Monthly Archives: April 2010

Baby steps

The day I arrived here, I saw some places the earthquake had destroyed on the route back from the airport, and was in awe. Today, on day 7 of my trip, it is all just Haiti — the scenery, the usual.

The next day, I asked my dad to drive me around PetionVille, the area about 10 miles to the east of Port-au-Prince proper, to see more. I took a bunch of pictures out the window of my dad’s Ford F250, getting slightly frustrated when my shots didn’t turn out because the car was moving too fast and the shutter speed on my Nikon point-and-shoot was too slow. When my dad stopped at one of the properties he manages, I told my sister I wanted to get out and walk around to get better pictures.

“You wanna walk around… out there?”

“Yeah, I can’t see anything from the car.”

“Sis, this is Haiti.”

“Other people walk around.” And it was true. Thousands of people lined the streets every time we drove anywhere, walking from point A to point B, selling things, hanging out.

“Yeah, but not people with your skin color, and blonde hair, and your economic status.”

Oh the way home I pointed out the window at a guy and said to my sister: “Look, that guy’s white and he’s walking around.” She just gave me a smug look of “ah huh,”
like OK American. But in a loving way.

The next day, Wednesday, my dad took me to downtown Port-au-Prince to check in at the Oloffson Hotel. My mom thought it would be a good idea to stay there, as it’s a common destination for journalists and other foreigners. When we arrived, Alain Armand was waiting for me. I came accross him one day on Twitter, when he sent out a message that said something like “Going to Haiti, need recording equipment to get the untold stories.” So I checked him out and found his YouTube video of a segment about him on MSNBC, decided he was legit, and emailed my editors at Wired. “Hey, just stumbled accross this Tweet. Can we get this guy a flip cam or something?” And Wired they are. They hooked it up.

Alain and I chatted for a while and he said, “OK, it’s going to get dark soon, do you wanna go get some footage?”

“You mean… walk around? Out there?”

He laughed at me. I was scared but excited at the prospect. I didn’t think it would be so bad but my family never walked around. My sister will barely even cross the street to go to the convenience store, and there’s an armed guard sitting outside it 24/7.

So we walked around the block, taking pictures and talking. We peeked in at a place where a bunch of computers were set up outside. Old school PCs like the one I used for my very first computer when I was 8. I thought this was amazing. “Will you ask them what they’re doing?” I asked Alain, who speaks fluent Creole. So we went in the gate, past the tent they had set up to sleep in, and found out that they were conducting computing classes.

They were really nice, happy to talk with us. Haitians have smiles that can light up entire buildings. Too bad we rarely see pictures of them smiling in the American media, only pictures of them suffering.

Alain and I continued walking, me gawking at the collapsed residential buildings all around, but not gawking too hard. I saw a woman pissing on the sidewalk, and was mildly shocked but immediately turned away like I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, continuing the conversation. The roads we were walking down were literally lined with tents, where people slept at night in front of their crumbled properties. Suddenly, the picture became clear of why rain was such a terrible problem for displaced Haitians, both with respect to public health and just because people have to sleep in wet tents, which sounds pretty miserable.

When we got to the last leg of our journey, about to turn the corner to complete the circuit back to the Oloffson, he said “let’s walk up one more block over that way.”

“Listen,” I said. “This is the first time I’ve ever walked around the block here. Baby steps.” He accepted this and went home, and I spent the rest of the night wrestling with the hotel’s shitty Internet connection and battling mosquitoes in my sleep.

The next day we went hiking up mountains and through the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince. And the next day we hitch-hiked from my dad’s house in PetionVille to the tent city that’s set up where PVC, a formerly fancy pants country club, used to operate. Its golf course now serves as the home to over 50,000 refugees.

Consider this To Be Continued… I have to get ready because my family is taking me to the beach today!

Letter to the editors

The other day I wrote this email to my editors at Wired. With the shaky Internet connection at the Oloffson, email was just about the only thing that worked consistently. So Evan Hansen, the EIC was nice enough to republish my email. And he was awesome enough to publish it “as is,” including my use of the term “janky” and the expression “for reals”.

Check it out on Haiti Rewired, where it’s posted with my favorite picture ever from Haiti:

H1N1 PSA, Haiti style

This made me really happy. In Haiti they don’t have many billboards or posters — most of the advertisements come in the form of paintings on the walls lining the main streets.

Here’s an easy to understand message on how to avoid H1N1 transmission that gets the point across regardless of literacy level. On Haiti Rewired, the community has been working together to produce a Construction Booklet with similar iconography to instruct people on the right and wrong ways to build structures that are earthquake resistant. Perhaps instead of pamphlets, we should be recruiting local artists to paint the booklet material on walls like this. That way, it’s only a matter of time before the information becomes common knowledge.

The other kind of economic collapse… [pics]

When we talk about the “economic collapse” in the U.S., it is in reference to bubbles bursting and credit default swaps gone wrong.

Sadly, this is the literal version of an economic collapse:

That is what used to be Unibank, the largest bank in Haiti. I took that picture driving by it with my dad on our way to drop me off at The Oloffson. The following day I walked over there to get a closer look:

Here’s an aerial shot as well. I didn’t take that one though, Google did.

There are no bailouts for this kind of damage.

At the Hotel Oloffson

Yesterday I checked into the Hotel Oloffson, the famous “gingerbread house” hotel in downtown Port-au-Prince. I was hesitant to stay here at first, by myself, as I’ve been pretty sheltered in Haiti so far, but my mom loves it here so she bribed me to stay here for a few days. This is actually my second time here:

There’s me on the front steps, then and now.

When I first checked in Tuesday evening, the first thing I did was tried to get wireless. I assumed it would be a strong signal here since the hotel owner, Richard Morse (@RAMhaiti), tweeted out of here through the earthquake. But for some reason, my computer will not accept the wireless signal here and me and all of my 133t skills can’t do anything about it.

When I was at the front desk trying to make it work, a man who had checked in earlier offered to let me use his laptop when he was finished with what he was doing. He came and found me a little while later, and I joined him at his table and gratefully computed. His name is Frédéric and he is a French photographer back in Haiti for the second time since the earthquake. He was here two days after the quake, and his photographs are striking, though graphic, of the immediate aftermath.

We ended up having dinner together and he told me about visiting the camps immediately after the quake. He said the lines of people at the camps’ food distribution centers were ridiculous and that they would wait hours for food for literally like 3 hours. They would wait patiently, not complaining, and when they got to the front only to discover that their ration was two biscuits, they would say “That’s it?” but then accept it and move on.

What other choice do they have, I suppose.

I said the resilience of the Haitian people amazed me, and he said it was true, they are resilient, but they don’t like it when you call them that. I asked why not, and he apologized because he couldn’t explain it in English. He kept apologizing for his English, but I thought it was quite good, at least compared with my Dad’s, who I have been communicating just fine with. “Just keep meeting American women and offering to let them use your laptop. You’ll be fluent in no time,” I said. He invited me to go with him to the PetionVille Club on Friday evening, where they’ll be screening a documentary made about the camp site there. I was hoping I would make some journalistic friends who could take me places. Mission accomplished.

I met some other people here too. Today I met the former Prime Minister of Haiti and President Preval’s daughter, who was here having lunch. I found it rather ironic that not even a block from here, there’s graffiti on the walls that says “Oust Preval”. Every day there are groups of uniformed officers who come here to take breakfast and lunch. They said bonsoir, I say bonsoir and go about my business.

I also met a man who called himself “Mister Haiti” and took a liking to me. I told him my dad’s last name and he told me about five members of my extended family I didn’t even know about. This might seem like a sketchy “hey little girl want some candy?” maneuver, but it wasn’t, my dad confirmed. I always found it interesting that in the States, whenever I tell someone my father is Haitian and lives in Haiti and they want to see if they know him, their first question is not “what area does he live in,” as it would be in the U.S. — a narrowing question. It’s “What is his name?” Haiti is like that. Mister Haiti told me I could ask him anything about Haiti and he would answer it, a journalist’s dream. I had a good conversation with him about the history of Haiti and the Oloffson Hotel. He told me that JFK’s assasination was plotted in Room 11.

So other than the Internet connection (which cuts out every five minutes or less and can’t handle tasks like uploading pictures to flickr, facebook or Haiti Rewired, video chatting, even regular g-talk chatting sometimes, or Tweet Deck) and the mosquitoes (which kept me up last night buzzing in my ear), and the entirely unhelpful night receptionist (who all too closely resembles in mannerisms Miss Swan from MAD TV) the Oloffson is a pretty sweet place.

Oh, and also, every room here is named after someone who once stayed in it. My room…… Mick Jagger. Oh yeah.

The control room

A sneak peak at where the magic happens on the flip side.

My sister is in med school at Notre Dame of Haiti, and has final exams next week, so she’s busy studying while I blog it up.

This afternoon when we were sitting here like this, quietly working, I told her that it was good to be back here. She said she’s seen this room change a lot. During the earthquake, the furniture all moved clear across the room. “Some things look like a stain in the decour, but you look natural here, like you’ve always been here. I like it.”