Posted by: posthaiti | January 24, 2009


pure coffee in sip
one morning angry but snow
missing Haitian heat

one haiku, inspired by being home for a few weeks. as i prop my body up, about to pass out from fatigue, flu, hangover, whathaveyou, i keep thinking about the stars in the Gonaives night sky.

the stars were incredibly bright there; they knitted the sky together, really. every night, after the immense, charcoal moon would rise and set, the stars would emerge. wham. so many. so bright. every night, Orion, Cassiopeia, the Big and Little Dippers, so many others. for the first time in my life, i saw ALL seven of the Seven Sisters, or Pleiades. never before have i seen much beyond a blurb of six, but in Haiti, i could actually see seven. (to be fair, there are nine that are supposedly most visible, in a cluster of 1000 stars. still, it’s called the Seven Sisters, so i’m holding the Greeks to it.)

we’d see them from the balcony of the former hotel that HODR had set up as our base camp. from what i could gather, the Hotel Sterling was an abandoned hotel, and HODR came in September and built out bunks, dug a well, rigged it to a generator, and put in showers and sinks that had running water. (they also scouted out the area to see what they could do to help the locals dig out from four successive tropical storms, met and made Haitian friends, partnered with other local NGOs, etc.)

anyway, the water was cold, but cold felt amazing when you finished a sweaty, dusty, dirty day in the mud. and St. Joe’s, the boys orphanage where we stayed on our overnight between getting to PAP and being hauled by 4×4 truck to Gonaives, barely had showers. so all in all, shower = good. electricity = good. gas to run the generator to make the electricity = good. all these things, of course, we take for granted in the US. it’s not that that particularly hit me so much when i came home, as i’ve lived in Europe and have traveled to places outside the US where water had to be strictly conserved. it was more the feeling of appreciation for that one shower a day that gave me pause, for being able to suds up, wash and condition my hair, and rinse — a miracle! in NYC, i take at least one shower a day, sometimes three! once in the morning to wake up, and these days, once at night to get warm. sometimes i go to the gym, and i’ll shower there. that’s a lot of showering, people. i’m not even that dirty.

the rooms were basic: anywhere from between four to about 15 bunks to a room with one shared toilet and shower in each room. i slept on the top bunk, good for waking up to quietly amazing sunrises and for hearing and smelling Haiti creep in through the screened windows in the dead of night — the near-constant cackling of roosters, the sound of the night, the smell of burning, of dust, of burning garbage, of something nasty. i got used to it and, actually, started to enjoy it after a while. i still don’t know exactly what that smell was.

in the mornings, the sun would wake me up before my errant alarm, which i stopped using and came to rely on Tamara tapping my foot. i became almost immediately known as the girl with the really, *really* annoying cell phone alarm, which i accidentally let go off on the first morning because i fell asleep drunk and woke up with, well, this time a swift shake by Tamara saying, ‘hey it’s morning, time to get up.’ we’d have breakfast together, which consisted of the basics: bread, powered milk, jam, peanut butter, and maybe Nutella. on special occasions, someone would make pancakes, which were a treat. pancake mornings were the only mornings i would eat anything. i’d usually be feeling a bit queasy by the time i woke up, and by 7, the heat was already significant. at 6:30, it was still a bit cool, but you could feel the humidity rising. within a half hour, the sun was blazing, your body was already hot, you felt the first beads of sweat on your lower back, and you were like, oh yeah, can’t WAIT to shovel and barrow mud in this sun for the next eight hours. but we did.

all i did was dig mud. there were other projects, but i felt that i might as well dig while the diggin’s good, so to speak. plus, i didn’t know anything about well construction, which was part of another project that HODR was/is invested in. it wasn’t like i was a monster at shoveling and wheelbarrowing mud, but i got used to it. most days, it was the same. by 7:30, the team leaders were screaming, ‘load up, load up, Team [insert fun team name here, like Team Sapibon, known for taking breaks to suck Haitian popsicles called sapibon every fifteen minutes — believe me, i tried to be on that team more than once, but after a while, the sapibon lost its luster],’ and we’d have to throw the barrows, shovels, buckets, and ourselves into (onto?) the top of the open bed pickup that would whisk us off to the mud sites. (for the record, i’m not sure careening up a dust-engulfed road among hundreds of other vehicles, including teeming busses, taptaps, mototaxis, and random people on bikes, could really be described as being “whisked off,” but whatever. subjectivity is much more comforting here.)

once safely unloaded at a mud site, the team lead would first scout out the house to see where rooms could be most effectively dug so that we could open the place up to two or more entrances/exits. that way, as i unfortunately found out on my second, MUCH MORE DIFFICULT day, we could move the barrows continuously through the home, carting mud nonstop from the shovellers up the usually bumpy, dirty, dusty “path” that we had to carve out to roll the barrow over and dump the mud next to. there were many a curse word, yes, pushing a 40-pound wheelbarrow full of wet mud up a hill, usually passing kids staring or adult men laughing.

the housese were simple: several rooms, cement floors, a tin roof. sometimes, there wasn’t a roof, or there were warped pieces of wood spliced between the walls, holding up some cheap covering. the mud was from the hillsides, which in Haiti are completely eroded due to foreign companies, in cahoots with the government, chopping all the trees down and exporting the timber. it’s amazing to drive through Haiti and see this form of strip mining — there’s so little vegetation and it’s quite stark, there are no trees. every four years or so, according to locals, major flooding occurs after big rains or tropical storms. 2008 was a devastating year, landing not just one, but four hurricanes and tropical storms over the course of the summer and fall. the rains washed the loose mud down from the bare hillsides, where it settled in people’s homes. when the waters receded, the mud, sometimes as high as four or five feet, remained. HODR decided that it would take on the simple (well, that’s relative) task of carting shovels and wheelbarrows into the local community and manually removing la bou, as it’s called in Creole. last i heard, HODR had moved 2.6 million pounds of mud!

anyway, most of the time we were a spectacle, or as i called it, a free matinee for the local people. i mean, if you saw a bunch of “blancs” (white folks) pushing wheelbarrows in sweaty grey shirts that said “Volunte” on the backs, you’d come out of your house and watch, too. what a lot of us didn’t get, and what caused some to become angry and volatile, was the lack of willingness to help on the part of the local Haitian neighbors, and sometimes, even the homeowners themselves. i’ll come back to this in another blog post, but the sense of owning your time/getting yours while the gettin’s good, i keep referring to it as, is very strong in Haiti. desperation takes all forms, i guess.

we’d return to base camp around 11:30, have a two-hour lunch, and then go back to the mud site till about 3:30. quitting time was, in a word, sweet. some days, i was so tired i couldn’t eat lunch or dinner. hence, that whole “why do i feel like i’ve been on a Master Cleanse fast for two weeks?” feeling that i couldn’t shake for the first week-and-a-half after coming home, as well as the close to 5+ pounds i lost. on my last day, though, i felt like the Terminator. not sure why, as i had gotten my usual four hours sleep (thanks, malaria pills, and more on that “experience” in another post), had drunk at least four or five beers the night before, and was definitely hung over (or should have been). Nate, a frequent team leader, told me it was because my body was using the alcohol as fuel, a direct shot of gas being cleanly burned by the hard work, and sweat out immediately. could be. most other days, i was dead tired. callouses everywhere, my hair, like everyone else’s, caked with dust, almost in dreadlocks.

we’d clean our tools with either water from wells around the neighborhood or at base camp. once, we took it from a “river” that ran next to the house we were digging out and into which i saw a little boy take a piss. at base camp we’d have time to undress in the “undressing room,” where we left our mud clothes behind for another day, and go upstairs to shower. we’d eat together on the steps and chairs outside the kitchen, then move upstairs for the nightly group meeting. during the meeting, the team leaders would update everyone on what each team had accomplished that day, issues would be addressed, communal tasks assigned (lunch dishes does not equal fun, as i found out on my first day), and new volunteers introduced. after that, we were free.

at night, a crowd of volunteers would usually grab beers up the street at either New Bar Across the Road, or SpeakerMan. the bars were simple: automotive shop by day, place with beer and speakers by night. ahh, SpeakerMan — i have never seen such huge cockroaches above and around the cracks in the pavement and walls near the “toilet.” three inches of absolute disgusting. more on SpeakerMan, our rockin’ New Year’s Eve dancefest, and the mighty cockroaches that only seemed to come out at night, at the bar, while you were drunk, and had to pee — near them — in another post.


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