Thursday, June 27, 2013

Greetings From Port-au-Prince

Greetings from Port-au-Prince!

It's my last night in Haiti and my first with Internet access. We left the Mole just before lunch and took a MAF flight to PAP and are spending 24 hours at a pretty nice hotel before heading back to Miami and home.

This week I went on a 13 hour3rd world road trip, battled a centipede, survived a mishap at sea, sustained multiple abrasions in a snorkeling incident, played with orphans, travelled to 3 remote villages, and, along the way learned and saw more than I can  immediately recount.

Over the next week, this space will take on a decidedly Haitian flavor as I post pictures, stories and reflections from this grand adventure.

For now? I'll be doing good to stay awake through dinner, which seems to be limited to four options: one of which is, apparently a "poisson sandwich."  Perhaps the adventure isn't quite over ;)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Fool Me Once; Or, Leaving for a Haitian Land Tour

“Of course, the heat will be oppressive.  Last time, everyone got sick.  I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life.  Best we can figure, it was from the raw sewage we waded through on the path to the beach.” The minister (not to be confused with The Minister) paused, stroking his chin thoughtfully.  “Then there were the tarantulas.  We turned over an entire nest of them.  Just some of the things to be aware of.”

I had spent the past 20 minutes listening in fascinated horror as our Associate minister, serving in the capacity of Mission Trip Screener, outlined the particulars of a Haitian mission trip for which The Minister and I had signed up.  Aside from the earthquake aftermath, of which I had read analysis indicating that no visible progress had been made, I had felt reasonably prepared for a third world mission prior to the screening interview.  Having spent time in South African squatter camps, I had seen multi-generational families living in dirt floor huts.  Having eaten food stored in a rusty metal barrel and prepared over an open fire on a Mexican hillside, I knew that the vast majority of the earth’s meals aren’t FDA approved, and that can be a very good thing, indeed.

But I have to admit to leaving the interview for this particular mission with a feeling of resigned stoicism.  In fact, during a pre-trip visit with Dr. M for shots and the like, I stared at him in unmasked horror when he made an offhand reference to swimming.  “I certainly don’t see getting in the water for fun,” I retorted.

“Why not?” Dr. M, asked, puzzled.

“Why the raw sewage, of course,” I said, surprised by his ill-informed image of the Hispaniola region.  “Not to mention, the bodies,” I threw in, just in case he still wasn’t grasping the picture.  Although I put raw sewage in the verified hazard category, I will admit to improvising a bit on the bodies, but it seemed to me a reasonable conclusion that there would be limbs and torsos washing ashore on an hourly basis.

“You know,” Dr. M, said, casually,  “people actually do go to Haiti on vacation.  Just give it a chance.”

Heeding his advice, I threw a swimsuit in with the ill-fitting rags I packed as my Haitian wardrobe.  We had, after all, been informed that after we landed in a field of goats, our team and our luggage would be tossed into the back of a dump truck and transported to our base.

It was, then, rather ironic that it was 10-minutes into the dump truck ride that I realized that I was utterly in love with what I discovered to be a gorgeous paradise.  On a bumpy ride through palm trees and green-blue seascapes, and fishing villages, it became clear that I had been duped by a verbal slight of tongue, perhaps of the same brand of which I have occasionally been guilty.

And I still went.  Which was kind of the point.  The minister was, after all, functioning in the capacity of Mission Trip Screener, a job description that basically consists of the singular goal of “weeding out the tourists.”

So began one of the most exciting weeks of my life.  We worked on houses, painted nails, played with orphans, built friendships.

And, yes, we swam.  It crystalline turquoise water.

So when we discovered the opportunity to return this year, we didn’t hesitate.  Best of all, we’ve had the added benefit of anticipating the whole thing, as weren’t going to be fooled by any “scare tactics.”  We’re veterans, after all.  We’ve been there.  We know.

Which made it all the more jarring last night when we received some grim news at our pre-trip briefing. 

See Haiti is shaped kind of like this:

A plane some reference as the “blue goose,” but The Minister and I call the One With a Windsock for a Propeller, typically shuttles groups from the arrow (Port au Prince) to the circle (The Mole—our destination, which also happens to be where Columbus first landed.  Look it up.)

Due to a snafu beyond my comprehension,  the Blue Goose is migrating, minus, a windsock, or otherwise out of commission, and we will be taking a harrowing 8-16 hour land excursion in a bus not outfitted with facilities, adverse to stopping, and prone to frequent breakdown.  The associate minister assures us that it will be harrowing.

We passed a somber evening as the news settled upon us, but I woke up buoyed this morning (our Departure Day) by the sudden knowledge that we were likely nearly duped again.

I am sure the bus ride will be fabulous.  Land Tour of Haiti: Let’s do this!

(Check in with us all week here!)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Interstate Commerce and Intrigue

One of my bigger life laments is my rejection of a generous invitation from Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey.

Oh, it wasn’t a thumb-to-the nose, in-your-face style rejection, but indirect faux pas. Inexcusable though it was, in reality it was painful only to me. 

As the story goes, in my junior year of high school, I submitted a short story as part of an overall application package for Pennsylvania’s now-defunct Governor’s school for the Arts.  As I recall, the application process was lengthy, multi-tiered, and competitive.

The Governor’s School  was a six-week, intensive, residential program hosted by a state university.  While I was scribbling out my story for the creative writing concentration, my best friend, Tisa, was filming a monologue as her submission to the corresponding drama track. 

In due time, the letter came from the governor, and, for reasons that are not clear, I opted not to attend the program.

How shallow!  How short sighted!  What did I do that summer, anyway?  Go to the mall?  Flip burgers?  Where could I be today had I taken the high road straight to the Governor’s school? Often, I have given myself a mental flogging for my bad choice, going so far as to use the situation for fodder in another short story I penned, which did happen to take first place in a writing contest for a cash prize, offering a modicum of solace.

Indeed, it has been awhile since I have taken time to consider the Shunning of the Governor.

Recent events, however, have brought the episode back into the spotlight.

Some time ago, my mother saw my name in the paper, and not for any of the Usual Reasons.  Seems the Pennsylvania Treasury periodically runs a list of their own, personal Most Wanted: individuals who have rightful claim to funds that they inexplicably abandoned.

Now, I enjoy funds as much as the next guy, and I am certainly not one to leave unclaimed sums lying about in treasuries of states in which I used to reside.  However, the Treasury remains clear that they are in possession of an amount “exceeding $100” (their Top Bracket!) of MY money, allegedly from an unfamiliar life insurance company. All I had to do was fill out some forms and gather some Key Documents including a copy of my Social Security card, my marriage license, and proof of residence at the address I lived at the time of the Abandonment.

Now, in spite of the admittedly high Mystery Factor, I did not immediately jump on the task of claiming the funds. In truth, I have likely lost a lot more than a hundred–plus bucks in my life over failure to do paperwork, and this particular batch was fraught with complications, including the procurement of a replacement social security card, as I had not been in possession of one since the early 90s

Other life events eventually dictated the need to file for a new card, but still I did not begin the application to claim the funds.  Mostly, it wasn’t on my radar, but, also, I think I secretly liked the mystery of it all.  Or maybe I just wasn’t sure how I would actually prove I lived at the address of record: an unfortunate arrangement with a mousy spinster and her neurotic dog.

During the time she was my roommate, I paid my share of expenses in cash.  Then, she abruptly announced she was moving out, which filled me with delight as I planned to bring on my aforementioned bff Tisa, until the day the entire contents of the house disappeared.  Who knew every stick of furniture went with the roommate?

Tisa and I looked about in a temporary state of shock, decided we couldn’t make a go of things, and a closed shop.  The entire episode lasted just a few weeks.

Spurred, perhaps, by the impending governmental furlough, my husband recently took it upon himself to print the treasury claim forms and begin the paperwork himself, tasking me with an attic foray ISO documentation verifying my stay at the spinster’s pad at Perry Place.

So there I was, sifting through artifacts including my lone arrest warrant, some sketchy report cards, and a host of personal letters (none addressed to Perry Place, which seemed statistically improbable as I found correspondence addressed to me seemingly at every address at which I had ever rested my head, including summer camp, various universities, and even letters my father mailed to me when I spent a few nights at my aunt’s house in a neighboring town).

I dug deeper and deeper into the 40 gallon bins, hoping for some scrap of official documentation when   I saw it there among the hand written notes passed during math class: the envelope from The Governor.

 “Documentation, all right,” I thought, grimly, setting the envelope aside, in prime position to plague me. 

A few moments later, I decided to look full on at the specs of all I had foregone.  The workshops!  The facilities!  The accolades! 

I took a deep breath and opened the surprisingly slim envelope.  I glanced at the Governor’s stationery and return address, and then focused on the type. 

It took a moment or two to absorb the sentiment expressed therein. I kept stumbling over the word “regret.”  As in, “we regret to inform you…” The weight of it all washed over me.  The Governor?  He rejected me

I didn’t know whether to be relieved that I no longer needed to beat myself up for not attending, to lament all the time I had, to be happy that I had somehow managed to weave the episode into an award-winning short story, or to be disappointed that I didn’t get it right the first time.  Mostly?  I didn’t know how I could go back and tell everyone that my oft-repeated story about turning down the governor was a twisted tale.

Numbly, I dug beneath the “Why Weren’t You in School Today” greeting cards from friends and found a letter from an elementary school pen pal, addressed to me, at Perry Place, with a cancelled stamp!  Bingo!

I went downstairs and explained that the childhood pen pal letter was the only evidence I had of my brief stay at Perry Place.  We all agreed that it would have to do, and sent the forms along. 

Several hours after The Find, I confessed to my family the shocking truth of my Governor’s School rejection.  Everyone laughed, and cited scenes from sitcoms which explored the same sad storyline.

And me?  I found the entire thing unsettling in light of my recent application to a respected MFA program, and I don’t want to forget the particulars of this one. After all, research continues to confirm that that false memories aren’t just contrived fodder for prime time chuckles. It’s a very real phenomenon, and considering my past, it’s best not to leave my current opportunity to the flimsy whims of my brain waves.  This time, I’m posting the evidence, and not just on my fridge:

Friday, June 07, 2013


“Mom, we’re out of cream!” came a distressed call from within the fridge.  Never what we want to hear at coffee time.

My husband can’t stand the fact that I don’t drink black coffee.  Not that he’s ever taken an intentional sip of any joe variant in the 24 years that I have known him. (I have to say “intentional” due to an unfortunate incident in Florida two summers ago when a Dunkin Donut cup mix up in a hotel room led to him swallowing a mouthful of brew instead of his hot chocolate, reducing him to a shaken, sputtering state and making fond vacation memories for the rest of the family. “Remember the time Dad drank coffee? one kid periodically says to the other as they both dissolve into hysterics. That sort of thing.)  But I digress from my point.

What my coffee-loathing husband has difficulty with has nothing to do with the java bean and everything to do with logic.  See, I subsisted on black coffee throughout high school and college and into our second year of marriage until the day when an aide at the school for which I worked mistakenly brought me a creamed coffee and from that day onward there was no looking back.

Despite my husband’s complaints (which, in all fairness, typically surface when he, the sole non-coffee drinker, finds himself trucking to the store during a No Cream crisis) I haven’t questioned my cream-in-coffee stance at all, ever, until a Winter Project cast a milky cloud of doubt over So Much.

In the bowels of winter I decided to embark upon a season-long adventure of Discovery and Awareness wherein I would watch a documentary each day.  The project was inspired by a couple of mind-stretching evenings with my son over Chinese food.

The first was well over a year ago.  The Minister, who loves off-beat ideas and discourse, and I decided to watch Life in a Day—a snapshot of life on earth on a single day—July 24th, 2010, to be exact—and traversed the world through the hopes, fears, and commentary of ordinary earthlings, posted on YouTube for filmmaker Kevin Macdonald to cull and craft.  Using evidence from this very blog as source material, The Minister and I were able to construct our own activities on that random day and add our stories to the global narrative.  It was absorbing entertainment, and superior to most Hollywood hijinks. 

So finding ourselves alone in the house one Friday evening this past winter, we rounded up some Chinese food and delved into Forks over Knives, otherwise known as The Reason No One Easts Meat or Consumes Milk Products anymore.  Indeed, about 20 minutes into the research-based Case for Vegan Living, the General Tso’s was rejected, save the rice, and our minds mentally ridding the fridge of milks, cheeses, and creams.

When the film was over, we were intellectually spent and inspired to pare our intake of animal protein down to, if you’ll excuse the pun, bare bones.  Better than any run-of-the-mill celluloid offering, this film brought us into the action as dynamic characters eager for change.  Of course, this meant different things for the Minister and I.  Already a near-vegetarian and lover of natural, whole foods, veganism for me meant conquering the final frontier of non-flesh sources of animal protein: eggs, cheese, and milk, which often gave me a stomach ache anyway.  The Minister faced bigger challenges, and, frankly, decided that his approach wasn’t as much to remove meat as it was to add vegetables.  For better or worse, I was hooked: not just on finding ways to replace animal products in my food, but to learn more about, well, everything.

So as the days went on, I explored the ins and outs of not only the food industry (although I did watch just about everything Netflix has to offer on the topic), but also plastics, exotic animals, subway tunnel dwellersgraffiti artists, and even learned more about my bff Audrey. 

I loved everything about documentaries: the camaraderie with the filmmaker, the story behind the story, and even a whole new cast of antagonists: ocean gyres, Big Business, and GMOs.  And, yes, the interactivity: the feeling that you can walk away from the film and continue the story with your choices about what to eat, buy, or think about the topics of the day.

And documentary by documentary, my deconstructed woman-vs.-nature plot continued to unfold, as I slowly learned that sandwich goodness isn’t proportional to cheese content, avocado toast beats eggs any day of the week, almond milk is delicious, versatile, and painless, and vegan baked goods are often legit.  Still, every day I consume (sometimes with delight) non-vegan content, most notably in the form of the cream I continue to pour into my coffee.  Even as I inch closer and closer to veganism, I have certain things I don’t see doing without, ever.

Which makes me vegan-ish.  And wondering if that’s anything like being “Christian-ish” or “Amish-ish” or “honest-ish”: as in: is vegan something you can “sort of” be without reeking of compromise? 

It’s an unfair sort of guilt that I didn’t ask for.  After all, I just made some research-based dietary adjustments!  I didn’t sign, pledge, or commit to anything!  Why, then, must I spend time completing my integrity in the wake of a cream cheese icing (on carrot cake, for pete’s sake!) or parmesan on pizza? 

Confronted, then, by the Voice from the Fridge, I calmly convinced The Minister to supplement his brew with chocolate milk and I…well, I decided to try mine au naturale.  No need to involve my husband who’d intercept me on my way out to the corner market, simultaneously insisting on going himself while murmuring his confusion over my preferences.

Nope, Not this time.  I’d take it straight.  Another step toward being a Real Vegan.  Yep, black coffee it was! 

A bitter sip later,  my frown disappears as I remember the creamy goodness of Almond milk.  Yep, that’s all it needs.  A splash of Almond milk.  OK, um, well, maybe more than a splash, I think, inspecting the resulting murky color.

Maybe more of a latte, I think, remembering how much I enjoyed some iced almond-milk lattes at our local coffee house. I poured the Almond milk liberally into the brew.  Noooo…no, not there yet.

Maybe a splash of coconut milk would help? Ewww. Heck, no.

In desperation, I poured in some of the chocolate milk I’d passed off on my son.  I took a big sip.

I am fairly certain my face rivaled my husband’s countenance the night of his accidental swig in the Florida hotel room.  And what’s worse?  I might just be more annoyed than he is that I don’t drink black coffee.


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