Saturday, August 14, 2010
Monday, April 5, 2010
Thursday, April 1, 2010
The early arrival of spring has been a blessing here on the east coast of the United States, which has been repeatedly buffeted by blizzards over a particularly difficult winter. But as the cherry-blossoms begin to bloom along the Potomac, something else is blossoming in Washington DC; a new round of political dirt throwing. And this time, the political dirt has its roots in actual, literal dirt.
It was revealed over the weekend that the White House vegetable garden, much trumpeted by First Lady Michelle Obama, has been invaded by a particularly troublesome weed; cannabis sativa, or, as it is more commonly known, marijuana. A horticulturalist, Primo Diamante, who was hired as part of the garden project, has been dismissed for planting the cannabis. It is believed that he was cultivating the plants alone and without the White House’s knowledge. The revelation has already inspired a political backlash, as Republicans still reeling from last week’s health care reform vote attempted to regain control of the nation’s political discussion.
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio convened a press conference hours after the news broke. “This administration once again has diminished our great nation in the eyes of the international community,” Boehner announced. “This emboldens our enemies and threatens the security of the American people.” The Republican Congressional leadership has begun meetings on Capitol Hill to discuss censure proceedings. When asked if Republicans would call for impeachment, Boehner replied, “We can’t rule that out at this time.”
The conservative media establishment has also stepped into the fray. Glenn Beck, talk radio firebrand and Fox News commentator, used eight hours of radio and television time this week to rail against the White House garden scandal. “Our founding fathers, those God-fearing, freedom-loving, courageous men, would be, no they are, they are rolling in their graves. This is despicable. From George Washington, our first and greatest occupant of the White House, to Barrack Obama, who’s turning it into a drug lab. I can’t believe this,” Beck said on Tuesday’s radio program. George Washington, it has been noted, grew hemp for industrial purposes. He also never occupied the White House, as it had not yet been built during his presidency.
The Obama administration, initially caught off guard by the scandal, has begun battling back. In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, President Obama announced the dismissal of Mr. Diamante. “While Mr. Diamante is an internationally respected horticulturalist and advocate of home-gardening, his actions were irresponsible and unacceptable.” The President refused to comment on any possible criminal charges Mr. Diamante may face. The President went on to reaffirm that neither he nor any member of his staff were aware of the six marijuana plants growing on White House grounds, before trying to deflect the political story with a bit of levity, “I just wish someone had planted a tobacco plant. This nicotine gum is not working.”
Mr. Boehner, for his part, had this response to the president’s statements. “If the President doesn’t know what’s going on, literally, in his own backyard, how can we trust him to lead? We’re talking about the safety of the American people here. We are living in a dangerous world.”
Michelle Obama, in a statement released through her press secretary, revealed the fate of the offending plants. “It is regrettable that someone we trusted has taken advantage of the opportunity they enjoyed at the White House,” the statement reads, “but in these times of economic hardship, it is difficult to justify wasting anything.” With this in mind, the First Lady’s office announced that it would be donating the plants to Leafs of Love, a California charity that provides medical marijuana to children with terminal diseases. “We were unaware that the plants had been installed, but now that they’re here, someone ought to smoke them.”
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Taking a break from the narrative of my time in Haiti to bring you a stunning piece of ridiculousness. Now, it may be true that, at one time, the GOP was the party of abolitionists, but that was a long long long time ago, and the intervening years have brought us the Southern Strategy, Strom Thurmond, Katrina, and the 1980s. Republicans laying claim to Frederick Douglass is sort of akin to a pack of lions claiming that one of their greatest historical leaders was a gazelle. But hey, what do we expect from a party with such a creative relationship with fact?
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
If this were fiction, Titanyen would come either at the beginning or the end of this narrative. Or both. That’s the sort of weight it drags around with it. But, as it is, this isn’t fiction, and Titanyen comes buried someplace in the middle.
Titanyen is a dusty nothing a 20 minute drive north of Port au Prince. From what I could tell, there wasn’t much more than some sort of quarrying operation in the hills and a long stretch of almost unnatural blue coastline. I gave myself a minute to daydream diving it.
About at the halfway mark between the skirts of Port au Prince and Titanyen, Sandro pulled the car over and asked if it was all right with us to stop here for lunch. He knew, we knew, that appetite is a finite resource. He also asked us for a surgical mask, and I obliged.
Titanyen had little marking it as Titanyen. Just more coast and more road cut into the hills. We pulled up alongside a Haitian out on the roads. His name was Saintilus, he told us, he was from around here, worked in one of the quarries, and would lead us to what we came to see. Titanyen had become a popular site for journalists. Saintilus told us to pull off the road at a point with visible tracks leading up into the hills. The main path off the road and onto the tracks, however, had been plowed over- blocking access to the crossing point.
“The people here did this,” Saintilus explained, “to stop the trucks from coming in.”
We left our car on the side of the road and set off up the track and into the hills. A short walk, we were assured.
“This is where the trucks came in.”
“How many trucks came per day?”
“Several times a day.”
“How big were these trucks? Large trucks?”
Big trucks, we later found out, meant dump trucks.
Walking into the hills, Saintilus explained that just over the rise was where the general hospital in Port au Prince had buried their john does. He pointed out the kiltered rows of simple white crosses. I’m not sure if it was by accident or intention that Titanyen became Titanyen.
All along the path were ephemera spilled out the back end of jostled trucks. A bracelet that Saintilus picked up from the dust before letting it slip back from between his fingers. A single shoe. Scraps that had been ripped of whatever definition they had previously maintained.
We saw them from the crest. Seven mounded anthills in the distance. A half ring of them. There were already other journalists, a pair from the AP, snapping, noting. Their fixers stood at distance. We walked down the hill, the one we knew already, into the flatlands of the seven anthills. That day was warm, not hot. The sky. The breeze.
Sandro stopped when the smell started- stayed there halfway down the hill as we went on. I didn’t notice it in my nose, not firstly. I smelt it inside me. My lungs. Then the flavor of it sliding on my tongue. Then its putrid stuffings in my nose. I decided not to mask, feeling some stupid notion that I would testify by scent.
It was awful, of course, the smell. It isn’t only odor or putrescence or these words we’ve created to convey the awfulness of stench. It was sweet, in its way. Possessed of a richness, a thickness like cheesecake, that reaches down inside you and fills your insides out. Thickness that forces itself in you, impregnates you, seeds your mind with its memory. Now, even now today, this day, this now, I can smell it hiding under other smells, poking out to remind me of it.
“Sometimes. I hate this job.” I hear this. Nod.
At my feet is half a child. Less than two. He’d been shorn in half at the waist. His arms are raised above his head, looking for a lift up from his mama. Except he can’t grab hold cause he doesn’t have any hands anymore. Can’t cry out for her cause his face is sliding off into the dirt at the edge of a hole. Two weeks before I was playing catch with my college roommate’s kid, Max. He’s this age.
The anthills are mounds of churned earth filled with bodies turning shades and drip dropping their liquids away forever. At this point, it’s a week and a day since January 12th. A week and a day is a long time in the space between alive and not.
A man has leaked through the white sheet he was wrapped in. Someone has gifted him a small measure of dignity. He is alone in this distinction. A woman is splayed crooked, her eye sockets and mouth agape and filled up and over with sand. A clawed hand ruptures from under a mound in horror caricature.
One woman is lying face down, bent over the peak of a mound wearing a tank top and a thong. She looks like she’s presenting her sex to the Sun. Waiting for him to take her, fill her with his divinity so that his blessed issue will rescue us all from filth and famine.
This was all the impromptu funerary customs of customs undone. Nothing so malleable as tradition in catastrophe. A short drive took us to the place set aside by the Haitian government for the official provision of the unnumbered dead. Here, earth-moving behemoths had plowed a 200 meter long u-shaped trench in the earth. At its deepest, the trench ran six or seven meters into the ground. I’m no geometrician, but I have eyes and sense enough to know that this was an enormous volume to fill up, and I don’t doubt that space in Haiti’s Grave is already hard to come by.
It’s been a month since the last time I posted here.
I could say:
“I’m trying to forget”
Or I could say:
“I’m trying to remember”
Really though, because this isn’t fiction, I’m not doing either. I’m going to work every day where I sometimes work and sometimes don’t. I take the subway. I watch stupid television and eat food of varying quality and drink too much and say ridiculous things to people I scarcely know.
But also. Also, I am on that flatland ringed by hills and the sky is incandescent and the breeze shifts my shirt around and that little boy raises his arms above his head. And I lift him up. Let him cry into me until he’s done and whisper him lullabies and carry him around with me everywhere I go. Buried in a u-shaped trench in my chest.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
The problem, as often ended up being the case in Haiti, was chaos. The outside of the airport teemed with people, a massive swell of Haitians who all wanted to be our interpreter. There’s one in particular. He called himself Peter Paul, but his real name was Antoine. He was slightly built, well dressed, with squared glasses that made him seem brainy and thus somehow trustworthy. I promised Peter Paul that if we didn’t find Sandro, we’d hire him. Then, when we found Sandro, I promised him I’d tell my friends to hire him. So, if any person reading this finds themselves in Port au Prince in need of a driver/interpreter, please consider hiring the slightly built, well dressed, brainy looking Peter Paul. Aside from Peter Paul, the airport was scrambled eggs. A crush of people all trying to get in, get on, get over, get out. And here we were, wading through the bog, trying to get to the used car center so we could find Sandro. It took us an hour and two smoke breaks before we finally did.
I guess I should take a minute here and define what I mean by ‘we’. I don’t know whether or not to bother using fake names for something no one is likely to read, so what I’m going to do is use real names, and then tell you that they’re fake. So, in order to protect their identities, some names in these stories have been changed. I’ll give you a rundown of the more important characters in this narrative here, so you can start to realize that this isn’t just about me, Sandro, destruction, and my brain. The first of these is Koh, my partner. At this point, we’d worked together for just over 6 months in our paper’s New York bureau, and we’d traveled in together. So at this point, ‘we’ means ‘me and Koh’. Later on, ‘we’ will mean ‘me and Ari’, another reporter sent in to relieve Koh. So that’s the mains. Sandro, Koh, and Ari. There’s a fourth character also. One that wasn’t ever there but always ever was, who knows who they are and what they did. I guess it’s odd that there’s another character there that isn’t there, but it’s important to know about it, because it was important. Oh. And it’s not Jesus. And then there’s me. I was there for pretty much everything I was there for.
In the end, Sandro found us, somehow, and we followed him out of the airport claptrap, trailing Peter Paul, who I promised to recommend to all my friends. From here, we spent the rest of the day tooling around Port au Prince looking for a place to sleep. Knowing already that some of the more famous hotels had journalists camping out on their lawns for lack of space, Koh and I bought sleeping bags in Santo Domingo, and after the first couple of hours I was sure we’d have to put them to use. We first drove up to Petionville to the Hotel Kinam. The Kinam was entirely intact, green as an arboretum, and completely booked. The Japanese embassy staff had moved there after their building collapsed, so we spent 15 minutes swapping business cards and basic info. Right across the road from the Kinam was one of Port au Prince’s newly formed refugee camps- tarps and makeshift tents spread out over poles and people milling about cooking whatever they’d been able to scrounge at hugely inflated prices. Inside the Kinam, the pool water continued to cycle, the restaurant and bar continued to serve guests, it still functioned as if the world hadn’t ceased to exist the week before. Sandro always said, “the world is upside down,” but somehow the Kinam landed right-side up.
It’s sort of tedious to describe the next few hours of Port au Prince, but, suffice it to say, we called every person we could think of who currently was, or had ever been, in Port au Prince, drove to every corner of the city, and poked our head in at every hotel, guesthouse, hostel that the city had on offer. I mean, it was tedious to experience it, but it was probably even more tedious to experience reading the preceding sentence. The one benefit of our city tour was that it gave me an early impression of what life was like in the undone capitol. Whatever pictures or videos you have seen don’t do it justice. And my petty words won’t do it either. But I’ll say this: on my 9th day in Port au Prince, a fellow named Lester introduced himself and explained that he had just come in that evening. “I hear the news reports about 100, 150 thousand killed,” says Lester, “but I just don’t understand how it could be that many.” I understood. I understood right away. This earthquake was thorough.
I’m not sure how many hotel leads we tried to follow up on, but for dramatic impact, let me just focus on the last two. After searching down every lead that Koh and I had between us, Sandro told us he would take us into Delmas, one of Port au Prince’s larger wards. He knew a guesthouse, he told us, and he’d take us there. Sandro assured us it was a decent enough place, that they had reasonable rates, clean rooms, that they were reliable people. Maybe at some point. Now it looked like a kicked-in sandcastle.
“Don’t worry,” says Sandro, “I know another place.”
As we drove off, I kept thinking about how the space between the first and second floors was hardly large enough to squeeze in a soup can. I was still juggling soup when we pulled inside a walled compound and secured a room on the first floor of the Coconut Villa Inn.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Sandro drove us, interpreted for our every interview, watched over us like bear cubs. Among his various business ventures, Sandro operated a rental car company that catered mostly to Haiti’s nascent tourism industry. He was expensive, as fixers in the aftermath go, but his knowledge, connections, and access to vehicles and fuel made him worth it. At least to me, but I wasn’t paying, so it’s hard for me to take a hard stance on the matter.
He was educated, had studied diplomacy in university before quitting his studies to make money. He was a businessman, as he liked to state during negotiations. He also taught me everything I know about Haiti that I didn’t see for myself or read about on twitter.
Sandro had a woman. Suzette. I don’t want to romanticize things beyond their usefulness, so I’ll state that Sandro appeared to have other vaginal avenues available. But Suzette was the one that was important. He called her his wife, even though they weren’t married. They had met while studying together, and, as he tells it, she and two of her friends all took to Sandro at the same time. But Suzette was the best among them, and he chose her.
Suzette was ambitious. Driven in a way that impressed Sandro. She didn’t need his money, had her own dreams and drives separate from him. This is why he loved her. She had already finished one degree and was working towards a Masters as well. She also worked her way up to a position as a human resources manager for the NGO, Plan. She had a future for herself, and unlike many educated Haitians, she wanted to spend it on Haiti. She doesn’t anymore, though, because she’s dead.
There was one trait of Suzette’s that Sandro had trouble grappling with, and this was her stubbornness. Like any man who loves strong women, this stubbornness was frustrating beyond words, and doubly so because his love for her was mainly a result of the qualities that created it. They had one persistent argument. Suzette wanted to work full time at Plan and continue studying towards her advanced degree. Sandro could see that it was wearing her thin, and urged her to take some time off from school while she settled into her new responsibilities at the NGO.
“You don’t even have the time to finish your schoolwork,” he’d tell her. But it didn’t matter to her. She knew it was all under her dominion, that she had power enough for both. She relented briefly. Took some months off from her studies. The dream, however, was in front of her, compelling her, and she gave into it and affirmed her return to her studies.
January 12th, 2010 was the first day of classes for the new term. They argued, Sandro insisting it was too much for her, Suzette reassuring. He drove her to the university in silence, dropped her off, and drove away. She sent him a text message before her class began, “I’m sorry. Don’t be upset with me.” He didn’t respond. It was the first time in their relationship that he didn’t respond right away. The weight of this old, stupid argument made his thumbs too heavy.
At four o’clock, she texted again, “Are you ok? Why haven’t you responded? I love you. I’ll see you soon.”
If she had listened to him, he says now, if she had taken the break…
The earthquake hit Haiti at 4:53, and he never wrote her back.
We left Santo Domingo at 5 in the morning on January 19th. An absolutely dreadful hour of the day to be aware of it. I was already mostly awake, though, on account of a vivid and disturbing dream that had shaken me awake and not allowed me the pleasures of a return to sleep. The dream was about earthquakes. You might stop and say to yourself, “Really? Earthquakes? The night before you go into a city ravished by quakes?” and then call into question the veracity of everything you’re reading here. I can’t say I’d blame you really. But it’s true. And even if it weren’t true, it would be more true for you to just accept its truth because it’s truer that way. So the truth is I dreamt about earthquakes. Or, rather, I dreamt of a quiet warmth interrupted violently. The quake was vicious. A rapid swaying like standing on a breaking wave. I’m not from anywhere where earthquakes are a fact of daily existence, so I’m impressed with the ability of my brain to cobble together the sense memory necessary to create this vision. Then there’s the urgency of escape, the open sky, solitude, and stupid darkened wakefulness. This is why a dreaded 5am departure turned out to not be such a big deal.
Our driver was a Dominican named Rafael. We were assured two things about Rafael. First, that he could speak English, and, second, that he had reliable transportation. These two assurances were only barely true enough not to be false entirely. His car was a 20 year old civic that ran, I think, on propane. It was a very long ride. The first phase, leaving Santo Domingo and traveling through the Dominican countryside, was almost all carried out in darkness. The road seemed like one long convoy. Red stretched out infinitely in front of us, white snaked back into Santo Domingo. Hundreds of trucks and cars carrying supplies, doctors, aid workers, soldiers, other journalists. It was like playing Oregon Trail again. We even had to stock supplies before setting off. And I’m pretty sure there’s dysentery also, just like in the game.
Just before getting to Dominica’s Lake Enriquillo, the road towards Port au Prince splits off into a northern and a southern shoot, with the lake in between, before joining together again at the border town of Jimani. We took the southern split, and I guess the convoy mostly took the northern, because we were soon the only car for miles. This, of course, is when we broke down. I feel like this is already getting sorta long winded so I’ll round it out with a list: bugs, dust, boredom, ‘I don’t know’, two nice young guys happen by and fix the nozzle to our propane tank using a plastic grocery bag and a hammer. That was easy.
I always figured that the crossover between Thailand and Cambodia would be the most bizarre border I’d ever encounter, in terms of two separate worlds existing side by side and divided by a fence. But the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti makes crossing from Thailand into Cambodia seem like driving from Dallas to Fort Worth. It was like night and day. Or, rather, it was like one country that functioned as countries are designed to, more or less, and one that looked like a dystopian future puked out by a science fiction writer of the pessimist tradition. Even though the earthquake didn’t actually touch this area, in a literal sense, it looked as though Earthquake, enraged and wrathful god, had made Haiti his home, had lived there from time immemorial, and would only ever suffer its destruction. Only the strong majiks woven into their reggaeton kept the Dominicans safe.
This sense of broken chaos stretched from the border into the capitol, and it wasn’t long before the earthquake, the actual one and not the ancient god I just made up, made its presence felt. Outside walls knocked over, broken windows, fractures spreading up from foundations like an upside-down river and its court of tributaries. And then there they were- the crumbled buildings. Though to be fair to the word ‘building’, these were not buildings any longer, they lacked those qualities that make the word make sense inside our brains. I was only aware that in some time before they had been buildings because I had foreknowledge of their previous state. They were in no way helpful in understanding their former condition. They were craters. Rock piles. Stacks of cement flapjacks lacking a butter pat. All in all, the word ‘building’ even with the attached modifier ‘collapsed’ does little to convey what they actually are.
My eyes could not process fast enough, like sleeping in a hole and being woken up by the sun sitting on your face. There was so much. The traffic was awful too. The convoy again, but this time on lousy narrow roads with Haitians fleeing in the other direction in gigantic painted busses. It was a long walk on a rocky hill with one leg dragging behind and spasming. It wasn’t forever, however, before we found ourselves at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, scrambling through a new kind of chaos and searching for Sandro.
I didn’t shower or shit for the first two days in Port au Prince. I didn’t shave either. But then I didn’t shave for the entire 12 days. This was due, in part, to a lack of preparedness, but also, the thought of my micro-abrasions confronting a city full of swirling corpse dust voided what small pleasures might be gained from scraping off my face hair.
Showers and toilets were different. Shaving was a matter of hygiene. Skipping showers and poop was calculated hygienic avoidance. I’ll get into this more later, but, essentially, I had developed the opinion that the only thing worse than being crushed to death under a 3rd rate hotel was being crushed to death by a 3rd rate hotel while naked and/or taking a dump.
The day before we made the drive over from Santo Domingo to Haiti, CNN ran a special Anderson Cooper report from Port au Prince that made me believe with near surety that I would not only be murdered by desperate Haitians, but would likely be pulled apart and devoured before my organs had time to fail. For this, Anderson, I thank you.
His two minute footage consisted of a scuffle as a shop in downtown Port au Prince was looted by teenagers. I didn’t check the timecodes or anything like that, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that it was about two minutes. I think I might actually be giving the footage more than its fair credit, personally, but I would guess thatAnderson feels differently. At any rate, the point is that this two minute scuffle was broadcast on an infinite loop all day long while I was prepping to go into Haiti, with Wolf Blitzer introducing it with bizarre hyperboles like, “PORT au PRINCE IN CHAOS!” or “VIOLENCE GRIPS HAITI!” or “IF YOU ARE DRIVING INTO HAITI TOMORROW, YOU WILL BE PULLED APART AND DEVOURED BY DESPERATE HAITIANS!” These sorts of things. Again, I didn’t DVR any of this, but you’ll just have to trust that I watch enough CNN to be able to write their shitty copy for them. Cause I do.
It was in this mindset that my partner and I departed Santo Domingo early in the morning of January 19th and made the long, jostling journey overland and into Haiti. I guess at some point I should probably mention what it is I do and how it is I came to find myself in Haiti a week after the country was smashed by a wrathful earthquake. Since I’m fairly certain that only one person outside my immediate family will ever actually read any of these words I’m banging out right now, I’ll keep this real simple. I am a journalist working in the Japanese media, for one of Japan’s leading newspapers. “It’s not the biggest,” I explain to non-Js, “but it’s the best.” Other journalists often ask me, “Do you write?” and I say, “No.” “Well, do you take pictures?” and I say, “No.” Other journalists get confused by this, so I try to explain it thusly: “You know all the other shit you spend your waking life doing that doesn’t involve typing or taking pictures? THAT’s what I do.” That’s what I do.
And getting back to Anderson Cooper. Being a newspaperman, and especially as one working in the foreign press, I have a natural and simmering disgust for American television news. This already frothy aversion was only exacerbated by my numerous encounters with the CNNers and the FOXes in Haiti; their insipid questions about ‘feelings’, their staged shots, and their special propensity to make their very own correspondents into the HEROES of HAITI. It’s all enough to make a fella retch into his neck. You’ll be hearing more about them.
Needless to say, however, despite Anderson Cooper’s 2 minute expose on Port au Prince’s descent into savagery, I was never pulled apart and devoured by desperate Haitians.