Monday, June 22, 2009

Haiti: June 16, 2009

Not much new to report for this day. Mostly we hung out at the pool, caught up on the internet, enjoyed his mother's cooking, more of the same. Waiting around the house in the evening in the dark, hoping the electricity will come on for a few hours. Some days we get a lot of electricity. Other days none at all. That's why it's pointless to have a refrigerator, or internet connection at home. And when the power's out, the whole neighborhood is black. It's a bit tricky to negotiate the uneven climb up and down to his folks' house, so it's better just to stay inside.

By the light of a kerosene lamp, I read a book called "Left To Tell," a griping first-person story by Immaculée Ilibagiza who survived the Rwanda genocide in 1994 by cramming into a priest's tiny bathroom with 7 other women. He hid the entrance with a wardrobe cabinet. They were given a plate of table scraps so no one else in his family would suspect he was hiding Tsutsi refugees. They estimate that a million Tutsis were massacred in 100 days.

Here's a view from the top balcony of the Villa Imperial Hotel. You can see Andre swimming across the pool. Most days we have the whole pool to ourselves. We made friends with a brother and sister whose parents are Haitian, but they were born in the U.S. and live in Philadelphia. The older son understands Creole, but it seems like his little sister doesn't. They're 100% Americans.

Here's Andre at the entrance to his mom's neighborhood. Most of these first houses belong to relatives. Even when we can't reach his family by phone, we can usually find a cousin nearby who can take their cell phone over to his mom, grandma or a sibling.

Haiti: June 15, 2009

Each time we go to swim at the Hotel Villa Imperial we try to invite another friend or family member. This day we took Andre's younger brother Reginald. Like many Haitians, he doesn't know how to swim, but at least he wasn't afraid of the water. The two guys in the Andy Warhold-style photo (below right) are the DJs at the poolside who keep the Haitian music blasting.

A couple of notes on life in Haiti: Most of the cooking is done with charcoal, which explains the 95% deforestation of the country. On the Dominican Republic side of the island, they cook with propane gas, but that's more expensive, so the Haitians still use charcoal. Also, most of the water is brought up from wells. Many of the houses, such as Andre's family's house, has American style plumbing, with a water tank on the roof. But the problem is there's not enough energy to pump the water up to the rooftop. I'm not really sure why they couldn't collect rainwater since we've been getting a good downpour almost every day that we've been here, usually in the late afternoon. Solar energy would also be a great idea, if the panels weren't so expensive.

Andre's brother Johnny is a police officer and has a decent salary, so he was able to buy a car since we were last here. But since all automobiles have to be imported from the U.S. at great expense, not to mention the import tax, even an old junker is prohibitively expensive. And gasoline is even more expensive than in the U.S.

Meanwhile, back at home, the family photo album continues to grow. Here are Andre's brother Reginald with nephew Joel. Joel again, with cousin Joanne.

Both old and young enjoy posing for the camera. I'm pictured here with some of the many female cousins who live next door to Andre's folks.

Cousin Sherly and I are in contact via email. Andre's godson Gregory is one of Sherly's many siblings, pictured here with a sister. The Haitians like to imitate the American rap stars by pretending to flash gang signs. But it doesn't mean anything here.

Haiti: June 14, 2009

Andre introduced me to a Haitian rara music group called Ram. It's led by Richard Morse, who on first glance, doesn't look Haitian, but he comes by his talent naturally from his mother Emerante de Pradine. She was the first recording artist of Haitian voodoo music (rara). Richard also manages the historic and infamous Grand Hotel Oloffson overlooking downtown Port-au-Prince where his band performs every Thursday. Unfortunately, we were planning to be out of town on that day.

Andre's brother Johnny drove us in his car to check out the Oloffson Hotel. We were lucky to find both Richard and his mother Emerante there. He even posed with all of us, along with our friend "Coach", for photos. Their English reflects both of their U.S. ivy league educations.

Andre's family is Christian, so they don't practice voodoo, but many Haitians do. The Oloffson Hotel is filled with beautiful and interesting voodoo art and statues. It was also the setting for Graham Greene's novel "The Comedians." Many international journalists, dignitaries, eccentrics and world travelers have stayed at the hotel.

I used the wi-fi while we sipped our delicious mango and lime drinks. I checked the AA Baggage status to find out that our bags had finally arrived. Johnny drove us through downtown Port-au-Prince to recover them. I like this part of the city the best, with its National Palace, museums, parks and plazas, statues, and older colonial architecture.

You can see the main cathedral peeking above the street scene (below left). Motorcycle taxis wait for new customers (below right).

When we got home, Andre's Aunt Miche had made her famous Soup JouMou which has pasta noodles, potatoes, beef, and tomatoes, plus other ingredients. Very tasty.

Andre and I are the family photographers whenever we visit. Here he is with his aunt Rosita on the left. That's his cousins Joanne and Sherly on the right. And the bottom shot is his sister Marjorie.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Haiti: June 13, 2009

This is not a political blog, but I have to admit how happy I was to see this huge painting of our new president Barack Obama in the Villa Imperial Hotel in Port-au-Prince. I don't remember seeing any paintings of George W. Bush on my earlier trips to Haiti. The hotel is a 5-minute walk from Andre's parents' house where we're staying. For $5 a day we use the pool, electricity, and wi-fi. We also admired other paintings in the hotel restaurant. We're still hoping to buy some Haitian art while we're here, but it's hard to know where to buy it directly from the artists. Mostly, it's sold by vendors on the streets.

The photo on the right shows our first breakfast in Haiti, prepared by his mother Maude, a fabulous cook. As you can see, there are more than one kind of cooking plantains here. It's also mango season, so Andre's in heaven. I miss the sweet potatoes and eggplant dishes Maude made before, but they're out of season.

Here I am with my mother-in-law Maude. She and her mother (pictured with Andre) are the sweetest people you'll ever meet. I feel guilty because Maude waits on us hand and foot, preparing all the food and hand-washing our clothes. I asked Andre to assure her I'm not this useless at home, but I'm not really sure how to help out here. At least I can see how much she enjoys having her first-born son at home for a 12-day visit.

Andre's sister Majorie gave birth to Lyse-Mia on May 1, 2009. Now 2-year-old Joel has a baby sister. Andre is her godfather, so we've been planning a big family party for about 75 guests on June 21. We had hoped to baptize her that day, but there are elections in Haiti that day, so the priest couldn't do it until the following weekend. Proud father Lesly holds Lyse-Mia.

Andre's sister Beatrice on the left is a teaching assistant. On the right, Andre poses with his friend Louanes ("Coach") and brother Johnny who is a police officer.

Andre has lots of cousins. It seems like we spent the first three days just making the rounds and saying hi to everyone. At first when we were planning the party, Andre and Lesly thought we would only invite about 50 people. I warned them that there were easily that many just in the neighborhood. Sure enough, I was right. And that wasn't even counting Lesly's side of the family or the relatives who live in other neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Getting Ready for our Big Trip to Haiti Tomorrow

Tomorrow at noon Andre and I will be heading to the San Francisco airport to begin our long journey to Haiti. Three planes and 24 hours later we will arrive at Port-au-Prince with our four 50-pound suitcases, two 40-pound carry-on bags, and two day packs. Altogether, our free legal baggage limit is equal to 300 pounds -- just about what Andre and I weigh together. It's like having two stowaways with us. Luckily, 99% of it will stay in Haiti. I plan to come back with my laptop, cameras, and the clothes on my back. The rest are gifts of clothes, electronic items, and household goods.

I've also been studying up on my Creole (Kreyol). It's a wonderful phonetic language, which blends French, Spanish, English and African languages. I have some oral lessons by Pimsleur in my MacBook also. The basic vocabulary is pretty simple, with very little grammar, so you can start building sentences easily, kind of like "Me Tarzan, You Jane." But don't be fooled by Creole's limited vocabulary. It's a rich and expressive language. Many times when I ask Andre for a translation of something he tells me you have to be Haitian to understand.

This is our third trip to Haiti together -- our first time as a married couple and the first time that we'll be speaking to each other in English instead of Spanish. Andre told me that some people thought I was really Dominican, not American, since we spoke to each other in Spanish. Now they'll know the truth since Andre's English has gotten so good. He may even speak better English than his former teacher in Haiti does -- thanks to his wonderful ESL teachers Lori and Peggy here in Santa Cruz. Today is his last day at Adult School. He's hoping to start at Cabrillo Community College in the fall.

We've been stuffing our suitcases and stepping on the scale for a week now. Every time we find something else we want to take, something else has to be removed. It's not fun, but hardly worth $50 just to take an extra 20 pounds when we can take 300 pounds for free. We'll feel like Santa and Mrs. Claus when we get there and start handing out gifts. I'd like to buy some Haitian art while we're there and see how I do with it on eBay. Maybe we could have a little import/export business to help pay for future trips to Haiti. Simple things like shampoos that cost $1 at Longs sell for $7 or $8 in Haiti. Practically everything is imported and expensive there, even though the people are so poor.

Well, I'm off to swim. Andre gets home from school at 1:00 and we still have things to do before our blast-off tomorrow. Hopefully next time I'll have more time to teach you some Creole.