Monday, October 25, 2010

Oct. 23-24, 2010: New York and New Jersey

My two-day stopover in New York and New Jersey was too short, but very sweet. Arriving in JFK airport late Friday night, I followed my cousin's son Jason's directions and arrived easily at their new apartment in Long Island City, Queens. When Andre and I visited them during our honeymoon in August 2008, Jason and his wife Jessica were living in a smaller building across the street, and their 10-month-old son Marcelo wasn't even conceived yet. He is such a cutie and looks just like a Latino Jason. I'm also impressed with their parenting style because they're raising him just like I raised Maya: bilingually, taking him everywhere with them, feeding him a wide variety of healthy foods, giving him lots of freedom to explore, but explaining to him what's not okay to do. I'm jealous that he sleeps through the night.

The next day the four of us went to the rooftop of their building and enjoyed the postcard-perfect view of Manhattan and Queens. The owner of the building fixed up the rooftop, with bamboo fencing and lots of potted plants. Jessica hosted Jason's birthday party on the roof this year.

In the early afternoon I took the subway and train out to Plainsfield, NJ to visit our friends Hubert, his son Kenyon, and his Dominican wife Antonia. Maya and I met Antonia and her friend Nena in Santo Domingo in August 2006, on the same trip we met Andre. We invited the two policewomen to accompany us to a time share in Cabarete. There we met Hubert who fell in love with Antonia at first sight. Since he didn't speak much Spanish and she didn't know English yet, I acted as translator to get them together. Antonia's been in the US for over a year now.

While Antonia was at work, Hubert dropped Kenyon at a friend's house while we visited with Andre's half-sister in Irvington, NJ. We've spoken by phone many times, but this is the first time in person. I'm sorry Andre wasn't with me, but he's working and couldn't get the time off, even if we had the money for both of us to travel. Carline is so beautiful and friendly. I can't wait for her and Andre to meet.

On Sunday I traveled out to Brooklyn to visit Andre's Aunt Rosette, his cousin Louloun, and her daughter Yasmene. Andre and I met them together on our honeymoon and we've been close ever since. Louloun and Yasmene nearly came to Santa Cruz last year, but couldn't get the discounted flights they'd hoped for. And after the earthquake, Louloun was planning to meet up with us in Haiti, but the all-black medical team that she'd signed up with had financial problems and the mission fell apart at the last minute. Rosette wants to come visit us in California, but she's afraid of flying, so she says she'll come by train even though it takes three days each direction. The last time Rosette was on a plane was in 1996 to attend Andre's father's funeral in Haiti...twelve years before Andre even learned his father's name.

Rosette got up at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday to start preparing an incredible Haitian feast of shrimp and chicken stew, polenta, pureed black beans, and yellow yams. I took four helpings and she still complained that I didn't eat enough. Another special treat was meeting Rosette's brother Osner, age 75, the eldest of Andre's father's siblings. Together we called Carline and Andre so they could talk to Osner during our visit. He's in really good shape for his age.

Last night I took a red eye from JFK to London. I slept maybe a couple of hours. After a few hour layover I took a quick flight to Hamburg. My friend Petra was there waiting for me at the airport. It's weird not to have a cell phone. Making arrangements with friends is much more complicated like this. After a nice German dinner of dumplings and meat, Petra and her husband Bernhard helped me make train reservations for tomorrow, so my friend Tanja can pick me up and we can drive together to the village of Stemshorn where I lived in the summer of 1974.

Friday, October 8, 2010

a tentative itinerary for my European trip Oct. 22-Nov. 17

I don't know for sure, but this is my general plan as of now for my upcoming trip to Europe:

Oct 22 -- fly to NY and stay with my cousin's son Jason, his wife Jessica, and their new baby Marcelo. They live in Long Island City, Queens, which isn't too far from JFK airport and I will be getting in late.

Oct. 23 -- I will visit with Jason and Jessica and baby Marcelo for a few hours, then travel down to Plainfield, NJ to visit with my friend Hubert and his Dominican wife Antonia. I'm the one who introduced them in Cabarete, Dominican Republic in August 2006, on the same trip that I met Andre in Santo Domingo.

Oct 24, Sunday -- I will take the train to Brooklyn to visit Andre's aunt Rosette, cousin Louloun and her daughter Yasmeen. It's also the birthday of Andre's half-sister Carleen who he's never met. She lives in Irvington, NJ about three hours away from NYC. She's hoping she can meet me in Brooklyn and celebrate her birthday altogether.

That night I fly to London, arriving in the morning. I have a couple of hours layover.

Oct 25 -- I fly from London to Hamburg, Germany. I will arrive in the late afternoon and hopefully will stay with my friend Petra, her husband and son Henri. I met Petra in Santa Cruz in the 1990s. She rented a room at my house. Maya and I visited them in Hamburg in 2004.

Oct. 26 is my German "mother" Mutti's 82nd birthday. I will travel early by train from Hamburg to Stemshorn, the village I lived in during the summer of 1974 as part of a student exchange program. My friend Tanja, a Spanish student of mine when she was living in Santa Cruz around 1999, will meet me in Stemshorn for Mutti's birthday. That's the only day that Tanja has free to visit. She lives about an hour away. She already called Mutti and verified that it's okay to join us on her birthday.

Oct. 27-28 I will stay in Stemshorn with my German "family," visiting old friends and riding a bike around the countryside, maybe to Dummer See again which Maya enjoyed.

Oct. 29 I travel back to Hamburg, which is about an hour or two from Stemshorn. I will stay at Rebekka's house and visit with Rita and Alina, friends from Munich area who are coming up for Rebekka's 50th birthday. I first met Rita in 1989, recommended by Rebekka, before we were moms. Then Maya and I stayed with her and daughter Alina in 2005 on our way to the Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg, Austria.

Oct. 30 is Rebekka's huge 50th birthday party, which is the reason I decided to travel to Europe when it will be cold, gray and miserable. I'm not optimistic about the weather. Rebekka has invited 300 people. It should be crazy, with jugglers and musicians and all kinds of entertainment and activities.

Oct. 31 I will probably stay with Rebekka one more day. We might be cleaning up or she'll be hung over, or sleeping. I'm not sure, but I'm going a long way to see her so I will help her anyway I can to come down from such a high the day before. I will try not to think about Halloween and how much fun everyone is having in Santa Cruz on this day.

Nov. 1 and 2 (Days of the Dead in Mexico and many parts of California) I will be in Berlin, staying at Susanne's house, a friend I met in Santa Cruz in the early 1980s. Susanne and Beate came to Santa Cruz as part of their nursing studies and I befriended them at a feminism class at UCSC. Now they both are flight attendants for Lufthansa. Beate will meet us in Berlin to spend these days together, the three of us. Last time I was in Berlin it was 1989, just one month before the wall came down. I've seen photos of what's left of. It's been painted by artists as a monument to that crazy period of history when the city and the country were divided.

Nov. 3-Nov 17 I will travel to four new countries: Poland, Ukraine, Moldova (which I never heard of) and fly back from Romania. Some tips from my friend Steve who has made four trips to eastern Europe: Krakow, Poland and nearby Auschwitz nazi concentration camp...L'viv, Ukraine with its beautiful architecture and interesting cemetery. He spent 5 days there and could have stayed longer. He also recommends Odessa and Kiev, Ukraine but they're not directly on the route, so I may have to skip them this time. But I will see Brasov and Sighi Soara, where Dracula lived. Beautiful architecture again.

Steve also recommended a great restaurant that sounds like Pusatahata (but looks completely different when written with the Cyrillic alphabet) which is like a buffet where you pick out your food. It's all good and cheap and they have them in several cities in eastern Europe. Not knowing the language, it's hard to order off a menu and can take a few hours to order, get your food, eat and pay, says Steve. He likes the Tatrus Mountains in Slovakia, but it will be too cold in November. Steve also suggests I print up a copy of the Cyrillic alphabet (used for Russian and Ukrainian) so I can read the signs, menus, train schedules, etc. It's like reading code. The words may be the same as in English, but the alphabet is very different. He learned it and can read Russian slowly.

I asked Steve about Dracula's castle. He answered: "There's one called Bran, a day-trip from Brasov, although he might not have really lived there. However, it is an authentic old castle and worth seeing none the less." It's on the list.

November 17 I fly home from Romania. With the time differences in my favor, I will arrive on November 17 in San Francisco, three flights and many many hours later, exhausted, but happy, I hope.

So that's the plan as of today. I'm sure it will change.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

My upcoming European vacation

I haven't written anything in a long time on this blog, mainly because I've been too busy, not because nothing is happening in my life. I hope to be able to go back and fill in the gaps, but not today. Today I want to write about my upcoming European vacation.

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email invite to my dear friend Rebekka's 50th birthday party on October 30th in Hamburg, Germany. She's invited 300 people, including other friends of Maya's and mine: Iris, Thomas & Annette & their children, Rita and her daughter Alina, and of course Rebekka's three sons. I haven't seen any of them since Maya passed away 3-1/2 years ago.

My 82-year-old grandma "Oma" and I met Rebekka in 1987 in a tiny village in northern Thailand called Pai. Rebekka was staying alone in one of the rustic huts and we hit it off immediately. Pai is memorable also for the 3-hour ride on real working elephants. Instead of taking tourists in circles, like they do in Chiang Mai, these elephants do logging. They pull down whole trees, then drag them to a truck or raft for transporting to town. Oma rode with a Swiss friend who we'd also met in Pai, while I had my own elephant. The wooden slats of the saddle were loose and kept pinching my butt the whole way. When we finally got off the elephants, after resting our butts a bit, we rode back to our huts on a bamboo raft.

Before Oma and I left Pai for Mae Hong Son, Rebekka gave us a note for her friend Iris who was staying there with a Thai boyfriend named Toe. Like all Thais he had a really long real name and a very short nickname. Iris and Toe invited us to stay in his beautiful wooden home, filled with books in English, much to Oma's delight. As it turned out, Toe had lived in Santa Cruz before with his former American wife.

On that same trip to SE Asia, I ran into a friend from Santa Cruz in Singapore who was traveling with an Australian woman he'd met. I told them about Toe (Iris had already gone back to Germany). They stayed with Toe in Mae Hong Son also. As fate would have it, the Australian friend Louise stayed on with Toe, eventually marrying him, opening a guest house Sang Tong Huts together, and having three sons. They eventually divorced. The last I heard of Toe was a memorial notice from a German girlfriend Babs, the last before he died at a young age.

Iris has been to the U.S. several times, once with Thomas, who is now married to an East German named Annette and they have two children. Maya and I met their toddler son when we were there in 2005. She and I also stayed at Rebekka's, hung out with Iris, and went down to Baldham, a village outside Munich where we stayed with Rita and her daughter Alina. I had met Rita through Rebekka in 1989 on another trip to Germany. Maya and older Alina became fast friends. Alina owns a horse, so she took Maya riding and we watched her in a horse show. She gave Maya the traditional Bavarian dress that Maya wore in the play "The Pied Piper" in 3rd grade. And we all went to a Sch├╝tzenfest together. I hadn't been to a hunting festival since I lived in Stemshorn, the summer of 1974 through the Youth For Understanding program.

As luck has it, my German host mother "Mutti" will be celebrating her 82nd birthday on October 26, so I will fly in early and take the train directly to Stemshorn, where my "Familie" still runs a gas station. My German "Schwester" Christine now has two grandkids who I've never met. When Maya and I were there, Christine's son Andreas and Susanne had just married. Every time I go to Europe, I visit the Droop family. One time, just before Maya was born, they came to California. We toured much of the state together and also flew over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter -- a real treat for me.

Since I'm going to Europe and spending 40,000 AA Frequent Flyer miles to get there, I figured I should visit some eastern European countries that I've never been to before. I tentatively have my return flight reserved from Bucharest, Romania for November 17. I get a free weekend stopover in NYC on the way to Europe. Coming home is quicker because you gain 9 hours with the time change, so I'll get home the same day I leave.

I'm seriously considering a 15-day Eurail pass for $629. That's $45 a day, which seems pricey, but trains in Europe are not cheap. And I was planning to see Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania anyway. With the 21-country pass I'll have complete freedom to go anywhere I want. I can sleep on overnight trains to save money on hostels. Because I'm over 26 (by double), I'm forced to buy the first-class pass. I never rode 1st class before, but as I remember they always had plenty of space and the seats flatten out into beds at night.

I'm a total train nut, so I'll enjoy seeing eastern Europe through a train window. You can get up and walk around, meet people, and stop off on a whim in little villages too. You never have to wait in line to buy tickets either. I've gotten train passes before and I love the ease and convenience.

So if you have any "must-sees" in eastern Europe, please let me know. For sure I'm going to Auschwitz in Poland. I've already seen Dachau near Munich. But the rest of the 15 days are wide open. I'll end up in Bucharest and spend a day or two there before flying back on November 17. I'm sure Andre will be glad to see me by then. We haven't been separated this long since he arrived in the U.S. more than two years ago.

The only thing that could get in the way of this exciting trip is a baby. Andre and I are still on the waiting list with We finished our home study in December 2009. We're waiting for a healthy newborn black or mixed race girl. I guess that's why it's taking so long. Either she comes into my life soon and goes on a European vacation with Mommy. Or she comes into my life after I get back from Europe. Or she could interrupt my travel plans. Or she never comes along. I have no idea which way it'll go. But until then, Mi Vida Sigue.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Setting up a Shelter Systems Dome for Andre's Relatives

Delmas 57, the narrow street where Andre's family lives, has turned into a tent city for about 70 families. Many of the neighborhood houses, like Andre's family's house, survived the earthquake with just cracks, but everyone's too spooked to sleep inside. Only three houses have been destroyed completely on their street, the dead still trapped inside the rubble. By the time Andre arrived on March 9, the smell of death had already left the area.

Here's Andre's cousin Joanne and her fiance in the makeshift shelter that 14 of Andre's aunts, uncles and cousins were sharing, made from a very large tarp that they got from their minister. When it rained, the ground got wet, so they asked Andre for one of our Shelter Systems domes. We had hoped to set it up on the land in the mountain village, but they're still negotiating.

Here's a little cutie in the camp who I couldn't resist photographing.

We set it up on the rooftop of his uncle's house so they could see what it looks like and so they'd believe that it's really 14' in diameter.

I had hoped they would keep the other structure and move one family into the dome. But they're too afraid to sleep on the rooftop for fear that a bigger earthquake will come and topple the walls from the neighboring houses. So Andre took it down and helped them set it up in the camp.

They tried to leave up most of their original shelter, forgetting about the 7' height. As Andre was setting it up, his uncle was still taking down some of the supports of the tarp. I was afraid they'd puncture the dome with the nails, but luckily only one small rip had to be patched with duct tape. By evening, they were ready to lay out all their bedding. All 14 fit cozily into the dome which is designed for 8-10 people.

Andre and I and his brother-in-law are the only ones in the whole neighborhood who are sleeping inside a house. I've been trying to set an example that it's safe. I told them about Santa Cruz's 6.9 earthquake in 1989 and how we were told it might be 50-100 more years before the pressure builds up on the Loma Prieta fault line again. Port-au-Prince hasn't had any aftershocks for 3 weeks, but most residents are afraid to sleep inside even if their house is intact.

The city is going around and inspecting the houses. Some, like the one above with the SUV trapped inside, got red tagged, meaning they have to be demolished. This house is next to the camp. Other houses got yellow tags meaning they must be repaired before they can be inhabited. Andre's house got green, which means it is inhabitable now. Andre's stepfather is a builder, so he will hire some people to help him repair. Materials alone are $4,000-$5,000, but the labor will be cheap, just the opposite in the U.S. where materials are cheaper than labor.

The rains are beginning. I wonder how long it will take for many Haitians to venture back inside their houses. But for hundreds of thousands, they no longer have a house to go back into and they will be living in tents....maybe for years.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I arrive in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

It didn't take long to start seeing the enormous destruction caused by the earthquake. Even the international airport had big cracks in the exterior walls. As we drove up Route de Delmas to Andre's family neighborhood, probably every third building had collapsed.

Before arriving in Port-au-Prince, I had braced myself for the reality to be beyond description. But I was surprised how much it looked just like I'd expected, just like all the photos and video reports I'd been watching for weeks. I guess I also was more prepared after witnessing rubble all down Pacific Avenue here in

Santa Cruz in 1989 after the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake, it didn't seem that different...just much much bigger. Santa Cruz, a town of 55,000 had six fatalities in our earthquake. Port-au-Prince, with its 3 million population, poor construction, and so close to the epicenter lost at least 300,000 people. I don't know how they could even begin to count them since so many are still buried under rubble.

I'd also been to Port-au-Prince three times in the past three years. For many foreign relief workers, this was their first sight of Haiti's capitol. They were shocked that there was only electricity available a few hours a day, but that's the way it was before the earthquake. They were shocked to see people relieving themselves in the street instead of in a bathroom, but that happened all the time before the quake too. Foreigners were surprised to see so many street vendors; they assumed that was because the stores were crushed. But there were always street vendors in PAP.

But like Dr. Tony Hoffman from UCSC who worked 5 weeks in Delmas with the American Relief Committee told us: you're seeing the city all cleaned up. The dead bodies under the rubble no longer smelled. He'd arrived on Feb. 15, before commercial flights were allowed into Port-au-Prince, so everyone had to go through Dominican Republic. He'd experienced more of the shock and chaos. But by the time I arrived on March 17, the aftershocks were over, the streets were cleared for traffic, the smell of death was gone, and people were going about their normal lives, almost oblivious to the rubble.

In fact, I found the city to be cleaner than usual. There were way more dumpsters, and newly-employed workers in various-colored vests were sweeping up rubble and trash. No longer did you see 5 foot high piles of garbage right in the middle of the street. I was amazed how clean it was.
The traffic on Route de Delmas was a little bit lighter than before, despite all the SUVs of the relief workers. I'd heard that gasoline was even higher priced than before the quake and in short supply, but overall the main route that links downtown Port-au-Prince with upscale Petion Ville was nearly as bumper to bumper as usual.

The other differences, besides all the collapsed buildings and rubble, were the tent cities and the food lines. I'd never seen that in Port-au-Prince before. I expected to see more food lines with all the millions of dollars that Americans and other countries had donated. But it seems very little aid is getting to the people. They were lining up every day, but that was to BUY water. On the rare occasion that they gave out free rice, we heard the people had to line up around 3:00 a.m., and by early afternoon they still hadn't received their bag of rice, valued at about $12 US. Only women were getting the rice coupons because they would wait patiently all day long and not get aggressive or hostile like some of the men did.

We also visited the Villa Imperial Hotel where we used to pay $5 a day to use wi-fi and the pool. I asked the armed guard to take me around to the back side to see the pool. I was happy to see that it was still okay, despite the algae in the water. But the office and the restaurant were just a pile of rubble. I'm not sure how many people died there, but the owner of the hotel was one of them. I'd seen her in June 2009, directing her workers to set up new umbrellas for the patio tables. She seemed like a nice person. I remembered the painting of Obama in the lobby which I'd admired and photographed. It's under that pile of rubble somewhere. The owner's son is thinking of repairing the hotel, as evidenced by all the metal bracing they had all around the main building.

I'd featured this hotel on YouTube in June 2009. A few viewers had asked me about room rates and contact information. One of those people is an EMT from New Jersey who happened to be on vacation in Haiti in January. He was able to contact me via email just days after the quake. Fortunately, he'd made reservations somewhere else after all.
I saw "WE NEED HELP" painted on buildings all over the city. I wondered how they all knew to paint the same message. I never saw "Help Us" or "Please Help" or any other message. Sometimes I saw it in French or Creole.

This vehicle is called a tap-tap. It's basically a small pick-up truck that has been modified to carry many passengers in back. They lift up a camper shell and put benches on each side. Two seats extend out the back and sometimes a few people stand up on the back bumper. This is the main way to get around town, besides the motorcycle taxis, which can hold 3 or 4 people easily. Andre and I did that in the villages more and used the tap-taps or got rides with his brother Johnny in his car.

This smashed building used to house a cement and iron shop. I wonder what quality of cement and iron they sold because their own building was pancaked by the quake. This is just a block from Andre's family's house, which survived with just some cracks.

Here you see Andre and his friend Coach walking towards the Villa Imperial Hotel. Power poles had fallen in the earthquake and two months afterwards no one had done anything with the stray electrical wires.

But you'll notice how clean the street is. That's a new thing for Port-au-Prince. And no tents on this street, but just around the corner there were many. Even nice houses that hadn't had any damage would have tents out front where the people were sleeping, and probably are still.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Traveling to Haiti

I had a week to get ready for my trip after Andre left on March 8, which was barely enough time.

Getting the baggage together was the most important job. The big green duffel weighs 52 pounds and has our third dome tent, a tarp and an extra fly cloth for a tent that disappeared years ago. The medium-sized bag next to it also weighs 52 pounds. They're supposed to be 50 max, but I found out when I took Andre that they'll let a couple extra pounds slide and every pound is important to us. The small one next to the piano is my 40-pound carry-on which holds two air mattresses, nuts, tools, cans of tuna, and a jar of Nutella. The big black bag weighs 73 pounds which cost me $100 for extra and $50 for 20 pounds over. It contains four more tents, an extra tarp, more food, medical supplies, mosquito netting, shampoos, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, etc. etc., much of it donated by friends. My second carry-on has my laptop, cameras, rechargeable AA batteries and charger, an assortment of flashlights, a solar-powered backpack for recharging cell phones and AA batteries, and fresh-baked chocolate cookies at Andre's request for his family to sample. Oh, and a few clothes for me.

At 3:00 a.m. on March 16, after just an hour-and-a-half of sleep I was picked up by my friend Moy. I wanted to arrive at San Francisco airport extra early because of all the baggage. Everything made it on except some screwdrivers and Nutella in my carry-on. I should have known about the screwdrivers, but Nutella? They explained that liquids and creamy stuff like toothpaste

is verboten. The saddest part is they throw it in the garbage.

My entire trip lasted 24 hours with very little sleep or turbulence. Five hours to Miami, a two-hour layover, 2-1/2 hours to San Juan, Puerto Rico where I had a 12-hour layover. I was greeted by a huge Red Cross exhibit asking people to Help Haiti. I would like to think that Red Cross actually is helping Haiti and not just collecting donations for themselves. But I keep asking friends who have been to Haiti and they don't see much Red Cross presence of activity. I'll be looking myself. It seems they're too busy counting their millions. Like Alison Thompson in the documentary film "The Third Wave" says, the smaller the organization, the more likely that your money will actually get to the people in need.

At least I got some sleep at night, thanks to the security guard who showed me how to flip the chairs on their backs to use the cushions.

American Airline has added flights to Haiti, including the one from Puerto Rico that I was on. It's so weird because I used to be the only white person other than a few missionaries. Now flights are packed with Americans and other foreigners. There even was an Israeli on our flight with her own cameraman.

I had a nice conversation with a Lutheran missionary across the aisle in our propeller plane, originally from Canada but now living in Minnesota. He's been all over the world. It sounds like his organization works hard and does a lot of good. Talking to him, it's clear he's a

Christian, but he wasn't pushy about it. He impressed me with his fluency in Spanish and Quechua, the language of the Inca Indians in South America. He demonstrated the clicks in their language and how easy it is to be misunderstood. It reminded me of Thai, which is tonal and hard for English speakers to pronounce well.

Next to the Lutheran was an older Haitian man who has lived in the US for 27 years and still sports a thick accent. I'm not sure how ancient his Bible is, but it's definitely well-read...through most of the flight.

The first view of Haiti from the air is impressive, with its tall mountains peeking through clouds. The name "Haiti" means "Tall Mountains" in Arawak, the language of the indigenous people who once inhabited the island before European conquistadores killed them off.

As we approached Port-au-Prince it was easy to see the military and refugee camps. I didn't have a window
seat so I had to reach over my seatmate. Unfortunately all those shots are out of focus. At 8:25 a.m. the lighting was perfect. I hope Andre and I have a second chance on our return flight on April 7 in the late afternoon.

I braced myself for lost luggage and strict customs officers, but luckily neither happened. My luggage was handed off the plane quickly and the customs officer only asked me about the big duffel. When I said tent she waved me through.

Dependable Andre was there waiting, with his brother Johnny and car. We had to fight off all the helpers, looking for American dollar tips. Johnny's car was surrounded by a crew of window washers. Andre fought with them to get away, then ended up handing them some coins. The man in charge of the boys reminded me of Fagin in Oliver Twist.

The airport terminal itself had some big cracks, and right outside were some collapsed buildings. A long line of people waited for rice rations. U.N. soldiers making sure everything went smoothly.

You don't have to look for evidence of the earthquake. It's everywhere. I think what impressed me more was how much was left standing. You don't see those buildings in the news. Overall, Port-au-Prince looked like business as usual. For the western foreigner who are flocking in these days, it might look like poverty and chaos. But to me, it looked like the same city, with lots of rubble added.

I guess from seeing so much news coverage and photos, I wasn't shocked by what I saw. Two months after the quake, a lot of the rubble had been cleaned off the streets and people are starting to go back to work. Schools will open next week.

It brought back memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Santa Cruz which I missed while traveling in Italy. But I got back a few months later to see rubble and destroyed buildings also.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Two months after the quake: Plans change

Today marks two months after the Jan. 12 earthquake. Hundreds of thousands are still homeless and camping out on the streets of the capitol. Andre is spending his fourth night in a tent in Port-au-Prince and is growing weary already. He's been great about staying in touch via iPhone, emailing lots of photos: of the land we wanted to buy, the cracks in his family's house in Port-au-Prince, and family members with their tents. I'm joining him next Wednesday morning after 26-hours of travel and two stopovers. We have reservations to return April 7, but Andre doesn't know how we can stay that long. When he went downtown he saw a man bleeding to death in the street from a bullet wound. I don't know if I'm ready for this.

Today was a productive day for me. I bought a solar backpack off craigslist, which will supposedly recharge cell phones and iPods. Because of lack of electricity it's been challenging for Andre to keep the iPhone charged; he even had to pay one time for recharging service. The city sometimes turns on the electricity in the houses, but you never know when or for how long, which is how it always was, even before the quake.

A friend who went to the same high school with me in Chula Vista, back in the 1970s, surprised with a generous cash donation, plus two suitcases, one filled with toiletries, first aid kit, tiny sleeping bags, and mosquito netting.

I spent half of her donation on assorted flashlights: mini-Mag lights, wind-up flashlights, key chain mini-lights, and rechargeable batteries and charger. The Haitians always need flashlights in Port-au-Prince, even before the quake, because they rarely have electricity. Whenever we visited, they let us use the kerosene lamp. I could read for a while, but not too long because the light is so dim. Soon I'd just give up and go to sleep. You can't do anything in the dark and you can't leave the house because the whole neighborhood is pitch black. Only some hotels and businesses used to be powered by noisy gasoline generators. This was before the quake. I don't think there are any hotels and only few businesses left.

I spent a lot of time today on the internet, connecting with a carpenter/EMT who has enough frequent flyer miles for a round-trip ticket. He said he'd love to go work with Andre's stepfather, depending on what happens with his business. I also hooked up with John Calvert, an expert on perma-culture. He suggested a variety of ways to get water to the land...assuming we could buy the land. It seems all that's changed.

Andre and his stepfather had a meeting with the owner of the land in Athis that they wanted to buy. Now he's changed his mind and doesn't want to sell. I don't understand why he would string Andre's stepfather along for a month if he didn't want to sell. Mathieu must have gone back and forth between the capitol and the mountains at least a dozen or 20 times while investigating this deal. I could hear the frustration and discouragement in Andre's voice when he told me the news.

But there's good news too: damage to the Port-au-Prince house doesn't look that bad, at least not from the photos Andre sent me. I'm not an engineer and I'm not seeing it in person, but as a Californian, I'm used to cracked buildings. Often it's just cosmetic damage. Even after the 6.9 earthquake in Santa Cruz many buildings were saved by retrofit seismic repairs.

In a way, it makes more sense to repair the house in Port-au-Prince first. The land and building project can't finished before the rains, and tent living will get old fast. I love camping, but when it starts raining hard, I'm ready to pack it in and look for a hotel. Andre's family's house is about 1000 square feet on the main floor, has two smaller apartments in the basement, and a new two-room apartment for his sister, her husband and their kids on the third floor. So there's plenty of space for extended family members to squeeze in.

I'm also a little relieved that the land deal is on hold because I've worried that Andre's siblings wouldn't be happy in such a remote, rural location. His parents, aunts and uncles, and grandma all grew up in the mountains, but not the siblings and cousins. Andre is the only one of his generation who did because he spent his childhood with his grandparents. He knows the country life and enjoys it. As an American, I like the mountain village also because it's cooler, cleaner, healthier and has a nice view. But it seems the initial panic to get out of the capitol is fading now that the aftershocks are dying down and the rains are coming soon.

It happened here in Santa Cruz as well in 1989. They evacuated our neighborhood because the Victorian house next door to my grandma's house fell on her gas line. I was in Italy at the time, but my housemates and my grandma were instructed to camp out on the Santa Cruz High School football field, as aftershocks rattled their nerves. On the third night it started to rain, so everyone went back into their houses. I'm guessing the Haitians will do the same.

One of the 14' dome tents that Andre brought was for a friend's family. They are extremely grateful for their new home. But in the camping area that Andre's family shares with about 70 families, there's nowhere to set up such a big dome tent, and I'm bringing another one soon. Andre's family is sleeping in a borrowed tent, which may be reclaimed if Andre's sister and her in-laws return to the capitol. Even though many of his relatives are sleeping under tarps, Andre is afraid to let anyone borrow the dome because they might not want to give it back when we need it. I was hoping we could use them on the land while we're building, but since that might not be happening, and since his family might be able to repair and move back into their house, I'm not sure what we'll do with the dome tents. They cost $350 for the tent, $50 shipping from Georgia, $50 for the floor tarps, and $100 for excess baggage charge -- that's $550 times three -- so I don't want to just give them away. Everyone wants one, but who can afford to buy them?

Well, it's always good to be flexible and open minded. There's definitely no script for a disaster like the Haitian earthquake. We're two months into this thing and the end is nowhere in sight.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Andre sent me photos with an iPhone

Andre arrived in Haiti on Tuesday, March 9 at noon. His brothers Reginald and Johnny were there to pick him up, along with his five 50-pound bags, 40-pound carry-on and day pack. We were really lucky to get all that on the flight because American Airlines tightened their baggage restrictions on all flights to Haiti. Normally, on international flights they allow two 50-pound bags for free, plus up to three more for $100 each. At the last minute we found out we could only take one extra for $100. We already had them all packed, so we decided to get to the airport three hours early and act like we didn't know about the change. Our plan worked.

Upon arrival in Port-au-Prince, Andre was upset to see that his bags had been opened, especially the two relief tents which we had wrapped so carefully and sealed with packing tape, mummy-style. He had to pay off the customs officers with shampoos, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste. But the rest got through: two 14-foot dome tents, two smaller tents, three air mattresses and foot pump, three 16' x 20' tarps for the floors of the dome tents, flashlights, hand tools, soccer balls and cleats, some clothes, jump ropes, nuts, canned tuna, packaged foods, more toiletries, medications, even more stuff I can't remember now.

Before Andre left, I called our cell phone companies. Verizon has no service in Haiti. My iPhone with AT&T service would work, plus they have a special plan because of the relief workers. For $20 per month pro-rated, we have an international plan for Haiti and the Dominican Republic: phone calls anywhere in the world for 25 cents a minute (instead of $1.99), data (internet and email) for 50 cents a MB instead of $20, and text messages for 10 cents each. They couldn't tell me exactly how many emails you get for one MB of data, but it's roughly 300. About half that many if there are attachments. So he took my iPhone and I have his Verizon phone.

Andre's been busy since he arrived. He handed out the stuff he brought. The finger flashlights that someone from Minorsan donated were a big hit. He also went up to the village of Athis with his stepfather and brother. They're ready to buy the land, but the escrow office is destroyed. So he got a meeting with the seller on Friday to talk about making a deposit on the land through a lawyer, to guarantee the price, and hopefully to allow them to start building.

Andre also sent me photos of his friend "Coach", his Aunt Miche and sister Beatrice in front of the tent that a friend donated. This friend's sister works for Eureka Tents, so she was able to get a returned tent for $20, regularly $150 new. Miche is sharing it with four others. Andre's family hasn't been able to put up the dome tent because there's no space for it. They're staying in a campsite with about 70 families not too far from their house. They can't go anywhere else because they wouldn't be able to keep an eye on their house and their possessions. Another dome tent went to a friend's family and they've been able to set it up. Andre didn't send me any pictures of that yet.

He did send me pictures of the Hotel Villa Imperial where we used to pay $5 a day to go swimming, use their wi-fi, and recharge cell phones and my laptop. The owner of the hotel died in the earthquake. I was glad to hear that the manager survived. Fortunately, he was out in the parking lot when the earthquake hit. Andre sent another picture of a destroyed building just a few blocks from his folks' house.

Andre thinks his family's house might be repairable. That would be the best short term solution to get them safe from the rainy season that's coming up soon. I asked him to see if he can find a seismic engineer to inspect it -- preferably from California or another place that gets earthquakes frequently.

I'm leaving on Tuesday, changing planes in Miami and Santo Domingo. I have an overnight layover in Santo Domingo. I was joking that I should set up the dome tent and air mattress for myself in the airport. My own little refugee camp. Andre and I are booked on the same return flight on April 7, overnighting in Miami with some Haitian friends.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Our new dome tents from Shelter Systems

We ordered three 14-foot dome relief tents from Shelter Systems, a Santa Cruz company. Soon after the earthquake rocked Haiti, the U.N. ordered 3000 tents from Shelter Systems, their biggest order ever. Several mission groups have ordered 100 or 200 to go to Haiti also. Up until now, these dome tents were most popular at Burning Man gatherings.

Jeff, who works at their westside warehouse, was super nice and showed Andre how to assemble one in just 25 minutes. You don't need any tools, and they go together like tinker toys. The finished product is strong, light, durable, comfy, private, well ventilated, etc. etc. They don't have any seams or zippers to rip.

Eleanor Hamner, the company's business manager, spent 13 years of her childhood living in a dome tent in Aptos, CA. Needless to say, her parents who started Shelter Systems, were hippies. Her dad still sports long gray hair and beard. "But we all live in houses now," says Eleanor, even though she says she loved living in the dome tent.

The bad news is we just found out on American Airlines website that they have new restrictions for flights to Haiti. Originally, when we bought Andre's ticket for March 8, we were told he could take two 50-pound bags, one 40-pound carry-on and a day pack for free, plus a maximum of three more 50-pound bags for $100 each. We were preparing to take the max. Now we find out he can only take one 50-pound extra bag. We're also concerned about the bulk of the relief tents, even though they only weigh 43 pounds each.

Our plan is to get to the airport three hours early on March 8 and bring three extra bags. I will use all my chutzpah to try to get them on the plane. If not, I bring two back home until I fly over to Haiti in a week or 10 days. I decided to wait until Andre gets in touch with me from Haiti about the situation over there before I make my reservation. A friend who has lots of frequent flyer miles has offered to let me have them, but I'm going to pay her half the price of a ticket. That's really generous of her.

Andre's family has been trying to discourage us from coming. His brother asked him if he's really ready to see his country in ruins. It sounds like such a desperate situation. Maybe we won't stay a month after all. We'll see once we get there.