Gade Maman, Map Manje (Look Mom, I’m eating)

This post is for my mom, who thinks that – because I’ve dropped anpil lbs since I’ve been here – I’m starving myself. What she, and others, don’t understand is that I eat every single day, either two or three times a day, and I have at least one snack a day. It’s just that when I eat, I don’t eat a lot.

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There are a lot of reasons why I don’t find myself eating very much these days. One reason is because there isn’t an endless amount of food available to us on base, so we have to take small portions (i.e. one piece of meat and one of each vegetable). Admittedly, my portion is much smaller than others’, which leads to another reason: burnout. I’m simply burned out on some of the foods that are served. In fact, there have been times when the sight or smell of certain things, namely rice and beans, and eggs, makes me want to throw a temper tantrum. Yes, sometimes it’s that bad. On those days, I find my self eating either Ritz cheese sandwich crackers or just plain ol’ saltines.

My weight loss has been met with a mix of disapproving eyes and lectures, and compliments by many of the people I know in the Leogane community. As I often tell them, it really doesn’t matter to me what they think because I’m quite pleased that I’ve gotten rid of the excess baggage I’ve been carrying around for far too long. I just hope that when I eventually return home, the accessibility and abundance of food doesn’t make me return to my old habits.

Maji Bon e Move (Good and Bad Magic)

Today, after walking around town visiting a few businesses for a project on which I’m working, I took a detour through the market on the way back to base so that I could exchange some money. As I was walking on the road at the edge of the market, I noticed a small store with a sign that read “Maji Bon e Move”. Good and Bad Magic. With advertising like that, of course I couldn’t help but go inside to see what it was all about.

Upon entering the “magic shop,” I saw rows and rows of Barbancourt rum alongside what appeared to be kleren (moonshine). I also saw gallons and gallons of mysterious, colorful liquids, as well as photos of Saints and Lwa (vodou deities), candles and some things that I could not identify.  I asked the man inside the store what types of “good” magic he had, and what it could do for me. He basically replied that whatever I needed, he had it – I just needed to be very specific.

I stood in the doorway of the store for several minutes looking around at everything, contemplating trying one of the potions just out of sheer curiosity. I thought about requesting something to nip this nagging cough in the bud. Or something to guarantee that I’d never get an incurable disease. Or something to make my prince charming magically appear (which he claimed was possible). But ultimately, I chickened out and just decided to purchase a much-needed bottle of body lotion. At least, I hope it was just body lotion…

Repoz an Pè (Rest in Peace)

As I’ve previously mentioned in this blog, one thing that brings me the most joy in Haiti – and often breaks my heart at the same time – is the children. No where has that been more true than at the “baby orphanage,” where for nearly four months I have volunteered three times a week. On Thursday, I learned that one of the children at the orphanage died of cholera. She was two years old.

I will never forget the day I first met “M”. (I have gone back and forth on whether or not to use her full name, and decided to just refer to her as “M”.) Her father brought her and her two sisters to the orphanage because, presumably, he could no longer care for all three of them on a day-to-day basis. The three sisters sat together, while their father stood nearby watching them. Once I realized that they would be new residents of the orphanage, I made an extra effort to include them in activities. As the girls drew, colored and scribbled on paper, they’d run over to their father and show him their work. He’d smile at them and tell them it’s beautiful or good job. Many of us who were volunteering that day struggled to hold in our emotions. We couldn’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the father to leave his little girls behind.

When I returned to the orphanage a couple of days later, I searched out the girls. Only the two youngest ones stayed; the oldest daughter had returned home with her father. I guess she was there to help make the transition easier for her sisters.

Over the next several weeks, I observed “M” go through a range of emotions, similar to other kids at the orphanage. When she was happy, she liked for me to tickle her stomach or clean her face with a baby wipe (I have no idea why she liked that). She also enjoyed being chased around. When she wasn’t so happy, she’d sit and cry, and nothing or no one could console her. In those cases, I’d just simply sit next to her to signal that if she needed anything, I was there.

I hadn’t seen “M” in several weeks. I stopped going to the baby orphanage because I felt helpless in addressing the needs of the children and because I took on a new project with the livelihoods team. I have felt extremely guilty about not seeing the children…feeling as though I abandoned them. I feel even more guilty now. When a child, an innocent child, passes away, you can’t help but wonder if there’s something more you could have done. I’m trying my best not to focus on that, and instead help implement solutions to prevent the cholera from spreading throughout the orphanage.

Yon Ti Vakans (A Little Vacation)

Last month, the non-governmental organization with which I volunteer shut down its operations for a week, in preparation for the next phase of its project in Leogane. I had the option of staying on base during the week off, but after much deliberation, I finally decided to leave Leogane and travel to Île à Vache – a small island off the southwest coast of Haiti near Les Cayes.

In order to get to Les Cayes, first I had to board a tap tap, Haiti’s infamously colorful form of public transportation, to Miragoane. There were two other volunteers who were traveling to Port Salut via Les Cayes, so we decided to travel together. At the bus station in downtown Leogane, we found a tap tap driver who offered to take just the three of us to Miragoane for 1,500 gouds (a little less than $40 USD). We took him up on his offer, and enjoyed a scenic, 1.5 hour drive complete with reggae music blasting through the tap tap’s speakers.

Once we got to Miragoane, we searched for transportation to Les Cayes, or Okay as it’s referred to by the locals. Instead of paying extra for a tap tap to ourselves this time, we decided to pay 100 gouds each (about $2.50), and waited for the tap tap to fill up with people. I initially sat inside of the tap tap, but as more and more people boarded, I moved to the very edge in the back to be sure neither my claustrophobia nor motion sickness reared its ugly head.

Overall, the drive was beautiful. Haiti has some really breathtaking scenery. The only issue I had was traveling in the tap tap. After a few hours of sitting on a wooden bench, my butt became very sore. And because more and more people kept boarding the tap tap along the way, there was no way to re-position myself or stand up to stretch my legs. I literally had people sitting on top of me for a good portion of the ride. So comfortable, it was not.

After roughly four hours, we arrived at the bus station in Okay. It was quite the scene, and I made quite a scene when I realized we were over-paying for the ride – 100 gouds instead of 75 gouds. Yes, it’s only 75 cents, but it’s the principle. Generally, I know I’m paying a higher price than Haitians for things because of the perception that, as a foreigner, I can afford it. Most times, it doesn’t bother me because the dollar amount is negligible. But the fact is, I can’t really afford to keep paying a higher price if I want to continue volunteering here. I mean, 25 cents here, 50 cents there…it starts to add up over time. Furthermore, sometimes I just don’t feel like being ripped off. And that day, I wasn’t in the mood. In the end, we ended up paying 100 gouds as agreed, but at least I know now what it should cost.

With two-thirds of my journey complete, I hopped on a moto taxi and instructed the driver to take me to the wharf, where I was to catch a boat to Île à Vache. After finally getting to the right place, I boarded the boat and we headed towards the island. The ride was horrible. The water was choppy, and my motion sickness began to make an appearance.

Finally, just as I thought I’d need to lean over the side of the boat and vomit, we docked at the Abaka Bay Resort. At the end of the short boardwalk, I was greeted by the bartender, who was holding a rum sour – one of many I’d have during my stay. As I sat and sipped my drink, I took in my surroundings. Beautiful artwork. Serene sounds. Turquoise blue waters. Well landscaped grounds. In a word, paradise.

I spent the next several days in “paradise” as the resort’s only guest. Each morning, I’d have breakfast at 8:00am, then lay on the beach and read. At 12:30pm, I’d have lunch, then lay on the beach and listen to music. At 5:00, I’d take a shower (that included hot water), then saddle up to the bar and talk to the bartender about various things. At 7:00, I’d have dinner, then retire to my room directly on the beach, read some more, listen to the waves and finally go to sleep.

One afternoon, I decided to venture out and see the island. Lafrantz, a local, had agreed to take me around via horseback (actually, it was a combo donkey/horse) for $15 USD. I saddled up, and we began our tour, with Lafrantz stopping every once in a while to take pictures for me. I have to say, that I was quite uncomfortable riding the donkey/horse, as it seemed timid navigating the narrow, unstable path on which we were traveling. So I asked Lafrantz if I could just walk. I really enjoyed the tour and my talk about everything and nothing with Lafrantz. The island of Île à Vache is absolutely beautiful. Despite some deforestation, it’s largely “untouched”, as there are no roads, no major companies, no big buildings…not a lot of development overall. Just simple houses, schools, fisherman and farms.

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I reluctantly left “paradise” four days later to return to Leogane. I met up with the two volunteers again in Okay to travel back together, but ended up taking a tap tap while they boarded a rather hot, crowded bus. After the Jacmel experience, I had no interest in traveling under those conditions, so decided to travel back to Leogane solo. This time, I paid a little extra to sit in the front with the driver. He made sure no one else sat in the front with me, and we chatted away in Creole for most of the ride.

As soon as I hit the dusty streets and trash-filled canals of Leogane, I started day dreaming about Île à Vache. I appreciated the fresh air, unspoiled landscape and solitude so much that I wasn’t sure if I should tell other people about it or keep it a secret. But the fact is that few people will be brave enough to navigate the chaos and beauty that is Haiti. So while theoretically I’m telling “the world”, I dare you to actually pack your bags and make the journey to “paradise”.

Orevwa Celestin (Goodbye Celestin)

On Wednesday, everyone was on edge, eagerly awaiting the announcement confirming the two candidates who will face-off in round two of Haiti’s presidential election. All signs pointed to a run-off between Mirlande Manigat and Michel Martelly – a reversal of the initial results which placed Jude Celestin in second place behind Manigat. But uncertainty and tension remained, causing businesses in Port-au-Prince to close early, and residents to hunker down in their homes in case the city erupted in violence as it did in December.

Here in Leogane, as a precautionary measure, we weren’t allowed to stray too far from base, and if we chose to leave, we had to sign out – even if just going to the bar adjacent to the base. Personally, I prepared for a potential multi-day lockdown by stocking up on Ritz cheese sandwich crackers and chocolate Casino cookies (both are staples in my diet here). I also made sure I enjoyed a few “rustic” rum punches next door at Joe’s. By the time I went to bed at about 10:30pm, the CEP (Provisional Electoral Council) still hadn’t announced the election results.

Yesterday morning, unaware that the election results would soon be announced, I went outside to get my morning fix of coffee “crack”. As I sat on the bench drinking my coffee, passersby stopped to listen to the radio the egg sandwich lady set-up next to her stand. As more and more people started to gather, I looked around to make sure I knew someone in the crowd, just in case things didn’t go as planned. I was happy to see one of our former drivers at IFEWA, Jimmy, across the street. His eyes met mine and he gave me his signature head nod. I went back to enjoying my coffee and listening to the radio along with everyone else.

After about 15 minutes of listening to the results for run-offs for Senate and Deputy, I decided to return to the base. Once inside base, I huddled around a laptop that was streaming the press conference on Haitian National Television. After much build-up and anticipation, the CEP quickly announced that Manigat and Martelly would face one another in the 20 March run-off, and the press conference was over. There was a collective sigh of relief from some of the international volunteers, while many of the locals cheered with excitement.

Afterwards, I asked a few Haitian volunteers and staff why they were so excited about Martelly – better known as a cross-dressing Kompa singer than a politician. They said that because he has his own money, and a lot of it, they think he’s less likely to embezzle as so many other Presidents have. They also think he’s generally a good guy, and he has contributed philanthropically to the country over the years. Because I want to see a more stable, self-sufficient, prosperous Haiti, I tried to share in the locals’ excitement and optimism. But I found it quite difficult given the circumstances leading up to the announcement; namely the fact that the United States and others threatened to withhold millions of dollars in much needed aid if the Government of Haiti did not comply with the OAS (Organization of American States) recommendation.

Perhaps the results of the OAS’s investigation were accurate and voter fraud did result in Celestin wrongfully being awarded the number two spot initially (as I think was the case). However, for the U.S. and other countries to threaten to withhold aid from a nation that desperately needs it partly because they didn’t want violence to erupt in the streets, doesn’t sit quite well with me. And while I do believe that in a sense, the people of Haiti have had their voices heard, I think that unfortunately, the voice (influence) of the U.S. was much, much louder and impactful.

So while the question of the day may have been answered, I was left with even more questions. Was there some other motivation for influencing the election? What sorts of back-door negotiations took place? Did we make Martelly agree to certain conditions should he be declared the next President of Haiti? My guess is that “yes” is the answer to all of the above. But there’s one question that remains that’s much, much more difficult to answer: Will Haiti ever have a truly democratic election; one that isn’t marred by accusations of fraud or meddling by the international community?