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Saturday, January 24, 2015

The things we read, the things we carried back, some thoughts on international aid and service, and being a tourist in Haiti.

And now, enroute to home. We are on the plane back north, this one to JFK, then after an hour plus there, a second flight back to Logan.
Our trip began this am with a pick by taxi at our house by Elvens, the same driver who brought us to the house 9 days earlier. It was a fascinating trip both times around. First, back through Jacmel then across the mountains, from south to north, back to Port au Prince. I'd hoped we'd have enough time to stop in the city and take a look around, and we did. Our trip out to Jacmel, we'd gone on a long continues route lined with vendors. Not sure of our geography, we didn't realize that this had all been part of the capitol.

 While P au P hadn't sounded very appealing, I had wanted to at least see what it was like. I'd been hoping that we'd left early enough to do so, and indeed we had. Elvens said we'd have enough time for a meal, did we want him to drop us off at a restaurant before the airport? Neither of us wanted a meal, but we did want to get a tour around the city, and we did. It was the same combination of half built buildings, small brightly painted cement blocks homes and business, ruins, but more extensive and intensive than Jacmel. 

Elvens took us to a series of courtyards that went back from a street, to a photo exhibit of photos of the devastation of the earthquake, an exhibit mounted for the 5th anniversary. I'd actually seen an article about the exhibit in the newspaper I'd found at our house.  The photos were by Haitian/American photographer Daniel Morel. The pictures were graphic and heartbreaking, many focused on the shock and pain of individuals caught in the devastation. 

As much as I wanted to take time to look at the photographs, I was even more taken by the hundreds of sculptures made from scraps of various kinds that took up the walls and floors of the series of courtyards. They were huge and tiny and in between. Many featured doll heads, combined with other materials in grotesque but appealing configurations. They reminded me oddly of sculptures made of tin cans and doll heads and other scraps that I'd seen sold at an arts fair in Salisbury Ma. a year or so before. But these were less cute, more grotesque.

 Loring, I could see, was worried that I would be carting one of the large scale ones back home. I was good, though, and decided more quickly than normally. I didn't see a small one with a doll head, but did find one with a Barbiesque body, sans arms, and a frame that looked like strips of tire tread, and some caps that were probably from water bottles, that said Haiti. A fine end to our travels and an excellent souvenir. I bargained briefly, without the heart for it, and paid, I'm sure, too much. The only reason I feel like I should bargain is that I don't want to be taken for a stupid tourist.

The piece reminded me somewhat of some of the street sculptures we saw in Havana.  I think they both have a voodou quality, but don't know enough about voodou art to say what it is. I put it in my suitcase just as we arrived at the airport, so look forward to taking a better look at it when we get home.
I didn't buy as much as I have in the past in terms of crafts, but am happy with what I did purchase. I have two papier mache pieces that I hope make it home intact. They are in the suitcase I brought down filled with supplies for the school. I think they were better quality than the other artists whose items I saw in Jacmel, but I liked them even more because we saw and spoke with the woman, Charlotte Charles, who made them. I bought a small metal piece that struck me in one of the shops, even though the man who was selling it told me it was $25 when I came back, rather than the $10 he told me before.  Loring had heard him, too, so I know I hadn't misunderstood.  I did not feel bad insisting on the $10 with him.
 I also bought two small paintings from a young man on the beach, one for Carolina and one for Max. He first unrolled a dozen or so that were about 20 inches square, and I said I could only use smaller ones. He left and came back about 10 minutes later with two small pieces, each of which he'd cut from one of the larger ones!  I told him that wouldn't do. He was persistent but polite.

He left again, living all the paintings spread out around us on the beach.  He made another excursion and came back about a half hour later with about a half dozen small pictures. I didn't like most of them at all, but, luckily, there were two that I did. He'd earned his money, although I'm sure I also paid him more than he would have been willing to sell them for.

Loring is convinced that much if not all of the artwork of various kinds is mass produced in China, and it's quite possible he's right!  When we were in Venice a few years ago he was reading a book by a Chinese American man who drives along the Great Wall and has all kinds of interesting encounters. One was with a woman who lived in an "art city" in China where great numbers of people are employed painting multiple  copies of paintings of famous places which are then sold in those places as originals. Well, they are originals, I guess. Didn't all kinds of artists learn their trades copying the works of great artists in whose workshops they apprenticed?

The vendors are surprisingly low key, some more insistent than others, but none are annoying. And some just ask once, say merci if you say non, and move along.

So I'll give M and C their paintings, whether Haitian or Chinese made, and hope they'll like them.

Aside from the first couple of days, where we walked up and down the road a mile or two, then went to Jacmel, and then to L'Ecole lDignite, our general pattern was to walk all or part way to Ti Mouillage each day, catching a tap tap if one came along, and then spending the entire afternoon there.
Most days we ate at the restaurant there, too, crab one day, lobster another. The setting couldn't be beat - turquoise tables and chairs on the sand, a few yards from the shore. Kids playing soccer that went into the waves. A few fishing boats in the distance. The owner of the restaurant and cabins ( we never saw anyone staying there)  and a few friends  playing dominoes at a nearby tables.

 We hadn't been sure just how we were going to find either the supermarket or the place to pick up a tap tap back. We were just wondering around the town hoping to stumble on the right place. I asked a woman on the street about the supermarche. She didn't understand me, but after I'd started to walk away, said, oh, le supermarket? It was practically around the corner, as was the tap tap depot.
 Last night we hadn't yet decided whether to eat at our same restaurant on the beach or go back to one of the others we'd tried before. Then two men came up the beach, one carrying several lobsters, the other a bunch of fish. I wasn't sure if the owner was going to buy the fish, so quickly went up to him and said we'd like fresh fish for supper.

Promptly at 4pm, our fish dinner was served. We hadn't specified the time, but that was the time we'd eaten our other dinners there, so they didn't even need to ask. We'd been on an early dinner schedule for a couple of reasons. One, we hadn't eaten much or any lunch most days, so were hungry by late afternoon. And, also, since we didn't want to get home much after sunset, 4 seemed like a good time for dinner.

Have I mentioned our electricity issues? Yes, I think I have. We'd settled into a a regular schedule of  Jeancene turning on the generator when we arrived home around sunset, about 6, and turning it off a couple of hours later. In the meantime, we made sure to plug in our kindles and camera batteries and computer, and to drink cold water out of the water cooler while it was somewhat cold. And to drink some of our canned club sodas while they were at least somewhat cool from the 2 hours of freezer time they had each evening.
What we didn't quite understand was why some of the places in the village did have electricity, that did not come from generators, while we did not.

And then there was the time, a day or two ago, when we ran out of gas for the stove. Loring had gone down to the kitchen to boil a couple of eggs for us to have with our crackers, cheese, and salami for supper. But before the water could boil, the gas ran out. We went in search of Jeancene. He said, not surprisingly, that it was too late to get gas, that he'd do it first thing in the morning.

 But before he came back, though, the next morning, we'd also run out of water from the tank on the roof. That was less of a problem, first, there was still some on the second floor . And, it took just a brief run of the generator to get the pump to run the water back up to the tank above us. So we soon had both water and gas back again, although Loring had to wait a little later for his usual pre-dawn cup of coffee.

All this is amusing in retrospect, and was pretty much so even at the time. It's hard to be frustrated with Jeancene, he is so good natured, offering his hand to shake every time he sees us, with his still disconcerting "buenos dias" and his big grin. On the other hand, we feel we need to tell Lionel the things that weren't right with the house, to be honest, and if he wants to continue to rent it. The couple of times Lionel called to see how we were, I tried to mention, in a nonchalant way, the issues with electricity, gas, etc. But we've also been compiling a list of things we think the place needs in order for it to be rentable for more discerning folks than us - a couple of plastic porch chairs that aren't broken, a few more glasses, etc.

Loring just announced that he read 9 1/2 books while we were in Haiti. I think I've read seven or eight.  He woke up about 3 hours before me most mornings, hence the difference. We've both read many but not all of the same ones. Most but not all had Haiti themes. I read The Big Truck that Went By, written by Jonathan Katz, about the aftermath of the quake. He's an AP reporter who was in Haiti during the quake. Loring read that too. We both also read Claire of the Seas, a series of interrelated stories by Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat. I'd had Junot Diaz's This is How you Lose Her on my list for a long time, but then came across an essay by him about the earthquake. So I read both the essay and the novel. He's Dominican American, and the book is about growing up as a Dominican American man in New Jersey.

We both also read The Oldest Woman in the World and other Stories by Kirk Colvin. The stories take place in Haiti, but we weren't able to figure out if they were true or fiction. I'll have to check once we have internet again. They provided another interesting perspective but left me kind of puzzled.
I just finished An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, another Haitian American. It begins with the abduction of a Haitian woman from her family's gated in compound in a wealthy section of Port au Prince. It's an intense, powerful read.

read Still Alice, which Loring had read a while ago, about a woman with early onset Alzheimer's. We'd just seen previews for the movie, I figured I should read it soon.
And we both read Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, which takes place around an elementary school in Australia, not a thing to do with Haiti. I chuckled all the way through it, and Loring did too. It's an odd mixture of hysterically funny and dealing with quite serious issues, very well written.

Final thoughts? I am surprised that the Haitians I've met and observed don't seem as destitute or desperate as I had imagined. Yes, I've seen plenty who live in tiny shanties or less, and surely can't have terrific health or nutrition, much less opportunities. And yet they don't seem, on the surface, worn down by their lives or situations. Most smile or say bonswa when we pass each other on the road. Their clothes look clean and not overly well worn .More surprising, although there are few private cars, there are tons of people with motorcycles. Ones with entire families riding on them, ones with young couples, many with two or three men. How can they possibly afford to buy them, even to pay for the fuel? Or are they lured by salesman with enticing loans that they aren't able to continue to pay?
And what about the horror of living through an earthquake that has taken thousands, many thousands of lives? According to Katz, the AP writer, there are no firm numbers on how many died, because the different agencies, government and private, don't agree, don't even come close. The government had no numbers on how many inhabitants, before the quake, lived in the country. The various death estimates range from 80,000 to 320,000, an upsettingly large range.

Five years have passed. Lots of buildings, including the government palace, have never been rebuilt. Some have been cleared, some still lie in ruins.  How do people even recover, emotionally, from that kind of trauma?  Is it any easier when it's collective, when everyone you know has been affected, because your pain is no worse than anyone else's?  Or are there layers of damage, not physical but pyschological, that could never be noticeable to the casual observer, many, thousands suffering from some type of post- traumatic stress related to what and who they have lost. And yet they smile when we pass each other on the road, or when we climb up and squeeze into the already crowded tap taps.
I would be interested to read or speak to some mental health workers who have dealt with survivors. Or are there even any such trauma mental health workers here?

There were many aid workers in Haiti even before the earthquake, and hordes that poured in afterwards. And we've seen a number of groups of Americans that were clearly here on some type of aide trip.

Our driver, Elwens, spoke disparagingly of them when Loring asked him if the international aid had been of any help. He said that the workers came mostly to eat lobsters on the beach. I would hope that at least some had more good intentions than that. But I also wonder if all the money poured into the country does much good. Katz, the AP writer, is not any more lauditory. He is talking about the big groups, not the little church and other service missions, although I'd like to know his thoughts on those.

I’ve come across a similar issue in my own volunteer work .Does it really do any good to spend a couple of weeks in a situation planting a garden or teaching kids English or whatever the particular project is.? Or is it more to assuage the guilt of the privileged, or give the college or gap kids something for their resumes?  My answer to that is twofold one, I really do these projects for myself, for what I get out of it, and only secondarily for the people I am supposedly helping. But, also, isn't there some merit even if you just reach one person, make an impression or have an impression made on you. You know, the old tossing the fish back into the ocean parable.  It's not going to save the world or even anyone in it. 

But, I am thinking now of the boy I met on the beach this week. He was selling shells. He also had two notebooks with him. I didn't need any shells and they weren't even very nice. But he showed me his notebooks, and how he was learning chemistry and biology. I figured it was part of his schtick, but I chose a few shells anyway. He was so sweet. Later, and the next day, he sat on a wall, and later, in a hammock,  singing his notes to learn them. Whether he was a good salesman didn't matter. He was truly interested in learning. I won't forget him. I hope he remembers at least for a bit, one foreign blan who took the time to listen to him. 

Blan, by the way, from blanc, doesn't mean white so much as foreigner, and is not derogatory. From what I've heard and read, it isn't strictly for whites, either. A foreign person with of dark skin is, apparently, a blan as well.

As far as whether the billions of foreign aid that poured into the country in the aftermath of the quake ever reached the victims, it seems the answer is that most of it did not, that relief effort was mostly an abject failure.  From all Ive read and heard, from fiction to the AP reporter’s book to our driver, Elvens, to the articles in this week’s press, the answer seems the same. I don’t know, will have to read more, how much of this is endemic to Haiti, to the degree of poverty, amount of corruption, any other factors.

And I don’t know how much the many smaller relief projects, soon after the quake and continuing into the present, that build or rebuild houses, schools, etc. are subject to the same criticism. I hope that the  medical  trips, at least, provide critically needed services. 

And I personally think projects like the mosaic one in Jacmel do serve an important purpose. In many streets where we walked in Jacmel, especially near the water, were wonderful mosaic walls and a beautiful  well used staircase.  I saw no signs about the mosaics in Jacmel.  But when we returned, I found info online about the U.S. mosaic artist who has spent much time in Haiti and some other places doing mosaic work, It  has involved the community, especially children,  has really brightened the city and made it visually beautiful for both the inhabitants and for tourists.

Loring, though, has a good point about reconstruction projects. How much does it help for a group of us blans to come down when there so many Haitians with no source of income who could use and do the work, and probably a better job of it. Volunteers for Peace, the organization with which I’ve participated in numerous projects, currently has eight different projects in Haiti. I think highly of VFP and have recommended them to many people. But it is, I think, a valid question. 

 Is it our place to do projects that take badly needed work from people who desperately need it? Is it ok to do art projects, or other ones that the locals couldn't initiate, but not ones they couldn't do on their own? I welcome other thoughts.

We went to Haiti on a vacation about which some folks we know were incredulous. Surely, most people from abroad who aren’t Haitian come on service trips. And I think, that was part of the appeal to us, to see what it was beyond all of our perception of it as a place of poverty and crisis, and if it was a place that we thought people could and should consider for a vacation. Our conclusion – it was interesting, beautiful in many ways, as well as very poor and sad in terms of the poverty, and what we knew of the disaster and hardships, both before and since the quakes. If you are looking for upscale accomodations and service, it’s not the place for you. But if you are an adventurous traveler and interested in culture, it might just be.

1 comment:

Laura Farhi said...

I am so fortunate Joanna to have come across your beautiful and thought-provoking piece "Joanna's Journey" (sometimes it pays to procrastinate instead of tackling my duties). And I hope to read at least some of the books you and Loring have read and recommended.

Having myself done and still doing volunteer work, and my children also, I truly believe we do make an impact, even if it is on a small and personal scale.

I look forward to reading more of your work, Joanna. Laura