You’d think two weeks in a foreign country would be a recipe for diet disaster. No more! I recently found myself in Peru, land of lomo, rich ceviche, and papas fritas morning, noon, and night, and I lost five pounds. Here are my seven steps to coming back from abroad a lean mean machine.
1. Lose your voice.
You heard me! [Or maybe you didn’t.] Losing your voice is a fantastic way to use up all those pesky calories you consumed in french fries. You see, when you lose your voice, you’re forced to communicate How to Set Up a Tent by waving around your arms. When you fall over trying to pull out an erroneously-pegged tent stake and you cannot get up again and you still cannot remove the stake, you have to resort to clicking, clapping, and whistling to get help. All of these things burn calories!
If you can manage it, try to lose your voice twice over two weeks. This will ensure maximum calorie burn.
Coughing will kick-start your way back to the six-pack you had in college. Coughing uncontrollably three times a night over ten days should do it. Be smart: maintain good posture while coughing. Otherwise, you may pull your diaphragm muscle, which will sideline your weight loss.
Your brain burns calories, too. [Why do you think we all fell asleep in algebra class? Exercise is exhausting, that’s why.] So when you are forced to translate everything you say from your native language to your second language and then into the third language that you are inadvertently picking up, guess what? You’re a calorie-burning furnace! Woohoo!
Hiring the right translator (you know, for the fourth language) can help with this. Having to repeat everything five times is a fantastic extension for advanced weight loss. Don’t do this more than once every two-week period. Insanity is not good for weight loss.
2b. If you’ve followed step 1, above, whispering is a great way to firm up your vocal cords and sneak in a few extra calories.
3. Throw things.
Forget kettlebells. Big green boxes the weight of your best friend are the new lifting regime. Fling them until your arms go rubbery. Repeat.
Treat with care, though. They might be weights to you, but they’re lifelines for someone else.
Height and repetition are important here: When swinging the boxes, aim for the truckbed, at chest height. And for God’s sake, get a spotter. Seriously.
4. Let ’em chase you.
When you look around and realize that you’re being followed by a group of schoolchildren, employ this handy workout:
a. Pretend you don’t see them.
b. Gradually lengthen your walking stride.
c. Ignore giggling; any Quechan comparisons to the [Peruvian?] Ministry of Silly Walks.
d. Break into full-on sprint. Cease ignoring giggling. Giggle yourself. [Mustn’t forget abs, obliques.]
e. Return to big stride, so as to let them catch your backpack straps.
f. Drag them a bit.
g. Remember suddenly that you are a swamp-level dwelling city person, while they apparently breathe pure oxygen, since they live at 3200 meters.
COOLDOWN: Never let ’em see you sweat. Grin. Wheeze. [Related to 1b, above.] Giggle some more.
5. What’s a trip to a foreign country without local cuisine? Sample it con gusto. Here’s a brief guide.
a. Sopa a la criolla, or sopa a la minuta
These lovely soups are rich in vitamins. They also all come in soup tureens the size of your head. You will feel full just looking at them! If visual stimulation is not enough, don’t worry: each of these soups comes with a clump of noodles the size of your entire stomach. One meal a day of Sopa might just do it for you.
b. Papas fritas
They show up at every meal, these french fries. Soon you won’t even see them anymore. Therefore you will not eat them.
c. Guinea pig
Two tiny drumsticks will satisfy even the biggest appetite.
d. local cheese
This stuff has the potential to be your downfall. Restrict self.
Lovely, fresh seafood in citrus juices. Potentially damaging to diet. Never fear: Travel with someone who hates sushi. That’ll do it.
Ceaseless worrying will whittle your waistline in no time flat! Normally nothing will come of the worry, and you will have done it for no reason but to slim down. Perfect.
If something does go wrong, though, feel free to dash about like a madwoman to fix it. Bonus calorie burn!
By which I mean, talk it up. Every night. With your teammates, dissect the day. When you get home, dissect the weeks. You’ll find yourself sleeping like a baby. When you’re not coughing, anyway.
Last Thursday I went to Connecticut for the annual Go Red luncheon, in support of awareness of women’s heart disease.
Later that night, I picked up my good friend Nicola from the bus station.
From Thursday night until the following Tuesday, we had a packed schedule that involved me getting up early in the morning to work so Nic and I could mess around town and see art and go for walks in the woods; things we like to do together. It was nuts. We went to MOMA and hung with friends and saw a reading and hosted a visitor and had dinner with 10 of my nearest and dearest, and then we hosted dinner for 10 at my place on Saturday night.
Tuesday Nic left for Boston, part of an East Coast tour she’s doing, and although I moped a bit on Tuesday afternoon, feeling like the house was awfully empty, there was–and is–plenty of work to be done.
Then this morning happened. At 8:10 or so I was walking the hound in the park, getting ready for my dentist appointment, and checking my e-mails. One from ShelterBox HQ was in the queue, asking after my availability for an as-immediate-as-possible-departure to Peru to respond to flooding.
I replied that I could go, returned the hound to home, went to my dental appointment, and on return to my desk, one side of face drooping from Novocaine, called in to confirm readiness.
I got confirmation from the team lead a scant hour later and started making arrangements. I was excited–I’ve never been first team in before, and never been on a recon trip, and the team lead is a good friend.
And then I got asked to stand down.
All of that is fine. The SRT member who is replacing me speaks Spanish and has responded to a Peruvian disaster for us previously. He is absolutely the right choice.
But do you know what? In the midst of all my preparation and dashing about last week, I realized that with the call to stand down came a small bubble of breathing space. Into that bubble came rushing in all the phone calls to friends I’ve been putting off because I’ve been too busy; all the small things I like to do that have gone undone because I have been too tired; all the meaningful correspondence I’ve been wanting to reply to.
“Stand down.” The order is more meaningful than I thought. Sometimes, a girl just needs to stand down. What a disguised blessing.
Awhile ago, my Whidbey colleague Charlotte Morganti nominated me for a 7×7 link award! I wish I knew what the origins of this award was, but more important, I’m just happy that I’m getting an award! It’s my first!
Also, one thing about Charlotte, before I go on to the requirements of the award–she’s by far the most diligent blogger I’ve ever come across. She decided she was going to start a blog, and then, bang! She’s been keeping it up, regularly, with great writing tips and interviews with luminaries like Alan Rinzler. She also does great book reviews, and is the author of an as-yet-to-be-published hardboiled detective novel in the vein of Dashiell Hammett. So yes, you must follow her blog doings.
Now. On to this award. I must do several things in order to account for this award. I must list seven items in each of three category.
First, seven things about me you probably don’t know:
I don’t like very spicy food. That is to say, I don’t like things that flame your nasal hairs out and make you sweat. I’m much more apt to buy a mild tomatillo salsa than I am an “extra hot” salsa, for instance.
I am a sucker for the American Standards songbook.
I can’t dance.
I struggle with my weight. Part of this is my inherent laziness. The other part of it is my love/hate relationship with exercise. The final part of it is genetics.
I think everyone should have their own personal style. This is not to be confused with trendiness.
I adore button-down shirts and in general prefer neat dressing to slovenliness.
I love to cook. And I prefer to do it with friends in the kitchen or nearby.
Now, 7 posts from my own blog that I like:
Chris Hondros, in Memoriam: Chris was the photographer for one of my first-ever feature articles. He died in Libya almost a year ago.
Book Review: Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane: I write book reviews at my site every once in awhile, but I like this one because it deals with something I think is super important in books–characters one can identify with. Also, it gave me a chance to write a bit of a love letter to Dennis Lehane’s characters. And okay, maybe Lehane himself. 🙂
Speaking the Gospel: This is a brief roundup on why everyone should try public speaking. I almost never write posts about business, but this is one of those things that I’m both good at and that I feel strongly about, so I did this one. It’s just a list of reasons everyone should love to speak publicly. And yes, you read that right.
Iron Girl, Iron Guy, and the Iron Maiden, Part I and II: This is the story of our Ironman competition. We trained for six months and had a blast, and I’d readily do it again. I loved this race. It was awesome. (Yes, yes, okay, in retrospect.)
A Phone Conversation: This is exactly what it is, a phone conversation between me and Mr. Gooddirt. I think it’s hilarious. It pretty much pegs Mr. Gooddirt.
Track Rats: This is part of a series I’m writing called “The People in My Neighborhood.” It’s about the folks who populate my life. This one is about the people who first really made me feel like I was a part of my physical neighborhood.
An Open Letter to Do-Gooders: I’ve deployed to Haiti twice as part of the ShelterBox Response Team. While I was there I noticed a few things. This letter is obviously not from ShelterBox itself, but it’s my perspective of what people who really want to help in a disaster situation should and shouldn’t do.
Phew. That was hard. This next one will be easier. 7 blogs I like, and, in turn, pass the 7×7 award on to:
GrassDirtCorn. My friend Hollie Butler is very special to me. I’ve known her since I was 18. We were camp counselors together. And we used to write letters. Now Hollie tackles some good things–and not-so-good things–in her blog on food, health, and general life. I love it.
DaphneUnfeasible. My friend Kate Schafer is a great literary agent. And she has good, important things to tell writers, on her blog.
ChelsKnorr. My friend Chels Knorr just started her blog. She’s off to a bang-up start. I think what she has to say is intriguing. I think the way she says it is beguiling. G’wan, take a gander.
Manhattan Nest. I’ve just started reading this one. I almost never have patience with blog posts that are this long, but I love Dan’s sensitivities and his design sense. So he’s hooked me. If you like mid-century design–or design at all–you need to take a look at this.
The Sherman Foundation. Thomas Sherman makes great, pithy remarks about things that matter to me–art and design and marketing. I appreciate his respect of my time and attention span, but more important, I respect his wide-ranging definition of design.
Harvey Briggs. Harvey’s been involved in advertising everything from cars to pantyhose. I can’t remember how I found him, but I’m thrilled I did. Another master of pithy copy, Harvey often points me to really interesting advertisements, but more important, he has interesting, commentary-provoking things to say. Every. Single. Day.
Kate Gale. Is a librettist, an editor, a smart, smart woman, and a wicked conversationalist. Again, short, loads-of-fun commentary. Well worth a peek.
Nancy Norton. I’ve written about Nancy before, but I think you should go over and take a peek at her blog. She spends part of the year near Toulouse, France, and aside from the part of me that’s an inveterate francophile, I’m always amazed at the things Nancy ends up doing and seeing–and sharing with us.
Okay. That’s it from me. Thanks to the blogosphere in general for this, and, more specifically, thanks to Miss Morganti.
It’s been six weeks since my last post. There’s nothing, really, to explain this. Since I last wrote, my semester has ended, the Arab spring is on the verge of becoming the Arab summer, we’ve had two American weather disasters, and we did our first triathlon of the season. I’ve also started reading and been unable to complete reading three novels, which might say a lot about both my attention span and my reading grade level, and I visited three whole new states.
1. Books I Have Loved
Well, books I have wanted to love, anyway.
Middlesex: First few pages not enough to hold my attention.
Moby-Dick: Started right before deployment to Arkansas. Rotten timing.
The Palace Walk: A must-read for class in August. I like it so far, but there’s not a whole lot of action.
You know what’s really sad about this? I might have to come to grips with the fact that I’m more an action-flick kind of reader, if that makes any sense. I’ll tear through mystery novels, crime procedurals, “chick lit,” YA, no problem. But give me an award winner and I’m like a fish out of water. Ugh. This is bound to shape my writing.
2. My semester.
Difficult, at best. Worse, I’ve got a middle-grade novel I really like that I don’t want to lose momentum on, and while one of my professors has kindly offered to walk me through it once I have a completed draft, I’m terrified of the time commitment involved in that. Summer is so short, and my thesis advisor is asking us to write over the summer, as well. I need to learn to take advantage of this time.
With the semester’s end I experienced an uptick in the need to be creative. (Perhaps all that macrame finally got to me; I made almost 50 of these bracelets for ShelterBox this semester.) While that was temporarily curbed by my trip to Arkansas, I had the bug worse than ever on my return a week ago, which has encouraged me to sign up for an commit to private art lessons with the very talented Janice Cianflone. My hope is that it will help me to gain a new perspective on creativity, and allow me a new way to record the things I see and experience in my daily life.
I’ve tried more than once to do this, but I was never very good at keeping up with things unless I was forced to. Likewise, there’s a definite bump in the road that I need to get over–I’m very easily frustrated with drawing, since I’m quite bad at things like perspective: all of my drawings, whether they be of buildings, dogs, peanut shells, or cubes, end up looking flat. I get discouraged, and I quit.
Even now, as Janice and I are talking about lessons, I’m considering asking her to let me come to lessons twice a week. Any less, and I fear I’ll never improve, and worse, won’t be keen on the assignments if I don’t have some input (I’d rather have been in a class, where students can feed off each other’s energy, but the timing wasn’t right).
Anyhow. I guess I’ll check in on that later.
3. Arkansas tornado
This is my fourth deployment for ShelterBox and the first time I’ve been first team in and team lead. It was harrowing, to say the least. We were deployed for nine days, and at least half the time I had nightmares about customs and mobile homes being blown away. I slept maybe ten hours total for the last four days. I’m glad no one forced me to operate a forklift, although there was plenty of driving involved (communities in rural Arkansas are very spread out).
We met amazing people and were blown away by the way the community tried to rally around itself. Folks who arrived at the tent demonstration to learn how their own ShelterBoxes would work showed up the next morning and worked tirelessly to set up other people’s tents before they received theirs. The Boy Scouts turned out in force–we had nearly 40 of them.
And one 84-year-old man, after denying that he needed help over the two weeks since the tornado had struck, moved promptly in after we’d done setting up his tent.
Here he is, on the far right, with our volunteers AC and Jean-Paul.
I’ve got an interview with a radio station tomorrow morning to talk about this deployment, and I’ve been trying to figure out if I’ve learned anything. I remember the frustration and the worry, surely, but these things are de rigeur when it comes to deployments, and I won’t count them as memorable. Weirdly–or perhaps not so weirdly–I remember being sort of struck by the desperation, the need, the good humor of these folks. One woman, as we approached her land with her ShelterBox (her husband had been helping us all morning), gestured to the area where her home had been and said, “Don’t mind the mess. Looks like a tornado went through it.”
Yeah. Pretty fricken awesome.
4. Triathlon bug. Three girlfriends and I have been training for the Sleepy Hollow Triathlon. It fell two days after I returned from Arkansas, so I wasn’t thinking about posting any times, and well I didn’t, cos my swim was sheer misery. I finished that at the bottom of my age bracket and ended up with a total time of 1:35. It wasn’t where I wanted to finish, but my expectations were low.
Two of the girls have already signed up for another triathlon, and I couldn’t be happier. I really hope they keep it up. One of them is attempting 30 days of bikram yoga, which just sounds unhealthy to me, but I’m tempted to try it, just to boost my routine a bit. Could be interesting. Next race on my docket isn’t until September, and then there’s a half-marathon and another potential half-IM in Taiwan, but we’ll see about that as we get closer. Swimming in the warm waters of the ocean just of Kenting brings to mind riptides and sharks…!
Okay. More later, maybe. For now, gotta bang out some work before going to guest bartend for Big Green Box Week, ShelterBox’s annual awareness campaign.
Ricardo Pierre isn’t someone I’m likely to ever encounter again. I’ve only ever spent a couple of weeks in his company. I only have a few decent photos of him, and I had to poach one of those from someone else.
And yet, I’d trust him with my life. I know this because I did have to trust him with my life.
Ricardo has been one of our most consistent drivers and bodyguards in ShelterBox‘s nine months so far in Port-au-Prince. We hired him from the French Red Cross and just never gave him back. He is former detail for President Aristide, a father, a recreational boxer, a husband and the father to two boys. He is one of the nicest guys I have ever met. He is one year into law school and a damned fine electrician. Ricardo is also responsible for the caretaking of his elderly father and his younger sister.
On my last day in Haiti as team lead, I sat in the front seat of our car with Ricardo at U.N. logistics base, counting cash to pass on to the next team lead. Ricardo would have to keep the cash on him until the next lead could fly in, two days later.
I pulled my stash from various places in my pack and on my body, and counted out several thousand dollars. I handed each hundred to Ricardo to double-check the math, counted it all one last time, and stuffed two envelopes with it, so that Ricardo could carry it around better, more safely.
It wasn’t until Ricardo had both envelopes stuffed into his front pockets that I felt as if my tour was finally done, and then I thought about the curiosity of trusting someone you barely know with thousands of someone else’s dollars.
And then I reflected, briefly, on how absurd a world I was operating in at the moment: money was the smallest, least valuable thing I had trusted Ricardo with over the weeks I’d known him. When Ricardo said, “It’s not safe to go there today,” we trusted him. When Ricardo said he’d be back at the Deck (the bar and grill) to pick up me and my teammate no matter how late we stayed out celebrating a logistics partner’s birthday, we trusted him.
When he told us we were safe, I believed him. When he told us we needed to make a quick exit, we did it. When he stood by my shoulder and told me quietly to keep a sharp eye on the woman to my right, I did it, but I did it knowing that he was keeping an equally sharp eye on her–and the sketchy-looking blokes to my left. And when we needed him to run interference, I didn’t even need to think about it. He just did it.
Each day he told us he’d be by to pick us up, I trusted him. Each day we needed someone to back us up doing tent demonstrations, I trusted him to pass along the information accurately, and I could trust that after nine months in the field with our boxes, he knew the kit as well as anyone.
Finally, the day we took him and his family to an all-inclusive beach for a rare day off, when he looked at me and my teammate and told us how much it meant to them that he felt truly a part of the ShelterBox family, I believed it. Later that day, we all sang a noisy “Happy Birthday” in French to my brother over the phone, thousands of miles away in Los Angeles.
Each day we needed him to be a member of our team, he came through. It’s why he’ll always be a guardian in my book–and why, when I go to look for someone like Ricardo on my next deployment, I’ll be looking for these same qualities.
I should say that they were qualities that are present in the three drivers that we counted on the most there. They were all men who, when shown that they were expected to become a part of our team, took to that role as naturally as could be expected.
I should also say that working with these men hammered home a critical point for me: You get the most out of trust when you give it as freely as you’re capable of giving it. In this area more than others, the rewards are boundless. I’m not saying that you need to trust everyone around you with your life. I’m saying that there are a few who are worthy, and that you should return the favor when you can, whether someone trusts you with a secret, some insight, or something as small as a couple bucks. These things are weightier than we know.
It all comes down to left brain versus right brain.
I was shocked at just how exhausted I was coming back from my Master of Fine Arts residency at Whidbey Island. With some reservation, I noted that it might have actually been a more difficult recovery than those following deployment for ShelterBox, and I wondered why.
So I sat down and broke it down. (Okay, not really. What I did was to spend a couple of days mulling it over in my head, and then Gwen Bell posted something about writing 750 words a day for the month of September, so it’s September 1 and now I’m posting my thoughts. Because, you know, it’s useful to have external motivation, so on.)
When I come back from deployment I try and unpack, first thing. Who knows what creepy crawlies are lurking in my baggage? (My return from Taiwan yielded the largest squashed cockroach I’d ever seen in my life.) If I can’t be bothered to do the laundry I leave it all on the balcony.
Then I eat something incredibly indulgent. Ice cream, maybe, or potato chips. Something totally unreasonable to be carrying around in your pack. Soda pop is a good choice.
Then I turn on the boob tube. Typically it’s Turner Classic Movies. If I’m lucky I find some Rock Hudson/Doris Day flick, something I’ve seen before, and then I fall asleep on the couch. Eventually I crawl into bed and sleep for about 10 hours.
When I got back from Whidbey, it was almost all the same actions. Except my brain, my brain was on fricken fire. And that’s when I realized just how different the two events are, even if they share the concept of being on overload for 10 days.
Deployment is 100% action and logistics, all the time. You’re messing around, dealing with people, but not on any level other than cursory. There’s no room for emotion, no room for rumination. You think, you act, you fling tents and boxes and build stuff. Then you go home and crash, maybe process some stuff. That’s all left brain.
Whidbey Island? Whidbey Island was all right brain. Writers get to be writers because we think we have something to say. You spend all nine days at Whidbey immersed in words, your own and others, trying to make your words fit what you’re learning. You meet people that fire up little neurons in your head that then spawn more thoughts. You spend all of your time thinking, thinking, thinking about stuff that might not be immediately connected to your actions of going to class and writing papers, but at some point, some of that stuff starts to sink in, and you get even more excited because you can immediately find some way to apply what you’ve learned to your work.
You spend a lot of time thinking about yourself, and not in a navel-gazing, “what am I about?” kind of way. It’s more like an excavation of the stuff you didn’t remember coming to surface; and then there’s the added layer of worrying those events over; how you can express them in a pleasing manner that leaves room for more thought.
Everyone around you gives you something to think about. Every word out of someone’s mouth has the potential to give you something to work with.
It’s a pretty special nine days.
That’s the other part of why recovery was so hard–that kind of energy is hard to come by. I’ve written about this kind of energy before, where everyone in the room cares about just one end point. It happens in group events, like the AIDS Ride, where it was the end goal to get everyone from point A to point B on any given day. To a lesser extent it happens on deployments, where the whole point of your existence is to make sure people get out of the elements and into shelter, but even in that there are smaller more personal investments at play.
At Whidbey, everyone wants everyone else to publish. At graduation, the chairman of our board of directors said, “Your success is our success.” When only three people are graduating, and there are fewer than 50 people in the room, 35 of which are actual students, you know what? You believe that stuff. Whidbey has invested in you. Its future depends on your success. I believe it.
Funny, though–before this experience, I’d come to believe that true exhaustion came from hard physical activity. This is the first time I’ve ever been so pooped from just thinking, although I did put in four morning runs during my time at Whidbey.
I think, too, that it was truly an amazing experience to sit up both late and early talking about literature. If I’d had any doubts at all that working with words is what I want to do with the rest of my life, 10 days at Whidbey would have knocked them clear out of the park.
Here’s a list of the things that comprise everyday life in Haiti:
1. Phone calls from one Thermador Viragot: “Hello, Thermador. How are you? No, I still don’t have mattresses. We do tents. TENTS, Thermador. What? Okay, fine. Talk to you tomorrow, but I still won’t have mattresses.”
2. Misting fans at The Deck on the MINUSTAH base.
3. Helicopters as the daily backdrop to breakfast and lunch if we’re eating at The Deck.
4. Wild goose chases: One day we were sent to Customs HQ, DHL, our warehouse, and Petionville, only to be told at all four places that we didn’t need to be there anymore. This is normal.
5. Seeing lovely ShelterBox tents wherever we go and feeling proud that they are still standing after 7 months when everything else has gone to poo.
6. Communiques with press.
7. Trying to manage social media for a business in Philadelphia first thing in the morning, when my head and heart are 900 miles away.
8. Electricity outages.
9. Beer and rum each night.
10. Debrief and review of day (see #9, above)
It’s time for me to go home. I’m tired and cranky and I need to be around people I love, who can smooth down the ragged edges that have become a part of my makeup here.
Almost at the bottom of my second cup of coffee. In accordance with my self-imposed rule of posting more than once a month on this thing, here’s a series of posts about the past week and the people in it. But really, it’s about the varied people in my life, and how they got there.
On Wednesday I went down to my friend Alan’s school, Bronx Science, to talk about ShelterBox. Alan and I have been trying to put this together for a long time. He managed to squeeze me into his Comparative Government class, all seniors, all two and a half weeks from graduating.
People, can I just say how incredible it is to watch a friend teach? Even if it’s just taking brief command of a class and then turning it over to you; there is something remarkably moving about the process of watching someone you know and love; someone who’s lived a long and storied life, part of which you’ve been there for; stand in front of a class of students who could be unruly, but aren’t, in his presence.
Alan’s students are thoughtful and kind; smart and curious; loving and giving. They are reflections of Alan. Anyone who’s ever doubted the influence teachers have on their charges should witness something like this.
Later Alan took me to lunch. We had mac and cheese in the school caf. I love school cafs. We were in the teacher’s cafeteria, but whatever: same food. I only wish there were fish sticks and tater tots. Alan looks unimpressed here.
I, however, was impressed by the milk cartons:
Hello! “El Moo!”
Would you like to know how Alan and I met? It is a classic New York story. It was early summer, 2001. Maybe even late spring. I was working in advertising sales, and living in Astoria, Queens.
I liked it there. On this particular late-spring day, I dashed down the subway stairs at 59th and Lex, eager to get home, and ran into a wall of people. This is always a bad sign; it means the trains are bogged down someplace and we will all get home a little later, after a sticky subway ride all the way back.
I breathed out, “Ugh,” and looked at the guy next to me, doing a crossword puzzle. “Wow. How long has it been like this?”
He looked up from his puzzle and shrugged. “Dunno. Just got here.”
I opened my book (Carl Hiasson, but I can’t remember which), and he went back to his crossword puzzle. Not long after, our train arrived, and I looked at him. “Not bad after all,” I said, and he nodded.
We got on the train and I promptly fell asleep, which I did often in those days. You get to knowing where your stop is and your body figures out pretty quickly how long you can nap for, but the crossword-puzzle guy had no way of knowing that. So he watched, nervous for me, as stop after stop went by and I slept.
At the last stop, he got up and reached for my foot to shake me awake, but I snapped awake just in time.
“Oh. I was just about to wake you,” he said, and I grinned.
“This is my stop!”
We walked out together, and he asked about the book I was reading. We made small talk until I got to my corner. He lived only a block beyond, and it seemed we’d been living in that small radius for the past two years or so.
We didn’t exchange information.
But we ran into each other steadily for the next few days, weirdly enough, returning books and videos; picking up stuff; things like that.
We never once exchanged information, and then there came a stretch where I didn’t see him. And then came moving day.
I was moving into Manhattan, and I took the day off to do so. I tried to pack up and then, at around 10:30, realized that I still had dry-cleaning to pick up. I locked up my apartment one last time and went down the street. I turned the corner, and bumped right into Crossword-Puzzle-Carl-Hiasson-Book-Video-Library-Train guy.
“I’m moving today!” I squawked, or something like that.
“I’m late to work!” he returned.
“Okay, we have to do something about this,” I said, and finally, finally, we exchanged information.
We’ve been friends ever since. Alan was with me in the days after 9-11. He’s seen me through breakups and worse; several job changes; he’s been a constant shining star in my life.
No, not really. There were some beautiful things going on in Haiti, though, and I think I’ll just post them here. There’s a lot going on here in our little household, not the least of which is the fact that, while I was gone in Haiti, my registration form for the MFA program I got accepted into was due. Oops. I think they’ll let me slip by; they’ve also generously given me a scholarship, so I’m hoping that they’ll excuse the fact that I was gone for a good reason.
I have some other thoughts about Haiti. I will post them tomorrow, if I haven’t ripped out unseemly clumps of my hair in one or two stressful movements.
Almost every wall in Haiti is painted in some way, shape, or form. Much of it is made for advertisements sake (more on that later) but this was on the side of a voudou church in Leogane. I thought it was beautiful, and although I don’t quite understand the connection between voudou and Christianity, I found this a beautiful example of native artwork.
I also found this eagle in Leogane, not far from a bar we went to called Masaye. I don’t know what it was for, but I liked the fierceness of the eagle and the aggressive way the wing and tail feathers are spread. I especially like the remnants of the lettering around the eagle.
One of the most beautiful things about Haiti is its coastline. Aside from the gorgeous beaches both sandy and rocky, the water is this deep, deep blue. From the sky you could see a boat that had been sunk. Its ribs were clearly visible and its mast stuck out of the water. I missed that photo. So you’ll have to settle for this one.
I was lucky enough to catch this girl on her mobile phone in front of a partly demolished National Palace. Aside from the fact that the palace itself is beautiful, I found everything about this particular composition to be interesting.
This is the Marron Inconnu, the tomb of the Unknown Slave. It was commissioned to commemorate the years that Haiti’s past as a slave nation, and future as the first black republic. Do you see the stuff behind it around it? Le Marron Inconnu sits in the midst of a shantytown, and an old woman lives underneath him now, having lost her home in an earthquake. Yes, my knees went wobbly when I realized, when she popped out to ask for help while I was pointing with my idiotic camera.
Oh. This is the National Palace without the bars and bits in front. With crane and big U.N. truck in front.
Open suitcase. Child’s toy. Rubble. ‘Nuff said.
I said before that everything is art here. It’s true, but I don’t think, based on these paintings, that I’d want to get my hair done here. Or my dentistry. Or any plastic surgery.
All of the public buses here are painted by hand. They are beautiful. This one happens to have an airplane hanging off the side of it.
Finally, there were a number of wooden buildings that were still standing. I thought this ornate Victorian-like building to be absolutely gorgeous.
Tomorrow, some more coherent thoughts, I hope. For tonight, I hope that these photos convey, somewhat, just how beautiful Haiti is. I thought it was, anyway.
ShelterBox deployments are funny. You might talk to your team lead once or twice before you arrive at your destination, but really, you don’t have any idea who the rest of your teammates are or what they’re like unless you’ve deployed with them before. Fortunately, you know a little bit about who they are already. You know that they went through the same training you did, so you have at least that in common.
I was very lucky. On this deployment, I had quite a few friends. John and Bill and I had done our 3-day courses together, and I’d done my 9-day with John. I’d deployed once before with Phil. When Bill rotated out, my friend Nicola, with whom I’d done the 9-day, rotated in from her post as logistics coordinator in Santo Domingo. With her came our team lead, Jens, who had such a mop of hair that he went quickly from being “Fearless” (my moniker) to “Phyllis” (Nic’s apt modification). I arrived as a fifth wheel, between rotations, and quickly became Mutty, the stray dog, following folks around and filling in where needed (and, obviously, yammering and yapping). When Steven rotated in mid-way through my trip to Leogane, he discovered my newly acquired taste for Malta H, and I became Malta Mutty. Steven himself will always be The Cabana Boy, mostly because he kindly undertook the task of washing Nic’s skivvies.
But all of that is the nice part of camp life.
I arrived at noon on a muggy and lazy Easter Sunday, and, after a small miscommunique, got picked up by John, Bill, and Phil (“Billip!”) at the airport. I got there expecting to be accosted on all sides by folks wanting something from me, but I didn’t expect the random guy who pointed at the logo on my shirt and said, “ShelterBox. Does good things for Haiti. Gives a lot.” It was a nice way to start the trip.
We went to a very long lunch and I got marginally briefed on the situation, and then the team drove me around town to get my bearings. Camp was due east of the main airport.
Fearless was on a much-needed break in SD with his girlfriend. Dinner that night and almost every night was at The Deck, on the Ministry of the UN in Haiti’s logistics base. Predictable and good, and I spotted this on the wall.
The following days were pretty good, and busy. I was John’s partner for awhile, and it was great to have someone who takes such meticulous notes fill me in on the situation. We were so busy taking a good hard look at sites and ensuring they were ready for tent occupation (a population truly in need of shelter; good community leadership; adequate planning for decent water and sanitation; clear sites for tents) that the days flew by. Often, John and I didn’t have time for lunch. We ate ration packs between sites and visits to our angel of a warehouse, the awesome space called Cluster 1 by everyone else and called Mathilda’s house by me. Mathilda works for an organization called Handicap International, and she is the queen of organization. She keeps meticulous track of all of our stuff and helps all that she can to distribute and ensure that our stuff makes it safely from airport warehouse to Cluster 1 warehouse and out again to our partners in a truly expeditious fashion. She and her staff are amazing.
I spent part of day 3 with Fearless, mucking around trying to figure out customs and get our stuff delivered and loaded, and I think, before I realized it, I was feeling a little bit like an old hand and slipping back quite easily into my French. We saw a lot of destruction, and a lot of good stuff, too, by the end of my first week:
Among my favorites, though, was this little place:
We were alerted to Eden Village early in the week, and John had fielded the call to go out and take a look at the place. When we got there, it was covered in temporary shelters and not nearly ready for tents, but we were able to get the message across in the next few days, and, with new teammate Mark Butcher, we were able to set them up with four tents on Sunday, the one-week mark of my deployment. By the time I returned after a week-long sojourn to Leogane, Eden’s residents and their charismatic leader, Pierre, who really did bloom as a leader right in front of our eyes, had swelled to house most of the 150 families living there in tents donated by ShelterBox. It was a really good thing to watch them grow. I got to go back to see them either Monday or Tuesday (I can’t remember now), and it was great to see Pierre–he’d changed so much, even in the short week I’d been gone. Funny what leadership does to a body.
I was shipped off to Leogane with Phil 2 on Monday morning, and we met a lot of great people and cemented some good partnerships. One of my absolute favorites is with a group called Hands On Disaster Response. This group invites volunteers tow work in disasters all around the world. While I was there I met people from all over. Two of my favorites are Ashley and Simon.
We teamed up with Hands On to distribute and build 79 tents that were being given on a provisional basis to the congregation of a small parish (Pastor Septimus!) in Gressier, a small town between Leogane and Port-au-Prince. (Provisional just means that if all of the tents were up and erected in a short period after they were distributed, the pastor would get enough to help the rest of his congregation, the people who had been designated as not among the most needy, but still in need of help.) The volunteers were incredible. Hands On collated all of the information taken down by the Pastor (how many in his congregation needed help; what priority they were based on how vulnerable; the numbers of people in their families, so on), and then they provided the volunteers to go out into the parish and help to distribute the tents.
Simon and I had a particularly bad start to the day: After setting up a few tents (23 of the 79 were going to be set u on church grounds), he, Phil, Ashley and I went out to go get snacks for the volunteers. Eventually left to ourselves, Simon and I got fleeced by some vendors and stalked back to the church grounds, feeling cranky, Simon giving apt voice to my foul mood by muttering eff-bombs and worse in his strong Scottish brogue. Later in the day, though, as we got near the end of our day and put up and distributed the last of the tents, Simon found me and flung an arm over my shoulders. “I tell you what, mate, this is the best thing I’ve experienced so far,” he said, grinning big. He noted that he’d been thanked profusely by so many people. Providing a tangible good has so much to do with how much good a volunteer can feel like he’s doing. For this I’ll always be grateful.
The ride back to Hands On’s compound, with over 20 of us hanging off the back of a tap tap (one of Haiti’s home-made public buses), was hairy, but Ashley took both hands off the railing and lit a cigarette. Leave it to a girl from Halifax to look glam even at her grubbiest.
The Hands On compound, by the way, neighbored some open land. On the open land live a deranged bunch of 20 or roosters. How do I know they are deranged? I know this because they somehow found fit to start crowing, all together, at around 2:30 in the morning. They continued until around 4:30, when a late-comer to the party realized that he was missing out and decided to go bigger and louder than all the others. This sickness went on every night. I don’t know how the Hands On guys did it, but our first night there may account for the reason that Chris (with us for one night) looks like he’s about to shoot something here, and not with his camera.
Anyway, here’s a nice photo of the sun rising over Hands On. We think the building was meant to be a nightclub before the quake hit. The bar next door survived, though.
Phil and I stayed on in Leogane for the week, meeting with ACTED and staying on for four nights. If I thought life in the ACTED compound would be an any easier (“We have roosters,” they said, “but they don’t go off until 5:30 in the morning.”), I was sadly mistaken. There were five roosters for four hens. They are in the yard. Imagine having a rooster crowing in your ear at 5AM, because they are right outside your tent. Mmmhmmm. Lovely.
Here are the roosters. They are the reason I will never again pass up the chance to eat capon.
We also visited the lovely Camp Laska, which is the tent city that I hope all tent cities become. It’s sponsored by Bridge 2 Haiti with help from us. People here have made their camps into real homes here.
In some cases, a tent will do as a garage for some valuable equipment.
If you’re wondering why there are so many different types of ShelterBox tents in this camp, it’s because we are really clearing out our stock on this deployment. We’re doing everything we can to get people housed.
We also met with some kind folks who had emptied their bank accounts to come to Haiti to help. They’ve done a remarkable amount in a very short period of time. Melanie and Josh took us on a tour of some of the areas that they’ve marked.
In our time in Leogane we also worked with Terre des Hommes, a group looking primarily after the needs and risks of children. We also went into the mountains to ensure that the work we’d done distributing to Pastor Septimus’ group was being followed up on. It was on this day that we got a glimpse of the real Haiti outside of cities and Port-au-Prince.
I remember driving by a particularly good stretch of ocean on our first day with Hands On, and remarking ont he beauty of the scenery. Berlin, one of Hands On’s Creole translators, said, grinning to beat the sun, “Of course it’s beautiful! This is Haiti!”
On that note, I’ll end by saying that my last few days in Haiti were taken up with customs, customs, and lots of loading of tents. My last day was remarkably busy and very very annoying. But it looks like I’m still smiling here.
Also, here’s what we got to see every night from our tent office. Not bad, as far as offices go: