What Does One Wear to Meet a Former Dictator?


Up until the last minute I didn’t believe it would happen. Even as we were on our way to Jean-Claude Duvalier’s home in the hills outside Port-au-Prince, my friend Kate (my ally in this effort) and I didn’t know what to expect or where we would rendezvous with Richard, who claimed to be Duvalier’s friend and had set up the “interview.”  The road was dark, as we wound our way up the mountain to encounter God only knew what.

It all started soon after Baby Doc’s unexpected return to Haiti in January.  I had asked Richard, who, in fact, directs the security operation in Haiti for Sara’s NGO, if I could go to the Karibe Hotel in Petion-ville, where Duvalier was staying, as we had to clear any out-of-the-ordinary outing with Richard’s team.  Security in Haiti is that precarious and risk-management is essential to the functioning of the NGO in potentially unsafe situations.   I wanted to attend a press conference Baby Doc was supposed to hold there on his second day back in the country.  Inevitably the event was delayed for a number of days first because the Karibe indicated it could not manage the number of press expected to attend and then by the eventual arrest of Duvalier on his third day back.

When I made the request, Richard, whose father had been a Haitian ambassador to France during the Duvalier era, surprised me, asking if I, in fact, wanted to meet Baby Doc.  At the time, I knew Richard’s father had been a diplomat, but I didn’t know when or for whom, and though I said I certainly I’d like to meet the man, I never expected it could or would happen.  Ultimately circumstances prevented me from attending the press conference which was held after the ex-dictator left the Karibe and was staying in a guest house on Montagne Noir.

I never again mentioned meeting Baby Doc to Richard, as, first, I had no real ambition of meeting a man who had allegedly committed crimes against humanity and, second, I knew Katie Couric herself would have loved to interview the former president.  I never expected it could be arranged for an unknown writer from Kentucky like me.

That is until this past Wednesday evening, when Richard approached me at my partner Sara’s going away party.  (We moved home to the US on Monday after a year in Haiti, where Sara directed the initial phase of an international NGO’s relief effort.)

“Would you still like to meet Baby Doc?” Richard asked at the barbeque, as I sat by the pool, minding my own business, admiring the setting’s breath-taking view of Port-au-Prince:

“Of course,” I stuttered, surprised by the question, imagining Richard was just making friendly conversation and couldn’t really make that happen.

“Then I’ll arrange it,” he asserted, turning to answer his phone.

He walked away.

And I laughed to Sara who was standing nearby, “Do you really think he can make that happen?”

“I don’t know, but I certainly don’t want to go,” she insisted.

She asserted the same, when Richard called the next day to announce the meeting had been arranged, “They’re expecting us Saturday evening.”

“Good God,” I said, having won the “Stylish Blogger” award, “What does one wear to meet a former dictator?”

(continued here)

Saint Sara’s Celery and a Broth Debacle Averted


As Sara, the dogs and I struggle  to “suitcase”  a year’s worth of Haiti into a less-than-large shipping container (all in an effort to return to the US next week), please notice how our dog Lucy “assists” with the effort.  She has her paw in the sorting and boxing, packing and wrapping:

Lucy "helps" with the packing!

Lucy’s romp through our packing not withstanding, today, in the spirit of looking back and celebrating some of our biggest adventures  in Haiti, I bring you Part 2 of my Thanksgiving post.  (To read part 1 click here.)  Enjoy!

Yesterday, promising a series of posts this week about the difficulties Sara and I face trying to celebrate Thanksgiving from Port-au-Prince, I outlined what I called the “oven-related challenges” that could jeopardize our thankful feasting this Thursday.

Today, however, shopping-related issues take center stage—the consumer-driven hazards that could take down even the most well-intended and tradition-centered of holiday celebrations.  In fact, it may be that the more one tries to model any Thanksgiving feast in Haiti on the one Grandma would have catered, the larger the obstacles threatening it loom.

So, buyer beware.

Wisely, Sara and I anticipated some of these issues and brought back from the US several Thanksgiving menu items we thought might be needed—imagined we wouldn’t find here, even in the expat-oriented grocery stores in Petion-ville. 

But as you might expect (those of you who know my pathetic track record when it comes to poor packing), I anticipated incorrectly—finding here in Haiti what I did bring back but not bringing what I didn’t find.  Just my bad Thanksgiving luck!

Except for canned pumpkin—that is. 

Here I hit the pie-filling nail on its not-so-proverbial-pie-filling head.  I swear there’s not an ounce of Libby’s to be had on the whole of this damn island—cherry pie filling, yes—canned yams, yes—canned pumpkin in time for Thanksgiving pie-baking—no sir—none of it—anywhere.  And believe me, I have looked. 

But we need not worry.   I may not have a thermostatically controllable oven to bake the pie in, but I have a full 29 ounce can of “America’s Favorite Pumpkin” to put in it.

Now about the celery—

Here I should mention having a bit of scare yesterday morning trying to find this vegetable, almost as essential to stuffing as sage itself.  Standing in Giant Market (right here in Petion-ville), I came so close to a celery-induced heart attack, I was imagining, “What would Jesus do?”  What would the son of God himself (assuming he were a turkey-stuffing kind of carpenter) use in his stuffing were the stalks of stringy stuff not available?  If he turned water into wine, could he turn carrots into celery?

But, again, you need not fear, as Saint Sara herself performed the miracle, finally finding what she called a “not very robust” celery (but a celery-looking substance nonetheless) in the grocery store near her office. 

Catastrophe averted.  We are that much closer to a celery-ed stuffing inside our bird that’s to be roasted at a temperature the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will themselves determine.

Then there’s the chicken broth—

Yesterday Sara sent me to the super market for some cans of it, among other things.   Actually, Giant carried the item in both the Swanson and Campbell’s variety—the Swanson, carton-ed with no added MSG and the Campbell’s, canned with all the blood-pressure-raising MSG one would ever want.  And being a health-conscious, not-wanting-to-consume-excessive-amounts-of-salt American, I selected the broth without MSG.  In fact, I tried to check out with three cartons of the stuff, since Thanksgiving dinner calls for broth in both the gravy and as a moistening agent in any well-celery-ed stuffing.

Here’s the hitch.  Though the store stocked the Swanson’s (over-stocked it, in fact)—they wouldn’t sell it to me.  And, if sheer quantity were any indication, wouldn’t sell to anybody, for that matter.  They couldn’ t figure out the price.  So, when, after thirty minutes of trying to determine one, no member of the sales or management staff could still settle on the number of Gourde to make me pay, I suggested they charge me anything. 

“Over-charge me,” I even offered—a concept they seemed not to grasp—though they seem to get it well enough when selling products on the street and doubling the price when any non-Haitian tries to buy.

But undeterred and unwilling to waste any more of my time-is-money American minutes, I gave up, bought the cans of Campbell’s, and headed home, risking ill-health all the way.

So the bottom line is this— the shopping obstacles, though they were multiple and at times bizarre, did not obstruct in any hugely significant way.  These were more imagined obstacles than obstacles of real substance—

So Saint Sara, the wise and proper packer, was (as she is in all things) probably right about this, as well–

—Since the anticipated shopping obstacle was, like the celery itself . . .

. . . “not a very robust” obstacle after all.

Have you had any strange, even borderline bizarre, shopping experiences?

Happy Valentine’s Day–from the Heart of Haiti


Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.  —Rainer Maria Rilke

The weekend here in Haiti has ended . . .

The time to catch up—do laundry, make beds, have some spaghetti with the ones we love—has lead us to Valentine’s Day—muddy, gone-amuck Monday Cinderella-ed into—

More laundry, more beds, more spaghetti with the ones we don’t always love.

Yes, the ones we love may be less than lovely at times.  But on Valentine’s Day, I’m also thinking about my home here in Haiti and about my home in the blogosphere, readers who care, readers I’ve come to love.

So, it seems essential on this day that celebrates love, a day that celebrates caring and appreciation, that I invite readers I love into the heart of my life here in Haiti–into my home.  For it’s as true as it is cliched: home is where the heart is.

A while back, on a truly muddy Monday, I promised photos of our house in Port-au-Prince, promised, that is, when so many of you ranted about our kitchen decor in a post called “Haiti needs to be HGTV’d.”  (If you missed that post, click here.)

So, though “Writing Neurotic” still threatens (for an introduction to “Writing Neurotic” click here and here), our wireless is working well today—is almost, semi fast . . .  (Notice the adverbs that qualify “fast.”  All apply.)

Given this, I’m going to attempt a giant photo upload.   (If you’re not familiar with the wireless challenges we face at our house here in Haiti, click here.)

If I succeed, a virtual tour of our home should follow.  (Please pray the bandwidth gods, maybe even Saint Valentine himself, remain with us.)

Here’s the deal.  Our house sits on a hillside, hovering above the up-scale Port-au-Prince suburb of Petion-ville, where the streets are poorly paved, if at all, and the twists and turns of “almost-roads” threaten even the most seasoned drivers—pot holes the size of swimming pools are not uncommon.

Though there’s little electricity, once you get here, things are lovely.  Truly—our home is small but adequate, and we have dressed it up with paint—bold color, saturated color, the kind you want to drink in and absorb.

After honking to alert the guard (yes, he’s armed), he’ll open the gate and you’ll drive onto what is essentially the roof of our house—an outside deck that, for the most part, doubles our living space, (only sometimes exposing us to the stench of burning tire in the town below.  Don’t worry there’s been no rioting today.  We’re sinus-ly safe for now.)

Jean-Jean will open the gate, and our dog Ralph will greet you.

So come join us, pull up a chair, have cup of tea or a cocktail, if you like.  The roof-top deck, where we’re sitting looks like this:

The view from your seat looks like this:

And, if you wonder about that roaring, rumbling sound—it’s our generator round the corner, keeping the lights on for us:

Sorry for that obnoxious noise!

You’ll enter the house itself from the roof, by descending a set of stairs:

From the opposite side of the room, the staircase looks like this:

You’ve entered our main living space—a kitchenlivingdiningroom—what in the US we might call a “great room,” though ours is not so grand. 

The kitchen looks like this:

smallandcrampedbutweloveit

Our main seating area looks like this: 

Have a seat. Soak in the color.

On opposite sides of this space, doors lead to two rooms, the master bedroom and bath on one side, the guest room and bath on the other.

The master bedroom looks like this:

And the master bathroom looks like this:

You’ll enter the guest room through this doorway:

This room doubles as Sara’s office, but if you spend the night, you’ll sleep here:

Your bathroom, a mirror image of the master, looks like this:

Another door off the guest room leads to a balcony that looks like this:

And a stairway that looks this:

At the bottom of the stairs, another door from the outside opens into my studio and study:

Wait!

Our guard Jean-Jean rushes down the stairs–interupts the tour.  He insists the protests have started again.  You need to go.

Gosh, darn, you just got here——

We hurry back up the stairs to your car.

Well, at least you’ve gotten a sneak peak at our home in Port-au-Prince, I concede, and as you close the car door, I shout above clatter of gate opening–

Let us know when you can come again, stay a little longer, spend the night. 

I’ll send a driver and an armed-escort to meet your flight. 

(For a post about madness at the Port-au-Prince airport, click here.)

Happy Valentine’s Day from the heart of our home! 

Happy Valentine’s Day–from the (still unresolved) heart  of Haiti—————-

Haitian Street Art: A “Good Report”


Most mornings in Haiti I drive past displays of “street art”— a common sight in and around Port-au-Prince.  In most instances, hundreds of paintings are attached to walls that line the roadways, a collage of folk art images quilting the street.

In Petion-ville, just down the mountain from where we live, art is sold across the street from a camp of earthquake survivors, and in fact, some paintings now for sale along the road have selected the disaster itself as their subject.

Below is a video about street art that was produced about a month after the earthquake.  In it two artists are interviewed, the first lamenting the loss of his mentor in the disaster, the second discussing his own earthquake-focused paintings.  Despite the language barrier, try to appreciate the images and emotions shared here:

Responding to the same depth of emotion expressed above, Sara and I, over the last year, have purchased a number of paintings from the street.  We love the stuff and have bought 5 or 6 pieces, not only because of the emotionally charged nature of the work, but also because the art is highly affordable and equally portable.  (Canvases can be removed from frames, rolled up, and packed away in suitcases when we return to the US.)

The first piece we purchased in March of 2010 depicts a market scene, a common motif in Haitian folk art and an especially popular one in street art:

We enjoy the bold colors in this painting by A. Emmanuel and are struck by the featureless faces of the market women.  Notice the women wear the head coverings common in the Haitian countryside.

Still other paintings feature religious themes, as in this image of the Madonna:

Notice the mirror images of the Baby Jesus.  Twins are especially important in voodoo, and sometimes even Christian paintings include elements of it.

However, other street paintings more overtly explore voodoo, this other side of religious life on the island.  Some offer heavily painted symbols of the loa, the deities of Haiti, such as the “vever” (design) for Agwe, the voodoo water spirit:

Sara and I have none of the “vever” paintings, but we do have the one below that is, at least obliquely, associated with voodoo:

Still other street art paintings, like the one below, explore rural village life:

I think it’s important to remember, that street art, like the painting above,  like those sold adjacent to the camp in Petion-ville, not only humanizes situations that might otherwise seem hopelessly inhumane, but also dignifies these places, in some instances almost encircling the camp with images of loveliness and grace, embracing the Haitians encamped there, culturally reinforcing messages about beauty’s ability to triumph over pain.

So the next time you think about Haiti—the earthquake, the cholera, the political corruption—remind yourself, and others for that matter, that though things here might seem singularly hopeless, they are, in fact, neither simple nor beyond repair.

Remember that over 200 years ago Haitians defeated the French, becoming only the second country in the Western hemisphere (after the United States) to gain independence from a colonial master—a nation of slaves strong enough and determined enough to refuse oppression even its most imperial form.

Remember, as well, that Haitian folk art in general and street art in particular articulate the daring of a people determined to overcome.  Remember that Haiti is not a hopeless place, but is, in fact, one whose people have endured centuries of mistreatment, first from a colonial system of servitude, then from a social and political elite whose wealth has depended for decades on the poverty of so many.

Indeed, the future may look bleak, prospects may seem poor, but Haitians are rich in emotional resources,  their creative spirit screams from street corners where art echoes centuries of grief and centuries of hope, decades of determination, and ages of insight, wisdom, and strength.

Haitians remember the Biblical imperative to think on “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report.”  (Thank you, Jane, for the reminder!)

Haitian art indeed reminds us that things are lovely–

That beauty  paints a “good report.”

Stumping for Haitian Art: Gorgeous Gardens in Port-au-Prince


I had a close encounter with garden art last week—

An unexpected one at that.

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m a visual artist—of sorts—self-taught, poor, and living in exile on a Caribbean island, where electricity is in short supply, political stability is even harder to come by, and cholera is spreading like good gossip in a gaggle of girls.  I’ve shared my work in previous posts.  I love art, support art, enjoy it in all its incarnations, shapes, and sizes.

But it surprised even me last week, when an artistic enterprise unfolded in my own Port-au-Prince back yard—one uninitiated by me.

Ever since last spring when Sara moved into our house on a hill—Morne Calvaire (where we’re told a new neighbor is Baby Doc Duvalier), the land-lady has promised a garden, and last week she delivered, arriving with a landscape artist who installed a stunning rock garden near our front door.

We were happy.  We were actually thrilled.  However, we were not prepared for act two, which unfolded the following day.

It was morning; the sky was clear, blue bold enough to brighten even the most bored of bloggers.  I was writing, enjoying light that angled through my wall of windows.  While I was working, however, the dogs alerted me to a noise outside, one I might have otherwise ignored. Thank God for canine clamor.

There on the hillside that slants down and away from our house, three men, our landscape artist included, pushed and pulled, grunted and groaned the most massive of stumps toward a wall and fence that border the back of our garden.

I couldn’t imagine why.  What was the purpose behind this effort?  Why had Sisyphus himself shown up on my Haitian hillside?

What concerned me most, however, from my interpretation of signs and signals being gestured below, was an apparent plan to heave the stump over the wall and through the fence cemented into it.  I watched and wondered, watched and wondered some more till I was sure the plan indeed involved such fence bull-dozing, before running out to get our security guard to intervene and interrupt this planned assault.  Within seconds Sonny came running, riffle gesturing the men away from ruining our fence.

It was soon discovered via a phone call to our landlady that, having forgotten the fence was attached to the top it, she had asked the men to remove the stump by pushing it over the top of the wall.  Our stump-movers extraordinaire interpreted her instructions quite literally, intending to force the tree through the fence in an effort to accomplish the task.  So much for common sense.

Stump removal ceased for the day.

The men then returned the following morning, removing a section of fence, forcing their burden over the top of the wall, lowering it with ropes into the back of a truck on the other side, and replacing the offending section of fence, before departing—

I assumed forever.

However, the following morning, while I was again writing, a horn honked outside our gate, the dogs barked like insane caricatures of canine companionship, and I soon heard the shouting of what turned out to be seven men.  Within minutes massive crashing commenced on the deck above, more shouting, still more housing-rattling crashes, shouting and crashing, shouting and crashing, until I simply had to investigate.

The stump had returned.

It was now living on our patio, puzzling me, puzzling indeed.  I like trees as much at the next semi-green ex-pat on the island, but REALLY, did we want this stump on our patio?

Over the next several days, however, Dicton Gaston, our new gardener guy answered that question for me, proving more and more a sculpting savant, as the stump morphed from this:

Into this:

Dicton Gaston is a gardening genius.

Dicton Gaston proves art emerges from even the most unlikely places.

Dicton Gaston proves that in Port-au-Prince, though ex-dictators may show up unannounced at airports, though they’ll be arrested and released and move onto the mountain where you live, art can come from equally surprising places, in delightfully surprising packages.

So, this week, as long as the ex-dictator can maintain his EX-dictator status, as long as protesters don’t take to the streets and shut down the city, as long as posts can go as planned, this week I’ll bring you a series on Haitian art, hoping to remind you—

Port-au-Prince may be leveled, reduced to a dead stump of its former self, discarded on a hillside, in ruin.  Haiti may be broken, lost, and nearly forgotten, but still, like Dicton’s stump, it can occupy a prominent place, a patio blooming, green, and living once again.

A work of genuine genius.

An Event Horizon for Haiti? Baby Doc’s Mind-Bending Return from Exile


As events unfold here in Port-au-Prince around Jean-Claude Duvalier’s return from exile on Sunday, his being detained and charged with corruption by Haitian prosecutors yesterday, only to be released last night and returned to the Karibe Hotel having had his passport confiscated, I can’t help but repeat how surreal it feels—like living on the edge of a bizarre Caribbean twilight zone where reality contorts itself into a banana republic parody of all things right and just and  good.

In the midst of this twisting of right and wrong, caring and corruption, goodness and greed, I’m reminded of why I began this blog in the first place and why I called it “reinventing the event horizon.” I’m reminded of the quote from T. D. Allman’s After Baby Doc I cited in my first post back in November.  It bears repeating, as Allman associates Haiti with the same “convoluting” of reason we see happening here this week:

Haiti is not simply one more of those tropical dictatorships where to rule is to steal, and headless bodies are found by the road.  Haiti contorts time:  It convolutes reason if you are lucky–and obliterates it if you are not.  Haiti is to this hemisphere what black holes are to outer space.  Venture there and you cross an event horizon. (After Baby Doc, 1989)

Wrap your brain around that statement and you may begin to understand how Haiti feels this week—how this warping of the already absurd, not only wearies me, but worries folks the world over.

Remember, an event horizon is the edge of a black hole, a bending in the space/time continuum beyond which no light can escape—in many ways, a point of no return.

Was the earthquake an event horizon for Port-au-Prince?  Will cholera bend time and space so there’s no escaping the dis-ease that’s plagued this place for centuries?  Will fraudulent presidential elections and now Baby Doc’s return from exile push the Haitian people into further darkness?

Is there light for Haiti?

Duvalier Update


This afternoon Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was detained by Haitian authories, formally charged with theft and corruption, and, as of a few minutes ago, allowed to return to his hotel here in Petion-ville.  He must remain at the disposal of prosecutors for further questioning.  Baby Doc has a press conference scheduled for tomorrow afternoon at 2pm EST.

Though I’m not the story by any means,  this newest turn of events affected me only inasfar as UN helicopters droned over-head for much of the day, and by mid-afternoon tires began burning, the stench of which I find nauseating.  If you’ve never been up wind of burning rubber, I suggest you stay away at all costs.  Eyes will water, heads will ache–blindingly so for some, me included.

Frankly, I feel whirl-winded and whip-lashed by the day’s developments–unable really to make sense of this place, this Port-au-Prince I now call home. 

More tomorrow.