Goodbyes

I’ve spent countless hours thinking about the accident. The NGO for which I volunteer is moving out of the unfinished night club that has served as my home for a month each of the last two summers, and I did not want the last memory I had in Haiti to be one of death. Each of my past two departures has been exactly that. Conquering, or at least moving past, that haunting feeling is surely a large part of why I’m here.

In July 2010, I shared a ride to the Toussaint airport in an SUV with two colleagues: Sibella, a cheery, 20-something ginger from Australia; and Ray, a greying-haired chain smoker from the States whose heart of gold is kept underneath his gruff, hairy exterior. Ray sat in the front of the sluggish, dust-laden SUV, next to our Haitian driver. I sat behind Ray, squished next to Sibella and our shared luggage.

To ensure each of us made our flights, we left Leogane just as the sun was breaking, around 6 a.m. Vehicle travel in Haiti — like most things in this country — is unpredictable: Earthquake-damaged roads, flooding and the prospects of “bloquis” mean even trips of small distances can often turn into multi-hour adventures. So, you allow for traffic.

We took the highway east, cruising along at a rather rapid clip until reaching the outskirts of Port Au Prince. Congestion, closed roads and stalled cars brought our progress to a halt.

By this point, the sun was shining brightly. That Haitian sun. It’s why you need sunscreen even at 9 in the morning. It felt like the temperature had already reaching triple-digits. A dry heat, minimal humidity. All our windows were rolled down. I put on my sunglasses, which served a two-fold purpose by also blocking the omnipresent grit and dust. Vendors selling mangos, plastic bottled sodas and “pharmacists” toting plastic baskets on their shoulders filled with blister packs of pills in every color of the rainbow, walked without caution between the creeping cars, looking for a sale.

Pedestrians everywhere. I could reach out and touch the passers-by.

Three blans in a vehicle — if you count Ray as white (he’s closer to brown) — garnered the attention of quite a few pedestrians. I offered a few Bonjous to the gawkers.

Our driver turned onto a divided four-lane highway, where the median had been transformed into residential real estate: Shacks assembled from tarps, corrugated metal and plywood scraps butted up against each other and spilled onto the street. It narrowed to one lane each way, our car now creeping slower than the neighboring foot traffic.

And then, there he was. On the right side of the street, splayed out on his back, lay a wiry Haitian man. He was wearing stained, chocolate brown pants and a plaid, short-sleeved shirt. Collared.

Blood poured out of his head. It ran in an ambling fashion away from his skull, pooling in a spot a few feet away.

The pedestrians, they didn’t pay him any mind. Nobody even looked at him. If you can call him a “him” at that point. I don’t know at what point a person stops being a him and starts being a dead person. They nonchalantly walked by, avoiding the mess created by this recently deceased man just like you would dog’s mess on carpet. In a warped way, it made perfect sense. If he wasn’t dead yet, he surely was close to it. What was the point? There’s no ambulance to call. (Which we were reminded of next year.)

The scene seemed so fantastic it couldn’t possibly be real. It felt like theater. I felt completely numb. Unsettling.

I was glad I was wearing sunglasses.

Conversation in our SUV had stopped, abruptly, as each of saw and then processed the scene. Perhaps out of respect. Or maybe just shock.

In between deep drags of a red pack Haitian smokes, Ray broke the silence: “Haiti can be so sweet to you when you’re here, and so rough to you when you go.”

We drove on. We made our flights. We left.

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“Whales are great communicators.”

The School 20 foundation pour was a success. Under the leadership of Paul, our ace schools project director and a great guy to boot, we cranked out a full, smooth foundation in one day. Actually, it was under one day! We had wrapped mixing by 3:15 p.m., about 7 hours after we started mixing an hour into our workday.


The plan of attack (and a lovely Australian).


Team Beluga, mixing cement by hand.


A view of (most of) the scene.

The last foundation pour on which I worked was for School 13, one of Chris’ schools, in July. Then, it took us 2 1/2 days, using two automatic mixers, to produce the same sized school.

Paul’s planning deserves a lot of credit for our success. Using a large automatic mixer and two hand mixing teams — all named after whales, because as Paul explained, “Whales are great communicators” — teams first filled the 3ft deep trenches that serve as the footprint of the school, and then moved on to the slab.

I worked on the sand team, preparing buckets for Team Humpback (the big mixer). For most of the day, we were cranking out wheelbarrows full of fresh concrete every minute. It was a challenging, physically demanding, dusty day. Paul described it as the “greatest day of his life — ever” at tonight’s meeting.

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Fashion statement

A spectator at the School 20 foundation pour today.

He was cool as a cucumber, resting on his bicycle, watching the workers, wearing these Groucho Marx glasses as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

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December 13

Today is Chris’ birthday. (Thanks, Facebook)

It seems fitting that on this day, 66 of us are going out to pour the foundation for School 20, All Hands’ last planned school. This is the biggest foundation pour crew assembled yet. Our goal is to have it done in one day — instead of two or three days, as with past schools. It’ll be a huge task and probably will necessitate an extra-long workday, but we hope it will result in a smoother, stronger structure.

I am reminded of Chris every day, but normally in the context of work – like today – so, happy things.

I’d like to think that Chris would smile at seeing the progress we’ve made on the schools and the improvements, no matter how incremental, taking place in Leogane. I take some comfort in knowing that Chris lives on through the work he did this summer.

A volunteer buddy from this summer and last, Blake, responded to a “Hello from Haiti” post from me on Facebook with a perfect one-word response: “Lucky.”

It’s true. I am very lucky.

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You’s gonna be a real Haitian

James, a baby-faced Haitian teenager, has been helping us build School 18.

At each of our school sites, All Hands requests certain things from the community – this secures some buy-in from the community and encourages them to take ownership of the huge gift we’re giving them – and one of those regular asks is some additional volunteers from the given site’s area, such as volunteers like James.

Last week, James assisted Tiffany, a new friend from Seattle, and me in rendering the school’s exterior walls. James can be counted on to wear two things: His torn red basketball shorts and a broad smile that shows almost all his teeth. Although he doesn’t have any construction experience, James is helpful, hard-working and a quick learn. (At one point, James started scooping handfuls of cement out of a bucket for us; Although this was not at all efficient, it was well-intentioned and rather sweet.)

Today, our crew returned to the school site, which is a bumpy 30 minute drive from downtown Leogane, to begin painting the school’s interior and to install two walls.

As we attacked the walls with brushes and runny white paint, we cranked the radio – much to the delight of our Haitian co-workers, and in particular, James.

Now, you may know that I am a fabulous singer who has a magical ability to beautifully croon along with songs even when I do not know their lyrics. After a certain point – perhaps having something to do with the paint fumes – I tapped this magical skill, yelping along with a very bouncy James to a Kreyol pop tune.

At the end of the tune, the perpetually smiling (and at this point, paint-splattered) James — clearly quite impressed by my magical singing ability — serenaded me with a tune of his own: “You’s gonna be a real Haitian.”

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Tom Sawyer

In Haiti, anything that differs from the ordinary is cause for excitement.

As such, every work project draws spectators, often including a large number of kids. Since many Haitians can’t afford to send their children to school — almost every school in this country is private — a lot of kiddos run around unsupervised. A lot of them are drawn to our (noisy) work sites in impressive speeds.

At School 18 Monday morning, a mild-mannered grade-school aged boy showed up, alone. He lingered outside the school for quite a while, peering in through the open door at the crew working inside. He eventually worked up the courage to walk inside — something that would seem totally inappropriate in America but doesn’t seem rude here — and check things out up close.

I was working on painting a section of the classroom that was close to the door and so became the object of his attention. I tried to chat with him a little, asking the usual questions including his name, age, that sort of thing, but he was not interested in responding.

Finally I gestured toward him with my paintbrush to inquire if he wanted to give it a shot. He nodded and smiled. I handed him the paintbrush and demonstrated how to dip it into the tray, knock off excess paint, and then run it up and down the wall in smooth lines.

I figure it had to have been this little man’s first time painting — and by painting, I mean painting anything. Children’s toys are a rare sight here; they’re expensive and unnecessary. I can’t imagine this little guy’s family, which probably did not have money to send him to school (since he wasn’t in class and wasn’t wearing a uniform), ever had resources or access to things like fingerpaints, let alone paint for their home, if they even had a home with walls that could be painted.

After handing off my brush to him, I was reminded of that scene where Tom Sawyer tricks a boy into whitewashing a fence. In Twain’s book, Tom was trying to get out of doing his chore, and did so by making the task seem like a special activity.

It’s kind of similar to what happened to me although I wasn’t trying to get out of work (promise!).

For this boy, painting the school wall wasn’t “work” at all, but a new, special experience for him.

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The dog

By and large, Haitians don’t keep dogs as pets. Dogs are viewed as nuisances, not companions. They’re a common sight in urban areas, where humans ignore them as they roam the streets and dig through trash piles for scraps. Many are covered in sores and are so skinny their ribs look like xylophones.

Haitians generally frown upon giving food – even leftovers – to dogs because that seems disrespectful to the many hungry humans also in need of food.

As a dog lover, it’s hard for me to ignore these dogs who are so clearly in need, but I know that I can’t do anything to (permanently) improve their situations.

All Hands’ base has been “home” to several animals, including goats, a cat and chicken.

And now, it appears, a dog.

Over the last week, this little lady has been not just entering the base’s gated property, but entering the base itself. I snapped the above photo this morning as she strolled by my bunk.

She’s sweet, very friendly and, as you can see, adorable.

During Thursday’s evening meeting, she pranced through the seated crowd of volunteers, much to our amusement and delight. Dylan, the project’s manager and a feline fan, scooped the dog up and headed for the door, prompting a loud collective “Awwww” from the dog’s growing fanbase.

Friday evening, I stepped into the office to sign my local volunteer buddy, Christmane, into the office so he could use a computer. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a long nose poke through the metal gate. By the time I finished writing, she had climbed over a piece of plywood that had been tucked against the gate to block her entrance and scooted inside. Smart little booger.

Just now, as I was typing this note while sitting in the lounge area with Dann, she trotted in through the open front door and across the camp’s cloister. Minutes later, a volunteer walked back across the cloister, dog in arms. Sure enough, the pooch strolled back in not five minutes later. And again, a volunteer escorted her outside. Persistent!

I know there are lots of practical reasons why the base can’t adopt her. But I really think they should.

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Observation

While walking downtown with a friend today, a truck carrying water drove by.

As it bounced down the unpaved street, it played a loud music box-type song. Its similarity to the music American ice cream trucks play to attract young customers was unmistakable.

But this truck was selling water.

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School 18 kids

I’ve spent the last few days working on rendering the exterior walls of School 18. We hope to have the building painted and cleaned by Friday. These four kids are currently attending class next door, but will move into the new building once it’s completed.

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On the U.N. in Leogane

On the ride home from work at School 18 Thursday afternoon, my work group encountered a small manifestation.

About 10 minutes into our half-hour ride back to downtown Leogane, a U.N. truck being driven by Sri Lankans – most of the U.N. forces stationed in this city are from Sri Lanka or Korea – passed us in a hurry on an unpaved road.

We caught up to them just a few blocks later, when stalled traffic forced us to stop as well. More U.N. forces – Koreans – were standing in the street, directing traffic.

Ahead of them were several large rocks, sitting in the middle of the road. They had been intentionally placed there by someone seeking to stop traffic. The Korean man told Cherilus (a construction worker for All Hands and a great guy to boot), who was driving the oversized flatbed truck in which we were riding, it would be “two minutes” – in English – before we could move. Cherlius opened the door to the truck and said something back to him in Kreyol.

Which prompted the Korean peacekeeper to yell a very mature and professional, “Shut up!”

A few of the volunteers in the bed of the truck let out an involuntary “ooh” in surprise. This incensed Cherlius, who I don’t think understood what had just been said, but knew enough to know it wasn’t a compliment.

Cherlius started to engage the Korean in further conversation, but we talked him out of that bad idea.

After the U.N. forces had removed the rocks from the road, the same Korean troop signaled to the sitting vehicles to proceed.

As we drove by, the Korean yelled to a silent Cherilus: “You should show us respect.”

While I don’t disagree with that sentiment, I think the Korean man could probably use some enlightening about why Haitians, by and large, aren’t pleased with the U.N. presence. For one, it is a presence. U.N. forces are stationed throughout Haiti, which comes off to some as an affront to Haiti’s sovereignty. Also, U.N. troops are armed and police the country. How would you feel if armed foreigners patrolled your neighborhood? And, of course, Haitians are well aware that it was U.N. forces that brought cholera to the country, just a few months after it was crippled by a monumental earthquake.

The U.N.’s Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, has a mixed history. The U.N.’s Security Council started the mission in 2004, citing concerns that Haiti’s political situation and economic deterioration was a threat to international security. Some Haitians feel the mission was created to oppose Aristide and his political party, Fanmi Lavalas, which is popular among Haiti’s poor. The mission has also been criticized for firing on and killing civilians in a handful of incidents. The program was set to expire last year, but was extended following the earthquake. I would imagine that Haitians are conflicted about whether this is a good thing.

While I don’t seek to justify Cherlius behavior, he did not do anything to merit a “Shut up,” nor the unnecessary comment as we drove off. The United Nations does nothing to help its reputation among Haitians with that kind of behavior.

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