Thursday, July 30, 2009

Haiti: June 21, 2009 -- the big party

On May 4, Andre's sister Marjorie and her husband Lesly sent us an email birth announcement with two photos and the simple message: "Receive Lyse-Mia's picture. Our new baby."

We found out a few weeks later than they'd chosen Andre to be the godfather. Since we were already planning a trip to Haiti for June 11-25, we decided to have a big party to celebrate her baptism on June 21, our last Sunday, coincidentally Father's Day in the U.S.

As it turned out, Haiti was having elections on June 21, so the priest decided to postpone the ceremony. We had no choice, but to go ahead with our party plans since we were leaving a few days later for the U.S.

Andre and I offered to pay for the food and drinks and eating utensils. His mother and aunties got busy preparing the menu. To stay within our budget, we decided only to invite the closest relatives -- which added up to about 75 adults and children. The party was held in the patio outside Andre's mom's house, which isn't that big. But we all squeezed in and had a good time. We even had music, despite the limited electricity in Port-au-Prince. The power comes on only a few hours a day, mostly at night, but it didn't matter because Andre had brought his brother Johnny an iPod and rechargeable dock.
By hosting a party we got to visit with most of Andre's relatives without having to travel all over the city. It had been over a year since they'd seen Andre, and the first time as a married man, so they all gathered together, despite the chaos in the streets due to elections. I got busy taking portraits of everyone, which I printed up once I got back to the U.S. The mail service to Haiti is unreliable, so I sent them through a friend who works for the U.S. embassy, and Lesly will pick them up from her and distribute them. Here's a selection of my favorites:


Lyse-Mia seemed very smart and alert for just a month and a half old. She also has a nice head of hair. It was nice to meet Lesly's mother for the first time.


Lesly ordered some cakes and bought the drinks, but the rest was homemade -- lots of salads, rice with pigeon peas, fried plantains, lasagna, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, fish. They served popcorn as an appetizer.

No Haitian kitchen is complete without a deep wooden pestle and mortar to mash and grind all the great spices they put into their cooking. With so little electricity, there are few blenders and no food processors or electric grinders. Coffee is made by roasting the beans over a charcoal fire and then grinding it with a pestle and mortar.

The women decided that it would be more orderly and fair if they took the food out to the guests. Andre's younger sister Beatrice (left) and Aunt Miche (right), along with some other aunts, took charge of dishing up the plates and serving it. I did my part too.


Like every party I've ever hosted, it always looks like nobody's coming at first. You rush around getting everything ready, then wait for people to show up. But before we knew it, we had a full house.

As usual, the teens like to hang out with each other, so they took their food and went next door to one of the aunt's houses.

And the kids like to hang out with each other too. The men with the men and the women with the women.


Here's Beatrice with Aunt Miche when Miche came back from church and Beatrice was cleaning up for the party. On the right, Beatrice is dressed to impress.

Andre's grandma is always the guest of honor at any gathering.

Here's Andre with his mother and grandma.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Haiti, June 20, 2009: Back in Port-au-Prince

We used the rental truck to pick up the beer and soft drinks for tomorrow's big baptism party for Andre's new god-daughter Lyse-Mia. Then I turned it in to the rental company.

The rest of the day we didn't do much, mostly recuperated from the strenuous drive. Andre's friend Billy Squitt came over to visit. I'd spoken to him by phone before, but this was the first time we'd ever met in person. I know his brother Ronald who lives in Buenos Aires. Their brother Marcus Squitt plays professional soccer in Montreal, Canada.

Left to right: Andre's cousin Mardoche, Billy Squitt, brother Johnny, nephew Joel, Andre, and brother Reginald.

Billy works for an American company and speaks really good English.

In the afternoon I invited Andre's Aunt Micheline to go to the Villa Imperial Hotel with me for a swim. Like so many people in Andre's family, Miche can't exactly swim, but at least she's not afraid of the water and enjoyed herself very much. A Haitian-American woman at the pool, who hadn't seen Andre yet, asked me if Miche was my sister-in-law. We're just about the same age, so it was a logical question. Miche is a school teacher and single, if you know anyone for her. She speaks Creole and French, some Spanish and English.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Haiti: June 19, 2009 -- Road Trip Continues

Today we drove our 4-wheel-drive rental truck from Saint-Marc to Gonaives (24 miles) and then back to Port-au-Prince. (72 miles), with barely any stops. While I drove, Andre snapped a lot of these photos on the fly. On a U.S. freeway, this distance might take two hours, but because of the condition of the roads in Haiti -- even this route, the country's main highway -- it took us the entire day and evening, with barely any stops. Everyone warned me not to attempt this journey, but I had heard so much about how hard hit Gonaives was during the series of hurricanes in September 2008. I was curious to see what remained of the damage. Actually, the highway itself, was one of the casualties.

Our day began in the Saint-Marc hotel pool, with a leisurely take-off around 9:00. The road was mostly rocky and pot-holed, with mud and flooding in parts, and even some good stretches where we could work up some speed. We passed rustic huts, rice fields, markets, and cemeteries, with empty stretches of coast on the left and tall hills to the right. In Haiti there's a saying, "Mountains beyond mountains," which pretty much sums up their terrain. It also means that behind every challenge is yet another.

Up until the 1980s, Haiti used to be self-sufficient in their rice production. Today most of it is imported from the U.S. at cheaper prices than they can grow it themselves.

Due to our slow and difficult progress, we barely had time to stop anywhere. Suddenly, Andre ordered me to a halt. I thought he had to pee badly. But instead he had spotted a young girl with a basket of sweet mangoes for sale. He bought half a dozen and offered some to the rest of us. When no one took up his offer, Andre proceeded to eat all six by himself. Later on the way back, he searched and searched for the same vendor, but no luck.

Andre was so happy to be in Haiti during mango season. He ate a half dozen a day. But these that he bought on the way to Gonaives were his favorites. On the right, Andre and his brother Reginald washed the mangos at a well.

Here are more scenes along the way:

It was interesting how they put collars on the goats so they couldn't get through the fences.

This is charcoal for sale.


We arrived in Gonaives (with a population at the hottest time of day. After parking the truck by the plaza, we finally got to stretch our legs and walk around. All four guys attempted to climb a statue in the center of the plaza, but only Coach and Andre made it to the top. A few soldiers were posted on the top of a building facing the square, with their weapons ready, but overall downtown Gonaives looked busy, but mellow...just a sleepy town compared to Port-au-Prince.

Haitian heroes of Independence: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Capois La Mort, Toussaint L'Ouverture

"By overthrowing me, you have succeeded in cutting down the tree of liberty of the blacks in Santo Domingo but have failed to destroy the roots that are deep and strong. The tree will grow again." -- Toussaint L'Ouverture

There were some signs of the massive flooding that happened last fall from all the hurricanes. Here a couple of aerial photos from the internet to show what it looked like before:

There's still more clean-up to do:

But overall, Gonaives looks like a regular Haitian city these days, with all the usual activity, markets, pedestrians, school kids in uniform, traffic, and a mix of old and new architecture.

When Jean-Milaud and Coach stopped to wash their hands, they met two little schoolgirls. The girls spotted me taking their picture, so they dodged the slow-moving traffic to come ask me to take their picture again.

In the market, I noticed some bags of possibly cornmeal marked "U.S.AID From The American People." Our friend Khadija used to work as a nurse for U.S.AID Haiti, but has since been transferred to Sudan, Africa and now Bangladesh. I've seen this before in the third world, where U.S. donations end up being sold rather than given to the people. Corruption always infuriates me, the naive American.

After walking around in the heat, we were famished. We found a cute little cafe and ordered five plates of fish, rice, and fried bananas. When I asked to use the bathroom, the waitress hesitated. "Okay, follow me," she said in Creole. We went out back and around the building, until we reached an outdoor concrete shower. A young woman was bathing. She moved over to make room for me. I squatted and peed, thanked her, and wound my way back alone. Some young people called out to me. One of them knew a little English, which he was eager to show off. A beautiful young girl in a pink blouse asked me to take her picture, which I was more than happy to do. Her portrait is one of my favorite pictures from this trip. On the way back to the truck we ran into a rap star who Jean-Milaud, also a musician, recognized. We had fun taking pictures with him. Jean-Milaud gave him a copy of his CD.

By then, it was getting late and we had to start back for Port-au-Prince, mostly without stopping.

These kids are heading home after a day at work.

About sunset, a collapsed bridge caused us to detour along a small beach. My hands were cramping from gripping the steering wheel so long and my knees ached from changing gears, so I suggested we stop for 5 minutes, even though Port-au-Prince was still several hours away. A trio of cutie pies came running up, chanting "Blan, fe fotom" (white person, take a photo of me), which I obliged.

We arrived in Port-au-Prince after dark. It had been a long day, but worth it.