Friday, July 13, 2012


I’ve been back in Manhattan for about a week now, working with Bennett on the business side of the Hope on a String operation. To get to the office, I board the subway on the upper west side and take it down to Times Square. It’s a short walk to the office building, where I enter the security lobby and have a new “guest sticker” printed for me every day. I take the elevator up to the Sky Lobby where I continue on across the large hall to the elevator bank. I enter the floor number of the office into a kiosk and I am electronically directed to one of the thirty elevators. On the way up to the office, my ears pop. The office window looks out onto the cesspit of lights and commotion that is Times Square.

It’s hard to fathom the reality that I am only three hours away from Patrice and the rest of my friends in Haiti. Sitting in this spaceship office building, I’m already starting to forget their faces. Three hours and one universe away. Luckily, many of my acquaintances in Corail gave me pictures to remember them by.

The first few days back were difficult: I was seeing everything through a new pair of eyes and hating it all. When I ventured out of the apartment to find some lunch, I was completely overwhelmed. Food everywhere you look—every cuisine and variation imaginable. I wandered around in a daze for almost two hours before finally going to a Subway.

It’s amazing how quickly we’re able to slip right back into the rhythm of American (US) life. I’m no longer fascinated by the water that I can drink straight from the sink and I no longer feel guilty every time I have three meals a day or charge my phone. Watching myself reintegrate into our culture here has been an uncomfortable and thought-provoking experience. Haiti has left me shaken in many ways—it has made me realize how little I really know about myself and about the world. The only thing that I know for sure, without any doubts or reservations, is that I’m going back.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


In a typical day, I will wake up at around 5am when the goats start screaming. Usually I manage to fall back asleep for a couple hours, but this depends on the number of mosquitoes in my room. When I get up I do some work (data entry, creating enrollment forms, etc.) before eating my spaghetti breakfast. Then I will shower and head down to the Hope on a String center to either teach a class or attend the day’s activities. Hope on a String is putting on a big soccer match today and we’ve been training people how to “chofe” (pronounced “show-fay”), which is essentially Haitian cheerleading. We have cheers, intimidating dance moves, and an awesome song that one of the professors wrote—all for the Hope on a String team. The other guys don’t stand a chance. After the activities, I walk back to the house, talk with friends for a bit, grab some dinner, and go to sleep.

The HoaS center and our house are both on the main road in the village. Though it’s only dirt and loose rocks, this road is the only way for cars and motorcycles to get into the village and is the center for vendors and bustle. Only the wealthiest (least poor) villagers live on the main road. As a result of this setup, I never really have to face the most impoverished parts of the village, and so it’s easy to let myself believe that most of the people here are doing just fine. They seem well clothed, bright-eyed, and generally healthy. Some people even have designer jeans and cell phones. Maybe that’s why I haven’t written about the local poverty yet—it’s been so easy to focus on the other facets of my experience here while ignoring this particular one. However, once you decide to confront the abject poverty all around, you quickly begin to see the strife and struggle underlying each day.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. This designation gets thrown around a lot in conversations in the US, but what does this level of poverty actually look like at ground level? I definitely wasn’t expecting designer jeans and cell phones, but what was I expecting? Maybe I imagined I would walk into a National Geographic episode: nobody can afford clothes, sickness and death are rampant, every child has a swollen belly due to malnutrition. That isn’t to say that these conditions are nonexistent. Far from it. The further you get from the road, the closer you get to National Geographic-styled poverty. On my walks to the ocean, I’ve seen a nine-year-old child too weak to move herself without help from her mother, an entire family of six sharing a fistful of white rice for dinner (which has no nutritional value to speak of), and many kids and adults with clear mental disabilities (most likely due to the combination of incest and infant malnutrition). Between the scattered homes in the poorer part of the village are large plantain fields where farmers perform stupendous feats of physical labor all day long. The land here is coarse and unyielding, fatigued from so many years of bad farming practices and deforestation. Work in the fields is tremendously grueling—believe me, I’ve become well acquainted with Patrice’s plantain trees—and pays barely enough to feed a small family most days of the week. These workers are the lucky ones. In various clearings scattered throughout the fields, whole families sit all day long outside their plantain-leaf huts, wishing they could work and wondering when they will eat next.

Beyond the expectations I had, I had not anticipated the deep-set, nearly tangible sense of abandonment that weighs on every place my walks take me. For the more impoverished of the community members, there is rarely any trace of hope for the future. Most of these families are unable to find any sort of work and are only able to get by because of the small amount of money their “rich” cab-driving family members send home from the US.

There are others, however, that have high aspirations for the future. Some of my friends here have dedicated themselves entirely to their studies in school. It’s been inspiring to see the fire that drives them. They are determined to do whatever it takes in order to succeed. Unfortunately, this is usually not enough. Even with all the passion, intelligence, and dedication in the world, in Haiti you need a miracle to go along with it if you’re going to get anywhere. This is perhaps what I’ve found most striking about the poverty here. It’s more than a matter of malnutrition and disease. Things like that are curable with a few NGO’s and plenty of money. Here, poverty is fully integrated into the society and the society has fully integrated itself into poverty. The general outlook on life is itself impoverished. There are so few opportunities and there is so little hope.

Yet during classes and at the other activities, there are so many smiles. As you’ve seen in the pictures, the kids are full of delight and energy. It’s pretty incredible. I’d like to think that their smiles are a result of Hope on a String’s work here, and to a certain extent I think this is true—HoaS’s presence in Corail has definitely begun to lift that air of abandonment I was talking about. But the real truth is that these children are just amazing. They have an inherent strength and an inherent joy that allow them to giggle while pounding on a keyboard or while learning to play recorder in spite of the world they’ve been born into. Regardless of how irrelevant these instruments may be to their basic survival, the children cherish the opportunity to learn. I truly think that whatever we can do to nurture this inner fire is worthwhile. And, as my stay here comes to it’s end, I know that I’ll leave here content, having added my small stick to their flame.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Zombies (Zonbi)

Last night, I asked my friend Watson to tell me everything he knew about the creation and behavior of Haitian zonbi.

What I learned:

Zonbi are most often created as a form of revenge. The example that was offered to me was the case of a fight between two men. If one man slaps another, the attacked man, infuriated, might go to a witch doctor and ask for a powder that will turn his enemy into a zonbi. He takes the powder and spreads it somewhere that the enemy frequently walks, like outside his front door. When he spreads it, he must say the name of the intended victim. If a person other than the intended victim walks through the powder, they will not become a zonbi. They will merely get sick and nothing else. When the targeted person walks through the powder, however, they die. At least, that’s what it looks like. In reality, the person only appears to die and the man who spread the powder can reawaken him as a zonbi. The creator of the zonbi can now use it to perform any number of tasks. Most commonly, zonbis are used for farm work or for security. They can be put to work all through the day and all through the night, but must be fed. The owner of the zonbi must be careful not to feed the zonbi anything too salty, as salt can reverse the zonbification.

How to spot a zonbi:

They always keep their heads down, are afraid of humans, and cannot talk. Perhaps this is the reason Haitians always greet each other on the street—to make sure everyone’s still human. Who knows how many zonbis there are in NYC.

Zonbi will not directly interfere with you unless they have been ordered to do so. But be wary of a zonbi that has been tasked with guarding a farm or home—
Watson leaned forward and grabbed my arm. “Don’t go into a farm with a zonbi in it. If it attacks you, you die.” Point taken. He went on to tell me that zonbis can also cause you to forget where you’re going. If you are ever walking and forget your destination or find that you don’t know where you are, you have likely been affected by a zonbi.

I asked him if he has ever seen a zonbi, to which he replied, “I don’t think so. Maybe, but I probably wouldn’t know.”

How to escape a zonbi:

I asked Watson what I should do if I see a zonbi on the street. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” he said, “they’re afraid of you, remember? Just keep walking and don’t pay it any attention.”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Life is Good

I teach four violin classes a week: two for children and two for adults. I also give a few private lessons. On the weekends I host English classes with my friend Michel, who is one of the two Haitians that speak English in Corail. The other one, Cassy, is my interpreter for violin class. Together, they form my window into Haitian culture: the art of haggling, for example...

Yesterday I drove to the beach with Michel and two other friends. The minute I got down to the water I remembered I was in the Caribbean—apart from the coast there are few other indicators. Turquoise water as warm and salty as the sweat running down your neck, a shore made of a million small white rocks like so many polished little bones, a man sixty feet up a palm tree bombarding the beachgoers below with fresh coconuts.

We were out waist-deep in the water playing and splashing each other like children, having the time of our lives. Seeing us, one of the many extremely invasive beach vendors figured that a white guy like me had plenty of money to spend (I didn’t) and was determined to make a sale. Unprovoked, he literally waded out to us with two large platters of lanbi (conch) and spicy dipping sauce. None of us had asked for this, but Michel said “how much?” The vendor said not to worry about it, we could just pay him when we left. I immediately said no way, but not before Michel had a few lanbi in his mouth. Oh well. It was truly delicious.

Later, when we were heading to the car, the vendor stopped us, demanding his pay: 800 Haitian gouds. Michel handed him 150 gouds, less than 4 American dollars, and told the man he should have named the price earlier and that we didn’t have any more money. We got in the car and left. I am learning.

Here's something we saw on the way

Back to the music classes. The children are almost impossible to control. I quickly had to learn the phrase “PA FE SA!” which means “DON’T DO THAT!” The “SA” in question can refer to many things. Balancing one’s violin on a girl’s head, for example. One boy ate a tuning peg. Among these little monsters, however, are some real gems. These are the children who show up thirty minutes early (unheard of in Haitian culture) just to watch me get set up for class. They devour every bit of information I give them, eager to work out each new technique on their own for as long as it takes to learn. After class they will climb onto my shoulders and pull my ears or steal my shoes and wear them as hats—I love them.

The adults are even more spectacular. One guy drives all the way from Port-au-Prince (1 ½ hours without riots) to attend my class. Today was the third time he’s touched a violin, and after class I found him under a tree playing beautiful music with a guitarist. I taught them a tango and they picked it up right away. Incredible. If the internet connection were any better I would post the video, but alas.

Now, pleased with my day’s work and my belly full of goat meat (see SNL, season 26 episode 20), I am laying in my hammock with my laptop, swaying back and forth with the warm breeze. It’s a hot night, but my body has long since given up the fight against the weather—I no longer drip sweat at all hours. Patrice is telling Lara and me a story. She’s sleeping in the next hammock over and I’m only half listening. Something about a man who traveled to Cap-Haitien to find the woman of his dreams. He doesn’t mind that nobody’s following the details, he knows I just like to hear him speak. His voice is like a big warm house. Even though he speaks softly, it has a way of surrounding you and making you feel safe. Patrice stays here at the house with us even though he has a family of his own. He wants to protect us, and despite our assurances that we’ll be fine, he won’t have it any other way.

Oh, I turned 20 two days ago. They threw a great party for me. Maybe more next time. I’m nodding off, so I’d better end it here for now. Bon nwit. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Some Pics

choppin that sugar cane

century old mango trees

cursed house

dry riverbed

ad for my class

end-of-session performance

jam session

violin class

nan bouk market

ladig matheux (dam)


Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Summer Day in the Garden

Patrice offered to show me his garden a few days ago. I eagerly accepted, asking if I could work with him for a day. He looked me up and down and said “Vrèman?” Really, are you sure? Maybe it was the sun getting to me or fatigue from a long day working at the school, but this somewhat odd response sent up no red flags for me. I smiled and said, “Of course!”

Patrice’s “jaden” turned out to be a seemingly endless plantain farm. Typical mistranslation. I admit that on the way over, the machete and pickaxe that I carried seemed like odd candidates for garden tools. When Patrice told me to stop and said we had arrived—in the middle of what looked like a dangerous jungle—I almost laughed at my mistake. Almost.

We set right to it. The plan was to find the best-looking young plantains, uproot them, and transport them to Patrice’s other plot of land a mile away to be replanted. He demonstrated how to uproot the plants, plunging the pickaxe into the soil and using it as a lever to pry the plantain out of the earth. Easy enough. Then he showed me how to chop the roots and leaves off with the machete without damaging the actual plant. This was to be my job for the rest of the day. We quickly fell into a grueling, mind-numbing rhythm. Patrice uprooted the plantains, I hacked off their vital organs, then grabbed two and carried them to one of the three piles we had made. I enjoyed using the machete, despite the many hand cramps along the way, but carrying those abominable plants was awful. They are not light, and I had to lug them through the cacophony of vegetation, avoiding tarantulas as big as my hand and lizards as big as my arm. I simply did not have the energy to pay these beasts much mind, so I stuck to the rule of “harmless until proven deadly.” Luckily, nothing seemed to have the energy to pay me much mind either.

In addition to their weight, the plantains are covered with sticky juice. Patrice told me over and over not to let the juice touch my clothes (difficult) or my hands (impossible), but I didn’t see what the big deal was. So what if my clothes get a little stained and my hands get a little sticky? I need to listen to Patrice more carefully.

After hours of hard work, we had formed three large piles of stripped plantains. We went to fetch Patrice’s old horse to move the plantains to the other farm. While Patrice tied a large metal harness to the horse, I asked if it had a name. “Cheval,” he said. “Horse.” I asked if I could name him/her Betsy and he said okay.

Betsy could only carry one pile at a time, so we made three trips between the farms, totaling to about 6 miles. After the last trip was completed, I got to ride Betsy, metal harness and all, back to the village. I even jumped her across a small stream without falling off, almost forgetting for an instant that I’m a city boy from Southern California.

When we arrived back in the village center, Patrice took me to a well where his family was washing clothes. We stripped down to our underwear and proceeded to wash our arms and hands. People either stared or looked away, presumably blinded by my highly reflective white back. I quickly realized why Patrice had warned against touching the plantain juice. My hands and forearms were stained brown, all the way up to my elbows. Even using detergent, I couldn’t get much out. My shirt fared worse, ripping to shreds wherever it was stained. Woops.

When I got back to the house, I managed to sleep for about an hour before waking up in a dripping sweat. I had developed a fever and some unpleasant stomach issues. Lara told me it was sun poisoning, a term I had never heard before. Whatever it was, it passed fairly quickly and I’m feeling fine now. I’m going back out on Wednesday, and I can’t wait.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Spaghetti for breakfast is any kid’s dream, and it’s Corail’s reality. Not only do we eat spaghetti every morning, but this particular spaghetti is cooked in all kinds of wonderful grease and is served with spicy ketchup. Throw in some heavenly local mango and I’m one happy camper.

We eat every meal across the road at Florence’s house. Florence is the sister of Pierre, who owns the house we live in and is the other founder of Hope on a String. It’s Florence’s sister who does all the (fantastic) cooking. Her name is Viola. I was far more excited than she about the fact that I play the instrument that is her namesake. Our friends across the road make sure we are extremely comfortable. There’s always plenty of food, plenty of treated water, and a fan. Life here would be much harder without their limitless generosity.

Lunch is the biggest meal of the day (for those fortunate few who can afford to have more than one), and rice and beans are the biggest anchors in my life. Despite all the change and new experiences in my life, rice and beans are a promised, reliable event every day. Along with these staples, we are treated to various Haitian dishes. We eat stews with fish, crabs, and dumplings, fried plantains, and goat. Goat is the best. They make a special bread that’s thick and doughy. Bennett calls it sweat bread because of the strenuous activity required to make the dough. This new vocabulary has added a certain m pas connais ki sa that was not there before.

Dinner is typically just leftovers from lunch, but sometimes I’ll grab an extra bite to eat from one of the fritay vendors in town. Fritay is an assortment of fried goodies like dough, diced meats, plantains, and more. Yum.

For drink, we choose between Prestige beer (the award-winning Haitian lager), rum, and klarin. Klarin is a clear liquid served in a bottle with the label torn off. It is essentially Haitian moonshine. A few years back, there was the huge problem of street vendors selling ethanol in bottles and passing it off as klarin. It's frightening that people were drinking straight ethanol for a few years. What I find more frightening, however, is the fact that klarin tastes so similar to a fuel. Drinking klarin is just like drinking any other low quality hard alcohol, only with an added kick comparable to snorting wasabi. Or so I'm told. The Haitians don't mess around.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


I lied. I won’t be talking about classes this time around. I want to collect more photos first. Furthermore, I had a pretty wild experience this morning that I want to get down in words as soon as possible.

My friend Patrice is the pastor at one of the many local protestant churches. I asked him last night over a game of cazino, the most popular Haitian card game, if I could attend this morning’s service with him. He was delighted. The service required me to dress semi formally. This was the first time since arriving that I had put on a pair of pants, and it was just as miserably hot as I anticipated. When we arrived at the church, Patrice escorted me to a seat in the center of the crowd then left to sit by the front and perform his duties as pastor. Surrounded by about seventy Haitians wearing heavy garb in an enclosed space, the temperature in here was easily 10 degrees hotter than outside. I immediately started dripping sweat. Two men in baggy suits then began to prowl throughout the church, literally screaming and spitting in people’s faces. I assume they were reciting parts of the Bible, but this realization didn’t take place until later, and at the time I was thoroughly confused and frightened. When the men finally ended their rampage, the church quieted down a bit. One of them began speaking at a reasonable volume, leading a prayer. Just then a little boy, maybe four years old, walked up and sat down on the ground right in front of me. Starting at this moment and continuing for the rest of the service, he would gently stroke my knee at eight second intervals and say “Blan!” The churchgoers had all been staring at me from the moment I walked in, and many children had run up to touch my skin, but this tiny human was for some reason particularly transfixed by my odd coloring.

While everybody else chanted, I quietly observed the church. The poorest church in the community, it’s structure was basic but beautiful. The roof is made of two large metal sheets supported by a rickety wooden frame. Sheets hang from the metal roof to form the walls. Every surface is decorated with fake flowers and sunlight illuminates the walls, giving the church a very open feeling. We sat on plastic chairs.

Eventually, Patrice took the altar and rang a small bell prompting everyone to stand up in unison. He began singing with a powerful, moving tenor voice. The rest of the church fell in with him, singing slowly and swaying back and forth. Though I didn’t know the words, I hummed and swayed with the rest of them. Little by little, Patrice sped up the music and the people began to sing louder and louder. The boy sitting at my feet began spanking my knee rapidly in time. Before I knew it, drums were playing and everyone was clapping and dancing with joyous abandon. I found myself dancing and clapping along. It was like being on drugs. As the dancing quickened, the temperature of the room rose significantly. The singing continued to grow in volume and my head began ringing with sound of so many voices. The air seemed to shimmer around me. As we neared the peak of our sound and energy, the wind began to blow outside, causing the loosely hung sheets to flap restlessly. The walls were moving. People clutched at my arms and danced with me. The heat was unbearable and I was slick with sweat. More drums joined in the people sang as loud as they could. As volume and fervor reached their climax, I fainted into my chair.

My first thought was that I had kicked the little boy’s head off. Panicking, I frantically looked for him by my feet only to find him giggling away under my chair. Then the priest was standing in front of me offering me a thin book. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the thing until he demonstrated fanning himself off with it. I thanked him and he took me by arm and stood me up, telling me to introduce myself to the church. I spoke to them in kreyol, thanking them for their hospitality and for welcoming me into their church. I told them I hoped to see them in violin class and thank you again for the beautiful beautiful service.

Akeyi. Welcome.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The School

The Hope on a String school is located on the site of an old nightclub. The space is dominated by what was once the dance floor. Circular, with a concrete floor and metal roofing, this open-air center now houses chalkboards and chairs, as well as a hundred students every day. Around the center are hosted other various classes: electrical wiring, leadership seminars, adult literacy, etc. In order to make room for these other classes, Hope on a String knocked down a crumbling stage, a fetid bathroom (a hole in the ground with decaying walls), and a row of prostitute booths. Finally, there’s the administrative building, which houses all the instruments and a desk with all the important paperwork, as well as the beginnings of a library.

It is here that I found the instruments that I would be working with, piled haphazardly in a large cardboard box. Going in, I expected to be able to take quick stock of the number and condition of the violins and then begin formulating my lesson plans. As soon as I opened the first case, however, I realized I had a longer day ahead of me.

The violins were donated by the New York Public Schools, which apparently ran out of funding for many of their beginner’s string classes. “64 violins of varying quality and condition” was the description they gave. The first one had no strings, no bow, and a broken neck. I proceeded to sort the violins into piles: usable, potentials, and junk. The majority of my time was spent working through the pile of potentials—instruments that needed restringing and other maintenance but would ultimately be playable. The most common issue with these violins was a slipped bridge. I imagine that the extreme heat loosened the strings and that a subsequent bump during transportation knocked the bridges out from under them. This is usually a quick and easy fix, but a few of the violins had me stumped—the bridge was nowhere to be found. Then I realized that they had actually somehow fallen down through the sounding holes and into the body of the instruments. This special state of disrepair calls for a procedure I have termed “violin surgery.” The procedure involves grabbing the violin by the neck, holding it upside down, and shaking it like a rattle until the bridge is positioned directly above one of the sounding holes. Then, being careful not to shift the violin in any direction, you use a paperclip to reach up through the sounding hole and move the bridge, or tumor. You gingerly push the back end of the bridge up into the instrument until the front end falls miraculously back down through the hole, life saved. It requires surgical precision and astounding patience. I have powers.

After hours of work, I had gotten through half of the potentials. I expect that when I’m done, there will be only about 25 usable violins, with maybe 10 more still back in the states. In some ways I’m glad. I can’t imagine trying to teach a class by myself to 60 violin-wielding children in a language I don’t speak. There’s a bigger part of me, though, that is deeply upset by the plight of the violins. If simple maintenance measures had been taken by the public schools before allowing them to sit unused in storage for who knows how long, at least 20 more instruments would still be with us today. Every instrument is a gift, and maybe I shouldn’t look a gift violin in the soundpost, but I can’t help but harbor some anger for those who allowed these instruments to waste away.

Next up: Classes!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bonjou, Salut, Bonjour, Bonswa, Bonswa, Bòn nwit.

Outside the airport, Bennett (one of the founders of Hope on a String and an Amherst alumn) and I were met by the program’s Country Director, Lara. With her were her friend Cassy, who will be my interpreter for the children’s violin classes, and our driver Fèlix a.k.a Fefe (fayfay). After exchanging brief introductions, we piled into the car, blissfully air-conditioned, and proceeded to sit for about thirty minutes in standstill traffic before Fefe even put the jeep in gear. Driving in Port-au-Prince is a unique, ridiculous, and terrifying experience. I could not detect the slightest hint of traffic laws. The roads were all dirt, full of large rocks and holes, and there were no traffic lights. Passing on the left, heading directly into oncoming traffic at impressive speeds, is encouraged. All the while you are frequently passing the Haitian taxis, called "tap-taps," which are extravagantly colorful and decorated events on wheels. Although they are often nothing more than embellished trucks, tap-taps will hold around 20 people sometimes stacked one on top of another like legos. These vehicles, too, will hurtle by at absurd speeds. This city was designed by Dr. Seuss.

We made one stop at a bank to exchange American dollars for Haitian gouds. This process involved Fefe quickly grabbing our money and dashing inside, past the guard holding a large shotgun at his side, while we waited in the car. What happened inside the bank I cannot fathom, but twenty minutes later Fefe emerged holding our new, colorful money.

At long last we made it to the village, Corail, in the municipality (or “zon”) of Arcahaie. The first thing I noticed were the walls. Those who can afford them surround their homes with concrete walls topped with barbed wire or broken bottles. Because the wealthiest people live on the main road, it looks like a dusty, dismal hallway.

Our house is beautiful. A soothing yellow color with a generous porch and plenty of treated water, this is my safe place. I have a room and bed to myself, but will be sleeping in a hammock every night due to the heat. The three of us “blans” are living here for now, but Bennett will fly back to New York on Tuesday, leaving the house to me and Lara (and whoever wants to visit).

After getting settled, Bennett and I went for a walk through town. I quickly learned that it is NECESSARY to greet EVERYONE you see, and even those you don't. To walk by somebody without acknowledging them (a simple nod of the head does not suffice) is to insult them. I imagine that this is what ‘nam was like, constantly checking over your shoulder to see if there’s anyone lurking in the shadows or under a tree. At first I thought I looked and sounded ridiculous, waving hands and sending “bonjou’s” in every direction at Bennett’s encouragement, but then I realized that everyone was doing it. Despite its poverty and perhaps because of it, the community is extremely tightly woven.

It was on this walk that I made my first friend, Pato. Pato is a charming mutt who for whatever reason follows us everywhere we go. I guess he has nothing better to do. We instantly became friends when I patted him on the head instead of kicking him in the side (common etiquette towards dogs in these parts). After Pato, Bennett began introducing me to people on the street. Though I don’t remember most of their names, a few stand out. I shook hands with Sexy, a twenty-something-year-old street vendor, talked with Mamai about the weather (hot as hell), and watched Professor Champagne teach a class in beginning flute.  We also ran into Choupit, the most highly regarded vodou priest in town. He mostly stays indoors in solitude but occasionally goes out on his bike, riding so slowly it’s a miracle he stays upright. Wherever he rides, silence and respect surround him. Salut. By the end of our walk, it was past noon, and so bonjou’s became bonswa’s, one of which I unwittingly sent in the direction of the town drunk, Sebyen. When spoken aloud, this name literally means “it’s good”. In response to my greeting, Sebyen raised his bottle and said his own name a few times. Yes, I thought, it's good.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Currently undergoing my second Haitian afternoon, sitting out on the porch of our yellow house. It’s 12:30pm here, the peak heat of the day. From 11am to 2pm daily it’s too hot to stay inside (buildings are like ovens) and too hot to be in the sun. To achieve the thinnest sheen of sweat you find a shady spot and sit as motionless as possible. Afternoons are spent sleeping and relaxing. Even typing feels like an effort. Every 20 minutes I develop a headache, telling me it’s time to drink more water.

Took an early flight from New York to Port-au-Prince yesterday, the biggest cities of their respective countries. The differences in wealth and infrastructure are mindboggling, especially considering their proximity to one another (3½ hour plane ride), but the energy and the bustle are really pretty similar.

The plane ride, too, had its differences. For one, the passengers this time were on average about seventy shades darker. They also seemed less anxious to be on their way: people were hanging out in the aisle, chatting, and shifting their bags in the overhead this way and that until they were completely situated and satisfied. All this contributed to a rough start to the day for Delta Airlines, which had to send a squad of staff back through the aisle to get everyone to sit down and get ready for takeoff. I spent the flight reading David Sedaris and practicing my kreyol.

I managed to snap a couple of photos on our way down into Port-au-Prince. The smoke you see in the photo is, as I learned shortly afterwards during our drive through the city, produced by huge piles of burning trash. There is no system for trash removal and raw sewage runs through open canals throughout the capital city.

Whenever I fly, I always give the pilot a mental letter grade for their landing because, as far as I can tell, this is the only thing that a pilot actually participates in. Abrupt or uneven braking will lose a pilot points, as will the old “double take” (This is when the wheels hit the ground and then the plane bounces up back into the air before making its final landing. This offense will cost a full letter grade.). The landing in Port-au-Prince was one of the most jarring ones I’ve experienced, but the pilot was hardly to blame. They used some poor approximation of cement to pave this runway, the only one in the city. I assume that after the earthquake, the heavy air traffic took its toll on the pavement, resulting in a less than warm welcome to the country. This was almost immediately offset by the group of Haitian musicians playing twoubadou (Haitian folk music) to welcome us to their country (as well as to advertise Digicel, the main cell provider). I say “almost immediately” because before we could go through customs, we had to walk down off the plane onto the hot tarmac and board a bus to take us to the temporary offsite customs building (the airport is still in shambles). Nonetheless, I was delighted to get my first taste of Haitian music. Looking forward to more.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Leaving The Shire

Sitting in a plane (Delta, window seat), red-eye flight from LAX to JFK. I’ll be stopping in New York for a couple days before departing for Haiti in order to wrap up a few pre-quest details. Wasn’t planning on writing this post; wasn’t planning on writing anything until I arrived in Port-au-Prince—however, the mood struck.

If the last few weeks have been spent preparing myself logistically for this trip (sending emails, making phone calls, securing my grant from Amherst, visiting REI, etc.), the last few days have been spent preparing myself mentally. What this means, exactly, is that I entered a self-induced stupor of relaxation and lethargy that should, by all social standards, be reserved only for newly born babies and the terminally ill. Unlike babies and dying people, I’ve been gorging myself on food and drink, exploring the many eateries that Los Angeles has to offer (I recommend Umami) and enjoying the company of friends. Perhaps my subconscious was doing its best to prepare me for the hectic months ahead or perhaps I’m just lazy, but whichever the case, it has been a great surprise, despite so many months of anticipation and planning, to actually find myself on this plane, nursing the shattered remains of my slothful self.

These past few days had left me in a state of neutrality and composure: when my mom asked me, a few hours before this flight, how and what I was feeling with regards to the trip, I told her in all honesty that I felt nothing. No anxiety and no great excitement. I liked the idea of being a blank slate. This blankness followed me through check-in (the sequence of self check-in at diagonally grouped kiosks followed by check-in with an employee at the standard horizontal desk, both of which have long lines, seems to me a cruel perversion of geometry and social hierarchy) and it followed me through security. I can only imagine the vacant look I had on my face while waiting for the security agent to meticulously blacklight every millimeter of my driver’s license. Combining this empty facial expression with the rifle-holder-styled viola case tucked under my arm, it’s a wonder I got through security without hassle.

The blankness even followed me onto the plane, shuffling past the frowns and Blackberries of first class and into the hectic, though generally more life-content arena of economy. Upon take-off, however, I felt a sudden onset of anticipation. I began visualizing everything that could possibly happen in these next couple months; everything that could go wrong and everything that could go right. With all these thoughts bouncing around in my head, it’s hard to sit still and impossible to sleep, and it is this barrage of anticipation that has led to the long and wildly uninteresting post that you have so kindly read.

I need a distraction. I almost wish they would replay the safety video featuring the creepy southerners who assure me that whether or not the bag inflates, oxygen will surely be flowing through the mask. I’ll never believe it.

That’s all for now. More (and more interesting) posts to follow.