Thursday 27 February 2014

the haze of yesterday

The strangeness of each minute, every novel sound and arresting smell . . these have all receded.  Now I look through a familiar window, out onto English trees and green grass and watercolour skies and wonder was it all real, did it really happen, were those colours really there?  Where did I exaggerate - what did I corrupt?  I haven't slept for 29 hours and so my tired mind distorts certainty and my memory is blurry.  I know it all happened, though - was danger ever really snapping at our ankles?  The long flight home like caged animals - the strict conventions of flying; one seat, one corridor, one loo.  Contrasted by the infinite possibilities that came with each day in Haiti.

Images of bright colour and dry earth are all there in my mind when I summon them.  It's not that hazy.  I can see a shack on a crooked hill made of tin and timber.  The blue is flat with one cloud.  The heat is blistering and I am out of place.  They all stare at blanco and so I'll never fit in.

That strange and struggling place continues without me.  I just watched a performance, that's all, shuttled in and wheeled out, and now the show goes on every day and night, repeat performances and new productions.  I tried to make myself important by clapping loudly and cheering them on.  I tried to write some clever review but, really, I did precious little for them, they did much more for me.

And now I count the cost.  The things I take and give are odd concepts of what I think they lack and need.  And if I gave just my time, gave myself would that be meaningful to them?  What was it all for - would I do it all again?  There are vast treasures and profound simplicities in Haiti; do they really have precious little?  And my own motives and desires are too complex to know what I want from Haiti next time - I hope it will evolve and I hope it will mature.  Could I live there indefinitely and what for?  Is it enough that I love the place and love its people?  Need I ask any more?

Sunday 23 February 2014

last hours

The final day and a quick swim in the sea was a pleasant surprise.  A friend turned up out of the blue to transport us to a good beach near Port-au-Prince - about an hour's drive.  Before this we had been packing and preparing to leave early next day.

In twelve hours we leave the convent.  The bus will take us on a twelve hour journey to Santo Domingo, Dominican capitol.  This is a kind of re-entry that I have always found helpful.  The transition from Haiti to home is hard enough and if it were direct from Port-au-Prince to London it would be even more of a shock.  Instead we can transition first to DR then after a day's rest and travel to Punta Cana we can head-off home.  The overnight flight on Wednesday gets us into to Gatwick Thursday morning.

The biggest news is the container is still being held at the port.  The slow process required for tax exemption status means that the month this can take, there's a $22 per day charge that we incur while the container sit there, bathing in the sun. In addition, this means that the sisters will have the difficult task of sorting through everything, when it eventually arrives, the stuff being mostly unlabelled, and they'll have to determine precisely where things will go.  This task will not be easy and they have been dreading the thought that we would not be here to act as arbiters in this difficult process.  Plus certain items were obviously obtained with particular groups in mind.  It was personally tough for me to inform one orphanage that they would not now be getting their climbing frame and other items because we were able to ensure that all the parts would get to them.  They took it well but it still breaks my heart to break such a promise.  We visited them four weeks ago with pictures of the climbing frame and big promises.  And now to promise them that these things would get to them in a second container is also a risky promise given that there is no guarantee that we will be successful sending a second.  This is one of those risks that one has to take.

There are some arguments amongst the sisters - who is getting what? - and feelings can run high with the easiest of tasks.  It can be hard for them to remain dispassionate when they want the best for the particular children under their care.  And it is perfectly understandable that mild grievances and jealousy can get in the way - they can get to us all.  I feel sorry that there might be some upset in this process but that's life . . and some good will come of it all even if there are tears along the way.

I am obviously disappointed not to help put the stuff where it was intended.  There has already been some dispute about the laptops - which I had decided should go to the young students at the technical college.  I met all these lads about three years ago and promised the director that I'd try to help in this way.  A few of the sisters feel that the college is well-equipped and that there are more needy people for this valuable resource.  What they didn't grasp was that I had wanted to give the students the laptops for their personal use and ownership . . not as equipment for the college, which the sisters were arguing against.  It was all lost in translation and before I knew it the list of 18 laptops was being dissected amongst spurious names and questionable recipients.  I concurred too easily.

Enough of the negatives - this task for the sisters will be good for them even if it does cause grievances and upset along the way.

Personally, I want to continue this effort to bring stuff for the children of Haiti.  There will be struggles and obstructions along the way.  The sisters are an excellent means to reach thousands of poor children here.  And shoes seem to be the very best means to help them.  Although other items will always be offered at the same time.  I have met two new priests who each have serious projects under way and the diocese here are rebuilding 53 churches that were levelled during the earthquake.  I couldn't say what really drives my desire to help, but now I've seen so much of what they lack - seen how the youngest of them have so little - I can only ask those back home, that have arguably more than they need, to give to Haiti.  They are the generous - I'm glad to act as carrier.  Then there is being here, simply as an act of solidarity, which is perhaps more important than any action, than any campaign of persuasion or appeal of compassion.  I am still compelled to give stuff, material stuff.  But just being and being here, as I've heard in so many situations, is the best form support and compassion but of course it has to be supported by some positive action surely.  We want to bring about some kind of change - however slight or subtle.  As I am so often aware that may carry some arrogance and conceit which one has to simply accept as probably true, but together with impediment one must remember how insignificant we are.

Saturday 22 February 2014

grandeur and decay

To see the weathered grandeur of the crumbling buildings is somehow a fascinating picture.  Stage and film sets recreate this kind of worn and used authenticity.  It has much more character than the new.  The old and ramshackled seem more established, somehow; loved and treasured.

The building that housed the 32 orphan children was grand and epic in its day.  The view from the first floor reception room had striking views of the bay of Jérémie.  In front was a huge lawn that had suffered in recent years from an obvious lack of care.  There were high walls and occasional iron wrought gates that must have provided access in days past, and now this function replaced by the huge characteristic gates to the side of the property.

Staying here was an interesting experience and though the building is in serious decline, it still has a grand feel to it that could be one day restored to its former glory.  The decorative iron screens protected the residents from unwanted visitors whilst giving them a cool breeze at night.  The views are stunning, and the sea, with its electric blue hue, was strangely majestic and beautiful to watch.  Only slight movements of the distant ocean and the occasional clouds breaking the sprawling sky.  At night there is no light pollution and so the night sky we had already grown accustomed to was now an explosive array of light.  Pin pricks of intense shards of diamond lights enveloping the whole sky from one side to the other.

The journey back to Port-au-Prince started at 5am on Friday.  We stopped in Les Cayes for lunch and then this would get us comfortably back to the convent in the capitol early afternoon.  Highway construction - performed on a military scale, by the Dominican construction company Estrella - regular closes the narrow, inadequate track which is the only way to Jérémie from the east.  Vast pathways are being chiselled through the gorgeous hilltops, providing necessary and safe access to this coastal haven.  As the road peters out towards Les Cayes there are numerous villages along the way - market towns with roadside markets that bring the passing traffic to almost standstill as they crawl through the sellers and buyers.  The colour and din are magnificent; with exotic fruits and wild animals purchased for a few Gourds, the babel of trading and greeting in sounds as weird, as puzzling and unfamiliar, as the cackling live poultry, terrified goats and lines of fruits too kaleidoscopic and alien to name.  A clutch of yellow and green peppers - twelve or so - for fifty cents.  The smells are like soup and wood and hot coals . . intoxicating and mind numbing . . then the smiles and the calling out to us in the car.  Sellers flock to the open window like seagulls.  Women and children carrying colours from the earth and trees.  The sun bearing down on the car and our departure from this land in three days tugging at me.  The clouds are complicit in all this too.  The sky open and constant and will be here waiting when I come again.


Our trip to Jérémie was planned by the sisters.  Their orphanage in the far reaches of this western district is arguably their most austere and remote location.  The orphanage houses 32 children - all girls - between the ages of 4 and 15.  Most are 4,5 and 6 years-old.  I hadn't been to Jérémie before although I had visited Cayes and Cavaillon - close by - in the west of Haiti.  There are two schools and another orphanage and these had received toys and clothes in previous visits from the UK.

The road to Jérémie is steep, rugged and broken, dangerous in parts and slow.  There are huge diggers and excavators on the highest reaches preparing a new road as part of Haiti's redevelopment.  Perhaps funded by the worldwide response to the earthquake.  We had three days in this part of Haiti.  

Jérémie is cut off from the rest of the country and can only be accessed by these mountain roads from Cavaillon just to the east, and the steep hills to the south.  They are difficult and treacherous in parts to pass but they provide the most stunning views of this fantastic country.  Multiple hills coloured with deep blues and purples as they recede away as far as the eye can see.  Deep caverns and gorges thick with rich tropical trees and bush.  The views were like fantasy; the depths and great sweeping valleys were like nothing I'd seen before.  Scenes that leave you feeling so insignificant.  God's country, God's blessing: God's creation.

The centre of Jérémie is dusty, tired and neglected.  I could see instantly Haiti's former ' glory' in the bleached woodwork. Jaded pastel colours and type - hand scripted logos and names.  The architecture is ornate.  Wooden and concrete balustrades and columns festoon almost all the shop and house entrances.  They are worn and weathered.  And have long-needed renewal and modernisation but the town's economy and meagre resources have prevented its upkeep and development.  Gentrification is absent here and everywhere.  There are few cars.  Gardener's trikes are the standard means for communal and cheap public transport.  And mopeds for personal and more comfortable hire.  As for most of Haiti, the people here live hand to mouth and know little else.  They live in the dirt.  And their houses are makeshift and rickety.  The earthquake didn't shake the ground here but refugees did make it as far as Jérémie, where the sick and injured did receive help and aid.  A big relief ship came here.  On the way into town there are four impressive, US army bridges meant, I'm sure, as a temporary measures.  They still stand after 4-5 years.  They are crucial for access.  Other bridges are being built.  Work is slow and, thankfully, professional and fit to withstand the strong winds and rain that leashes Haiti every season. The wide, almost empty, river beds are a meeting place for many who come to wash and dry clothes and collect drinking water.  Large and colourful pieces of fabric are spread-eagled across the ground, on rocks, gravel, drying in minutes in the relentless daytime heat and sunlight.
Our accommodation was basic at the orphanage.  But as ever, the sisters there - two of them - were tireless in their own work and their efforts to feed us and make us comfortable.  There was no running water in the house, and it 
was supplied in large buckets by young workers carrying them from the well.  One for the loo and one for washing.  You soon get accustomed to the routine and cold water is the least of the problems.  The bugs are noisy at night - sometimes close to the bed - and rapid on their feet just as you step into the shower area.

Seeing the authentic buildings, shop fronts and homes of this particular part of Haiti; experiencing this separate and different coastal locality completes my picture of Haiti somehow.  I love them for their profound simplicity and aptitude.  Their competence and endurance is striking, and I admire them for making a success of living harmoniously and happily despite the many things they lack.

Friday 14 February 2014

. . sampling a funeral

Today was a classic example of bad communication, but gesticulations and chest prodding won the day.  It wasn't pretty.  It was clumsy.  But I got the job done.

First I had to cadge a lift.  Then take a large case of clothes to an unsuspecting street seller.  It wasn't easy.  But I managed it!  Or at least I left them there in front of her on the sidewalk after some explanation and then hot-footed it away.  Why do I do it?  We had similar problems giving phones away to street vendors - figuring that it was a good way to help people conduct their trade.

I hate charades.  The type you're forced play at parties, and I have no problem in refusing to take part.  But when one doesn't speak the lingo there's a desperate inclination to start using hand movements and to replace the words you don't have with silly miming and hand gestures for things like sowing and washing and driving.  It's a universal habit in the absence of mutual language.  If you come here and don't speak Creole then you'll probably resort to this too in a vague desperation.  Bring a dictionary and try to learn the language as quickly as possible otherwise it simply will not do!   Besides how difficult can it be?  Well, seven weeks here and I really haven't tried hard enough - but there will plenty of time, I'm resolved to learning Creole and put it all into practice next visit.

Because of the limitations of language - i.e. not speaking theirs, and them not speaking ours - there's quite a bit of misunderstanding going - so its hard on occasion to make any concrete observations that require local knowledge and explanation - so we are a bit in the dark.  But it's not always a problem - in fact, sometimes, its more information than we need.

The car was an hour late.  We didn't know where we going.  I guess it didn't matter.  We trusted the driver, and one of the sisters was complicit in our voyage, so it was safe to go.  Woken abruptly from sleep at 4.50am by disembodied voices outside the tent - first the gardener then a sister - whispering that Father was on his way - or so we gathered. It was in French but it was pretty easy to guess what she meant.  Quickly dressed in a sleepy reluctance; we just needed the camera and a phone, some cash, and off we went.  Without the planned Mass, breakfast or the lie-in Saturday normally provides.  We headed into the dark.

It's not always easy to summarise what's going on.  On account of the multitude, magnitude and volume of it all - there's just so much to take in.  And the heat and the altitude and the indecipherable babble are the greatest limiters.  It's still fascinating but even Manhattan saturates the senses and in time one must switch to Woodstock.  When there's a mass of images, ideas, broken conversations, jagged notions, all coloured by novelty and cultural anomolies, and so, conclusions are dubious.  Faulty thinking or confused impressions abound - and this marvelling in my mind is matched by the mayhem on the street.   My curiosity with everything Haitian has become a constant occupation and so I'm noticing everything and remembering little.  I can go on for months but I'd like to digest it all in the quiet cold of Otley - eventually one needs to rest and experience the mundane again for a while. I guess most of us experience this barrage of the senses; the multitude of interactions and impulses, sounds and shapes that occur in our everyday without giving them much notice.  But when I'm in a foreign zone of novelty and anomaly I'm processing and observing all these things with equal importance.  There's often a bit of an overload - all these things competing.  Tastes collide with smells; noises and unfathomable gesticulations clash with greetings and fleeting smiles.

A young girl cross-legged on the sidewalk selling oranges from a plastic bowl.  Looks pensively at me - then after moments hesitation she smiles freely.

The intoxicating heat could kill me if were not for the twelve types of shade in the tropical garden and sweltering streets.  Trees with extending leaves give rich mottled beads of light to the roads and paths and scrub.  The hot haze mollifies or frustrates in extreme measures.

 I heard 'funeral' mentioned. And wondered if it was a place or an actual ceremony.  Then sure enough we were on our way again to Léogâne  . . and it was a funeral.  The funeral of a former teacher of his at the primary school.  We stopped en route at another church destroyed by the earthquake, replaced by a large 'wedding' marquee for services for the past four years.  Rebuilding of the new church is about to begin after a long campaign of fundraising.  The church bells and the marble altar had survived and were dumped at the side next to the main wall.  One bell had been raised on a eight foot, makeshift wooden construction so that the bell could be used, presumably on a Sunday, calling people to church.  The rope used to sound the bell was pathetically attached and somehow gave testament to the inventiveness and determination to adapt and improvise.  They do that a lot - recycling and making do.  We had a humble though delicious breakfast with two priests and two dogs - Darren and I conversing with our eyes.  Then after a short break  we continued in another car a short way to the funeral where hundreds of people were expected.  It was my first experience of a funeral in Haiti, but it didn't matter that we didn't know the deceased.  Being there was a simple act of solidarity for a good man that had clearly been very popular and had given his life to this valuable and exemplary profession.  Not unlike solidarity for all the people of Haiti - we don't anyone really.  I have no family here but a people caught up in personal tragedy or abject poverty requires some kind of response.  That's solidarity even though it's a term that can be overused or confused.  It's a show of support - a human and compassionate act - that seems to me to be the bear minimum, once one breaks through the practical obstacles of getting here and the inevitable uncertainty of one's usefulness.  When I got here, I was captivated by their goodness and quickly admired a simple beauty that was everywhere.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

populated peaks

Port-au-Prince is very hilly.  If you travel north or eastwards it is even more dramatic.  West, to the Dominican Republic, is flat and uneventful.

Travelling by car this morning, as soon as we left the gates of the convent, it struck me again how beautiful it is here.

I could see a long way into the distance through breaks in the palm trees.  The rich greens and yellows, the rich blue sky and the sea completing the view.  Houses are stacked precariously on every hillside - fascinating for their sheer impertinence.  Amazing: defying convention and reason.  And yet there's an order than seems to belong - no one will say, 'I told you so'! If they should all fall.  They were built there out of necessity and lived in for expedience.

Port-au-Prince is a series of basins interlocking.  A district of peaks and troughs.  Valleys and hills of trees and roads and thick forestation where I thought there were none.  All this has grown in a short, critical time of trauma; serial traumas and events - natural and political.  The boiling Haitian sun beats down regardless giving the place such drama and colour everywhere.  I surrender to the sweltering heat.

Clothes - yellow, orange and green: brilliant and radiant.

Walls whitewashed, brands, logos and slogans hand painted precisely.  Then weathered.  All the way out of town the pavements are dotted with

people sitting and selling, walking and carrying.  Everyone toots - especially the driver I am with.  I realised the horn means: 'caution - I am passing'.  And everyone seems grateful for the advance warning.  At home it's a rude outburst.  But everything is back to front at home.  Before, it was here.