Wednesday, March 04, 2009

As I write this, half a dozen people are working in my house, cleaning mud and water out of the first floor. I've been in Haiti less than a week and already a flood in the house. It's not even the rainy season yet.

It's been a long time since I updated my blog, and that's mostly because I haven't felt like my life had been exotic enough to interest anyone. I continued working and living in Italy, then started working in the United Arab Emirates, which in spite of having some pretty big cultural differences, feels so much like a suburb of Los Angeles that it's hard to believe anyone would care about my impressions of it. Drinking a tall mocha in a Starbucks in Abu Dhabi (the capital), is only slightly more interesting for the fact that the guys at the next table are wearing the ubiquitous Arab dish dash (the white robe and head scarf that you can't help but imagine when I say the word 'sheikh'). Of course, if I were thinking about it more carefully there are many things I could write about life in Abu Dhabi. The honest fact is, I've grown tired enough of traveling that it is hard to get motivated enough to write about it.

But that changed last night with the flood. Or rather it didn't change, but the events of my first five days in Haiti combined with not having electricity today and being somewhat trapped upstairs with a muddy pool on the ground floor means that there is little I can do now but write something while the battery on my laptop holds out.

So, first, I'm in Haiti. My contract in Abu Dhabi finished and I've come to Haiti to stay with my girlfriend, Anne. Because of all the traveling we both have been doing for work, we managed to be together less than half of last year. We want to do better than that this year. Maybe I'll find work here, maybe not. It's a gamble, but the time seemed right to take it.

When I told people that I was moving to Haiti, they have usually mistakenly thought I said, "Tahiti", the green of envy fading fast from their faces when I corrected them. Although both are tropical islands and former french colonies, one has become synonymous with paradise and the other falls somewhat short of the mark. I've just moved my life to the latter.

Haiti is famously poor and prone to civil unrest and street crime. It's one of the few places that the Lonely Planet guidebook manages to be somewhat discouraging about. And I've used the LP for some tough places. I think the phrase "armed gangs roam the streets of the capital with impunity" was in their description.

As usual, the situation is not quite as dire as it would look from the outside, but it is dire. We have a beautiful house, full of windows and sunlight, surrounded by trees, but there are bars on every window, even the top of the garden wall is attached to house by a grillwork to prevent intruders. It's essentially a prison but also an architectural miracle that I can be inside it without feeling the weight of all those steel bars. We have two guards outside at night and one in the day. They have guns, or at least a gun, a pistol that looks like a prop from a western. It does have bullets, I checked.

Walking around the streets too much is not advised, as kidnappings for ransom have happened, though not so much lately. We have the use of a work car in the evenings and weekends, but when Anne is at work, I'm basically trapped inside the house. Again, I'm thankful for the beauty of the house and the trees around it.

Having a house in a place like this isn't easy, though. We get electricity about 3 hours per day normally. To compensate, we have a set of about 10 car batteries that charge when the electricity is on and keep the fridge, lights, and computers running the rest of the day. At the moment, even those have run dry after 3 days without power. And if this sounds strangely familiar to an earlier blog post about being on a sailboat with electrical problems in the middle of the Indian Ocean, well, it feels that way to me too.

Internet access is through a cellular modem that is rather finicky about where it is placed. Although I don't feel the presence of all those steel bars, the modem apparently does. I spent the better part of a day trying things with aluminum foil to make a reflector and boost the signal strength. And although aluminum foil can definitely block the signal, I can't seem to use it to enhance the signal.

There's no city water, we have a huge concrete cistern that refills from rain captured on the roof. That water is then pumped back up to a smaller tank on the roof which provides water pressure inside the house. Of course the pump doesn't work without electricty, so right now we are out of water except what we pull up by buckets from the underground tank. And we need a lot of water right now to clean the mud from the ground floor. Which brings me to the flood last night.

It rained hard last night. The first hard rain since this house was built. Uphill from us, another house is being constructed with a fairly barren slope in between. The rain brought mud down the slope at such a rate it jumped over the wall and ran under the door into the kitchen, through the living room and out the front door. It's an example of what is happening everywhere in this country as most of the forest has been cut for cooking fuel in the last 30 years. There are massive erosion gullies that can be seen along the slopes surrounding Port au Prince.

Not having much furniture yet, we managed to save everything, only to notice that some water was coming in around a window, dripping on the wireless router that I had so carefully placed earlier in the day. I'm still not sure it will work when the power comes back on. Part of the driveway collapsed also as the rain washed out the sand underneath. The mosquitos seemed rather happy to have an egg laying pool located so conveniently to their feeding grounds (us, that is), and acted like senior citizens at the Old Country Buffet, keeping us awake most of the night.

Of course, it's not too serious. Only a small fraction of this country's population has housing as sturdy or secure as ours. I shudder to think what happens in the shanty towns that cover the sides of the mountains when the rains get going. And although the flood made a colossal mess, I don't even have to clean it up. We have a house cleaner and a gardner who are working on it. Still, in a country where even going out to buy groceries is not easy, it feels like one more thing to deal with. Our morning coffee was somewhat more difficult to enjoy with the mud squishing between our toes while we made it.

Ok, enough whining. But it seemed a good opportunity to point just how unglamorous this expat life can be. Haiti is safer outside the capital, and we plan to explore a bit on the weekends. Hopefully I'll find some nicer things to say about it.

Update: The mud is gone and some repair works made that will hopefully stop the problem. The electricity came back on and the internet is working again. The ice cream seems none the worse for thawing and refreezing. We went shopping over the weekend and bought lots of tropical plants, which we planted in our garden, work we both enjoyed. But new things keep happening in the house, including flames shooting out of our electrical meter today. So, life goes on.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

So, finally an update. It's been a long time coming. Last time I updated this, it was April and I had just gotten off a sailboat and was starting to hitchike across Oman, which was fantastic. But I'll skip over that in favor of updating you on where I am and what I'm doing now.

After Oman and a few stops to see friends in Italy, the Netherlands, and the UK, I flew back to the U.S. for a few weeks before moving to Rome to take up a headquarters post with UNJLC.

I've been on deployments more than I've been in Rome at this point, but the time I've spent in Italy has been fantastic.

The city is eye-poppingly beautiful at every turn. I go for a run and come back with three or four things to look up in the guidebook so that I understand what I've seen. And the history here is thick. There are more thousand year old churches here than Starbucks in Seattle.

The street outside the building of a friend where I stayed for the first couple of weeks. It's a pretty typical scene of Rome.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggore. I think it is from the 13th century, but I've been in so many fantastic churches (only a handful of the 900-odd that are in Rome) that I get the dates mixed up.

The view from my bedroom. I'm sharing a flat with a former UN employee and his fiancee. I'm very happy to be sharing a flat, especially since I'm away so much. Which, I imagine, makes me an ideal flatmate. The church tower on the right belongs to a well-known church. It chimes out the quarter hours, which sounds irritating, but is really a nice way to keep track of the time. They go a bit mad with the bells on Sundays and holidays, though, trying to fill the pews (and the coffers, no doubt).

This is not in Rome, but not far away either. The mountains that run the spine of Italy peak at around 12,000 feet and offer some nice climbing and hiking.

This is also outside Rome, in Tuscany. Italy is full of these beautiful old towns.

The problem with my job inRome is that I'm never there. In fact, I started writing this blog while in Pakistan in July for a flood response. Since then, I've been back to Rome, to Sudan, back to Rome, to Denmark (for some meetings, not a disaster), back to Rome, and now to Uganda for a month to respond to flooding here. I landed in Rome on June 19 and have managed to be there for less than half the time. That's getting tiring. I was excited about the job in Rome because it was going to let me be a bit more settled but still go to the field and be involved in humanitarian emergencies. But in fact, I move around more now than when I was jumping from emergency to emergency. I have a place in Rome, but have thick dust on the furniture every time I go back. So I'm still feeling pretty rootless. Aimless even.

But there have been some highlights too. Here are a few photos from Uganda.

The fundamental problem here is large bodies of slow moving water that cut off the roads. These are not flash floods, and produce few dramatic pictures, which is probably why most people outside the humanitarian community aren't even aware that there are massive floods in Africa.

Even the roads that aren't flooded can be deceptively soft. This road is dusty when we drive it with a land rover. But this 6 wheel drive truck sank, as did the other two that were with it.

We used a field outside this school as a helipad to drop off some food for later distribution. I was along to have a look at road conditions to see what we could map from the air. These kids were studying for their exams. Copying questions about genetics and evolution from the blackboard.

I bought a bike and have been on a couple of rides outside the town where we are based. The countryside is beautiuful: very green, with scattered agricultural fields and palms. Excellent biking, though there are still some wet spots here and there. From the shocked (but friendly) looks I get when I pass people, I can safely say there haven't been too many white guys on bikes out there.

John (the bird, not the guy) lives at the airfield where the airlift operation is based.

I go back to Rome at the end of October. After that, who knows. I really hope to stay put for a while. If it keeps flooding all over the world, I'm going to quit my job and start building an ark.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Out of diesel, out of wind

After some excellent and easy days sailing through the Maldives, we sadly said goodbye as we motored past the last little island and headed out into the big empty sea. Well, Diny and I were sad, Max, always ready for the next place, had been chomping at the bit for a few days. Salalah, Oman was our goal, 1250 miles of empty ocean away.

The new autopilot we installed in Thailand was on the fritz (grrr), so we had to steer the boat manually. We had initially been dreading this. Normally on watch, you just keep an eye out for traffic (1000 foot long freighters, fishing boats, debris, whatever), watch the instruments, and let the autopilot maintain the course. But now, for 8 hours each day (two 3 hour shifts, and one 2 hour shift) each of the three of us would have to watch our course (using the GPS, ship's compass, and wind indicator) and make constant corrections to keep us on course.

But it turned out not to be so bad. The seas were pretty mellow for most of the crossing, which meant the boat was not being pushed around by the waves. We spent long, lazy hours laying in the cockpit watching the wind vane on top of the mast and keeping the sails as full as possible (mostly close hauled, for you sailing geeks). We got pretty good at trimming the sails so the boat would steer itself. A few days of it were without a doubt the finest sailing I've done.

The only problem was, for quite a bit of the twelve day crossing, there wasn't much wind to sail on. And with full tanks we could only motor about 800 of the 1250 nautical miles. We spent entire days sailing on 1 - 2 kts of wind, though we were pretty proud of ourselves that we could get the boat to make about 2.5 kts on it. But 3 kts is about walking speed. Imagine going 1250 nautical miles (about 1425 miles) at a strolling pace. At times, the wind died completely for a few hours, leaving the sea glassy calm, and us calculating how many days worth of water were left in the tanks. We had plenty, so as long as we were willing to sail slowly, there should be no problem, unless the current turned against us.

One of the lulls was quite lucky. Dolphins often approach us and play in the bow wave when we are sailing or motoring, but we rarely see them when we aren't moving. Just at sunset, with the boat barely moving through the glassy sea, dolphins appeared, lots of them, at least 20. We jumped in the water and swam out to meet them. From eye level, swimming in the sea, it is somewhat unnerving to watch these fins approach you and then, 10 meters away, disappear under the water. It triggers some deep trauma from having seen Jaws as an eight year old. But they're dolphins right, our friends? Like Flipper? I sure hoped so. Not wanting to take time to put on my bathing suit when we saw them approaching, I had stripped naked and jumped in the water. I hoped they wouldn't mistake any part of my anatomy for a fish. Or a toy.

The neighbors.

While most of them stood off at a distance, some groups of 3 or 4 approached us from below, swimming on their sides to look up at us. They seemed curious, but wary, kind of like I was feeling. The water was almost purple in the late afternoon light, and watching them watch us from below in that vast blue was strange and beautiful and unforgettable. Swimming along with them, Diny and I got pretty far from the boat. Max had stayed aboard (someone has to), letting Diny and me enjoy the opportunity, as big a gift as I've ever been given. When the dolphins left us, we turned back to the boat, maybe 250 meters away, and looking very small against the empty encircling horizon. Swimming back I felt deeply fortunate to have the chance to do such things.

After about 10 days of this sometimes-sailing-sometimes-drifing, we were only about 80 nm from being able to motor the rest of the way in to Salalah, but the wind was barely a breath. That 80 nm was going to take us at least 2 days unless something changed. We came across the first small boat we had seen since leaving Maldives, a 20 meter fishing boat from the looks of it.

We approached cautiously; fishing boats occasionally take advantage of the general lawlessness of the sea to prey on "rich" yachts.

Approach with caution . . . (Diny's pic)

There were about 20 guys on deck. All of them looking pretty rough, but smiling. The vibe was good. Pointing to an empty jerry can, I yelled "diesel?". They nodded yes. "Whiskey?" they called. We said yes. We came along side, tied up, and did some trading. We got about 15 gallons of diesel (about half of what we needed to motor the remainder of our trip), and a fresh tuna. They got a bottle of rum, a bottle of whiskey, and a carton of cigarettes.

Everyone came away happy (Diny's pic).

We sailed another day, started the motor and came on in to Oman, 12 days after leaving Maldvies. After a few days working on the boat, I signed off. Running low on time, I couldn't stay with the boat through the next leg of countries that are difficult to fly out of (Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan), though it broke my heart not to go with the boat to Eritrea and see friends there.

I spent two weeks in Oman traveling by bus and hitchiking (yes, an American can hitchike quite safely across Arabia, and if that surprises you, Dick Cheney has a bridge in Brooklyn he'd like to sell you). I saw what must be one of the most beautiful spots I've ever been to, but that will have to wait for the next post.