Haiti - August 23, 2010

So I'm back in Haiti now.  I was here for two weeks in April and I have to say that it appears that nothing has changed since then.  People are still in tents, the streets are still filled with rubble and all the crumpled houses are still right where they were before.  The sad thing (which is not acknowledged enough) is that this place was much the same even before the earthquake.  One of my colleagues on another program told me that he was here a few years ago and when he came back this past June, he didn't see much of a difference than how it used to be.  People never really had access to clean water or had suitable housing or access to health care or jobs...even before the earthquake.

But...You'd think billions of dollars could be put to use to fix this place, or any place for that matter.  I guess smarter minds then mine are in control of that effort (or so they should be) so hopefully they know what they're doing.  I think the main problem is simply coordination between the Haitian Government and the international bodies who have all the money.  I'm really scared to think what a hurricane will do here.  I've seen images of hurricanes throwing cars around...and there is so much rubble and debris here that it will be like concrete missiles all over the place.  There won't be anything standing if a hurricane hits.  And what will they do with the people?  They had a hurricane where my Grandma lives in Florida a couple years ago and she had to go inland to a storm shelter.  There are no storm shelters here.  There are barely even ANY shelters here.  Tropical storm Danielle was just upgraded to a hurricane today in the Atlantic.  Let's all hope it stops heading northwest and starts heading back out to sea.

So far my experience with the people here has been positive.  But keep in mind we live a very insulated existence.  We do go into groceries stores and other shops and gas stations.  We do go to the port and survey storage sites and get out and about town.  I’ve driven all over Port au Prince.  But it's not like we're out walking around the streets chatting to the people or going to street markets.  I'm usually tucked away in our office in our house or inside our vehicle.  Most of the local Haitian people I have contact with are our staff or some local companies we do business with.  I do try to learn as much as I can about the culture and what's happening in the city from those I come into contact with.  And I try to practice my French every where I can.  I've noticed it goes a long way to say "hello" and "what's your name" and "nice to meet" you to the security guards at the Port.  They definitely seem taken aback that I'm stopping to try and talk to them.   And it's always all smiles and waves from them after that.  Other than the fact that I know where I am, I honestly could be in any West African country right now.  It looks and feels the same.  Very comparable to Liberia, except here I feel the tension in the air more than I did when I was there.  There are times, for sure, when I long to ditch the car and go out and walk around.  The grocery store is really only a few blocks from our house, but I would never venture out to walk there.  We as foreigners are definitely conspicuous.  I get lots of stares in the car, but mostly just blank stares or curious stares…or people trying to sell me something or want me to give them money.

I must admit that seeing how people live here gives you a new perspective on what we call home.  We take for granted that society should just function.  But it is not always like that in other places.  It is basically utter chaos here.  There don’t appear to be any real rules of the road…you come to a 4 way intersection and it is basically a test of who can be the most aggressive to get where they’re going.   There are no real public services.  Garbage is everywhere.  Literally everywhere.   Water is not potable.  I brought some water purification tablets in case of an emergency, but honestly, I have not seen one single open source of water that I would drink, even after adding gallons of chlorine or iodine.  There is some city power, sometimes.  But I’m amazed at how dark it is outside.  Where I live in Virginia, if you want to be in pitch blackness, you have to go off hiking into the woods.  Here, it is like that just outside the walls of my compound.  Sometimes I like to look out the window at night and check out what is happening on the street.  Mostly I can’t see a single thing unless a car or motorcycle comes down the road and lights it up for a flash.  The eeriest experience was watching across the street during a huge electrical storm.   There was almost a non-stop flash of lightning across the sky and it would be pitch black and seemingly empty one second, and then huge bolts of light would brighten up the view and you’d realize there was actually a buzz of activity going on.  

All in all, I’m just very thankful for what I have and where I come from.  There is seemingly a lot of commerce going on here.  The streets are awash with vendors and the informal economy seems to be very active.  There is always someone selling something, it might be a man with a burlap bag on his head filled with bags of water (mostly I see the locals drink water from little 8oz bags) or a woman selling shoes.  I saw a guy the other day with what appeared to be about 100 car phone charges balanced on his head and today I saw a guy with at least 10 bottles of coke in a box…on his head.  I really must learn how to balance stuff on my head. ..it is an art form.  Anyway…most of the people on the streets selling stuff just appear so miserable to me.  Maybe that is me projecting my own opinion of how I would feel if I were them…but they sit around all day on a crate or piece of concrete or whatever makeshift seat they have, and just hope for someone to buy whatever little thing they have to sell to make ends meet.  One woman sticks out to me in particular.  It was a hot sunny day, and she was sitting on an overturned bucket, holding a beach umbrella up from the ground between her legs to shield the sun.  She was leaning against the umbrella’s pole, looking bored and tired and forlorn.  She had a crate in front of her with a pile of grapes on it.  I just remember thinking, no matter how bad I have it at work, I will never complain again…because at least I have an income and even just a chair to sit on.  At least I am not sitting in the hot sun all day on a bucket.

The house we live in is very nice and leaves me feeling a mix of emotions.  On the one hand, I feel guilty.  There are people sleeping on the street and in tents and in the rain and filth, while I am in a nice house with a beautiful garden and swimming pool.  On the other hand, I understand the circumstances we are in.  There are not many places here that are large enough to house 5 people and an office, that are secure and that are still standing.  This was really the only place we could find.  These are the reasons why we live in this house, not because it is big and has a pool.  So that helps with the guilt.  But I do feel sad when it’s pouring rain outside.  I wish I could invite everyone across the street, huddled under their makeshift shelters, to come inside.  But, sadly, I can’t do that. 

Anyway, I think that is enough rambling for now.  Thanks for reading!

Love,

Jen