I have two months left in Haiti. It hurts to write and think about, but that is the truth. I will explain why soon.
My last post was way back in January to commemorate the anniversary of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Since then, much has happened! This post will serve as an update. So, here I go.
A week after my last post, on 19 January, I received an e-mail notifying me that I had been selected as a finalist for a Fulbright grant to Indonesia:
"Dear Choumika Simonis,
I am pleased to inform you that the National Screening Committee of the Institute of International Education (IIE) has recommended you for a grant under the Fulbright U.S. Student Program for the academic year 2012-13. Your application has been forwarded to the supervising agency abroad for final review..."
I started screaming and jumping all over my room. I could not believe it! I was expecting an e-mail on the 31st and was caught off guard. Katie thought there was a rat in our room and my other coworkers came in to see what all the commotion was about. I was excited!!! I had at least 2 more months of waiting for the final word on my status, but at that moment it was time to celebrate. After talking to my family and some friends, I went out to dance, the main activity on a Thursday night in Léogâne.
My daily work with children and fieldwork in the mountains helped keep me from thinking too much about the waiting period. By the end of January, CNP had received a shipment of Supplementary Plumpy (fortified peanut butter paste) and we could now start our Supplementary Nutrition Program/Programme de Nutrition Supplémentaire (PNS). After children are discharged from the PTA (Programme de Traitment Ambulatoire for severe acute malnutrition), they enter the PNS, which is primarily for children with moderate acute malnutrition. This was very exciting for my program because now we could track children after they left the PTA. My PTA coworkers and I contacted all of the patients who had been discharged to see if they had started treatment at the PNS sites where he had referred them. Almost all of the parents had not even gone and others felt mistreated by the staff and had stopped going. They were very happy to know that we had started one and decided to enroll in our program. I was glad to see many of the children I thought I had seen for the last time. The patients remain in the PNS for 3 months only and are fed one bag of Supplementary Plumpy per day in addition to other meals. The treatment is to assure that they do not fall back into a severely acute malnourished state. The program has grown in the last few months to include about 35 children. Earlier this week, we successfully discharged our first patient!
When I am not working with cute babies at the PTA/PNS, I get to work in the rural communities. Specifically, I supervise a coworker who conducts our baseline data survey. He and I walk door to door asking families about agricultural, economic, and health services available to them in their communities. We want to get a good sense of what resources they have so that we can meet their needs once we implement our programs. The work is straight forward and the mountains of Haiti are a wonder to admire along the way, but getting from house to house is quite the workout. We scale up, down, and around several hills and walk alongside and through rivers and streams. Whenever I am tired, I pause for a bit and enjoy the amazing view before me. I have damaged my hiking boots and bruised my palms after taking some falls, but I love being out there and really enjoy that type of work. It is a great way to learn about the community's successes and hardships. Sometimes people give us deliciously soft bread and coffee, which is always a treat.
Mid-February soon arrived and it was time for Carnival/Mardi Gras. My coworkers and I drove to Les Cayes in the Sud (south) Department. I will simplify our extended weekend of debauchery - we went to the beach and explored the town during the day time and partied hard with about 500,000 people on the streets well into the morning. The eat-beach/town-dance party-sleep cycle had exhausted us and after 4 days we were ready to head back home. It was my first Carnival experience and it was incredibly fun and memorable.
At the end of February, I took some time off to be with my mother who was visiting. She calls me everyday (seriously...), so I really do not feel like I miss her. But, it was great to see her again and such a lovely experience to be with her in her country. I introduced her to my coworkers and showed her what I did for work. She was really happy to know that my Creole speaking skills had improved tremendously. As I mentioned in a previous post, at home I speak to her in English and she speaks to me in Creole. I can help it, but I just prefer and am more comfortable speaking to her in English. I was with her for about a week and spoke in both tongues, sometimes mixing the two to produce Creolish. I definitely feel more comfortable talking to her in Creole now since I speak it about 70% of the time on a daily basis. Every time my mother returns to Haiti, she visits her relatives in the hills of Pétion-Ville. So, we took some tap taps and a moto up to see them. It was cool to see her on a motorcycle! It kind of gave her a new edge. She gets scared and worried about the weirdest things, like driving her car into Manhattan. So, I would not assume she would do something that can be scary such as riding a moto. For the first time, I met my mother's aunt and about 3 generations of her cousins. Her aunt is 72 and the aunt's great grand daughter is 2. Everyone was happy to meet me and I spent as much time as I could talking to them and getting to know them. I walked around with one of the grand daughters, Whitney, and she showed me the community's main source for water and we went to a little shop to get groceries for dinner. They live too far away for me to visit them on a regular basis, so I am glad I had the opportunity to see them during my mother's visit. The end of the week quickly arrived and it was time for me to head back to Léogâne and for my mother to fly back to the states.
By the time March began, I was back to work again and working towards my mandatory time off at the end of the month for Rest & Relaxation. Expats cannot stay in Haiti past a period of 3 months. My friend from Cornell, John, was coming to visit and wanted to see Haiti. Since I was not leaving anytime soon and my 90 days were coming up, I took a trip to the border to renew my stay. Before I left for R&R, I received the seemingly long awaited e-mail about my Fulbright application status:
"Dear Miss Simonis,
Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected for a US Student Fulbright award for 2012-2013 to Indonesia..."
I did not even get to read past "Congratulations!" because I had leaped out of my chair and started jumping around the office. I was trying not to scream, so it sounded like I was squealing. I was quite speechless as I tried to explain to the local staff what was going on. My mind was racing. Thanks to my family, friends and Fulbright adviser, all that work had paid off. I will be in Indonesia for 9 months working as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at a secondary school outside of one of Indonesia's major cities. In addition to my ETA responsibilities, I will volunteer in a health clinic and learn gamelan, traditional Indonesian music. It was definitely one of the greatest days of my life.
At the end of the week, it was time to celebrate again and go on vacation. R&R with John was quite the adventure. We went to Jacmel for a couple of days and swam in the lovely deep-water pool that is Bassin Bleu. The first night, I barely slept because Rara bands were parading the streets up until 3AM. Rara is a street festival that usually takes place in April. Many of the participants believe/practice Vodou. It is basically a party in the streets, roadblocks included. Also, our room was close to the street, so it felt like a truck might run through it at any moment. As John said, it was like we were in Jumanji. On the second day, we toured the town and visited the Cathedral, the Iron Market, and the beach. Before we left Jacmel for Léogâne, we had dinner at my favorite restaurant, Jacmel's Pizzeria. We were filled to the brim with savory dishes (John had spaghetti and I had pizza). When we were back in Léogâne, we visited my work place so that I could explain to John what I do on a daily basis. After that, we went to the beach in Grand Goave. No one was there since it was a weekday. It was great to have it all to ourselves. I swam for a little, we read, took a nap, and then dined on langouste, a succulent spiny lobster. The following day, we took a puddle jumper to Cap Haitien, where we stayed for the next 4 days. It was great to be back in Cap because there is always something to do there. We visited the big Cathedral in the center of town, the Iron Market, an old fort, and of course the main attractions in Milot, Sans Souci Palace and the Citadelle. Every night we ate at the same restaurant, Lakay, because the food was to die for and John had a faux crush on one of the waitresses that was really funny to watch. Before we left Cap, we decided to go to Labadee, a beach in the north widely known for its beauty. We rode in a water taxi to a deserted beach located at the bottom of a mountain. What a view! The water was clear and the sand, clean and white. This could have easily been a spread in Travel. After a couple of hours, we headed back to town. Overall, we saw and did as much as we could in Cap, definitely more than what I did during my first visit back in Oct/Nov. Soon, I was saying goodbye to John. His visit was another memorable experience, and I am glad we got to know each other better.
A week and a half after R&R, I was on a plane headed to the states. CNP's annual benefit gala was on 18 April and all the expat staff were flown to Chattanooga, Tennessee to share our experiences of working in Haiti. I remember driving on the smooth and paved road through Atlanta on our way to Chattanooga and how good that felt. I had got used to the rough and unpaved roads of Haiti. It was a late landing, so I napped for a bit. We stayed in a suite at a high-end hotel. We took hot showers and slept in beds with sheets that had the highest thread count in the land. And for some reason, I could not believe it. In less than a day, we had gone from Haiti to this - a place where there was structure, organization, and cleanliness, no dust or dirt to make me cough or stain my feet and clothes. The experience reminded me to appreciate what I have. The benefit came and went. The supporters in attendance valued what he had to say because we gave some of the people back in Haiti a voice. In addition to the benefit, we walked around town and went to a barbecue at the founder's house. It was a little break from Haiti, but by the end, I was ready to go back. We returned on 22 April and then it was May...
Before I left for the states, my mother came back to Haiti on a shorter visit with a package from Indonesia for me. It contained forms that I had to scan and e-mail to my program adviser in Jakarta and my date for departure, 2 August. I was psyched, but the package overwhelmed me. Now, I had to prepare for my departure from Haiti. I thought about it for a couple of weeks and decided to leave in early July to give myself some time to be with my family, see some friends, and get prepared to leave again for 9 months.
With 2 months left, I started taking Latin dancing lessons and will soon start French lessons. I do not regret not having started these earlier because I decided to spend my money on traveling to other parts of the country and Creole has proved to be very useful in my line of work despite there being many francophones. I have had two dance lessons so far and am having a lot of fun! I go dancing about 3 to 4 times a week and want to fine-tune some of my steps and learn new ones.
I am definitely looking forward to going to Indonesia, but I am not looking forward to the day that I will have to leave Haiti. I have not purchased my plane ticket yet so that I can postpone my reality!