Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas in Haiti

A few days have passed, including Christmas. Quite a few things to go over.

Christmas Eve was a half day. Brendan and I spent the morning sifting sand
for biosand water filters, which involves dumping a shovelful of regular sand into wire mesh and rubbing it around until it filters through. One shovelful of regular sand yields approximately one tablespoon of fine sand. We spent a good amount of time rubbing regular sand into wire mesh.

To mitigate the massive tedium, we brainstormed ridiculous business ideas. I'd reveal them here, except they're really good ideas, and you would steal them.

The day was called, we had lunch, and the holiday weekend began. A couple of staff members had cobbled together palm fronds into an impressive Christmas tree, which the volunteers adorned with homemade ornaments of construction paper and magazine clipping and glitter and glue. By and large, the final product was terrifically ugly and undeniably festive, and coupled with the red and green streamers and cut-out snowflakes, it felt quite homey.

Dusk settled, and the boys and I went out to investigate Leogane's nightlife scene. Most bars take the name of their proprietor (Jackson's, Marisel's, Joe's) and a few well-heeled entrepreneurs venture out into a new brand entirely (Club L'Extase, and some other dusty shed blasting Beyonce and selling a kind of local whiskey called Something Special). The night ended with nearly the entire volunteer army crowded at a few rough-hewn benches in Jackson's playing dominos under a single fluorescent bulb and casting out loud voices into the night, a heady mix of Creole and English. Brendan and I sat on the rubble pile across the street and talked about life before stumbling home among the filthy puddles and rubbish and feral dogs howling in the heavy night. Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day kicked off with a flurry of activity in the kitchen as the designated Christmas dinner crew set about their elaborate preparations. I scrubbed my disgusting laundry with a washboard and set it out to dry on the roof. We went out to see about buying some straw hats (didn't find any), and to check out what Christmas is like on the streets of a Haitian city.
It was right out of Charles Dickens, except instead of snow and top-hatted carolers and impish boys sent off to buy the largest turkey in the window, it was full of women carrying baskets of sugarcane on their heads and men on cacophonous motorcycles and little kids with no pants shouting "How are you?" and playing in the dirt and gigantic piles of rubble lining every street and every building cracked and fading and falling into the earth, cavernous puddles in the streets, old mamas selling egg sandwiches and fried chicken, bric-a-brac vendors hocking watches and belts and radios, cheap stereos blasting American pop music, and the occasional truck loaded up with a huge PA belting out some political or religious screed (or so I assume--at any rate, they seemed very heartfelt). It all gets a bit overwhelming.

We returned home to find every folding table in the compound stretched out into one long dinner table adorned with candles and fake snow. The dinner crew had spent all day cooking, many of the dishes representative of their respective cook's place of origin. Sauerkraut with sausage, minced brandy pies, molé and some sort of Mexican salad, and then the more familiar ham and potatoes. We even got a small glass of eggnog and some damn good Chilean wine. It was a hell of a feast. Toasts, revelry, the whole bit.

Afterwards was Secret Santa gift-giving around the Christmas palm tree. The boys and I took our shirts off and did the dishes, and I retired early.

Sunday we went to Jacksonville Beach, about thirty minutes by moto outside of the city. We commissioned three motos and rode two abreast, out of the town and into the farmland beyond. The beach was a bit rocky but nonetheless a Caribbean beach, crystal blue water and all that, and it felt glorious to get in the water. Some locals came down after church to swim and stare at the glaringly pale blancs splashing around like idiots.

All in all, a beautiful weekend. The community of volunteers here feels very much like a family, and everyone pulled together into a cozy and warm holiday celebration. Even Aaron, despite his constant reminders to all of us that he's Jewish and doesn't know what this Christmas business is all about.

Today--back to work. Eric and I cleared rubble, and it was the dirty, sweaty, pickax-and-shovel kind of manual labor we relished. The amount of rubble that needs to be cleared is unimaginable. All Hands focuses on private residences whose homeowners have limited resources, and they clear off the concrete foundation so homeowners can rebuild. A monumental task when I consider the countless rubble piles that litter the ground absolutely everywhere we go--but like in New Orleans, one has to focus on one task at a time. One property cleared is something. Next week we'll clear another, and so on.


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