Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In the Shadow of Sun City.

Monday –

Food distributions to our schools in Cite Soleil. I ride on the back of our truck sitting high up on teetering sacks of rice and beans all marked with American flags from the WFP. I’ve got Rolling Stones blasting in my ears and coffee burning in my head; it’s a good morning. Cite Soleil is like nowhere else on earth. Half a million people live in the Western Hemispheres biggest slum, it’s a place where there are fewer than 1,000 toilets and even the UN soldiers fear to tread. Shacks on top of shacks and people on top of people, by air it’s only an hour from Florida but may as well be the moon. Our truck rounds the corner to the St Vincent School and enters the gates. In the courtyard 300 school kids gather in sparkling clean uniforms and sit under a big UNICEF tent I had donated and built the week before. I hop off the truck and stretch, throw some greetings and some handshakes to the kids. I’ve worked hard for this moment, months of paperwork have lead to this; actual food for my actual kids. I feel great. We unload some sacks of rice and beans leaving half still in the truck for the next school.

Suddenly there is commotion at the gate. I turn to see three guys pop their heads over the wall then disappear, when I turn back the school committee and the headmaster are shaken. All the teachers freeze and Fredo the driver shakes his head and swears under his breath. “Gangsters…” he says in Creole, “with guns.” he adds. Fuck. They want our rice and our truck I’m told. I shimmy up the wall to see the once busy market now empty and 10 thugs pacing with conspicuous guns in their belts. I’m a prisoner in our school courtyard. For an hour we stay put while Fredo negotiates a deal in front of the school. Money exchanges hands and we get cleared to leave. I sit in the front of the truck and try to figure out where I should put my wallet and phone, I stash them in the glove compartment figuring they’ll take them from my pocket but then change my mind and put them in my pocket thinking that they’ll steal the truck and I can try to run away with my phone and wallet still. The gates open; the market’s eerily empty; it’s quiet. Two thugs hop on the back of the truck and escort us out of Cite Soleil unharmed, food intact.

Discouraged and shaken we finish the distribution without incident.

Uneasy sleep.

Tuesday –

Back to Cite Soleil to the St Andrew School to set up a large water filter. Thought about not going today but fought through the urge. Was met at St Andrew by Voodoo the gang leader of the section of Cite Soleil called Boston. Although Voodoo might better be described as a community leader he is 6’4” and built like a UN tank, he’s got an easy smile and a warm way about him. He puts his arm around me and squeezes me hard. “Heard about yesterday,” he says. “Won’t happen again, you are forever protected in Cite Soleil.” Voodoo has always has always been really happy with St. Luc and my work there, since after the earthquake the area has been nearly abandoned by the Aid organizations citing safety issues. We set up a huge water filter with Operation Blessing that can now give out 10,000 gallons of fresh free drinking water everyday. Voodoo is thrilled and so are the kids. Voodoo takes me for a walk to see his compound, I stroll with his gang through the dirty broken streets. It would have made quite a picture; me and 20 gang members walking proudly through Sun City. Voodoo offers me a beer and we talk about his dream of setting up a Karate camp for kids, Conan and him spar, Conan takes him out easily a surprise to all.

After Cite Soleil we drive to Croix de Bouquet an hour out of town to Raphael’s house to set up the other system. Maria calls me, she’s in Haiti I ask her where she is, she tells me Croix De Bouquet only about five minutes away. This world is too small.

That night Raphael and I drink a bottle of five star rum and sit in the rain under an umbrella, he tells me about all of his friends and family who died in the earthquake; he cries.

These are uneasy times in Haiti big riots all week called manifestations. Spray-painted tags have popped up that read “Aba Ong!” “Kill the NGO’s” not a good sign.

Thursday –

I get food poisoning, luckily I’m at the Hotel Ollofson with Maria when it happens so I’m in good hands, I throw up a lot, it’s the first time in 20 years I’ve puked; I’m not happy.

Friday –

In Pettionville Augustine and I go to set up another filter. We set it up at the new St. Luc program that gives a hot meal and school to the homeless street kids of Pettionville. Everyday 250 of them show up and learn and eat. We set up the filter which along with the other three can give out 30,000 gallons of clean water a day. I also gave them a stove that burns only trash, they never have to buy charcoal again and WFP has pledged food. All in all it is a good day. On the way home we drink beers and then have to make a stop at the police station. One of our vehicles has been impounded for not having valid plates. Augustine knows everyone and assures me this will be a cinch. We walk up to the dirty police station and he greets everyone with jokes and hugs. Things are looking good, we need this truck to distribute food and with a $100 bill we can free her. The last man we need to see turns out to be the only honest cop in Haiti. We beg and plead in his filthy office; he polishes his gun. Then he just shakes his head no. We leave the truck where she is and curse under our breath. A fucking honest cop ruined it all.

Later that night I’m eating dinner with a pretty French girl from the WFP named France, I tell her how pissed I am that the cop was so honest and it messed up my day, she is un-amused and tells me I should be happy that there was an uncorrupt police officer: she doesn’t get it. Her sincerity and optimism are a big turn off.

Saturday –

I go to the store for some milk, on the way back I hear kids playing and change my route. I stumble upon a tent city with about 300 people living in squalor. I stop my motorcycle and silently watch the kids playing soccer and flying kites. I walk into the city, kids swamp me, many of them without clothes they want to touch and hug me; none of them begging. I’m told the tent city is called Seville. I ask for the leader and am introduced to Miguel, a quick man with brave eyes and flawless English; an English he refuse to speak to me because he finds my Creole funny. I ask him what they need. He tells me food and tents, maybe toys for the kids. I’m moved by this place and promise to come back. “When?” he asks..... “Soon.” I tell him.

There are 1.5 million people living in tents in Haiti; these are not the nice North Face tents, these are ripped tarps stretched over tired sticks. I can’t imagine having to watch my family live like this.

I head back to the hospital and load up 2.5 tons of rice, a handful of soccer balls and 50 tents in the back of our truck. I go back to Seville and give Miguel tickets to distribute for the ones most in need. I tell him I’ll be back in one hour.

When I return, the quaint Seville has grown into a pulsing city; people are everywhere and wanting for food. Immediately chaos erupts. People fight and shout. The angry ones are those that live in houses in the surrounding town. Many of them lived in Seville before but moved back home recently, they want food too.

It hits me for the first time; I am in the middle of the problem of distribution.

There are now people that think it is better to live in the tents because sometimes White people show up with trucks full of rice. I’m now worried these people will move back. It’s just not sustainable.

Then again what am I supposed to do? These people live a half mile from my own tent and literally in the shadow of the third largest US embassy in the world and they have nothing. I have extra rice and soccer balls and tents so what do I do? I don’t know what the right solution is but what I do know is that I can’t sleep thinking about the people living like this right behind me.

The sun is setting and the food has been distributed, I take a long walk with Miguel, he is happy but speaks gravely of the problems facing his people, we talk deeply as our shadows grow long, he is tired; so am I.

Sunday -

I’m not sure how to process it all. I’m not sure what the answer is and I’m not sure what is right. What I do know is I will fight and struggle, and although I am tired, I am far from ready to rest.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

From the Smokey Dusk till the Rum Red Dawn.

Sean calls in a panic on Monday morning. “I’ve got a boy dying with a case of Diphtheria can you admit him in the hospital?” I hang up the phone, down my coffee and go search for Sister Judy, the hospital director. Sister Judy is a short little hobbit of a woman, old and pissed off at everything, she’s been here for ten years and doesn’t have one friend but she almost died in the earthquake so she kind of gets a pass. Sister Judy tells me in a screechy voice that we can’t see the boy since we are not set up for Diphtheria and don’t have the antidote.

I rush to Conan, a reformed misfit who grew up and is best friends with Father Rick; Conan built this hospital and has become my closest friend here. He is tough and quick to anger but he has a golden heart, loves Haiti and understands this world. Conan says we don’t turn any child away we will help him. The boy shows up at the hospital, in the back of the ambulance he’s dying: needs oxygen. The nurse is a young blonde from Canada; its her first day in Haiti, she’s a wreak. Conan and her butt heads, we can’t help the boy, no Immunoglobin, Sean’s pissed; they rush out of the hospital toward Margaret’s hospital in Pettionville.

I’m pissed too; wish we could have done more. I’m convinced we could have done more but Sister Judy just wanted to say no. Power trips run rampant in Haiti. Waste.

The boy can’t be seen at Margaret’s needs to go to General Hospital, ambulance breaks down on the way finally the boy is admitted. General Hospital is the largest hospital in PaP and it ain’t a pretty place. That night Conan and I ride motorcycles up to see Sean and make a plan in case there is an outbreak of Diphtheria, which would be catastrophic. Sean has a RV mobile clinic that I want. We talk, drink and then head back down the hill.

Pettionville at night on the back of a motorcycle is one of the greatest things I’ve known in the world. I suppose it might be the rum but I always get inspired riding at night through the torn up hillside city. I have this funny reaction to rum; it makes me nostalgic for the moment I’m in, I don’t know if there is a word for this. I call it “Rummy.” Half a bottle and I become a lover of everything, everyone and especially of here: my beautiful and fucked-up Haiti.

At night, Pettionville is the Wild West. Pitch dark crowded streets lit only by fires and a few lanterns. Roasted goat smoke stings your eyes, trash burns, whores gyrate, gangs roam, guns flash, the motorcycle swerves to avoid potholes, you use all of your Creole proverbs in the first ten minutes laughing with the driver then you ride lost deep in the Rummy. You shift your position to get at the bottle of rum in your back pocket.

You cry; might be the stinging smoke, might not. Everyone is out on the streets, drinking, fighting and telling stories. There is a party every night and everywhere here as if to celebrate making it through another day. We pass black-lit clubs blasting Copa and Hip-Hop; dogs dodge out of the way as we speed through. At night no one sees I’m a Blanc; it is as it is. Every other building and house has fallen and become a twisted pile of rubble, these are the dark places. In the morning when the numbing of the rum has worn off it is a hard hangover waking up in a broken tent, in a broken city to a broken life. But night will come again and so will the rum.

I arrive in back at the hospital; an Italian nurse grabs me to translate something to a brand new mother. I head into the intensive care unit and find a weeping woman holding a baby no bigger than my hand. The nurse tells me to tell the mother that the baby has a fever and not to worry, it will be all right and the doctor will come soon. I do and calm the woman down and put my hand on the little boy’s warm heart and say a prayer then head to sleep.

In the morning I wake up to find the baby has died and so has the boy with Diphtheria. Fuck, what a hangover.

Conan writes me an email, helps me get through it.

On Wednesday I go to Tetionia for a distribution of clothing. Two men fight each other over a bag of shoes more join in, punches are thrown we need to get out quick. As we drive off our truck falls into a ditch and is stuck. I panic thinking the mob will attack us. The mob has watched the whole thing. They stop fighting and lift the truck out of the ditch and back on the road. As we drive off I watch the two fighting men shake hands and walk off together laughing. Beautiful Haiti.

World Food Program pulls through with food for the street schools. They deliver 50 tons of food and will do so every month. It took a lot of paperwork and charm to pull this one off and unloading the food was a really proud moment for me. This food will feed a hot meal to 8030 kids every day.

Yesterday there was a big party at the GOAL house, a huge mansion high in the Pettionville hills. We dance until dawn. 200 young NGO and Non-Profit workers from all over the world who work non-stop really know how to party. I sleep on the floor then eat brunch with my UN friends in the Latin Quarter: eggs benedict and a Bloody Mary. Mood amongst the aid workers is high, things are settling in and curfews are lifting. I fight with a girl from USAID who works in the embassy about the absence of the Red Cross; she says they are doing great work here. Then she tells me she gets Netflix at the embassy and her mail comes everyday on American Airlines. Grotesque.

It’s night now and raining. I’m dry in my tent listening to Dylan and writing this. Others are not so lucky they are wet and huddling with their broken families in broken tents. In the morning when the clouds break they will dress in the only dry clothes they have; somehow perfectly clean and ironed and head to work, some are my friends who work with me here. In the morning we will exchange greetings in the hallway and tell some little jokes and begin our day. I will never know what their life is really like, it must be brutal: yet they survive and laugh and stand up and fight proudly day after day.

It is extraordinary. It is the power of the human spirit. It is the power of love. It is my beautiful Haiti

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Dragon Appears.

On Monday it was the feast of St. George. The night before Father Rick had gotten into a fight with gang members from Cite Solie who had been hanging around outside of the gate of the hospital. When the earthquake hit the prison was destroyed and all 1,000 inmates escaped; thugs, rapists and killers now all loose and back on the streets. The morning of the feast Father Rick told how St George had slayed the Dragon. The Dragon represented everything dark and evil in the world. The Dragon was violence, poverty, hate and misery. Father Rick marveled at how far this country had come, in 2007 it was on the brink of collapse into total chaos, kidnappings and murder were rampant, now after the earthquake there had become relative peace. Father Rick darkly warned us not to put our guard down, that we were crazy if we thought that because there is peace the Dragon was dead. “It never dies,” said Father Rick “just goes into hiding to sleep and now with the appearance of the gangsters the Dragon is at the front gate…beware.” It was a scary message that shook me as I stepped out of church into the bright Tabbarre morning.

This week there were two funerals one was for Nurse Narciss who died in the earthquake, her body was found on Monday in the ruins. We traveled to Delmas to a pile of rubble that used to be a home, a small crowd had gathered to pay respects. Father Rick and I carried a small alter to the top of the rubble to begin the mass. As we were clearing a spot for the chairs Father Rick spotted something in the rubble and picked it up, it was the head of a small boy; the nurses son. Father Rick shook his head sadly, found a box in the rubble and put the boys remains in it and laid it in front of the altar. It was hot under the sun; I stared off and looked at the ruined city below. Fuck. Later that evening we gave the boy and his mother a proper burial with music, incense and prayers. The sun set on our pretty hillside graveyard outside of the city, we gave a little bit of dignity in this world without.

The other funeral was for one of Father Rick’s friends who died in the earthquake an Architect named Hillarie. Hillarie was well educated and part of the upper class, the service was elegant and in a pretty church in Pettionville, I sat quietly in the back, Father Rick gave the mass in Creole. A girl sang pretty songs. The old woman in front of me wailed and sobbed, it was the first time I’ve seen anyone mourn the earthquake’s devastation. Haitians are private with their sorrow. I silently watched her cry.

As we rode home I saw a crowd gather around a dead body of a young man who had just been hit by a car. Fuck.

The next morning my friend Alan was walking to the store when he saw a kid pull out a gun and shoot an older couple dead to steal their car. He called me to pick him up, Alan was shaken up and sitting on the curb in front of the dead couple as the police arrived. Now I know the Dragon.

The killing of the couple disturbs me. How can there be violence like this in the world? Father Rick and I have beers later and I ask him why the Dragon lives in Haiti. He asks me to imagine what it would feel like to watch your kid starve but not be able to feed them, or watch loved ones die of sickness you could prevent if you could afford to but can’t. Father Rick tells me that a world without dignity produces violence and hate. The first thing poverty takes is your dignity.

So much death this week; so much pain. Tania’s mom died yesterday as well; wish I were home to help out.

I rode in the back of a truck to a meeting with the WFP and got lost in the sorrow of this week; I could feel the light fade from me. At a red light a young girl was sitting under a tree playing with a doll, she spotted me in the back of the truck, flashed a huge smile and gave me a thumbs up. Just what I needed, I lit up, gave a thumbs up back and started to giggle, I remembered why I am here. I promised under my breath that I would build the most beautiful school for this girl where she could feel proud and loved and dignified; a fortress where the Dragon cannot enter. She was my angel and through her and in spite of the darkness and in spite of the Dragon there is hope, there is light and there is love. I am strengthened by this week maybe a bit shaken but not deterred. There is a proverb that says, “when it is dark enough you can see the stars.”

It certainly is dark enough now.