still there, and people just walk or drive motorcycles around them. I had heard that no one wants to take on the job of clearing rubble in the capital because it's a logistical nightmare. This had given me a moment's pause, because it was exactly what I was going to do in Leogane, where I spent four months earlier this year. All Hands Volunteers, which is the new name of Hands On Disaster Response, asked me to return as a project coordinator in charge of heavy equipment.

LeoganeCollapse )
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Leogane, Haiti [Jun. 15th, 2010|02:44 pm]
pentheus
This has been a hell of a couple of weeks. I was going to write about Bill Clinton visiting. He rolled in with an entourage of about twenty UN SUVs to see a shelter that CHF, an NGO with a base in our backyard, had assembled across the street. He shook hands with some volunteers and posed for pictures, but I had gotten bored of hours of waiting in the sun by that point, so didn't get to meet him.

Mr. Clinton was quickly forgotten the next day when a man, posing as one of our local volunteers, hopped on a truck on the way to a worksite and started behaving erratically. He swung tools dangerously close to other people and respond to requests to stop. He behaved a little creepily toward several female volunteers, sitting too closely and staring at them. Eventually, he became totally unresponsive and worked very unsafely and the decision was made to stop work at the site. The only way to stop this man, who seemed increasingly crazy, from getting on the truck with our team would have been to physically restrain him, which people didn't want to do. Around this point we realized he wasn't part of our local volunteer program and actually no one knew him. Back in our driveway, he tried to enter the base and people were forced to push him away. Keep in mind, he hadn't said a word all day, stared past people into space, wouldn't acknowledge people trying to talk to him, and pushed past people into private space. Our day watchman, Williame, who also works in our next-door bar at night and who I had last seen napping with his head down on a table, grabbed this guy in an arm lock , marched him to the end of the driveway and let him go. We thought this was over until “the madman”, as he's still called, saw two female volunteers and charged them. He was tackled before he reached them, thrown into the street by a crowd of Hands On staff and volunteers, including me, and met with a wall of angry men and our landlord's angry guard dog until the police arrived in about then minutes. He kept staring and trying to walk past us as if we weren't there, looking for female volunteers. We heard that he was released that afternoon because the police can't hold crazy people.

Even that was largely forgotten a few of days later when there was a riot in our back yard. Every Monday, CHF hosts a recruiting meeting for its cash-for-work program at their warehouse and workshop right behind our base. Last week, this was so chaotic that they canceled it and sent hundreds of people away. They held an orderly recruiting drive the next day at the police station, but several dozen people who weren't hired came back here, started a bonfire right outside their warehouse door, and threw rocks. Three security guards from two NGOs fired their shotguns above peoples' heads to disperse them, we took cover behind lots of concrete walls, and Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers arrived a few minutes later and stayed for the rest of the day.

I have to admit, all of this was overshadowed by a five day trip to the Dominican Republic, where Kristen flew down to meet me. I was immediately infatuated with Santo Domingo, the capital. We stayed in the colonial zone, which hey, is the tourist area, but is also really beautiful, full of good restaurants, live music, ruins, cool breezes, and good rum. And it didn't have that many tourists. Coming from Haiti, the hard work, the lack of comforts, the confusion, the frustration, the heat, to Santo Domingo and its air conditioning, accessibility, cleanliness, cosmopolitan-ness, Spanish, variety of food, cool Latin style, and my girlfriend was so refreshing I was shocked. It may have been the best vacation of my life, but I also may have never needed a vacation so much. I'd happily return and maybe even spend a year there if I had the means.

Santo Domingo's cultural richness was a stark contrast to Haiti's poverty. The Dominican Republic has a really vibrant cultural scene on its own, and is also really connected to the larger Latin world, which has benefited it greatly. I heard musicians from all over Latin America playing a dozen different styles. There were books by writers and poets from all over the Americas in one of my hostel rooms. The national modern art museum had an exhibit of Picasso illustrations (and very few visitors besides me and Kristen) along with their great art from a dozen countries. These cultural and linguistic links put the DR firmly within a larger culture and it was refreshing and inspiring. Haiti has no such connections, even to other parts of the French-speaking Caribbean, let alone to France. Polpular Haitian culture and art, at least as I've seen it, is restricted. The most prevalent are repetitive hip-hip techno, imported reggae, and tchotchky tourist art. I have seen good art in Jacmel, but even that seems constrained by being limited to that city's art community.

Last week, I forgot about basking in the afterglow of my vacation when Jacob, our awesome translator who I've mentioned before, was the target of a threatening note. It was signed “some local volunteers”, implicating the people from Leogane who started working with us in early May. The writer was unhappy because Jacob is from Gonaives, where he worked with HODR on its last project in Haiti, and is paid.

In most places, I wouldn't take that note too seriously, but here it's nothing to brush off. Ultimately, Jacob decided to leave, and a lot of people were angry. I was enraged. Tensions were getting a little high, when HODR directors in the States decided to cut the local volunteer program from thirty participants, about fifteen of who showed up every day, to five per day. The letter of explanation essentially said this was a punitive measure for our local volunteers: “[The reduction] seems like a slightly unfortunate but generally mild repercussion. The local volunteers did not lose the program, the author(s) of this note did. It is unfair, I do concede, but if the local volunteers continue to work and the cap increases, then I hope they recognize that their actions will demonstrate what they're saying (that they support Jacob and they're in the program for the right reasons) and that they will have earned the program back.”

Happily, and unrelated to this response, really, Jacob decided to stay. Unhappily, every local and international volunteer was outraged at the decision to collectively punish the local volunteers. TC, the project coordinator who was in charge of the local volunteer program, resigned, and lots of people considered leaving or stopping work while the reduction went on. One reason given was that HODR “didn't know who to trust” after the note was received. Tim, who has been working with many of our local volunteers for months, said, “I know who to trust,” which is a very good point. The volunteers working in the field have grown really close with our local guys. Lots of international volunteers only stay here for a week or two; many of our local volunteers have shown up every work day for months now, and we've become good friends with them.

I, along with many here, wrote impassioned emails to the staff and directors of HODR. We circulated petitions. People took it on themselves to write proposals for a redesigned local volunteer program that didn't involve a punitive reduction to its numbers. We all wanted a response to the note that increased trust, integration, and affection, rather than reduced them, which we felt the staff's response did. Eventually, the decision to cut the local program was reversed before it was implemented, and we're focusing the local volunteer program on vocational and language training. It'll turn out well, but emotions were really elevated for a few days. I got distracted from the conclusion by a little bout with illness.

On Friday, I got pretty bad stomach cramps after lunch. Then I developed a fever and planted myself in front of a fan in the office while Christina, a nurse who's a volunteer here, put wet towels on me. At first I suspected some kind of heat exhaustion, but I am pretty used to the heat by now and hadn't done anything extraordinary that day. Within an hour or two, I had a really intense muscular pain deep in my shoulder and Christina said, “You know, take this chloroquine, just in case it could be malaria. I don't think it is, but it can't hurt.” I took chloroquine, Tylenol, ibuprofen, Gatorade, anything that I thought could help because the pain spread into my back and made it hard to move or breathe. The next day, it was worse. I began to think maybe it was, indeed, malaria instead of some heat exhaustion or stroke. Then a doctor from the hospital next door took one look at me, hear my symptoms, and said, “Oh yeah, you have it. You look just like all the malaria cases I've seen here.” I could have, but didn't get my blood tested. The tests they have at our local hospital aren't in a lab, and aren't very reliable. Medicine in Haiti is funny. It's sort of like carpentry I've done. They do just what's needed and no more. In the States, I would have had a long battery of tests. Here, I'll treat myself as if I have malaria and only worry if my symptoms worsen or change.

As it happens, my symptoms were, comparatively, nearly all better by the third day. Some fatigue and a bit of pain in my shoulder. It's now the fifth day, and they're about the same as on the third. I've taken it easy though—no physical work and mostly sticking around base. My symptoms cleared up so fast that I'm suspicious that it wasn't malaria, but maybe it was because I started taking an anti-malarial really early. Anyhow, I'm okay now and will start light field work tomorrow. I've been watching episodes of the new Doctor Who (have I really gone this long without watching Doctor Who?) and drinking lots of water. I was a little worried by the security implications of a crazy person, a riot, and a threatening note, but I don't think they are really part of a pattern. I'm more worried about malaria and heavy rains. Still, I only have three weeks left here, and am looking forward to getting home.
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Week Eight, Leogane, Haiti: How is Dylan Doing? [May. 16th, 2010|05:44 pm]
pentheus
How am I doing, anyhow? At the moment, as well as I have since I arrived, exactly two months ago. It's Sunday, our one day off, and I'm just trying to squeeze in some lazy relaxation, but it's been an eventful week. On Wednesday, a hotly anticipated and repeatedly delayed container full of donations arrived. There were lots of miscellaneous, but very needed tools like medium-sized bolt cutters for rebar, heavy chain, and pickaxe handles, some lifestyle items like two cheap bicycles, some mysterious things like two hundred five gallon buckets, and best best best of all, two Bobcat skid steers with various attachments.

The point of this message isn't to go into detail about the skid steers. They're small but terrifically powerful pieces of heavy equipment often seen in landscaping and essentially identical to the ones I've used for the DPW at Burning Man. We took one to a work site yesterday and it proved to be a shocking force multiplier, easily doing two days of the work of an entire fifteen-person rubble team in two hours, but who cares? What's important is that they're fun to drive out of all proportion with their utility. I drove them three days in a row and, completely coincidentally, ice cream vendors came to whichever site I was working at each day. And yesterday, Saturday, for some reason, was a half day with an American style barbeque for dinner. All of HODR's international and local volunteers, including me, were so relaxed and happy that it recharged my batteries way more than the “mental health break” I took a month ago did.

My batteries have needed recharging. The experience of being in Haiti is defined by a few things: hard work, frustration, disappointment, and mystification at the linguistic, cultural, and economic barriers between me and Haitians, and lack—lack of comforts, of variety, of family and friends, of ease.

Still, though far from luxurious, we have it a lot easier than almost any Haitian, here in our home base. This ease and isolation makes it tempting to tune out of Haiti for surprisingly long periods. Except for work, I can stay in our compound indefinitely, with meals, entertainment in the form of internet, books, or conversation, and the companionship of up to 120 other volunteers provided. This is comfortable, but numbing, and it makes the days pass too quickly. Still, I don't see easy ways to break out of what's become a bit of a rut, symbolized by this compound we live in. The language barrier between me and Haitians is pretty steep, since I speak English and Spanish, and they mostly speak Creole and French. Besides, I've been feeling antisocial lately towards Haitians and foreigners alike. Especially last weekend, I barely spoke to anyone and didn't do much more than read. I figured out by last Monday that this may have been explained by being a bit sick, with traveler's diarrhea and stomach cramps laying me low for Monday and part of Tuesday. Still, immodium, cipro, and rehydration salts got me well just in time for the Bobcats to get here.

But I still don't think this has solved my longer term problem of feeling disconnected to Haiti. Certainly I'm connected to Haiti every day through work, and I have tried to vary my work enough to make it interesting and rewarding. In the last week, I've dug out dirty, dusty rubble on unbelievably hot days with hand tools, met the administrator and head of PR at the mayor's office, discussed how HODR can be involved in the microfinance efforts of Finca, an international NGO that has a good history overall but a poor one in Haiti, driven skid steers, and coordinated all the jobs HODR is doing in Leogane by writing the daily job board (yeah, even when I was sick). Believe me, without this variety, I'd have lost interest in volunteering in the first couple of weeks. As is, I'm halfway through my stay here and doing more, and more interesting stuff than ever.

And yes, the work is rewarding and shows me parts of Haiti that I've never seen in most other countries where I was just a tourist. Still, for every reward, I am confronted with the glaring flaws in some of the concepts that international humanitarian work is based on, which I've touched on a little in the past and will write more about in the future. Individually, the projects that HODR does are worthwhile, but the overall efforts of the international NGO community seem insufficient and poorly coordinated. I just wish we could do far, far more, and the work doesn't buoy me as much as I'd hope. Still, HODR is “Hands On Disaster Response,” and isn't meant to engage in long-term, sustainable development. We're just here to dig out the rubble, and similar projects that are reactions to specific disasters, which is only sort of comforting.

And yes, I have some things that really keep me going. Chatting online with Kristen, Ben, and occasional others is a nice connection to home, although it also contributes to checking out of Haiti sometimes. Some jobs are much more fun or challenging than others, like operating the skid steers, taking down the extremely rickety and dangerous antenna tower that the radio station we share space with had erected, or assessing home sites for rubble clearing, and they keep me engaged and happy. Reading the books and magazines that get passed around is a nice way to pass time. Mostly though my mot rejuvenating activity is hanging out with the other volunteers, talking about work, reminiscing about the foods we miss, bitching about inconsiderate volunteers (courtesy and consideration being the most vital skills that over a hundred people need to live together), exploring Leogane's few restaurants, bars, bakeries, and stores, and its many street vendors, playing or making up sports or games, going to the beach, and trying to make our own fun. A volunteer returning from a wedding in North Carolina just brought us a hephaestan sixteen pound sledgehammer a moment ago, and we had to break it in by taking turns attacking a concrete and rebar beam that's in part of the base that's still under reconstruction.

But there is plenty that gets me down, like little illnesses. I have had unremarkable traveler's complaint a couple of times before last week, ringworm that went away with one day of anti-fungal medication, what may have been giardia but went away too quickly for me to seriously suspect it, heat rashes that come and go, a bad haircut from a local barber (“You should go! It'll be a little adventure!”), and probably other nuisances I'm forgetting. The monotony of the food and scenery I mentioned earlier is tough, as is the divide between us and Haitians.

In the end, I likely won't have taken radical steps to improve the problems I've mentioned. Some, like larger issues of the role of NGOs and a creeping dread of their futility, I can't affect. Others are not quite discomfiting enough to warrant a major change in my behavior. Most volunteers who leave talk about their inevitable return. Many do, in fact, return to the project. Will I return? Well, I desperately need paying work, but logistics aside, I don't know. I'm very happy that I'm here because it's a way to do real good for Haiti and an opportunity for myself, but I'll also be happy to have the comforts of home again. I have been wondering lately how I'll react to being home—sad, happy, raring to come back, swearing never to come back? I can't predict it from here.

Whew, long update, but it was the first in a few weeks. I'll write more soon (which is what I always say, right? Even when it's a month until the next message).
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Leogane, Haiti, meeting the neighbors. [Apr. 28th, 2010|07:37 pm]
pentheus
Leogane, Haiti, meeting the neighbors.

The last couple of days have opened a little perspective on the NGO world and Haiti, and provoked some thinking that has yet to germinate fully. Of course, I spend a lot of time thinking about what HODR does here in Haiti, how effective and even worthwhile its model is, if there are ways to improve it, and generally wrestling with existential questions like that. I'm spending this week assessing home sites with other NGOs, seeing how they work, and what their priorities are. I haven't decided if they're better or worse than HODR yet, but this experience is a good basis for comparison.

Monday, our translator Jacob and I spent the afternoon with two employees of the Spanish Red Cross, inspecting destroyed home sites in an outlying area called Grand Savanne. I want to take a second here to heap praise on Jacob. He's been my translator for almost all of the assessments I've done, and is the second half of my brain. He knows our operations, Leogane, me,and Haitians so well that, when he went on vacation last week I shouted at the nightly meeting, “Fuck it. We'll just have to stop operations till he gets back.” On with the story about The Red Cross in Grand Savanne. The last road there is just a rutted track that's washed out in some places and nearly invisible in others. It's not even very distant from Leogane, but population density drops to nearly nothing just a few blocks from the town limits and then it's palms, mango trees, and cows too hot to move. I was there to do our normal assessment for potential home sites to clear of rubble, but the Red Cross threw in a couple of changes.

First, we rode in an air-conditioned, white SUV, like a real aid worker. Let me tell you, it's a hell of a step up from clinging to the back of a tap tap with fifteen other volunteers and tools, with suspension only a sad memory. I hadn't worn a seat belt since the shuttle ride from Port au Prince, six weeks ago. Second, I'm coming to realize that HODR's model of lots of international volunteers and comparatively few local ones is rare. The two people I went with yesterday were a pretty large portion of the Spanish Red Cross's international staff in Haiti. Both have their pros and cons, but for what it's worth, many of the NGOs with small international staffs have tapped HODR for help in Leogane. Third, the Red Cross was seriously into prioritizing their work based on need, and on community involvement. HODR tries to do both, to a limited degree, but these were part of every conversation I had with Gonzalo and Rosario, the two Spaniards I worked with.

The 75 year-old lady who took care of her grandkids, alone in a tarp shelter next to her collapsed house, was “muy vulnerable.” The couple in their forties with two healthy, teenage boys running around was not. When they asked me what HODR's criteria were for jobs, I answered, “Well, we look at vulnerability, but mostly what makes us turn down jobs are physical restrictions, like jobs requiring machinery, multi-storey buildings, sites without a rubble dump, or buildings with human remains in them.” They looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I guess technically I was, but physical restrictions nearly made me turn down our last job. The only available rubble dump was hundreds of yards away, way to far to push a rickety wheelbarrow full of 120 pounds of rubble. Gonzalo and Rosario's solution was to have us dump the rubble in a small nook between a stand of palm trees and the road that would fill up instantly and they would provide tools for the locals to transfer the rubble to the distant rubble dump. This would be stunningly inefficient, confusing, and difficult, and would require the full participation of a pretty large crew of local volunteers, which is sometimes easy to come by and sometimes impossible. The family we talked to agreed, though, with the caution that we'd have to stop work if there were no place to put the rubble, and away we went. The Red Cross seemed to think this would work fine, but I have my doubts.

Yesterday, and for the rest of this week, I've been doing different types of assessments with Cordaid, a huge, Dutch NGO that no one's heard of, but they'll be in Leogane for five years, distributing ten thousand shelters. They already distributed several thousand questionnaires to households in Lomprey, another rural area twenty minutes from central Leogane that's nearly empty except for palm orchards, tall mango trees, views of the deforested mountains, livestock, and isolated houses or families in groups of houses. Lomprey was about a mile from the earthquake's epicenter. Our job was to visit home sites and assess them for suitability for one of Cordaid's shelters, which sound more like small, permanent, modern, pressure-treated lumber frame houses to me than transitional shelters. I've seeen a lot of traditional Haitian homes this way. They're built of rough palm planks or palm frond thatch, and roofed with tin, sometimes painted in a primary or pastel color, and have decorative cutouts over their porches. When they're packed into a city, these houses are called “gingerbread.” In Lomprey, they're the only houses that survived the quake intact at all. Some have been so buried by sedimentation during yearly hurricane floods that they're mostly underground, with only their roofs exposed. Most are two rooms, house up to a dozen people, aren't very waterproof, and are infested with spiders and vermin. None have electricity, running water, or plumbing of any kind.

What struck me the most of this experience was the town meeting that Cordaid arranged yesterday to introduce the program to the community. About a hundred people showed up to the mayor's yard and sat in the shade of a huge, spreading mango tree. The mayor, or “elected representative” was there, as well as Carl, the assistant to the shelter director of Cordaid in Haiti, and Marie Maud, the extremely animated and charismatic Haitian woman who is Cordaid's director of social development in Haiti. I really appreciated that Cordaid would have an open meeting like this. In typical Haitian fashion, it started late, and ended with a lot of passionate arguing about the best way to get trucks into a neighborhood where the primary transport is horseback. What was best though was watching Carl, as pale as a Dutch winter and looking wilted, fan himself, drink water, and speak quietly while Marie Maud, through a megaphone, translated for him in what was nearly a vaudeville act. She brought a drummer, started the audience off with a sing along, and elicited applause, laughter, and “amen!” throughout the meeting. I think she may not have been literally translating. She emphasized that, although Cordaid would supply the materials and some help building the shelters, the responsibility for constructing and maintaining them was the community's. “The responsibility is YOURS and YOURS and YOURS,” she said while poking her finger at individuals in the audience and bugging her eyes out. Everyone nodded along and seemed to understand. Standing there, sweat pouring down my ribs even in the breeze, watching the palms sway away to the mountains, I had one of those “holy crap, I'm in Haiti” moments, where the reality of what I'm doing and where I am is unignorable. They're increasingly rare as I get more used to being here, but they remind me to keep my mind on task.

Thanks for reading everyone. Other than busy and working hard, I'm doing well. I'll write more about me later.
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Day 20, Leogane, Haiti. How is Haiti, anyhow? [Apr. 4th, 2010|12:40 pm]
pentheus
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.
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Day six, Leogane, Haiti [Mar. 22nd, 2010|07:16 pm]
pentheus
Hello again all. This will be a tired update after a hot day demolishing a concrete house, but several people have asked about our living accommodations, so here you go.

Hands On Disaster Response treats us, their volunteers, pretty well. We're housed in a building that was an under-construction nightclub before the earthquake. There's a basketball court-sized, open central area, with covered wings, some side rooms for an office and kitchen, and a roof. As of today, we have about seventy volunteers, sleeping on bunks under one wing, or in tents that are a bit scattered all over. In our orientation, we were told to pitch our tents in such a way that we wouldn't obstruct anyone's escape path if there were another tremor. There hasn't been one here in a couple of weeks, but it's always a possibility.

We have lots of things that most Haitians don't, especially those living in tents or crude shelters in IDP camps, don't. We have a roof, clean drinking water, running water from a well, toilets that flush (well, by pouring a bucket of water down them), bucket showers, a safe building, electricity from six to ten pm, satellite internet, a good first aid station and a hospital next door, a steady supply of propane for the kitchen, a steady supply of food. We know how good we have it. Our base is so good that people from several other NGOs or professional organizations have stayed with us in the six days I've been here.

The man who owns the property, Joe, is a Haitian who has lived in New York for many years. He came back here after the quake to see to his property, and see what he could do. Enterprisingly, he's opened an internet cafe in one part of the building we're in, and a bar in another. He's also let several hundred people stay on his property. Those are the people who's homes we're trying to clear first, and they're going to be some of the first to receive the transitional housing that CHF International, another NGO, is storing and assembling in our back yard.

The bar next door, and our electricity, shut down at ten pm, sharp. That's our curfew, violation of which is grounds to be kicked out of the program. This is for a few reasons. One, although we are building a very good relationship with the community here, personally and professionally, Haiti isn't safe. Street crime is present as assaults, robberies, and kidnappings. We don't walk through town after dark either. The second reason is that we get up really early—breakfast is at 6:30 am—and the last thing anyone wants is people stumbling in at midnight.

The other offense that could get a volunteer fired is drinking on the base. This wasn't always HODR's policy, but, according to the executive director, drinking caused nearly all of the serious interpersonal conflicts in their history, so no drinking. It's hardly an inconvenience with a bar so close by. Of course beers are half the price a fifteen minute walk away.

Our food is fine. It's pretty monotonous, but I'm not complaining. It's mostly beans and rice, occasionally spaghetti, with some kind of meat and salad. There's not much in the way of condiments, like spaghetti sauce, but ketchup and hot sauce go a long way. Today we had spiced hot chocolate, which was just about the best thing I've had in days. Breakfast is cornflakes, oatmeal, coffee, tea, and powdered milk.

We occupy ourselves with lots of small things that take a surprisingly long time, like doing laundry by hand, applying sunscreen or bug spray, or taking bucket showers. There are passtimes though. On a given night a few of us are going to the two or three bars that are open and within a few minutes by motorcycle taxi (a very exciting experience), one of which sells burgers, fries, and ice cream, so it's pretty popular. Last Sunday, our one day off a week, we made up a game, “HODR Ball,” when a soccer ball fell onto the camo net that's strung across the basketball court for shade. We knocked it off with long cardboard tubes that were lying around, and decided it was so fun we'd make up some rules, and a sport was born. The tournament's this weekend. I've been doing all of these, and reading, writing in my journal, trying to learn creole, and going to bed early.
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