Monday, January 24, 2011

Haiti: My Work

I went to Haiti to intern with a Philadelphia-based non-profit called Explorers Sans Frontiers (ESF). Shonta, my boss, founded ESF about three years ago and the organization has been growing ever since. ESF brings teams of American students and professionals to underserved parts of the developing world. The programs integrate humanitarian service and cross-cultural education. Specific activities and the particular mix of service and exploration vary depending on the country and length of the trip. The main thing ESF does in Haiti is run medical clinics in underserved neighborhoods in Port-Au-Prince.

My title was Intern for Collaboration and Program Monitoring and Evaluation, and my primary responsibility was to help ESF develop collaborative partnerships with other NGOs. Additionally, I identified opportunities to begin monitoring and evaluating the impact of ESF’s work.

Since I arrived in Haiti midway through an ESF trip, I spent the first several days assisting the medical team and observing the implementation of ESF’s program from an impact assessment perspective. From then until I left Haiti, I spent my time visiting various organizations in Port-Au-Prince to interview their staff and observe their programs. Having absorbed as much information as possible, I created a report identifying potential partnership opportunities.

A typical day would begin with breakfast and internet time (if the electricity was up) while I waited for my colleagues to arrive. Rousevelt and Anderson are college students and ESF staff. They’re brothers, best friends, study-buddies, and completely inseparable. “The boys,” were my constant companions.

After they picked me up, the three of us would head out. Our day’s activities might include meeting with the director of an orphanage, visiting a mobile clinic one of our partner agencies was running, or attending a briefing on the Cholera outbreak at the Ministry of Public Health and Population. Because the communications infrastructure is unreliable, the professional culture prioritizes face to face meetings. Because it takes so long to get from one place to another, our daily agenda was of necessity quite short. Accomplishing two things in a day was productive. Three was outstanding.

After the boys escorted me home at the end of the day, I’d generally eat dinner, check email (if the electricity was up), and plan for the following day before going to bed.

Haiti: Port-Au-Prince and Pétionville

Like LA, its first world sister in poor air quality, Port-Au-Prince sits at the bottom of a half-bowl formed by mountains in close proximity to the sea. The city feels bigger than it is because it takes so long to get from one place to another (awful roads combined with dense and unruly traffic). Chickens and goats wander everywhere and are especially thick in the residential neighborhoods. Both are used mainly for meat.

Port-Au-Prince is a bizarre combination of visual monotony and shocking contrast. Everywhere you see collapsed houses and piles of rubble that have not been touched since the earthquake. Next to such a house, you may very well see a newly re-built mansion. Next to either, a shack constructed of tarps and tin that houses five people. The discontinuity almost becomes monotonous. Until your eyes adjust and you learn how to look, every street looks the same. This is doubly true in residential areas with no houses, collapsed or otherwise: just street after street, dusty and rocky, lined with Shelter-Boxes and tents and endless endless tarps.* For me, at least, three weeks was barely long enough to start to remember particular locations. Even then my mental map is little more than a series of street corners I’ve somehow learned to identify; a particular row of tents next to a curved white concrete wall, a place that sells tires wrapped in strips of shiny Mylar paper, a fork in the road just before it becomes paved.

Inland from Port-Au-Prince on the foothill slopes of the mountains sits the wealthier suburb known as Pétionville. I first went to Pétionville on my third day in Haiti, up until which point I’d seen only tent cities. The incredible contrast was disorienting. Though it’s obvious that Pétionville is in a developing country, it is in much better shape than Port-Au-Prince. There are fully paved roads with working traffic signals, prosperous markets, even luxury stores and an American style supermarket complete with Pepperidge Farm cookies. There are also a lot of walled mansions on quiet, tree-lined streets. This is where the majority of Haiti’s elite live. Because its infrastructure is so much better, it’s also where most of the international NGOs have their offices.

Roughly half the vehicles that clog the streets are tap-taps (see “where I stayed”), very beat up private vehicles, or larger busses nicknamed “Obamas” because they appeared in Port-Au-Prince around the same time President Obama was sworn into office. A staggering number of white four-wheel drives sporting various NGO logo comprise the rest of the traffic. I started keeping lists of NGOs whose logos I spotted in Haiti, and whether I saw them on a truck, on a building, or on a tarp or a tent. Though all three lists are too long to transcribe, I saw all the names you’d expect to see,** plus a few surprises: I was delighted to see Islamic Relief Services and the Tai Chi Federation of Taiwan, and I also saw donations of supplies from Rotary International and a number of different governments. And then, of course, there’s the UN. The UN in its various incarnations probably has as many vehicles in Port-Au-Prince and Pétionville as all the international NGOs combined. In my goofier moments I imagined creating a bingo board with all the NGO and UN agency acronyms. I could send it down with future volunteers: when you see the logo you check it off, and whoever gets five in a row wins. Given that the winners in this agency fun-fest are supposed to be the Haitian people, however, Bingo is a bit tacky.

*After a while you can start to identify the donating organization by the color of the tarp: light royal blue is Samaritans’ Purse, gray with darker gray stripes is USAID, and tan tents are from the Brasilian Civil Defense, while cerulean blue tents are from the People’s Republic of China. The rest are mostly plain gray and dusty white at this point, regardless of logo.

**Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, World Vision, Save The Children, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, PLAN, AmeriCares, and a host of smaller organizations

Haiti: Tent Cities

The tent cities are everywhere. They crowd into any accessible open space: fields, nature strips, public parks, anywhere. There’s a large park by a cathedral in the center of wealthy Pétionville, and the tent city that now crowds every inch of it emphasizes all the more plainly the chasm between Haiti’s rich and poor. The center of downtown Port-Au-Prince had many of the older and lovelier buildings in the city, including some stately public buildings like the now famously crumbled Presidential Palace and the national museum. These last two especially are ringed with broad avenues, spreading parks, and several large circular intersections with monuments in the middle (think of l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris). The parks and gardens used to be well tended and green, with lush trees and flowers and flowing fountains. Rousevelt told me it used to be the most beautiful place in Haiti.

Now, of course, the parks and plazas are a crowded labyrinth of tents and shanty-shacks, and the trees are watered by wash water. Some flowers still bloom, but generally other smells overwhelm their fragrance: smoke from cooking fires, food being prepared, exhaust, unwashed bodies, garbage, and sewage. The fountains are dry. Water flows instead from a row of taps springing from the occasional Oxfam or Red Cross water tank system, where people us wash themselves, their clothes, their dishes, and anything else. One child I saw had covered himself with soap and was sliding around on his belly on the wet pavement, having a ball. The NGO-built latrines are unmistakable. They come in banks of four or five, all in a row, identical and probably inadequate. The camp president guided us through this tent city, which is a very good thing: The boys and I would definitely have gotten lost on our own.

The shanties have their own kind of beauty, or at least visual interest. The collage of chicken wire and faded paint on wood with corrugated metal and lace curtains is strangely compelling. Residents make concerted home improvement efforts even to their tarps and tents. They scallop the edges of the plastic sheeting that forms their roof and cut elaborate and decorative window shapes into the walls of their tents. These window shapes are inspired by the wrought iron windows and gates that are so much a part of Haitian architecture.

I stayed for nearly two weeks in my own tent, in the yard of a house that is surrounded by two tent cities (see “where I stayed”). The sense of community seemed very strong in this neighborhood, perhaps because people live in such close proximity to one another. Of course I was homesick, but even as a foreigner I wasn’t exactly lonely. I was always aware of the people around me, and could usually tell what they were doing. It’s quite a contrast to the private isolation in which most New Yorkers live: I can’t imagine these neighbors not knowing one another. The structures are so open that all sounds carry easily: if a church is holding services, everyone in the neighborhood can (and often does) sing along with the hymns. Even in the relative privacy of my tent, my senses were full of the sounds and smells of people living. I woke at sunrise to the sound of roosters, footsteps on gravel, and other sounds of people waking up and moving around. I heard pots being lifted and set down, and people’s voices as they greeted each other.

The camp was busy but quiet in the mid-to-late afternoon. The sounds of hammering, chickens making a ruckus, and kids shouting sifted through a continual murmur of voices. I would hear someone dumping out the wash water and a diesel engine roaring on the other side of the small valley, it’s sound strangely muted by the distance (I could usually hear its suspension, too, and even its cargo bouncing around in the back). The ground is packed so hard it’s like clay, and it’s full of rocks. Everything is the color of light yellowy taupe and cement, and gray and blue from the tarps. There’s dust everywhere, and a purplish-gray haze of dust, smoke, and air pollution over everything. People seem to eat two meals a day (one in the morning, and one in the late afternoon), and I could smell chicken cooking in preparation. Behind the food smells, the air would be thick with the smell of open fires in every household burning whatever is at hand.

Haiti: The Caribbean International Highway

Over the course of my trip to Port-Au-Prince, four different people approached me to ask if I’d heard about the Caribbean International Highway, an underwater highway theoretically currently being constructed between the US and Haiti. That’s right, an underwater highway between the US and Haiti. By way of Cuba, in fact.

Let me be clear: THERE IS NO HIGHWAY. It is a hoax, fiction, not real. There never has been, and never will be, an long underwater highway like this, here or any other place. It would be impossible, because it would be extremely difficult to build, and be far more expensive than it would be worth.

The fact that this idea is so absurd as to be stupidly ridiculous is not the point of the story. Nor are the numerous responses I made explaining the (blindingly obvious!) fact that the Caribbean International Highway is a fiction: an internet hoax someone invented to drive traffic to his/her blog. What struck me was how ready Haitian people were to believe this story – even intelligent, fairly educated, reasonably worldly Haitian people. And what their credulity implies.

The first conclusion is obvious and not particularly interesting: most Haitian people are poorly equipped consumers of internet information. This is not a judgment; it’s an acknowledgement that finding, evaluating, and especially filtering information from electronic sources is a skill which, unsurprisingly, most Haitian people have not developed. Even those with regular internet access didn’t usually have the contextual understanding to appreciate the substantive difference between The New York Times website and the dozens of junk “news” sites that populate the web. I look at the picture below and laugh, because I see immediately that I’m looking at a regional map that someone pulled from a google image search and drew some colored lines on using some program not much more sophisticated than Microsoft Paint. In contrast, the Haitian people who approached me saw this picture as proof that the plan was underway.

For the people who approached me about the highway, the utter absence of any mention of the project in any reputable news source was meaningless. Usually this was for the reasons discussed above. For those better able to evaluate the credibility of different news sources, however, the silence in the mainstream media was simply evidence that “they” were keeping the project secret for some nefarious purpose. This brings me to a second and altogether sadder conclusion: Haitian people are very accustomed to secretive and often foreign powers making plans and decisions that change Haiti in ways that they themselves cannot control or influence. The combined effects of the many upheavals in Haiti’s history have made the idea of a secret underwater highway all too believable.

Moving forward, we can learn from the problems of their credulity: First, it is further proof of the need for increased opportunities for education in Haiti, and the need for computer skills and critical thinking skills to be part of that education. Second, the world needs to stop making actual nefarious plans that scapegoat the Haitian people, so that perhaps they can learn to trust us.

**P.S. After having posted this entry, I was surprised to find that traffic to our blog, via this entry, significantly increased. There are even more people than I would have expected looking for information on this!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Haiti: My Best Friend Reggie

Without a doubt, the best part of my Haiti trip was meeting my new friend, Ysemaille’s ten-year-old son Reggie. Reggie is the sweetest child imaginable, and smart and thoughtful too. Once when we were riding in the truck together, he noticed me squinting to read my cell phone screen in the glare of the direct sunlight. Without any prompting or fuss, he carefully cupped his hands around the screen so I could see it clearly. How many adults would be so considerate?

Reggie got a Checkers and Tic-Tac-Toe game for Christmas. Checkers is a bit too abstract for him just yet, but he took to Tic-Tac-Toe like a fish to water. We played for hours. Reggie speaks Creole, understands French, and speaks a bit of French unless he’s feeling shy. I speak French and understand (some) Creole. We communicated in a combination of the two languages. The only word of either that you really need to understand the following dialogue is “gagner,” which is the verb “to win:”

Petra (placing my second white piece on the tic-tac-toe board): Mets les trois pieces en ligne: ca fait gagner.
Reggie (putting a black piece in the left corner, blocking my two white pieces): Voila, Reggie blocke, Reggie a gagner?
Petra (placing another white piece in what I have correctly assessed as a futile attempt put three pieces in a line and win the game): Pas encore, mais…
Reggie (putting down a third piece): Ah! Reggie a gagner!
Petra (tickle-tackling Reggie with cuddles, reducing him to delighted giggles): Oui, magnifique! Reggie a gagner perfectment: Formidable. Tu as gagne mon coeur aussi.

Tic-Tac-Toe was only one of the activities we did together, though. We played on the computer when the internet was up, typing out our addresses and sending emails to the USA. He’s fascinated by addresess. Another day I gave him a tour of my tent, and he helped me make my bed. He especially liked my pillow, which I do have to admit is quite nice. Later I asked him to comb my hair (of course, everyone is fascinated by my hair), which he did so gently I was amazed. Then he went to get the hair oil from the bedroom, to comb it through mine as his dad does through his (I thanked him and explained that white people don’t usually use hair oil).

The day we took his stepmom to the airport, he couldn’t believe I wasn’t going too. The whole way to the airport, he kept asking me, “Aux Etates-Unis?” which means “to the United States?” and was his abbreviated way of asking me if I was going home. I told him no, I’m staying with you for a while longer. On receiving this answer he would assume I’d misunderstood the question, wait long enough to be polite, and repeat it.

Perhaps my favorite day with Reggie was the day we drew pictures of our houses: first his own, then mine. We carefully chose the colors and noted all important elements: door, window, porch, chairs, lamp, hill, and sky. As we drew he exclaimed “quell belle maison!” which is “what a beautiful house!” His delight and pride in his house (and his drawing) truly touched my heart. Seeing where Reggie lives, most people in the US would barely see a house much less a beautiful house. But Reggie’s pride is understandable, as his house is undoubtedly the nicest in the neighborhood. We taped our beautiful drawings up around the beautiful house, and sat down for another game of Tic-Tac-Toe.

Haiti: Where I Stayed

My First Home in Haiti: My tent pitched in Ysmaille’s back yard. Ysmaille’s house is four rooms: bedroom, kitchen, livingroom, and bathroom (though since the refrigerator and stove are in the livingroom while the desk, computer, phones, internet etc are in the kitchen, the lines are a bit blurred). It’s built of cement with a tin roof, and the interior floors are tiled. The bathroom has all the fixtures you’d recognize, but there’s no water to the taps (see “water” below).

Residents: Ysmaille sleeps in the bedroom. His son Reggie and part-time domestic helper Flatude sleep on mats in the livingroom, which they put away each morning and retrieve each evening when they’re ready to go to bed. The first time I saw Reggie grow sleepy, get out his mat and blankets, and put himself to bed in the middle of the kitchen – all lights on, music still going, people up and about – I was floored. Roudy, Ysmaille’s friend and colleague, sleeps in a tent in the yard. Our tents were right next to one another and I grew very accustomed to the sounds of Roudy’s snores. He snores continually and very loudly. While this initially drove me crazy, I eventually came to find it comforting. Haiti was a stressful and scary place to be, but if Roudy was snoring, than he was sleeping, and that meant things were calm and ok.

My ‘room’: My tent, pitched in the dirt yard behind the house, was wonderful, my oasis in the chaos. Erika and Lilli set me up with the best available camping bedding before I went down, so I was very comfortable with my compact pillow and sheets and mattress. I understand that the guys at EMS enjoyed the challenge of identifying the ideal air mattress to recommend for someone who would be sleeping on rubble for a fairly extended period. They did an excellent job. I enjoyed being undisturbed by mosquitoes thanks to my net windows, plus the cool fresh air and the amazing gorgeous proliferation of stars on view in a place where there is no electricity to speak of.

Neighborhood: Ysmaille’s house is in a neighborhood called Delmas 75. It’s a fairly remote residential neighborhood about 20 minutes walk from the bus station.* The neighborhood boasts few actual remaining houses, and Ysmaille’s house is pretty well surrounded by two tent cities. It’s a hilly area, very dry, dominated by dirt roads, half-standing walls, rubble piles, and occasional dusty plantlife.

Electricity: This area has very little city electricity, and only a handful of the surrounding houses and tents have electricity. Between Ysmaille’s two generators, we generally had electricity for the few hours between sundown and when everyone went to bed. During this time, I could generally get on the internet for a bit as well. Having internet at home in Haiti is very rare. Ysmaille is the only person I met who has it.

Water: Ysmaille’s house is further distinguished in the neighborhood by the fact that he has his own water tank. The tank is a massive cement box to the left of the house, making the top level with the ground floor of the house: the top of the tank doubles as a spacious patio. Every few weeks, the water truck comes and fills up the tank.

Having water is not the same as having plumbing, however: as I mentioned above, there’s no water to the taps. We draw water from the tank in a bucket, fill up bigger buckets, and carry them into the bathroom for use. A shower means standing in the tub pouring water over yourself. To flush the toilet, you pour water in the bowl. You get the idea. Needless to say, all the water is room-temperature to cold. If you’re showering in the heat of mid-day, that’s fabulous. In chilly mornings it’s a bit rough.

Of course, the water in the tank is not potable. It’s only for washing. All water in Haiti, drinking water included, is privatized and must be purchased. Ysmaille keeps drinking water in the kitchen.

Home Number Two: A different tent set up on the second floor of a school and community center run by the Haitian American Caucus (HAC). I stayed here for a few days because I was shadowing the HAC director (see “My Work”), and the HAC place is too far from Ysmaille’s house for day-trips: to be there in the morning, I really needed to wake up there. Since HAC is set up to house and feed volunteers from overseas, this worked out very well.

Neighborhood: HAC is in a neighborhood called Croix-de-Bouquets, across the river from the rest of Port-Au-Prince and much more rural. Criox-de-Bouquets is also famous for being Wyclef Jean's (formerly of The Fugees) home town. Croix-de-Bouquets was possibly my favorite place in Haiti: the building is surrounded by mango trees and flowering jasmine that smells amazing. It’s quiet all the time, and there’s an absolutely gorgeous pasture out back. The stars at night are among the most beautiful I’ve seen.

Electricity: similar to at Ysmailles, except there’s no city electricity in the neighborhood. Since the HAC generator is rather unreliable, we made much more use of flashlights. No internet access here.

Water: The HAC facility has a water tank and indoor plumbing. The bathroom was bare cement, with a large window open to the outside, but there was (cold) water to the taps. Drinking water in the kitchen.

Home Number Three: A bed and breakfast called Maison Blanche in Delmas 75 near Ysmaille’s house but much closer to the bus station.* Moving here cut 20 minutes off each end of my travel time each day. Electricity and internet access were much more reliable here, though both cut out about once a day or so. My private bathroom had not only plumbing but occasional warm water to the shower. In fact, my very last shower in Haiti was actually hot.

From here, I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

* Of course, “bus station” in this context means “that intersection where the busses stop.” And the “bus” is actually a tap-tap, which is like a pick-up truck with a top and two benches welded onto the bed. They’re generally elaborately and colorfully decorated with images and phrases drawn with equal vigor from Christianity and secular pop culture: the Virgin Mary and Michael Jackson framed by the words “Grace a Dieux” (Grace/Thanks to God). This photo is not mine, it is Irene Prewitt’s and comes from her blog.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Haiti: Arrival

Even from the air, the earthquake's devastation is evident. As my plane curved low from over the sea toward Toussaint Louverture International Airport in North-Central Port-Au-Prince, I noticed collections of structures that were clearly neighborhoods but just looked wrong: their coloring, that bleached warm taupe of dusty concrete, was too uniform; the lines of both buildings and streets too random and soft. There were few crisp rooflines topped with rust-colored tin or corrugated iron, and too few trees.

My sense of discomfiture grew as we landed, and I sank into a city shaped and stamped by confusingly intermixed influences of earthquake devastation and endemic poverty. I saw the cracked edges and faded paint on the runways. A few containers and trailers lie seemingly at random on the grassy stretches between the runways: are they homes? Offices? The Air-Traffic-Control tower? No way to know. Off to the side, on an overgrown field close to the wall that encloses the airport, a scattering of 757s squat at odd angles, abandoned and dark, their parent companies presumably defunct. Depressing at best, disconcerting the more I thought about it.

We deplaned into the old airport terminal, which is no longer in use. My companions, a pair of teenagers coming home for the holidays, assured me that the other terminal was better, but I’d yet to see it and it was eerie to walk down dark hallways past dark and empty offices whose windows (some splintered or reinforced with utility tape) showed faded logos for American Airlines, Air Canada, and other companies. If I believed in omens, which of course I don’t, then wandering through a cracked ghost-airport of commercial failure would have filled me with a sense of foreboding, which of course it didn’t.

Helpfully, all signage in the new airport building is trilingual, as had been the airline safety videos and cabin announcements on the flight over: French, English, and Creole/Kreyol. As soon as I had stepped onto the plane in Florida, I had been immersed in a wash of these three languages, often spoken intertwined. Obviously the English stood out for me, but my years of language study finally paid off in my ability to navigate the French language environment with equal ease. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could also glean a lot meaning from the Creole using my French. I felt on strong linguistic ground.

My boss Shonta, who I had met in the US, greeted me at the other side of customs and immigration. I realized immediately that Shonta knows by first name everybody at the airport, from the officer who stamped my passport to the security guards who let her in to meet me in the first place to the porter whom she indicated I should let carry my bag. She moves through the airport scattering smiles, greetings, and jokes. This how she gets things done. If you know me, you’ll know why we get along: I have the same style, using charm to navigate pesky institutional structures. Very effective outside the US. When I am home, I occasionally miss being able to wield this power, so it was nice to be back in my element again.

We left the terminal, dodging and weaving through a throng of porters, touts, and chauffeurs to reach Shonta’s truck, a rare rugged, dented, much-loved workhorse of a four-wheel drive. The interior of the door can no longer remember a time when it was upholstered, there are no signs of seatbelts, and we’ll leave the rest unsaid. The thing about unsafe vehicles is that they get exponentially less safe the faster they go. Despite its quirks, the truck is mechanically sound and very sturdy: ideal for narrow, uneven, pothole- and rubble-ridden roads on which you can rarely break 15 miles per hour. We wove sluggishly through the dusty streets, arriving after 40 minutes or so at the house of Ysmaille, Shonta’s fiancé, where I stayed for the first week and a half.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Italy: Day 12: Last day, Pisa

My mother and sister wandered up into the hills above our guest house to further admire the views while I finished and submitted my grad school essays. Then we ate another scrumptious train food court meal (fresh tuna and cured meat sandwiches), hopped on another train, again admired the stunning Apennines and the piles of marble mined from them that lined the tracks, and pulled into Pisa not long after.

Pisa was not at all what I expected. Its streets were calm, well-lived-in, with more posh clothing and food shops than tourist traps. Though an incredibly ancient city, its buildings were low and spanned a wide range of ages. Its frontage along the river Arno was smooth and utilitarian and colorful, a pleasant change from Florence and the like. Its population was surprisingly diverse, with noticeable vibrant minorities of people of Asian and African descent. And most delightfully, its tower and accompanying buildings were not the tacky trollops I anticipated, but were stark and arresting in their elegance and simplicity.

The iconic leaning tower is in fact a bell-tower for the cathedral that anchors the spacious Piazza dei Miracoli. The brilliantly green grassy field holds only four buildings: the aforementioned tower and duomo, plus a baptistery and a graveyard structure. The openness of the public space is unique in Italy, where most equivalent buildings are situated crammed amongst the bustle of unrelated structures. The buildings are spare and elegant, featuring the blindingly white marble and smooth lines of their construction rather than much fuss and ornament. The architects’ and city planners’ forward thinking is all the more remarkable when you consider that they designed this space and its buildings around the year 1000. The interior of the unassuming Baptistery is particularly striking, echoing the best of Roman architecture with graceful arches reaching up to an ambitiously high dome. Perhaps most unique, the cemetery building is designed to be a church of the dead, shaped in a cathedral’s cross but with the center nave roofless and open to the heavens.

Climbing the tower was a strange experience. Remember, of course, that it is leaning. Now think about what a spiral staircase tilted at an angle would be like to walk up and down on. Now make there be no handrail, and make the steps very very worn slippery marble. It was more of a challenge than I had anticipated, but the views from the top across the roofs of the ancient city to the dramatic mountains encircling was well worth the drunken funhouse experience of the stairs.

Our accomodations in Pisa, excellently located by my sister, were in the simple but comfortable Pensione Helvetica, a large and very clean hotel that was inexpensive at 20 Euro per person per night. I was humored to find it was run by a Thai family, and enjoyed their Thai-style courtyard garden (read proliferate potted plants and decorative duckweed with random laundry and trampoline and hand-welded decorative fence). I’d highly recommend it to anyone staying briefly in Pisa.

We dined at a restaurant overlooking the leaning tower that, though catering to the tourist set, was deservedly Lisa-Approved. From their vast menu we enjoyed a sampler of Tuscan bruschettas (mystery pate, lard) that were much tastier than you’d think, as well as a rich dish of gnocchi and fresh crab meat, a serving of roast pork, and my personal favorite, a massive pile of simple sautéed chard-like greens, accompanied by the required local Chianti.

My mother and my flight back to the US left at 7 am the next morning, so we called it an early evening and awoke at a stupidly early hour to get to the airport, only to find the counters not yet open. Once we were able to check in, we were hustled through a surprisingly out-of-date airport experience, with minimal security, tiny spartan waiting accommodations, and a bus across the tarmac to the plane, which we boarded by climbing the stairs to the side. It was more like the Cambodian airports than any developed-country airports I’ve visited.

Which brings me to a concluding observation about Italy: Though it’s a fairly prosperous western European country, it remains in many ways surprisingly undeveloped. Its infrastructure, its politics, and the lifestyles of its inhabitants have remained much less changed by modern life than its neighbors. The new structures built are much like the very old structures, without many “improvements”. The electricity and potable water is haphazard, though fairly reliable. Family, food, drink, church, and public events (including sports) are the priorities, rather than maximizing profits, consumerism, materialism, individualism. In general, it reminded me more of Thailand than America. And in many ways, I felt more at home in this throwback context than my comfortable apartment in NYC.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Italy: Day 10-11: Cinque Terre

New Years Day we arrived by train from Venice at Vernazza, one of the five towns that comprises the Cinque Terre (Five Earths). This tiny region along the northwestern Italian coast, about halfway between Pisa and Genova, is one of my favorite places ever, exceptional even in Italy in its loveliness and charm and antiquity. It has gained the world’s highest designation for uniquely wonderful places, being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even the famously-hard-to-please New York Times has called its “intense beauty, great cuisine and amazing aromas” “almost unfair”.

Steep folded hills of rugged grey rock dive into the bright azure sea. Giant aloe plants and tawny grasses tower taller than your head while scrubby pitchy trees twist and stunt in the salty wind. Unseen beneath the colorful water, rare corals bloom. The elements share in the intensity: sun coats the hillsides thickly and bleaches everything, wind tears tiles off of the roofs, and the wash of rains sweep stones down to the sea. Everything seems to cling, perched on the edge of falling into the glorious water.

In four of the steepest folds and prominences sit the tiny villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and just north on a rare beach sits the slightly-larger Monterosso al Mare. A few additional clusters of buildings form even smaller villages, monasteries, and farms high up on the ridges of the mountains. The spare, blockly buildings are exactly the color of sunsets, peachy pinks, oranges, creams, and blues, all with slashes of deep green shutters.

The steepness of the terrain and sheer-cliff waterfronts have kept these villages and farms relatively inaccessible: only a few outliers can be reached by automobile, with the footpaths, the tiny ferry boats, and the relatively-new regional train that burrows through the impeding mountains still the only ways of getting to most of the area. Everything is stairs, as there’s not a piece of flat ground to be found. Instead of streets, there are stairways. Instead of trails, there are stone and earth stairs cut laboriously into the steepness. Instead of fields, the hillsides are turned into giant’s stairs of terraces.

Being so inaccessible, and until very recently having no other real alternatives for commerce, the villages and people of the Cinque Terre are generally much as they have been the thousands of years these unlikely cliffs have been inhabited. Fishermen go out in tiny wooden boats and bring in cuttlefish, octopus, sea bream. Farmers terrace the hillsides for their grape vines, olive trees, and lemons. A very few shops in each village sell staples brought in from outside, while the local eateries mainly serve up the fish and wines of their neighbors, as well as flat pan breads drenched with the delicious local oil. The boats are simple and utilitarian, and houses are very simple stone and plaster, literally built one on top of the other, perched on the few pieces of hillside that can support them.

It’s changed noticeably from my last visit, though. I felt conflicted. I was glad for the noticeable capital-D Development improving some aspects of the quality of life of the formerly-poor residents: in our previous visit, many houses and fields had been in disrepair, fresh water had been somewhat precious, electricity unreliable, and ambulance services to outside the towns a daunting challenge. These had all been vastly improved thanks to the tourist and UNESCO dollars.

But I found it saddening and ironic that the tourist and UNESCO appreciation of the antique culture and unique landscape were swiftly eroding exactly what they came to enjoy, sometimes literally. Twenty times the number of tourists prowled the streets. English was prevalent on signs. Educational displays on public walkways told of the history of the region, showing black-and-white photos of the old culture Petra and I had seen in person just seven years ago, while the townsfolk walked by in Adidas. Metal nets held together some of the more volatile hillsides while hand rails and paving smoothed large sections of the popular seaside walkway, but landslides still swept away swaths of the coast. It made me wonder how much longer what I enjoyed would remain.

The train from Venice was smooth as butter, and the one between Pisa and La Spezia had allowed us stunning views of the Apennines towering in their spikey marble and snow-covered fierceness 15,000 feet above the tracks. I stared at the tails of snow dust blown from their peaks by the high-altitude winds, the giant scars of millennia of quarrying their finest marbles, and the improbable hilltop towns and fortifications in their foothills until my eyes ached.

By the time we emerged into the Cinque Terre blinking into the sun from the regional train, which had clacked its way through the long black tunnels so laboriously bored along the coast up from La Spezia, I was absolutely ill with sunshine and shadows and the swaying of the trains, as well as dehydrated and very very hungry. In a painful vertiginous haze I managed to make it up the 101 stairs from the train station to our rooms, stomach a quick piece of focaccia from the street below, and blink stupidly for a moment at the meltingly pink sunset light on the rooftops and fields before the inevitable migraine incapacitated me.

Our tiny guest house was comfortable, really just spare bedrooms and a tacked-on toilet in the house of a resident family. As there isn’t space or foundation to build anything resembling a hotel, hosts and visitors make do with the buildings and rooms already there. Ours were clean and private, though. And unlike most, they boasted an absolutely unbeatable view (thanks to the height afforded by the aforementioned 101 steps it took to reach the door) looking over the town, down the coast, across the castle, up to the tower, and onto the terraced fields across and above. Even without the headache, my head wheeled from turning around and looking up and down, trying to take it all in.

By the next morning I felt revived, though as weak and ravenous as I always am after a migraine bout. We found breakfast at the Blue Marlin, humorously a Hemingway and hard-rock themed café that was the only place in town open at the according-to-them-ungodly-early hour of 9am. In their defense, the sun had not yet crested the steep hillside, so I could understand their late definition of “morning”. I had hot-from-the-oven chewy and sweet ricotta cake that was among the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, and thick myrtle-berry yoghurt. Lisa had a piece of rice quiche, and my mother enjoyed a hot spinach and ricotta pastry.

Then we walked. First we were off to Riomaggiore for a quick look around, then we walked to Manarola via the Via de Amor section of the trail (it’s views are especially romantic). There’s a fairly recent Italian fad of lovers locking a padlock onto something at a romantic spot, preferably with water nearby, and throwing away the key (inspired by a scene in a 2003 movie). Resultantly, the fences on is section of the trail are smothered in padlocks, lending an unusual but whimsical visual element to the walk.

Once in Manarola, we lunched at the breakwater quay on more foccaccia-like things, all regional specialties: Farinata is a savoury and crunchy pancake made from a base of chick-pea flour, which we ate with a gooey local cheese Lisa rightly described as the love-child between brie and fresh mozzarella. Castagnaccio is a pasty chestnut flour cake with pinenuts and raisins, very filling and naturally sweet from the nut flour. And a stuffed spinach pastry too.

We had intended to walk onward from there, but landslides had taken out a chunk of the trail, so we hopped on the local train to Monterosso, the northernmost town of the five. From there we walked up a steep and crumbly path about a mile to the bluff that protects and demarks the little region, allowing us to look back along the entire coast. At the top we found the ruins of an old church, fortifications from WWII, and a bevy of paragliders, whom I envied for their ability to swoop and fly. If I ever decide to take up a recklessly expensive hobby, paragliding would definitely be a top contender. Another fascinating aspect of the view from the top of the bluff was that the clouds and sun and sea conspired to blur the horizon so that it looked as if the sky turned into the sea: very distracting, very disorienting, very lovely.

Despite that the sun was beginning to set, after consulting with some returning hikers, we decided to walk from there back to our town, a mere five valleys away along the path that was, as you’ll recall, closed because of landslides. The path was quite dodgy in parts: there was a good reason it was closed. The ground was saturated with all the recent rain, and as you’ll recall it goes along very steep terraced cliff-hills. At most parts, when it wasn’t actually stairs, it was an unprotected 10-inch-wide dirt ledge with a sheer drop to the next terrace or farther. At one point the path crumbled beneath my foot and I almost went down with the shower of pebbles, but I caught myself. Also, it was very dark, and my night vision these days is worthless.

However, the walk and views were well worth the danger, as it is among the most gorgeous sections of trail on the planet. Ancient olive groves, terraced vineyards, stone walls and embankments, tiny arched footbridges, crumbling farm sheds, giant and prolific plants, steep rushing streams, and a general sense of an ancient relationship between humans and the earth. Petra calls it her Garden of Eden, and it certainly does have a mythical, idyllic sense to it. I’d risk more than nighttime falls off of cliffs to see it again.

After returning safely to Vernazza just as it was truly becoming pitch black, I grabbed some more fresh foccaccia (delicious though it is, I’m getting a bit sick of it) and cozied up with my grad school applications and about twelve blankets (remember what I said about my opinion of Italian heating?) while Lisa and Ma had another delicious many-hours-long dinner. Then sleep.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Haiti: Tout a Jesu Depot #2

I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees years ago, and not much of the book remains with me except a general memory of enjoyment and affection, a few plot and character points, and the fact that one character named his mechanic business “Jesus is Lord Used Tires.” I’ve always considered it a playful and creative minor plot point.

When I noticed a convenience store called “Tout a Jesu Depot #2,” I was delighted to find a real life business with (what I thought of as) a similarly quirky a name. As time went on, however, I noticed that “Everything for Jesus Depot #2,” is in fact a fairly tame name for a Port-Au-Prince business. I have no idea if Kingsolver was thinking of Haiti, but I have no doubt she would appreciate the local nomenclature.

Some of the highlights [with rough translation] include:
• Notre Dame de Perpetual Secors Dry Cleaning: Presse Immediate [Our Lady of Perpetual Help Dry Cleaning: Ironing Immediately (?)]
• Dieu qui Dirrige Pharmacie [God who Guides Pharmacy]
• Christ Capable Matériel Construction [Capable Christ Construction Supplies]
• Pere Eternal Lotto [Eternal Father Lottery]
• Chere Maitre Auto Ecole [Dear Lord Automotive School]
• Force Divine Dry Cleaning [Divine Force Dry Cleaning]
• Faveur de Dieu Boutique Bourgeoise [God’s Favor Bourgeois Boutique]
• Christe Vivant Shop Soudrire [Christ Lives General Store]
• Coeur Immaculaee Supermarchet [Immaculate Heart Supermarket]
• Puissance de Dieu Car Wash Rom.8:1.31 Auto Parts Bar Resto [Power of God Car Wash Romans.8:1.31 Auto Parts, Bar, and Restaurant]
• Le Sang de Jesu Chambre Froid et Glaces [The Blood of Jesus Refrigeration and Ice]