To state the completely obvious, I'm not in Manhattan anymore. When night descends on Leogane, the darkness is near complete. The dirt road outside HODR basecamp, which leads down to Jackson Bar & Little Venice (another local watering hole the HODR volunteers like to relax at), is lit almost exclusively by oil burning cook stoves in street vendor lean-tos. Without a headlamp, or the occasional headlights from a passing car, it's far too easy to end up ankle-deep in a puddle. A few nights ago my cheap Hurley sandals broke when I slipped into a puddle next to a massive and disgusting garbage heap (as if San Diego bro culture didn't already give me enough reason to hate Hurley). The end result was my bare foot sinking into the muck. I was lucky no broken glass was waiting for me, or I might have a seriously nasty infection right now. But hey, it's Haiti. Roll with the punches, or slips, or what have you. I finished my walk to Little Venice, drank my Prestige with some friends, then headed back to HODR to wash up.
Haiti doesn't feel particularly dangerous to me. I know, having done the reading and heard the stories, that Haiti definitely can be dangerous, but I also can't help but think that yes, that's true, but the same could be said for New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles or any of the other myriad places I've lived. OK, that isn't a totally fair comparison given, on average, those cities are safer than Haiti, but I will say I would much rather find myself alone in downtown Leogane at night than East New York or Hunters Point or South Central. Obviously, Haiti has a set of health-related risks that are unique (malaria, dengue fever, typhoid, really nasty spider bites, contaminated food & water, etc.) but the threat of inter-personal violence doesn't feel real to me here. Every Haitian I've met is either downright out and out friendly, or if not that, slightly more reserved but curious. I've not yet felt threatened by anyone. Granted, people who know Haiti tell me Leogane is a relatively mellow part of the country. Port au Prince or Gonaives, a coastal city in the north, are supposedly a different ball game altogether. But even taking that into consideration, the more I travel the more I feel like the reported dangers of leaving the safe bubble of First World life are completely overstated, if not all together wrong. It makes me happy for the chance to see the true realities on the ground, and not what popular Western culture and media would like you to believe is reality.
This last week has been very eventful, hence the gap between updates. That and the internet here is anything but predictable. Some days updating the blog is easy, other days not much at all is happening in my browser. The biofilter project is ramping up now - Paddy, Leah, Will, Henri and myself (the five people who are the core of the biofilter team) have been running our respective duties. Leah put together the training materials we're going to use to get the local and international volunteers ramped up on what we're doing and why. Will has been running a lot of the logistical stuff - putting together checklists, helping figure out the layout for our work area, etc. Paddy and I, and occasionally Henri, have been the two in charge of sourcing everything. I really like it - cruising around Leogane and the outskirts looking for sand, gravel, carpenters, tools, etc. We also built a sand sift today, perhaps one of the easiest carpentry jobs ever, and came to realize we both should really never be near any woodworking projects. Ever. And yet, somehow, we finished the damn thing, only to have another volunteer put his foot right through the mesh not more than twenty seconds after we were showing it off to Henri (the project leader). Luckily for us, that volunteer just so happens to be a handy with all things wood, so he'll likely fix it and improve it all in one shot.
The big push before the project can really kick off is building the workspace for it. The biofilter project is one of the more substantial projects HODR is taking on so we need to plan and develop a place to actually build them. After running over some ideas with Mark, the operations director for HODR and top dog here at HODR Leogane, we got everything finalized, and supposedly the Bobcats will be out tomorrow for a half a day, leveling the plot of land adjacent to our building so the concrete teams can come in and lay a work slab for us. I'm excited. A lot of the volunteers here have expressed interest in the biosand program, so it'll be good to get prep done and the filters actually coming off the assembly line.
Sand hunting for the biofilters led us here, where we found the sand we needed.
Getting a local carpenter to make us a prototype lid for the filters.
Another project I've recently gotten involved with is the orphanage education program HODR has. This last Tuesday and Thursday, I've headed out to what is essentially a big UNICEF tent in the middle of a field that serves as a classroom for kids from the orphanage, and the many neighborhood kids that also opt to come to be part of the fun. Tuesday was challenging - I've come to realize that, while I do love kids, I sometimes just don't have the patience for them. The kids at the orphanage range from very young (four or five) up to maybe twelve or thirteen. When you get forty of fifty of them together, it can get hectic, and not knowing enough Creole yet to calm them down or regain control of the classroom, sometimes it feels a bit more like loosely moderated chaos instead of a learning environment, or so was my first impression. Thursday was a different situation though - the kids were much more focused and wanting to engage with us, and the project leader, Angie, was incredible. She's a teacher by trade, and it was clear she was in her element. She actually managed to get the entire tent quiet. And here I was becoming convinced that was an impossibility... Well played Angie, and Caitlyn too, Angie's partner in the orphanage project. We ran a finger-painting activity and, as simple as we may think that is, the kids just became completely absorbed in it. I doubt many of them, if any, get to do that often, if at all. By the end of the class, the kids didn't want to leave, and our tap-tap was late, so Nathan (another volunteer) and I entertained some of them by trying to hit trees with rocks. They laughed every time we missed, but I managed to knock a coconut loose and they laughed as I did my American football end zone dance with it. Hacking the coconut up with a machete later back at camp proved to be a lot more difficult than it looks.
Teaching Haitian orphans (and plenty of neighborhood kids too).
Scattering for the day after class finishes.
I'm loving being here. My appreciation for Haiti and the Haitian people grows daily. During the meetings we have at HODR basecamp every evening (except Sunday) any volunteers that are leaving have a chance to say whatever they'd like. A volunteer today said something I loved - "No matter how much we give to Haiti, we can never match what Haiti gives to us." It felt so true. I've only been here just over two weeks and something inside me is already changing, growing. I'm starting to feel that this type of work is truly where my focus and drive want to be applied. I had always assumed as much, but being on the ground now, I get to experience it and test that assumption. We shall see as the months go on, today is Day 16. If I remember correctly, I'll be here until Day 201, assuming I opt not to extend. I'm just beginning this adventure. Many, many experiences lay ahead.
And yet, in the middle of the beauty of the people and the places and the work here, there are stark reminders of why I'm here to begin with. Today, while Paddy and I were motorcycling around Leogane (motorcycle taxis are the transportation of choice for one or two people) we stopped at the shop of one of the carpenters we have making prototype lids for our water filters. As Paddy worked out some things, I took a look around the neighborhood. Across the street was a big building, a factory or something by the look of it, with graffiti scrawled on the side in big black print - "SOS. 180 MORTS." 180 dead. One building. Bodies are no longer being recovered at this point, but if you look around you, the reminders are there.
8:19PM now. I still need to shower. Today was a busy day. I started by building the aforementioned terrible sand sifter this morning then worked with Paddy and Will on finalizing the biofilter work site proposition for Mark. After lunch, we had a lull in the biofilter project so Paddy and I jumped on the tap-tap headed to the Rochelin rubble site and got our smash on. Actually, I hurt my shoulder doing some heavy sledging last week, so I got my shovel / brown recluse hunting on to give it a chance to heal. Brown recluses are common here in Haiti, and I've already come across two of them. Inevitably, some volunteers get bit. When they do, they're immediately sent to the hospital. At Rochelin, something like six or seven recluses came out of the rubble piles. I only saw one, but kept my wits about me. Paddy had one crawl up his boot before he killed it. Yet, while I knew to expect recluses, the threat I didn't expect today was death by mango. OK, I exaggerate, not death, but at least a healthy headache. The high winds that rode in on the storm that hit today shook the mango tree we were working under, so suddenly and without warning, my little shoveling session was interrupted by mangoes crashing to the ground all around me. It was hilarious - seeing all of us rugged looking volunteers scrambling for cover to avoid getting cold-cocked by fruit. When in Haiti...
The storms are almost daily, and I had to relocate my tent yesterday after I came back to base to find my little roof-lake front property had become just roof-lake property. Half my tent was floating. Luckily, it has a bathtub bottom on it, so the water didn't leak in, but until I can secure a good chunk of cinderblocks, I had to leave the neighborhood. For shame, I rather liked my neighbors...
Alright, always more to share, always more to write, but my eyelids are getting heavy now, and tomorrow I'm headed out to a tent camp set up by one of our sister organizations here, SASH (Sustainable Aid Supporting Haiti), to replace ten or so tents that got wrecked by yesterday's winds. I'm looking forward to meeting the rest of the SASH team (they're small). I met a few of them when I went camping at Jacksonville Beach last weekend, as it is right next to their camp. Good people.