Tag Archives: earthquake

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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Capital Catharsis

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It´s the Itchy & Scratchy Show over here in Haiti. Everyone is itching. Moments ago I was talking to a nurse outside my tent when she bent down to rub her jeans around her shin; earlier, a doctor scratched at his neck while we discussed a prognosis. Tell tale signs. All day long I catch Haitian women slapping their braided heads, trying to alleviate the ubiquitous itch without an actual scratch. I too, am itching. This is par for my traveling course: scabies in San Francisco, an unidentifiable jungle funk that lasted 100 times longer than the five day trek to El Mirador, and a nasty something or other contracted in a chozo on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. What can I say? The bichos like me.

Scabies is epidemic in most post-quake scenarios and I’m half convinced I’ve got them (again). It sucks, applying the toxic lotion from head to toe and washing all your clothes and bedding – especially when there’s no running water. But I can’t resist hugging all those beautiful, wide eyed kids who are facing scabies and starvation and nowhere to shit. They need hugs, deserve them.

To be honest, the scene here is depressing and some days even all those smiling, jigging kids can’t help me shake it. The stench of shit, piss, and garbage (I hate to beat that drum again, but it surrounds us) is constant. Unavoidable, this olfactory assault, and the visuals aren’t much better: by day, little boys and muscle-bound men lather up buck naked in the street while US soldiers look on through dark shades, desultory machine guns slung by their side; by night, young girls sleep in doorways hunched beneath pink blankets.

It´s fair to say that every last person in Port-au-Prince today is sleep deprived. There is so much to keep us awake at night – the impending rains, the homeless families, the mothers with AIDS, TB, anemia, and scabies – but it is the terrible, horrific tales of rape that terrorize my waking moments. What protection can a single mother in an overcrowded, pestilent refugee camp provide her teenage daughter from the men who enter in the predawn to beat and rape innocent human beings? None, it seems. As I said – depressing.

The Haitian people are an extraordinarily religious bunch and I´m not talking voudou (although there´s that too and I´ve been promised a visit – you´ll be sure to read about it here if/when it happens). These are hard core Christians and ´Jesus saves´ is plastered on every ticky tacky tap tap in the city. ´Our savior shall return´ and ´placing my faith in God’ are also popular slogans painted on everything from barber shops to gas tanks. The other day I saw a wooden plaque that in my rusty French I took to mean ‘Jesus is the chef of this house.’ A Haitian friend pointed out that my high school French was indeed lacking; what the sign actually said was ‘Jesus is the boss of this house.’ Sundays are church days when everything grinds to a halt (much to the dismay of the Cuban doctors: this is their only day off and given their druthers, they would spend sun up to sun down shopping). There are so many things that don’t square in Haiti, the (professed) faithfulness to god and the prevalence of domestic/gender-based violence being just one.

The rubble, of course, remains. There are some motions being made to clear it – in buildings prioritized by the US high command or their private subcontractors (one never can tell) and by men salvaging rebar. De facto as these efforts may be, it’s more than is happening on any formal level. It’s part of the permanent landscape it seems, these piles of pulverized rocks and crumbled facades. We – Haitians, Cubans, internationalistas – just step around and over and through it every day, on every street. This capacity to ignore and move on and around puts me in mind of two anecdotes, one old, one new, from two worlds away.

The first is my mom’s archetypical tale of when my father, (long ago, for they’ve been happily divorced now for over 25 years), broke a glass in the dining room. Rather than go for a broom, he draped a piece of newspaper over the mess. My mom discovered this act of maturity by stepping on the newspaper and slashing open her foot. Divorce? You betcha.

The second is a contemporary story told to me by an Argentine doctor friend of mine trained at Havana’s Latin American Medical School. As happens in Cuba, motors break and systems fail, meaning we sometimes have to go without running water. There’s usually water to be found somewhere, and although it has to be hand carried (up several flights of stairs usually) it is available. One fine day, the motor that brings the water up to the dorm’s tanks and into the pipes burnt out. No water, for how long no one knew. Instead of hauling up the liquid gold to bucket flush the toilet, the students (male ones I hope and assume) began laying one square of newspaper after another over the pile of shit they’d deposited in the dry bowl. Eventually, obviously, the stack drew dangerously close to the rim. This is where I stopped my friend in his telling, but I have to wonder, why do men have such a penchant for covering the ugliness of life with newspapers?

[For the positive things happening in Haiti, visit my posts at http://mediccglobal.wordpress.com]

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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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