Tag Archives: haiti

Tuning out

I’m riding in the back seat of my aunt’s SUV, swaying along dark country roads while I try to focus on what I need to do to ensure my survival across the Atlantic this winter. She chats with her friend from down the street and my cousin next to me in the back seat talk about this television show and that, and I may as well be an alien in a pleated skirt and lipstick posing, poorly, as a suburban human. They talk about the newest episode of blah-blah-blah as I sit quietly, watching the rain cling in droplets to the window, grudgingly fracturing off into various paths and I think of Jeff Goldblum flirting with Laura Dern and chaos theory. They discuss which actress was good and which was bad while my mind drifts back to something my aunt said over dinner: about why the public discourse has shifted so drastically to the Syrian refugees when the Haitians have been coming over in boats and drowning trying for decades; about why there is such a debate about helping the Syrians when we haven’t even helped our next door neighbors living in the worst poverty one can imagine, before the subject was strategically changed by her friend who is of the opinion that politics should be avoided during meals and especially meals with family members from New York. I overhear so-and-so won the Emmy for something as I stare off into the woods watching the trees slice through the floodlights of faraway houses, and I am back in Haiti smelling the burning garbage and feeling my combat boots rub my heels raw while I walk with the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Haiti for miles, past the markets where the sellers tirelessly flip the produce and descriptionless pharmaceuticals stuck to cones that brings in the $2 they need to survive for the day. They laugh at the screen death of a B-actor but I am standing with my nonchalant little sister over a mass grave filled with the bodies of victims of poverty, of America’s refusal to take responsibility for the power it has accrued, which led to the lack of help for our neighbors near and far, which led to the lack of stable concrete that burst into powder and smothered everything and everyone beneath it the fraction of a second the tectonic plate nobody had ever thought was a risk slipped beneath the hellish island from where my life snapped into existence on this plane. I exhaled sharply.

“Riki, are we talking to much about TV?” my aunt asks.

“No,” I say pleasantly and smile, loving her so much it overrides my building anxiety over the futility of our day’s events to change any bit of what is wrong with things.

“Are you thinking about all the work you have to do?”


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.

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.

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.