From Haiti to New York

I returned from Haiti in February 2013 to start a new job with an international development think tank based in London. Since then I have been busy with the new job and other projects on the side. I have finally found some time to return to my journals and start blogging again.

I arrived into New York from Haiti in late December 2012 for some time off over the Christmas period. This blog is based on my journal notes from that time.

“Haiti? What the heck were you doing there?” The cab driver was trying his best to make conversation with my tired looking face. Dusk was falling softly in an orange haze across the New York sky. I’m on R&R (Rest & Recuperation) and it’s almost Christmas. Six hours ago I was in a Land Cruiser heading towards Toussaint Louverture airport in Port-au-Prince. We took a short-cut past a camp where shoeless children played gleefully under the hot sun, seemingly unfazed by the stench of sewerage in the air. We zoomed over the rocky tracks past mounds of burning rubbish before passing a dead body lying on the side of the unpaved road. Now I’m in New York, the city that never sleeps and I’m exhausted. I look up at the cab driver’s round face and shrewd eyes in the rear view mirror and then glance over at my own face. Tired and newly freckled along the nose with disheveled, unwashed hair. I didn’t have the energy for small talk.

“I was working there”, I said.

I indulge in the luxury of the wide, smooth roads as the cab stop-starts along 7th Avenue down towards the Williamsburg Bridge, a journey I made several times in the past, but everything seems different now. Beautiful women and men of every race hurry along the sidewalk in power suits and trench coats. Bizarre posters are everywhere: Bikini Waxing, Better Sex, Lipstick, Boobs, Fashion, Teeth Whitening, Reality TV. Lights, brightness, fame. I gaze at crowded bars, boutiques and signs for pizzas, steaks, clam chowder, and macaroni and cheese. The sky scrapers, the agencies, the corporates, the conglomerates. Shiny and extravagant glistening towers in the night sky. Shrines of consumerism at its utmost, proof of what capitalism can achieve. It’s the most extraordinary feeling. I’m in a new dimension. A first world dimension.

I meet my film maker friend Nathan at his apartment in Williamsburg. We dine at a fantastical restaurant nearby where I devour succulent roast chicken and down cocktails. He tells me of his latest job, a lucrative CoverGirl ad for a new mascara range while my head spins from the alcohol and the early morning flight. When we return to his apartment I collapse onto the couch and fall into a deep sleep. My dreams are filled with the Caribbean night sky, the hot mosquito filled air and the faces of children. I wake in a sweaty panic at 4am trying to remember where I am. Once reacquainted with reality, I switch on the TV to occupy my mind. I had become used to sleeping in the humid night air to the sounds of gunshots in the distance and the guard’s radio outside the window. The roosters would crow at all hours and the warm wind would rustle the leaves of the trees in the garden. Now all this was replaced with dry central heating and apple TV.

Had I changed? Why did I feel like I was in a surreal bubble whilst at the same time everything felt more profoundly real? Lying in that New York bedroom I let my mind wonder back to the vast dark arc of the Caribbean night sky, the deep roll of the ocean, the smells, the noises, the colours of nothing and everything mashing together under a blanket of stars and at last I slept, pulling all my memories into lucid, luminous dreams.

Image

Hill walking in Furcy, Haiti

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Beautiful Jacmel: Voodoo transvestites in a surfing paradise

As a child I wandered the shores of Dublin’s coastline. My summer memories are of evening swims and morning strolls along its beaches. A saxophonist would play on a small beach near my home every Saturday morning. If you woke early enough you could go for a dip, while listening to him play as the sun glistened across the horizon spilling pink across the low clouds and incoming tide. The beach would lie deserted except for a group of elderly nudists meeting for their morning swim, chit chat and flasked coffee. In the early hours of the morning, the irresistible roll of the waves would clear the edges of my mind and the view would become the frame of my life. Everything else would become a reaction. On rocks I hunted clams and crabs and my father taught me how to fish. I spent my teens sailing in Dun Laoghaire among the sea lions and porpoises. I’m a sea baby. It’s in my heart.

I spent the last four years living in London where I longed for the fresh sea air. Now I’m on a tropical Caribbean Island. It has been six weeks and I’ve only touched the ocean once. I have few days off ahead of me and I’m on a mission to explore Haiti and find a little bit of ocean heaven.

I take a ride with Aurelian, my co-worker, along a winding road across the mountains to Jacmel, a town nestled on Haiti’s beautiful southern coast. It was famously the honeymoon destination for Bill and Hillary in the 70s when Baby Doc ruled and tourism blossomed, despite the torture chambers and Macoutes killing people in the streets. Now the tourists have gone, replaced by busloads of American missionaries on divine missions in sun visors and sweat shorts, lugging soft drink bottles and insect repellent. They are joined by 10,000 other NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) riding around in shiny 4x4s. Alas, this is the Republic of NGOs.

In Port-au-Prince the misery is condensed and suffocating. Here in Jacmel, it’s spread out and you can see the beauty flowering underneath it all. I relish the mile long beach of fluffy sand, the garden fences adorned with flowering bougainvillea and the faded old gingerbread architecture. At a local hotel, we feast on succulent lobster and fried plantain under a palm tree while savouring the sound of the waves and a banjo in the distance. Children play in the surf, their brown bodies shimmering in the sun like otters. I strip off and run into the clear blue waves seeking respite from the sticky heat. I befriend two bikini clad girls who teach me to surf. Looking up at the mountainous island from the ocean, it’s a dazzling paradise of palm trees and flamboyants. I could be on vacation. Almost. This should be a vacation wonderland. I wonder how it’s possible that the Carribean’s most beautiful Isle, just a few hours flight from North America, is entirely missing out on the tourist boom enriching the rest of the region? I jabber and laugh gleefully with the girls as the waves carry us to shore. The sun descends to a fiery red. We cast long shadows in the evening sunlight as we play in the waves and phosphorescence streams over our bodies.

Later that evening, I befriend a few Haitian aid workers at a local bar. They tell me about a voodoo ceremony taking place nearby. Would I like to go they ask? Absolutely. The show begins with a transvestite wailing her heart out and prancing around the crowd. In voodoo, homosexuality is accepted because behaviour is guided by spirits (loas). The gays are under the divine protection of Erzulie Freda, the spirit of love. As a feminine spirit, the gays can imitate and worship her. She’s basically the loa version of Gaga. The voodoo ceremony turns into a bunch of possessed queens and their girlfriends, let loose and fancy free. Aurelian and I watch the show while downing rum sours and nibbling on fried chicken at a nearby table.

Later the show takes a dark turn. A sharp scent filly my nostrils and it burns. My eyes start to water. I open my mouth to breath and my throat and lungs fill with putrid gas. People in the crowd cover their faces and start to move away. Women dance up against men and women in the audience in a frenzied state, dousing themselves in rum and flinging their bodies into their victims. I pull my chair in towards the table tightly and look at Aurelian. ‘I’m avoiding eye contact, don’t let her near me’, I tell him. Suddenly I get a pair of rum soaked breasts whacked against my head by a crazy, possessed woman. The crowd’s attention turns to me. She pushes herself into me and I feel her go straight for the wallet in my jeans pocket. I hold my pockets tightly and turn my face away but she won’t give up, ripping and pulling at my hands with all her might and searching my other pockets. This may work on some drunken old fool who lavishes the attention, but you’re not stealing from me darling. I’m not impressed. She pushes and dances into me, knocking all the drinks off the table and my chair falls backwards, knocking us both to the ground. Still, I refuse to let go of my pockets. I can’t believe this is happening. I only came here out of curiosity. Now I’m being virtually raped by some loony ogress who thinks she can steal from me in front of a crowd of hundreds. The evening has turned maniacal. As we lie on the ground, she continuous her raving lunacy, flinging herself at me and the crowd rise to their feet to get a better look us. Eventually she gives up and moves on. When I get up off the ground I see most of the other aid workers have fled in horror and Aurelian is bent over in his chair with his knees to his chest laughing hysterically.

As I ride back to Port-au-Prince the next day to face a week’s work of grant monitoring, supplier meetings and bid tenders; I look across the endless landscape, once covered in rich tropical forests. Now the forests are a distant memory and the mountains are afflicted with landslides. The land that produced the agricultural giant of the eighteenth century now lies barren and lifeless. It’s a reminder of the tragic forces that have blighted Haiti for centuries. Perhaps those evil spirits really have been to work.

Jacmel, Haiti

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Sugarcane Picker

A young girl picks sugarcane with her brother and father.

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Hardcore

Carrefour, Port-au-Prince

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Kenscoff, Haiti

 

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The land of extremes

The mountains of Haiti are spread out before me like a panoramic photograph. A vast landscape of soaring valleys, lush green vegetation and red earth stretch out into infinity. There’s an exquisiteness in the curves and peaks of the mountains. A crystal clear silence fills the windless air and it feels peaceful. In the distance I see narrow plots of farmland and sparse shelters. Exhilarated by the view I snap away at the sight with my Nikon lens as we drive along a rutted track. We’re returning from a school, tucked away on the ridge of a mountainside south of Port-au-Prince. It’s Global Handwashing Day this week and our team are running hygiene promotion activities with school children. Cholera is on the rise due to the recent rains and the numbers of people in our Treatment Unit have risen sharply. In an effort to help prevent the disease spreading, Save the Children have been running local TV and radio ads, providing mobile public handwashing stations and distributing soap.

They say you shouldn’t take photos from the car. I found it hard to resist

We stop at a small town for lunch. It’s situated high up on the mountainside deep in cloud where sun’s rays are weakened. It feels like a film scene where the colour has been de-saturated and everything has turned to grey. The air is cool and moist. The market looks scummy and begrimed. Rubbish is strewn across the road and the market sellers look gloomy and bored. There is no sophisticated architecture here, just plain concrete and drain-marks on the ground from the rains the night before

As I exit the vehicle I see two children thickly covered in soot with sacks of charcoal on their head. They stare at me blankly. Everyone stares at me. To them I’m a “blan” (white man), an anomaly, an alien from another planet. Here, it’s completely acceptable to stare at the “blan” with interest, for as long as you like. I don’t know what their stares mean. Are they just interested? Perhaps they want to talk to me? Groups of men sit idly on the street and shout out to me in Creole. My Haitian co-worker translates. “Look at you, you white privileged asshole” they yell.

Skinny children with mottled hair roam the streets aimlessly. Lose torn shorts and ragged t-shirts hang off their skinny bodies. They approach me looking for money. One boy has his small hands clasped around a case made of scraps of wood nailed together. There are four compartments in the case holding old crinkled empty soft drink bottles. His skin is a powdery black, coated in dirt. His eyes are lonely and empty. He walks alone and sits on a step with his head in his hands. There’s a cruel, hopeless deprivation here where greatest deficit is love.

As we drive down the mountain I gaze out at the view and dream of childhood birthday parties, bath time and swimming lessons. It’s an imaginary tale for children who live in a world where childhood does not exist.

The next day I visit a camp to deliver kits containing soap and other hygiene products. After the earthquake in 2010, 1.5 million people were living in camps. Since then, the number has dropped to around 350,000. Save the children are assisting people to move from camps into neighbourhoods.  I see shabby tents of old sheeting situated on the grounds of an old mansion in ruins. Shinny mettle sheeting surrounds the camp as a barrier, glimmering in the sunlight. A group of men and women sit together under the narrow shade of a wall, seemingly with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

I’m guided around the camp and we walk upland past heaps of scattered trash to the latrine area. It’s a space of rough concrete and shabby plywood constructed by the camp inhabitants. There’s no privacy here. Just an open pit with a plank of wood at the back. Human shit is splattered everywhere and the repulsive stench immediately leaves me feeling nauseous. At that moment a feel a pair of tiny hands clasp around my hand tenderly. I look down at a skinny young girl of about 7, shoeless and in filthy clothes. I feel tears prick the corners of my eyes and swallow them away. No child should live here. No human should live like this. She walks me down the hill and around the camp. Stanley, my Haitian co-worker holds up his snapshot camera and takes a photo of us. I venture a half grin. It feels perverse posing for a photo here.

I lie awake that night, nauseous and staring into empty shadows. I picture lonesome children with grimy faces and hear the voices of hecklers yelling at me. Finally, exhaustion pulls me down and all the pictures and sounds fade in a drowned blur.

On Sunday we’re celebrating Global Handwashing Day. We host a festival on the grounds of large school compound. We’ve arranged for children from schools and youth clubs around Port-au-Prince to come. A stage is erected and we have a local rap artist perform about cholera prevention. There’s laughter, clowns, balloons and dancing. The crowd dazzles in matching white t-shirts, luminescent over their dark skin. Pale and drenched in sweat, I look outlandish and ridiculous. I’m the only non-black among hundreds and it generates attention among the children. They accept me and teach me words in Creole. Shy groups of giggling teenage girls ask if I have a girlfriend. The crowd, glistening with sweat, pound and dance on the smooth concrete. A circle forms and there’s a dance off. By the end of the day I’m exhausted from the heat and return home, sun stroked, parched and uplifted.

Dance off, Haitian sytle

On my day off I meet my friends Andy, Angela and Aurelian. Aurelian just joined the staff last week. He’s French and hilarious.  We take a car early in the morning, giggling along the way to a beach at La Gonave Bay, about two hours north of Port-au-Prince. It’s down a winding rutted track of feathery plantain, sugarcane and palm trees.  I look out at the clear blue ocean and see a fisherman, hoisting a sail made of USAID plastic sheeting.

We lunch on succulent avocado and fried plantain while being tickled by the soft sea breeze. Replete, we strip off and jump into the warm blue ocean and watch the sun descend into the horizon. A hot breeze whips over the waves and the sky turns to a fiery red. Half a mile up the road, children cut sugarcane and run naked in streams filled with sewerage.

As we drive home along the coast road I look out across a barren field that meets the ocean that meets the horizon. I see tiny flames of charcoal oven fires sending hot columns of smoke into the brilliant red sunset. The glowing fires present a haunting apocalyptic beauty as the gloomy dusk falls.

Here, on this island, I see the world through a lens of monochrome extremes: Life and death, beautiful and ugly, joyful and miserable, rich and poor. There’s little in between, switching regularly between the two, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.  But out of all of it, there’s a raw humanity stripped bare and it becomes intoxicating.

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Block Makers

Save the Children are supporting Block Makers to produce better quality blocks used in construction which means homes will be less likely to collapse to dust if/when another earthquake occurs. I visited a block making factory in Carrefour, Port-au-Prince and photographed some of the workers.

Block Maker, Carrefour, Port-au-Prince

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