Arriving in Haiti

I think many of you who have been reading this blog — and even I– have been expecting a post about the emotional aspects of leaving for and arriving in Haiti. I have been scared to write about it, because after nearly half a year away, I am no longer sure of the powerful feelings I felt before — whether they were real, whether they’ll return. In some ways, on the ground now, I am still not sure. I am too enmeshed in it all right now to be able to be coherent about any of this.

This blog is personal, but there are also a number of subjects I don’t breach on here. I remember telling one of my friends once that I am not a very private person, but there are certain subjects I don’t talk about honestly with many, because they are far too close for me to have rational thoughts about them. My family, background, for one.

This blog is reflective of me in that sense. I want to write about what it felt like to meander through Port Au Prince traffic again, to hear Creole, the sweltering heat, the shirt that was immediately soaked through with sweat. I want desperately to relate to all of you what thoughts are going through my mind, how much more real everything feels. But I cannot. Not because I am not trying, but because I am knee-deep in it all and can’t see it very clearly from this angle right now.

We saw a man today, out of the window of the restaurant we were sitting in. Pulling along a cart of metal sheets, a mule’s job. My friend informed me that the average life span after one starts a job like that is 7 years. In less than seven years, this man will probably be dead. In a country with a 41% unemployment rate, this is the kind of employment available.

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Mwen pa pral ale a Ayiti demen… Anko

The last few days have been an emotional roller coaster. I prepped myself to leave for Wednesday night. In an idealistic alternate universe, I would be sleeping under the mosquito nets in hot, hot Leogane right now. Wednesday morning, I woke up to an email from an UPS lady (yes, that’s right, an actual person), informing me that the water testing kit that we had ordered from Belgium is being held for FDA approval — a process that should take only 24-48 hours. This was a kit that was supposed to have arrived two days before but we were expecting for sure on Wednesday afternoon. I then delayed my flight for Friday 3PM. I woke up this morning with the UPS lady now telling me that my package has been cleared. Happy Rowen goes about her day, grateful for the extra day to finish all of her shenanigans, only to check the UPS website at 10PM to find her kit still sitting in Kentucky, not due for delivery until Monday. The next flight out to Port-au-Prince is Tuesday night.

Tuesday! Useless, pointless delays…

I had originally planned to be in Leogane for a few days before heading out to Plaisance, both because it would have been nice to be somewhere familiar, with some familiar faces before going off into rural Haiti and because I really wanted to see the management and quality monitoring of the All Hands Volunteer’s Biosand Filter Project.This delay completely cuts out my time in Leogane, but c’est la vie. Or rather, se lavi.

This entire affair is really more emotionally draining than I can describe right now because three months in Haiti by myself isn’t really like three months at Swarthmore. I need to prepare for any kind of strange situation that may arise, especially in a resource-poor area where I need to bring in everything I need (I am carrying in, in my backpack, a microscope, plastic pipettes, and a number of different pills for various GI infections that may occur).  It’s not exactly routine and requires advanced planning because nothing is ever quite certain. Haiti, Port-au-Prince in particular, is also not exactly what one would describe as… Safe. I have been feeling particularly nervous about this trip, because I will be the only international and responsible for the success/failure of this entire bit. And this anxiety only increases approaching time of departure. As you can imagine then, these serial delays have caused a strange mood chart for the last few days.

For those of you who don’t know what I am doing for the next three months, I will be in Haiti and Dominican Republic with a NGO, World Water Relief, conducting community health assessments and beginning some sort of regular water quality monitoring. I have spent a good portion of my last month thinking about exactly how to go about each task. WWR is beginning a project in Plaisance. For the community health assessments, I hope to begin a set of data within the next month, which can be compared with data from after the water filter installations, to see if there will be any changes in community health. In the batays of Dominican Republic, where the water filters have been installed for a while, I want to access some data at the clinics and process and run some analysis on the data.

In terms of monitoring water quality, the issues we have encountered include what exactly to monitor. Fecal coliform tests (which monitors for fecal bacteria content in water) are simple, but require incubations for extended periods of time, which is not possible in places with no electricity (ie places that need these filtration systems most). Field kits that come with their battery are also outrageously expensive. Even fecal coliform tests are not conclusive as to whether or not the water is safe to drink as they are only indicators of the presence of fecal bacteria (such as E Coli). So if a bird poops in the water, this contamination will be picked up by the fecal coliform test but the pathogens carried in bird poop most likely will not harm humans. What about chemical toxicity? It turns out that to monitor chemical toxicity, you have to know what chemicals you are specifically looking for. General toxicity tests can tell you whether or not this water is toxic to a certain type of microorganism, which hopefully can be generalized to humans, but does not tell you what the toxin may be in the water or even if it will be definitively toxic to humans. Everything is limited by portability, finances, and resources. Again, se lavi.

Edit: Package just arrived! Leaving today!

On the monkey bars

If anyone has ever-so-briefly interacted with me, he/she would know about how I absolutely adore children. I have an easier time understanding them than I do adults. On a very basic level, I think I have far more in common with them than adults. All they want to do is laugh, eat, and play, laugh, eat, and play.

At my extended care, there is a particular little girl in first grade that I have grown close to. She looks particularly small and fragile for her age, with her flower clip always struggling to keep her curls in check.

I’ve noticed that she generally has trouble with numbers and letters, to the point that I am beginning to suspect dyslexia — all of her numbers and letters come out backwards. She still can’t count or know the alphabet. While trying to teach her to do her spelling homework today, I tried to teach her how to go through the dictionary to look for the word. That was when I realized she did not know her alphabet. Generally, she guesses and then tries to tell from my expression or intonation, whether or not she is correct. I suspect she was used to getting answers for most of her previous homework with just a whimper, a pout, and some giggles. She sat there crying today, saying with frustration, “I just can’t spell!” Do I teach her the alphabet? Numbers? Where do you begin, when the deficits are so basic and you have twenty minutes to get her to finish her homework? Another worker, at this point, came in, and angrily asked her why she was doing her homework so slowly, threatening to take away her snacks. This only agitated her more.

We went out to play. I began noticing a pattern where she would give up on a game every time it becomes too difficult, saying she doesn’t like the game and going off to sit by the curb to cry. I’m not sure if she learned this from her difficulties in the classroom, but again, I was at a loss. After trying to speak with her several times, I eventually chose to leave her alone, hoping she can break the pattern of using her tears to resolve these issues if she learned that tears will not bring all of the adults running to her. But how do you walk that thin line of helping a kid learn something and making sure she does not feel neglected when she is crying?

So the lesson for me today at school is that on the monkey bars, like a bloodless reenactment of the Discovery channel, these cubs are in their own way trying to learn how to deal with their own life challenges. That the laughing, eating, and playing are not as simple as they appear on the surface.

On a lighter side, another priceless quote from another little girl today, while discussing our favorite fruits:

“Miss Rowen, I have to tell you a secret! Once when I was little, I ate SO many blue berries, my poop turned blue…. And when I eat watermelons, watermelons come out.”

The kid has digestive issues. Bad.

Planning, and planning, and planning

In one of my clearest memories from first grade, I threw a tantrum because my 爷爷 (yéye) wanted me to stop doing homework to have dinner. At one point, he yelled, “It’s Friday! You have two more days to finish your homework!” And I kept crying, because at that point, I was too proud to stop and admit that I was wrong. It was the first time that I can remember distinctively feeling that famous familial pride pushing me to keep going even in the wrong. Fifteen years later, little of that has changed. Although, I suppose, this post is my fifteen-year-late apology to my 爷爷.

I had intended this break to work on a number of different applications to different opportunities. So far, I have two out of twenty originally planned applications finished and two that I really just need to send in. Tomorrow is actually the deadline for two very important fellowships that I have been considering, but have just given up on. I have yet to finish my medical school essay, request all of my recommendation letters, and finish the final draft of my paper. In the next week and half, I need to do all that and really work on two applications to programs that I am very serious about. All of these has given me a fair amount of anxiety and frustration in the past month. My mother finally sat me down for a good talk yesterday. This has been a pattern in my life and hasn’t been healthy. I have a tendency to be constantly worried about the future, when little of that is necessary. I can come back in May, take some time off, and apply for jobs then, she assured me.

Fifteen years ago, I was an anxious, nerdy little kid, worried about what the world would be like if I didn’t finish my homework. Fifteen years later, I am still the same kid, worried about what the world would be like if I didn’t try my best. Albeit the tantrum now is turned inward. I just become frustrated and angry at myself.

In part, I am glad I was born with this drive to keep going and going, but in part, this same drive comes with the price of being constantly dissatisfied with my present surroundings. I wrote one of my college essays on accepting my failures, but clearly, four years later, little of that has change. I can’t accept breaks in my life. My entire life has been a uninterrupted process towards some goal, before I was even aware enough to know what that goal may be — this needs to change.

Paused.

I have been feeling a little lost, in time and place. I feel like I am stalling, waiting for something. Like a movie paused in the middle of a scene for too long. Without a regular daily schedule, I feel like my days are wasted away. I am in a constant cycle of anxiety, yet at the same time, I feel like nothing I am actually doing feels that significant. No goal, no direction that I am heading towards. There are a number of things I must finish before I leave, but I can’t locate the motivation inside of me to do them. The burning feeling that I left Swat with a month ago has petered to barely smoking ambers. I feel tired. Burnt out. Doubtful of where I am going. I don’t like this feeling of not knowing where I am going or where I will be.

As posts mushroom on the facebook feed about returning to Swarthmore, I can’t help but feel that brewing craving for the same kind of stability again. Maybe I am in mourning.

I am sure everything will feel more real once the airplane touches ground in Port au Prince, but right now —

Ego and other wandering thoughts

I had a particularly rough morning today. My mother has been gone on a business trip for the past week and half, so I have been waking up at 6:30 AM every morning, sometimes to just wake up my brother for school, sometimes to make breakfast for him. This particular morning, I managed to splash hot oil in my eye and forehead region while making fried eggs for a sandwich for him — which my mom is positive will scar me for life. But what really got to me this morning was a comment from someone, calling me an egoist for going to Haiti.

His points were:

  1. That I should be working to establish independence of a people, instead of suffocating them with good will.
  2. That I should discuss everything in depth on a theoretical level before taking it to the ground.
  3. That the need to see direct results, instead of seeking to understand issues in depth on a theoretical level, is a product of my ego.

After the initial anger subsided, I began really thinking about his criticisms in depth. Whatever his intentions may have been, his criticisms still deserved thinking about. The concept of ego is something I have been constantly struggling with since I started considering the possibility of going into this. He is right that helping people can become a form of egoism too. When people choose paths that have less monetary reward, the alternative reward is possible more self-fulfillment, which can be easily warped into ego boosting.  Is it wrong to find self-fulfillment in helping the poor? Am I stepping on the backs of the less fortunate to help myself get somewhere higher and better? Maybe not money profits, but am I profitting in some other way from this?

I don’t think these are questions that will leave me any time soon, but, I think for now, I can check myself by constantly reminding myself that the needs of the people that I am working with should always be placed before any of my own need for self-fulfillment. I may achieve self-fulfillment through this work, but if the time comes that require me to set aside my ego and back out of a project, then I should be ready to take this step.

To begin addressing his particular points then, we can begin at point 2, that I should seek to understand issues on a theoretical level. I think this was something that I was and still am struggling with — which holds more educational value: being on the ground or in the classroom? I think the two offer different but equally valuable lessons that supplement each other. Eventually, I will be heading back to school to receive more training and spend more time thinking, but right now, I have this opportunity to be on the ground, learning more about it on a in-the-field position. And this intersection where theory meets people is where it actually really matters.

I was desperate to seek out an opportunity to return to the field last semester. Part of it is because I want to see if this is what I really want to go into. But part of it is also the need to see direct results. However, I think it is less because of an ego issue so much as I am slowly learning the difference between words on a page and people in real life. Not just in the implementation of theory process. Words don’t hold the same significance for me as people do. This petition for Chester schools takes on a whole different meaning when I remember the kids I worked with on Saturdays with Dare 2 Soar. Many of them eagerly said with bright eyes that they want to go to college — this petition becomes about finding opportunities for them and not just words on a page about equal education opportunities. Remembering and seeing results in person motivate me, because ultimately, it’s people that motivate me.

As a response to his first point, about establishing independence within a people — this is also something that I have been constantly thinking about lately — what types of projects are sustainable in the long run, within the country and without outside aid? Is there an evolution of the project or does the project need to be established with that goal in mind? The obvious answer would be that NGOs should always try to establish programs that are self-sustaining — and most currently functioning NGOs  in development work do employ more in-country staff than internationals. But — when is a situation to be considered an emergency situation? In other words, when are immediate intervention efforts necessary to help stop worsening of certain situations, while other more, long-term efforts go on? What about Zanmi Lasante (Partners in Health), which is sustained mainly by foreign aid? It has done a lot of good, but it cannot be a long-term solution. It was implemented in a situation where the need for it was deemed dire enough to require intervention at this level. More concretely, in terms of the compost latrine project proposals I have been writing, I have been looking for data that shows that such an operation can be profitable in the country for a community so that it can be sustained beyond my involvement and provide some job opportunities. This means, at the basic level of planning, where I want to have this project and whether or not I want to collaborate with a public organization. Are compost latrines to be long term solutions or interventions until some permanent, municipal sewage system comes around? These theoretical questions gain a concrete context, but then, as again and again recently, I realize just how little I know about everything.

This is a really rambling post — mainly because my thoughts are not yet fully formed on any of these. Just my mind going on in the early mornings.

Catching the first sunrise

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Every January first, while the bay sleeps, my friends and I try to watch the first sunrise.

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It started the senior year of high school, on just a whim. I went with a few friends to top of the world to watch that sunrise. Somehow, this whim became a tradition and has continued for four years now. It’s often more romantic in theory than in practice — 6 AM is cold and dark and hard to want to drag yourself out for. And the sun never rises as romantically as you picture it would. It is never a round yellow ball, bursting out from beyond the mountains, bringing hues of pink and orange. Often, it’s a quiet and slow change in the sky and the air. You smell and feel it before you see it. But when you go to school on the opposite coast and wander during the breaks, it’s nice to have these little traditions to tie yourself to. The little consistencies that persist when everything else is changing.

Happy 2012, everyone.