the haiti you don't see on the news

When we got back to Port-au-Prince after our three-week stay in Limbe, Jean Claude freaked out about the short amount of time we had remaining in Haiti. So after we spent two days teaching kids to decorate calebasse, Jean-Claude sponsered a couple days of fun and relaxation.

One afternoon, he drove us out of Petionville and up the mountain to Furcy, where he spent summers when he was a kid. It was COLD up there on the mountain! (Or that's how it seemed to me in my flip flops and short sleeves. I decided that it was good conditioning for Illinois winter...) It was totally worth it because it was also peaceful and beautiful. I understand why Jean-Claude has such fond memories of this place.
The next day, Jean-Claude really wanted to take us to the beach. However, he had to work because the weekend before Christmas is the busiest time in his store. He was still set on us going to the beach so--Voila!--he enlisted his cousin to take us instead!

The beach was wonderful--It rivaled the one in Danang, Vietnam. But as I was laying on my beach chair, I realized that there was something weird about the beach. It took me a few minutes to figure out what it was, but then I realized it--the hotel was playing Christmas music! It was a completely foreign concept to me to lay on the beach and listen to Christmas music. But once I got used to this clash of worlds, I decided it was something I could get used to pretty easily....

When we got back from the beach, Jean-Claude seemed a bit more satisfied. He said, "Calah, I just wanted to make sure you knew that there's more to Haiti than cholera and Port-au-Prince traffic jams."

I told him that I had, throughout my trip, been pleasantly surprised by Haiti's natural beauty. On the news, we hear about Haiti's deforestation, poverty, and political turmoil, things that certainly do exist in Haiti. But I think the problem is that, when we focus so much on those things, we start to feel that Haiti is a hopeless case. But really, there are things in Haiti that can give us hope if we can get past the pictures on the news and notice them.

As I have mentioned before, Haiti really is a beautiful country. There is widespread deforestation and there are congested, dirty cities. But Haiti's natural beauty does shine through.

This is the view from the top of a mountain I hiked a couple times during my stay in Limbe. This Cape is the first place Columbus landed in Haiti, and his crew members were fighting over who would get to stay on the island!

Over the past twenty years, Haiti has become notorious for political turmoil. I got to witness this a bit with the election that took place during my stay. But in my politically-illiterate opinion, the protests that took place this December display more than sheer reactionism. Rather, it is clear that the Haitian people are sick of being manipulated by big governments (both their own and foreign) and that they are ready to take a big risk in hope of seeing a big change.

And not least, the Haitians I met during my visit gave me incredible hope for the country. The doctors and nurses working with cholera in Limbe; and Madame Hudicourt, who has spent her life overcoming obstacles to bring her people medical care--these people inspired me. Furthermore, all the members of our host family were unbelieveably gracious, welcoming, and upbeat even after the hell of a year that they have lived through.

After our trip to Furcy, I was talking in awe about Haiti's beauty, and Annouck (Jean-Claude's wife) said, "No matter what they say, I still think there is still hope for Haiti." I can't help but agree.


another unexpected task

I have always suspected it, but now I am sure of it: God has an undeniable sense of humor. Furthermore, he has been up there laughing at me for my entire visit to Haiti.

This is the only explanation I can think of for the fact that, on this trip, I have been forced to sample the two professions that have always been of the least interest to me. One of these, as you know, is nursing, which I spent three weeks doing in Limbe. To my surprise, I came out of the situation unscathed and (much as I hate to admit it) probably better for having had the experience.

So as if being a nurse wasn't enough, for good measure, it seems, I have had the opportunity to try out my other black-listed profession: Teaching. Not just any teaching, mind you--but teaching kindergarten children!
Today, Mom was scheduled to teach calebasse art to young children at the school at which her friend, Caroline, is administrator. As I mentioned before, I had anticipated my role in this endeavor to be minimal, or at least behind-the-scenes. I stayed up late last night helping her prepare, then planned to accompany her to document the lesson. These contributions seemed quite sufficient to me, but I guess someone else thought differently.
Last night I helped Mom put together these kits for making calebasse ornaments.

This morning Mom woke up with a raging migrane headache that made all light as if blinding to her eyes...

..So it fell to me to show 27 kindergarten students how to make figurine ornaments out of calebasse shards, wire, and beads. And, hey, I survived! Unlike the kids at the cholera treatment center, these did not burst into tears at the sight of me simply because I'm a blanc.

I won't say that I particularly enjoyed or hated the experience itself. I am definitely not a naturally-gifted, charasmatic teacher. But I had lots of help and it was nice to see the kids enjoying themselves and doing something different.
From what Caroline says, she and the teachers are going out of their way to make Christmas festive this season because, just like everyone else in Haiti, the kids have had a hard year.
While the kids at this school are not especially destitute, some of them did have to live in tents after the earthquake. Others' families were divided up to live with various members of their extended family after the earthquake rendered their homes uninhabitable.

So, I guess it just goes to show that if we are open, we can contribute a little joy to the world--sometimes in ways we never would have imagined.



After an uneventful flight from Cap Hatien, Mom and I are back in Port-au-Prince. We are readjusting to the fact that water comes out of the tap every time we turn it on and are enjoying sampling the various ice cream flavors that Jean-Claude brings home for us.

Over the last few days, we have noticed a significant weather change--we are a little chilly sometimes. To us, it feels good, but some Haitans complain of it being cold. However, when I find myself reaching for a long-sleeved shirt, I can't help but think of the shock that is coming for me in a week! If Haiti's 72-degree lows make me wish I had a sweatshirt, Illinois' 24-degree highs will surely send me into hibernation?!

Even more shocking than the weather change might be diving head-first into the height of the American holiday season! I was shocked yesterday when I realized that Christmas is so close. Here, there is a dusting of holiday anticipation, but I know that it is nothing to the blizzard (both literal and figurative) that I know from experience will hit me when I arrive home.

But while the blessings and stresses of the transition home are still a few days ahead of me, Mom and I have another transistion right here--from cholera in Limbe to calebasse in Petionville. Due to the unexpected 3-week stay in Limbe, the calebasse project will have to be condensed. Mom plans to spend two days teaching calebasse art to students in a primary school. I plan to take lots of pictures and tell you about it. :)


leaving limbe

Yesterday was our last day at the cholera clinic. We went up there and found that everything was completely under control and they didn't really need us at all. A perfect thing to find on our last day. Those baby steps added up; the change we saw in the past three weeks is unbelievable.

So instead of working, we handed out cookies to the clinic staff and, per Mom's idea, interviewed each one. Mom told the staff that watching them sacrifice to help their people has given us hope. She asked them to relay something they have experienced while working at the cholera clinic that has made them happy or given them hope. Eddy, who works in medical archives at the clinic in normal times but is now working more than full time at the cholera treatment center, said that he is proud of the clinic for admitting the first and subsequent patients, when other clinics were rejecting them out of fear.

Shirley gives us the "cholowa" fist pound. (This has become popular since the outbreak because people are more cautious about shaking hands.)

Shirley, a nurse, is also a student at the university and used to work at the university infirmary. Her boss there told her that she would lose her job at the university if she started working at the cholera treatment center, but she chose the CTC because she knew that her community needed help.

Many other people spoke of their families being afraid for them to work at the CTC. Elio, one of our translators, often had to go to the gate or answer his phone while he was working because his sister was worried about his safety.

Elio and his sister wash coconuts with clorox water before they cut them open for us to drink.
This just goes to show how great the fear of cholera is in this country--and rightly so, given the number of people who are sick and dying. And the number of people who don't understand how treatable and preventable the disease is. And the number of people who don't have the resources to protect themselves even if they know how.

In some areas of the country, cholera patients have been hacked to death because their neighbors feared that they would bring the disease into the community. In other communities, people have killed witch doctors, accusing them of cursing their village with cholera. Some people we talked to said they would rather have HIV than cholera!

Fear is such a powerful thing. Acknowledging the fear of cholera that overwhelms this country makes me respect the staff even more. It takes courage to treat cholera.

In our interviews, the staff also bestowed upon us heaps of gratitude and blessings for our being here. This experience proved something Mom has said over and over again--when you serve like this, you always feel like you receive far more than you give. This is definitely how I feel. I never expected my first encounter with death to be so encouraging; I never expected treating cholera to be so much fun.

I am going to miss these people who welcomed me here--even though I am not a nurse.


sabbath at the beach

Today Mom and I had our first real day off since we've been here, and it was wonderful. The Jameses took us and some other volunteers to the beach!

After an hour and a half of jolting (have I mentioned how crazy the roads are here? Everyone has 4x4s--because they actually need them!) up and down the mountain and through Cap Haitian, we had a lovely time.
I left my swim suit in Port, never thinking I would go to the beach while treating cholera in Limbe! But it was "no pwoblem."

I ran along the beach for a while before jumping in and looking at the fish and spikey monsters on the bottom (they are like sea porcupines--not nice to step on, from what I hear). The beach was quiet and peaceful--great for reading a book.

Afterwards we had a fabulous lunch that included ice cream (!) and pina coladas. :) Not too bad...

My only regret was when I discovered this giant backgammon board and wished my dad was there to play it with me.

Then it was the jolting (but did I mention beautiful?) ride home.

Oh, by the way, I officially pronounced the "C" word (cholera) off limits for the day. It was a nice change. :)


political unrest

Before we left Port-au-Prince, I wrote a post about excitement and tension surrounding the then upcoming elections. I mentioned that the main feeling surrounding Haitian elections is usually uncertainty, combined with a realistic acknowledgement of the violent history of Haitian politics.

Well, the elections came and went with relatively little mass violence, but with plenty of ill-concealed fraudulence. There were wide-spread reports of stuffed ballot boxes and armed thugs "monitoring" people's votes. However, even given these reports and an outcry by most of the main candidates for a re-vote, some political leaders were calling the election fair. However, the results were not to be announced until a set period of time later (in accordance with the constitution).

The results were announced late Tuesday night--and no one was very happy about them. Including some of my fellow volunteers, who were supposed to fly home on Wednesday, but could not get to the airport because of the roadblocks on the way to Cap Haitian. It turns out that they wouldn't have made it even if they had gotten to Cap Haitian, because all flights into and out of the country were cancelled for two days. Today, however, the way was clear--at least for long enough that four volunteers made it to the airport and safely home.

Other than this, we have mostly just heard rumors about the demostrations--both peaceful and otherwise--that have been rampant in other areas of the country. In one community, a couple people were killed and a few others injured, and all the government buildings were burnt to the ground.

Our friends in Petionville said that, on the night the results were announced, they heard gunshots, sirens, and burning tires all night long. On the brighter side, we also heard that one of the main candidates held a peaceful demonstration that included hundreds of people marching down the streets of Port-au-Prince.

According to our original plans, Mom and I would have been in Petionville/Port-au-Prince right now, so we are happy to have missed the commotion. We plan to return to Port on Tuesday; we hope that things have settled down by then!


a first time for everything...

There's a first time for everything, and last night was my first time witnessing a baby enter the world...via the cholera ward.

I won't pretend it was a pretty sight, but it was interesting nonetheless. More than that, it was wonderful to experience new life amid all the suffering and death of cholera. Like I've mentioned before, after being immersed in treating cholera, you need reminders that there is life outside of it. What better reminder than a brand new life.

Moreover, we fully expected the baby to come out dead, so its cry was a particularly pleasant surprise! Most women who get cholera in their third trimester, as this woman did, give birth to stillborn babies. I saw the baby again this evening, and it looks good, at least to my very untrained eye.

According to Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything. It seems to me that the time was right for me to see my first birth. I think that seeing it amid the suffering of cholera was just what I needed to really appreciate the miracle (and cringe less at the gore) of new life.


a light at the end of the tunnel

It's been over a month since the first case of cholera appeared at Ebenezer Clinic. I have only been here for two weeks, so I only have a taste of what this time has been like for the regular staff--the ones who don't have the luxury of leaving.

Thankfully, we have been able to relieve their stress a little. On Sunday, Dr. Steve went with his family to the beach for the day. He told us that Saturday night was his first full night of sleep in a month and that Sunday was the first day he didn't go to the since cholera started.

Dr. Manno sporatically appears at the cholera clinic at all hours of the day and night, while also keeping regular hours at Ebenezer and hosting temporary staff in his home.

Some of the nurses we work with at night have been doing 12+ hour nights for weeks without time off.

The two doctors that Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF-Doctors without Borders) hired two weeks ago just got their first weekend off--they have been alternating 12-hour shifts.

Two of the regular staff at the clinic who were assigned to the cholera clinic full time have been putting in 70- and 80-hour weeks with no extra compensation.

These people really need a break.

MSF, a huge organization that responds to international medical crises, just started assisting Ebenezer in organizing it's cholera treatment center. We have seen leaps and bounds of improvements over the last few days. MSF's real goal is to set up a large-scale cholera treatment center in Limbe where small treatment units like Ebenezer can refer patients. If this goes as planned, Ebenezer will be able to close up its cholera treatment center altogether and transition back to normal.

Well, Even MSF, huge as it is, has reached its limits. Apparently, Haitian cholera is the biggest medical crisis it has responded to in its history! But we can only hope that steps are being made in the direction of a large CTC in Limbe--it's the light at the end of the tunnel to which the Ebenezer staff are looking for hope.


speechless: a photo gallery

During my first week of working at the cholera clinic, I struggled to write about the experience, so I put together a photo gallery instead. Follow this link to view my pictures and captions!


fun at the cholera clinic

Last night, Mom and I were on the night shift. Things were pretty hectic from 4 to 6:30. But after supper, things were pretty calm and we both decided that 8-12 is definitely our favorite shift!

One really encouraging thing was that we had a number of patients make a point to thank us for our help and ask God to bless us for it. But they said something else that bothered us: that no one died last night because we (the foreigners) were there. This statement reflects a big problem (and one that makes us uncomfortable) in Haiti; the people think that foreigners are better than their own providers. In this way, foreigners who come in trying to "help" often unwittingly intimidate and disempower the Haitian people. I, personally, don't want any part in this cycle, and I wholeheartedly admire the Haitian staff for their sacrifice.

Yesterday morning, Dr. Steve encouraged us to make our best efforts to form community with the Haitian staff. Up until now, there has not been a lot of communication between the foreign volunteers and the Haitian staff, largely because of the language barrier. We have been able to relieve their pressure, but mostly each group has done its own thing, working more around each other than with each other.

So after supper, Mom and I took Steve's advice to heart and used our wits and resources to try to build up friendships with the staff--bribery with leftover cookies! Well, people are people everywhere, and who doesn't like a cookie? But the cookies were really just a convenient excuse to introduce ourselves and talk with them. Throughout the rest of the evening, we were able to relieve some of the burden on the Haitian nurses and doctors who have been working around the clock for the last few weeks. But since things were pretty calm, we also got to talk and laugh with them so much! It was the most fun I've had in a while.

The staff especially love my mom. It helps that she knows a decent amount of Kreyol (although you would never know it if you hear her berate her own skills) and also that she has a sense of humor in which she is not afraid to risk making a fool of herself. The staff and patients love her for it! We actually stayed until 1am instead of midnight because we were so busy talking and laughing.

Mom and I also had the chance to talk to Dr. Manno for a good long time--quite an accomplishment because he is extremely busy right now. Manno is the medical director of Ebenezer clinic, so managing the cholera clinic is a whole second job on top of that. At first I was kind of scared of him, but now I appreciate him more and more with every encounter we have. He is hilarious, too, something that always helps. :)

I came away from last night feeling--once again--encouraged, filled with joy, ever-more impressed with the Ebenezer Clinic and staff, and actually looking forward to work tonight!


cholera article

A few days ago some reporters from the Associated Press came to the cholera clinic with big cameras and notepads. Here's what they came up with: Cholera rages in rural Haiti, overwhelming clinics
So if you want a perspective other than mine, read away!


anpil blan

Things at the clinic slowed down a bit over the weekend and the beginning of this week. We weren't sure if this meant that there were actually less sick people, or if people were more cautious to go out because of the elections.

We continue to get into a more organized system. Now, a bunch of new foreign volunteers came in, so our numbers are up from 4 to 12 (foreigners, in addition to the Haitian staff)! Mom and I were wondering if this was our cue to leave. Yesterday there were anpil blan (a lot of white people) at the clinic! I came home to take a break and do some writing because I didn't feel needed.

I knew that the extra help and slowing stream of patients was a good thing, but I was a little sad about leaving here. I have enjoyed staying busy and feeling useful. But now it sounds like we will be here a while, anyways, because...

Mom and I spent the morning making a volunteer staff schedule! Now that we have more people, we have the luxury of a shift schedule. We will split our time and even start doing some nights. So I haven't actually worked at the clinic this morning, but somehow I still feel exhausted--coordinating is tiring too, I guess!

So now I'm off for a nap before I go to work.


encouragement in the face of death

Yesterday was the first time I saw someone die. And the second time. One of the people was a young boy and the other was a girl around my age.

Today was another long, tiring day at the cholera clinic. Toward the end of the day we got a double (triple? quadruple?) whammy when a little baby and her littler baby sister came in. After some lightning IV action on the part of the awesome Haitian doctor, we got these two little ones moderately stabilized and then started asking questions. Turns out, their mother was a woman who was already lying on a cot in the hallway in bad shape (Mom had put an IV in each arm when she came in) and their father was a young man who had died our first or second day at the clinic. Talk about sad stories.

But, shockingly, I came away from today feeling very encouraged. Every day, we get into a slightly more organized routine. That is to say, the clinic has progressed from the complete chaos that follows a crisis to some level of semi-organized chaos. And each baby step is a joy to see.

This morning, for example, the head doctor was waiting for us when we arrived at the clinic. He was upbeat and told us that, "Today we are going to be scientific!" He proceeded to outline a patient evaluation procedure--something that sounds basic, but which we had been improvising thus far.

I also think that we (when I say "we" I am referring to Mom and me and a Canadian doctor-nurse couple who came at the same time as us) are getting more competent and confident. We are getting used to the symptoms and Mom, Sandy, and John have all become fairly proficient at starting IVs, something they refused to do at first.

But some still die. The line outside seems never-ending sometimes. The doctors wish they could practice the level of medicine they are used to. It seems like we are constantly on the verge of running out of supplies. We get frustrated with families who don't take care of their patients.

Immersed in this crisis, it is easy to start chanting my own version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, "Cholera, cholera, everywhere/ And all the IVs dried up;/ Cholera, cholera, everywhere/ Nor any hope for health."

But it's not true. We are sending a lot of people home. It's awesome to see people you drag in unconscious one day smiling and bright-eyed the next. It's amazing what some fluid can do for a dehydrated person.

And we continue to be impressed by the staff who have been doing this for going on a month and still remain quite up-beat. When the Ebenezer Clinic chose to treat the first little boy who came in with cholera, it was actually making a much bigger choice--the choice to open its doors to a flood of mortally sick people. And because of that choice--and even though it is not perfect--it is saving lives.

On the first night we were here, Dr. Steve said something like this: "We are trained to practice perfect in an imperfect world, but when we try to do that, we miss the good."

So when cholera is overwhelming and I feel useless, I have to look beyond cholera and myself and remember to look for the good. And it's always there. Whether it's a patient going home, the forever-calm Dr. Brinvert, the very serious looking father who wears a shirt that says, "Bad Ass Girls Drive Bad Ass Toys," or the old blind man with his neon-orange sunglasses.

**All that being said, Haiti is definitely not out of the woods as far as cholera is concerned. And the Ebenezer Clinic needs lots of help to do what it's doing. If you would like to help the clinic with cholera relief, please contact me for instructions about how you can do so!**


happy thanksgiving

Since my family has moved around so much, I am not attached to rigid holiday traditions. I have celebrated with lots of people in lots of places--last year I was in Vietnam. This year's Thanksgiving, though, was one I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams. I spent the day attempting to be a nurse in a packed cholera ward.

Wednesday morning, when I put my scrubs on for the first time, Mom told me I looked like a nurse. I said that this was a problem, because if I look like a nurse people think that I actually am a nurse--something so far from the truth that it's..well, false.

Since arriving in Limbe on Tuesday night, I have learned the proper proportions of an oral rehydration serum, how to change IV bags, and how to repeat "bwe!!" (drink) over and over again. I usually do the latter as I move from patient to patient--whether they lie on a bed, a cot, or the floor--find their bottle of oral rehydration, and help them to sit up and take a few sips. After that, I berate the patients' family members (if they have them), telling them with my vocabulary of 3 words to help the patient drink!

Most of the time I feel extremely inept and incredibly ridiculous. One of the most frustrating things is not knowing the language, so all I can give are blank stares to the people constantly telling/asking me things I can't understand. Another frustration that is not just mine, but everyone's, is the lack of supplies and infrastructure for dealing with this crisis.

If the thesaurus knew what it was talking about, it would list "chaos" as a synonym for crisis. No matter how well prepared an institution is, a situation such as the Haiti cholera crisis will push its stability over the edge. And the Ebenezer Clinic was not well prepared for this. Prior to cholera, the clinic was an outpatient clinic--it didn't have any hospital beds. Now it has close to 80 patients laid out all over the building set aside for cholera--and on the front porch and under the tarp ouside.

And they keep coming. When we came, the clinic was averaging 25 new patients a day. Yesterday, there were 47. Sometimes it seems incredibly random--a person who was almost dead when they came in gets better relatively quickly and someone who seemed to be getting better crashes and dies.

If Mom and I grow weary, it's nothing compared to the doctors and nurses who have been working like crazy for three weeks straight, since the first cholera case came in. They are tired, but show impressive endurance.

Yesterday, Nancy, wife of Steve, the doctor we are staying with, made a traditional Thanksgiving supper. She hadn't been sure whether or not to make it, in light of the crisis. But she did, and her reasoning was that it's necessary to take quiet, joyful times in the midst of the chaos to recenter. Otherwise, you start to think that cholera is all there is in the world.

So even after my unusual Thanksgiving Day activities, we sat down to share a meal, to talk, to laugh. And then we woke up in the morning and put our scrubs back on.


change of plans

As a result of an urgent phone call this morning, Mom and I are catching an early plane to Cap Haitian tomorrow (Tuesday) morning. Our eventual destination is Limbe, where we will be helping in a clinic that is swamped with cholera patients. They have been receiving 40-60 patients a day in a clinic that is not even set up with hospital beds.

I have been in Limbe before, when I was 2 years old. I thought it would be cool to visit there again, but this isn't exactly the kind of visit I was expecting.

To answer the question I'm sure you are asking, you're right: I don't know anything about medical work. Mom used to be a nurse and even practiced a bit in Haiti. For me, however, this is going to be a shocker. I don't have any experience with sick (and dying) people. Prayers are appreciated.

I have no idea how much you will be hearing from me over the next couple weeks. But don't worry--I plan to wash my hands at every opportunity. :)


election expectations

You know how web pages detect things about you and use the information to tailor their ads toward your apparent interests, location, etc? Some people might find this considerate or helpful; Personally, I think it's creepy. However, I can't help but be fascinated by this technological phenomenon that I don't understand.

Gmail does this to me: I write an email about a race I ran--Voila! The ad bar tells me about an online running store. The longer I lived in Viet Nam, the more my ads started to appear in Vietnamese. I even had ads asking me, "Do you speak Tieng Viet?" At first I was really excited--I knew what Tieng Viet meant! Later, I hit a block in language classes and decided that the ad was trying to rub it in. Of course, sometimes even technology can be wrong, like when my ads ask, "Single and bored? Chat with Alyssa (insert picture of large-chested woman) at singleandbored.com!" Yeah, not so much...

Last night, Gmail was half-right. It told me, "Vote for Charles-Henri Baker!" I guess someone was observant enough to pick up on my location, but neglected to detect my nationality. I laughed, thinking, I just can't escape these upcoming elections, can I?

The Haitian presidential elections that are coming up the weekend of Thanksgiving are all around us here. It was actually one of the first things I noticed when we arrived. On the way home from the airport, I noticed that the street walls were plastered with campaign ads. When I mentioned them, Jean-Claude was off and running--introducing us to a few of the 19 (!) candidates (with his opinions on each, of course), and relating stories of past elections--manipulated or accurate, violent or (rarely) peaceful--and the demonstrations that went along with them.

People have rearranged trips to make sure they are in the country to vote. Even young people are interested. The other day at lunch, Jean-Claude's fifteen-year-old daughter Sophie asked everyone present who they were planning to vote for.

With 19 candidates, I don't know about all of them. But a recent poll revealed the main players, people whose names I have become familiar with over the last two weeks:

Mirlande Manigat--this female candidate was on the top. Both she and her husband have been involved in Haitian politics before.
Jude Celestin--this guy is backed by the current president and his party. Apparently, no one had heard of him until six months ago; people laugh at the interesting coincidence that he happens to be very good looking.
Michel Martelly--this guy is more commonly known as Sweet Mickey. He is a famous entertainer/musician who doesn't have any background in politics, but who was involved in various social issues even before he began his campaign.
Jean Henry Ceant--I don't know much about this guy.
Charles-Henri Baker--the guy Gmail told me I should vote for. He seems to be pretty well-respected, but he is very light-skinned, a factor that many think will go against him.

Even more interesting to me than the actual election (I must admit, I'm pretty much politically illiterate) is the anticipation about the upcoming events, and what this reveals about Haiti's history, a history that affects how Haitians--of all classes--think and live.

Elections are something you have to prepare for. I don't mean that you just have to research and decide who you are going to vote for. No, you have to plan your life around the event. When you plan for election weekend, you plan for the unexpected.

Last night, Jean-Claude and Annouck came back a little late and brought a lot of groceries. After they put them away, Annouck gave a satisfied sigh and said, "Good! I have enough to last through election weekend, so I won't have to go out."

Mom and I went out to listen to live music Saturday night, and people told us that it will be the last night it's advisable to be out until the elections are over. During the week prior to the event, no one goes out more than they have to. It is not that anything bad will necessarily happen; things could be completely quiet and peaceful. But people know the history and plan accordingly, because no one wants to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You might say, "At least all this planning for uncertain events only lasts a short period every few years." But with so many candidates and the Haitian laws regarding elections, it is more than likely that there will have to be a re-vote. To win, a candidate must receive fifty percent of the votes plus one. In the poll I mentioned, the most anyone received was 30 percent.

And all of that is, of course, dependent on whether the election is fair or rigged--a big question in everyone's minds.

I guess it just goes to show that, even in our technological age, there are some things that even Gmail can't predict.

clearing up calebasse confusion

Mom and Leolaine cut open a calebasse

I have received some comments that tell me that I have not been clear enough regarding Mom's project with the calebasse. Of course, I never know how many details you are really interested in reading, or whether such details are a bore. So, I will try to make a short explanation to clear the subject up. This will be helpful for you in understanding future calebasse posts.

Gourds are fruit in the squash family. Those colorful squash that are always falling out of Thanksgiving cornucopias? Those are decorative gourds. The ones Mom works with are the "hard-shell" variety. Gourds have a relative called calebasse (that is the French) or calabash. While gourds grow on vines, calebasse grow on trees and tend to have thinner, harder shells than gourds.

Every continent in the world naturally grows either gourds or calebasse. Historically, both gourds and calebasse have had many everyday uses. For example, many indigenous groups have cut gourds open and used them as water vessels. This is how calebasse were used in Haiti until recently. Those pictures you might have seen of Haitian women carrying water on their heads? They might have been carrying it in calebasse vessels.

Mom is an accomplished gourd artist. She grows gourds and lets them dry. Once dry, the gourds have thick, hard outer shells. She uses many different methods and kinds of equipment to manipulate the gourds into works of art. Mom has won competitions and has her work on display in an art gallery in Round Top, Texas. (See Copper Shade Tree Gallery.)

Examples of Mom's gourd art

When Mom visited Haiti in April, she noticed calebasse on display in an art gallery. Haiti is quite well known for its art. However, while talking to a gallery owner and looking at the art on display, Mom discovered that calebasse art is one of the less-developed art media in Haiti. The gallery owner expressed interest in Mom giving workshops to her artists if Mom should return to Haiti.

So this time Mom came prepared. She plans to give workshops both at the art gallery mentioned above and at an elementary school.

But first she needs the calebasse, which is why she has been hunting them down. The calebasse take a while to dry, so at the beginning of our stay (now) she will focuse on collecting and drying the calebasse. Toward the end of our stay, she will give the workshops.

Thus, the subject of calebasse will probably make a regular appearance on this blog over the next month.

If you are interested in checking out more of Mom's work, visit the "Gourds" page of Mom and Dad's website.


calabasse collector

In between our various other activities, Mom has been hard at work with her calabasse project. She is planning to give some gourd art workshops using native Haitian calabasse--probably both at a local art gallery and an elementary school.

Before she can give the classes, she needs the calabasse, so she has been hustling.

While we were still in the States, Mom found a contact who was able to harvest around 40 calabasse and put them out to start drying for us. On Sunday, we met Odines, our contact, and he took us to the edge of the city to meet his friend, who brought us the calabasse. This excursion was an example of how anything we do is really an excuse to make connections. In this case, through getting the calabasse we were able to spend an hour or so talking with Odines. He turns out to be a delightful guy. He speaks English pretty well, although he never had formal lessons. He works for an organization called Food for the Hungry, and has an evident passion for working to help his people.This morning, we were able to procure another batch of calabasse. Caroline, sister of our host and administrator of the school where Mom plans to teach, took us to a tree in a neighborhood nearby.

When we arrived home with the calabasse, Jean-Claude shared a Haitian proverb: Those who walk around searching will always have supper.

Jean-Claude and his family have welcomed us and our calabasse with open arms (and lots of laughter!). They have made space in their courtyard for us to spread the calabasse around to dry in the sun. If they think we're crazy, they haven't mentioned it yet.

And whether or not it is due to Mom's calabasse-scavenging activity, we certainly never go hungry living in this house!

Scrubbing the calabasse
Experimenting with the calabasse


a view from the other side of the mountain

Sorry about the delay in posts! It is not that nothing has been happening here in Haiti; on the contrary, as soon as I finally started to feel like I had lots to write about, our computer got a virus, and we have been struggling with it for days. So I have been going nuts, feeling like I haven't been able to do what I came for. Typical, I suppose, a little hint to "Chill out, Calah, you aren't as in control as you think you are." Or, to put it another way, an opportunity to notice and appreciate the kindness of others! The computer I am typing this on is a generous loan to me while Mom and I work on getting our laptop cleaned up. (After many frustrating attempts, we have finally admitted our inability to do this ourselves and are awaiting a chance to give it up to the experts at a shop!)

On Monday, Mom and I went on a spur-of-the-moment overnight trip to Jacmel, a little beach town over the mountain. This trip exemplified a reality I have already felt strongly in my week here: Haiti is a place of extremes.

Driving in Haiti is something of an adventure; there is a reason most vehicles are 4x4 (and why they are in the shop more than out of it). But this wasn't what exhausted me. Rather, as I gazed out of the window, I felt like I was being pounded repeatedly over the head with a heavy board. To get to the beach, we drove through downtown Port-au-Prince, passing millions of tents, including some set up in the median of the highway; past a huge, smoking rubbish heap; by Cite Soleil, one of the largest slums in the Northern Hemisphere (even before the quake); and through the town of Leogane, which is located at the epicenter of the quake and was 90% destroyed by it.
Even though I had been in Haiti for a week already, this 2-hour tour of devastation and poverty struck me like a cinder block. After this scenic tour, I decided that visiting Haiti could either break my heart or turn it to rock; I was somewhere in the middle, teetering on the brink of one of these two options.

In general, I have been shockingly unemotional, even when I see things that are probably supposed to shock me. When I saw my first tent village, I was actually impressed by its relative cleanliness and order. Our media prepares us for these things. What has boggled my mind is the scope of the poverty.

Then we finally reached the end of the cities and started to climb the mountain. As the cities dropped away, I saw the other Haiti: a land of exquisite beauty and vast resources, a jewel that various countries lusted and fought over during colonial times. Of course, there was plenty to pull at my heartstrings in the countryside too; if Haiti's countryside is gorgeous now, it is nothing to what it must have been before colonization. Deforestation and its effects are obvious. Yet I was still surprised by the beauty I saw.

Why was I surprised? As John, the man we were traveling with, said, "Everyone focuses on Haiti's devastation. People take pictures of the the trash heaps, not the mountains."

And it's true. Even though the view of poverty hit me hard that day, I was not unprepared for it. And, like the good journalist I was trying to be, I snapped as many pictures as I could of collapsed buildings, smoking heaps of rubbish, literal rivers of trash. I suppose that this is what we think the world needs to know about Haiti--its great needs. But the view from the other side made me think that this other Haiti is one that needs to be shared too. And maybe more importantly, the connection between the two, the fact that it was literally Haiti's abundance that led--through a series of events of human greed and corruption--to its apparent lack.Things are often so much more complicated than we like to think.

Well, the beach was lovely. I slept better that night than I have since we arrived here. I was woken from my amazing slumber at 6 am by Mom, who was so eager to go swimming that she, in contrast to me, could not sleep that night! I complained a lot, but the ocean really was worth it.

On the way back, we stopped to buy some fruit at a roadside stand. I had assumed that buying fruit from a roadside stand would entail getting out of the car and walking the five feet to the piles of fruit, but I was quite mistaken! The car had barely stopped rolling when it was swarmed by over a dozen fruit sellers, each shoving a platter adorned with a pyramid of fruit through a window and repeating her price over and over. A overwhelming cultural experience--I was glad I wasn't the one making the transaction!
Later, when we got back to Leogane, we stopped to visit an old friend of mine who is there with a church group building houses. (Those of you reading from Waco might be interested to know that this group is an outreach organization of Antioch Church.) It was great to meet up with Jay and encouraging to see the work his group is doing in Leogane. They have already erected 40 semi-permanent houses, with a goal of completing 60 more. (For more info or to contribute, see Antioch's website about the project here.)

Even as I was impressed by the good work at the site, I was reminded of the incredible complexity of everything related to rebuilding Haiti. The reality is that any decision anyone makes is really a choice between many ills. The most simplistic way of breaking these decisions down is to say that Haitians and relief workers alike are constantly forced to chose between the immediate need, which is massive, and long-term development, which is forever. Often, it seems that addressing the immediate need is destructive to long-term development, while investing in long-term development appears to ignore the immediate need.

It is apparent that Haiti as a whole is entering a time of transition of focus; while the immediate needs are still great, it is necessary to think about the future. While many aid organizations remain, many others have started to pull out of the country or to shift into more of a maintenance mode. This relief work was invaluable immediately following the quake, but is not sustainable in the long run.

Like I said before, the scope of the need is mind-boggling; the complexity is astounding; and for those in charge, the decisions must be painful.