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Week Eight, Leogane, Haiti: How is Dylan Doing? - Dirty Little Prophecies [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

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Week Eight, Leogane, Haiti: How is Dylan Doing? [May. 16th, 2010|05:44 pm]
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).