Civil Rights Road Trip (December 2012)

Several of my blog followers have asked me to post some of my pre-blog travelogues.  Here is the one from our civil rights road trip in 2012.  Enjoy!

New Orleans, Louisiana

It has been a very full and intense few beginning days of our civil rights road trip.  It started out in New Orleans, not because of the civil rights bit but because we both have always wanted to go to New Orleans…and with reason.  It is a unique city, a mix of the “old south” and “new tourism”, including Katrina tourism that, unfortunately, seems not to benefit any residents of the Lower Ninth Ward.  There are few high-rise buildings and it still has a sleepy town feel to it (keep in mind we are travelling out of season).  We tried our hand at the Airbnb way and rented a beautiful apartment in the Garden District, within walking distance (at least our idea of walking distance) of the French Quarter and the central downtown sites.   From this experience, I can highly recommend Airbnb as a great alternative to chain hotels.

I took a walking tour of the Garden District, known for its old-world, elegant mansions and famous residents (Ann Rice, John Goodman, Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt).  The sidewalks are hazardous from the battle of the 600-year old tree roots with the concrete blocks (the trees have clearly won the battle) but since there never seems to be any rush to get anywhere in New Orleans, this was no problem.  Another highlight of the Garden District was lunch at Commander’s Palace, a reputed former brothel.  The creole cuisine is excellent, as are the 25-cent martinis…a dangerous combination that resulted in the postponement of additional activities for the day.

Bourbon Street was lively and touristy…a bit too touristy for my tastes.  We spent an evening on Frenchman Street where the “other” local music is played and we thoroughly enjoyed listening to a Billie Holliday lookalike at the Spotted Cat Music Club.

The National World War II Museum is impressive and we spent 3 interesting hours there with the “4D” movie narrated by Tom Hanks a highlight of the tour.   The museum presents a decidedly American perspective, with no coverage of the internment of Japanese Americans in the US or of the destruction brought about by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   I saw a Japanese couple wandering through the museum and wondered how they experienced the tour.

Most of our time in New Orleans was spent wandering around, stopping for a coffee here and there, and wandering some more.  There are a few cities I have visited that have that nowhere-but-here feeling…New Orleans is one of them.

After 3 days in New Orleans, we set out on our Civil Rights pilgrimage with plans that would take us on an 11-day circuit to Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas in a wide circle from and back to Houston.

Birmingham, Alabama

Our first stop was Birmingham on a Sunday which, of course, meant attending the church service at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the scene of a 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed 4 teen-aged girls and resulted in the same-day shooting of a young black boy riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle by white racists spurred on by the church bombing.   The pulpit was the scene of speeches by religious leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King and Fred Shuttlesworth.

The first thing I noticed as we approached the church was the iconic blue neon sign, a symbol I had seen many times in books and movies about the civil rights movement.  To stand under it was very strong.

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As we walked up the steps just a few minutes before the service was to begin, we could already hear the music streaming from inside, beckoning us to come in.  The choir was centrally placed above the pulpit in front of the organ pipes; there was no mistaking that music was to be a central and recurring part of the service.  Accompanied by a band that included drums, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, organ and piano, the choir provided what the programme noted as “Musical Ministry” and there was no doubt that music is ministry in the 16th Street Baptist Church.  I recorded several of the rousing choir interludes in the hope that I will be able to capture that feeling of music as ministry when I am back in Norway.

During the announcements, we were introduced to a visiting delegation from the Caribbean and all other visitors were asked to stand up and be welcomed.  The congregation and its leaders know that most visitors come to the church as tourists because of its infamous history.  However, they also see such visits as an opportunity to welcome visitors into their circle of faith and they do so with warmth and elegance.  The sermon by Reverend Arthur Price, Jr. was gripping.  His voice was raspy and, at the same time, resonant and his sermon was punctuated with a lot of “uh, uh, uhs” but almost no pauses and, from what I could tell, very few notes.  I know intellectually that I must have breathed during the 40-minute sermon but I was not aware of it.   I was aware of him wiping the sweat from his brow many times during the sermon, something I have never seen at a church service in Norway, and the almost constant movement of the programmes as members of the choir and congregation fanned themselves.  Despite the fact that it was cold and rainy outside, inside it was hot, hot hot.

Inside it was hot, hot, hot!

Inside it was hot, hot, hot!

Our next stop was across the street to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), the first of many stops to educational centres and museums about the civil rights movement.

Across the street from the BCRI is the Kelly Ingram Park, the site of many large-scale Birmingham civil rights demonstrations and of many familiar photos from the 1960s of children and adults being attacked by police dogs and firehoses.  Such scenes are depicted by James Drake sculptures by throughout the park.

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Dogs

My impression of Birmingham is of a city that is tired and worn and I could imagine that it looks much the same as it did in the 1960s era we were there to explore. Perhaps coming to this conclusion on a Sunday, when all but the churches are closed, is somewhat unfair and we did find a small, trendy neighbourhood where we stopped for a Starbucks coffee.   Ironically, the lack of urban renewal in the downtown area added to the authenticity of our visit.

Montgomery and Selma, Alabama

Our ambitious plans for the day included a visit to Montgomery and a drive (not march) to Selma.

Our first stop was at Montgomery’s Rosa Parks Museum and Library, a tribute to the seamstress who is often referred to as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement.  A visit to the museum begins with a film about the early life of Rosa Parks and ends with the movie screen opening up into another room with a full-size bus and movie projection inside the bus that re-enacts Mrs. Parks’ famous refusal to move to the back of the bus that sparked the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and resulted in the end of racial segregation in Alabama’s buses.  Such re-enactments have a tendency to be a bit fake and even kitsch but the story of Rosa Parks’ quiet but firm refusal was realistic and extremely moving, as was the rest of the museum.

After leaving the gift shop where I purchased a bright red t-shirt that reads “Well-behaved women rarely make history”, I found Hans Einar talking to Georgette, the head of the museum.  A beautiful, elegant woman who had actually been to Norway, she is full of energy and passion for the museum to the extent that, after realising that I had not understood a fundamental section of the museum, took us back to explain things correctly.  It seemed fitting that such a woman heads such a museum.

We then walked to the infamous Greyhound Bus Station where, in May 1961, Freedom Riders testing the segregation practices at bus terminals and facilities along the interstate highways of the south were savagely beaten.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the organisation founded in 1971 that led the lawsuit that bankrupted the United Klans of America, is home to the Civil Rights Memorial Center.  Designed by Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC, the visit begins with the memorial, a round granite table with a continuous stream of water running over the engraved names of 40 victims of the struggle for civil rights who died between 1954 and 1968.  A stream of water also runs over a wall engraved with a paraphrase from Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech “…we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream”.

The center pays tribute to the victims of the civil rights movement and other victims of intolerance and prejudice throughout the world.  Perhaps most touching is the Wall of Tolerance, a full-screen wall onto which cascade down the names of visitors to the center who agree to practice tolerance in everyday life.  If you visit, you will see “Hans Einar Hem” and “Roberta Bensky” flowing down the wall next to Julian Bond, Robin Williams and thousands of other visitors who have taken the pledge of tolerance.

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We drove past the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King served as pastor and where, from his basement office, he organised the Montgomery bus boycott.

We then drove toward Selma along highway 80 where, in 1965, hundreds of protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery to protest the lack of voting rights for blacks.  We crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge where, on Sunday, March 7 1965 (now referred to as “Bloody Sunday”) the first group of 600 protesters who had departed the Brown Chapel Church toward Montgomery was attacked by the police and forced to retreat.   Two weeks later, Martin Luther King and other religious leaders accompanied a group of 300 marchers (a court-ordered maximum) on the 54-mile walk to Montgomery.  Accompanied by the Alabama National Guard, the marchers arrived safely in Montgomery 4 days later.  Under the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a somewhat sad and unkempt park commemorates the protest march and its leaders, including Representative John Lewis.  Like Birmingham, Selma seems not to have changed much since the 1960s.  The three-block main street is pretty enough, but the surrounding neighbourhood we visited to see the Brown Chapel Church is dilapidated and depressing.  The highly recommended Voting Rights Museum and the Slavery Museum were both closed when we arrived in Selma late in the afternoon and I left the city with a feeling of sadness that such an important part of American history seems to have been neglected.

Memphis, Tennessee

We had two objectives for our visit to Memphis: the Lorraine Motel (more about that later) and Graceland.  Neither of us is a big Elvis Presley fan but we are both fans of Paul Simon and had seen him in concert earlier this year on his 25th anniversary Graceland tour.  That refrain “I’m goin’ to Graceland, Graceland, Graceland, Tennessee” was ringing in our ears and we just had to go there.  I know, it is strange to go to Graceland because of Paul Simon but we have done stranger things.

We drove from Birmingham, Alabama directly to Graceland, just outside of Memphis.  We had been extremely lucky with our visits so far, with few people travelling on our route and no queues or waits at any of the attractions we visited.  We hoped for something similar in Graceland and, as we drove into the parking lot, I smiled smugly as there were almost no cars…mainly, because, we learned, that during the off-season, Graceland closes on Tuesdays for what the parking attendant told us was “deep cleaning”.  No problem, we drove to our downtown Memphis hotel and spent a lovely afternoon walking around the city, ending up at the Double J Smokehouse and Saloon on Mulberry Street for what I consider to be the best Buffalo chicken wings I have ever tasted.  And, even though we hadn’t yet been to Graceland, we did have a great photo opp with Elvis himself who had, obviously, not yet left the building.

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Upon leaving the bar, I happened to look down Mulberry Street and saw the vintage sign for the Lorraine Motel where, on April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King was shot dead on the balcony outside room 306.  We had planned to visit the motel and its adjacent National Civil Rights Museum the next day so we simply walked by the motel, pausing for a moment to take it all in.

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Our trip had taken us to many places that left strong impressions on us during our trip but both Hans Einar and I had tears in our eyes standing outside that motel, left as it was on that infamous day.  As we stood there, two women walked by, one of whom I had recognised from the Double J and had overheard something about them and the Civil Rights museum.  On a hunch, I asked if they worked at the museum and it turns out that we were talking to the President of the museum, Beverly Robertson and its marketing director, Connie Dyson.  They told us that the museum has about 200,000 visitors each year from all over the world and that, like most of the civil rights sights we have seen, is privately funded through a foundation (more about our visit to the museum to follow).

Later that afternoon, we took one of Memphis’ vintage trolley cars along Main Street and had a long conversation with the driver, James.  He was  curious about Norway and asked many interesting questions about racism in Europe.  We, in turn, asked questions about racism in Memphis and were not surprised to hear that, according to James, there is still a very clear separation of the races, albeit not a legally imposed one.

Inside the trolley with James.

Inside the Main Street trolley with James.

Most of the streetcars date between 1927-1940 and were formerly used in Porto, Portugal.   They are heavy mechanical beasts that clang along slowly down Main Street and, for just a dollar a trip we had several fun rides down Main Street.

The next day, we did manage to visit the National Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Motel.  The tour begins with a movie about Martin Luther King’s visit to Memphis.  I did not know that the reason for his visit was to support the 1,300 black sanitation workers who had been striking for fair and humane treatment and the right to organise.  They kept up their strike for two months, picketing with signs saying simply “I am a Man”.  Martin Luther King was shot and killed on the balcony of the hotel where he had been staying, following a meeting with church leaders.  Reverend Kyles had arrived earlier to take Dr. King to his new house for dinner.   Kyles is still alive and speaks about that day, noting “God put me there as a witness to spread the message after the messenger was gone”.

The museum has a considerable exhibit on the investigation and the subsequent conviction of James Earl Ray, the suspected assassin that, for many, casts doubt on his guilt.  In fact, in 1997, Dr. King’s son Dexter publicly came out in favour of a retrial for Ray, convinced of his innocence.  Later, the entire King family supported a new trial for Ray but this never happened and Ray died in prison in 1998.

The visit to the museum also includes a visit to the Lorraine motel and the infamous balcony outside room 306.  Although it is not possible to enter the room, a glass window shows the room as it was left in April 1968, with dirty coffee cups, full ashtrays and unmade beds.  A sad footnote to the assassination of Dr. King is the story of Loree Bailey, wife of the owner of the Lorraine Motel, who suffered a stroke hours after the assassination and died five days later.  In 1982, Walter Bailey, the motel owner filed for bankruptcy and the motel was put up for auction.  A group of Memphis businessmen pooled enough money to buy it and planned to open it as a museum.  The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1992 and comprises several buildings, including the rooming house from where the fatal shot was to have come and now holds the exhibit about the investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of James Earl Ray.

Standing on the balcony, outside room 306, peering into the room untouched by time, standing on the ground where Dr. King lay bleeding was, for me, one of the strongest moments of our trip.

Graceland

After an encore lunch at the Double J  (this time we split a plate of the famous Memphis “dry-style” barbecue ribs) we set out on the pilgrimage taken by 600,000 people each year and by Paul Simon a least once…we went to Graceland.

There is not much I can say about Graceland that countless others have not already said:  it is, today, quite kitsch, furnished in 1970s “mod” style that includes a jungle-themed room with wall-to-wall green shag carpeting, a claustrophobic basement pool room layered in flowered fabric from ceiling to floor and an unusual TV room where, after having read that President Johnson watched all three network TV stations at one time, Elvis had installed three TVs of his own).  What surprised me, however, was that (1) the house is small, especially for an icon such as Elvis and his reputed constant stream of visitors and (2) the visit was more moving than I had imagined, especially at the gravesites of Elvis, his stillborn twin brother and his parents.

Graceland is definitely worth the visit, as is the city of Memphis itself.  In addition to the National Civil Rights Museum, the charming streetcars and a music choice along Beale Street that easily rivals New Orleans Bourbon and Frenchmen streets, the deep-fried pickles at BB King’s Restaurant and Blues Club are definitely worth the visit.

Little Rock, Arkansas

Little Rock was on my list of places to visit because I knew that Central High School was still in operation and that there was an interesting visitor’s center that tells the story of what came to be known as the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who, in 1957, were selected to integrate the all-white high school.

Following the 1954 Supreme Court Ruling Brown vs. the Board of Education, which ruled as unconstitutional the segregation of schools, the government of Arkansas chose a gradual integration of its schools, starting in 1957.   Selected for their academic excellence, nine black students were chosen to integrate Little Rock’s Central High:  Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed and Melba Pattillo Beals.  Despite the approval of the integration plan by the Arkansas Board of Education, Governor Faubus maintained a staunch support for segregation and deployed the Arkansas National Guard to stop the students from entering the school.  According to several of the black students, they arrived at school thinking that the National Guard were there to protect them but were, instead, blocked from entering the school and left unprotected from the angry segregationist mobs that had gathered outside the school.  It would take three tries and an act from President Eisenhower to send in the 101st Airborne to protect the students before they were allowed to go to school.  The group would relate how they were continuously bullied and threatened during the school year.

A well-known image from that first day shows Elizabeth surrounded by an angry mob.  Elizabeth had not received a message for the Little Rock Nine to gather together before school and, as a result, she arrived alone.  That photo shows Elizabeth surrounded by white parents and students, with one student in particular, Hazel Massery, screaming at her.  That photo would become known around the world, as would the events of Little Rock.  Later, Hazel would try to make amends with Elizabeth and for a while they would become friends, although this friendship did not last.  Their story is told in the book Elizabeth and Hazel:  Two Women of Little Rock.

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The infamous photo of Elizabeth and Hazel

At the end of the year, rather than move forward with desegregation in Arkansas, Governer Fabus closed all four of Little Rock’s public high schools in what was is now knows as “The Lost Year”.  This incited even more anger towards black students, as they were blamed for the school closure and when, a year later, the schools re-opened, black students continued to be the victims of segregationist anger and hatred.  Interestingly, other schools in Arkansas had been desegregated as early as 1954 with no violence.

Only four of the Little Rock nine graduated from Central High School (most of the others moved out of state to complete their education).  In 1999, all nine received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Clinton, who also named Central High a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service.

At the visitor center we were told that Elizabeth Eckford is the only one of the nine still living in Little Rock.  According to the park ranger we talked with, she remains traumatised by the events of 1957 and does not visit the center.

Today, of Little Rock’s 1,800 students, 54% are black and 43% white.

Our last stop in Little Rock was to the Clinton Presidential Center, a vast, modern structure built on land that was a former train depot.   I was impressed by the beauty of the building but found the layout within the library confusing…even the docents say there is no real chronology to follow.  The enormous hall full of alcoves depicting selected themes of the Clinton presidency was overwhelming by its volume and use of media.  Perhaps it was the fact that this was the last stop on our tour and we had already seen so much, but I was somewhat disappointed by this presidential center (although I remain impressed by the presidency itself!).

* * *

After a few days at a resort in southwest Louisiana and 2,029 miles (3,265 km), we are now in Houston with my parents.  Our Civil Rights Tour is over but the memories will remain strong for some time to come…and we have lots of t-shirts to remind us of the places we visited!  My Mum asked if the trip had met my expectations…it exceeded them in just about every way.

Sending you all wishes for a peaceful holiday and hoping that all your journeys exceed your expectations.

Haiti Part III (from 15 February 2011)

The Good Thing About Being Sick in Haiti

I got sick here.  It started with a very sore and burning throat, which I attributed to the heat and dust (remember the first newsletter?) but then it turned into what I thought was a sinus infection.  I stayed in bed for an entire day, sweating, not from fever but from the heat, and not managing to feel better at all.  I had a meeting in Port-au-Prince the next day and had decided that, no matter how bad I felt, I would go since there is a health centre for Red Cross delegates at base camp.  Now, going to Port-au-Prince is no easy feat.  The bad roads, our curfew and horrendous traffic in the capital mean that we leave Petit Goâve at 5 a.m. and, in turn, have to leave Port-au-Prince at 15.00 to be home by 18.00.  But, all this I was ready to endure for the promise of a health centre at the other end (and, of course, my meeting).

And I was so right!  The health centre is staffed by a rotation of doctors including three Haitians and one expat.   But, the BEST THING OF ALL at the base camp health centre is Virpi, a Finnish nurse whom I met on my first stay at base camp when she briefed new delegates on health issues.  Virpi is an experienced medical delegate who is on her second tour in Haiti.  She is young, energetic and very “motherly”, which is exactly what I needed.

Virpi took total control, putting me in a private “cell” of the medical centre on a comfortable cot with a mosquito dome and, the best thing of all, air conditioning!  I felt like I was near death but Virpi, in her experience and wisdom, knew not only that I simply had a bad cold but also knew just the prescription that was needed:  a big dose of TLC.  So, while I lay on the bed with cool air flowing around me, I drifted in and out of a much needed rest (remember, we left at 5 a.m.), safe in the knowledge that Virpi would be there if I needed her.  I did see the visiting doctor who, in true French tradition, prescribed a long list of stuff, half of which Virpi, again in her wisdom, told me to ignore and I did.  So I came home from Port-au-Prince with an antihistamine, antibiotics (if things get worse) and some vitamin C.  But most of all, I came back with a renewed sense of humanity and gratitude for the Finns.

Time in Haiti

It doesn’t take much time before one learns about “Haitian time”, and then it takes a lot of time.  To understand Haitian time, simply take a time, any time, and add a lot more time to it.  This is Haitian time.

Yesterday at work, a going away lunch for a colleague started at 17.30.  You will remember my meetings with the hospital director that were set to start at 10.00 even though he was a 2-hour drive away from the appointed meeting place.  And a 9.30 breakfast celebration for volunteers still hadn’t received its pre-ordered food at 12.00.

The strange thing about Haitian time is that no one seems to mind (except us foreigners) and things get done in the end without much stress (except for us foreigners).  Efficiency is not a goal here; rather it is a concept whose Haitian time has still not come.

Money in Haiti

Before coming to Haiti, we were told that we could pay for many things using American dollars, even though the Haitian currency is the “Gourde”.   During one of my first shopping forays here in Petit Goâve, I asked the price of a small stovetop espresso maker and was shocked when the stopkeeper told me it cost “trois cent dollars” (300 dollars). Even in Norway, where such things are heavily taxed, a stovetop espresso maker would cost the equivalent of about 50 dollars, so you can imagine my shock at hearing the price in Petit Goâve.  I told the shopkeeper that it was “trop cher” and she seemed surprised.  I left the shop, cataloguing the experience in my “I’m no dumb foreigner” file.   It was several days later that I found out about the “Haitian dollar”.

The Gourde (HTG) replaced the French “livre” as the currency for Haiti in 1813.  In 1912 it was pegged to the US dollar at a value of 5 gourdes to one dollar and this concept became knows as the “Haitian dollar”.  It is used to this day to express the value of items in monetary terms, even though no such currency has ever existed.  Things have changed since 1912 and there are now 40 gourdes to the US dollar.   However, the Haitian dollar today is still valued at 5 gourdes.  So, when the shopkeeper told me that the coffee maker cost 300 dollars, it meant that I should have taken the Haitian dollar price, multiplied by 5 to get the price in Gourdes and then divided by 40 to get the price in USD.  I can’t bring myself to go back to the shop and buy the USD 37 coffee maker since I am sure the shopkeeper has a file of “dumb foreigners” in which I now figure prominently.

My Work (continued?)

Well, this week was a “challenging” one that has left me less than cautiously Haiti about the hospital exit (Alice, you may now say “I told you so”).  Despite my best intentions and 3 facilitation meetings this week alone, there is still no strategy from the hospital authorities.  It is not clear whether this is due to lack of capacity, willingness or understanding, but it seems as if the participatory approach may not produce any fruits for my labours.  There is one last chance over the next few days for Our Lady of Petit Goâve to perform a miracle…I hope she doesn’t work on Haitian time…

Minustah

While in Port-au-Prince, I had lunch at the Minustah Deck Bar and Grill.  For those of you who haven’t lived in the world of strange acronyms, Minustah is the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti or, since the acronym is really for the French name, Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti.  Set up in 2004 by UN resolution, Minustah is the UN Peacekeeping mission here. According to Wikipedia, “Minustah comprises 8,940 military personnel and 3,711 police, supported by an international civilian personnel, a local civilian staff and United Nations Volunteers”.  According to me, Minustah comprises a bunch of people with a darn good place to eat.  Most of you know that I tend to see the world through food and my experience at the Minustah compound was no exception.  Walking into the Deck Bar and Grill is like walking into any noisy bar and grill in Florida except that, instead of air conditioning, it has wall fans that produce a thin spray of water to keep customers cool and instead of uniformed wait staff, it is full of uniformed customers.  The noise level is like everywhere else in Haiti…VERY LOUD and I wondered how we were possibly going to have a meeting here, since this was what had been planned.  A quick look at the menu immediately took my mind off the meeting as my stomach began to react to the list of salads (Cobb, Chef, Spinach, Pasta) and hot meals (Spicy Chicken Wings, Beef and Broccoli with Almonds, Lasagna, Hamburgers, Tuna Melts).

As people walked by our table coming from the “pick-up” window, I could see that the food looked good…really good.  Since I was still feeling slightly sick and my throat was sore (despite the TLC from Virpi), I decided not to order the spicy chicken wings and fries and, instead, ordered the beef and broccoli with steamed rice.  The meat was tender, the broccoli was appropriately crunchy and the rice separated perfectly.  My stomach and I were very happy and I’m considering enlisting…  The meeting went pretty well too.

The Madame and the Mouse

By now I suppose many of you know that the results of the first round of elections in Haiti (from November 2010) have been announced and the candidates who will be in the second round of voting will be Madame Manigat and “Sweet Micky” Martelly.   The decision was finally made by the CEP (Conseil Electoral Provisoire), a temporary committee set up to pronounce on disputed elections.  The CEP announced that they would announce the winners on 2 February and the announcement came right on time (Haitian time, that is) on 3 February.  The elections are to take place on 20 March 2011…(is that Haitian time or…?)

Signs of Faith

There is a saying that Haiti is 90% Catholic and 100% Voodoo.  The Voodoo part seems to be well hidden but evidence of the Catholic part is everywhere.  The following pictures were taken on my last trip to Port-au-Prince.

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Christ is the Answer Pharmacy

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God is the Only Hope Money Exchange and Cyber Café

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Faith in God Construction Company (with an additional plug for the “I Love Jesus Orchestra”)

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The Promise of God Grocery Store

On this drive to Port-au-Prince, I was unable to snap photos of the “Adonai Bakery” and the “Sons of Israel Car Repair”…I’ll save that for next time.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

This time next week I will be heading home for a 2-week break.  When Hans Einar asked me if I wanted to do anything special, I told him “I want to be cold and to take hot showers”.   My idea of luxury has changed considerably since I’ve been in Haiti.

Originally, my work was supposed to continue for another 6 weeks back in Haiti.  When and for how long I return will depend a lot on what happens in the next week.  As for me, my signs of faith are in the faces of many of the young Haitians I have met along the way…stay tuned.

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Postscript:  I did not return to Haiti for this assignment as the work had finished.  I did return in 2012 to carry out an evaluation and found that things in Petit Goâve had not changed much.  Stay tuned…still.

Haiti Part II (from February 2011)

Cautiously Haiti

It’s the beginning of my fourth week in Haiti.  In some ways, it feels as if I’ve been here longer but, in others ways, I’m still very much a newcomer.  My week began with my trusty technician friend, Bertrand, coming to the house to fix my shower…again.  I’m “cautiously optimistic” that this will be fixed on my return home tonight.

And speaking of “cautiously optimistic”, I seem to be thinking and writing this so much lately that I have coined a new term “cautiously Haiti”.  The meaning of this term covers the entire range of emotion from extreme optimism (never) to extreme pessimism (usually but I don’t dare admit it).  So, cautiously Haiti is how I have come to describe a stubborn sense of personal optimism tempered by the even more stubborn realities of Haiti where “yes” doesn’t usually mean that and “let’s meet at 10.00” doesn’t at all mean that.

When I rang the hospital director this morning  (at 10.00) to ask where he was since he was not in his office at the time of the meeting he had organised, he informed me that he was “on his way” from Port-au-Prince.  Now this can mean he is still in Port-au-Prince and hasn’t even thought about leaving yet or he is on the road but will be another two hours or he is five minutes away.  No details are given and, when I naively ask why he didn’t call me to tell me he would be late, his response was that he had called his hierarchical superior to tell him but that he wasn’t there either.  I remain cautiously Haiti that a meeting will take place, maybe even today.

A Baby, A Mouse and a Madame

The ins and outs of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier have, for the moment, disappeared from the news since the latest development is that the ruling party candidate, Jude Celestin, has been removed from the party list as a presidential candidate (although he himself has not removed himself from the election list).  Back in November, when the “results” of the first round of Haitian elections was announced, the inclusion of Jude Celestin as garnering more votes than the former compas musician Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly resulted in rioting in Haiti’s main cities among charges of widespread corruption in the counting of votes.  The removal of Jude Celestin as a candidate now means that a run-off election will take place between Michel Martelly and the wife of a former President, Mirlande Manigat (simply referred to as Madame Manigat).  Elections are set for 30 March 2010.  I remain cautiously Haiti about this.

Health in Haiti

Health statistics for Haiti’s population of 10 million people are dramatic: for every 1,000 people, there are only 0.2 doctors (the U.S. has 2.4 doctors and Norway has 3.7 doctors per 1,000 people).  Of the over 200,000 people who died from the January earthquake, 73 were medical personnel (doctors, nurses, etc.).  About 300 new doctors graduate annually from one of the three medical schools in Haiti but many of them leave Haiti for higher salaries elsewhere.  There are even fewer graduates for 2011, since medical studies were severely hampered by the earthquake and students were not able to graduate on time.

While the Ministry of Public Health and Population is officially responsible for health services in the country, they are desperately short on resources, both human and financial and, despite the promise of billions of dollars of international aid to Haiti after the earthquake, not much seems to have been released to the government (probably due to a history of corruption and mismanagement of funds) and now governments in the West are awaiting the results of the election to see with whom they will be dealing.

Spare Time and Time to Spare

Things are busy in Petit Goâve and we try to take full advantage of our one free day a week, Sunday.  So far, we have been to the beach in nearby Grand Goâve (twice) and to a southern coastal town Jacmel.

The beach at Grand Goâve has two main attractions:  the beach and Villa Taina, a lovely restaurant owned and run by Christian and Solange, a French couple who came to Haiti 25 years ago for a visit and never left.  They also ran a bed and breakfast but the building was destroyed in the earthquake.  They will probably rebuild but it will take some time.  While we wait, it is a real treat to spend the afternoon at their restaurant (must reserve the day before), sitting on the lawn outside, about 20 metres from a sandy beach with water a bright turquoise I’ve only seen on postcards.  Their menu is comprised of whatever they manage to catch that day:  swordfish brochettes on my first visit and lobster on yesterday’s visit.  The prices are western (i.e., expensive) but the wine is good and cold, the company is fine (all the expats in Petit and Grand Goâve hang out there) and the food is as wonderful as it gets.   The fact that I asked for a Ricard (instead of the generic “pastis”) on my first visit has endeared me forever to Christian…what a way to make friends!

View from Villa Taina, Grand Goâve

View from Villa Taina, Grand Goâve

The Day's Catch at Villa Taina

The Day’s Catch at Villa Taina

Jacmel is a small coastal town, a 2-hour drive from Petit Goâve up and down through meandering mountains and exquisite landscape.

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Jacmel’s buildings are historic and the town has been nominated as a World Heritage site.  Its architecture was the inspiration for New Orleans homes and a walk through Jacmel did remind me of photos I’ve seen or Bourbon Street and its many balconies purchased from France.  The town was heavily destroyed by the earthquake but its remaining buildings are beautiful.  This, and its small but thriving  artist community make it an ideal spot for tourism.

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As with most tourist places around the world, there is no shortage of people selling things and, as we ate our lunch, we were treated to an almost constant parade of items for which we had little or no use.  There was, however, one seller who touched our hearts…

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and made us reach for our wallets.
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Haiti Part I (19 January 2011)

Heat and Dust

This was the title of a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala book set in India and I have been thinking about it a lot these days…not the story but the title, which, for better or worse, describes how I have experienced Haiti so far.   The heat was something I expected, although arriving from Norway where temperatures were considerably lower (about 50° C lower), it was still a challenge for my poor, now 50-year old body to handle.  But the dust was not something I counted on and there is plenty of it.  Only Haiti’s main roads are paved—the rest are potholes with some flat road-like surfaces in-between.  Such roads are neither conducive to walking nor driving and, given that there is little difference in the time it takes to do one or the other, walking is what I usually do.  But, while walking instead of driving significantly diminishes the bumpiness factor index (BFI), this is more than compensated for by the significant increase in the dustiness factor index (DFI), which manifests itself between my toes, in the pores of my face, in my clothes and in and on every other surface with which I come in contact in Haiti.  Now you may think this is a bad thing but it certainly makes the cold-water showers in our house not just bearable but actually enjoyable as I trade my dusty crevices for refreshing cleanliness…until the next time I go walking.

Base Camp

My first stop in Haiti was the Red Cross base camp in Port-au-Prince, a tented home for Red Cross delegates working in Port-au-Prince and a stopover for those of us going to duty stations in other parts of the country.  For newcomers to Haiti, the 8 a.m. security briefing for Red Cross staff is compulsory and makes an overnight stopover unavoidable.

Base camp is, well, a camp and not like the ones you may remember from childhood with nature games, campfires and s’mores.  This camp is full of adults who aren’t playing games at all.  Rather, they are long- and short-term delegates who have come to Haiti, many from their national Red Cross societies, to work for the Red Cross in Haiti.  At dinner the first night I sat with a doctor from India, a fleet manager from Dubai, a logistics expert from Côte d’Ivoire and an Australian HR manager.

Most delegates sleep in small, individual tents (called cabins) within larger tents.  Despite having up to 10 cabins per tent, there was a respect for privacy and quiet, especially at the “lights out” time of 21.00.

Base Camp, Port-au-Prince

Base Camp, Port-au-Prince

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Bathroom facilities were quite adequate, with a number of cold-water showers and one coveted hot-water shower for each gender.  The toilets were clean with a noticeable absence of odour, a small miracle of sanitation engineering for the number of people using them.  The difficult living and working conditions were somewhat mitigated by a small and “rustic” gym with a few machines where people sweat from physical effort rather than from simply being standing, lying or sitting down.  I was told that there is even a sauna provided by the Finnish Red Cross (who else?) for whom sweating naturally seems not to be as attractive as sweating in a small, contained space in the midst of the Caribbean.

Don’t Sweat the Big Stuff…and don’t even think about sweating the little stuff

Our living conditions are luxurious compared with the average Haitian.  I share a house with 3 other delegates — Sarah from Kenya, Torunn from Norway and Lenka from Slovakia — and we each have our own room, slow and unreliable wireless internet and bathrooms with running water  (of the cold type) and good toilets.

My Bedroom, Petit Goâve

My Bedroom, Petit Goâve

I have begun to think of my bathroom shower as a metaphor for Haiti (and many other developing countries).  Upon taking my second shower since arriving in Petit Goâve, the wall near the showerhead sprung a leak, which would not have been so bad had it not been that the spray of water shot directly into my eyes.  I put in a “work order” for a technician from the office to repair the small hole.  The technicians are hard working and conscientious and Bertrand was dispatched to my bathroom later that day.  He repaired the hole with some black silicone gel and asked me not to use the shower until the next day.  The next morning, my relief that the original hole had been repaired was dimmed by the fact that there were now 4 new leaks.  Bertrand was, once again, dispatched to my bathroom where more silicone gel was applied and I was again told to wait before using.   Day 3 brought with it a new set of leaks and I realised that I had made a typical newcomer’s mistake:  that of not knowing that one small problem will lead to discovery of a host of bigger problems the small one was almost certainly hiding.  I think this is somewhat of a metaphor for Haiti and I, for one, will refrain from trying to repair even small holes here.

Daily life is challenging, since there is not much to do except work, eat and sleep.  Red Cross delegates are subject to a curfew from 18.00 to 05.00, which means that, even if there were something to do in Petit Goâve, we could not do it.  The security services at Base Camp in Port-au-Prince keep us apprised of any warnings, with frequent travel restrictions within and to/from Port-au-Prince.  Things are calmer in Petit Goâve than in other parts of the country but we nevertheless respect all security warnings issued from Port-au-Prince.

The office is a busy place with 12 expatriate delegates and a slew of national staff that support and facilitate our working lives here.  They are translators, technicians, drivers and guards, many of whom have come from Port-au-Prince, leaving behind their families.  Most of them held quite different jobs before the earthquake: a chemistry teacher is one of our drivers (his school was destroyed in the earthquake while he was at home with his wife who had complained that he was not spending enough time with her), another was a driving instructor in Port-au-Prince (he lost his one-year old daughter in the earthquake) and another from Petit Goâve lost his entire family.  It is humbling to work in an office where people carry on them the scars of tragedies we have only read about in the papers or seen on TV.

Everything Old is Coming Back Again

Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka Baby Doc, has returned to Haiti after 25 years in exile, though the irony of being exiled from Haiti to Paris with about a zillion dollars does not escape me.  No one really knows why he returned or how he managed to leave France without the French authorities knowing about it (although having lived in France for 11 years, I have some ideas involving French cultural traditions such as wine with lunch and the philosophy of “je m’en foutisme[1]).

I have discussed the Duvalier developments with a few Haitian colleagues, all of whom have different interpretations of his return: some believe that violence and poverty are so bad in the country that they couldn’t get any worse with a former President-for-Life in charge; some believe that the current President, René Préval has brought back Duvalier to move attention away from the recent heavily disputed elections; and others believe that this is simply the beginning of a reunified Haiti and that the return of another former President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide from exile in South Africa will follow.

We learned yesterday that President Aristide tried to renew his Haitian passport to return to Haiti but that the application was denied.  I bet he wishes the Haitian authorities drank more wine at lunch…


[1] Roughly translated into “I don’t care-ness”

9. Signs, Shopping, Kerala (15 December 2004)

Signs Seen in India

At a shrine:  Please keep off your shoes
At a hairdresser:  Ladies’ Saloon
At a restaurant:  Serving Multi-Ethnic Cushion

Some signs seem not to serve any purpose at all

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Food Shopping in India

As long as I cook Indian food, shopping is relatively easy.  The choice of dal (lentils) is virtually unlimited (I choose by colour) and don’t get me started on the types of rice available.  The problem comes when cooking other types of cushion.  Buying meat was a bit of a problem until I discovered Haroon’s.  Haroon’s is a meat store located in Mr. Haroon’s house.  Mr. Haroon is a Muslim so that’s where most expats head to buy beef (they go somewhere else to buy pork).   Rosie is the saleslady who pulls packages of frozen beef, chicken, lamb and, much to my surprise at Thanksgiving, turkeys, out of the huge deep freezers in the front room (the store).  As she does this, a very tiny and very shrivelled old lady sits guard at the front door.  I’ve never really found out who this lady is as she and I don’t speak the same language.  I speak English and she either meows or barks at me.  These utterances are followed by a toothless schoolgirl giggle (usually after the “meow”) or a menacing scowl (usually after the “bark”).   I sometimes wonder if she’s trying to tell me something as I walk out with unmarked packages of meat.

Shopping for meat is the easy part.  Shopping for the stuff that goes with the meat is another story altogether.  Bangalore is indeed an international city and the arrival of thousands of expats to the silicon valley of India has resulted in the availability of many foreign products in Bangalore’s food shops.  The only problem is that they are not all in one shop.  A recent shopping list comprised of bottled lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, lettuce, apples, whole-wheat bread and bacon involved 4 shops, 30 km and 2 days in heavy traffic.  The meal took 10 minutes to eat.

Preparing Fruits and Vegetables for Consumption

There are two schools of thought for expatriates on eating fruits and vegetables in India: one is the school that tells you not to eat them and the other is the school that tells you to eat them only if they are first soaked in chemicals to remove the chemicals used in their production.  It seems that India has not yet signed on to the International Treaty on Not Using Life-Threatening Pesticides that were Banned in North America and Europe Years Ago.  Before coming to India, I had read about the need to soak fruits and vegetables in potassium permanganate to remove pesticides but I wasn’t sure exactly what it was and was a bit worried about soaking things I would eventually eat in it.  A quick search on the internet reveals the following about potassium permanganate:

Potassium permanganate, KMnO4, is a purple crystalline compound with a metallic sheen. It is soluble in water, in acetone and in methanol, but it is decomposed by ethanol.   It is prepared by fusing manganese dioxide with potassium hydroxide to form the potassium manganate and then electrolysing the manganate solution using iron electrodes at about 60 degC.  Potassium permanganate is widely used as a powerful oxidising agent, as a disinfectant in a variety of applications, and as an analytical oxidant reagent in redox titrations.”

I was reassured that the description did not include the words “lethal if swallowed” and further reassured when I discovered that the only place to buy it was at a pharmacy.  I bought 11 boxes, just in case I need to analyse a bunch of oxidant reagents in redox titrations.

Indian City Names

When the colonisers arrived in India, they had trouble pronouncing some of the place names so, in the good old tradition of colonisation, they changed them.  The “decolonisation” of names started in 1995 when the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party came to power.  The ruling party of Bombay decided to change the name of their town to Mumbai, believed to be the original name of the settlement that became Bombay.  The state of Tamil Nadu changed Madras to Chennai.  Later, Cochin was changed to Kochi and Calcutta to Kolkata.  Tranquebar (a former Danish colony) became Tarangambadi, Benares became Varanasi and so on.  All of this makes for interesting stories of furious travellers insisting that they have been cheated because their tour guide took them to Varanasi when they paid to go to Benares.  Two of the more successful changes (i.e., names that are totally impossible for foreigners to pronounce) are Trivandrum reverting to Thiruvananthapuram and Ooty becoming Udhagamandalam.  It reminds me of learning Norwegian…

 Kerala 

I recently returned from a one-week trip through Kerala, a state in India known for

  • its high literacy rate (almost 90% compared to India’s overall rate of 52%);
  • its low fertility rate (1.8 births/woman compared to 2.9 for India overall);
  • India’s highest life expectancy and lowest death rates; and
  • India’s highest female sex ratio (1,036 women for 1,000 men).

Kerala is also known for the fact that, from 1957 to 1991 it was administered by a Marxist government and for its coconuts (no pun intended to the Marxists).

The capital, Cochin, is home to the exquisite Pardesi Synagogue, built in the 16th century.   The Jewish community in Cochin dates back to 175 BC, when it is believed that seven Jewish families settled after being shipwrecked off the Malabar coast.   Until 1948, when a large number of Jews left for Israel, there was a thriving Jewish community in Cochin, located mainly in the area called Jewtown.  Today, there are only 4 Jewish families left in Cochin.  When I visited the synagogue, a very Indian man asked me if I was Jewish and, when I said that I was, he said “Shalom”.

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The exquisite Pardesi Synagogue, Cochin

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No trip to Kerala would be complete without a backwaters tour.  The overnight tour starts in Alappuzha/Allepey on traditional-style rice boats (kettuvalum).  I say traditional-style because some modern amenities have been added for tourists, including air conditioning, proper bedrooms and bathrooms and a kitchen.  A three-man crew catered to our every need, preparing delicious Keralan food loaded with chilis and coconut and even taught us to play Karam (a board game similar to billiards with flat round pieces that you flick with your finger).  As the boat meandered slowly through the narrow backwaters lined with coconut trees and rice fields, villagers went about their daily activities at the water’s edge.  It is difficult to describe the beauty of the landscape.  What I can tell you is that there is nothing quite like watching the sun setting slowly from a houseboat on the Kerala backwaters…

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