07 October 2011

on the other side

[Yesterday's post] I thought I was going to be emotionally overwhelmed during my first couple of weeks in Haiti. I have my journal with me, but I haven't felt compelled to write in it at all. I mainly write in it if I am feeling very stressed out and need to free my mind of some burdensome thought. Haiti hasn't made me feel this way yet. Honestly, I am having the most fun I have ever had in my life. Who knew the poorest country in the Western hemisphere could make someone feel this way??! Yes, the poverty is extreme, more so than what I observed in Tanzania or Nicaragua (the Western hemisphere's second poorest country). The streets are dirty and crowded with piles of trash, the air smells like sweat, fish, burning garbage, burning charcoal, and a delicious meal in the making. But, I am learning that people here move on with their lives because they have to - there is no alternative. The drivers and conductors on the tap taps love making money, they love honking their horns to the beat of the music on the radio, and they enjoy the risks that come with driving on Haiti's meandering highways. People in the mountains and rural communities always say  bon jour and bon soir with a smile on their faces. Also, many people I meet will say, mwen kontan rekonet avek ou which means I'm happy to meet you. I can't be sad about that!

Last week in review:

The end of last week was incredibly busy. On Wednesday, I headed into Port au Prince to pick up the new intern, Katie (she's also my former Cornell classmate and track teammate), and bring a PTA mother and baby to Petit Freres et Soeurs (PETS) St. Damien's Hospital in Tabarre, a section of PaP. The child needed an EKG and other examinations and PETS offered free medical services.While Jill, Rachel, and Kerry (CNP's executive director) were in a meeting, I went to the airport with Jean Claude to get Katie. I was so happy to pick her up! I think the first few hours in a foreign country are less stressful when your friend from college picks you up at the airport and gives you the 411 as you drive through the streets of an unstable capital. We met up with the other women and had pizza at Flor di Latte. I followed my pizza with an incredibly refreshing glass of passion fruit juice.

On Thursday, I had the amazing opportunity to shadow Dr. Mitch Mutter, a cardiologist and CNP's founder, at one of the hospitals in Leogane. I went back and forth between shadowing him and working and wrapping things up at the PTA. It took 7 hours, but Mitch saw all 22 patients who waited for him outside. He conducted an EKG and an echocardiogram on many of them. He let me place the leads (electrodes) on some of the patients. I really admired his patience and thoroughness with each of the patients. All of them were happy to be examined by him. Mitch was very friendly and had a great sense of humor. He met Paul Famer (one of my heroes!) while Paul worked in Haiti as a medical school back in the 80's. So, we talked about that experience and also about why he started CNP. Mitch came to Haiti to work with cardiologists and saw that many children were severely malnourised in Leogane. In 1998, he founded CNP. Around that time, 24% of children in Leogane were malnourished. Now, that statistic stands at 3%. We're making moves and are getting closer to our goal of 0%! This day was also Mitch's birthday - it was his 15th 49th birthday or something like that. So, after the 22nd patient, we headed back to the house and the festivities were underway. We had music, drinks, food, and a mouthwatering chocolate cake prepared for him. He had a big smile on his face during the entire night. I'm glad he enjoyed the party :-)

I headed back to PaP on Friday for a meeting with the Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) and UNICEF. It was good for me to put a face to an organization like UNICEF because I have read so much about it through my course work at Cornell. The MSPP meeting was in French, so Haiti's Director of Nutrition talked slowly for me so that I could understand her (my French listening and speaking skills are works in progress...). The meeting was a good chance for me to get a sense of what the other NGOs are doing in Haiti and I enjoyed being there. I was also this close (but not really) to meeting Paul Farmer; a representative from Partners In Health was in attendance. One day Paul Farmer...one day...

This past Saturday, Katie, Rachel and I traveled back to Jacmel with Jon, James, and Michael (Cordaid) for some more surfing. The waves were nonexistent so, we decided to head to Bassin-Bleu, Haiti's famous deep water pools. The blue waters of the pools were mesmerizing and are forever etched in my mind's eye. There are three pools: one is 15ft deep and the third one is 75ft deep (I didn't catch the depth of the second one, but its depth is between the depths of the1st and the 2nd, maybe 45ft??? I'm definitely going back there again and will take note of it then). After we had our fair share of fun, we headed back to my favorite restaurant since my first visit. Yes, Jacmel's Pizzeria. I had the same dish from my first visit: BBQ chicken with mashed potatoes. I had to! I followed the meal with passion fruit. I really can't resist the passion!!

On Sunday, Jon and James cam over to my house for dance lessons with Jude. He is an incredible dancer and a great teacher. We learned and danced the salsa, cha cha cha, merengue, bachata, and the rumba. I picked them up pretty quickly (it's the islander in me). I can't wait to bring my moves to the dance floor on Thursday nights at Masaje.

Up to speed:  
I just came back from PaP after being there for 6hrs, a period of time which is longer than I expected. I went to pick up the mother I dropped off at PETS, but her child hadn't been discharged by her doctor yet (there was some miscommunication). The mother wanted to return home to her other child who had been badly burned on one of his hands and the father didn't have time to bring him to the hospital. I told her that she needed to stay there so that her first child could receive his last two examinations. I asked her to tell me where she lived so that my coworkers and I could make sure that her second son received medical attention. She told me I would never be able to find her house because it was deep in the side streets of Leogane. So, I asked her for a phone number, but she had her husband's phone and her father, who is with the other child, didn't have a mobile phone. I told her that if her husband called her at all she should tell him to send the child with the burns our way at the PTA and we would take care of him. She agreed and told me that she was hungry and couldn't purchase food because the hospital personnel hadn't given her change from the last set of examinations. So, I gave her some money to buy food for the night and next day. Before I left, I took down the number of a nurse there and told the nurse to call me when she was sure that the child would be discharged. Going into PaP is somewhat of a hassle and a long trip which I want to make worthwhile.

I never thought that my work would become this challenging. I really wasn't even sure what to expect. I just knew that I wanted to do work that involved nutrition, improving behavior and health, and interacting with people. I have gotten all that and more. But, I find myself having to make many sudden important decisions. When that happens, I think, "Oh, dear what do I do??" And I have to just pause and hash things out to come up with a proper solution. It has worked well so far, but I know this is not the end of all of this. I have no way to prepare myself for the unexpected. For now, I'll just continue to help the mothers and their children in any way that I can.

On the other side: 
A friend of mine sent me a link to a blog about a 20-something year old Haitian living in NYC. I read her introduction and fell in love with her story: she is from Petionville, a section of PaP, and currently is a model working in the city. I felt as if we had just swapped lives, as I am from NYC and moved to Haiti (minus the model lifestyle...). She wrote about how the electricity would always go out when she was younger and how she dreamed of living a better life after reading romance novels. Now, she has her bed side lamp and bathrobe. I see that she's living the glamorous life in the city, while I am working in the health sector in Haiti. How does one even describe this phenomenon??! After reading her intro, I had the biggest urge to meet her, sit down and talk about her, us, our life trajectories, anything. I wrote her a message and she responded! Maybe when I come home for Christmas vacation we can meet up.


I am having a great time and am staying safe (I can't disappoint the parentals)!! Until next time...

01 October 2011


[Tuesday's Post]

It is only Tuesday, but this has been an incredibly busy week. I'm still recovering from an even busier weekend. 

Today, most of the expat staff took a trip out to Petit Harpon, the 13th section of Leogane. The purpose of the trip was to talk to community leaders about starting our PD/Hearth and feeding programs in their community. So, I skipped out on working at the PTA because I wanted to see the country side.  It was my third time out in the mountains and thankfully, this hiking experience wasn't so rough. CNP wants to bring biosand filters, a mill, and a clinic to Ti Harpon. 

[Biosand filters are a great technological innovation. It's kind of self-explanatory, but here's how they work: sand and gravel enclosed in a container of cement are used to create clean drinking water by filtering non-potable water. CNP plans to provide free biosand filters to the school, church and health clinic and sell them to other members of the community for a very low price of 200 gourdes (5$ USD). That is a great deal. I went to a restaurant called Kat Kwen (Four Corners) a few weeks ago and ordered rice and red beans with fried chicken and plantains for the same price!] 

First, we toured an already established health clinic. Then we walked to the church, which is near where the second clinic would be built. After walking around, we met with community leaders, told them about our potential programs, and fielded questions at the end of the meeting. The meeting was successful as the leaders and principal of the school were very receptive to our programs. 

When I returned to the office, I met with Guerleine to go over cases from the morning at the PTA. The PTA has maintained its momentum as the scheduled mother-baby pairs came in today and we had a new mother-baby pair register with our program. We currently have about 26 mother-baby pairs! This is much better than the 14 pairs we had when I started working. Guerleine and I have gradually turned this program around for the better and we are very excited about this. In addition to transportation services, I added toys, mats, and construction of a medicine cabinet and new table to our budget for the PTA. These should be ready to use in a couple of weeks and will give our work space a brand new face. 

As we wrapped up the case reviews, Guerleine told me about a severely malnourished child the monitrices had discovered in one of the mountainous sections of Leogane. As described by Meti (another coworker of mine at the PTA), the child had kwashiorkor, episodes of vomiting and diarrhea, and is on the brink of death. The child's mother had recently passed away and the father left soon after, leaving a very old grandmother to take care of a total of 7 children. The family also lived more than 8 hours from Signon, where we run our PTA and had no one to care for the child in town. They turned to me and asked, "What are you going to do??"  I immediately thought that we need to get the child down here somehow. I told Jill about this and we had Meti call the monitrice who discovered the case. We told her to find a neighbor that could care for the child during a stay at the Nutrition Stabilization Unit (USN) and to come down with them the next day to Chatulet. I thanked Meti for making the call and organizing everything. Meti is great at doing his job. All of our Haitian staff are, but sometimes they just need small boosts in their confidence to reaffirm that they can do their jobs well. I do that all the time with Guerleine and today as I thanked her for holding down services at the PTA while I was away; in addition to her regular cases, she had to provide transportation money, make appointments for hospital visits, and remind the mothers about an information session happening this coming Friday. I thought she would have forgotten to do one of these things with more mother-baby pairs than usual to account for, but she handled everything very well.

When in Haiti...

Last Friday night was the start of one of the most epic weekends of my life. Rachel and I were invited to a party at Marabu Creole, another resto-bar in town. There, we met up with Jimmy's friends Jon (IsraAID) and Ryan (Notra Dame Filariasis Program). The event was a going-away party for their friend who finished her employment with Save the Children. She had an open bar the entire night! Rachel and I ordered something to eat and drink, then headed to the dance floor. We were 4 out of maybe 10 people dancing to remixed American club songs, but we still had plenty of fun. We headed home around midnight to get some sleep for a 9am departure for Jacmel, a city located on the southern coast of Haiti. 

The ride to Jacmel was a fun road trip:  we listened to songs by Oasis, Arcade Fire and Celia Cruz.and also purchased baby bananas, star fruit and avocados. We headed to the port city to surf and tour the town. My plan was just to watch Rachel and the guys surf or continue reading Mountains Beyond Mountains or do both. Rachel almost made me go in the water with her on one surf board, but the water was a little to rough for my taste so, I decided to head back to shore. After about 45 min, Rachel got tired and gave me her board. I got over my fears and just went for it! She helped me get out into the water past the oncoming waves and onto the surf board. I started paddling and was able to sit up and lie back down! I was so happy that things went that well during my first surfing experience. The waves started to get more intense and I swam back to the shore. That was a good day for me and it wasn't over yet. We dried ourselves off and headed into town for some dinner at Jacmel's Pizzeria

The owner knew Jimmy very well and quickly cooked us some Louisiana chicken gumbo. We soon devoured our meals. T'was too good...Then, she made us BBQ chicken with the smoothest and creamiest mashed potatoes known to mankind. She has enchiladas, quesadillas, pasta, and homemade ice cream among other things on her menu and spoke English very well. I asked her where she had resided in the states and she told me Oklahoma, for about 20 years. I was so glad she brought the southern cooking back down to Haiti! While we were in Jacmel, we also visited some shops housing masks for Carnival, also known as Mardi Gras, and took a quick trip to the beach. The beach was a bit dirty, but it was a calm sight and we watched some locals play football.

Jacmel is a gorgeous town! The French colonial-styled buildings have preserved the port city's culture. It suffered minimal damage from the earthquake and there is plenty to do there. Rachel and I were planning to stay there for the weekend, but we decided to head back north with the boys - apparently, there was a party going on that night in Petit Goave featuring circus acts and Clowns Without Borders. Unfortunately, we didn't make it there in time to see the fun festivities :( However, we did see some musical acts that made us feel like we were watching performances from a talent show after summer camp...yes, some of them were that bad... 

Rachel and I decided to stay in Petit Goave after the "party" since it was too late to drive back to Leogane. We were near the beach and decided to go for a late night swim. I had a chance to experience the bioluminescent plankton Rachel tells me so much about. Any movement I made in the water allowed me to see the bioluminescence of the plankton on my body in the dark. It was awesome! 

Tour de Leogane:

The next day we all headed back to Leogane. Rachel and I decided to tour the town before heading back to our place. Jimmy decided to give us a ride on his mototaxi so that we wouldn't have to walk around under the hot sun. Thanks Jimmy! He took us to his favorite breakfast spot for egg sandwiches. While we waited for them, we went across the street and toured a rum factory. I got to check out rum in the making inside these huge barrels! It smelled like rotten molasses. We crossed the street, ate our egg sandwiches followed by some refreshing Coca-Cola and headed to the Notre Dame house where Jimmy used to work. I couldn't get over the residence - the house is practically a mansion! We talked to two members of the Haitian staff who were very familiar with CNP. One of them, Wes, had been cured of filariasis and told us about how we came to work with the university and the incidence, prevention and treatment of filariasis in Haiti. As Rachel and I talked to him, mosquitoes swarmed around our feet and we kept trying to swat them away. Wes told us not to worry about them, but I just thought it was ironic that the house had so many mosquitoes. After talking with him, Rachel and I decided to sit under a tree outside.

We then decided to visit this community on the beach called Ka Piti. It was like a mini paradise! We saw a number of houses built by the Food For the Poor along the shoreline and chatted with the locals. We also took off our flip flops and started dancing in the shallow water since music was playing near by.

We headed home around 3pm and slept. It was a great and relaxing weekend =] 

22 September 2011

a la PTA (at the PTA)

No one came to the PTA today. Currently, we have one mother on file for Wednesdays and she didn't show up. Guerleine and I sat alone under the mango tree :( I called the mother's phone a few times and it went straight to voice mail. In the meantime, I started my informal French lessons with Guerleine. She said she would teach me French and I told her I would teach her English. So, I pulled out my little notebook and started writing the alphabet to get started. We went over how to pronounce each letter and a small conversation. 

Here's what I learned today: 

a. Bon jour. Je suis Choumika
b. Bon jour. Je suis Guerleine. 

a. Comment vas-tu?
b. Je vais bien. Et tois?

a. Moi aussi, je vais bien. Que fais-tu aujourd'huir?
b. Ce matin je travail a la PTA. Et tois?

a. Oh moi, je prend un petit cours de Francais ce matin. C'etait un plasir de te recontrer. Merci. 
b. Moi aussi, a la prochaine. 

a. D'accord. 

(That was pretty cool!!) 

We also went over pronouns and I kept going over the conversation to make sure I understood what I wrote. While I wrote down the words in French, I would ask her what they meant in Creole and then translate them into English for her. I love learning a new language. To work with 3 languages at once is incredible and it's amazing to have the ability to that. During my first couple of weeks in Haiti, I remember feeling surprised by my ability to speak Creole only because I speak English about 100% of the time back in the states (my mother speaks Creole to me and I respond in English). It's like Creole just remained in my head because of my mother, making me able to speak it fluently now. So, thanks mummy! 

As I mentioned in a previous post, working at the PTA has been a great way to learn about Haiti; I talk a lot with Guerleine and learn many things about cultural beliefs from the mothers. In one situation, a mother would not give her child vaccinations because she thought crazy people would eat her child if she brought him outside of the house. At that point, Guerleine told the mother that she doesn't believe in voodoo. She said when her children are sick, she takes them to the hospital where they receive medication and get better. I am not here to tell these mothers right from wrong, but it's important for me to learn how these beliefs originated and the ways in which they unfold in their lives. Some mothers might not give their children Plumpy'nut because a voodoo doctor is prescribing a different method of treatment. Guerleine and I have to intervene quickly because these moms are putting their children's lives in danger. We can't reach many of the mothers in Leogane, but I am glad we can reach out to the mothers who attend the PTA. 

I have also had the chance to conduct house visits - I really love and enjoy them. Earlier this week, Meti, Guerleine, Rachel and I went to visit the house of mothers who had stopped coming to the PTA for various reasons. We found out that some of the mothers didn't have any money for transport, didn't have the time, and others simply didn't care. Meti is very good at talking to the mothers and explaining why it is important for them to return. [I just completed my budget for the PTA and included money for transportation services. A mototaxo ride to a near by location for one person is about 25 gourdes - that's about 63 cents USD!!!  I hope with this service, we can help out the mothers who can't make to the PTA because of financial issues.]

The house visits were a complete success; we got some of the mothers to return to the PTA and encouraged others to spread the word to other women who might need our services. I think it's better to talk to someone face to face than over the phone. We showed the women that we care about them and their children, and I think they appreciate what we do. 

On Fridays, I review cases from the week with Guerleine and a doctor from Hopital St. Croix. We look for any warning signs and determine whether or not the children might need referrals.

I have gotten to know the mothers and children pretty well. So, I expect to see some familiar faces tomorrow. We get pretty good business on Thursdays =] 

21 September 2011

one month under my belt

Today marks the end of my first month in Haiti. I still remember arriving in PaP on the 19th of August as if it were yesterday. A lot has happened since my last post...


Back in August, on my first day of work, I sat at my desk and read documents about CNP’s nutrition programs. Currently, CNP’s two main programs are the Outpatient Therapeutic Program also known as the Programme Therapeutique Ambulatoire (PTA), and the Positive Deviance/Hearth Program (PD/Hearth). I love the concept behind PD/Hearth: mothers who have healthy children, help teach other mothers with malnourished children, how to use locally grown foods to bring their children back to good health. The mothers with the healthy children are the “positive deviants”. The program is carried out in the homes of volunteer mothers (the hearth or, in Creole, ti foyer). CNP plans to implement PD/Hearth in all 13 sections of Leogane and we’re currently working on getting the GPS coordinates of every home in 4 of the 13 sections. 

I work mainly with the PTA and my work has picked up quite a bit in the last 3 weeks. I literally work under a mango tree in front of CAMEJO (one of the hospitals in town). I leave the house/office around 8am with my PTA co-workers, Meti and Guerleine. Once we reach CAMEJO, we unload a bench, chairs, a table, and dossiers for our patients. My first day at the PTA went very well. I met a mother and her infant who was recovering from a bad case of conjunctivitis. I have seen worse things in science text books, but not in real life and up close. So, I did my best to suppress my sudden squeamishness. At the PTA, we take anthropometric measurements: weight, height, and brachial perimeter. We use these to find the child’s Z score (standard deviations above or below the mean rget weight) and determine whether or not the child is severely malnourished. We had the mother remove her baby’s clothes so that Guerleine and I could get her weight and measure her height. I helped put the baby into a pouch and onto the weighing scale. Then, I held her head in place as Guerleine measured her height. Doing all of this was a great experience for me. I am always reading about these types of things and it’s amazing to get hands-on experience. After that, Guerleine took the child’s temperature and heart rate, among other measurements, to write on the baby’s dossier. We determined her Z score and based on her weight provided her with about 21 bags of Plumpy’nut (a fortified peanut-based paste). It does wonders for the children and it is amazing to see them improve within a week’s time (the mothers come on an assigned day each week). 

I am officially the supervisor of the PTA. “Supervisor” is a great title. However, Guerleine and I work side by side and we make an awesome PTA duo. I have learned so much from her and the mothers I encounter on a daily basis. We’ve talked about a variety of things: the Duvaliers, MINUSTAH (the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti – people here don’t like them very much; they brought cholera to Haiti. So, the feeling of distrust make sense…), relationships, food, and many other things. It has helped me improve my Creole and smoothed my transition into life in Haiti. The experience is great for me; I get to work in nutrition and meet and learn from other people. 

Guerleine did a great job introducing me to all of the mothers at the PTA and jokingly made it known that I am a blan (it literally means “white” and refers to any white person in all of Haiti, but for me it means “foreigner”). My Creolish was also a dead giveaway… I let them know that I am from √Čtats-Unis (United States), but that my parents were born in PaP. Guerleine and the mothers have used this as an opportunity to ask me questions about anything related to the US. The first topic of discussion: condoms. I cannot remember exactly, but the first mother I met was a born-again Christian and she and her partner decided to sleep in separate beds so that they wouldn’t have sex until they got married. I thought that was very admirable. Guerleine asked her if she was sure nothing would happen between her and her boyfriend and the mother laughed a little and said, “Wi (yes)”. That wasn’t so convincing to me. So, I told Guerleine to give her some condoms just in case. Given the health issues in Haiti, I think it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

Beyond Mountains: 

I went back into the mountains last week from Monday to Wednesday. We are working on starting up our PD/Hearth programs in the rural communities of Leogane and I wanted to experience what the monitrices (health monitors) do on a daily basis. I ended up in the section known as Citronnier and stayed with 5 monitrices. Three of us stayed inside the first day because the other monitrices were already out mapping houses and they had the one GPS for the entire group. When they returned, we showered, ate dinner, and were in bed by 6pm (the sun goes down at 5:55pm and there’s no electricity). The next day, we left for work around 8am. The monitrices sang and said a prayer before our hike. It was a lovely sight. 

The 2-day hike I went on during my first weekend in Haiti was a warm-up compared to the hiking I experienced with the monitrices. We climbed up and down steep trails, walked on extremely narrow paths, and crossed streams more than twice over to map houses. I am not terribly afraid of heights, but at one point I felt like I was doing a tight rope act and starting losing my balance. So, they had to hold my hands as we walked on the slim paths etched into the side of the mountains. I had sneakers and these women put me to shame in their sandals and flip flops! As I walked on, my footing got better, but I’ll be honest, someone held my hand about 70% of the time. Again, better to be safe than sorry… 

We mapped about 40+ houses on Tuesday and about 20 houses on Wednesday. At some of the houses, we had to weigh children that weren’t weighed during the monitricies’ first visit. So, I had the chance to help take the weight of some children and talk to the mothers. In addition to getting into the mountains, I came on the trip to supervise their work. The monitrices were extremely thorough with their mapping and very committed to their work. I was so happy to be there helping them. That night, we stayed up a little longer and joked around until we all got tired. My cheeks hurt at the time from laughing so much. It was like a huge slumber party. On Wednesday afternoon, it was time for me to head back into town. They didn’t want me to leave and asked me when I would come back into the mountains. I told them I wasn’t sure yet, but that they would definitely see me again. 

Play hard: 

The night life here in Haiti is kind of wild – in a good way though. On the first Tuesday, I went out with Michael and Alex to a singing contest in the center of town. The event was scheduled to begin at 8pm and didn’t start until 10pm. It wasn’t all for naught though. We had some drinks and talked about various things related to Haiti: aid, development, the earthquake, President Martelly, etc. It rained on and off as well, which is what probably caused the delay. However, I enjoyed being out of the house and getting a taste of the night life. Many people were out walking, talking, selling food, sitting around, and eating. I loved it. This is Haiti. Nothing stops people from doing what they need to do and carrying on with their lives. It shouldn’t amaze me because I’ve seen this drive in my mother for my entire life, but here, it always amazes me. 

Later in the week on Thursday, we went to Masaje, a resto-bar in town. It was salsa night. I heard they’re really strict about shoes so, I had to squeeze into my heels (my feet were still swollen from the 2-day hike the weekend before). I wore shorts and a plain v-neck (I kept it casual because I didn’t know what the attire would be like). They checked my shoes at the door and let me into the restaurant (they don’t mess around). The atmosphere was compelling. The raised thatched roof was high enough to allow me to see the stars. It was just beautiful. However, what really captivated me were the dancing skills of the people there. My jaws dropped, literally. You wouldn’t even know an earthquake had struck the town 20 months ago if you saw what I saw. Everyone was so well dressed and danced like they were professionals. I sat and watched for a long time. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. The music was great – they played cool remixes of songs like Yesterday by the Beatles and Kiss by Prince. The salsa, bachata, merengue, tango, cha-cha-cha had me moving in my seat and itching to get on the dance floor (to do what? I’m not too sure because I don’t know all of these dances that well). I do know the salsa a little bit though and got up to dance with Michael. I was soon danced off the dance floor by a guy who switched partners in the middle of a turn. He worked at Masaje and apparently, I couldn’t wear shorts. Boo! 

I returned to my place as spectator. Then, one of the dancers caught my eye – it was one of our security guards. His footwork was superb and his movements were so effortless. I thought to myself, “I want to dance like that!”. He saw me and asked me to dance. Yay!...We dance for about 2 songs. I thought I was pretty good since I was able to keep up with him: “Hey, I’m pretty good, right?” “…You’re alright”, he said. Thanks… Well, there’s always room for improvement. It turns out, he also gives dancing lessons. I made a little promise to myself to set aside some gourdes, get a lesson or two from him, and to not return to the dance floor until I knew what I was doing. I had the greatest of times though, and soon it was time to go home. 

Down time: 

The days go by quickly because there is a lot to do with the PTA and meetings take up a good chunk of time as well. However, the week itself is very long. On Fridays, the past Mondays always seem so far away, kind of like distant houses in a rear view mirror. During the weekend, my coworkers like to head to la plage (the beach). We went to a nearby beach in Grand Goave on Sunday and another beach 4 hours south in Port Salut the following Sunday. The beaches here are gorgeous! I am continuously blown away by the views every time I go. When I am not playing around in the water, I am on my beach towel reading Mountains Beyond Mountains or writing. The beach is so relaxing after a busy work week. It’s also a good place to chat with the locals and meet other expats. 

This past weekend we headed back to Grand Goave. I missed the last weekend trip to the beach because I wanted to watch the semifinals and finals of the US Open. I can’t believe Federer lost with two match points and Serena’s top blew off (get it together Serena). However, I’m glad I stayed in because the matches were insanely awesome. 

The beach was packed with many expats and locals. Rachel (a new intern) and I met Jimmy. He has been in Haiti for about a year working for Notre Dame's Filariasis Program and IsraAID (an Israeli NGO). He introduced Rachel and me to one of his coworkers and his other friends working with Cordaid (a Dutch NGO), and Architects Without Borders. I love meeting expats when I travel because the stories behind what people do fascinate me and help me learn more about different types of aid and development projects. 

Jimmy helped Rachel and me get a ride in a canoe. It was so much fun!! Then all three of us went snorkeling. I’ve never gone snorkeling before (I passed on my first chance when I went to Zanzibar). We explored the coral reefs and I had some scary encounters with two jelly fish. I escaped unscathed, thankfully. 

The clouds started to take over the sky and we decided to leave. Jimmy and I exchanged numbers so that we could keep in touch and get updates about parties thrown by other INGOs (international NGOS). [Related side note: CNP threw a party for all of the INGOs in town, but no one showed up except for our own staff and Michael. Despite the turnout, it was so much fun! We sang and danced on our balcony deep into the night. Good times!! Back to the beach…]. We got caught in the rain a little bit, but the rain stopped long enough to allow us to get home safely. 

I showered when I got back and was getting ready to watch the Emmys online when Jimmy gave me a call. He invited Rachel and me to dinner at Cordaid’s place. Rachel was up for heading out and we took a mototaxi to their compound. At a picnic table on the roof and with lighting from Christmas lights, we ate a delicious batch of spaghetti with parmesan cheese that Jimmy cooked, and drank some quality white wine, Sauvignon Blanc, and red wine from Chile. For desert we had ice cream!! I am a sucker for cookies n’ cream. So, I enjoyed the treat. I thanked Jimmy for the invite and a great dinner. We were in great company and talked about the constellations, breakthroughs in science pertaining to mosquitoes and dengue fever, surfing on the southern coast of Haiti, and what we did for work in Haiti. This is what I live for - experiences like this. I learned that Cordaid has been replacing destroyed homes in Haiti with new ones for free. Sometimes they will build 100 houses in one week! That’s incredible and it's what people here need the most. 

The night (and day for that matter) was a huge success. 

Haiti is crazy, awesome, beautiful. I am scared, anxious, and excited all at the same time. But, the culture is rich, the people are so kind-hearted, and there is so much to learn – I’ve only scratched the surface. 

23 August 2011

byenvini a ayiti (welcome to haiti)!

I have been in Haiti since Friday afternoon. Currently, my quads, hamstrings, calves and feet are very sore...

I arrived in Port-au-Prince (Pap), Haiti around 3:10pm on Friday. The feeling was very surreal as I looked below at Haiti's well-known mountainous terrain. I took pictures of the mountains from the airplane and on the walkway to pick up my suitcase. As I walked, I started to hear music. It started to get louder and louder. I thought to myself, "Is there a party right now in the airport??" At the end of the walkway, there is an escalator that brings passengers to a shuttle bus. At the end of the escalator, there was a band playing music. What a welcome! A smile formed across my face. I had never seen anything like that before. It was pretty cool. I took a quick picture as I passed them because I had to board the shuttle to baggage claim. 

When I walked outside, I felt the intense heat of the sun. After about five minutes on the shuttle, we reached baggage claim. It was a busy scene with a small conveyor belt for a lot of luggage. I waited and waited for my bag and I never saw my suitcase. That's because it had arrived on an earlier flight from Miami (sigh of relief). An agent retrieved my bag from a storage room in the back and that was it, time to go! I handed in my customs form and upon leaving the building was hounded by porters. An airport employee pushed my cart as I held on tightly to my belongings. At the end of the walk way, I would meet one of my coworkers, Alex, and our chauffeur. I waited for about 15 minutes, which felt like an hour. A porter offered me a ride, but I told him that I was going to wait. I couldn't even remember the address of the program's house. So, I decided to call another coworker, Jill, to see if Alex was on his way. As soon as I started talking to her, I saw him walking across the parking lot. I yelled his name to get his attention. Apparently, a politician was assassinated in the streets of PaP and there was a huge traffic jam. So, their trip from Leogane to PaP, which would normally take less than an hour and a half, took more than three hours. Alex and our chauffeur, Jean Claude, loaded my bags onto the back of the landrover and we left the parking lot.

First order of business - ordering pizza pies from Domino's. Alex was hungry and according to Google, there were three Domino's in PaP. I couldn't believe it - there's a Domino's Pizza in Haiti???! Interesting... I really didn't know what to think. During the ride, I introduced myself to Jean Claude and told him that my parents are from PaP and that this was my first time in the country. He was very glad that I was there and impressed by my Creole [I speak Creole every now and then at home with my mother. But, she makes fun of the way I talk all of the time and I am more comfortable speaking to her in English. So, I appreciated his compliment :) ]. The first Domino's location we reached was no longer. The store had apparently shut down. So, we searched for the second. The streets of PaP are a mixture of well-paved, unpaved and broken roads. Cars side-swipe each other like there is no tomorrow. A speed limit does not exist. I made sure my seat belt was fastened. People here are also pros at jay-walking. I got the sense that the drivers pay more attention to the pedestrians than vice versa. The second Domino's we reached was actually where Google stated it would be. Alex ordered two pies of cheese pizza. I am not a fan of Domino's pizza. But, the pizza I ate was very good. 

Before we hit the road to Leogane, our chauffeur showed us the ruins of the Presidential Palace. The pictures I had seen on the internet were brought to life before me. The columns supporting the dome had collapsed and the dome currently lies to the right side of the building. We rode into the night as the sun quickly set. I saw many people in their tents provided by countries like the US and China. Water from the mountains also flowed over the streets. There were people all over the place. It was definitely a lot to absorb.

We reached the house around 8:30pm. The house is very big - about six rooms, two bathrooms, a big kitchen, a living room on the second floor, two rooms worth of office space on the first floor, a balcony and a spacious backyard. It feels like a vacation house. The only thing missing is a swimming pool. Our neighbors include the co-founder of Gadyen Dlo (Guardians of Water, they provide safe, chlorinated water to NGOs and many families in the local and rural communities of Haiti), Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and people living in tents. I stood out on the balcony and all I could see were the palm trees swaying back and forth in the wind. It started to get dark so, I went back inside. I had some avocados, finished the last of our pizza with Alex and Jill, and followed the meal with a bottle of Coke. There's an endless supply of soda in this world! -it's like I never left America...

My room is very quaint - two beds, a picnic table for a desk, two small wooden tables and two shelving units made out of wicker. I unpacked, checked my email and went to sleep. Alex invited me on a hiking trip to the other side of the country for the weekend. I said I would go and thought it would be a great start to my time here. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I thought it would be fun. I mean, what could go wrong?

"This is your first day in Haiti??"
I had some leftover avocado and half of a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast. I made the most of it. Alex, Jill and I got into the landrover and Jean Claude drove us to Furcy, a community high above PaP and well into the mountains. We met up with Alex's friends from the US Embassy and our neighbor, Michael, who co-founded Gadyen Dlo. Then we started our walk on the trail.

I felt very prepared - I put on sunscreen, wore appropriate hiking boots, a head band, and I packed lightly. About an hour or so in, the sun's heat intensified and my feet started to feel very hot. I also struggled, a little bit, to keep up. The path was rocky at some points, paved at others - you just didn't know what to expect. We saw many men, women and children along the way carrying produce on their heads, pulling mules, or just talking amongst themselves. So, there were a lot of bonjours and bonsoirs. We walked up, down and around the mountains. The boot on my left foot kept brushing roughly against my leg, bruising my skin. I thought to myself, "What were you thinking...?" But, the views of Chaine de la Selle (the mountain chain) were gorgeous. We walked through the clouds since we were about 9000 ft above sea level.

Along the route, we met two guys from Quebec. Francois, an international lawyer working for the Embassy, was hiking the route for the third time (kudos to you sir) and Andre, his friend visiting the country. Francois gave me some hope. He told us we only had one steep climb left (the worst part) and then flat land all the way up to the lodge, our final destination for the day. We crossed a small bridge into the national park, La Visite. It was very scenic- tall trees on both sides of the path and natural springs flowing near by. It's the kind of place that makes you forget about all of your troubles. After about 45 minutes we reached the lodge, Auberge La Visite, a little haven in the mountains of Haiti.

For 40 USD, I slept in a tent, ate dinner that night, and breakfast the next morning. We had white rice, pork and mushrooms, followed by soup. It was a delicious meal. I got to know some of my hiking mates over dinner. The people from the embassy worked with USAID and the CDC. Another person worked with Landrover. We talked about everything from the side effects of malaria prophylaxis to scandalous politicians. Some of them couldn't believe I came on the hiking trip during my first day in the country. I thought it was better than staying in the house. I chatted a bit more with my new friends from Quebec, then hit the sack. It was only 9pm, but it was dark and I was exhausted.

I had a tent all to myself. I only brought a sheet, blanket and pillow. Luckily, we were provided with comfortable mattresses. I changed clothes with the narrow beam of light provided by my newly acquired Haitian cell phone. I fell asleep very quickly. However, I woke up intermittently during the night to the annoying sounds of roosters, cows and other animals. I also kept sliding off of my mattress. My tent was on a small incline and I had to readjust myself several times during the night. Needless to say, I didn't sleep that well...The next morning we ate pasta and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast before continuing our hike.

The second part of the hike was mostly on flat land and downhill. But, the route was extremely rocky. My feet started to hurt, the pain in my groin from the day before was getting worse, and I started to get blisters. "When would this hike end??!" We could see the Bay of Jacmel in the distance. Only two mountain ranges to pass and we would be there soon enough! The views were breathtaking - a lake, hills and valleys, and the beach, our final destination, far off in the distance. Only three more hours to go... Around two and a half hours, we reached a curve and saw that we had at least three more hours of walking. It seemed like we were getting closer. But, Alex, Jill, and I had had enough.

We decided to take a mototaxi down the mountain [Now, just the day before Alex told me that tap taps (taxis) were safer to ride in than mototaxis. Here we were about to take a mototaxi down a mountain]. At this point, I was up for anything. After bargaining with two mototaxi drivers in French (Alex and Jill) and Creole (me), we all hopped on the back of one mototaxi. It was a very tight ride - we are all very comfortable with each other now. But, what a wild ride! Thank goodness we had an amazing driver. We rode over the rockiest of roads with cliffs on both sides of us at some points and made it safely to a taxi station at the bottom of the mountain. The "station" was on the bank of a river. We had to get to the other side to get into a tap tap. I am from NYC and the opportunity to cross a river has never present itself. It was either that or get across by siting on top of someone's shoulders. I was without gourdes (Haitian currency) so, I had to do the walk. Alex, Jill and I held hands and slowly walked across. We were about half way through when the current started to get stronger and I panicked...big time. I stopped, regained composure and finished crossing the river. Once I was in the tap tap, I sat there in my soaked pants thinking, "Never again..."

The ride to L'Amitie Hotel took about 15 minutes. I could see the turquoise-colored water from inside the truck and thought the experience was worth a relaxing trip to the beach. Once there, I changed into my swimsuit and took a dip into the ocean. The water was warm and so refreshing. We dined on chicken, pork, rice and fried plantains. My coworkers gave me a toast, "Welcome to Haiti!", with the local brew, Prestige. What a welcome it was. We finished our meal and drove back to Leogane with our driver, Jean Claude. I couldn't wait to shower and get some sleep. I needed to get some rest for my first day of work.