Tuesday, August 30, 2011

That Haiti Feeling

There’s a certain smell to Haiti. A feeling that you get when you step off the plane or out of your comfortable hotel room that tells you “Yep you’re in Haiti

I think you can get this kind of unique feeling in all kinds of places. When I’m in Florida at my Grandparents there is a certain feeling in the air…and its not just the humidity. Or there is the familiar feeling when you step back in your childhood home for the first time in a long time. There was the chocolate smell I always connected with my summers at camp. Or there’s the feeling I had in college when I stepped out of my dorm to go to class. All these feelings, scents and sounds were completely unique and I could close my eyes go to any of these places and know where I was just by the way I feel but Haiti is be far the strongest.
Stepping out of the plane, or hotel room or apartment you are greeted by the various smells of car exhaust combined with people cooking, the feeling of the hot sun and thick air. The sounds of honking, shouting and laughter. The feeling of the constant busy-ness in Port au Prince. I wish I had the words to explain it better but its just something you feel deep down inside.
I feel it every time I step off the plane. I felt it everyday I was living in Port au Prince when I stepped out of my apartment and I feel it now every time I step out of my hotel room. It’s a feeling that’s comforting that says your home,. Its exhilarating and says “you’re in Haiti!” it’s a feeling that also says “take a deep breath and hold on tight because you’re back in Haiti
And this trip was no different. I stepped out of the airport, closed my eyes, took a deep breath - I was back!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On deciding my summer vacation...

At the end of July I went back to Haiti to take a little summer vacation time. In a lot of ways this was a completely selfish visit. I wasn't going back to Haiti for any project or for work or anything. I wasn't going to help anybody but myself I guess. Whenever anyone asked me why I was going to Haiti I just said it was for Vacation...which in a way was true - I did have to take vacation days from work. And I'd get the usual response "Haiti isn't exactly a vacation destination"

Part of me completely understands why people find it funny or weird or offensive to consider a trip to Haiti vacation, or just to be going for yourself, but for me Haiti and my friends there are almost like my home and family. In so many ways going to Haiti to me is no different than visiting my cousins in _____ City, USA. Its not a mission trip, or business trip, its just going to visit people I care about.

Anyway - I hadn't been in Haiti since last November and simply to much time had passed. I had been trying to hold off my return visit to Haiti till the ordination of the seminarians. You might remember before the earthquake I lived at the seminary and attempted to teach English to the seminarians and they have since become good friends of mine. You can remind yourself here or here. I had wanted to be sure I could be there for their ordinations...so I held off on making any visits to ensure I would have enough money for that trip. But rumors of the ordinations being in January quickly turned to rumors of May, to June to July to Late Fall...at which point I had enough. Now this is probably a sign that I need to get a new source, but the thought of not being in Haiti for almost an entire year was too much, and as soon as I heard the news they wouldn't be in July, I began making my plans to go to Haiti ASAP!

Part of this desire to go is this pull that Haiti has over me. For those of you that have been there before you might know what I am talking about. I also think that my experience during the earthquake made this pull inexplicably stronger. Haiti to me is somehow one of the scariest places but also one of the places I feel the most safe. It is a place where I feel the most like an outsider but also one of the few places I feel like I belong. Its a place filled with tragedy but also with a great Joy and one of the places where I am the happiest and most carefree. And I just needed to be there again.

The other reason I decided to finally hop on a plane and go back was because last November my godson(or is it daughter...more on that in a future post) was born and the mom had been waiting to do the baptism so that I could be there. So sometime in Mid-June I just decided that I would go at the end of July and that was it. I called up my friend (the baby's mom) told her I was coming and asked if she could do the baptism while I was there.

I told a few of the seminarians, my old Kreyol teacher and some others that I'd be in Port au Prince and my trip was set...I was just going to go to Port au Prince to go to a Baptism, hangout and just be.

This was the first of my return trips that I hadn't really thought out - hadn't planned too much in advance, and was shocked when the weekend I was leaving came around and I had done almost nothing to prepare - just packed my things the day I was supposed to leave and got on a plane like I was going home for the weekend as easy as that...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My return to blogging

Hey All - so if anyone is out there and still interested in reading this I have a small announcement - I'm going to start blogging again. This is mostly because as I search for news and blogs to keep up with whats happening in Haiti I get irritated by the way Haiti, Haitians, the church etc is portrayed...I'm admittedly a critical person by nature...but really if you visit a town and then write a news piece about it shouldn't you at least spell the name of the town correctly? No one would visit Chicago and then spell it Shicago - its just insulting. So instead of just ranting and complaining to myself I'm going to start trying to write again.

Don't worry I won't use this as my rant forum...well maybe once or twice...but I plan to continue using this as my opportunity to share my own experiences with Haiti and how I view a country and people that I care deeply about.

So if anyone is out there still interested in reading I need a bit of advice as to where to go next - should I continue writing about the trip I took in November in order of all that happened - come back to the November trip at a later date and just write about my most recent July trip - or just randomly tell stories out of in particular time order? Or do something else entirely?

Eh - maybe I will just do what I want - but let me know if there is something like you would like to see me write about. So here's hoping that this return to blogging lasts a bit longer than my last attempt...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

November Visit : Part 2

“Its good to be back”

I was sitting next to the window and reading my book, Tale of Two Cities, when at one point I looked up and saw Haiti’s mountains and saw that we were getting closer to Port au Prince. I put my book away and just kept looking out the window.

When I was younger, every time I flew home to Chicago I would always look out the window to see things I recognized. Usually the only thing I was sure of was the Sears Tower, but I would try to find my house, my school, that really big movie theater close to the airport. Anyway as I sat on the plane flying into Haiti I strained my neck to get the best view out the window. I tried looking for what was left of St. Etienne a rural church in the mountains, that was the first church I visited in Haiti, I looked and found the road that we usually drove to get to Montruis (where the old seminary is, as well as some nice beaches), and as we descended into Port au Prince I struggled to see other familiar landmarks.

Searching for these places that I knew made the fear go away. I was coming back to a place that was familiar, a place that was like home, a place where I would be taken care of.

As I stepped out of the plane, walked through part of the airport and outside to the bus that would take us to our luggage…I took in the sun and the air, breathed in and thought “Its good to be back”

I walked with confidence through customs, and easily got all my bags (an accomplishment in itself) called my friend who was waiting outside and left without any problems. And when those guys surrounded me to help with my bags, speaking Creole to me, I just said “no mesi” (no thanks) and kept walking to my friend.

It was great to be back!

Monday, February 7, 2011

My November Visit to Haiti

So I thought it might finally be time to write about my November trip to Haiti. I know it’s a bit late (ok A LOT late)…but I guess it just wouldn’t be me if I blogged about things in a timely fashion. I’m making posts about my trip in small portions – I wrote a lot about it, mostly for my own sake so I can remember the trip in the future – so here is the first portion or two.

Planning my November Trip

Last fall all I could think about was going back to Haiti. I missed my friends there, the food (even the rice and beans), the art, the music, the atmosphere, all of it. I hadn’t been there since last June and 6months was too much time to be away.

Of course it was right after I booked my tickets that problems started to arise…For example, the Cholera Outbreak. Although I was never too concerned about how this would impact me personally I think it may have caused some worry for my family. I don’t mean this to say that the Cholera isn’t troubling but I believed I had nothing to worry about since I am fortunate enough to have access to clean water and good food when I am in Haiti.

Then the night after I booked my plane tickets I was talking to one of the Haitians that I would be visiting and told him my travel dates. While I’d had this discussion before, it all the sudden occurred to us that I was leaving the day of the election in Haiti and they were expecting riots. Violent protests had already started in response to the Cholera and there were some campaign events that were becoming dangerous. So I changed my tickets to leave Haiti on Thanksgiving Day avoiding the election.

I won’t bore you with all the other little stumbling blocks I ran into planning my trip. I just wanted to make the point that there were moments that I seriously questioned why I was bothering with all this. Perhaps all the issues might be a sign that now is not my time to go back...Why not just postpone for a few months?

But the truth is I had to go. I kept thinking about how I spent my last Thanksgiving in Port au Prince…Attempting to plan a Thanksgiving meal in my apartment - Trying to explain in Creole to my friend Jeanine, who was cooking for me, that I wanted turkey and pumpkin. Being surrounded by a table of new friends, Haitian and American that had become like family. It was one of those moments that I knew Haiti had become like home. And as this years Thanksgiving approached I knew I had to be back, and all the problems that kept coming up were not going to stop me.

“Here we go Again”

After flying from DC to Miami, I had to spend the night in the Miami airport. It was awful (...but worth the money I saved on tickets). I got to Miami at around 10pm-ish and was wondering what I was going to do there all night since my flight didn’t leave till around 7:30am. Was I going to be the only one there? Would I get kicked out?

None of that happened – apparently I wasn’t the only one who wanted to save some money on plane tickets and there were a couple other people at the gate. The airport workers left the TV on for us…too bad they didn’t leave the remote control…but watching CNN all night wasn’t too bad. I got to watch Larry King interview Russell Brand.. a few times… which was entertaining-ish. The best part was when a nice airport worker brought me one of those pillow/blanket packets they sometimes give you on planes. He didn’t give them to the other people so I felt pretty special. It was also freezing in the airport so that blanket got a lot of use.

As the excitement began to mount for my flight so did the fear. Fear of Cholera, protests, and the airport (perhaps my biggest fear of all)

Every time I go to Haiti I am terrified of the airport. Probably because the first time I went to Haiti, as soon as I stepped out of baggage claim and out to meet my ride, I was surrounded by men yelling various French things at me; them trying to carry my bags while I tried even harder to hold on to them myself. Perhaps my memory isn’t exactly how things really happened but every time I imagine flying into Haiti that is what I think about; strange men surrounding you trying to grab your bags and yelling French/Creole at you.

So since then whenever I go back to Haiti, I quadruple check my ride plans, I make sure I know the person picking me up, make sure I have a working phone to call them when I land, ask what they are wearing, etc. I’m sure it’s pretty annoying to the person picking me up. I called the seminarian, Goursse, who was responsible for my ride, about an hour before my flight left Miami and made him promise (about 10 times) that he would be there, on time and as close as possible to the door I would be coming out of.

As I boarded the plane, I really started to have second thoughts… “Saying to myself what on earth are you doing? There’s Cholera…You know mom is going to be angry if you get sick? What about the protests? What if your car gets stopped by protesters? You are absolutely crazy? What if all those scary things that have been on CNN happen to you?” I sat in my seat and as the plane took off – I took a deep breath and thought “Here we go again”

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shocking Things

Shocking things happen all the time. I always hear stories in the news about bad things happening to this person or that family and it always seems like that situation is an outlier, it is outside the ordinary, something that happens to some person somewhere, but not that sort of thing that actually happens to people. Does that make sense?

Lets try explaining it a different way. Whenever there were bad storms with big gusts of wind leading to tornadoes and what not, while I would be worried, there would always be that voice in the back of your head saying "I don't need to be worried, nothing bad will ever happen to me. Bad stuff happens to other people" It sometimes can be as if those other people don't exist, that their stories are imaginary or untouchable.

One of the first times I was confronted with how wrong this theory is and how real these stories are is when the earthquake happened. For maybe the first time in my life, I was a part of the imaginary, untouchable story. One of those crazy life events that you think just happens to other people happened to me.

Shocking things happen everyday. You hear about people dying of hunger, going homeless, being raped, abducted, etc. I hear these stories from the news and non-profits but for many of us I don't know if these stories really sink if. If we actually absorb the reality of the situation. If when you hear that Little Jenny was trafficked...I don't think the reality of what that means for her family, friends, and little Jenny is absorbed. Its accepted as something almost imaginary and untouchable...an awful story but not something that would ever happen to us or someone we know.

I had a busy day today. Lived my life like normal, went to a diocesan convention, did my own thing. There was nothing about today that would suggest anything shocking. Unfortunately shocking, horrible things happen everyday. I just randomly called a friend of mine in Haiti and was shocked by the story they told me. I'm not going to get into the details of what happened just trust me when I say its shocking, awful and unacceptable that these things can happen. Its a story that one day might be included in a statistic, but its not an imaginary or untouchable person. Its someone I know. In an instant I was ripped out of my reality and pulled into what is everyday reality for people in Haiti or Sudan, Uganda, Southeast Asia etc.

Maybe in the past I have always separated those stories in the news about awful things that happen to good people. Maybe I disconnected them from my life because the pain of accepting it is just too great. The sadness and disgust of connecting the shocking event to just one person is too painful, that to connect the story to the millions of other people shocking things happen to is just beyond painful. A pain that we aren't equipped to handle, but a pain, that if all of us could truly comprehend, might just save the world.

How could we turn our faces away when we here stats on poverty, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, rape, abductions, malaria, refugees, etc if we could truly understand the pain and sorrow experienced by themselves, their family and friends. We couldn't. If we really felt that pain, then I don't think their would be discussions about cutting funding to USAID or ignoring oppressive or ineffective governments.

Anyway - shocking things happen to real people, in real places. Unimaginable and horrible things. I am sad for my friend. I am sad for Haiti. And I hope their pain stops soon. I also hope that I don't forget this feeling anytime soon. I hope it continues to motivate me. I hope that the next time I hear a statistic I take a moment to think about what the number really means to the millions of people who are affected by it. That I don't disconnect their tragedies from my life but that connect myself to their story and do my part to help.

I hope this entry made some sense. I'm still shocked and saddened by the news from my friend and wrote this entry as a way to process my thoughts a bit.

Monday, January 17, 2011

He came in a dark suit and blue tie

Last night Baby Doc's plane landed in Haiti and he was greeted by various supporters while wearing a dark suit and blue tie. To those of you who don't know who Baby Doc is or remember him - here is a brief bio.

Baby Doc (Jean Claude Duvalier) became the dictator of Haiti at the age of 19 after his father (Papa Doc). He was known for killing his opponents and using the brutal Tonton Macoutes, a secret police force. He also stole millions from Haiti and after a popular uprising was exiled to France. You can read more about Baby Doc's dictatorship in this NPR article.

So now he has come back. His reasons for returning are unclear but he has said that he simply was moved by images of the earthquake at the one year anniversary and wanted to come back to help Haiti according to this New York Times article. Although the timing of his trip does seem to be suspicious with the ongoing election controversy and upcoming runoff election.

This just seems to be another hurdle for Haiti. And I cannot help but wonder, what are Baby Docs real intentions? How does he possibly think he can help Haiti? Why does he still have supporters? And where is the government of Haiti? In 2007 Preval said that if Baby Doc came back to Haiti he would face justice...so where is the government now? Why do they continue to be quite?

I don't have the answers to any of those questions...but I can tell you what Baby Doc was wearing - a dark suit and blue tie. Somehow his outfit was reported in just about every single article I read, like he was some celebrity attending the golden globes.

Picture from the New York Times

Hopefully in the next few days, some of our real questions can be answered and we don't continue to hear about Baby Docs outfits.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

In memeory of the 1 year anniversary of the earthquake, I thought I'd post my personal reflection from the moments when the earthquake happened. This part was written a week or two after the earthquake. I know its a little long but the first section is my memories from the day of the quake but if you're just interested in the earthquake then jump to the section titled 4:53.


One of the first assignments I gave the seminarians in the fall for English class was to write Advent reflections. They each chose a verse from the assigned readings for a day in Advent and wrote about them and the goal was to try and incorporate into their reflections something about themselves or Haitian life. These reflections were then compiled in a devotional book that was shared with various partners and supporters in the US. I mention this because last week when I got home I saw the printed devotional that my mom had sitting on the coffee table. I turned to the first reflection, by 3rd year Donald Metellus and was immediately struck by what he had written.

He chose the verse Luke 21:9. In his reflection my eyes immediately jumped to where he wrote “we will have wars and earthquakes. However, do not worry: God will be with us always…In a country like Haiti, there are many problems…We have to keep confidence and understand that the days move nearer and that God is always with us.” I read it and wondered if when he wrote this he could have ever imagined the problems that were in-store for Haiti’s future. If when he wrote that there will be earthquakes, he imagined there would be an actual earthquake. Or if he was wondering where God was in all of this?

I guess the following reflection is my attempt to not only remember the events following the earthquake but also to begin to make sense of it all.

Before the Quake

The Sunday before the earthquake all of the seminarians came back from their holiday vacation. I was so excited to have everyone back again. It had been a lonely few weeks with them gone and I was looking forward to my weekly meetings with each one and the nights I spent hanging out at the seminary watching shows in French that I didn’t understand and joking around and what not. It felt like life had been on pause for few weeks and that life was about to start again.

I remember on Monday morning I walked to a bank with the seminarian Goursse and we were able to catch-up. Afterwards I went over to the seminary and was able to see a bunch of the other seminarians. I knew I would be happy to see them but I was surprised by how happy I was. That night I hung out at the seminary, I was beginning to take all my meals there to. I spent supper talking to a 3rd year named Wildaine. He was asking me why I had come to Haiti and what I thought I would do after I left. I remember he asked me if I liked Haiti and I said jokingly, “I think I like Haiti now, but who knows if I will like it in a few months.”

Tuesday morning things were normal. I had a carpenter come over to give me an estimate on some bookshelves we wanted to have made for the seminary. Most of the books were stacked on a desk going all the way up to the ceiling, making it difficult for anyone to use them. The carpenter told me he would have the numbers for me on Thursday. What else…

Oh, I was having my apartment cleaned that day by Jeanine. Jeanine is the girl who had been cooking and cleaning for me and basically took care of me and made sure I was ok. In return I over paid her in the hopes of helping to pay for her university fees. She and I had gotten especially close during the holiday break because she came and checked in on me everyday to make sure I was ok and not too lonely. We would joke about boys, my awkward Haiti moments, watched a movie together and ate spaghetti. Anyway looking back on that day it seems silly that I had my apartment cleaned and now I can’t even remember if I paid her. I think she left before I had the chance to pay her. She had class on Tuesday afternoons.

The rest of the day was spent in my apartment at my desk planning for my English Classes on Wednesday and Thursday. I was going to be teaching simple and continuing verb tenses or something like that. I was dreading teaching it…grammar has never really been my thing. At 5 o’clock I was planning on meeting up with the Jude, the other YASCer, once his class was over.

4:53 pm

4:53. That’s the time I was told the earthquake happened. I was at my desk when the shaking started. I didn’t do anything. I thought maybe a car had hit the building…maybe a bomb had gone off…but I did nothing. Finally, I remembered an episode of Saved by the Bell where there had been an earthquake and thought about what various characters had done in the show. It was then I realized I should do something. So I got under my desk and waited till the shaking stopped.

People have asked me how long the quake was. I’ve been told it was 30 seconds. To me it felt like 5 minutes. It’s amazing how stupid I was to not do anything and just sit there. It’s amazing nothing happened to the building because I don’t know if I would have had the presence of mind to escape.

As soon as the shaking stopped my first thoughts were that I needed to see Jude and the seminarians. I stepped out of my apartment. I saw dust and smoke in the air. I saw cars in the rode that had swerved up onto the sidewalk. And I saw the priest and the new deacon who lived in my apartment talking in the drive about what had just happened. I walked towards where Jude had been teaching the seminarians at College St. Pierre, an Episcopal Primary and Secondary School. I saw Jude and my students. They were ok.

In this first moment after the quake I know we couldn’t have comprehended what happened. I know I didn’t. I still didn’t even know that College St. Pierre had collapsed. I was looking at it, I could see it had collapsed but in the brief moment after the quake I didn’t comprehend that it had collapsed or what that meant.

I recently read a sermon by Bishop Mathes, the Bishop of San Diego. In one part of the sermon he uses the quote “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends” from the book The Year of Magical Thinking. Bishop Mathes goes on to say “For the 9.8 million people living in Haiti, one world passed away and a new, uglier world was revealed.”

Looking back on those first moments after the quake I don’t think I understood that things had changed. It’s true, everything changed in a moment, but for me realizing that has been a continuing process. In some ways I wish I could have those first moments back and pause them. Appreciate them. The time before the truth of what had happened was realized. When despite the earthquake there was still an innocence and naivety. The damage wasn’t known. There was still room to hope and to plan.

I thought maybe we will find away to still have my English class on Thursday. It seems silly looking back my stupidity and lack of understanding in those first moments. Maybe in those moments I was just denying the reality, and hoping for the best. But despite all of that, whether I knew it or not, at 4:53 life changed, for me, for Jude, for the seminarians, and for Haiti. But maybe not just those in Haiti, I think it changed all of us in some way.

The moments after the first moments

After I met up with Jude and some of the seminarians, I began to take count of everyone that I saw and I didn’t see everyone. I began to ask “Wheres Wilky? Wheres Goursse? Where are all the first years?” Before anyone had a chance to answer the missing seminarians appeared. Thankfully.

Somebody pointed out that we shouldn’t be standing where we were standing. We were standing in an area that was close to College St. Pierre’s cafeteria and there were a lot of trees and some power lines. It was then that we moved to the soccer field as others began to gather there.

Once we were on the field I was able to truly look at College St. Pierre. I was able to notice the other people around me. A lot of people were white, covered in dust from the buildings that had collapsed and looking like ghosts.

I began to hear the stories from Jude and the seminarians who had been in his class about their experience during the quake. Donald was the one that ran first and told the others to get out of the building. Apparently as they were running the building collapsed along side them. Some tripped over the rubble but other than that thankfully…luckily no one was harmed.

Everyone began trying to call their families to find out if they were ok. I gave my phone to Carmel who had forgotten her phone in our apartment. Her dad worked at College St. Pierre but we didn’t know where he was. Nobody really had any luck. When I got my phone back, on the screen where it usually says Digicel, it said Emergency.

All the girl seminarians sat down on the grass with a few other girls. I was sitting with them and they began to pray. As they prayed I looked around at each one of them; all scared for the fate of their families and not knowing what the next few days had in store for them. As they continued to pray I looked around the field. Many of the other seminarians were standing either in pairs or by themselves. Other people had come to the field. Some were crying, and some just staring, others talking. I heard people yelling out to God, some saying things like “Blessed be God” “Oh Jesus” but I remember one girl who kept saying “Dieu Fâché” “Gods Angry”

I then began to think about what all this meant to me. How should I act in this moment? How can I be there for my students? I was fine. I knew my family was ok. Nothing happened to my apartment. I hadn’t lost everything. How should I be there for people who still had no idea what’s in store for them and prepare for the worst or the best news. Should I talk to them? Give them space? And in my head I began to think I’m not Haitian. Even though I was here and experienced the earthquake, I’m still not Haitian and I can’t possibly know how anyone is feeling. There was even part of me that felt like I was interrupting a private moment for the country, like in someway just my presence there was an intrusion on something deeply personnel. – I left the circle of girls and walked off by myself.

Jude and I began talking…the first of many conversations where we tried to figure out what was happening, what was going to happen and what damage had been done. We somehow got word that the Episcopal University was gone. Jude’s apartment was at the University but it was gone now as well as all his stuff. All he had at this point was the couple Gourdes he had in his pocket. He had two roommates, one Belgian, one French. We didn’t know what had happened to them. Jude lived on the third floor and he couldn’t think how it would have been possible for his roommates to escape. (In case I don’t return to this – later in the night we somehow got word that they were alive but one had seriously injured her neck)

As we continued to talk, I remember saying I couldn’t wait till morning. Maybe in the morning people outside of Haiti will have heard what happened. Maybe in the morning people will come to help. Maybe in the morning the phones will be working. Maybe in the morning everything will be better.

I remember I had English Class the next day…I knew now that class was definitely canceled indefinitely. What else would be cancelled now? What would happen to the students who went to College St. Pierre? The seminarians? How long would there classes be cancelled? How long would it be till things got back to normal? How long till life started again?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Some Resources that may be helpful for the Anniversary

In light of the upcoming anniversary I wanted to share some resources...just in case you missed them elsewhere.

First the Episcopal Church has launched a campaign to raise money for the Holy Trinity Cathedral Complex in Port au Prince. This includes Holy Trinity Cathedral (St. Trinite in French) and the schools that used to be on its grounds. You can learn more about the campaign and donate by visiting their website

This is the same fund that I will be giving the money from the Calendar sales to...Which are still available for purchase ... I'm close to one of my goals...so just a couple more sails will help me reach it...hint hint. I'm not being completely serious but I still do think the calendar is a great way to look at beautiful art, give to a good cause, and keep Haiti ever present on your mind throughout the year.

In my last post I talked about the anniversary and not being sure how I would mark the occasion. I also asked what others might be doing that day. Here is a link to some prayers that some Episcopal Churches have put together. Perhaps you may want to say them on your own, or see if your church could use them in an upcoming service.

Do you have any prayers or resources to share?