Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Search for Andre's Birthfather's Family: Jan. 29, 2008

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Garbage is still a huge problem in Haiti, 2. Some nice old architecture, but mostly concrete block, 3. Haiti is more mountainous than Switzerland, 4. Haitians cut down tons of trees, mainly to make charcoal for cooking, 5. This means: "Don't pee here, you pig." It's a newly constructed booth for Carnival next weekend, 6. Andre and driver Wilson at heroes statue in main plaza, 7. Me with Andre's beloved grandma, 8. Grandma kicks up her heels with some of Andre's cousins, 9. Andre and his Aunt Gertrude, 10. Cousin Barbara and Aunt Gertrude, 11. Neighbor GooGoo and cousin Johanne, Andre's mother Maude with her mother, Andre with nephew Joel, 14. Polenta, salad, goat stew, and pureed beans. Yum!

Andre’s mother doesn’t like to talk about his father. Andre grew up knowing very little about the man who left his mother before he was born. Supposedly, when he found out that Maude was pregnant he told her to abort the child. That ended their relationship forever.

Andre spent his early years on his grandfather’s ranch in a tiny village called Duval. Meanwhile, his mother moved to Port-au-Prince and within a few years, she met and married his stepfather. They have four children – Marjorie, Johnny, Reginald and Beatrice. Marjorie is married and has a one-year-old son named Joel. Johnny just finished his police academy training and is working in the capitol and living at home. Reginald and Beatrice are still studying.

Majorie’s husband Lesly is from the same village in southern Haiti as Andre’s father. By coincidence, his father and Andre’s father were friends. I used to think that Andre’s aunts backed up his mother’s story that his father was dead so he wouldn’t look for him. But Lesly confirmed that it’s true. Lesly knew Andre’s father, an older half-brother, and a female cousin. Andre’s paternal grandparents died just a few years ago, but Lesly knew them as well.

A few nights ago we were talking to Lesly about Andre’s desire to meet some of his biological family, particularly his brother who Lesly says has the same nose and eyes as Andre. He’s about 40 and taller than Andre.

For the first time, Andre learned his father’s name: Pierre. On Andre’s birth certificate his maternal grandfather is listed as the father, which made it confusing when we filled out the application for the fiancé visa. Which father should we use? His grandfather who raised him and is listed on the birth certificate? His stepfather? Or the birth father whose name he only recently learned? We finally settled on the grandfather.

Lesly also revealed a surprising fact: Pierre was a soldier! Andre has wanted to be a soldier all his life, having grown up with his mother’s father, a retired soldier. And when Clinton sent 20,000 Marines to restore order to Haiti, 14-year-old Andre couldn’t help but be impressed. The Marines were so professional and organized. He still dreams of joining the U.S. Marines. Imagine me -- a complete pacifist and anti-war protestor --married to a Marine. But my attitude is everyone should go after their dream, otherwise he’ll be an old man, still regretting that he never was a soldier. But I wonder how he would ever survive a war. Andre thinks Santo Domingo is too dangerous to go out at night.

The next day, Lesly did what he promised – he got in touch with Andre’s cousin in Les Cayes, the town we visited last year on our way to Ile-a-Vache. She revealed another new piece of information that not even Lesly knew: Andre has a half-sister in the U.S. or Canada. Lesly doesn’t know whether she is older or younger than Andre or how we can get in contact with her. But today he promises to call the brother. It turns out he moved back to the capitol, so he’s only about 30 minutes from here. Andre is very anxious to meet him, exchange emails, and see if he has any family photos. Andre has never seen a photo of his father or anyone else on that side of his family.

When Andre’s stepfather first learned that Lesly’s family was friends with Andre’s birthfather’s family, he didn’t want Marjorie to marry Lesly. He felt that Andre’s father was a bad man, so his whole family must be bad, and any friends of them would be bad too. But Lesly is such a great person, very intelligent, hardworking, and devoted to Marjorie and their son Joel. Fortunately, Andre’s stepfather finally agreed to the marriage. I just hope he doesn’t get angry at Lesly for putting Andre in touch with his relatives. Neither Lesly nor Marjorie is worried about that, so I hope they’re right.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Jan. 24-25, 2008

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Crossing the border into Haiti from Dominican Republic, 2-4. Street scenes of Port-au-Prince, 5. a first-time photographer snapped this group shot. Aunt Miche, me, Andre, his mother, cousin Mardoche and neighbor Dada, 6. Cousin Johanne, nephew Joel and Aunt Josephine, 7. Andre and nephew Joel, 8. Cousins Aurore and Barbara with Grandma, 9. Aunt Miche, Andre, and mother's cousin Zaki, 10. Andre's Uncle Gilbert and a friend, 11. Lunch of Rice, beans, salad and fish, 12. Brother Johnny, me and Andre at a hotel which has an outdoor racquetball court, 13. Wilson our driver.

It’s nice to see all of Andre’s family again. They seem happy to see me too. I’ve been studying a book called “Creole Made Easy” so I can even say a few phrases to impress them and make them laugh. Mostly my broken French gets me by. However, a lot of the time, I’m just out of the conversation and lost in my own thoughts. Definitely not my style to be quiet.

His stepfather said I look even younger and more beautiful than last time. I’m not sure if he’s just being nice or if it’s because I’m tanner, a bit thinner, and my hair’s longer. Either way, it’s nice to be accepted. His mother gave me a Haitian-style dress. It fit me perfectly and even Andre said I look good in it. Mostly he likes me in long pants, even in this tropical climate.

My camera is a big hit, especially since I gave them a huge package of photos of themselves that I took in July. Before meeting me the family had few photos. Now Andre is the most photographed man in Haiti, according to Daniel. Maya was probably the most photographed child in the world. I grew up with photography since my dad was a “camera bug,” since before I was born. That’s why it’s frustrating at times to be in a country where my camera is worth much more than the average annual income, so I have to be careful about taking it out in public.

Last night we went to Carnival – not the big one that lasts three days next Sunday, Monday, and Fat Tuesday – but a warm-up for the bands. It was a madhouse, with 10s of thousands packing the streets around the National Square. I was hoping to see masks and dancers and people throwing colorful necklaces to the crowd, but I guess that’s next weekend. We’ll probably be traveling in the north by then. Andre kept trying to talk me out of going to Carnival, claiming it’s too dangerous. As it turns out, this is the first time in his life that he attended.

I was a little hesitant to bring out my camera or video. I asked Andre if we could get up on one of the platforms that are under construction still for next weekend. Andre’s brother Johnny is a police officer, so he used his connections to get us up next to the announcer’s stand. Perfect! I had a great time watching the action, photographing and recording it, all at a comfortable height. I noticed lots of video cameras in the crowds and no one seemed concerned. In fact, I was amazed at how little police presence there was. They bring out the riot squad for Halloween in Santa Cruz these days.

Port-au-Prince is my least favorite part of Haiti even though we end up spending a lot of time here to be with the family. There is almost no interesting architecture, it’s dirty, noisy, crowded, and traffic is crazy. We’re mostly dependent on finding a friend with a car and paying a fortune in gas to get anywhere. It cost us $20 to go to Carnival last night, for example. Today we walked to his folks’ house from his sisters’ where we stay. It wasn’t that far, but the heat makes it more torturous than fun.

Kenscoff, Haiti: Jan. 26-27, 2008

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1-2. Kenscof is a mountain village 2 hours from Port-au-Prince, 3-4. Kenscof market place, 5. Andre's aunt Micheline accompanied us, bringing along a delicious fish dinner, 6. Andre and Miche in front of a mural at our hotel, 7-8. I purchased some nice folk art from village vendors, 9. Homemade liqueurs for sale, 10. I offer to lighten the load for a new friend, 11. Baptism day, 12. Revolutionary hero Toussaint L'Ouverture, 13. Bozo actually means attractive in Creole. This is an ad for a haircutting salon, 14. Compared to Port-au-Prince, Kenscof is clean, quiet, cool and safe, but even here they have garbage problems.

I had hoped to visit Andre’s childhood ranch in Duvall, an hour or two drive up a treacherous mountain road, followed by two hours on foot. In the old days, his grandfather or uncle would meet them at the road with a horse, but since no one lives there anymore it would have been a bit difficult. I was determined to go, imagining a wonderful sentimental journey, where Andre would recall his idyllic childhood memories. But Andre decided not to go, because he was afraid he’d feel too sad. His favorite uncle who inherited the property from the grandfather was violently murdered a few years ago because of a jealous cousin. The family believes that vodou was involved, so they’ve abandoned the area.

Instead, we went to Kenscoff, a mountain village above the turn-off to Duvall at 1200 feet. It reminded me of Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, or the hill stations in Malaysia and Pakistan where the English colonists spent their summers to escape the heat. Andre’s Aunt Miche, the quirky “old maid” schoolteacher, accompanied us. I was shocked when she showed up with a huge travel bag, complete with several pairs of shoes, a huge collection of hair ornaments and jewelry, several changes of clothes – and her iron. Separately, she carried a roasting pan with a home-cooked fish and potato lunch, porcelain plates, forks, knives, and spoons. It was still lukewarm when we got to enjoy it on our hotel’s patio overlooking the valley below.

Kenscoff is the antithesis of Port-au-Prince: green and beautiful, quiet and peaceful, safe and small-town friendly. We followed the dirt road higher and higher and higher, finally turning around when Andre announced he was hungry again. Along the way, I bought some interesting folk art. The first pieces were carved from bamboo. I didn’t meet the artist himself, although we peeked in the window of his closed studio. His mother and a younger brother negotiated the prices for the bamboo carvings. They’re usually finished with shellac, but I prefer natural.

The second stop was with a metal artist called Franck. Years ago, he started out making watering cans. In his spare time, he experimented with the scrap metal. Now he has quite a following of rich Haitians and foreigners from Port-au-Prince in their 4-wheel-drive SUVs. One woman and her driver arrived as we were leaving. Later in the day I spotted some of his larger pieces in the back of another SUV on its way back down to capitol.

On Sunday morning, Miche went to church, smartly dressed in an orange skirt and jacket, with matching earrings and barrettes. Meanwhile, Andre watched the soccer match on TV and I took advantage of our hotel’s wi-fi. After, we headed down to Fort Jacques, a short bumpy side trip off the main road. Since last July, Andre has been promising me a trip to the fort.

Both Miche and Andre thought I would suffer from riding in the back of an overloaded truck, but for me it’s an adventure. What makes it more interesting is the Haitians love to fight, usually over price. I don’t have to understand Creole to know that all the yelling is over some tiny misunderstanding or infraction. Just before they start throwing punches, it’s all worked out, and everyone’s smiling again. And just when you think they couldn’t fit one more passenger, the trucks stops and a family of five pushes their way in. Never a dull moment on public transportation in Haiti!

I’ve seen many forts in my life, so I can’t say that Fort Jacques was highly impressive. It wasn’t even listed in the guidebook. The view of Port-au-Prince and the Caribbean Sea below could have been impressive had it not been coated in smog. But what made Fort Jacques special was our 14-year-old guide Jean-Louis. An orphan, he’d learned his trade by accompanying his father, a guide for many years.

At first I was suspicious that Jean-Louis might be inventing things. But as time went by, his intelligence and knowledge were unmistakable. He showed us the oven where they baked bread, the water reservoir of 16-foot depth, the prison, the sleeping area. He knew the weight of the cannons, the year the fort was built and how long it took, who they fought, everything. Afterwards, we tipped him generously and I threw in a granola bar, which Daniel had brought from California. Jean-Louis promptly shared the treat with his two young protégés, who had followed along, posing for group photos, and wishing they too could be guides someday. Miche, a schoolteacher, couldn’t resist encouraging them to go back to school. “Passion pour l’ecole, passion pour l’ecole,” she said enthusiastically.

Friday, January 25, 2008

GREAT NEWS from the U.S. Consulate

Jan. 24, 2008

Today, just before we left Junior’s house to catch the Caribe Tours bus to Haiti, I found out that Andre’s visa application has been approved and the date for his interview at the U.S. consulate in Santo Domingo is set for March 25. I can hardly believe it. Last time I checked, I was told 19 months was the average wait time, which would have been in December 2008. So this is really great news.

I had heard rumors that the waiting period for fiancé visas had been shortened, which is why I called in the first place. I wanted to have a more accurate idea of how long we needed to spend in Canada before we paid the $150 application fee. Many thanks to my Canadian friends who wrote beautiful, formal letters of invitation for us, but we won’t be needing them anymore.

This news means so many changes in our plans. Now I’ll be coming back for good in a month, instead of just to do my taxes, catch up on my rental properties, finish the DVD project of the celebration of Maya’s life, etc. It also means I can teach my racquetball class this spring at UCSC as scheduled. I also have to talk with the tenants in my house.

I had thought of inviting Daniel to join us in Vancouver for Maya’s 11th birthday on June 17, but now I’m seriously thinking about Kauai, where Maya wanted to go next (she’d been to Oahu and Maui already) ever since she saw a video of Hilary Duff spending her 16th birthday there. A friend of mine has a 2-bedroom timeshare right on the beach, which she never uses.

We’re halfway to Haiti as I write these words. So this trip will be goodbye for Andre. If all goes as planned, he will arrive in the U.S. shortly after his March 25 interview (my 51st birthday is April 2, so that would be a nice gift), then we have 90 days to marry or send him back (making me a June bride), and then he has to stay six months in the U.S. after that to get his residency. Hopefully he’ll get it just in time to spend Christmas with his family. He hasn’t been with his family for the holidays the last five years. We had hoped to this year, but got a late start for South America.

Jan. 25 Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The bus ride from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince was easy, just like last time. They played trashy violent movies all the way -- dubbed in Spanish even though most of the passengers were Haitian and understand French much better. The border crossing takes a while, but provides some interesting people watching. It seems like the whole purpose of crossing the border is to import goods from the Dominican Republic to resell in Haiti. I saw lots of packages of chips and a ton of styrofoam take-out containers. That's all Haiti needs -- more garbage.

We made good time entering Port-au-Prince, then slowed down in bumper-to-bumper traffic going across town. It was dark when we finally arrived at the bus station. Andre's youngest brother Reginald was there waiting with his friend Wilson. Andre doesn't trust taxi drivers in Haiti, so he always arranges for a friend to drive and we pay the gas, which is no small amount at $8 a gallon. They have two friends who own cars and Francois' is out of commission, so Wilson is our designated driver. Like everyone else in Haiti, he just puts in one gallon at a time since gas is so expensive. I've never a gas gauge higher than "E" in this country.

I'm trying to convince Andre to let us go to Jacmel for Carnival this weekend. It's very famous for the celebration, but of course Andre's afraid of rowdy crowds. Jacmel is basically a small port town, which I really enjoyed last time -- other than the piece of glass I found in my beans one time -- so I hope he reconsiders. He's going to invite his Aunt Micheline. That would be nice. She'll convince him that it's okay for us to go.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Today Santo Domingo, tomorrow Haiti

PHOTO CAPTION: Haitian kids, taken in July 2007 on Ile-a-Vache island.

Our Haitian friend Junior just opened a phone calling center in Dominican Republic, right next to his house. He now has high-speed internet, so I'm taking advantage of it before Andre and I leave for Haiti tomorrow. We'll be lucky to find an internet cafe that has electricity, let alone signal. I remember how hard it was in last July. So don't be alarmed if you don't hear much from me in the next 3 weeks.

Here are our planned destinations in Haiti. It will be interesting to compare this list later with where we actually end up:

1. Andre's family in Port-au-Prince, the capitol.
2. The Canadian Consulate in P-A-P to turn in Andre's visa application.
3. The village of Duvall to see the abandoned farm of Andre's grandparents where he grew up. This should be the greatest adventure since transportation will be sketchy, up windy mountain roads.
4. Labadie Beach -- Supposedly, in the old days, cruise ship passengers who stopped in Labadie were often told they were at "Paradise Island" instead of Haiti.
5. La Citadelle, Haiti's premiere tourist attraction. This mountain top fortress was built for "Emperor" Christophe in the early 1800s, shortly after Haiti became the first independent black country.
6. Cap-Haitien -- Not really sure why, except that it's next to Labadie and
la Citadelle.

Just for fun, here's a preview of HAITI (statistics provided by World Bank Report 36060-HT):

Haiti has a long history of underdevelopment and political instability. Haiti is beset by widespread poverty, economic decline, unemployment, poor governance, and severe violence.

Haiti currently has a population of about 8 million people, and 1 million of those inhabitants are abandoned or orphaned children.

Haiti is a small country, sharing the island of Hispaniola with Dominican Republic. With a surface area of just 27,797 square kilometers (km2), Haiti is second only to Barbados as the most densely populated country (306 people per km2) in the Americas. Here are some staggering facts about the situation in Haiti:

* Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere
* 50% of all Haitian households live in extreme poverty using the U.S. standard of a $1 per day
* The country’s per capita GDP, has fallen by about 50 percent to $332 in the last two decades
* About 4 in every 10 adults cannot read and write.
* More than 80% do not have access to clean drinking water.
* In rural areas only 10 percent of the inhabitants have electricity and just 3 percent have a telephone.
* The unemployment rate is highest in urban areas and runs close to 49%
* As many as 58 percent of residents in the metropolitan area feel unsafe “often or most of the time” in their own home.
* Haiti has one of the world’s weakest police forces. There are 63 police officers per 100,000 people, less than a quarter of the regional average of 283 per 100,000 and only a third of the average for sub-Saharan African countries.

You might ask me why would anyone want to go to Haiti? It sounds poor and dangerous. However, Andre and I had a wonderful time when I went to meet his family in July 2007. The U.N. forces are highly visible in the capitol and appear to keep the place safe and stable. We discovered gorgeous, nearly empty beaches in the south. I look forward to exploring the north coast this time. Haiti is warm and colorful and boasts some of the best folk art in the Caribbean. But best of all are the people. They're really friendly once they get over the initial shock of seeing a white person. I did get stared at a lot and some people were bold enough to touch my hair. But whenever I smiled, they smiled back even bigger.

Another thing I loved was seeing Andre in his native country. He loves visiting his family and old friends and speaking Creole. It's also nice to be a citizen instead of an unwelcome immigrant like he is here in Dominican Republic. However, his relationship with Haiti is definitely love/hate. One time he said to me that if he could be reborn as any nationality, he would still want to be Haitian. He has a lot of national pride and love of his culture. But on the other hand, even his mother told him not to move back because there are no opportunities. He gets more frustrated than I do with the lack of organization, the filth, the crime, the inability of the government to improve the situation.

I'm hoping that after traveling around South America, Andre will hardly notice the 6-hour Caribe Tour bus ride between Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince. We take off tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. Wish me luck!

Paraty, Brazil -- Jan. 7-9, 2008

NOTE: I thought I'd posted this long ago. Oh, well, better late than never.

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. One of a dozen picturesque villages along the Costa Verde between Rio and Paraty, 2. Santa Rita church in Paraty, 3. bpats waiting to take tourists out to small islands and hidden beaches, 4. the beach closest to our hotel. Notice the thronging crowds, 5. Andre found some friends to play volleyball with, 6. We rented a canoe and invited our friends to paddle around a bit after we went out to an island, 7. Our room at the Hotel Colonial, 8. Morning buffet at the hotel, 9. Andre in the colonial zone showing off my sarong of the Brazilian flag, 10. One of many beautiful doorways, 11. View from the hilltop cemetery, 12. Andre at the night market, 13. a tourist poses for her caricature.

Sometimes you get lucky. You read about a place in a guidebook, decide to give it a chance, and when you get there it’s even better than you imagined. Paraty (pronounced para-CHEE in Portuguese) was one of those wonderful surprises.

I never carry a guidebook myself. The latest edition of Lonely Plantet’s South American Handbook is over 700 pages and with my MacBook and two cameras, I’m already overloaded. But I’m not too proud to borrow a copy and then, which I did at our hostel in Rio. I wanted to find a nice, quiet place along the Costa Verde on our way to Sao Paulo airport.

The guidebook described Paraty as a historic fishing village of 33,000. Its preservation had happened naturally due to isolation. Before the road to Rio was built in the 1970s, Paraty was only accessible by boat. The guidebook also warned that the hotels are fully booked between Christmas and Carnival. When the first place I called had a room available and was only a 10-minute walk from the bus station, we headed right over.

The Casa de Colonial was perfect, a nice combo of historic charm with modern convenience. Their buffet breakfast ranks right up there with the best: fresh papaya, mango and melon, fresh-squeezed pineapple, mango, melon and orange juices, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, two kinds of ham and homemade cheese, five different marmalades, honey, French rolls straight from the baker, and hot scrambled eggs.

I loved walking the cobble-stoned, car-free historic area, especially at night when the weather cooled a bit -- except it made me miss Maya even more. She would have loved the freedom to gallivant around, taking in the street entertainment, watching portrait artists, jugglers, and human statues, buying coconut sweets and handcrafts, and playing with other tourist kids.

And the beaches, wow! The closest beach, 5 minute walk from our hotel, was actually our favorite. Again, I thought of Maya since the water was clear and warm, without waves, and you could walk out forever and it still was only waist-deep. Maya would have been frolicking with the other kids.

Every morning a large group of local kids participated in a life-saving class, just like Little Guards in Santa Cruz. Women participated in dance aerobix classes on the beach, and samba drummers performed every night, which we could hear from our room as we drifted off to sleep. You can hire a boat and driver for $30 an hour for up to 10 passengers. We chose to rent a canoe instead and had fun paddling around the little islands, giving a ride to some of our little friends for a bit.

I hiked up the hill to the cemetery, which incidentally, has a best view of the tiled rooftops, bay and islands. Andre’s not much into cemeteries, but he accompanied me to the old fort, protected by ancient cannons and a few stray dogs. Along the way we passed charming “pousadas” perched on the hillside, with swimming pools and outdoor dining and a bird’s eye view of everything. They made our Casa de Colonial look ordinary in comparison.

The only disadvantage of Paraty for me was the lack of wi-fi. After trying to connect unsuccessfully in several internet cafes, I was directed to Pousada do Sandi (rooms from $200-$300 a night). A very nice clerk explained that normally the wi-fi is for hotel guests only, but he gave me the password anyway and invited me into the dining room where I could work comfortably.