Back to School in Haiti: Protests and More

Haiti Port au Prince Palace

Last night I dreamed I was running and kept feeling these little pinches on my body. I woke up in a pool of sweat and my hair drenched, and there were three mosquitoes inside my mosquito net feasting on me. It’s so amazingly, freakishly, disgustingly hot here right now. I’m averaging three showers a day and I’m still always hot.

Visiting the beach is the only way to cool off

We all arrived back in Haiti for the fall semester; me, Tom and Sue, and Christy. Pia, our newest international teacher, arrived, and they put her up at the Hotel Montana for the night (a good place to transition from the luxury of the US to the reality of Haiti). We got a half day off as the whole country took off for the Haiti-Brazil soccer game. Tom got a ticket to the game; the rest of us opted to watch it on the big screen at the Petionville Club so we could eat there and swim. It was a fun game to watch and although Haiti lost, there was a tremendous amount of support and welcoming for both teams. Haiti is so into soccer, and it was a really nice gesture on Brazil’s part to put this event into motion.

Deah, Pia, and Sue, ready for school to start!

To welcome our newest housemate, we went down to the Oloffson Hotel to see RAM (anyone who read The Comedians by Graham Greene, that is the hotel in the book). RAM is this really kicking Haitian band- featuring guitars, bongos, drums, and singing. They’ve opened for Jimmy Buffett in the past. Plus they have these three Haitian women dancers who do all the Haitian folklore dancing. It was also an ass-kicking 90 degrees inside the place. It was quite a workout and we were super sweaty when we got home at 2:30 am. But it was really fun and I’m glad we finally got to go.

Sweating just makes you burn more calories, right?

We have a much larger student body at Union School this year; we dropped our tuition to try to bring in more kids. I’m happy with my class load this year; I am teaching 8th English and 8th US History, and 9th English and 9th World History. Since I taught three of those last year, I am hoping this year will be a little easier on me. Although I have to admit, just getting through August was a challenge. I’d go to the gym and it would feel like I was going to pass out because it was so hot (imagine 24 Hour Fitness with no a/c). Just when you get a good rhythm going, WHAM! The electricity cuts off and you go flying off the front end of the treadmill. It’s actually quite funny to watch, but not so funny when it happens to you.

In the weeks after Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne hit, things got pretty bad in Port-Au-Prince. There was a lot of protesting and rioting, and looting in the port area. Customs was closed for a month straight, so we didn’t get any of the textbooks we ordered. Earlier in the month several policemen were beheaded, and their funerals were last week. Aside from the police, it’s estimated that up to 50 or 60 people have died in shootings and protests downtown.

Armed security at the local convenience store

As rumors swirled of targeting Americans to kidnap or kill, we canceled the hash two weeks ago and had a barbecue at our house instead. The Marines and other groups felt like it wasn’t safe to have a large international group of runners cruising around town. The embassy and some other personnel have curfews. As teachers, we aren’t restricted by our jobs. So we had a barbecue and about 15 people came over and we all had a good time.

dancing outside on the terrace pink house
3 am dance party!

Several of us managed to get together to watch some of the US Presidential debates. Some Haitians are for Bush because they see him as the one responsible for getting Aristide out, but others blame him because he didn’t do it sooner. Some say if Kerry is elected he will bring Aristide back (because Kerry is a Democrat and so was Clinton, who reinstated Aristide the first time). This past week Kerry addressed a group of Haitians in Florida and spoke in French, and said he had a plan for Haiti, but he didn’t quite state what that plan is. It is said that the demonstrations going on downtown have been financed by Aristide and the Lavalas party, in an attempt to influence the American elections in November.

The situation in Port-Au-Prince got worse and school was cancelled for four days. We’re not really sure at this point if we’ll have to make up those days, but the general consensus is that we will miss more before the end of the year. The UN and several embassies ordered the departure of all non-essential personnel, meaning wives and children, and we have lost five students so far.

Haitians protesting near the presidential palace

The past week has been uneventful but many people still have a curfew. We couldn’t have a hash again on Saturday so we had a pool party and bbq at some embassy people’s house. I went out late last night to Barak, a night club in Petionville, and when I walked in there was about 200 Brazilian and Chilean UN guys, and about 7 women. I was literally the only American girl there. Oh, Haiti. Such fun.

Hash House Harriers

Five more days of work and then we have a long weekend off for All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days. And of course, my birthday! I can’t believe I’ll be 29!

We close out our first year of international teaching in Haiti

We finished the last week of school and had a MONSTER party at our house. We invited over 50 Hashers and other international friends, plus the entire staff of the school. Luckily we international teachers have a HUGE house and a great front yard and balcony. Some of our friends will be here when we come back in August, some will have moved on. Everyone had a great time and we finally kicked the last few people out at 4:30 am and went to bed. We had a very odd mix, ranging from people our age from around the world, to our bosses from work, and even some of our students’ parents that we are good friends with! The Marines showed up around midnight and brought their enormous sound system with them. Super fun.

Tom and Deah end of year
Tom and Deah, at our end of year blowout

The next week we spent packing up our classrooms and getting signed out at school. We discussed the possibility of us all moving out of our house and into some apartments, but when we went and looked at them we all said no. Our house is pretty cool, with the exception of not having a pool and having to live with four other teachers. But the apartments, while we would each have our own, were just not in a good area and not very nice. Besides, after our party, everyone knows where our house is now and we won’t have to give directions next time. Giving directions in Haiti is super hard because not every street actually has a name.

Union School Promotion 2004 cake
Senior Graduation Dinner

On Thursday most of the city shut down for a holiday. Did you know that June 10 is God’s Birthday? I kid you not. It’s celebrated all over Haiti and some other Latin American countries. The banks and stores and restaurants were closed. There were processions out in front of the churches and chalk drawings and flowers on the streets. How can God have a birthday? We all really questioned our Haitian friends on this one but they all looked at us like we were crazy for not knowing about God’s birthday.

We all headed out to Wahoo Beach Resort and stayed there for the weekend. I took a Scuba Diver Certification course at Wahoo Bay Resort. That kept me busy Saturday and Sunday, and Tom, Sue, and Maluschka all left Sunday evening and I stayed out at the beach on Monday and Tuesday and finished my class. They have this amazing coral reef out there called Îles des Arcadin- and it’s only 6-10 feet underwater. It’s beautiful. Good place for snorkelers too.

group at dinner at Wahoo Bay Haiti
Dinner at Wahoo Bay

I’ve been getting a lot of emails about the flooding here- we’re fine in our area of the country. We’ve had rain, normal per the rainy season, but not as bad as in the fall. In the fall we really had a lot of debris washed down from the mountains and I remember there was a huge wall that piled up in front of our school that one day actually had a dead dog in it. That was gross. This spring hasn’t had as much stuff washed down. But it’s been very bad in the south part of Haiti and the part that is near the Dominican Republic. They are thinking the death toll is up to 2,000 and they haven’t counted all the bodies. I saw on the news the other day that they are spraying chemicals from helicopters to counteract the decomposing bodies. Gross. The road was washed out so there is no way to get in or out of that area except by air. I guess they will have to rebuild the road soon. In addition, we’ve had a couple of small earthquakes in the area. I don’t know how bad they were in surrounding areas, but they didn’t seem to cause any damage in the capital. I felt the first one at school; we thought at first it was kids running across the third floor. But it turned out to be a minor quake.

rain in haiti boy plays in water

On Saturday our boys basketball team played in the National Finals. It was in downtown Port-Au-Prince (pretty scary area) and it was televised on national tv. Our boys came in second place and got a trophy. The Prime Minister’s wife was there and handed out the trophies. We had a good turnout, several teachers and parents and other students came to the game (with the requisite number of bodyguards and security, of course). The only bad thing was that it was amazingly hot. This had to be the hottest weekend I’ve had in Haiti so far. We thought we were just going to die sitting at that game. I was really glad I brought my hat and wore sunscreen (spf 30).

The political situation seems to be improving lately. In the past couple of weeks they’ve indicted and arrested some big time ex-leaders. Aristide has left Jamaica and gone to South Africa, but the opposition party there is questioning why South Africa is granting him asylum and who is paying for it. In fact, there is a pool going around the city right now about when he will be indicted and arrested. You can pick a date for twenty five gourdes– just be smart and don’t sign your last name. We’ve also been getting more electricity lately. We all noticed that we had city power going on at various times throughout the weekend, and I heard it switch over this morning. The fan in my bedroom sounds different when we’re on city power. Everyone at work says “Oh, isn’t it great, they’re giving us more power”, but as Sue pointed out, they don’t really give us power. We actually pay the same bill every month, whether we have electricity or not. Can you imagine in the United States if TXU sent you out a bill every month whether they were supplying your house or not? And here, of course, there’s only one company, and you keep paying every month in the hopes that you’ll get five, six, ten hours a month to help out with your diesel generator and your inverter batteries. It’s so bizarre.

Tom tries to get the generator running again

Easter at Íle-á-Vache, Haiti

view from hotel on Ile-a-Vache Haiti small island

Oh my goodness, I have fallen in love this weekend! I went snorkeling for the first time at Íle-á-Vache, a small island off the western end of Haiti, and I absolutely loved it. It was so amazing. Who knew there was so much to look at on the bottom of the sea? The colors of the coral and all the fish were mesmerizing. I could have stayed out there all day.

Snorkeling in Haiti

We had a fantastic time at Íle-á-Vache. It was the most perfect vacation. It was one of those experiences that totally reaffirms my love for Haiti. There are parts of it that are just unspeakably beautiful. I am so glad I am getting a chance to see these places while I teach school here. It also makes me really look forward to wherever I go to next in my teaching career.

Flying out to Íle-á-Vache

We left on Friday and drove to the national airport, and after a short half hour flight, we were on the ground in Les Cayes, a city I had never been to. The plane we took over there was the smallest I’ve ever been on, seating only eight people and the pilot. Really small! We got a boat to take us over to Port Morgan on the island of La Vache, and were amazed at the hotel we stayed at. Tom and Sue had the room next to mine, and our friends Jeff and Denise went as well.

view from hotel on Ile-a-Vache Haiti small island
Our view from our hotel rooms

Also there that weekend was a group of International Red Cross workers, a few of whom I had met while we were out dancing at Dolce Vita recently, in Petion-ville. We arrived at lunchtime and immediately sat down to try some of the best fish I’ve ever had. After lunch we walked around a bit, swam in the ocean and talked to the guy in the dive shop. We met a couple, Steve and Linda, and their sixteen year old son, who have been boating around the world for the last twelve years. We sat and talked with them for quite a while, enjoying their stories of their adventures. After enjoying the view, and laying in our chaise lounge chairs on our front porch we ate dinner and then sat in our chairs again and drank a bottle of wine we had brought with us.

yacht in harbor haiti small island ile a vache
I would like to live on this boat

On Saturday we took a short hike to the most beautiful sandy beach I’ve ever been to. The thing that made it so beautiful was that aside from about four tiki huts, there was absolutely nothing there. On the whole beach was just the five of us, and then about four of the Red Cross workers showed up. That’s it. It was a beach just as beautiful as Turks and Caicos, but with absolutely nothing there to spoil it. We swam in the water for hours and laid on the sand. I went for a little hike and found a small cave and checked it out. Finally it was time to head in, as the sun was quite intense and we all had sunburns. We had an amazing lunch of quiche and salad, and then took naps. That night we all gathered for dinner, and we were invited to a party on a nearby island. A bunch of the Red Cross people were going, and Brian, the dive instructor, said he’d take us over on a boat. So we said what the hell, might as well go, and we all piled into this tiny canoe from Jamaica, and boated over to another island. You really know you’re in Haiti when you have fifteen people in a canoe, and a guy riding up on the bow with a flashlight in his hand for a light (at least we had a motor).

couple laying flat on deck chairs front porch
Aaaah, relax! Deah and Tom at Ille a Vache

It took us about 40 minutes to boat over to the island, and I chatted with Mark and Onah, two Red Cross guys from Belgium. Finally we made it to this island and we show up at this huge tent made of palm branches woven together and bed sheets and who knows what else. It was like this big Bedouin celebration. There was no electricity on the whole island except this one tent, powered by a generator. From inside we could hear a DJ playing kompah music, and so we paid our 25 gourdes admission price and headed in and danced for the next two hours. They were selling Prestige beer and lakay (homemade) rum and it was quite an interesting night. Apparently they have this party every year on the night before Easter.

two ladies sitting at breakfast table outside Haiti
Deah and Sue, breakfast

On Sunday Tom and Sue and I took a kayak out and rowed over to a point where we were told there was a lot of good coral. Tom and I kayaked and Sue towed along the back in our green air mattress that always goes on beach vacations with us. We snorkeled around for more than two hours and I was enchanted. Tom and Sue kayaked back and I swam, which was a good idea until about halfway across the harbor when I got really tired. But I made it across and snorkeled the whole way. I managed to pull myself out of the water, exhausted, ate some lunch, and we all went to take naps. At lunch, the amazing chef, Alan, invited us to another island party for that night. We said sure, let’s go. Alan is from Spain and he told us the whole story of how we wound up being a chef in Haiti. A very adventurous person.

Probably this boat has passed all the safety inspections

So that night Denise, Jeff, Tom and Sue and I, along with a couple of the Red Cross people, and Alan and a couple Haitians piled into the same canoe and headed over to another island. Unfortunately the weather was a little rougher, and we couldn’t sail all the way around to the far side of the island so we had to beach the canoe and walk the rest of the way. The guys lit a big palm tree branch on fire and led us over to the party. Instead of a DJ, they had some live Kompa musicians singing, playing guitar, bongoes, drums, etc. Everyone was dancing and drinking warm Prestige beer (no generator this time). I climbed a tree and sat on a branch about six feet off the ground and had an excellent view. There was singing, dancing, some “Haitian smoke”, if you know what I mean, and we had a pretty good time. Of course we were the only blancs there, as we had been the night before. But everyone loved coming over and talking to us and asking us questions. I don’t know if the party was for Easter or what, but we were glad we went to a true island party, out in the middle of nowhere. We left sometime after midnight and made it back to the hotel.

It was tough getting up for our flight home to Port-au-Prince the next day, but waiting at the airport in Les Cayes for two hours under this tree gave us plenty of time to relax and recover from the night before. Ah, Haiti. Who knows what adventures you will bring us next.

That time I vacationed in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and a coup broke out in Haiti

two friends on the beach at turks and caicos island

In late February, it became apparent that things were heating up in Haiti- and not just weather wise. It was suggested that us international teachers should get out of town for a short break, as something political was afoot. I tell you, Haitians have a nose for this kind of thing. So, I went to Turks and Caicos islands for a little fun in the sun.  My friend Maluschka went with me. We had a blast! We even got to meet Sally and Jerry, the two pet conches at the Caicos conch farm. It was the perfect long weekend.

The Caicos Conch Farm
water and sand at turks and caicos beach
The beautiful Turks and Caicos

UNFORTUNATELY, on our last day there, we woke up to an unpleasant surprise. While eating breakfast, we noticed the CNN coverage at the cafe was showing footage from… yep, from Haiti. Port au Prince was surrounded by a group of rebels who had snuck over from Dominican Republic, demanding that President Aristide resign and leave the country. The airport was shut down. This probably sounds really made up, but I promise you, this really happened

At the Presidential Palace, Port au Prince

Malu and I rushed to the airport to see how we could get out of Turks and Caicos- we didn’t have enough money to stay there and wait this thing out- Turks and Caicos is expensive! After much haggling and arguing, we were able cash in our Port au Prince tickets, and get a flight to the Dominican Republic, then take a bus back into Haiti.  (Looking back on it now, probably not the wisest idea). A couple of days later, my roommates Tom and Sue left for Santo Domingo, with the help of the Canadian embassy. Alone at the house with just Christy, we were running out of water, fuel, and food. I called my friend Micah at the Marine House, and after YELLING at me for still being in Haiti, he got me in touch with the US Embassy in Washington and we started making arrangements to join an armed convoy to the airport and evacuate out. The kind lady on the phone even called my mom to tell her I was coming home. Did you know that if the State Department helps you evacuate a country, you still have to pay for your plane ticket? And trust me, it is not at any kind of discounted rate.

When this becomes your daily reality, it’s time to go

In retrospect, could I have stayed in Haiti? Maybe. But we had no more bottled water, no food, and the grocery stores were all shuttered. At the point the telecom station burned down, it seemed like a good time to get the heck out. Two days after I watched the President’s plane depart Port au Prince in the early dawn hours, I evacuated to Miami, where the Red Cross greeted us and helped us get flights to our home cities, and aided the people on the flight who had children or other needs. I stayed with my parents for about a week, and then things seemed calmer back in Haiti, so I paid the US government back for my flight (they flag your passport until you pay that ticket off!), and returned to work.  In the meantime, President Aristide left the country, so we effectively have no government and the UN has moved in.  Who knows what the next few months will bring?

May 2004 update: Everyone talks about the political and economic situation improving but so far no one is really seeing many changes. The kidnappings are continuing; this week a seven year old boy was kidnapped outside his school (one of the other private schools). The parent of a student at my school was kidnapped, and died. The electricity is still not on for more than a few hours a week. No one is really sure what the new interim government is working on. There have been rumors and reports of some of the major drug dealers being arrested by the US officials and shipped off to Miami to await trial. On the positive side, it’s mango season! Our tree is bursting with mangoes, and when Desinor beats us to it and swipes them for himself, we can buy them at the market for just a couple of gourdes. Mango with toast for breakfast, mango tarts at lunch, mango with rice for dessert, it’s mangoes everywhere.

Becoming an International Teacher in Haiti

Wahoo Bay Boat Haiti

Six months ago, in August 2003, I moved to Haiti to become an international teacher. I got a lot of questions from friends and family back home; question like “What is Haiti like?” “What are the Haitian people like?” “Is it safe there?”. So I decided to start this travel blog to document my experiences. Read on to find out what this amazing island is like, and to follow my adventures there!

I mean, you can’t really beat this kind of weekend

What is Haiti like? Sleeping in Haiti is like sleeping at summer camp. At night it is hot but usually with a breeze. It is noisy. There is always a dog barking, which then sets off every other dog in the neighborhood, and roosters crowing. I thought roosters only crowed at dawn, but apparently they crow all night. Sometimes our generator or our neighbor’s generator is going, which is quite loud, but at least drowns out the sound of the dogs and roosters, and the occasional goat. If you’re really lucky you might get some city power at night (the provisional government is promising us six hours a day now….) but when the city power is on it makes our fans and other appliances hum, because the wattage is different (during the day you can tell when the city power is on because the lights are dimmer. But at least you can use the hair dryer and toaster oven then). At night sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, because the power has gone off and the fans are off. You have to get up and go to the back yard and turn on the Delco, or just try to get back to sleep. Sleeping under my mosquito net always reminds me of a bride’s veil. Occasionally I try to tie it up in a knot and sleep without it, but the mosquitos always win.

No electricity, so we literally decided to sleep outside

In the morning, especially if there’s been rain at night, you can smell the morning like I remember from camp. It’s a nice, green, earthy smell. Haiti, in fact, smells best at six in the morning. But even at six, the streets are full of people walking to work, the tap-taps are running, and even the heavy trucks are heading down from the hills, full of gravel that has been mined from the mountains above us. The deforestation and strip-mining of the land here is devastating, and there’s constantly a need for more building materials. Almost no houses are made of lumber here; the wood supply ran out on Haiti decades ago (only 1% of the forests remain here) and even if there was trees, you can’t build a house with them that will last, because of the rot. The cement buildings are part of what makes Port-Au-Prince so ugly. The nicer buildings and churches are made of stone, which looks prettier. The concrete buildings are gray, plain, unpainted. Many of them are unfinished, lacking a roof or one wall.

In January, enjoying the nicer cool weather, we did some exploring around Petion-ville, including a local market. We also spent a lovely and cool weekend up at our friends’ mountain house in Kenscoff. We really lucked out by having the most wonderful and kind families from our school ‘adopt’ us international teachers by inviting us to their homes for dinners, or for weekends away. What a way to see the beauty of this country!

In early February, all of the international teachers traveled to Jacmel for Carnival weekend.  We went on an amazing hike to a waterfall called Bassin Bleu. The next day we watched the carnival itself, a Mardi Grad celebration full of dancers, papier- mâché animals, colorful paintings, and more.  It is truly something you have to see for yourself to understand in all its glory.

I’ll be updating this blog frequently over the next two years as I live and teach in Haiti. Click the “follow” button below to follow along and find out more about my adventures in Haiti- and beyond!