Category Archives: Here is Haiti

Chicharrones are a Drug

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Cracklings, lardons, chicharrones – I don’t care what you call them, fried pork rinds are a drug and should be regulated. At least over here in Havana where I’m double fisting my way to a quadruple bypass. I scare myself, so untamed is my gluttony for these nuggets of greasy bliss. They really are narcotic and I got hooked quick, which is what the best drugs do…

I’d lived quite a while in Cuba – years already – without thinking twice about chicharrones. I’d had them here, there, and elsewhere, but I wasn’t impressed. Like salty poofs with the carne flavor twice removed. What I didn’t know is that the chicharrones I had been eating all those years are known as chicharrones de viento. Loosely translated to mean salty poofs with the meat sabor twice removed.

Imagine my surprise to learn then, that a completely different category – an entirely different universe of chicharrones! – exists out there just waiting for me to discover it. And I have.

For the uninitiated, my new vice are chunks of pork rind and fat – ideally with a Chiclet of meat on top – fried in their own grease. I have an addictive personality, I admit (with the caveat that I’m convinced it’s genetic) but the ferocity with which I was/am hooked is frightening. There was no desire phase. Things went straight to I need it, now. Euphoria? None. In fact, I sicken myself with each sinful square and body and mind are conscious of it, complicit.

I know there are people out there who can relate.

I was in the Yucatan some months ago with the fried pork monkey riding my back like a freckle. In the supermercado they sell 25 different kinds of rinds – from the poofs to something approximating the junk I craved. The latter, while good, were just this side of mass produced. Tasty, but processed, if only a little. Counting my blessings (after all, even a cut drug controls the jones), I left the store, crossed the street and found myself facing a simple kiosk manned by a big, jolly Yucatecan mama carving up all things pig. Ears, entrails, loin and yes. Yes.

I waited my turn making the small talk you make while waiting on line in Latin America. When I was up, I told the jolly mama what I wanted. She looked at me knowingly. Knowingly I tell you! and started heaping the glistening squares onto a swath of newspaper with her bare hands. ‘How much do I owe you?’ I asked as she bundled up the goods. ‘Nothing, it’s on the house.’ Just like a dealer: the first taste is free so you’ll be back, hankering for more.

Not long after, we were at a family celebration here in Havana following the usual script: catching up, sharing stories and a big meal, wrapping up with smokes and singing if Octavio or Jorge feels like pulling out the guitar. On the day in question, we were at the smokes part when the neighbors invited us over for a round of dominoes. When we made our way to the back yard, there was rum and dominoes of course and a platter piled high with empella. Oh my.

Methadone is to heroin what chicharrones are to empella.

What’s so special? Not much – they’re simply super chiquito chicharrones. The stuff I craved cut up really small. Now that I think about it, now that I’m practically dry dreaming of empella, I realize it wasn’t just their diminutive size. It was that each morsel had the little Chiclet of meat on top, which when coupled with the deep fried fat on the bottom…dry dream turns wet.

So I’m just back from Haiti. And although I made three simple welcome home requests (‘salad, salad, salad’), my hubby surprised me with not only an ensalada gigante, but yucca with mojo and a bowl brimming with homemade chicharrones. What a guy (and that’s just the G-rated portion of our programming)!

A couple of days later, my sister-in-law was butchering a quarter pig when she sawed off a huge slab of rind and fat bejeweled with those key cling ons of meat. Now I get my fix right at home.

And home feels very, very good right now.

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Jesus is Just Alright by Me

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“Thanks to God, you’re better,” my Haitian friend Madsen tells me when I catch him up on my now-cured explosive diarrhea.

God is very much on the tip of the tongues of most of my Haitian friends and the folks I meet here. Jesus is ubiquitous and more popular (but only slightly) than the NY Lotto numbers – a serious vice in Haiti [see note 1]. Alongside the daily numbers – on buses, in barber shops, taped to tents, tagged on partially fallen walls – the Word of God is found everywhere.

Descending the steep hillside upon which is perched a large, makeshift orphanage where the Cuban team is providing free health services, I see a garage door that proclaims: “God loves us. He saved us.” That’s some heavy food for thought and doesn’t help lift the anvil that’s been pressing on my heart ever since I huffed up that hill to where 347 orphans are ill, thirsty, hungry, and too alone.

I wasn’t expecting this unwavering faith. None of my (scant to be sure) pre-trip research prepared me for the Jesus craze that grips Haiti. Casual conversations peppered with holy references and the massive Sunday migrations through the dust-choked streets by young and old alike, Bibles tucked close, catch me unawares. Heathen though I am, I’m grateful this beleaguered people has something to hold on to. I remember something like envy overtaking me as I walked downtown on 9/12, passing full to overflowing churches. From Tribeca to Cite Soleil, when disaster strikes, believers find succor in their faith.

“You’re just cheap. You should give your salary to the church,” a Haitian medical student teases a Cuban surgeon in the emergency room. My ears prick up at this playful, but certain culture clash unfolding. Turns out the medical student gives 75% of her salary to her church and she is trying to convince the surgeon to follow suit. Her beauty and killer smile don’t win him over to the light and when he asks why she would do that, she explains the church is where she finds love and happiness and so is entitled.

More dense food for thought.

One terrible morning, after not sleeping due to stress, heat, the unfortunate musical tastes of my campmates, Cubans packing up two years of purchases in enormous boxes they hermetically seal with miles and miles of tape [see note 2], and an animated, pre-dawn phone negotiation between a Cuban doctor and her husband back in Guantánamo, I’m assaulted by this godliness. Seems someone in the massive tent city up the block thought it a good idea to blast religious pop on a powerful sound system starting at 6am.

In my mind, food, potable water, and safe shelter would be more appropriate for the thousands now getting an earful of Merci Jesus. But what do I know? I thought Jeff Buckley penned ‘Hallelujah’ [see note 3]. Later that day, I see a sign and point it out to my doctor buddies: ‘God is the chef of this house?!’ Everyone has a good laugh at my bad French: clearly God is the boss of this house, not the chef. But while He might be the boss of those houses still standing, I personally don’t see God at work in Haiti [see note 3].

To Madsen, whose younger sister just died of anemia, I tell it like I see it.

“No, friend. It wasn’t God. It was the Cuban doctors and the almighty power of antibiotics.”

Madsen nods. You know, we have a saying here in the countryside: ‘after God, the Cuban doctors.’

Haiti: it just won’t let my mind rest.

Notes

1. I’ve never felt the NY vibe so strongly outside of the city like here in Haiti. They play NY-rules dominoes (whatever that is – I learned dominoes in Havana and honed my skills in the Cuban camp in Port-au-Prince), you can buy Carvel log cakes (I shit you not) and the Yankees logo is everywhere.

2. Cubans completing two years of international service are entitled to ship – duty-free – three large boxes the size of a Westchester dishwasher, back home. In these boxes go 15 pairs of sneakers, a dozen bedazzled tank tops, 10 men’s dress shirts, sheets, towel sets, diapers, and as many pairs of jeans that will fit inside the new oven that after a month or so at sea will be installed in a Las Tunas kitchen. Each week, a saleswoman comes to the camp – her catalog circulates between the doctors like an issue of Penthouse in Cell Block C – and takes orders for everything from washing machines to PlayStations. I’m glad these folks have the opportunity to both do good in Haiti and for themselves and their family. And I understand the need to wrap the boxes in tape (an unfortunate accident to one of the boxes chugging its way to Cuba a little while ago means people are taking no chances), but must they do it at 1am? In front of my tent? Around midnight, one of my neighbors finally yells: ‘will you quit it with that freakin’ tape already?’ I send a mental heartfelt thank you her way. ‘Yeah?’ comes the response. ‘And what happens when it’s your turn?’ There’s a brief, golden silence. ‘Good point,’ she shouts, ‘but hurry it up!’ Damn.

3. I must admit I’m embarrassed by my musical ignorance here, but this is compensated by the fact that Leonard Cohen interpreted by a Haitian chanteuse is serenading several thousand displaced families.

4. Except perhaps in the sunsets. Port-au-Prince is blessed by such jaw-dropping dusks, taking a photo instead of experiencing it seems blasphemous.

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Visions of Port-au-Prince

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That spontaneous little tent camp that abutted ours? They razed it the other day to make way for the new Ministry of Public Health. So they say. Regardless of what’s constructed in the bulldozed plot, I don´t know what the families who were surviving there will do, or where they´ll go. For now, they´re squeezed into a narrow strip of no-man´s-land where chickens wade in standing water picking at garbage and bulldozers mound detritus closer and closer to their makeshift kitchen.

It has been raining all night. “How did you sleep?” I ask my neighbor, a doctor from Guantánamo who has been serving in Haiti a year already and treats her patients in capable Creole. “OK, but I wake up tired.” This is common: sleep is elusive, especially when it’s raining. With each drop you think of a different person – the malnourished four month-old; the young girl caring for her three smaller siblings; and the 12-year old boy who is now the head of his household, made fast a man by the earthquake. No matter how much good the world is doing Haiti, regardless of the size and sincerity of the tender outpouring, no one can control today and tomorrow and the next day’s most pressing problem: the rain. Perhaps more than any other place on earth, in Haiti March 2010, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Outside the gate of the Cuban camp, that wind is laced with an acrid smoke from all the burning garbage. Mixed with the dust, it makes a toxic cocktail. There are people living in cars of course and tents pitched in the middle of rubble-edged streets. Even folks whose homes are intact prefer to sleep in tents in the driveway or family courtyard. The earthquake is too fresh in their minds, the 6.1 aftershock fresher still. Signs on the outside of partially crushed homes read: ´Help us! We need water and food´ in three (or more) languages.

You´ve seen the destruction already, repeatedly, on one of your 150 channels. But living among it, with the dust and dirt filling your eyes and nose and mouth is something else entirely. Flies swarm over garbage, shit, and people. Four-story buildings are flattened like millefeuille pastries with chunks of concrete-encrusted rebar dangling from skewed balconies like Christmas lights or strings of rock candy. Thinking about what lies beneath isn’t advised. People are starving literally to death, yet there are mounds of food for sale everywhere: fried chicken, grilled hotdogs and corn on the cob, fresh fruits, vegetables, bread, and rice.

Inside the camps, conditions are not fit for cattle, truly. But the children. Smiling and laughing and dancing in spite of it all. They’re adorable and wide eyed and play alongside garbage heaps shouting ‘ blan! blan!’ (whitey! whitey!) with affection when I walk by. I joke with them, flashing the peace and thumbs up sign and dancing to music only I (and maybe they) can hear. It’s my only way to communicate beyond my high school French. More often than not, they’re barefoot and bare bottomed. It’s heartbreaking. I make them smile, just for now, but Patch Adams I am not.

Back within the walls of our encampment, vendors set up shop, peddling boots, golden-colored watches and fine shirts encased in plastic. They´ve got the Cubans´ number. The sneakers are name brand and spotless, though many are used – or to be precise, no longer of use to their owners who are dead. Some lovely pharmacists who arrived with me just over a week ago are already approaching their 30 kilo baggage allowance, having shopped within our walls to the limit permitted under their contract as part of the Cuban emergency medical team. Meanwhile, Wilfred, a Haitian who worked at the Military Hospital before the quake, runs a commissary where we buy sort of cold Cokes and Colt 45. Prestige, the Haitian beer, is in high demand and runs out fast. One friend, who has been in Haiti for more than two years, takes a long pull on his beer and tells me: “best to stay anaesthetized.” If only.

And I thought Cuba was surreal.

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First Daybreak in Haiti

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It´s dark still but I can´t sleep. The low drone of heavy earthmoving equipment, the lingering smell of burning garbage, the symphony of cell phones chirping with incoming messages all conspire me from sleep. But above all, guilt is due the old ¨gringo alarm clock¨ – cocks crowing incessantly. It´s amazing, the number of roosters, hens, and chicks running around our camp at the defunct military hospital in Port-au-Prince (see note 1). I never understood how owners of free-running (see note 2) chickens keep track of them. Here in post-quake Haiti I´m even more baffled by chicken behavior – how can they run around willy nilly with so many hungry people about?

When I emerge from my blue igloo, the sun hasn´t yet come out. No matter: I´m sweating like a pig. The type of muggy here is like none I´ve known save for on a pre-Giuliani subway in August. Though there´s still no sun, an ominous light I don´t like hovers above the clearing where clothes lines are strung. I walk over to the dangling bras, jeans, and t-shirts to check if the metallic, cold light is the effect of fluorescents – the generators have already started up and the tubes have been flicked on around the camp. But no, it´s just an ugly filtered light hanging there over the piles of dried almond leaves covering the ground.

There´s a spontaneous refugee camp just adjacent to the Cuban installation, a few families is all, and the women and children fill their water buckets at the spigot at the far end of our camp. Since (some) Cubans share genetic similarities with Haitians (note 3), it´s hard to know who is who. I cover all bases with the smiling fellow sweeping up the almond leaves this morning, starting with bonjour followed quickly by buenos días.

Good day? Let´s hope so. Welcome to Haiti, March 2010.

Next up: Visions of Port-au-Prince…

Notes
1. Their brethren ended up on my plate twice yesterday, so I guess getting roused at 5:45 in the morning is a small price to pay.

2. I´m talking about chickens that have free reign, not free ranging like in the US. These birds rule the streets, parks, and patios of the developing world. How do their owners identify them? How come they aren´t stolen? How come they don´t make a run for it, the dumb birds? Interesting side note: I have decades of Latin American experience, but still am baffled by simple Latino chicken behavior.

3. And some – like the guy from Villa Clara did, moments before typing this – deny it.

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