Thursday, March 25, 2010

Day 10-13, 3/21-24: Patience... more Patience

So immediately after my last post I left for Church with two of the Haitian volunteers who had sheepishly invited me. Central to the Haitian life is the spiritual life (tap taps all sport Christian slogans), so I figured why not stretch my faith practices and attend. Tourism quickly transformed into immersion as all of the other non-Haitians bowed out, and so I joined up with three of the locals for the long walk to the Labor Church of the Resurrection. I looked downright ratty in my skinny jeans, wrinkled button up, overgrown beard, and worn choco sandals. The rest of the 'brothers' more closely resembled a starched-white reenactment of 'Tombstone' as we walked side by side on our way to the Church.

The service was held in the Narthax, though I was lead also through the sanctuary to look at the earthquake damage. Painted on the wall were the words in English and Creole "Being Patient makes you more Patient" and "Being Strong makes you more Strong." This made more sense after the 4.5 hours of service in which I sat in a position of honor right behind the Pastor's podium (which had a fan!), introduced myself to the congregation, and clapped and sang
in half-comprehension. They seemed to look to me when they played 'Give thanks with a Grateful Heart,' and I have to say, it was a burning 15-minute version featuring trumpets, trombone's, and alto sax, and a very tight groove from the drum and bass. Even though it was in Creole... hearing the melody to this Contemporary'Christian standby, was comforting- in the way that anything based on the progression to Canon-in-D is bound to be.

Julmice was kind enough to try and translate during the sermon on I Timothy 2:9-10 (and thankfully did not dwell on :11->>), Jon 2:15-17, and then a few passages from the Old Testament. There was so many things said, and so much haste in translation that I would hesitated to make blanket statements about one group of Haitian religious belief, but I
will confirm that earthquake (known here as 'the event') is believed by many (or atleast this Pastor) to have been a spiritual reckoning. hurts and shocks me to think that some Haitians would internalize this catastrophe as a reaction to dressing immodestly (I Timothy), or from worldly greed (Jon), which is almost laughable for one of the poorest countries in the world. Otherwise, the congregation could not have been more welcoming or generous in spirit. They thought I was a pastor from America! I was invited back for another round of prayer later in the afternoon, but I politely declined. I probably would have fainted, not that it would have raised any eyebrows.


The next day I found myself looking at a strangely familiar face. And no, it was not another Haitian friend around town or at the market, but the picture of a missionary (Pere Reiser?) that I had seen in a framed picture the day before at Church. On this Monday I signed up as the second person on a team to be a handy-man at a senior center/school. There were 13 projects ranging from the small (fixing bookshelves to the walls), to the medium (constructing cement ramps for the handicapped), to the intimidatingly large (reconstructing a 25' x 50' building with a teetering roof and precariously damaged columns). This was complicated by the help of 5 hired Hatian workers and loosely managed by a Phil (from the UK) who worked for Johannister (a German medical NGO) funded by a Church in Michigan, USA. So... upon arrival, we were looked at as the foreman that we weren't, and expected to deploy circuitous capitol and get multiple balls rolling. However, further boiler-plate structural projects dramatically whittled down the scope of the project and I was able to schedule engineers to evaluate building damage later that week, as well as bring in an experienced demolition expert that afternoon to plan the most technical deconstruction.

Related to the senior-center, and the school, however, are the conversations regarding the scope of HODR, as well as those of other agencies. Above all else we/HODR try to take on projects that are feasible, and assess fundamental health, housing, safety, disease intervention, education and disaster preparedness in the devastated City of Leogane. However- there are also qualifying limits for those projects that they be the result of the earthquake. Sure, fixing electrical sockets may not be earthquake recovery, but it would more efficiently put children back in classrooms (as opposed to planned activities to build shcools!) Rehabilitating Haiti to January 11th, is simply reconstituting a chronically poor and unlivable nation-state. Who cares about technical scope when there is the opportunity to transform an area with higher and more legacy-oriented approach?


After the slow day in Gracia, I hopped onto a rubble-project within walking distance. Again, though, I found myself at odds with the approach of some other team members (teams are typically 6-12 people in an evolving organization of over 80), as I sought to disassemble walls where others wanted to smash, sledge, and demolish. As sad and futile as it seems, the reality is only the shelters from Oxfam, CHF, Habitat etc. utilize wood, steel, and aluminum, while most of the rebuilding is still done with cinder-blocks and rebar. (Though understand these are the physical resources on an island without forests). With this in mind, for families that had invested and subsequently lost their savings in their homes, I am extremely focused on carefully disassembly, separation of cement, and organization of those surviving cinder blocks so as to facilitate reconstruction on a subsequently cleared slab. By working through the breaks I was mostly able to keep pace with the more adrenaline-junkie 'rubblers' and save a few pallets worth of blocks for the next house, and our whole team was happy to finish by lunch.

In the afternoon I headed back towards a rubble-site close to Gracia, which unlike much of the oppressively hot and sun-exposed sites of downtown Leogane is located in the shady country and more sparse agricultural neighborhoods. It seemed almost unfitting to pick our way down through these small green lanes, past white horses, piglets laying in the mud, and puppies (yes puppies) chasing each other through the bushes-- to then come to then see a half-fallen house with a roof pinned between trees and foundational walls. However, it was a great opportunity to see Bear (Brian) carefully strategize and attach pull-ons and ropes to carefully and safely fall the roof in stages. That, and I got an excuse to climb trees and tie sailor knots.

Cuban Salsa and Casino Rueda capped off the evening, but was the sweatiest salsa I had ever participated in. Lots of open position!


Seeking a little relief for my lower back (being a musician, read: amp mover, = bad back), I opted to do 'house cleaning' for a day... what fun! My partner in crime was Brian- one of the small group of volunteers that is particularly interested in Haitian history, language, and politics... as opposed to the equally complementary but generally ever-present do-gooder types. My full-immersion approach to buying an AM/FM radio and only listening to Haitian music cracked a few seams when we powered up his laptop during breakfast dishes. Oh how I missed some of my more regular diet of music- and was delighted that he had Feist's 'Let it Die' album on his computer. Great compositions, lyrics... but what makes it for me is its production. As an example, the title track features some sparse but tasty vibraphone backing parts that are made all the more intimate through the faint sounds of its paddles vibrating in perfect subdivision to the BPM. Loved it.

However, every high must be followed by its low, and the realities of the base are not always pretty. The men's bathroom, no problem, but the women's.... ewww. Multiple courses of scrubbing, sanitizing, and bleaching were rewarded with a disesel fueled bonfire of the mountains of toilet paper mixed with kitchen trash. So be it. Even so, I enjoy checking in with my hyper-tidy side, and had a few opportunties to be creative. Lack of soap holders? Cut up old peanut butter jars! Shower-faucet buckets flooding the bathroom? Raise the buckets on bricks! I think we even came up with a new recipe for scrubbing the dining tables that restored them to their shiny-granite(like) lustre... rather than the molted brown that most had become accustomed to.


I can't believe it has been only, and already two weeks. One week to go... and I'm already having cliche but true feelings of belonging to such potent experiences here with Hands-On. Thanks for reading friends...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Day 10, 3/21: State of the HODR

Yesterday I signed up to 'play with kids' in the afternoon, as I had finished a project earlier in the day, needed a break from rubble, and, well, felt like it would nice to play with kids (when not otherwise committed). How Fun!

We played duck-duck-goose (at insanely fast speeds), blew bubbles, scrimmaged soccer (limit of du blanc's per team, no shoes allowed), and performed a variety of circle-dancing games. Perhaps I can get Berhleen to teach me the lyrics before next Saturday. All in all, its amazing how little you need to prepare (grab some bubbles, a jump rope, and a beach ball), before you have 300 kids descending out of the nearby camps and markets amped up and ready to go. I was surprised to recognize atleast 25 kids from my stay here, and remember 10 names (....maybe).

Last night we also heard an informal address from the Executive Director, David Cambell, which was wonderful. HODR is a very new 501(3c), that was unofficially constituted in Thailand, and then officially incorporated following Katrina. It has 6 staff, and is currently running projects in Indonesia and Haiti. My post yesterday was my impression of HODR's role following a disaster, but last night's talk confirmed/clarified their belief that HODR's greatest strength is quickly mobilizing willing volunteers to enter a disaster and take on meaningful roles that otherwise are not addressed. Through an organization-wide 'can-do' attitude, HODR can build bridges (figuratively), and fill those gaps that otherwise might not be under the purview of the Red Cross, the Korean Army, Doctors without Borders... and has begun to be noticed. Following from this, the World Food Program (the largest humanitarian organization in the World) just announced that HODR will be managing its logistics base here in Leogane. Big Deal.

One of the things he emphasized, in addition to giving a state-of-HODR, was the sheer magnitude of the disaster. The Haitian government just released its assessment- and has laid out a 10-year plan for recovery of the estimated $10.5 B in damage. There is also an evaluative tool called DALA- which calculates the net impact of diasters relative to GDP, and it has concluded that the Haitian earthquake is the worst event recorded in its 35 years since it began. Unlike a disaster like the Tsunami, or Katrina.... this event had almost every risk-factor for collapse working against it. Economical frailty. Highly urbanized. A mountainous island. 35% of its residents live in P'a'P, and yet the city accounts for 85% of its GDP.

Recovery to the now infintely-distant status quo would still mean a severly diminished standard of living, so many are seeing this as an opportunity for transformation. The Hatian government is actually looking at this disaster and pursuing "devolution," or what might more readily be understood as de-urbanization. By strengthening some of its other cities and rural communities in Jacmel, Leogane, Gonaives.... they hope to spread risk and development, while providing incentives to invest outside of P'a'P. I wonder what the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings would think of this...

Last night ended with a trip back to 'Massage' with a more generous window before curfew to relax and hang out. We were lucky enough to witness a case of 'Prestige' beer being brought out of the hallowed back of the bar- a brew that all acknowledge as Haiti's best beer, and many testify to being a world-class lager. You have to pass a litmus test of trust just to get a bar-tender to relinquish one of these sweaty-gems, but its worth it.

I also took a little solo-diversion up the street to find a few table games (such as a Haitian version of Roulette) being played by oil-lamp. I talked to a guy named 'Kerry' who was very passionate about Jay-Z, Neyo, and even Kanye (which seemed appropriate since he was also sporting an Argyle sweater- very K'West). A few fights broke out, but I was told they were between brothers (which seems healthy enough :p ).

Answers to the Commented Questions:

I can't upload more than one or two pictures per post because our sattelite connection is super-slow and we have to ration our 1G of bandwith for the entire base.

Sanitation in the camps is all over the place. The Canadian base was distributing 40,000 pot-toilet-platforms, and the local hospital supplies clean water at the perimeter of its walls. Basic education initiatives are still very important though (hand washing, disease education), and HODR is about to launch a malaria intervention program that wilkl include sending people around the community to educate and install bug nets in the homes of the Haitian community.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Day 8-10: 3/17-3/20

I am sooooo behind on the Haiti blog, but thats how the cinder-blocks crumble sometimes.

Yesterday we had some water issues. For drinking water we have these sparklett's like bottles, which are consistently stocked. However for our 'running' water we have two cisterns of which one feeds the kitchen and bathroom, and the other feeds the showering buckets. When the well-pump broke (which feeds the cisterns) we were then out of commission, so had to walk a fair bit away from camp to get some murky showering water from a nearby well. This is one iota of the sorts of water problems many faces in the Global South, with significant amounts of home-makers' time spent retrieving scarce amounts of water- but it is intellectually grounding to walk with a bucket a mile in their shoes. (in the water sense).

This morning I lead a team to finish the Rousseau house... which went much quicker than I expected and we found ourselves walking back to the base to get on another project. Though Katie S. had missed only this morning's work on the Rousseau house (that started Monday), I was the only person who was there on each day, and really enjoyed making friendships with Eddie, Rousseau, Tanya, Joven... and playing a little soccer with them once we swept off the slab. I can't speak for the others, but it seems like everyone got alot out of their time there, and enjoyed working on a site that featured my portable radio! (We would get excited when the occasional American song would come on... even Mariah Carey's 'Hero'- (of which the real hero's are our rebar-reinforced wheelbarrows)).

But perhaps the most poignant song would have been Time to Say Goodbye, by Celine Dion. HODR's accomplishments are significant here- having completed 34 projects by today since arriving in Leogane less than a month ago. These have ranged from the rice'n'beans of HODR- which is rubble clearance from property- to creating an NGO relief community and organization hub in Leogane- which just began with two massive WFP tents. There's even talk of a helicopter pad. And yet... it took, on average, 10 people every day since Monday to clear one house. From my perspective the greatest value that HODR and its self-selective volunteers bring is enduring relationships rather than concrete accomplishments. By being generalists in a morass of specialists (engineers, doctors, even Acupuncturists-without-Borders!), HODR is able to do unique and timely work. As an example, one of the projects involves hospital 'runners' that help to create institutional memory at the main hospital in Leogane, given that a new set of doctors rotates in every week. As skilled as they are, simply having an EMT, or ::Gasp:: an unskilled volunteer to inventory a pharmacy, build shelves, or organize supplies can have a tremendous improvement to medical operations.

As important as those external relationships may be, those within the base have been just as meaningful. As with any living organism, the HODR base is constantly renewing its cells- with some volunteers lasting the entire project (6 Months) and others only stopping in for less than a week (woooo! Spring BREAK!) Today was a bittersweet day to lose Adam (on crutches from a mis-landed backflip), Mark (in good health and spirits), Bogart (my picture taking buddy and Micro-Four Thirds enthusiast), and his wonderful girlfriend Sam (a great latin dancer). As a said... with a self-selective group, there is bound to be some great friendships, and I am sure I will continue to make more. Go networking! (Ewwwww.....)

For a proper send-off, we hopped on moto-taxis (motorcycles) for a quick 15 Gourdes ride to a club called 'Massage.' Beer was 15 Gourdes. I'll be going back. (40 Gourdes = 1 US).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Day 7, 3/17: Fun at the Market

Still more work to be done at the Rousseau house, but thats not such a bad thing. I initially had 'known' rubble was the worst project, which was then downgraded to 'thought,' and by now is just 'meh.' You get addicted to it. I want to see that rubble down, and Rousseau back on his foundation in a tent or building a wall, and it is hard to let go of that until every last sledge has broken, and every last wheelbarrow debilitated.

Some of you may be wondering what the point of the rubble projects are. The act of consuming so much energy to demolish and then relocated tremendous amounts of concrete piles to other piles 40 feet away can seem pointless. Sisyphisian even. (Without the hill). In a nutshell, if you clear a plot or a foundation you can then place the owner back on his or her own property in a temporary shelter (another free-product HODR works on, and then proceed to slowly build back up a permanent home. This removes families from the tent camps- which run the risk of becoming permanent chaotic neighborhoods.

I learned a few more words from Eddie today and memorized the rest of the names of the visitors. After a hard day of work myself and a fellow vegan, Maggie, went to the Market with Elanor to get a few items. It was particularly valuable that Elanor had made a friend when working at the hospital- Reynaldo- who helped us barter on our fruits, snacks, and even a portable radio for me. (The first stolen from a site, but not loud enough anyways!) I'm excited to try out my 'General Star' radio today (a division of G.E I believe), and get a listen to talk (94.9) and music (94.5). The real prize of the Marget though was the soursop (span: Guabanya?). Maggie and I spent the next hour making all sorts of yummy juices, and boy was she pumped!

Joe's followed where there was a tentative St. Patty's day party. Instead of the usual beer, Presidente, they were serving Tsing Tao (60 Gourdes).

Back to Rousseau's again today, and perhaps we will get a few more mangoes today!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Day 5/6, 3/15-16: [Lowering] the Roof

These last two days have been a return to the fundamental problem right now in Leogane: fallen houses. I forget which architect said "earthquakes don't kill people, architecture kills people," but one thing that comes out of deconstructing and removing whole houses is the realization that these houses are not lacking strength, thought, investment, or planning. Our project that started on Monday was removing Rousseau's leveled house from
its foundation. While the foundation was more or less unharmed, as was the roof, the walls were completely destroyed.

Not unlike a child opening the box of an X-Box on Christmas to find wool sweaters, the first few swings into Rousseau's perfectly-in-tact-but-resting-on-broken-walls-and-rubble revealed extensive re-bar reinforcement. Good for structures, absolutely debilitating for demolition. Thus these last two days have focused on sledge hammering through a very firm roof, needling out the rubble, untying the wires that connect the rebar, removing the rebar, then removing the rubble in wheelbarrows. Tough work! Yesterday shattered four sledge-hammers. Today only broke two ... (as we were busy with dismantling rebar to be reused on the next home).

Maintaing yourself in a marathon (not a sprint) can be quite difficult, but the saving grace of this site in no particular order has been: a huge tree that provides afternoon shade on the roof and mangoes, and, good people (Haitian and International Volunteers).

Tonight was especially packed at the base with members of Curitas (NPO), and a volunteer team of structural enginners (RFFP) that were temporarily staying at the base. My creole is getting quite a bit better as I have tried to take on tasks when other Haitian volunteers are assigned to them, (such as today's lunch dishes). I now know some kitchen words (courtesy of Venus and Behrleen), working/construction words (courtesy of Richardson, Eddie, Vince), and grammer, phrases, and all the rest through my conversations and twice weekly sessions with Gilbert (pron. Geel-bear). I initially did not think it would be worth it or possible to take on a new language in 3 weeks, but the immense amount of interaction on job sites makes it practical and rewarding.

Also, I have been going by 'Ross' since the first day, and after a week am hardly flinching when someone calls out for 'Andy' or 'Andrew.' I have never gone by my middle name, but having arrived at an organization where there were already three or four versions of Andy/Andrew, I decided to pave my own way. Perhaps I should have been more creative and drawn from the Old Testament. Micah! Ezekiah! Zebulun!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Day 4, 3/14: Sundays are Fundays

Sundays are a day-off. Or day on. This depends on your level of enthusiasm to get off base and explore the sun-blanketed and wonderful area of Leogane. So, with no less than three applications of sunscreen (30 spray, 30 cream, 85 spray) a sizable group of us hired a tap-tap and set off for the beach. This was not just a good beach, but a great beach. Not the beach that was super close, but nonetheless worth the 30 min ride.

I was really surprised by this wonderful little beach resort out past some of the farms of Leogane. Lots of pink. And decoupaged-tile lounges covered in palms and ventilated by the ocean breeze. The group of us swam, and swam, and swam- taking pictures with a waterproof camera, splashing, and generally just trying to find colder areas of water to cool us down. Swimming around a point revealed an even prettier cove featuring (unfortunately bleached) corals and a truck blasting reggeaton. I bought some hand painted-maracas for 200 gud... not bad! On the ride back for lunch I taught some of the other volunteers how to play 'ghost.'

Back at the base I saw Jeff playing a bossa nova guitar across the courtyard, and I thought, the MARACAS! I then joined in, and another person started tapping a clave pattern on the rebar... and pretty soon we had a nice little latin band going on. I also taught some flamenco palmas (syncopated clapping with a stereo effect), and that may, with practice, some out in our next jam.

After a long lunch we set back out on a tap-tap headed in the opposite direction- the mountains! It was nice to get up the hills and gain some perspective on the area. In general, the development is more sparse at higher elevations, so in some cases there are many structures still standing. Looking down across the valley, it was not hard to spot a tent city (look for the blue). Our hike then went up through a sunny little valley speckled with baby goats and the occasional cow. A longer hike would have revealed Jacamel on the other side of the ridge, but I have to save something for next Sunday.

When I got back I was pleasantly surprised to find the Canadian-camo tarp erected above the center of the courtyard... shining a mercifully large square of shade across the courtyard for the sunny hours. The rest of the night was spent watching a basketball game between HODR volunteers and INTERCOSS (Italian corp. of the UN). The Italians won! :/ (We're all winners through cooperation?)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Day 3, 3/13: Timber Team!

Life at the HODR-base is like a cross-between summer-camp and housing cooperatives. Every night has a meeting, things are done by more or less consensus voting... and yet chocolate is traded for shampoo, and after curfew people have to whisper and sneak around with flashlights. Last night I slept like a baby under my bug-net (gifted to me) in one of the bunks downstairs.

I was originally signed up for Timber in the morning, and Saturday playtime with Kids in the afternoon, but I ended up being tasked to Timber all day. This was my second day working with Stephanie, and Gilbert, who the previous night taught me some more Creole while we cleaned dishes.

Our task was to pick up timber at the Canadian base, and bring it back to the HODR camp to use on various projects. Riding on the top of the 'tap taps' (sorta out-rigged pickups) is really nice because you get to see much of Leogane with a wonderful breeze while the kids shout 'Hey You'! (more about that later). The base was quite impressive- not in its infrastructure (of tents and shipping-container units), but for its amount and complex heavy-machinery.

The base really spoiled a few of us in the canteen with COLD pineapple+mango juice with FROZEN pieces of orange! I was like "Is this really happening right now?!?!?!" NOM NOM NOM. But yeah, myself and Mathew (pronounced in FR/CN "Matt-tew") talked about bass guitars (and he showed me his beater that he brought). Also we received a slightly torn, but 50ft sq., camo-net which I sewed back together to possibly provided more shade at our base. Steph, Brian, and I worked diligently and strategically for 1 hr on this project, but sadly the imitation p-cord snapped when pulling on the last of the four corners above the courtyard. Tomorrow perhaps.

Also, Mark (the head of Project Leogane) bought 8,400 bags of tea today, in addition to a $19k generator to hopefully improve our base (which will become a base to also be used by the WFP and other NGO's). So if you wanna donate, you can here. Saturday has snuck up on many of us, but I nonetheless took a more thorough bucket-shower than normal, and will go for a walk and a refreshment with a few volunteers soon.