Tuesday, July 24, 2007

My last day with Andre

It's weird to be back in a country where I know the language. After two weeks in Haiti I was getting used to puzzling over the signs, zoning out conversations that didn't concern me, and straining to catch French words here and there when I did care. French is the official language of Haiti, but I believe only 40% of the people can speak it. Everyone in Andre's family is well-educated so I could get by with my broken French. And of course I had Andre to translate.

Today is my last day with Andre before I fly back to California tomorrow for a month. Yesterday we did last-minute souvenir shopping, visited friends, and played racquetball until the power went out at the courts. Andre will get coaching from brothers Alberto and Danelo while I'm gone. I told them that I expect him to get more than three points on me before late August or early September when I come back to DR.

On Saturday at the courts, we met an American named Joseph Kruchten who owns the only racquetball court on the north coast of DR. He and his Dominican girlfriend run a guesthouse and racquetball court outside of Puerto Plata (www.loase.com). They invited us to come stay there, but we'll have to do it next time since I'm leaving. Joseph, or Jose as they call him here, is a year older than I am and started playing racquetball in the late 1970s (I started in 1974), so we know a lot of the same old-timers in the game. It was fun to reminisce together.

I don't know what our plan is for today. I'm still hoping I'll be able to see Margarita's grandson. He was born on 7-7-2007. Seems like an auspicious day. She's really sad that her son and daughter-in-law moved into their own apartment a few months ago. She can't get enough of her only grandchild. I'd like to take photos of the little guy.

We're also going to get together with Nena, our police officer friend, whose baby is due in early Sept. I'll be asking friends in Santa Cruz for donations of used baby clothes, an umbrella stroller, a kangaroo pouch, etc. so I can bring them to her when I come back. We had talked about doing a baby shower, but Andre and I didn't stay in Santo Domingo very much this time, and Nena's best friend Antonia is working near Punta Cana several hours away, so she couldn't have participated. Besides, I don't think Nena's friends have any more money than she does.

Babies, babies, babies. Seeing mothers with their daughters still makes me cry. I do get excited whenever Andre and I talk about kids, even if it's way too soon for that subject. It sounds so conventional to me to raise a boy and a girl with a husband -- a real nuclear family. We've even discussed which language he would speak with the kids: Creole or French. On the one hand, Creole would be great because it's Andre's mother tongue, the one he speaks best, that he loves the most. Then the kids could speak with everyone when we go down to Haiti for vacations. But French is tempting because of its universal appeal. They could still communicate in Haiti, but also in France, Canada, other Caribbean islands, many African countries. So I don't know, but if you have an opinion, let me know. Even if it is way too early to decide.

To my friends in Santa Cruz, I'll be seeing you soon. I miss all of you, the cool foggy mornings, being able to walk around at night. I just wish Andre could come back with me now instead of having to wait until Feb. or March of next year. Hopefully, this will be our last separation.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Back in Santo Domingo


We took the Caribe Tours bus back from Port-au-Prince to Santo Domingo on Friday. The trip takes most of the day, but didn't seem as long this time because we made friends in the back of the bus. The conversation started out in English, then switched to Spanish. By the time they settled into Creole I pulled out my reading book, The Farming of Bones by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat. I enjoyed her first book Breath, Eyes, Memory and have another one, Krik? Krak! waiting for me in Santa Cruz. I'll be there after midnight on Wednesday, July 25.

It's funny how much richer and cleaner Santo Domingo looks after two weeks in Haiti. I hadn't noticed the difference so much the other direction. I guess I was expecting Haiti to be worse after everything I'd heard. They say kidnapping of foreigners is popular, but with all the U.N. soldiers everywhere, the place seemed pretty mellow. Most of the fighting was over prices, but the yelling usually ended with smiles and laughter. I told Andre I'm more Haitian than he is because I'm so animated and he's more reserved.

Andre acted surprised (and probably relieved) that his relatives liked me so much. Hey, what's not to like? My camera also helps make friends, too. With digital you can show people their image right away, which they liked. Andre's brother Johnny, the police officer, asked me when they are going to meet my family. I explained that I have very little family -- my dad and his wife Judith, no brothers or sisters, one aunt and uncle and their three kids. Somehow I can't picture my dad and Judith coming to Haiti. They think Santa Cruz is too far and too bizarre.

Andre's beautiful grandmother asked if she was invited to our wedding. She's 77 years old and has never left Haiti. I'm sure she has no idea how far away California is or how big the U.S. is. But she was ready to come to our wedding, which will probably be in May 2008 if things go as planned in our relationship and with U.S. immigration. Andre should get his residency six months after marriage, so that means hopefully we'll travel to Haiti in December 2008 for a big wedding reception for all his family and friends.

Our relationship almost ended in Jacmel when I bought some items from a voodoo vender in the marketplace -- a small mirror, some handmade candles, wooden maracas, and a rustic metal cross. Andre wanted me to throw everything except the maracas into the ocean. I told him we should talk first because these things mean nothing to me more than curiosities. I didn't realize he believes in voodoo. He and his family are Christians, which was obvious with all the Bibles, prayer sessions and beautiful Christian songs they sing.

Andre says that voodoo killed his uncle and his grandfather. But an unexplained illness isn't enough to convince me that voodoo is real. I believe that people invent superstitions to explain what they can't understand. In the case of Maya's death from brain cancer, I could easily believe in evil. But instead I choose to believe the doctors at Stanford.

Once Andre realized that I wasn't planning to use these objects for evil rituals he let me keep them. I would have thrown them in the ocean to save our relationship. But this time it wasn't necessary.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Jacmel, Haiti

Well, the dinner with the Americans didn't go exactly as planned. A thunder storm with torrential rains got in the way. Andre thought we wouldn't go at all, but his friend with the car, Francois, and his girlfriend, called to say they were on the way. Just running from the house to the car with an umbrella we were both soaked. Francois had to drive very slowly to avoid all the lakes, stranded vehicles, and potholes big enough to swallow a car. It didn't help that we had vague directions to a wealthy neighborhood that none of us were familiar with and Francois' cell phone with the number I'd given our hostess, was out of charge. By some miracle, we finally arrived -- two hours late -- just as the rains stopped.

Barbara's house was huge and well lit, with R&B music drifting out into the night. The security guard showed us in. Because of the music, Barbara didn't hear us knocking at first. She'd invited some friends from the U.S. embassy and it appeared that they weren't too inconvenienced by our late arrival. They'd been trying to call, but finally ate Barbara's delicious chicken curry, followed by brownies for dessert. Unfortunately, we had to take ours to go because Francois and his girlfriend were too afraid of driving in Port-au-Prince at such a late hour (8:30 p.m.). Everyone keeps talking about the dangers of Haiti, but I have yet to see anything that looks remotely scary.

While Barbara served us drinks and brownies and packed the dinner in tupperware, I had a chance to chat briefly with her and her friends.. One gal was complaining that her hot showers lasted only 12 minutest. I told her she was lucky because I've had nothing but cold splash baths with water brought up from a well. The Americans all had generators to back up any power outages, but in their neighborhoods the outages were infrequent.

I asked Barbara about the waterfront, since from the map and from the name I assumed Port-au-Prince is a port city. Neither Andre or Francois knew of any waterfront. Barbara said the Haitians destroyed it. They filled a lot of it in with junk, she said. The USAID offices used to be down there, but they had to move. There even was a Club Med on one of the beaches north of town, but that's long abandoned as well. I asked about the garbage. She said they have landfills, but can't figure out how to get the garbage to them.

The next morning Andre and I took a bus up and over the mountains to a beautiful, historic coastal town of 15,000 called Jacmel. Our bus was greeted by dozens of moto-taxis. We hopped on one and were taken to the perfect hotel, right on the water, with lots of charms and a view of kids playing soccer on the sand. For $70 we have a nice, large room with a view of the water and breakfast included. It even has hot water, a fan and AC. And no TV! Yeah, I'm happy.

We have the whole day today to explore the town, which we both agree would be a nice place to live. It's only two hours by bus to his family in Port-au-Prince, so if he can't get his visa to the U.S., you might find me here in Jacmel. It even has a decent cyber cafe where they let me hook up my MacBook for $1 an hour.

I'm really feeling like Haiti gets a bad rap. The country is so beautiful, aside from the garbage everywhere, the people are really friendly even though they haven't been trained in how to give good service, the food is delicious when it finally arrives an hour later, and the beaches are gorgeous and empty. Dominican Republic, which shares this island, is teeming with Europeans and Americans, tourists and ex-pats. Here the only foreigners you see are U.N.,soldiers, missionaries and charity workers. It's definitely not a cheap place to travel and the tourist facilities are pretty rough for the price you have to pay, but what potential there is. Poor Andre gets way more frustrated than I do. He admits he could never live here again and even his mother told him the same. He's gotten used to a higher standard of living in Dominican Republic, but wait until he arrives in California next spring, God willing. He'll definitely only come back to Haiti as a tourist and to visit his family. I hope we'll be coming back together each year, maybe in December when it's not so hot.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Les Cayes, Haiti

Wow! So much to write about since the last time. I don't even think I'd arrived in Haiti yet and now we've been here more than a week and planning our last few days. It's been such a great experience. I'd always wanted to visit Haiti, but never imagined it would be with a Haitian boyfriend to meet his family.

Andre says I passed the test. He says everyone in his family loves me so much. They are all so sweet and friendly. My age doesn't seem to be an issue at all. In Port-au-Prince, we stayed at his sister Marjorie's, with her husband Lesly and 7-month-old son Joel. What a joy to have a baby in the house. He is so mellow compared to Ms. Maya who was tremendous. They can even leave Joel in a playpen or stroller in the house and he's totally content. Maya's life was go-go-go in comparison. Andre's mother is also staying at Marjorie's while she recuperates from a massive hysterectomy. She showed us her scar from the surgery. Wow! They cut her across the stomach, like they used to in the old days in the U.S.

Haiti is nowhere near as poor or dangerous as I'd heard. It doesn't seem much different from Dominican Republic except there are very few foreign tourists. I feel sorry for Haiti because they have some of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen, but no one will come here because of the reputation for violence and poverty. Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispanola, does a great job of attracting European and American tourists. But so far, I haven't seen anything attractive about Port-au-Prince, the capitol city. It doesn't have a nice colonial zone like Santo Domingo does, and it's piled high with garbage and suffers from horrendous traffic.

On Sunday we watched the finals for the American Cup between Brazil and Argentina. Andre was outnumbered by all the Brazil fans who jumped up and danced every time Brazil scored. Final score 3-0. The power went out at Marjorie's house just as Andre and Lesly got the TV set up on the patio to get out of the heat of the house. So we had to go to the mechanic shop in the neighborhood because they have a generator. Andre and Lesly helped pitch in for the gasoline to run the generator. I was surprised how many women and children are completely fanatic about "football" as soccer is called everywhere else in the world. I asked Andre why he didn't jump up and dance (besides the fact that he wanted Argentina to win). He said, I'm a fanatic, but I'm not sick.

Andre and I went off to an island paradise at the suggestion of our friend Khadija who used to work for USAID:Haiti. She had her going-away party just days before I arrived in DR. She's enjoying the summer off with her daughters before going off on her next mission in Sudan, Africa. Ile-a-Vache was everything Khadija promised. The French couple who run Hotel Port Morgan are really sweet and their accommodations are very nice. The views of the bay were so romantic, and the AC was a nice touch. We took a 9-passenger plane from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes, a taxi to the dock, and speed boat from there, all arranged by the hotel. On the way back we stayed in Les Cayes, a colorful quiet town where I had a field day walking around and taking photographs. The next morning we took the bus back to Port-au-Prince, scoring seats up front with the drivers. Another scenic adventure for 4-1/2 hours.

Tonight we're having dinner with some friends of Khadija's. It will be nice to see how the other side lives here in Port-au-Prince. In Marjorie's neighborhood they're lucky to get electricity for more than a couple of hours a day and water has to be pulled up from a well. Drinking water is bought in 5-gallon bottles and a bag of ice is purchased daily to cool the drinks. No one has a refrigerator, but without electricity, what good would they be anyway. Same for a fan.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Andre and I took the bus from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince on Sunday, which lasted most of the day. Andre warned me that the border crossing would be horrible, but compared to my experience in third-world countries, it was nothing. No military, just U.N., nothing scary, no bribes, they didn't even look at our baggage. It took a long time because they do it in a Stone Age fashion. First we had to wait on the bus a long time, then everyone piled into an office where our passports were stacked on a desk. An uninspired clerk called out the names one-by-one and waited until the owner of the passport responded. Once he went through all of them, the passports were taken to another office. Again, we waited while they called out our names all over again, this time adding a stamp and returning the passports so we could continue our journey.

I'd been told by one of the owners of the hotel where Andre used to work in Santo Domingo that Haiti is "another world." I really haven't found it to be that different from Dominican Republic, except that they speak French and Creole instead of Spanish. Also, the power outages last most of the day, instead of just a few hours. For a treat, the power came on at the beginning of the semi-finals of the America Cup last night and went off just as Brasil finished off Uruguay 5-4. I doubt that was a coincidence since Haiti is crazy for soccer. Tonight we'll be watching Mexico vs. Argentina in the 2nd semi-finals. This will be our first fight. I'm rooting for Mexico and Andre wants Argentina to win. But how can I turn my back on Maya's birthland, the country that was 8 miles from my childhood home?

We stayed 3 nights with Andre's sister Marjory, her husband Lesly, their 7-month-old nephew Joel and his mother Maude who is recuperating from a major hysterectomy. They obviously haven't gotten word yet that you don't need to cut a woman completely open to take out her uterus. Maude just had the operation 2 weeks ago, so her recovery period will be much longer still. She's on complete bed rest, on a cot in the carport/patio where we all hang out during the daytime heat. They don't have a refrigerator, but since they hardly get electricity, what would be the point? They have a well instead of running water, so they pull up bucketfuls as needed, to bathe and flush the toilet, etc. Otherwise, the house looks very modern since it was just built a year ago. Marjory's husband is a teacher of French, Creole and French Literature, so they're definitely middle class. He told me that elementary school teachers earn about $60 a month. We spent $30 on lunch for four in a restaurant, so I don't know how they make it when everything is so expensive.

Instead of taking taxis or tam-tams (pick-ups that are covered in back), we pay gas money to a friend of Andre's youngest brother Reginald. It's somewhere between $4 to $6 a gallon. I can't figure out the money at all because it's a mixture of Haitian dollars, gourdes, U.S. dollars and Dominican pesos. I just let Andre pay for eveyrthing because he seems to understand it better. Very few roads are paved, so Francois, our driver, goes really slowly and carefully to take care of his nice car. Yesterday, Andre's stepfather showed up with another neighbor with his car. He had to restart it a million times in traffic until he pulled off and put water in the radiator. Andre started laughing as I pulled out my videocamera to document our whole group pushing the car off the road with people crowded all around.

Looks like I've passed the test with Andre's family. My crash course to relearn French seems to keep them laughing at least. Lesly speaks good English, Reginald knows some too. I pick up enough of their Creole conversations to know what's going on. I've taken tons of photos and video. My age hasn't been an issue at all. I had him ask his mother if she had any questions for me. She wanted to know how I was handling the heat. I suggested to him she might want to know what my intentions are with him. He's already told her that we're planning to marry next year after he arrives in California, if all goes as we anticipate. She said the important thing is that we love each other.

I was really happy to meet his grandmother. She's the one he credits for making him such a gentleman. You can tell, even though she's in her early 80s, that she's a beautiful, educated woman. She was so sweet and clearly happy to meet me too. She's suffering from anemia, brought on by lack of appetite. I told Andre I'm afraid she won't live much longer because it sounds like someone who's getting tired of living.

Today we arrived via 9-seater plane, taxi and speedboat, on an island paradise called Isle a Vache (Cow Island) off southern Haiti. The Hotel Port Morgan (one of two on the island) is owned by a very nice French couple. We were served an exquisite lunch of quiche, rice, bread and butter, fish with sauce, green salad with sauce, and for dessert what looked and tasted just like flan but was called creme something-or-other, but not brulee. It was filling, but not heavy. Andre is sleeping it off in our air-conditioned room. I'm taking advantage of internet in the office, surrounded by smoking French women.

This would be the place to bring someone if you wanted them to fall in love with you forever. I'll have to post photos soon. It really is another world.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Punta Cana

Andre and I spent three days at an all-inclusive resort called Natura Park Eco-Reserve on the east coast of D.R. near Punta Cana. Our friends Hubert and Antonia invited us to join them there. Hubert is from NJ and speaks mostly English. Antonia is Dominican and speaks mostly Spanish. I introduced them last summer when Maya and I invited Antonia and her friend Nena to join us at a time share in Cabarete on the north shore of D.R.

Overall, I wouldn't reccomend Natura Park. It was overpriced for what you got, which always dampens the good time I could be having. Their website -- both Hubert and I remember seeing it -- promises free wireless DSL in the rooms. Instead, they had a tiny internet center where you pay $5 per half hour online. Which is why I'm writing this blog entry back in Santo Domingo.

The night before our departure Andre got a terrible toothache. The Tylenol a neighbor gave him wasn't enough. There is a 24-hour pharmacy not far from here, but he considers it too risky to go out at night for any reason. So he spent the whole night in pain. I gave him an ice pack and had him gargle with salt water, but didn't know what else we could do. I was hoping it was just a cavity and wishing for a really good dentist, not a typical third-world dentist who pulls teeth first and asks questions after. So I found some names online of dentists who had studied in the U.S.

Finally around 5 a.m. I convinced Andre it was safe to walk over to the pharmacy. The painkillers they recommended for molars worked really well. I called the resort in Punta Cana, hoping to change the reservation for the next day. The receptionist recommended a good dentist not far from the hotel. I gave him a call and he said he could see Andre that afternoon, so we went ahead with our travel plans.

Five hours and four buses later (we were told it would take 3 hours), we arrived at Natura Park resort. The dentist picked us up in his SUV and drove us back to where we'd been an hour ago waiting for a bus. I thought it was strange that we'd called him several times along the way and not once did he recommend we come to him first since it was on the way.

As it turned out, Andre had an infected wisdom tooth that wasn't able to break through the gum. The dentist did a quick surgery, charged us $200, then took us to the pharmacy for another $50 worth of pain killers, antibiotics, cotton balls, mouth washes, sprays and a special tooth paste. At least, he was very competent and Andre was able to enjoy life again. It looks like it's healed really well.

The good points about the resort were the garden setting, the white sandy beach, the friendly staff, and the seafood restaurant. The beach was lined with palms, the seaweed that washed up was raked and wheelbarrowed away daily, there were few tourists and almost no vendors. The water was clear and warm, so I spent a lot of time swimming and floating. Andre doesn't swim and has an unrealistic fear of sharks, but I got him to hit the volleyball back and forth in the water with me. Even with sunblock, I got burnt, so I had to wear a t-shirt after the first day.

We had hoped to play more sports, but the ping pong tables and pool table were out of commission. We did work out in the gym once. And Andre joined some Spaniards, Germans and Italians in an exciting game of soccer, but it was hard to control the ball because of the sand. Afterwards, all of the players were coated in sweat and sand. I was the hero who brought a pitcher of water over from the bar.

Hubert and Antonia used my translation services to work through a lot of their misunderstandings. Hubert is my age and Antonia is younger than Andre, so they have that difference as well. I can understand Antonia's frustration because Hubert is only able to come down for 3 or 4 days every two or three months. He's in the beginning of what looks like an ugly divorce with one little boy in the middle. The good news is, because she's a tourist police she thinks she could get a visa to visit Hubert in the U.S. Andre and I were forced to apply for a fiance visa and wait nine months since he's Haitian and not wealthy.

As an environmentalist, I was very disappointed by the "eco-reserve" part of the resort. They claimed to be ecological by not changing sheets or washing towels. They also saved a lot of energy by having air-conditioners that barely cooled the rooms. But they used plastic cups by the thousands.

The tropical garden setting was beautiful, with flamingos and other exotic birds roaming around. The geese, however, kept attacking the guests, which was quite comical unless you were their target. The nightly entertainment was mostly karaoke, but the best show was when staff members dressed up like famous stars such as Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, and the Supremes and then danced and did lip-sync to their hits. Really talented!

Somehow we got lucky on the bus ride back to Santo Domingo. We got here with two buses in three hours, just as we were supposed to. It's funny, but I feel more relaxed and at home here in Andre's little apartment than at the so-called 5-star resort.

The next day we went to the Brasilian embassy with our fingers crossed and guess what? Andre got the three-month multiple entry visa. Even the consulate himself came out to shake our hands. Andre thinks it's because of Brazil's and Haiti's mutual love of soccer. With a multiple-entry visa we might be able to go to other South American countries also. We'll probably go from September to December, come back and spend Christmas with his family in Haiti, and then visit Jamaica in January if he can get a visa. By then we should be just be a month or two away from getting his U.S. visa. I think I'll keep my fingers crossed that everything goes well between now and then.

Tomorrow is the Big Day. We travel six hours by bus to Port-au-Prince to meet his family. Andre's never brought a girlfriend home before, so this is the Big Deal. I've been doing a crash course to relearn the broken French I knew years ago. It's coming back, but the pronounciation is always the hard part about French for me. I feel like I'm imitating some cheesy movie when I try to pronounce it right. Andre has to repeat the words over and over until he's satisfied that I'll be understood. If I could just read and write with his family I'd be fine. I'm even trying to learn a few Creole phrases so they'll have more to laugh at.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Daily life in Santo Domingo

I've been getting used to life in Santo Domingo. I expected it to be hot, and guess what? It is. I must take at least 8 cold showers a day. It helps me to feel better for about five minutes. And then I want another cold shower.

Another change is the daily power outages. Usually we lose power from 6-9 p.m. and then again around 3-7 a.m. We try to plan on being out in the evening, often walking along the waterfront or on El Conde, the pedestrian shopping zone. Great for people watching. Otherwise, there's not much to do in a small, hot, dark room with little ventilation. The only window is a screened opening above the door.

Somehow, there aren't any flying insects or mosquitos around here. Maybe they couldn't fly far enough to reach the island of Hispaniola. That's lucky because when the power goes out in the middle of the night, I wake up suffocating and open the door. And take another cold shower, of course.

We've been playing racquetball every evening for at least two hours at the Olympic Sports complex. Santo Domingo has one of the best racquetball clubs I've ever seen. Eight glass-wall courts, two exhibition courts with stadium seating. The club was built for the Pan American Games just about 8 years ago. They have lot of great players and a strong Juniors program, too.

We get to the racquetball courts by communal taxi, usually about 20 minutes depending on traffic. The taxi costs 12 pesos each (about 35 cents US). Maximum capacity is 7 passengers, two up front with the driver and four in the back seat. Depending on the size of the butts, you get pretty upclose and personal with total strangers. On the way home, for some reason, we usually have to take two taxis.

Andre and his cousin Patricio are members of a nice gym, walking distance from here. I've been working out with them 3x a week. I used to think I hated gyms, but I really enjoy the work-out.

Andre's neighbor is a stay-at-home housewife and mother. She and Andre work a deal where she cooks for him. It's great because her cooking is fresher, tastier and healthier (less salt and oil) than what you find on the streets. Andre's studio doesn't really have a kitchen, just a small propane camping-style stove, no sink, a small fridge. So we're not really set up for cooking here. What Miguelina makes is enough for lunch and dinner. A typical meal has rice, some kind of meat dish (Andre loves meat, so I let him eat that), a salad, and fried bananas. She often makes zapote or mango smoothies or passion fruit drinks too.

Tomorrow we take off for an all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana, about 3 hours from here. Some friends are staying there and invited us to join them. Usually I don't like fancy resorts, but it will be a nice respite from the heat. I'm looking forward to AC, a pool, and a beach. We're just going to stay 3 nights, then come back to Santo Domingo for a few days, then off to Haiti.