Haiti Reflection Paper: Familiarly Unfamiliar

We were picked up from Port-au-Prince without much delay or hassle.  Shortly after landing, going through customs and the baggage claim, and alternating between bathroom breaks and watching each other’s luggage, we were ushered out of the airport into the parking lot.  The Haitian men who would be driving us in helped us load our bags into the back of one main SUV, we were divided into groups of four or five,  ushered into one of the six or so SUVs that awaited us, and we were off, whisked away to Thomonde.

I attempted to ask our driver a few questions just as we were hitting the brightly colored, evenly spaced houses that encircled the city before it ended, falling away into plains and wilderness.  My tongue felt too thick and heavy in my mouth as I spoke and the Haitian Creole that came out was accented and awkward with the question.  I was embarrassed to hear it because I knew it was bad, but my driver understood well enough, responding kindly as I relayed the information the rest of the group about how those bright colored houses were built by the President for Port-au-Prince for residents who had lost their homes in the infamous 2010 earthquake.  It would take a few more attempts at conversation and some deep breaths to calm my anxiety before I got some level of fluency that wouldn’t thoroughly embarrass me, though I’m sure my parents would have raised their eyebrows at me and ask me who taught me to speak their native tongue.

I gave a brief cultural competency crash course en route.  People are kind and open for the most part, but it’s probably not the best patient population to elicit a sexual history from.  In fact, sex was rarely spoken of in my home growing up, except to warn us that we should not be having it until we were married.  It was just taboo to mention, even if the inquiry was necessary, professional and purely innocent.  The one rotation in our clinic, I would later find, where my language skills were most limited would be women’s health.  I actually had no vocabulary for my own anatomy.  I learned while eliciting the chief complaint from a woman with a likely yeast infection, the proper adult words in creole for ‘vagina’ and ‘hymen’.

We stayed in a large, stately guest house, a sharp contrast to the often dilapidated, small and non-uniform houses that surrounded it.  Everything in the country looked familiar, but at the same time, drastically different from how I remembered it.  I never remembered seeing such breathtaking landscapes and mountains as a kid, despite riding in the back of an open pickup truck sandwiched between my parents, siblings and cousins.  But then again, my family was not from the mountainous part of the country.  The Haitian houses in my mind were made of clay and earth colored materials and surrounded by rice patties and farmland.  (It really blew my mind that there were no rice paddies.  To my farm owning grandfather, and to our everyday cuisine, rice is everything). The native houses that encircled us were made of wood and cement and often painted.  But the faces were the same, curious and inquisitive, keenly aware of the fact that we were not natives (though I was recognized as Haitian by most I encountered one on one) as we drove by into the gated compound: we were in Haiti, but not really.  We were surrounded by the country, but very much enclosed in a microcosm of Western living, with amenities that catered to us passersby.  It was all lovely, though a very inauthentic experience of living ‘en dehors’, outside of the big cities.

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Lots on my mind looking off into the mountains in Haiti…

I guess my experience in Haiti compared to everyone else’s was different.  It was not life changing or shocking.  I had seen this level of poverty before, though mostly as a child.  But there were definitely constant reminders of it at home.  My mother’s parents were a little better off than a lot of Haitians, but much of our extended family definitely lived in abject poverty, often going to my grandparents for assistance in the form or food or money.  Even the poorest of the poor in America, except maybe the homeless, live pretty well over here compared to the poorest in Haiti.

Even when times were hard for my family growing up, my mother made it a point to make sure she sent money back home along with the clothes and shoes we outgrew.  After political instability made my parents fearful of bringing their minor children to Haiti with them, my grandparents came to visit instead.  They always came with empty suitcases, but they left with full ones and far more than they came with, as we would buy several more to overstuff with goods.  Charity starts at home, my mother would often say, reminding us that though we were very much entrenched in American living, Haiti was still home for her and my Dad.  We were born in America, but we were raised Haitian.

So it was not eye opening at all.  It was all very familiar, just a reminder of what I already knew.  My childhood memories served as a reminder to keep my American privilege in check.

Because of my background and upbringing, every time I go on these kind of trips I ask this (I also went to Nepal a couple of years back and in fact will quote my previous post): “I find myself asking which is the lesser of two evils: introducing temporary aid and interventions that may leave the natives and recipients of our aid worse off if funding and supplies run out or doing nothing at all?  A small bandage on a gaping wound or the uncertainty of letting the wound heal or fester on its own?”  I’m not so blind that I can pat myself on the back for good work done when I understand that we did nothing to affect the infrastructure that perpetuates the poverty and lack of access to basic medical services that we came to address.  We just showed up for a quick fix, one of many I’m sure, because truth be told, the plane there and back was full of white people with their charitable organization’s logoed T-shirts.  I must admit, that was a bit shocking.  That never happened when I was a kid (I mean 90% of Haiti’s population if of black African descent, so I’m just being honest).  So maybe I did find one thing shocking after all.

But what I appreciated MOST about this trip was our group: they worked tirelessly to provide the very best services that they could with the short time allotted.  However, at night, while reflecting on the day, I saw that most of them understood that much of what they were doing was futile, that figurative bandage.  They were very pensive and contemplative.  They were often vocal of their conflicting feelings and their despair that they could not do more.  Yet despite the sense of futility, it took nothing away from the amount of hard work they did.

That was not only beautiful but also a relief, because I was not surrounded by such likeminded individuals in Nepal and in fact chastised by the most senior of the group for my discomfort with the intrusiveness of much of the trip and my pensive retrospective analysis of the implication of our being there.

So I learned a bit more medical creole, especially about female anatomy!  I learned to be a little more confident in myself because people saw me as more capable, useful and apt than I saw myself.  I wish I had more time to learn about Project Medishare and the steps it take to establish such an organization.  I’d like to learn about their dealing with the Haitian government, particularly the ministry of Health and the country’s hospitals.  I don’t have the knowledge to even know what kinds of questions I should be asking to get that information, so I’m very passive with how I learn in novel situations like this.  I really liked the groundwork, but in order to effect the kind of change in such countries that I really want to see, I need to know more about the framework that is often set up months and years before we even get there.   In the future, I would love to continue to participate in these kinds of programs, but I would love more to one day be with them when they sort of graduate and leave the country.  I would love to work with a program that eventually isn’t needed anymore and see a Haiti (or any developing country) that is self-sufficient and able to improve health outcomes of their own people.

What I would like to see and know more about, which I know will be a huge, exhaustive task, are ways in which we can effect change in Haiti by looking at foreign policy, political action and legislation in America that contributes to Haiti’s plight.  Wouldn’t it make more sense for Americans to look at their own government, something that they can legitimately control with their vote then to just show up in Haiti with the intent to do good?  To me it does, unless the main mission is to self-serve and self-congratulate.  If that’s the case, I don’t want to indefinitely support that kind of initiative.  It doesn’t make sense in my mind because it only benefits me in the long run and I, and I suspect most people on these missions, really want to help the recipients of such aid.

On that same note, I’d like to advise people who want to do this mission in the future and people in general to know more about America’s history and how we as a country and other Western countries are often complicit if not the very cause of the most recent issues that we volunteer to help solve (France, Canada and various parts of Latin America…  I’m looking at you!).  It seems that Haiti is not only the poorest country in this hemisphere, but also has been one of the most occupied by America.  I know correlation is not causation, but the general trend is that the countries that America (or substitute for another Western world power) has invaded/occupied don’t do so well.  I wish more people would ask what’s going on, why that is, and what they could do as Americans to change that on their side instead of assuming that the Haitian people (or Nepali, or insert other countrymen of another developing nation here) need saving.

Blame

I’ve been thinking a lot about blame recently.

I think we blame when we want a quick answer rather than holding ourselves or an individual solely responsible for their actions.  It’s harder to entertain the fact that we as a species are a complex ball of contradictions.  Maybe human nature is not straightforward and cut and dry.  Perhaps we may never have an answer that is purely right or wrong and completely explains a person’s motivations, whether their acts are good or bad.

But you see, that would take time and require us to regularly challenge what we’ve decided for ourselves is truth.  That is scary, to have to believe that there are no absolutes.  So we find answers to the shameful things the best way we know how: we blame.  Someone has to be culpable and guilty.  It’s someone else’s fault.  It’s a culture’s fault.  It’s a religion’s fault.  It’s the parents’ fault.  It’s everyone else’s fault but mine.  Now, content in the fact that we are certain of where the blame lies, the argument ends there for most.

But on some level, I think we all know that it doesn’t end there.  When senselessness challenges our most solid beliefs and our faith is shaken down to the core, we realize that it’s not that simple.  Unfortunately, that often takes great or personal tragedy for us to come to that realization.

And until we do, we keep playing the blame game.

This rant aside, here’s a single lyric to a song that I’m positive will be the next to write itself (because I don’t write songs, I’m simply an instrument they use to write themselves.  These words and experiences are never my own…  And I’m not crazy).

It just got me thinking about blame so I thought I would toss my thoughts out there, failing a complete song…  Hope you enjoy it none the less:

Maybe opening up was a bit of a mistake
But where do you go when your head’s not a safe space?
And the biggest danger comes from within?

It was easy to get lost and forget for a moment
But how dare you accuse me, and say I should have toned it
Down…
When you’re complicit in this sin?

~L.A.

Trouble Sleeping

I have this reoccurring dream. There are no words or images, just sensations and feelings.

         All I know for sure in the dream is that I’m being attacked, that my life is in imminent danger. I need to scream. My body is bent over double, the pressure from contorting in such a way should allow this wrenching scream to come forth from somewhere deep inside, primal, guttural and beyond all comprehension; a scream that must escape the blackest of my insides. Only I can’t. The air is caught in my chest, and it can’t get out, as if being blocked. Something is steadily constricting my throat, asphyxiating me from one end while the pressure from the scream that can’t escape builds up from the other. The scream and my life force are matched in a steady deadlock in my upper abdomen and the tension builds up to a hard, desperate, feverish pain against my chest and it hurts like nothing ever has, but all I can do is let out a barely audible wheeze.

         It feels like I’m dying and it’s terrifying. This unknown danger that threatens to take away my life and my inability to relieve myself of this scream are both killing me.

         And I always wake up with my heart beating rapidly with a cold sweat on my brow. I’m almost sure that I’ve narrowly averted certain death. It feels so real every time.

Ayiti Cheri’m (My Dear Haiti)

 (A poem that I wrote following the 2010 Haiti Earthquake)

The Earth moved from beneath my feet on January 12, 2010.
No, my soles were nowhere near the tropical soil, but still…
From 5000 miles away, in Big Ben’s shadow, I was shaken

Her native language rolls awkwardly off my tongue,
heavily accented by its intimacy with American English and Western culture…
And her cultural norms are as foreignly familiar to me
As the “American ways” I was hatefully accused of by a mother
Who had little patience for my scholarly notions of feminism
Despite the fact that she embodied the vast majority of them.

My Motherland, as much responsible for my existence
As this star spangled bannered one, if not more
The only connection that I could make was stolen Skype chats with my mum
And the clatter of my pounds hitting the bucket of the local Red Cross volunteer
At the central London tube stations after making change to top up my oyster card

The donations were small and almost insignificant
But necessary for I was desperate for any connection
That would bring me closer to understanding my uselessness
When all I wanted to do was help

Instead I watched video after video,
News story after news story of people crying out to God
In that foreignly familiar language that I hesitantly speak…

And I could offer nothing but my spare change and non-specific prayers, hoping someone heard them and not me

‘Biggest Dinosaur Ever’ Unearthed in Argentina

TIME

Move over, Godzilla.

The largest dinosaur ever known to walk the earth has been unearthed in Argentina, and it really is a monster.

Based on its thigh bones, the dinosaur was 130 feet long and 65 feet tall, and at 85 tons, it was the weight of 14 African elephants. Basically, picture a seven-story building as long as a large yacht, and then add a set of teeth.

Scientists believe it is a previously undiscovered species of titanosaur — a herbivore, luckily for other dinosaurs who lived during the Late Cretaceous period.

The remains were discovered in the desert La Flecha about 135 miles west of Patagonia by a local farm worker, and excavated by paleontologists from Museum of Palaeontology Egidio Feruglio. About 150 bones have been found “in remarkable condition,” researchers said.

The huge herbivore lived in the forests of Patagonia between 95 and 100 million years ago, the…

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Bucket List 2

I need to get out of my head for a while.

My ultimate escape of the present (outside of writing and my active imagination) is planning epicness.

What’s more epic than trying to make your life as awesome as possible for those numerical milestones?

I’ve done this before (see my previous buck list here), but since then I’ve gained a lot of insight about what’s feasible and what I’m capable of… Funny how a few years change things.  Just to update you: I’ve accomplished nothing from that previous list.

So I have to do the following before I’m 30 (not in the right order, but you folks are smart, you realize which ones should precede others):

  1. Graduate Medical School and find where I will settle my roots… I’m tired of a change of scene every few years… Although at 17 – 23, all I wanted to do was drift.
  2. Complete an international rotation, preferable in a French-Speaking country… Ah, oui, oui!
  3. Visit Paris… I might be able to roll that into an international rotation… We’ll see!!!  But the French are horribly not progressive about a lot of things and I fear having to operate professionally within such a system.  Alas, we will see.
  4. Complete a novel with the intention to publish… Just complete it, publishing could take years, so that for another significant milestone.
  5. Be photographed and interviewed by  Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York

And that’s it.  Nothing outside of the realm of possible and still very true to me.  Your 20s are for living.  I’ve lived a lot, yeah, but I want to leave my footsteps in the sand, my mark for those to remember me by.  So that was a big part of a couple of the items on the list.  The next three and half years are going to be f#$@!-g epic.

Wish me luck, comrades!

Glow

This is the last song that I wrote… it only took me five – six months…   So it took a while, haha… No big deal: it’s not like I was busy with med school or nothing like that.

Anyway, the premise of the song is about young love that goes wrong…  Think sophomore aged high school drop outs in backwoods, rural America:  they’re really just kids but given their circumstances, they’re forced to grow up before their time.

Anyway, long story short, every thing just kind of overwhelms them all at once and their love, though genuine, burns out before its time (I allude to some emotional neglect/abuse, a miscarriage, etc…).  They “barely got to glow when they were meant to shine”.

It’s a simple song.  And I enjoy singing it… If I ever get my YouTube channel going, I’ll record it and put the video up so you can hear it.  Hope ya’ll enjoy it as well.

“Glow”

Do you remember
That bitter, cold day in December?
A bottle of whiskey between us
To make up for the broken heater

You were heaven sent
To take my innocence
On those leather seats
Of your daddy’s jeep

And it was glorious
We were warriors
Fools in love
Young fools in love

But it’s not our fault
We just knew too much
So we had to move
Or the weight would crush us

What we wanted wasn’t good enough
So, it’s not our fault
We just knew too much

It’s hard to forget
The bloodied sheets,
The broken hearts,
The empty nest…

Your
Bitter words,
Your cold eyes
Your emptiness

So I retreat to the past
When the love we had
Didn’t hurt so bad

And we were so content
So yes I do repent
Whatever behavior
Made me fall from your favor

But it’s not our fault
We just felt too much
So we had to move
Or the guilt would crush us

What we wanted wasn’t good enough
So, it’s not our fault
We just felt too much

What did you expect?
They all predicted failure
And that’s what I get
For thinking you were my savior

But I have no regrets
I just wish we had more time
We barely got to glow
When we were meant to shine

Meant to shine

But it’s not our fault
It was just too much
So we had to fail
Or it all would crush us

What we wanted wasn’t good enough
So, it’s not our fault
It was just too much

I just wish we had more time
We barely got to glow
When we were meant to shine

Meant to shine