Friday, February 7, 2014

A different kind of market day

Haiti Chronicles Part 9

I am in Desab, Haiti, on the last full day of my visit here as a volunteer with the non-profit Stone by Stone. And I'm excited. Because I've been promised a market day in Cabaret.

I've heard all week about the dirty, cramped conditions at market, about the animals sold as food. Well, I'm used to the ever present dirt by now. And I understand the animal-food thing. So I'm excited to windowshop on another people's culture.

I wait by the Toyota Land Cruiser ready to go. Silly, giddy. To market. To market.

Soon, others arrive for market day: Fenel, the medical clinic's administrator, is to drive. Three of the Stone by Stone board members -- Nicole and Adam Pitzer and Julie Rumo -- pile into the truck, too. They have business to attend to in Cabaret, a brief introduction to another non-profit then on to market. They promise.

Three other men pile in.

I didn't expect the three others. I've met them, but none are from Desab. They are all leaders from other mountain villages, all members of a cooperative designed to co-manage services on the mountain. I guess they're going to  market, too.

So we rumble and tumble down the road better suited for animals than trucks. We pass families waiting for a cock fight to begin, both people and donkeys overloaded with goods going to and from market, and goats and chickens scrambling to get out of our way.

We end up at Jason and Ginger Lovan's house in Cabaret, where we see four (maybe five?) more co-op leaders sitting on a wall at the entrance to a seriously tight driveway. We park, spill out of the truck and are joined by those other leaders who follow us into the house.

Unexpectedly, we're in the midst of a formal meeting of the mountain's nine-village co-operative. This is no meet-and-greet.

Ginger who, like us, expected five and not 12, scurries to provide more seating, reposition fans and offer fresh, cold water to drink.

We all settle in, for a very long meeting we didn't know was going to happen. And at that moment, I feel something big is about to happen. I sense Desab's world might be changing.

Because this ministry, called King's Cross Ministries, wants in. They want to work alongside Stone by Stone to ease the economic hardships of the mountain villages. They are just two people, but they have huge hearts for Haiti and knowledge of available resources. 

And they have great ideas to share, ideas that can bring more goats into the mountain villages, turn chickens into profits,  introduce a cash crop where food won't grow, and work cooperatively with the schools in Desab to offer much needed secondary education.

They even want to plow out a part of that treacherous road to stop erosion. Wow.

These two people, who live just down the mountain, have great plans. And, until this moment, until this very meeting, they had no idea the co-op of leaders existed. And now they can work with those leaders. And with Stone by Stone. I feel an undercurrent of excitement. I see village leaders smile, nod.

I sit, listen and take notes and accept there'll be no market day today. But that's OK. 
Final Haiti Chronicles Part 10: The hopes and dreams of Desab's people

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Unusual foods, extraordinary flavors

Elimene did most of the cooking. Here's she's making
coconut milk from a fresh coconut.

Haiti Chronicles Part 8

Quietly, discretely, Adam leans toward me and holds his spoon up. "Do you see what this is?"

I look. It's a round piece of something on his spoon. I don't know what it is, but it came from a delicious bowl of chicken stew made from poultry butchered and cleaned just hours earlier in Desab, a mountain village in Haiti, where I've lived for the past few days.

"Look at it. Can't you see?" No, still can't.

Then he turns it over in his spoon and I see, immediately. It's a little skull. A little bird brain that's been boiled right along with the peppers, dumplings, coconut milk, plantains, taro root and potatoes Elimene prepared as a special gift to say "thank you" for wedding pictures Julie took the day before.

Adam Pitzer and Julie Rumo are board members of Stone by Stone, a small non-profit working alongside the villagers here to get a medical clinic sustainable, without outside intervention. This week, we're here to paint the medical clinic, sort out donated medical supplies and build a trust with the people so they can believe we are serious about working for them and not instead of them.

Our cook rubbed these fish with
 oranges and lemons, then
 marinated them for a day or more.
Adam asks me to keep our discovery just between us because, I guess, of that trust we are trying to build. No problem. I'm living without running water, without electricity, sleeping in a concrete room visited by at least one tarantula and a chorus of crickets, where two Haitian men sleep on the floor to protect us (I don't know from what). So eating homemade, delicious, indigenous food is a great gift I treat with humble respect, even if it yields  surprises.

This big pot of mais moulin (sweet
corn meal) simmered uncovered
for an hour.
And it does, on many fronts (although none as unusual at the chicken stew.) We enjoy goat  stew, coconut rice with congo peas, a fish stew for breakfast, a flavorful pumpkin soup I'm told is a special New Year's meal, carrot and eggplant stew  over mais moulin (a sweet corn meal), a banana soup and red beans and rice. 

I take notes on all of the meals and actually become a pest in the kitchen, asking the women to show me how they cook. But they do. Graciously. I take copious notes. Snap pictures. I want to recreate these delicious, unusual meals. They are just that good.

So I think I'll have a dinner party, some time this fall.

And not just any dinner party.

I want to organize a fundraiser for Desab, preparing and serving food the way the Haitians do (minus the skull). Maybe even write a small cookbook. I'd like to serve up enough goat stew and banana soup and sell enough cookbooks to pay for a kitchen inside the clinic.

I can dream, can't I? Details to come.
This little pot of goat meat simmered for
two hours. Goat is tough, like beef stew,
unless cooked a long time.
Haiti Chronicles Part 9: The men of the mountain unite for an exciting future

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Crisscrossing my cultural divide

Julie Rumo poses Elimene and her husband for a wedding
photo in front of their home in Desab, Haiti

Haiti Chronicles Part 7

We're walking down, down, down a mountainside to visit Elimene and her family so Julie can take pictures.

Special pictures.

Elimene just got married and Julie Rumo, a board member of Stone by Stone, and a professional wedding photographer, wants to take pictures of the newlyweds. So after dinner, we hike down the mountain on narrow paths -- one-person-at-a-time narrow -- on a journey that crisscrosses my cultural divide.

There are no sidewalks, no street lights, no cars, no roads, just  this winding, gutted, stony path littered with animal droppings and with animals, with donkeys, chickens, roosters, goats, mules, cows and occasionally people herding them home.

These animals exist to be eaten. They free range throughout the village, foraging for food. Of which there is little. Even for the people. So these animals are essential to life here in Desab.

We arrive at Elimene's, an elaborate structure for these parts, tucked inside a weed copse. And then she emerges from her Haitian home looking like an American bride, all dressed up in a beautiful white satin gown, a few sizes too big, but lovely. Her husband steps out, too, in his rented tux. Together, they model my world.

Elimene's daughter points to the dangling chicken
While Julie engages them in their poses, their front yard fills with onlookers.  I notice a young woman  has a chicken -- a live one -- she's holding by the feet. OK. I cross that divide again. The bird dangles down to her thigh. Every now and then, its head bangs against her hip as she walks. 

I know it's alive. It flutters now and then. My heart breaks for that bird. I want to set it free. But I remind myself that these people are hungry, and if they start changing their hearts toward these animals, everyone would starve.

So I look away and engage in the situation, watching Julie take pictures. Yet I keep glancing at that poor bird, like a loose tooth, I mess with it until it hurts.

The sun is getting low, so we have to leave. But Elemene asks us to wait. Still dressed in her American gown, she hops into her Haitian barn and emerges with THAT CHICKEN! And hands it out to us. OK. Back across that divide. 

Elimene offers a chicken in payment
This poor, dangling bird belongs to Julie now, as payment for her services. 

A great sacrifice, we understand, but panic sets in.

Is Julie expected to tote this upside-down, suffering bird back up the mountain? Then kill it, pluck it, butcher it and eat it? And if she doesn't, will Elimene take great offense? If we do take it, will anyone see us set it free? And will it REALLY be free?

I can see streaks of red rising up Julie's neck, into her cheeks. She's close to the edge. I can tell. She grabs her backpack, opens it wide, I guess hoping they'll stuff the bird in there and not expect her to touch it. 

Elimene laughs and turns the bird over to her husband. And through a series of gestures  mixed with more laughs and a few English words, we learn she'll do all the prep work because she's coming to our house tomorrow to cook THIS chicken for dinner.

Haiti Chronicles Part 8: Eating in Desab 

It all started so innocently

Before the pencil wars

Haiti Chronicles Part 6

I sit on concrete steps leading to a little one-room school building in Desab, surrounded by a dozen Haitian kids quietly coloring and sketching.

I brought the supplies, through a non-profit called Stone by Stone. The children provide the enthusiasm, digging deep into my pink and green backpack for the crayons, pencils, drawing pads and coloring books they know are there. For them.

I don't know why, but the yellow No. 2 pencils are hot. All the older kids want one. I pass out what I have. And there aren't enough to go around. That means war.

The pencils transform into swords and bludgeons. The pencil-less hurl stones at the penciled. They run around me, use me as a shield. Kick dirt in each other's faces.

These kids don't have toys or a playground, so they play with nature and discarded items. Sticks and rocks, empty soda bottles, plastic lids. 

Pencils. Sharpened pencils.

They're having great fun, but I don't like being a weapons dealer. So I yell "Pa Bon! Pa Bon!" Bad! Bad! I hold my hands out, palms up and wave my fingers. They instinctively know it means "GIVE ME THE PENCILS." They obey.

One little boy, Dinor, is still being hunted by one of the older kids, a girl, wearing a black skirt. He ducks when she comes near him. He scurries away. He looks up to me for help. I shrug. What can I do?

He slides his hand down his thigh. Charades? I don't know.

He dances away as the teen in black swoops down on him again. His eyes plead with me to help. He slides his hand repeatedly down his thigh. Slide slide slide. I should understand.

He points at the now giggling teen in black. Ducks her advance, slides his hand, looks at me and points at her.

She screams like she's been found out (A clue!), then runs after him.

I start putting the pieces together. Pencils. Ducking. Gesturing. Pocket perhaps?  Pencil?  I turn to the girl in black (who's standing right behind me now)  and do my wavy finger thing. Bingo. She grimaces and pulls the pencil/sword from her pocket and surrenders it to me.

He's giddy; she scrunches her nose and struts away.

He helps collect the rest of the art supplies and skips circles around me as we head back up the hill. Minutes later, he's off, scooting back down toward the little village square to play.

He's gone so fast I have no time to warn him. That I see the teen in black down there. Behind a tree.  Watching him. With a stick.

Haiti Chronicles Part 7: Smacking into the cultural divide

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Encountering tarantulas

Not MY tarantula, but similar

Part 5 Haiti Chronicles

 I am standing next to my bunk, fluffing my pillow in Desab, a mountainous Haitian village, when  something crawls down my upper arm.

 Then over my lower arm.  I give my arm a shake and fling a tarantula  down into my pillow.

 I'd say he was big. Maybe the size of a basketball (kidding). But big.

Adam Pitzer, my hero/protector and one of the directors of Stone By Stone, snatches up my pillow, with the doomed tarantula  clinging tightly and rushes away.  I imagine he intends to let the harmless critter go into the wilds of the Haitian bush. I don't ask. 

What a memorable encounter. 

I'd heard many stories about the tarantula (Phormictopus cancerides)  here in Desab. They don't release enough poison to kill a human, but they have long teeth, about 3/4 an inch long, and so their bite can really hurt.  Lots of people (in the US) keep them as pets because of their beautiful markings. And they live freely throughout Haiti.

My friend Paul Rumo (another Stone by Stone director) names the ones he sees here in Desab; so I name mine: Bedfellows. He's not the first one I've met on this adventure.

Little Lily lives down by the bathroom, an outhouse with a resident rat that lives down in the hole (shine your light down and you'll see him/her.) Peeping Tom lives in the dressing room (a storage room off the kitchen, which fills up with generator exhaust in the evenings). I train my headlamp on him as I dress. Emeril is already dead when we see him,  in the kitchen at the step near MY BED.

Poor Emeril. Why did he die and where was he going WHEN he died?  I don't want them killed. They live here. I am only visiting. Abend, our translator and protector, says it feels like rain, which brings the tarantulas out. So, I expect to find more.

And I do see one more. It might be Peeping Tom, because he's back in the dressing room. But he's moved closer to my world, to the wall behind which I sleep. To where Bedfellows and I made our acquaintance. And I remember that feeling, of Bedfellows crawling down my arm.

So in the course of one day, I change from pacifist to activist. DIE DIE DIE! I call for help. And Peeping Tom is swept to his death.

I feel no remorse. And I see no more tarantulas.

BTW: Paul's tarantulas  are Sharts, Jesus Freaks, Squeal and Amil (pronounced a meal). Adam and his wife, Nicole (president of Stone by Stone),  named one NBD (No Big Deal).

Part 6: Haiti Chronicles: Even without a common language, we understand each other -- finally

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Feeding starving children -- on the sly

Reginald's response to me
 the day after we met
Part 4: Haiti Chronicles

The sun has set on my first day in Desab, and it's dark where we eat, tucked way back in the one-floor medical clinic, away from the ceaseless stares.  Many Haitians, especially the children, watch us constantly through the exposed Rebar at the front and side of the clinic. And many of them are hungry. Not just for dinner. But forever.

So it's more comfortable for us to eat out of view.

Our first meal is yummy spaghetti  with triangles of fresh bread from the village bakery.  As we eat, we talk, engaging in an impromptu Stone By Stone team building meet-and-greet, a time to talk about our expectations for the week and expose our concerns. We talk and eat. 

And then, there are leftovers. In a country as hungry as Haiti, how can we toss out leftovers? We have too little to feed the village. And there's no refrigeration to stow what's left.

Julie has a plan. We don't feed the village, she says. We feed the smallest.

So she walks into the staring crowd and peels away the littlest ones, handing them off to me.  I walk them back through the dark to the corner office where we just ate. One by one, I lead eight kids back to plates heaping with spaghetti, forks and chunks of fresh bread. Each time I encourage them to "pataje" (pat-a-jay), Kreyol for "share." And seven of them do. Lovingly. Sweetly. Gently.

But not all eight.

Reginald in his school uniform. Anyone willing
to sponsor him in school? Talk to me. I have
the details.
The eighth is Reginald, who has grabbed a whole plate  of spaghetti for himself. He circles the plate with his arm, creating a shield against hungry invaders. As Reginald inhales the spaghetti, the starving little boy he's supposed to share with looks at me, pleadingly. DO SOMETHING, his eyes scream. Then he watches Reginald's feeding frenzy in silence. As do I.

It's the oldest of the smallest, a little girl, with a take-charge attitude, who commands Reginald to "PATAJE, PATAJE!" shaking her fork at him. And when he doesn't, she, too, looks to me to fix things. To take charge.  To be the adult.

To force a starving little boy to share food.

"Pataje, Reginald," I say, gently. OK. Wimply. "Pataje."

He clutches the dish even tighter and scowls at me. "PATAJE!" I bark, trying to sound serious and beginning to lose my compassion to his insolence. I grab hold of the plate and find myself in a tug-of-war with a little starving child over a plate of spaghetti. (This is unreal. Please. Tell me I did NOT just try to take food from a little starving child!)

My heart screams NO NO NO! This baby is hungry. LET HIM EAT! 

Reginald must hear my heart, because he senses my weakeness and steps up his battle. He locks me in a power-struggle stare, stiffens his shoulders. Frowns. I do the same.

Then, I win. I guess.

I gain access to that plate of spaghetti, grab an extra fork and hand it to the starving chid who's witnessed my assault on this other starving child, this starving baby, this child who just needed food.

When they are finished, I collect their plates, forks and delightful "mesis" (thank yous).

Reginald refuses to give thanks. Instead, he stomps  to my side, grabs my hand, does that power-struggle stare again, and, without even a hint of resignation, demands, in English, "Give me water."

"Water," he repeats, insists. "Water."

Julie, who I discover knows this child nearly as well as she knows her own, shoos him away with a fervent "ale, ale," (all lay, all lay!) go, go!  He plants his fists on his hips.  And stares at her. She rolls her eyes. I grin.

He's a little hellion, she says, kind of like the town bully. He's not just hungry. He's a brat, a rascal, a scamp. He's a little boy in need of boundaries. I see him differently now. I imagine him with a sling shot dangling out his rear left pocket (if he had pants on) and a frog in the right.

"Ale!" she snaps and points to the door. Finally, he stomps out without his water. But he's  got my attention. I'm sure we'll go head-to-head again.

Part 5: Look who's sleeping in MY bed