Each day here is like a long age of the universe - never seeming to end and, when you finally get to the end, as I am now, you look back and find it difficult to recall what it is you've done.
|I'm happy to say I felt much better this morning, although my knee is aching. I've been stretching and exercising it, so I hope to see improvements shortly. I hobbled up the stairs and leaned out over the city where a large semi-truck was creeping its way slowly (and agonizingly!) into our street, brushing the balconies above as it did so. Since there are no environmental regulations on vehicles here, you can actually see particulate matter dropping out of the exhaust stream and floating to the earth - I was glad when the truck finally churned away, but there was more exhaust to come! (Anyone who doesn't believe in environental standards should visit Haiti.)|
|Feeling chipper as I was, I was gung-ho for a post-breakfast trip to the Village to see a biodigester. One of our two hosts phoned a friend and a pick-up truck showed up - belching smoke - in our street. Having thoroughly doused ourselves in sunscreen, we scrambled aboard into the back and thus began a form of slow torture. The truck roared up 12 street to L street, where we joined a veritable sea of trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, dogs, chickens, goats (some strapped to bus roofs, bleating), and flowed with them to Nationale Highway One. The name was once optimistic and now is a testament to a potential future that Haiti once aspired to and may yet achieve, albeit after a long delay. You see, there are only two other National Highways, both of which are in worse condition. This is why it takes 6 to 10 hours to drive from Cap-Haitian to Milot (a straight-line distance of 60 miles), or 3.5 hours to go the 30 miles to Borgne.|
Ravenous Potholes of Doom
|Wedged in a honking, loosely organized stream of traffic going both with and against us - on both sides - we made our way along. NH1 had bumps, rocks the size of coconuts (or heads, according to Zazu), and potholes as large as cars. With eight of us in the back the ride was interminable and we were all thoroughly stiff and bruised by the end. We left NH1 for a backroad which went through a part of the city where ornate concrete porches connected with crumbling concrete houses, where groundfloors held families, but were topped with exposed rebar.|
|Large iron gates with detailed crests blocked access to mansions never built.|
|A gaily painted housing development near the Village (houses the size of a one-car garage), all done in purples, greens, pinks, and yellows, sits mostly empty. The would-be residents have mostly opted to move to places like Shada so their children are closer to schools. A Haitian spends money on food and a house first, education second. In our meetings the desire for schools comes up again and again.|
|A few lush palaces dotted this manque landscape, skyscrapers rising above a gray sea. This is what sets Haiti apart from most of the improverished third-world. They've had electricity, schools, roads, power, and they've seen much of that destroyed, abandoned, or otherwise lost within the course of a generation.|
The Village is a paradigm of this loss. I'd been told it was a home and school for street children, but couldn't have envisioned how beautiful it would be. My experiences with Haiti's poorer regions had thus far prepared me to expect only crumbling infrastructure, but, behind nine foot, razor-wire-topped walls and a large iron-gate, street lights overhang a palm-tree lined avenue. A windmill buzzes above you. A goat bleats near a soccer field juxtaposed to a basketball court. You see houses a hundred feet or so off. But the grass is over-grown, the hoop's backboards broken. The Village has been closed for three months.
|We walk over to the biodigester. Adding a bucketful of human waste and water each day feeds it as it releases methane gas into a floating dome (which not only contains, but pressurizes the gas for cooking) and, in 20 days, kills nearly all of the infectious agents.|
|We (and our attache of Haitian engineers and the two shotgun-wielding compound guards) poke curiously at poop-intakes, and methane hoses. This biodigester was functional and provided cooking fuel for the Village before it all closed down.|
|Satisfied, we stroll away and across the soccer field to the school house where desks are lined up facing blackboards with language and science still scrawled across them. The doors, though, are locked and may not be reopened.|
|Beneath a tree, Sasha tells us how Rick, a man from the U.S., built an intake center in Cap-Haitian and the Village, how he rented apartments and built a system that educated and supported its members from youth through high school.|
|Working with street kids meant a high turn-over rate in a competitive program, and a few of those kicked out accused Rick of molesting them. The rumours didn't die, the board of Rick's organization divided with group's own lawyers investigating the claims in what could only have been a biased manner. The donors were confused by the factions and without Rick to pull it together and keep the $1 million per year operation going, the school was closed and sits there still.|
|The ride back in was long and equally torturous, albeit hotter.|
|We stopped at another school and, standing next to a fifty-gallon bucket of untreated poop, examined another (dysfunctional) biodigester tucket beneath spreading trees amid shrubs sheltering castaway hypodermic needles. The younger school children made their customary ghetto-symbols at us and smiled broadly; the older children seemed more resentful.|
We spent mid-day having lunch and solving our daily engineering problem (today: Cheap, easily-constructable cover for compost rows). Our cook, an unassuming Haitian lady, spends about five hours a day making food for nearly 27 people (there are always lunch guests). I still can't keep track of everyone!
We received a shipment of power tools - which we opened with glee - in the afternoon, along with a radio destined for Shada. We all trooped down to the intersection and were promptly mobbed by sixteen or seventeen motorcycles (motos). The five lucky motos took off, mine last. As we left, the unlucky motos all began pointing and shouting at me and I couldn't figure out why. Thus began an epic chase scene as one of them ambitiously floored his bike and wove into traffic after us. We scooted between trucks, UN tanks (their soliders wearing surgical masks to fend off the exhaust), hopped sidewalks (brushing people in the process), and went down alleys, with our pursuer excitedly pulling even and trying, desparately, to communicate something very important. Finally, our driver pulls over and acknowledges that he has a flat tire, but is convinced that he can make it anyway. (This being the result of hand gesticulations and a heated Creole discussion.)
|Back on the bike, more pursuit. Sasha stops her bike and we have the discussion again. Our driver is still convinced that we should ride his bike and, since we're on it, Sasha decided that we will. The pursuer fades away and we cross a wide river which runs away into a phantasmagorical world where murky, trash-filled waters lap an unending set of houses and tin roofs, many overhanging the water.|
|The bikes stop and we get off at the entrance to Shada - one of Cap-Haitien's slums. The "entrance" is a four foot gap of darkness between two shops. Inside we walk down streets three feet wide where the sky is a slit mere inches in width between the over-hanging houses. Shops are gated alcoves large enough for the proprieter to sit on a chair and hand you items from the shelves.|
|It's maze-like, suffused with the smells of garbage, human waste, and dust. Occassional, out of the darkness, I hear the now-fmiliar whisper "Jehsee". Finally, a quick turn, a duck beneath rusting nails, a climb up a short flight of stairs, and we're on a roof. Around us you can see the little streets, the shells of houses, and in many cases, the two are the same. The tin roofs stretch to the horizon, occassionally one towers. I'm reminded of Agraba from Aladdin.|
The big house in the background is Madam Bwa's
|Madam Bwa ushers us into the kitchen-sized school she runs. She's wearing a floral dress and looks, as ever, imposing. (Word is that one of Sarah's friends took the tap-tap from the Dominican with passports and baggage, made it the whole way too, till the Shada stop, when it all disappeared. Sarah called Madam Bwa, who stormed around Shada for three days until everything reappeared.)|
|There are about twenty kids in the school house, but more and more appear and the smell of body odour becomes intense, we're all sweating from our collective heat. The children are smiling, taking high-fives, climbing up us, and speaking excitedly (with a number of "Jehsees" thrown in). We use the little Creole we know, but their replies are, to us, incomprehensible. They keep gesturing for us to take pictures and pose, ghetto-symbols poised, and then excited move in to see themselves in the camera screen.|
|Haitians don't smile in photographs, but they do know how to look cool (except for politicians and barbershop models (these are painted on walls throughout the city near the barbershops), its hard to look cool when you're a disembodied head).|
|Amid the ruckus, Sasha gives a speech, then Madam Bwa, and then, to wild cheering, the stereo is opened. The kids all join in song and then there are many more photographs.|
|As we're getting ready to leave I reverse the situation and hand the camera off to a couple of the older kids - their demeanour is more subdued and their faces have lingering traces of sorrow. We take the tap-tap home, crowded into a covered pick-up bed with benches, thirteen sweaty passengers.|
|Went to Lakay's again tonight and had Creole Conch with plantains and guave juice for dinner. Conch is chewy and somewhat unremarkable in taste, the catchup on the plaintains is sweet. Guave is wonderful. Realized after walking home, that I'd forgotten the camera, so Sarah and I took a taxi back. The three of us (the driver, Sarah, and I) sped down the potholed streets and through an alley (or was it a path through someone's yard?), jouncing in uncomfortable intimacy. As I jogged into the restaurant, excited Creole pulled me to the register where the camera was produced. The ride home was smoother.|
Some notes. The first two cameras I lost in the States never made it back to me, for this to happen in Haiti either means the camera is worthless here, that I was very lucky, or that there's something different going on here. We'll see.
I still don't know who everyone who drops by this house is. Today, a well-dressed street urchin followed us in and stood on the balcony for a while, drumming his hands contentedly until we collectively realized that no one knew who he was. Sasha guided him out, saying, in her expressive way, "You are an intelligent young man, surely you know you can't just walk into people's houses." It seems, though, that he can.
Till day is MaLaRiA Day! Yay! Time to take another paranoia-inducing, parasite-slaying pink tablet. Our hosts have had to stop taking these because the pills become dangerous over time - they're acting defensively now, and crossing their fingers.
The closing word at our last large meeting was that we should now go back to the U.S. and come up with good solutions, durable solutions. Wise advice from a country where the endurance of the human spirit has outlasted most everything else.
There are VERY "frickin' huge" spiders here.