Category Archives: haiti

On helping yourself so you can help other people

The night I heard the news of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, I did what I used to do to cope with stress — dissociate using any kind of chemical I could find. I went to the store and bought a pack of cigarettes after not smoking for two months, and went to my local bar where I proceeded to get wasted. I always liked going to this bar alone because on any given day it was inevitable that some interesting person would come along and strike up a conversation.

That particular night I found myself seated next to a man from Sierra Leone. After a few martinis, I wound up confiding in him that I felt like the scum of the universe that night because an earthquake had just struck Haiti, the bodies were piling up, it was possible that my family there was hurt or worse, and all I could do was sit in the comfort of my life in New York, in this bar, and worry about it. I told him I wanted to be on a plane there doing something to help, but instead I was sitting there not helping anyone, especially not myself.

He sort of chuckled and in a very wise old man way (even though he was only 25) took me to look here: he was from fucking Sierra Leone. Most of the people there live in poverty, there are civil wars and violence all the time and people generally live in fear. It wasn’t until the Blood Diamond came out that most people in the US even heard of the place, which is an indication of how little foreign intervention they get there. He told me wants to do so much to help his family and friends there all time, but he was sitting right with me and not feeling guilty about it at all. Why? “Because that’s all anyone wants, is the ability to because to just sit somewhere and not have to worry about anything in that moment. It’s all my family wanted for me,” he said. And then he told me something for the first time that I would hear many times over the next few years, which is that you have to help yourself first if you want to have any hope of helping other people.

I struggled with this concept at first because on the one hand it sounds like rationalization for laziness and selfishness. But when it comes down to it, it’s just accurate at a very basic level. That’s not to say that you can’t always be helping people. I help people when I can and love doing so. But in the past few years I have found myself overextending. I tend to attract people who try to take advantage of my compassion, who perhaps haven’t quite figured out how to sever the parental ties and look for mothers and fathers in other people. They look for it in me because they see me as independent, someone who “has her shit together,” and they cling for dear life hoping I can help them be the same way. And I want to, and part of the reason I work so hard is so that someday I will be able to, but sometimes I just can’t. But I’m terrible at saying no to people when they ask for help, so sometimes I try and try and it drains all my energy from my very core, and I turn into this listless shell who can’t even walk to the corner store let alone address an international crisis. I am independent and I probably do have my shit together more than the average 26-year-old living in New York City, but I am that way because I have to be. I don’t have a safety net like so many of my peers, so when I fall, it really hurts. I can’t afford to fall anymore.

So don’t worry if you hear me going on about raw food and meditation. I’m not joining a hippie cult or something, although the yoga studio across the street could pass for one. I really just want to try everything that crosses my path to be healthy, so I help other people in the biggest way possible while I’m still able, and I’m really grateful for the people who are able to help me do that right now.

On Fun In Haiti

Lots of people have fun in Haiti. A little-known secret about Haiti is that it is fun. It is easy to have fun, and too much of it if you’re not careful. Especially if you tend to abuse power, like drinking and driving, prostitutes, and general anarchy. If you don’t like those things, which I tend to not (save a little anarchy here and there, and beers-to-go when I’m in the passenger seat (which is always)), fun comes with a side of guilt.

This is because fun is a luxury. A luxury you are viscerally aware of when the majority of people you see every day are not having fun, they’re just “getting by.” This is because you must have money to have fun. I don’t consider myself as “having money” when I’m home in New York, so much as “getting by,” but here in Haiti I “have money.” And I feel damn guilty about it.

When I’m in a cab and the meter is running, I know it’s exactly the same price as a cab is in New York. When I go out to eat, the prices on the menus where I’m taken are the same prices on the menus at the places I frequent in New York. But it all feels more expensive, since here I’m in the maybe 5% of people of who have access to those things, and in New York I let other people pick up the tabs.

When I drink here, though, it feels cheaper. Beers are $2 or $3 here, whereas in New York, they’re $5-13. Maybe drinking is the global equalizer.

Tonight I drank some rhum Barboncourt, the national drink of Haiti, for the first time since the last time I was here. I banned myself from it after the night I allowed some UN guys to take me out to hear a Cuban band play at a local bar. I drank four “rhum punches,” a drink that is basically the Long Island Iced Tea of Haiti, where who knows what goes in it except a shit-ton of rhum and something that masks the taste.

I threw up when I got home that night and the whole next morning and afternoon. I don’t know if it was because I was dehydrated, or because when we left the bar and walked past the rows of tattered tents filled with displaced earthquake victims set up in the park across the street, the sick reality of the situation in Haiti hit me.

The UN guys I went to the party with were talking loudly and laughing when we walked out of there, reliving the fun highlights of a night that took place far away from any poverty or suffering. As we walked past the security staff, onto the street where we were only feet away from the tents, I shushed them.

“People are sleeping over there,” I hissed at them.

“Oh right, sorry,” they whispered back, with the concern of teenagers spending the night at a friend’s house after being reminded to not wake their parents, even though the parents know damn well there’s a slumber party going on and neither of the two parties is overly concerned about it.

They were here to help. They’re all here to help — the NGOs, the missionaries, and the Haitian bourgeois who so graciously contribute to the Haitian economy and create jobs. That’s what they tell themselves, and that’s what they believe. And because they’re here helping, working hard in this destitute country to lift the poor out of their unfortunate conditions, one by one, they’re entitled to a little goddamn fun at the end of the day.

So cheers to you, saviors of Haiti. Have fun. And when someone mugs or murders you or one of your friends in the street because they’re so fucking sick of hearing about how you’re there to help them while you and your kind walk around living life the way you’re accustomed while they’re starving and dying, then maybe Haiti can get some post-earthquake press while the rest of the world shakes their heads and mourns your tragedy, and the tragedy of why Haitians can’t just be civilized and accept the help they’re given.

The Blood of Christ

Last night I met some of my Haitian journalist friends for beers at a new-ish restaurant/bar spot in PetionVille, the neighborhood in Port-au-Prince where I’m staying with my family. When we were through plotting our weekend excursion and ready to head out, my friend found me a ride with someone he knew at the restaurant who lives just past me.

Nobody ever taught me to not take rides from strangers, and my instincts about doing so have never served me wrong. But that’s irrelevant.

My new friend and impromptu chauffeur was also giving a lift to a woman who had been drowning any possible Ash Wednesday resolutions with fury at the bar. She had natural-looking but not natural blond hair, and the kind of plumpness that occurs when you spend the majority of your life close enough to a Burger King to eat it multiple times a week but not so close that it ever cycles out of your favorite foods list. When our driver introduced us, she lunged for my hand to shake it with a smile so big and unwarranted that I pulled my hand back a little prematurely, or maybe she held it a little too long.

I’ve seen those smiles before. It was the same smile that the woman in the group of badly-sunburnt Midwesterners wearing matching shirts shone on me in line for airport security when I was flying out of Port-au-Prince last time when she asked, “and what group are YOU here with?” It was the smile that instantly evaporated and turned into a slightly horrified grimace when I replied, “I’m not with a group.”

Sure enough, the Burger Queen soon revealed she was a missionary with the Methodist church. “Oh yeah? That’s interesting,” I said. “What’s your mission?”

Slurring her words, she cheerily told me her job is to be the beach head for incoming Methodists to Haiti, helping them with the logistics of renting cars, finding lodging, and organizing outings for them in town. I asked if she showed them the way to the bars as well. She said no, that was her own personal mission.

We pulled up to her residence and she poured out of the car. She said goodbye, then swayed and struggled with the gate. The driver said he’d wait for her to get inside, but she insisted that he go on. When she realized he wasn’t going to leave her there until she got inside, the gate magically opened. I turned around as we pulled away, half expecting to see her sprint across the street to another bar to continue her repentance to God — which isn’t to say that she didn’t.

I for one, am touched that there are people so kind and devout in their servitude to God that they would drink his blood all night on Ash Wednesday to better help His poor children of Haiti.

First World Problems in Third World Countries

I’m back in Haiti again. It’s my fourth time back here, third since the earthquake in 2010.

I accomplished my mission of the day, which was to get my phone hooked up with a solid internet connection. That may sound like not that lofty of a goal, but A) Everything takes 20 times as long here as it does in the states, and B) This was of the utmost importance.

I got an idea for a photo essay today that would be a collection of situations that are typically Haitian in the sense that something that has a quick fix in the U.S. has been addressed in a complete roundabout, bootstrapped, jerry-rigged though effective fashion. Perhaps I’ll start a Tumblr blog. What should I call it? Haitian Situations?

On the flight in, the pilot came on the P.A. system as we were landing to tell us that he would have to circle around the island three times because there was another plane in the vicinity, so he would have to wait until it landed to begin the descent instead of descending in conjunction, “because there’s no radar.” He declared this with an air of exasperation as if to remove the responsibility of arriving two minutes behind schedule from himself and pass it off to the country of Haiti. A few passengers looked around nervously, as the expected subsequent translation took a few beats longer than usual before the flight attendant picked up the intercom device, cleared her throat, and translated to the flight that we would have to circle around because of their country’s goddamn primitive communications system, as if they needed to be reminded of the way things were where they were going by some American pilot.

As I exited the plane, I wanted to tell the pilot to please keep his First World Problems to himself here. This is what I want to tell everyone I know at some point or another. But he wouldn’t have understood, and neither would anyone else. I didn’t understand every time my mom would yell at me for running the water nonsensically or leaving the refrigerator door open while I made a sandwich. I just wondered what her goddamn problem was and proceeded to ignore her comments. Third World concerns are lost on First World citizens having never experienced the Third World, and First World complaints only seem particularly egregious if they are verbalized while in the Third World, or to a Third World dweller. Also, I’m reading J.D. Salinger right now so I want to qualify every noun with “goddamn.”

Sometimes when I explore new places, I think about scenarios I would like to see unfold. When I went to Kentucky with my roommate over Thanksgiving and we were driving around the horse farms of Lexington, I fantasized about driving a bus full of Occupy Wall Street protestors through, both to see if they would have the impulse to occupy a horse farm, and to see how the Kentuckians would go about attempting to remove them from their estate. Today, while driving around in PetionVille, a more-affluent though still not anywhere close to being considered affluent sector of Port-au-Prince, I thought about what would happen if you dropped the cast of the Real Housewives off in the middle of the street market with $5 each and said “Figure it out. Bye.”

Anyway, the progress here in Haiti appears shockingly drastic. But I’ve only had a few cursory glances, and I learned from spending some time in rural Michigan that if you make areas close to the main roads pretty, people who are just passing through will have a good impression of the whole area, meanwhile the problems can stay hidden in the back woods. But all the townspeople know.

Washington D.C. Earthquake Damage

From MSNBC:

WASHINGTON — The largest earthquake ever recorded near the capital rattled Washington, D.C., early Friday, waking many residents but causing no reported damage. The quake hit at 5:04 a.m. ET with a magnitude of 3.6, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was centered near Rockville, Md., the USGS said. NBC News reported that the quake was felt in the D.C.-area, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Amy Vaughn, a spokeswoman for USGS, told NBC station WRC that the quake was the largest recorded within 50 kilometers (31 miles) of Washington since a database was created in 1974.

Yo D.C., Ima let you finish, but Haiti had the most destructive earthquake of all time…

Photo found on twitter via @firesideint and @troylivesay.

On the privilege of leaving Haiti: A conversation with my father

This conversation took place on my third day in Haiti. After staying with my family for two nights, my father drove me through PetionVille to the Hotel Oloffson where I stayed for the next three nights so I could meet other journalists and explore the city by myself.

The premise of this conversation: He just told me he wants to leave the country and live on another island.

(Note, French and Creole are his primary languages.)

Recorded April 6, 2010.

[Recorder on]

Me: Why would you want to live on another island?

Dad: Because I think another island is better, is organized, there are organizations, there are other… I can not fight anymore. I don’t want to fight anymore.

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Back in the U.S.

Flying in over Miami from Haiti was an odd experience. I had a window seat and entertained myself for the beginning of the flight by studying the terrain of Haiti: the dense, chaotic communities of Port-au-Prince with houses practically built on top of each other, and the rugged deforested mountains sprinkled ever-so-sparsely with houses and farming plots. I could just make out some areas where whole neighborhoods had collapsed down mountainsides like fallen dominoes.

When the pilot instructed us over the PA system to prepare for landing, I pulled up the window cover and was taken aback by the sights below: Perfectly straight rows of McMansions with aquamarine pools, massive hotels, order, wealth, functionality. All things that are rarely, if ever, present in Haiti. The contrast was alarming; the perfection, disturbing.  I looked up at the two Haitian men sitting in the row in front of me, staring out the window as well. I wondered what their lives had been like, and what a person would think experiencing the United States after living their entire lives in Haiti. I imagined that person was me, even though I’d only spent two weeks there, and that I was seeing things in perspective for the first time looking down at Miami,  realizing how bad things actually were in Haiti. There are so many problems there, problems of so large a scope they seem impossible to fix. But when you live there, it’s just life. It’s just the way things are.

Impossible though they may seem for fix or even help, I’m still going to try, through my little humanitarian project.

Looking back on my time in Haiti, it all feels like a dream now. A very strange dream. And you were there and you were there and you…