Monthly Archives: April 2010

Eat this, Monsanto

You didn’t think all of my reports from Haiti were going to be doom and gloom, did you?

Last week I was at the NYC Hackathon, where college students studying computer science and related fields got the opportunity to have face time with the masterminds behind tech start-ups and companies such as Four Square, Snooth, and Hot Potato. In the intro demos, a presenter from Etsy.com showcased an API that allowed users to input any picture and find items on Etsy that most closely matched the color scheme.

I would totally use this picture as my input.

Because you know what? Haitian produce is fucking awesome. I ate a tomato today and it was the best tomato I have ever eaten in my entire life. It was red, it didn’t squish under the knife when I cut it, and it had hella flavor. I asked where it was imported from but apparently the majority of produce (at least the produce my family buys) is grown in Haiti.

So riddle me this: Why is that a country that has had all but 2% of its natural forests chopped down and is suffering from massive soil erosion can produce a tomato that is the epitome of what a tomato should be, while all we get is giant, dyed, watery garbage tomatos in the U.S.? I’m considering today’s tomato Exhibit A that genetic modification of crops is not at all for the benefit of the consumer.

Clean-up in aisle… [photo essay]

When I spoke with my sister on the phone shortly after the quake, she told me that their supermarket had collapsed. Thankfully, none of her friends were killed or had their houses collapse, but she said she was saddened because several of the people she used to see on a daily basis who worked at the market were killed. Many were decapitated, which is stigmatized in Haitian culture.

When I visited in June, I went there with my family several times. I remember it like this:

Image from Mitch's Daily Dish

We drove by there today and this is what remains in its place:

That’s the back view of it, as the parking lot in front is completely inaccessable.

Today while we were waiting in the car for my dad to return from running an errand, my sister told me that after the quake, her boyfriend pulled nine people out of the rubble there, saving their lives. She said that in the chaos of the quake, several people attempted to go in there to steal groceries and things, blowing past people who were stuck, crushed, dying and in need of help. Many of them died in the process of looting, as the market collapsed further.

Yesterday afternoon after lunch, I spoke with my step mother about the market’s collapse. She told me she wants to cry every time she shops at another market. The simple frustration of not being able to find something triggers the realization of the loss.

Disaster learning in PetionVille

I’ve been thinking about the term “disaster tourism” lately. Even though I have biological roots in Haiti, I feel like a tourist when I travel around town. People think I’m a tourist. They stare at me, unrelenting, through the car window when I drive by. Some men gawk and make kissy faces at me to make me uncomfortable, and it works. I usually burst out laughing, and have to turn away. I feel a sense of guilt looking at people in their poverty when I drive around with my dad. I respect the people who toil endlessly in the hot Carribbean sun, day after day to make what I consider pocket change, but I worry they think I am looking down on them because literally, I am: Many of them sit on the ground in front of their various stands of fruits, vegetables, simmering meats, shoes, clothing, car parts and such, and they have to look up like 10 feet to see my pale face looking around out the window of my dad’s Ford F250. Is it rude to look at them? Is it rude to not look at them? I don’t know, but I look anyways, because I’m a curious person. And I offer a smile at people who stare at me, if it’s not in the kind of way that makes me nervous.

I went with my dad today to run errands and visit some of his properties. He drove my sister and me all around PetionVille so they could show me the buildings the earthquake took down. It was fascinating, but when I got home I started to wonder if I was a “disaster tourist,” and if I was doing something morally wrong on some level. So I turned to my fail-safe advice gurus, Google and Wikipedia, to find out if I should be feeling guilty.

Disaster tourism is the act of traveling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity. The behavior can be a nuisance if it hinders rescue, relief, and recovery operations. If not done because of pure curiosity, it can be cataloged as disaster learning.

So there. I’m not a disaster tourist. Curiosity isn’t my sole motivation for wanting to see the aftermath of the quake. I’m involved in a project (Haiti Rewired) where people are interested in coming up with architecture, engineering, and technological solutions for Haiti to help the people who have been hurt by this natural disaster. I guess the term “disaster tourism” originated after Hurricane Katrina when companies set up actual tour buses to show tourists the aftermath, profiting from the business and impeding clean-up vehicles and such. But I am not profiting from this. I am making sacrifices to share my experience with others, because I know the position I have is a unique one.

So I took some pictures during my expedition today, and I’d like to share some of my disaster learning with you, readers. Please stand by.

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.