Wednesday, August 27, 2008

gettin' soaked by Gustave

Tropical Storm Gustave seems to have just ended. It's been raining with varying degrees of intensity for the past 48+ hours. Even though Gwo Jan isn't close enough to the coast to suffer much damage from siklon yo (tropical storms/hurricanes), there are still heavy winds here and lots and lots of rain. We've learned that when it rains hard in Haiti, all activity ceases. No one goes to work, banks close, parliament shuts down. Our host families have been in their pajamas since Monday afternoon and we've been entertaining ourselves with multiple games of Scrabble.

Friday, August 22, 2008

to market to market

This morning at 5:30 AM Sharon and I went to the market in Petionville with Ari and Junya. When Ben and Bryan asked if they could go, too, Ari said no. He explained that it's not a problem for white women to do marketing. "White women are just women." But Haitians in general don't see any reason for a white man to be in a market. Women here do the marketing - both the selling and the buying. So a white man in a market in Haiti is considered to be military personnel (abhorred here because of the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934... more on that later), CIA or a photographer (sorry, Ben!).

The market is muddy and teeming with people all shoving their way through narrow aisles of produce. It was awesome. I got a chance to see what kinds of fresh foods are available here and get an idea of what they cost. Ari warned us that when we're shopping on our own, though, we'll be expected to pay the pri blan, or white man's price. On the one hand this feels unfair, but it's true that even on our meager MCC salary, we have more far resources available to us than most Haitians do. We CAN pay more.

I can't wait to move into our own place and be able to cook with fresh, locally-grown eggplant, sweet potatoes, squash and chard. Please share if you know anything about cracked wheat or yellow rice. Yellow rice is grown here and if it has any nutritional value, I would be perfectly content to never eat white rice again. Cracked wheat is imported, but sold fairly inexpensively in the market. We'll be making an effort to eat as few imported items as possible, but cracked wheat may be the only whole grain we can get here.

We're beginning to tire of our rice and white bread diet here in Gwo Jan. Haitians eat three meals a day, but breakfast and dinner are light. Breakfast is bread and sometimes fruit. Occasionally, we're served spaghetti for breakfast, though we've never been served spaghetti for lunch or dinner. This is the source of quite some mystery to us. For dinner we usually have bread and spicy Haitian peanut butter with something hot to drink (lemongrass and ginger tea or a sweet, thick drink made with spices and grated plantains or cornflour). The same combination of spices - cinnamon, cloves, star anise and bergamot - are used for just about everything sweet. Lunch is our gwo manje (large meal), usually around 2 or 3:00. For lunch we almost always eat rice, but sometimes have cornmeal or sorghum, with a black bean sauce ("sos pwa") and a sauce made with meat or smoked herring. We eat avocados with every meal. We also have freshly squeezed juice, ji, with most meals. Passion fruit is my favorite, but lemon and orange are good, too. When we can make our own juice, we'll use a quarter the amount of sugar. If you come to Haiti, my advice would be to steer clear of papaya juice.

I want to go fully vegetarian here, since meat production has the same kind of sustainability issues in Haiti as it does in the States. And here where people have so little, land and resource stewardship seems like an especially pressing issue. We told our homestay family that we don't eat meat, which also makes it cheaper for them to feed us. For the most part, it's easy to avoid meat, but every once in awhile I realize that what I've just swallowed couldn't possibly have been a piece of potato.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I (Lexi) woke up with diarrhea this morning, which made our seven-hour drive back from Cap-Haitien in the north pretty miserable. A dose of Loperamide and some Haitian buyi (flour, sugar and spices mixed into tea) seems to have done the trick for now. Ben and Brian were sick yesterday in Okap.

Okap is the Kreyol name for Cap Haitien. It’s a much smaller city than Port and quieter. It has narrow streets and colonial-style buildings painted pink, blue, yellow and teal.

Our trip was a history lesson. We visited the town of Fort Liberte where the first African slaves were brought into Haiti during French colonial rule. On the edge of town, Fort St. Joseph is crumbling into the sea. We waded in the water and found starfish and sea urchins. The water was warm and crystal clear. It was the first time since we arrived that I feel as though I’ve moved to the Caribbean.

We drove east to the Dominican border where we watched people crossing the river to avoid paying customs fees. Trucks, tap taps and moto taxis were full of Dominican goods that will be sold in Haiti – produce, toilet paper, chickens. UN soldiers guard the bridge that is the official border crossing.

It was raining when we drove to Milo to visit the Sans Souci (“No Worry”) Palace, built by Henri Christophe, former slave and Haiti’s 2nd king after independence. We hiked up a cobblestone path to the Citadelle. It was cool and windy and the view was spectacular. An artist tried to sell us paintings of the Citadelle: “cheaper than K-Mart” and a flutist followed us playing Auld Lang Syne (looking for tips?). Work on the Citadelle was begun in 1805, the year after Haiti successfully overthrew the French.

It wasn’t until we got back to Gwo Jan and checked our email that we heard about Tropical Storm Fay. We had 4 or 5 emails from friends and family wondering about the hurricane that apparently hit Haiti two days ago.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Driving through Port Au Prince


Today we went into Port-Au-Prince to see an apartment that's available. We love the apartment. Or, to be more accurate, love the apartment's terrace, which wraps 3/4 of the way around the apartment and has a view over the city and the Bay of Port Au Prince. The landlord lives in Miami, so we told the caretaker that we'd take it, but have no idea when exactly we'll be moving in. We have almost a month left of orientation anyway.

It's quite a drive to get from Gwo Jan to our future apartment. The roads in Haiti are in terrible shape, especially in the city where traffic is heavy. But even so, the city is less chaotic than I expected given the bad press on Haiti. We pass street cleaners, wearing yellow and funded by USAID, and markets where vendors are selling produce, used clothing, plastic sandals, rum, electronics and motor oil. We pass Belvil, a pretentious looking gated community (one of many in Port Au Prince). Advertisements are painted in bright colors on concrete walls and storefronts: soft drinks, Prestige Beer, soap, Barbancourt Rum and the ever present yellow Pante (Panther) condom ads. Everywhere are red and white Digicel banners, t-shirts and hats. We pass hardware stores, barber shops, beauty salons and borlettes - small scale lotteries. We pass God Power Auto Parts, Good Taste Restaurant, Body Perfect Gym and Grace Divine Truck Service. There are a lot of vehicles on the road, mostly trucks, SUVS, used school buses from the U.S. and motorcycles. It's easy to pick out the United Nations' shiny white Nissan SUVs, with UN in big block letters on the hood and side. Closer to downtown, UN peacekeepers patrol the city with assault rifles from the back of jeeps and flatbed pickups. For public transportation, there are tap taps. Tap Taps are pickup trucks with a fiberglass cap over the truck bed and bench seats. With their bright colors and intricate designs, tap taps are a tribute to Haitian artistry. Each is decorated with a name: Chicago, Merci Bon Dieu, Jesus Revient, Yes Manman, I Love You Jenny, God Before All, One Love Baby.

link to Thompsonowak's blog

Last week I tried unsuccessfully to post a link to Sharon and Bryan Thompsonowak's blog. Here is the REAL link:

Bryan and Sharon are the couple that are being 'oriented' with us right now. They'll be living in Desarmes, working with MCC's reforestation program.

We've also chosen to remove the news headlines on Haiti from the left-hand side of our blog. The more news we read about Haiti from the outside, the more disgusted we are with the way this country is portrayed in the media. We don't want to be contributing to any misperceptions of Haiti.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Week One

Gwo Jan


We're still in Gwo Jan, still trying to learn Kreyol and still adjusting to life in Haiti. Gwo Jan sits on a mountain about 10 miles and a 40 minute drive from Port Au Prince (which spills into the 'suburbs' of Delmas and Petionville). We are supposed to be taking daily walks through the village with the language tutors that have been assigned to us from the community. We see goats, scrawny chickens and a few cows, of which we've been told there aren't many in Haiti, fruit trees: mango, avocado, banana, plantain, jackfruit, breadfruit, orange, grapefruit, kenap and papaya. There's a baobab tree next to the spring where people come to bathe, do dishes and laundry and get water. It's easy to forget that we're on an island, but when it's clear we can see over the capital city to the ocean. Haiti's climate doesn't feel very tropical, either. This is the rainy season, but it hasn't rained often or much.

Ben and I are staying with Ari Nichols and his wife, Nicole. Ari has partnered many times with MCC in the activism, human rights work, and promotion of locally produced products that he is in involved in. Ari and his coworker Carla are giving us our orientation here. Carla and her husband, Ron, have lived in Haiti for 23 years.

Most of our orientation thus far has been cultural and we feel like we're in desperate need of official language lessons. We attended the wake and funeral of the elder that passed away on our first day here. Ben has learned how to play dominoes Haitian-style. Twice, We've hand washed our clothes until my knuckles bled. We've done some cooking - my hands burned for more than 30 hours after chopping and grinding piman pike (hot peppers). We've driven around Port-Au-Prince a few times on various errands, including a visit to a woodworkers' cooperative. We went to church yesterday - Legliz de Dye here in Gwo Jan. As visitors, we were invited to sit in the front row and introduce ourselves in our limited Kreyol. Someone translated for us in even more limited English. We tried to go to a soccer game, but arrived as the match ended.

Friday, August 8, 2008

9:43 PM I’m listening to a combination of Haitian drumming and rain on our tin roof. This is the latest we’ve been up all week. I’ve been waking up between 5:30 and 6:00 without an alarm clock every morning since we arrived.

Our Kreyol homework assignment two days ago was to write a letter listing what we’ve done so far in Haiti. My letter goes something like this:

M te ann Ayiti depi yon semen. I have been in Haiti for one week. Depi mwen vini isit, map abite nan Gwo Jan nan kay Ari. Since coming here I have been living in Gwo Jan at Ari’s house. Samedi me tem ache a Seguin avek lot moun MCC, kote a me te gade mon bel yo. Saturday I hiked to Seguin with other MCC people, where I saw beautiful mountains. Lapli te tombe anpil. It rained a lot. M te manje Ayisyen epi m te aprenn fe manje Ayisyen. I’ve eaten Haitian food and have learned to cook Haitian food. M te fe konesans avek nouvo zami Ayisyen anpil yo. I have made many new Haitian friends. M te lave rad mwen epi m te mete yon nan soley. I handwashed my clothes and put them in the sun to dry. M te passe yon jounen nan Port Au Prince. I spent a day in Port Au Prince. Map komans aprenn kilti Ayisen ak m te deja aprenn ase Kreyol pou ekri let sa. I am starting to learn Haitian culture and have already learned enough Kreyol to write this letter. M genyen bon eksperyans yo icit en Ayiti. I am having good experiences here in Haiti.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

MCC konbit

We've had such limited access to the internet in Gwo Jan that we haven't been able to update our blog since the 1st. As soon as we can, we'll catch you up on everything that we've been doing in Gwo Jan. It's been a busy week.

Today we're in Port Au Prince sitting in on one of the quarterly MCC konbit (which literally means 'collective'). There are 19 of us, including Mark Epp who is the MCC Associate Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. Most of the MCC staff here is Haitian, which was one of the main reasons that we were interested in working for this organization. Thankfully Mark doesn't speak Kreyol, so everything is being translated into English. I'm trying to listen and Ben is writing a short story in broken Kreyol about hunting monkeys.

Part of our conversation this morning and one of the key issues here has been food security. You may have seen Haiti in the news in April when riots broke out due to rising food prices. MCC is trying to address this problem by supporting local food production and reevaluating the organization's use of material aid.

That's all the updating I have time for at the moment.

Pita! ("Later")

Friday, August 1, 2008

submersion in Haiti

It wasn't easy getting here. In Charlotte, American Airlines informs us upon check-in that they have an embargo twice a year on boxes and we can't take our plastic trunk. My Dad drives to Walmart to buy us a suitcase and we repack at the airport. In Miami we meet up with Bryan and Sharon Thompsonowack, also beginning a 3-year assignment with MCC in Haiti. 2 hours on the tarmac before we're told that we need to disembark due to mechanical error. 2 hours sitting in the departure lounge and we are given meal and hotel vouchers and told to be back at our gate at 6:30 the next morning.

But, we're thrilled to have finally arrived. We're in Gwo Jan, on a mountain outside of Port-Au-Prince, where we'll be living with a Haitian family for a month. It's supposed to be total immersion into Creole and Haitian culture. Right now it feels more like drowning, but we're starting to get the hang of things: cornmeal, beans, plantains and avocados, rain, roosters, kerosene lamps, cold showers, hearing Creole, studying Creole and attempting to speak in Creole.

This morning an elder in this community died and we walked to his house where family members were wailing and throwing themselves on the ground. Having grown up in Cameroon, this seems to me a very appropriate expression of grief. There are so many similarities between Haiti and Africa that I feel like I'm home.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...