Tag Archives: haiti

The phoenix has landed

I arrived in Haiti today around noon.

Looking out the airplane window while flying into the Port-au-Prince airport, I saw scattered roofless houses. The four walls were still standing but the tops were missing, like a succession of half-empty ice cube trays.

The airport was structured completely different than before. My step mother told me they are now routing passenger flights into the cargo terminal so that the main terminal can be used as a hospital and post for relief organizations. The passengers from my flight were ushered through the cargo terminal outside where we boarded shuttle buses that escorted us to a makeshift customs/baggage claim area, past rows of military aircraft and supply tents.

I had a moment of worry because I didn’t realize at first that it was a different building, I just though my memory of the airport had faded. But when I got my bag and walked outside into the tropical sunlight, it was a completely unfamiliar sight and my family wasn’t there. I hesitantly walked forward, scanning the people in sight while I shrugged off men offering to carry my bags let me use their phones (for a small fee) and drive me places, as I obviously looked lost. But no more than a few minutes later, my dad’s Jeep Liberty came rolling up tooting the horn.

Looking out the window during the ride back to my family’s house in PetionVille, I didn’t see as much destruction as I expected. The physical damage was rampant, but I didn’t see the human misery I assumed there would be, given what so many people here have been through the past few months. People were sitting under umbrellas cooking food, playing music, and laughing as usual.

Later this evening when I went with my sister and her boyfriend to get dinner, I told him that people seemed to be in pretty good spirits for the most part. “Well, they have to be,” he said. “They have no choice.”

I didn’t drive through too much of the country side in the daylight, and couldn’t make out much of it at night, but I have already seen massive destruction: buildings completely collapsed, piles of cement rubble lined up on the side of the roads. Coming back to this place after visiting it in June, before the earthquake, I felt like Dorothy in Return to Oz.

Granted, Port-au-Prince was not quite the Emerald city before, but the net change is about equivalent. And I haven’t seen anywhere near the worst of it yet.

There’s much more to tell but I am beyond exhausted after not sleeping at all last night. More updates to come on here and Twitter @arikia.

I’m going back to Haiti

Haiti from the plane

Haiti's west inlet: The view from the plane

Next Sunday, April 4th.

There are several reasons why I am going.

I want to see my family. My father and my sister and my step mother. The last time I saw them was when I went to Haiti in June of 2009. This was also the first time I saw them. (Well, I’d met my father before when he came to the U.S., but I was too young to really remember.) Going there and meeting them, being accepted and loved unconditionally, having them show me the country of half my genetic origin for the first time — it was probably the most profound positive experience of my entire life. When I heard about the earthquake the evening of January 12, I felt like someone had pulled a rug out from under me and that I had landed flat on my back on the floor, the wind knocked out of me. I pictured my little sister dead, crushed beneath the rubble of my dad’s beautiful house. I’m not religious, but I couldn’t help but think what a cruel joke that would be for a god to play on me. How exceedingly funny it would be for some malicious omnipotent being to give me a glimpse of what it’s like to have a loving, normal family, and then snatch them right off the face of the earth, like they never even existed. But they’re fine, so I’m going to visit them.

I’m going to see things for myself. Contrast has an important role in human perception. The presence and absence of light shapes our vision. We smell things when we walk into a room, but don’t notice them if we’ve been sitting in the room for a few hours. Haiti was fucked up in a lot of ways before the earthquake, filled with desperation and poverty illness, and it’s way more fucked up now. But the journalists who went there for the first time after the quake, they could only contrast Haiti to what else they knew — their comfy lives in the U.S. or wherever, the other places they’ve visited, the general media’s perception of Haiti, which is pretty warped and narrow. They couldn’t contrast Haiti to Haiti. I would like to think that it’s not as bad as everyone is making it out to be, but it’s probably worse. Anyway, the point is, I need to distinguish the contrast from my own frame of reference.

I’m going so that I can tell people about it. I am not a doctor, or a UN peacekeeper, or a humanitarian. I am a 23 year old girl. I experience the world in a 23 year old girl body with 23 year old girl eyes. And I talk about stuff with 23 year old girl language and think about stuff with a 23 year old girl mind (though I think I’m old for my age in that respect). I’m not dissing the humanitarians, but I think it’s hard for the average comfortable American to look at Haiti through humanitarian eyes. It makes people feel guilty and bad about themselves because they’re not being a humanitarian. I hope it will be easier for people to look at Haiti through my eyes. And then once it’s easy, I hope it will be as fascinating for them as it is for me.

I’m going to give the middle finger to all the people who advised people to not go to Haiti. They had their reasons for saying so, and I’m sure they’re valid. But I don’t care. I have my own infrastructure there. I’m not going to get to the airport and not know what to do or how to get around. I think there is value in going and experiencing something just to be able to tell a story about what you experienced. I’m not going to get in the way of relief workers. I’m not going to perform any surgeries, cut myself with a bloody scalpel and accidentally give myself HIV like this Scientologist asshole. I’m going to just be there with open eyes and ears. I’ll be fine.

Oh, and I’m going to go to the beach. Last time I was there I got sexually harassed in the most vulgar, offensive way I’ve ever experienced by a bunch of UN “peacekeepers”. So this time I’m going to take pictures of them in their Speedos and post them on the Internet.

I’ll be there until April 15th, after which I have an extended layover in Miami. Then back to home sweet Brooklyn.

In the time left up until I depart, I’m going to try to write as much as I can about what I experienced last time I was there. I’ve been meaning to do that since June. I’ve procrastinated a little, but now I’ve gotta get these thoughts out of my head and into the aether before they fade.

The Lorax would have gone postal if he was in Haiti in the ’50s

One hot June day this summer when I was in Haiti, my sister and I were driving with my step mother to her sister’s house in the mountains. I enjoyed those trips. The downtown areas of Petionville and Port-au-Prince were claustrophobic and overwhelming; with the intense heat and sluggish pace of the traffic due to the condition of the roads (to describe them as ‘weathered’ would be the understatement of the year) car rides through the city were, at times, near unbearable for me. Eventually, the city would release its magnetic grip, allowing the car to go faster and a breeze to rush in through the windows. Then it was green, jungle, shade, and a calmer vibe all-around. The mountains were, literally, a breath of fresh air. The elevation of the roads increased quickly, exposing the entirety of the densely-clustered city in the valley below.

I was pretty excited about taking pictures of things in Haiti, and this day in particular I was preoccupied with taking pictures out of the car window, trying to find a setting that would make them turn out non-blurry. I was idly chatting with my stepmother while doing this, when she asked me: “Arikia, what do you think about the mountains?”

“They’re huge, I’ve never seen anything like them.”

“Do you notice anything about them?”

I looked over the LCD display at the mountains that I had been staring at for the past half hour. “They’re really pretty,” I offered.

“You think so? Do you notice anything strange about them?”

At this point, I was knew she was getting at something but I didn’t know what. I just smiled at her and shrugged. They were mountains! What was there to notice besides the fact that they were huge?

Finally, she sighed, exasperated with me. “There are no trees on them, Arikia.”

And sure enough, there were not. “Are there supposed to be?” I asked, snapping another picture:

It turns out, yes, mountains are supposed to have trees on them.  I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me immediately, as I’ve driven through the Appalachian mountains enough times to remember what the snow-covered pine tree tops looked like. But I guess it’s just one of those things* where if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can’t see it.

So where did Haiti’s trees go? Around 1954 logging companies went totally out-of-control, cutting down trees left and right to make charcoal, the demand for which grew with Haiti’s population. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, “Haiti was once a lush tropical island, replete with pines and broad leaf trees; however, by 1988 only about 2 percent of the country had tree cover.” The trees were cut down but not replanted, leading to soil erosion that rendered most of Haiti’s land useless for growing the agricultural products Haiti’s growing population depended on. In 2000, USAID projected Haiti would become the first country in the Western hemisphere to be considered an “eco-catastrophe.” I don’t know what the exact classification for that is but I would say the term probably already applies. In 1997, Kristen Picariello wrote in a case study of deforestation in Haiti: “If one were to fly over the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the border appears like it was drawn by an ‘acetylene torch’ owing to massive deforestation in Haiti.”

The rest of the car ride, all I could think about was The Lorax, the title character in that Dr. Seuss book we all read as children. Everyone poo-poos the Lorax for spouting science and warning people what would happen if they consumed without consideration for what it would take to replenish the resources that were depleted. In the end everyone is miserable and desperate, “like fish out of water,” as their society ceases to be able to sustain their population.

There have been some replanting efforts in Haiti in the past, one major round in the ’80s through Projè Pyebwa, and initiatives over the past 10 years by USAID. But with present lives hanging in the balance, the reforestation process is viewed as a secondary, long-term need compared with the immediate needs of providing for people in Haiti. If someone needs to cook for their family, of course they’re going to cut down a tree to make some charcoal. They’re not going to keep starving based on the idea that in 10 years or so, some other random people might have more than them. In Projè Pyebwa, Haitians planted over 20 million trees, “but as many as seven trees were cut for each new tree planted.

So like the Lorax, who would have completely flipped his lid if he saw what was going on in Haiti over the past 50 years, the message here is “Unless.” In addition to food scarcity from the desertification of land, deforestation in Haiti also damages “other productive infrastructure such as dams, irrigation systems, roads, and coastal marine ecosystems.” It made the climate harsher for people by reducing shade cover and removing protection from Haiti’s heavy torrential downpour-style rains that are just beginning for the year. And when it does start to rain, Haitians are now at a much larger risk of harm from landslides as a direct result of the recent earthquakes.

Unless…

*My Cognitive Psychology teacher played this video in a lecture of about 250 people, asking the class to count how many times the ball was passed back and forth. Only about five people noticed the gorilla after watching it the first time, myself not included. Mind fuck!

Definitely not up to code [Photo]

I was feeling nostalgic about Haiti this evening and was looking through the folder on my computer’s hard drive containing all the pictures from my Haiti trip. Believe it or not, it is the first time that I’ve looked at that folder since shortly after I got back to the states mid-June. I made a facebook album with my favorite pictures (162 of them), and have looked at that album about 50 times, but never the original folder. My computer is kind of a black hole…

Anyway, I found a lot of interesting pictures that have different meaning now than they did then. Here’s the one that struck me the most:

This is a picture taken in downtown Port-Au-Prince. You can see the tight clusters of houses clinging to the mountainside which, as my stepmother explained, is “where the poor people live”. Pictures taken in the aftermath of the earthquakes show that this area was pretty destroyed, with tons of pancaked buildings. After I took this picture out the car window while driving through the area, I remember looking at it and thinking, “Crap, too slow. That building is in the way of the full view.” But now that I look at it, the building up front is the most interesting thing about it.

This mid-construction building probably eventually became someone’s home. As you can see, the walls are merely concrete bricks stacked on top of one another in a haphazard manner. If you look at the wall on the right, under the white towel hanging to dry, you can see they’ve started going over it with a gray mixture, probably concrete-based, to fill in the gaps. A building like this would  have been effective in providing shelter from the sun and rain, but it has virtually no structural support. Looking at this, it is not hard to understand why the earthquake damage is so extensive.

Information scarcity in Haiti

When I visited my family in Haiti this summer, I was culture shocked. Culture-floored even. It was like being on another planet. And it was hard to live there, despite my dad’s efforts to pamper me.

The food was good but did a number on my stomach. I dealt. The weather was excruciatingly hot and I got sun exposure that made me puke my guts out. Whatevs. At my sister’s high school graduation I experienced dehydration that made me want to cry. Meh. Every day I was swarmed by mosquitoes, accumulating about 200 bites at one point. It’s the food chain. One of them probably gave me Dengue fever. If it was that, it was a mild case — could’ve been worse.

But the thing that made me really uncomfortable, that made me throw up my hands and exclaim “How do you live like this???” was the lack of Internet, and thus the lack of information and communication.

If you know me, that won’t come as much of a surprise. But hear me out, because this is not entirely a bratty complaint coming from a privileged American.

My family has three computers. They have what looks like a standard broadband modem and a wireless router. My sister is used to getting online and chatting with her friends via MSN messenger and checking email and stuff. But, she is also used to going without it. She doesn’t depend on the Internet, just like she doesn’t depend on electricity. To many Americans, myself included, these things are necessities, but to them they are luxuries.

Even though they have the hardware for high-speed computing, Haiti’s infrastructure is the limiting factor. You’ve likely heard discussions of bandwidth allotment, and how some Internet Service Providers in the U.S. have been limiting the bandwidth that individuals and networks are allowed. Bandwidth essentially determines the speed you are able to do things online, and refers to the rate of transfer of information “packets”. People who download movies are considered “bandwidth hogs” because, since they are doing something that consumes a lot of the available bandwidth, there is less available for others, making their computing processes slower. One of the reasons why you have to wait for a YouTube video to buffer before you can watch the whole thing seamlessly is low bandwidth. If you think low bandwidth is a problem anywhere in the US, you should see it in Haiti. If you want to watch a one-minute YouTube video, you have to pause it and wait for it to load for ten minutes. Sites like Netflix, Blip.fm, Hulu>> Don’t even try it. Want better transfer rates? Too bad. There’s only one commercial ISP in the country.

In addition to the low bandwidth another factor limiting computing is the lack of electricity. A tropical storm knocked the grid power out during the first week of my stay this summer, leaving individuals to rely on gas-powered generators and inverters to power their home appliances. With gas being pretty expensive before, and really expensive in the aftermath of the earthquakes, getting online is not a priority or possibility for most. It prompted a few humorous, “Daaaad, can you run the generators? I need to check my emaaaailll” moments this summer, to which my sister would smile and shake her head and my dad would say, “Yeah sure, I’ll get right on that,” and go back to reading the newspaper.

Us Americans, we leave lights on when we’re not home or in a room. We leave appliances plugged in when we’re not using them. We waste electricity in all kinds of ways. In Haiti, you don’t. Our electricity consumption is tallied into a bill that is delivered to us at the end of the month, and any wastefulness catches up with us then. But in Haiti, you have to calculate how much gas is in the generator and how much power is in the inverters to figure out if you’ll have enough time to finish an email, or a movie, or charge a cell phone. I always make it a point to turn the lights out when I leave my apartment now.

There’s also the matter of Web services in Haiti. The fourth day I was there, we heard via radio that there was a riot downtown at the funeral of a Bishop for reasons I still don’t understand. The UN was there and the report said that four people were shot. This of course, sounded very startling to me, so I went online to try to find out what was happening.

I soon learned there is no Google News Haiti. In fact, the Google services you can access in Haiti are severely limited compared to what they are in the states. The prioritization of search is completely different and it assumes your preferred language is French. In the U.S. when there is a shooting, you can’t not hear about it through every medium possible. But I couldn’t find any information about the downtown shooting whatsoever. So I asked my sister, “WTF, why can’t I find out what’s happening, where are all the journalists?”

“I dunno. I guess they’re too busy running,” she replied nonchalantly.

I checked online almost every day but I never found an explanation of what had happened.  My sister shrugged off the shootings with a “meh” attitude. My dad actually laughed at my reaction. He went upstairs, came back down with four guns and said “Are you still scared? Here, take one of these, let’s go downtown and find out what’s happening!” I was not amused.

But I guess that’s part of living in Haiti — being content with not knowing. But that contentment could be a dangerous thing. I am a firm believer that knowledge is power, and would venture that one of the reasons why rampant corruption has existed in Haitian government is because most people don’t have access to knowledge of what exactly they’re up to. The government there isn’t checked by the media the way that it is in the United States, and even if it was, it might not matter because the information gathered would only reach those in the top 5 percent of Haiti’s income distribution graph — the people who are in the position to influence political decisions anyway.

This might be me being idealistic, but maybe if, in the process of rebuilding Haiti, there is as much of an effort to get people wired as there is to get them water, the segregational constructs that allowed previous corrupt regimes to keep the masses in poverty will no longer be able to stand.

Essential reads on Haiti

The past week and half has been incredibly frustrating for me. I want to stop everything and focus entirely on Haiti. It’s become an obsession. Both of my Twitter accounts have been saturated with Tweets about Haiti. Sorry if this is bothering anyone, but it’s what I have to do. If outlets on the Web like blogs and social networking sites are a reflection of the outpourings of one’s mind, then mine lately are an accurate representation of mine. Probably conservative, actually, as I still have to work, still have to pay rent, and still have to do the whole social butterfly thing. I wish I had more time. Or one of those time-stopping watches that the Harry Potter chick has.

With all that’s on my mind about Haiti, the frustrating part  is that I’m not learning enough, not writing enough — or as lucidly as I want to —  and not doing enough about Haiti. But lots of people are. Also though, lots of people are writing myopic crap about Haiti, which adds to the frustration. I’m a very “Fine, I’ll just do it myself” kind of person, which is what motivated me to go into journalism in the first place, and seeing the kind of propagandized regurgitated bullshit that some media outlets are turning out makes me want to fucking walk to Miami and swim to Haiti.

Anyway, here are the pieces of journalism I’ve read over the past week that alleviated my frustration.

1) Why Did We Focus on Securing Haiti Rather Than Helping Haitians? (By Ben Ehrenreich, on Slate)

The single most important read about the situation in Haiti, in my opinion. Via a Haitian list serve my mother is on, I have been getting about 20 emails a day with incredibly valuable yet underrepresented perspectives about what is happening on the ground in Haiti from people who are intimately familiar with the history of Haiti and the extent of the corruption that has occurred there — corruption to which the U.S. has been a frequent contributor. This article brilliantly synthesizes information about the U.S. efforts in Haiti and points a very critical eye at the decision of the U.S. to prioritize military operations over delivering humanitarian aid.

2) Country Without a Net (By Tracy Kidder, on The New York Times)

For a country that is so close in proximity to us, the average American knows very little about its history and its current state. Even being half Haitian, I only really started to learn about it in the past few years (despite, or maybe as a result of, numerous forced attempts by my mother to educate me about Haiti’s history and culture). Furthermore, my concept wasn’t really solidified until I traveled there in June of 2009. This article does an excellent job of highlighting the historical events in Haiti that contributed to its status as one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

3) Aid Makes it to Haiti But Not Onto the Streets (On CNN World)

This relates to the priority of the U.S. military operation over the relief effort, and is one of the most infuriating things about the current situation. With 11,000 troops and counting on the ground, one would think they would find a way to overcome the infrastructure deficiencies and get the supplies out to those who need them.

4) Haiti: My Experience on the Ground (By Richard Morse, on The Huffington Post)

When the first quake hit Tuesday evening, there was a lack of information about what was going on on the ground. That’s why I was very grateful for the Twitter stream of Richard Morse, manager of The Olofson Hotel and a personal friend of my mother. My mom has a history at the Olofson, as she used to frequent the place when she lived there in the early ’80s. She met Richard when she last visited Haiti in October of 2008 and stayed at the Olofson hotel. Richard is not a reporter, or a trained journalist, but he is a writer and has a unique perspective about the situation in Haiti. I met him when his band played at S.O.B. in Manhattan last fall. This essay provides insight into the corruption that occurs in Haiti.

5) Haiti’s Elite Hold Nation’s Future In Their Hands (By Tracy Wilkinson, on the LA Times)

One of the concepts that is largely alien to Americans is regarding the wealth and class divides in Haiti, which are immense. This is one of those things I wouldn’t quite get if I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but after visiting Haiti and driving through the slums and also going to parties at massive mansions that contain riches unlike anything I have ever seen in the U.S., I get it. This article focuses on a member of the Haitian elite, Gregory Mevs, and explains how the actions of the elite will very likely determine the future of the country.

I’ll stop at five for now. But yeah… this is why the world needs journalists. I will leave you with a video my mom sent me this morning about Haiti made in 1942.