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.

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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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6. Visit to Sri Lanka, 2004

This brief is our recent visit to Sri Lanka, a fascinating and complex island.  We left Bangalore on Saturday, September 11th.  Despite the infamous travel date, our direct flight from Bangalore to Colombo, a short 1 hour and 20 minute ride, was uneventful.  There seemed to be no additional security at either of the airports.

Our host for the visit was Father Ebenezer, a Methodist priest who heads the National Christian Council (NCC).  NCC is a Sri Lankan NGO that brings together Christian-based organisations in Sri Lanka and is also doing a lot of inter-faith work in Sri Lanka.  Father Ebenezer and his colleagues had planned a trip that would take us by van from Colombo across the entire island to the northeast, with visits to Trincomalee, Batticoloa and surrounding areas.

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The purpose of our trip was to visit some of the projects NCC is sponsoring to promote peace in the northeast region.  But first, you need to know something about Sri Lanka to put it all in context.

Some History

Until the 16th century, Sri Lanka was a land of kingdoms.  The Dutch were the first colonisers to arrive in 1505 and, after successfully exploiting the cinnamon and spice trade, were followed by the Dutch in 1658, and finally the British in 1796.  Large numbers of British settlers came in 1832 and the coffee trade became the backbone of the colonial economy.  The British could not persuade the Sinhalese to work on the plantations so they brought in large numbers of Tamil workers from South India.  When crop disease wiped out the coffee plantations, the British switched over to tea.

Sri Lanka (then know as Ceylon) became independent in February 1948, 6 months after Indian Independence.  Sri Lanka boasts the world’s first female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was elected in 1960.  In 1972, Sri Lanka became the country’s official name.

Sri Lankan People

Sri Lanka’s 19.8 million people are comprised of three major ethnic groups: the Sinhalese (74%), the Tamils (18%) and the Muslims (9%).   Minority groups include Veddas (a tribal group believed to be the first inhabitants of Sri Lanka) and Burghers, who are descendants of the European colonial settlers.

Buddhism

Buddhists represent about 70% of the population.  Buddhism first came to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC when Mahinda, the son of the Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka came to the island to spread Buddhist teachings.  There are two schools of Buddhism: Theravada (practised in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and parts of South Vietnam) and Mahayana (practised in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and also among Chinese Buddhists).

According to legend, Buddha visited Sri Lanka three times.  Adam’s Peak, in the hill country, has been known as Sri Pada or the “Sacred Footprint”, left by Buddha as he headed towards paradise.  It is also believed that Adam’s Peak was the place where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven.

In recent times, a more militant Buddhism has appeared in Sri Lanka, based on the belief that Sri Lanka should be a bastion of Buddhism in its purest form.  Some Buddhist monks are among the country’s least tolerant people when it comes to compromise with the Tamils.

The Conflict

Although the source of the Sinhalese-Tamil difficulties dates back to the 1950s (when Sri Lanka’s official languages were at issue), it was the enactment of two pieces of legislation in the 1970s that saw the beginnings of the violence that has continued for over 30 years.  One piece of legislation limited Tamil numbers in universities and the other was the declaration of Buddhism as the state religion.

The Tamil reaction was immediate.  After a state of emergency was declared in the Tamil areas, left-wing tamils started fighting for an independent Tamil state called Eelam, meaning “precious land”.  Thus was founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers.  The area the Tamils claimed for the independent state of Eelam was the Northern and Eastern Provinces, about one-third of the island.  Tamils clearly made up the majority in the Northern Province but in eastern Sri Lanka, Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils were about equal in number.

In 1983, 13 members of an army patrol were massacred by militant Tamils in the Jaffna region.  This led to several days of rampages by the Sinhalese, leading to the death of between 400 and 2000 Tamils and massive destruction of property.  Thousands of Tamils fled to safer, Tamil-majority areas.  Many left Sri Lanka altogether.  At the same time, many Sinhalese moved out of Jaffna and other areas dominated by the Tamils.

Revenge attacks continued and there were several large-scale massacres during this time.  The government did little to stop the violence.  In the early 1980s, the Indian equivalent of the CIA trained and armed Tamil militant factions on Indian soil and, in 1987 the Sri Lankan president made a deal with India to provide an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to disarm the Tamil rebels and keep the peace in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.   The IPKF eventually alienated both sides, attempting to isolate the LTTE by promoting and arming other Tamil rebel groups.  The Sinhalese feared Indian influence and considered the deal harmful to non-Tamils in the East.  The IPKF withdrew in 1990, with the LTTE agreeing to a cease-fire to ensure their departure, but the war between the LTTE and the government began again shortly after the IPKF withdrawal.

The war reached a new peak in 1991 after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a female LTTE suicide bomber.  After a failed round of peace talks in 1995, the army invaded the Jaffna peninsula and huge numbers of inhabitants left the area. 

In late 2000, a Norwegian peace mission led by Erik Solheim was invited to bring both sides to the negotiating table.  Both sides were ready.  The government was approaching bankruptcy and morale was at an all-time low after an LTTE attack on the airport destroyed half of the Sri Lankan airlines fleet.  The LTTE had sunk to forcibly recruiting women and children to replace the 20,000 forces who had been killed in the conflict.  In December 2001, a “permanent” cease-fire was officially declared after new presidential elections and peace talks resumed in February 2002.  A year later, the LTTE suspended their participation in the peace talks, claiming they were being marginalised.  In March 2004, a renegade LTTE commander known as Karuna led a split within the LTTE and went underground with his supporters.  Amidst allegations that Karuna was supported by the government, the LTTE discontinued regular meetings with government.  Peace talks are still stalled, despite further Norwegian intervention to revive them.

The conflict in Sri Lanka is not just between Tamils and Sinhalese.  Violence has also shaken the Tamil and Muslim communities in the northeast.  In 1985, Tamil militants killed a number of Sri Lankan Muslims in the northwest. Militancy increased within the Muslim community, triggering a wave of Tamil-Muslim clashes. In 1990, Muslims suffered attacks from the LTTE, including the killing of 147 worshippers in a mosque at Kattankudy and the expulsion of all Muslims from the north. Unable to provide adequate protection, the government created a Muslim Home Guard, an armed civil defence force. This fed into the spiral of violence, with reprisal killings carried out against Muslim and Tamil civilians by the LTTE and the Home Guard respectively.   A fragile peace currently exists between the Muslim and Tamil communities in the northeast. 

The result of the 30 years of conflict has left 60,000 people dead, more than half a million people displaced and countless numbers of physically and psychologically scarred children and adults.

Our Visit

There are so many impressions but this is getting to be a long “brief” so I will relate some of the highlights.

Kandy

Before going to the northeast, we stopped in Kandy for one night.  Kandy is best known for the Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a Buddhist temple that houses Sri Lanka’s most sacred relic, the tooth of Buddha.  The tooth is said to have been snatched from the flames of the Buddha’s funeral pyre in 543 BC and was smuggled into Sri Lanka during the 4th century AD, hidden in the hair of a princess.   The tooth is carefully guarded in a shrine in the centre of the temple, encased in gold layered boxes.  The tooth is shown once every 7 years for 2 hours a day for 10 days.  The next presentation is in 2008 so reserve your tickets now!

Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic), Kandy

Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic), Kandy

Trincomalee (known as “Trinco”)

For me, the highlight of this trip was a visit to the Peace Nursery.  Set up as a pilot project by the Methodist Church, the nursery brings together children between the ages of 3 and 6 from the three ethnic groups – Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese.  When we arrived, we were greeted by all of the children, some of whom presented us with the traditional welcome garland of flowers around our necks (they had to be lifted by their teachers to reach our necks!).  They also sang us a well-rehearsed song about butterflies, with fluttering arm movements and sweet voices! 

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Another highlight of our time in Trincomalee was a dinner meeting with a human rights lawyer who is fighting for people whose rights were violated during the conflict.  Arbitrary detention and mistreatment of prisoners by police and security forces was common. It is estimated that around 18,000 people were arrested under emergency regulations from January to November 2000. The vast majority were Tamil, some of whom were ordered detained without trial for more than two years.   Reports of sexual violence against women by security forces are numerous.  Rape was a commonly used weapon of war.

Muthur

A 45-minute ferry ride from Trincomalee took us to the Muthur peninsula, a primarily Muslim area deeply affected by war in which there is considerable tension between the Tamil and Muslim communities.  Muthur is also a border region between Government controlled areas and LTTE controlled areas.   We first visited a Muslim school full of hundreds of well-behaved children (that is, until I showed them the photos I had taken with my digital camera…I was almost the cause of another riot in Muthur!). 

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We were greeted by the smallest children, lined up in two rows who, after we had received our welcome garlands, threw flower petals at us as we walked to the meeting room.  It was another touching experience with children in Sri Lanka.

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The headmaster of the school is also a member of the Muthur Peace Committee, an inter-faith committee organised by the NCC.  Following our visit to the school, we met with members of the Committee, comprising Muslims, Tamils and local police personnel.  They are all working together to promote peace and co-operation in Muthur.   Particularly touching participants were two Tamil youths who had recently left the LTTE and are now working for peace in their community.

Young people working for peace in Sri Lanka

Young people working for peace in Sri Lanka

Batticoloa

Here we had a most memorable meeting with about 30 Tamils from a small village.  They had just returned to their village, having left 20 years ago when the conflict was at its worst.  Resettlement is a fragile process in Sri Lanka.  This particular village is sandwiched between a Muslim community and an LTTE-controlled area.  If any violence breaks out, the villagers will be caught in the middle.  When I asked (through an interpreter) why they had come back, the response was “because it is our home”.  They are slowly re-building their lives with scarce resources.

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We also visited the Jummah Mosque at Kathankudy, where in 1990 a brutal attack by Tamil rebels killed 147 worshippers.  The LTTE denied any role in the massacre.  The mosque was rebuilt but one wall riddled with bullet holes remains untouched as a reminder.  

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Outside, the graves of the victims are in a single row, surrounded by white stones as a memorial to the boys and men who were killed.

On the drive back to our hosts for the night, we stopped at an LTTE graveyard.  We were curious that the graveyard existed at all, since most Tamils are Hindu and bodies are burned on funeral pyres rather than buried.  We were told that bodies of LTTE members are buried in martyrdom.  The graveyard is a cruel testimony to lives lost.

Tamil Cemetery

Tamil Cemetery

We stayed overnight at the home of Father Arul and his wife Valentina.  Father Arul is a Methodist priest working in a small town near Batticoloa.  The Methodist church across the road doubles as an ashram.  In the evening, we joined some youths who get together up to three times a day to sing and pray.  As the sun set, we sat in a concrete circle filled with sand, listening to their beautiful voices, truly moved by their smiling faces and gentleness.  We found out that they are all orphans whose parents were killed during the conflict.

Our last morning in the northeast was an experience I will never forget.  Father Arul had arranged for us to meet a group of 20 youths, all of whom had been child-soldiers in the LTTE.  In addition to the physical and psychological problems they face, they lost years of education and have no skills.  Each one of them stood up, said their name and age and how long they had been in the LTTE.  The oldest was 23, the youngest was 15.  The time they had been in the LTTE ranged from 3-8 years.  The four youngest were back at school.  The others were at home.  None was working.

When I asked how they imagined their future, only two spoke.  Both said that they just hoped they would be able to find a job to support their families.  One boy had lost an eye.  A girl told us that her legs were damaged and she was worried about being able to work.  All of the girls had short hair.  In a country where long hair is the norm, the haircuts they received when they were released from the LTTE are an additional stigma that they carry with them.  Father Arul and his colleagues are just beginning to work with these young people, hoping to be able to provide psychological support and vocational training.

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Former child soldiers

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Our trip was so rich and emotional.  I hope I have succeeded in sharing some of these feelings with you.  We leave for Bangladesh in two weeks to attend a one-week seminar on gender-based violence in the region.  In the meantime, I will be in Bangalore, still shopping for furniture…

5. Shopping, Driving, Complaining in India (25 August 2004)

Shopping in India

I hate shopping in the best of times.   Since moving into our house, I have spent most every day shopping.  Before we moved here, I knew that we would have to furnish an empty house.  I saw it as a challenge.  I imagined finding the Indian version of Ikea, going from department to department, saying “I’ll have one of those, two of those” etc.   My first mistake was thinking that there would be an Indian version of Ikea.  My second mistake was thinking that I could say “I’ll have one of those” and that the one of those would be delivered the next day.

From my experience so far, I can only surmise that the average Indian wants every piece of furniture custom-made with their own selection of fabric and wood.  Virtually nothing in a shop is ready for delivery.  And, while the shop may provide the wood, it is likely that you will have to go to another shop to buy fabric.

Being someone who gets my ideas from seeing things in shops, furnishing our house has been a difficult and time-consuming journey.  “Journey” in most cases means from furniture shop to fabric shop and back to furniture shop.

Delivery of Items Purchased

Placing my first order for household furnishings was a relief.  Finally, I had accomplished something.  What I had yet to discover was that placing an order is only half of the journey.  The next challenge is actually getting what I ordered.  Take our curtains, for example…please take our curtains!  We ordered curtains for the living room and dining room.  We were reassured that the tailor came to our house to measure the windows.  We then calmly waited for curtain delivery, which happened as promised, only 2 hours late.  Much to our surprise, the curtains delivered were not at all what we had ordered.  The fabric was the right one but the style was not at all what we had agreed.  The shop owner came for delivery and, as we looked on in shocked surprise, she kept saying “wait and see them, they will look very nice”.  Unfortunately, her taste was quite different from ours and (fortunately for us) she would not be living in our house to enjoy her design. We promptly sent her back to the shop with the curtains, after refusing to pay more for the re-design.  The correctly designed curtains were delivered the next day.

We purchased quite a lot of furniture from the “Looking Good” furniture store.  Since I want our house looking good, I thought this was a good place to shop.  Another mistake.   Our dining room table and 6 of 8 chairs arrived last night (only 3 hours late).  The fabric I had selected for the chairs was a beautiful gold colour with a fleur de lys pattern (hommage to my former life in France).  The fabric was on all 6 chairs, which was good!.  But 5 of the chairs had the fleur de lys going in one direction and a 6th chair had the fleur de lys in the opposite direction.  Now for those of you who think I’m being picky, I must say that I didn’t really care which direction the fleur de lys went…but I do think it a matter of good taste to have all the fabric on all the chairs going in the same direction.  One chair will be sent back to the “Not so Good Looking Furniture” store today.

The Cherry Tree

I’ve often thought how wonderful it is to have fruit trees at home (we have them in Norway and they are fantastic).  Our house has a cherry tree just outside the front gate.  “Marvelous” I thought when we first saw the house.  “Dreadful” was what I thought after we had moved in and I realised that cherries fall off the tree and stain everything they drop onto (in our case, our upstairs terrace and the entire entryway).  Not only do cherries naturally fall off a tree, but in our case, they were helped by a family of monkeys who visited everyday, shaking the branches so that more even cherries would fall off the tree.

We decided to spare most of the tree but not branches hanging directly over our house.  After consulting with some of Hans Einar’s colleagues at the office, we were told that one cannot just cut down a tree that grows on public property and that we would need permission from the local authorities.  Two days later (a quiet Sunday morning), a gardiner mysteriously showed up and cut down the branches (please don’t tell the local authorities).   We are happy.  The monkeys are sad.

Driving In India (Part II)

Well, we did it!   We drove in Bangalore.  Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon, there was virtually no traffic due to a trucker strike and it was only 5 kilometers but we did it and are very proud to report that we survived.  

Here’s how it happened:  after sulking around on Sunday morning, we threw off our feelings of being home-bound without a driver and took the brave decision to DRIVE IN BANGALORE (capital letters provided to show how momentous a decision this was).    First, we had to pick a destination.  A local shopping mall not too far from home seemed like a good choice because (1) it was not too far from home; (2) we knew how to get there and (3) it involved only one turn.  Then, we had to plan our itinerary.  Now, in Norway, France, the US or Canada, the itinerary would have been “drive to the mall”.  In Bangalore, the itinerary went like this:

  • drive 2.5 kms straight along the side road, avoiding any and all traffic on the parallel main road.
  • when you get to the first intersection where you need to turn and join other cars, abandon the car and walk the rest of the way to the mall.

We shared the driving so neither of us would be totally stressed out about the whole thing.  We were VERY proud.

Complaining

While some of you may be shaking your heads right about now, wondering how I can live in one of the most fascinating and exotic countries in the world and do nothing but complain.  I will now say a few words in my defence. 

Complaining is how I cope with the small and big frustrations of this very unique period of settling in.  What many of you don’t know is that, by the time I have written a Bangalore Brief, I have already vented many of my frustrations in real time while playing online backgammon and “chatting” with my mother and sister.  With the 10‑½ time difference between India and the middle of North America, this event occurs almost every day and sometimes twice a day.   A recent internet chat between me and my mother went something like this: 

My Mother:    what plans do you have for today Roberta?

Me:  electrician at 10. rented furniture pick up at 11. then going to the bank to set up an account. all thrilling stuff in this exotic country that is India…and more  furniture delivery at 7 p.m.

My Mother:    you sound depressed Roberta, are you or are you just frustrated?

Me:  I wasn’t depressed until I started playing backgammon with you! [she was beating the pants off me]

My Mother:    Well I feel better about that.

Me:  Actually, this whole settling in process has been frustrating. There’s no way around it. I have good days and bad days (and good moments and bad moments). Not surprising but I’ll be glad when it’s over and I can start just doing normal things…whatever those will be!

My Mother:    hand in there darling. the best is yet to come

Me:  where should my hand be?

My Mother:    lol..around the hang

So you see that my frustrations are vented with my family and, thankfully, soothed by their wit and humour.  If you are ever frustrated, I highly recommend playing online backgammon with my mother or sister…but be warned, they will probably win…