the calm before the storm

Hi friends- as I’m sure you’ve seen, Category 5 Hurricane Irma is bearing down with record windspeeds, carving a path through the Caribbean islands on the way to Florida. Port-au-Prince and all of southern Haiti is under tropical storm warning, while a hurricane warning has been issued for the north. I’m gearing up for wind and rain starting in a few hours.

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I will be fine: my second-story apartment has a good roof, low flood risk, and I have plenty of clean water and food and friends to keep me company.

Not everyone is as fortunate. Any level of hurricane will mean devastation for lots of Haitians: those who live in fragile shelters, those whose neighborhoods will flood, those who rely on farming for survival and will go hungry without this harvest.

In the aftermath of last October’s Hurricane Matthew, MCC Haiti responded to immediate effects of the storm with food, hygiene kits, water purification tablets, and blankets. MCC also addressed the more hidden, equally insidious aftereffects: we funded a domestic violence shelter in response to the uptick in intra-familial violence that corresponds with natural disasters and displacement. We assisted families in replanting gardens that were destroyed, using agroforestry techniques that will hopefully make the land more resilient in the long term.

I’ll check in after the storm passes and let you know if there are ways you can help. For now, send your thoughts to those who will be affected by this storm, in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean.

 

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written in stone: a day in cormier

I hopped out of the truck on Thursday morning at the Léogâne junction, a corner busy with fruit and vegetable merchants. My mission for the day’s visit was to shoot some video clips of stone carvers for Ten Thousand Villages, one of Comité Artisanal Haitien’s export clients.

Léogâne was historically a center of sugar and rum production, and more recently became infamous as the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake. It’s also “the bastion of stone carving in Haiti,” in the words of Reginald, a skilled stone carver who served as one of my guides for the day.

Reginald and I took motos thirty minutes into countryside, crossing a shallow river several times, before arriving at his family’s home in the village of Cormier. There we met Heston and Guerline, two other stone carvers. Reginald showed me around the house and lakou (yard), where I saw small stone figurines peeking from behind foliage. Several generations of his family have lived on this land, farming small plots of land while passing down the stone carving tradition.

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Heston and Reginald are neighbors. In Heston’s lakou, peanuts were drying in the sun. Behind Heston’s house is a structure with a caved-in tin roof: a casualty of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. Heston’s wife still manages to cook meals beneath the bowed remnants of the roof, but they hope to rebuild soon.

Heston, Reginald, Guerline and I set off for the local mine, the source of the soft grey stone that carvers often use. Our path traced the riverbed that winds through terraced hillside fields of pwa kongo (pigeon peas), peanuts, and manioc– hardy plants that can thrive in thin soil.

We passed small, brightly painted houses and a majestic mapou tree at least twelve feet in diameter. I half-jokingly threatened to steal a puppy playing near the path. As we walked, Reginald pointed out features of the landscape– exposed bedrock, a small spring, a new training center for local young people.

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Large stone statues stood as sentinels along the edge of the riverbed. Encountering these pieces of public art in such a rural place felt magical. “This one is mine,” said Heston, resting a hand on the stone shoulder of a woman cradling a child. “That one, too.” He pointed across the river to a three-foot-tall bust of a woman’s head, her neck arched gracefully.

I wonder if the statues will ever move from the riverbed. Heston said he sells these large sculptures sometimes, but it takes a special buyer to pay the high price of transporting the huge pieces from the remote countryside. He loves making them nonetheless.

After a gravelly scramble past braying donkeys, we arrive at “the mine,” a small slash of bare grey rock in the green hillside.

We paused to chat with a man quarrying pieces of stone using a sledgehammer and chisel. There at the mine, he makes a rough cut of the intended final product– in this case, stone plates. Often, the stone carvers buy these rough cuts rather than quarrying the stone themselves.

Reginald pointed out evidence of a recent rockslide that buried much of the workable rock face and caused the carvers to be late in fulfilling a product order. “The work of carving stone sculptures is no problem. It’s getting the rock from the mine to our workshops that is the real issue,” Reginald mused.

While wading through the river on our way back, Guerline bent down and deftly scooped a handful of water onto the shore. Along with the splash of water there was a silvery wriggling– a fish! She picked it up gingerly to avoid being pricked by its dorsal spines. Poking out from its mouth was a half-eaten crayfish. “Li tap dine, yap supe l!” Reginald joked. He was eating his lunch, but now they’re going to eat him for supper!

 

IMG_3933We’d been walking in the midday sun for two hours when we stopped for a quick rest in a shaded area of clean-swept dirt that served as a community space. We each sucked down a sache dlo (plastic packet of fresh water) and watched an animated game of dominoes: four men playing at a table, with several heckling onlookers.

Back at Reginald’s house, we sat on the veranda drinking fresh coconut water and discussing plans for new product designs. I left them with sketches and a promise to come back for more hiking someday, waved goodbye, and hopped on a moto, then a public van, then another moto to get back home to Port-au-Prince before sunset.

I love days like Thursday. Sweaty, scrambling over rocks, soaking up Haiti’s natural beauty, experiencing the generosity of near-strangers willing to welcome me into their homes and stories.

Check out a rough cut of some of the video clips:

A Day in Cormier from Madeline Kreider Carlson on Vimeo.

mural, mural on the wall

I moved into a new apartment recently, in Pacot, an old neighborhood full of hills and historic homes. I’m really happy about the move (I can walk to work!), but the place doesn’t have a lot of character. So.. I decided to paint all over my wall!

Here’s the finished product: inspired by mountain silhouettes, with a whole bunch of different freehand patterns. I mostly just made them up as I went along.

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Painting is not my strong suit (believe me/ask my mom, who recently unearthed all my old canvases from Painting 101 freshman year of college), but I loved the process of freestyle pattern making. I painted a lot of this in the morning, with a cup of coffee in hand, during the time that I would have spent braving Port-au-Prince morning traffic on the back of a moto.

Here’s the evolution in gif format!

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I kinda love the idea of continuing to spend an hour every morning on a creative project– something low-pressure, just for fun. What should I tackle next?

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Here is some cut-paper art, because cut paper is the latest craft technique in which I am dabbling, and because nothing chases the blues away like tedious creative work.

IMG_2491There is a Haitian proverb, Apre dans, tanbou louliterally, ‘After the dance, the drums are heavy,’– that describes the feeling of letdown and melancholy after a big event. The drums felt heavy this week returning to Port-au-Prince after a whirlwind weekend in Pennsylvania with many of my favorite people, celebrating the wedding of my beautiful friends.

But:

  • On the plane from Ft. Lauderdale I made friends with four Haitian-born American men who were seated around me. They were all functionally illiterate, and it made me so curious about the story that each of them might be able to tell me about their path to becoming American citizens. I didn’t get their stories, but I helped them fill out their customs forms and one of them gave me a pack of gum as a present!
  • Wednesday was the first (exhilarating/vulnerable) meeting of my new writing group, inspired by Women of Letters, a monthly performance/literary salon in Brooklyn. Our theme this month was A Letter to my Unexpected. I’m grateful for the space and the push to write! There’s something really meaningful about sitting down to make narrative sense out of my scattered thoughts.

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    Filmmaker Raoul Peck at FOKAL
  • Also on Wednesday, I went to a great free concert at the Institut Francais featuring Leyla McCalla, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
  • Yesterday I miraculously got in to an invitation-only screening of I Am Not Your Negro followed by a Q&A with director Raoul Peck (who is Haitian). Go see this documentary if you haven’t– based on James Baldwin’s final, unfinished manuscript. It is incredibly powerful. I can’t stop thinking about it.
  • The flamboyant trees are still blooming! Living in a place that is painted in such vibrant color makes me deeply happy.

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So even though the drums are heavy, I’m grateful for the patchwork of unexpected and thought-provoking experiences that make every day in Haiti a learning experience.

moto musings

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Pie chart inspired by Ann Friedman.

IMG_2130I’ve been riding moto-taxis every day this week to and from Noailles, in Croix-des-Bouquets, where I’m spending the week working with cut-metal artisans.

Motos are by far the fastest (though certainly not the safest) way to get around the narrow, transportation-challenged, blokis-clogged streets of Port-au-Prince. There is a death-defying smugness to weaving through a thicket of idling Land Cruisers, missing collisions by inches.

Alongside the adrenaline rush, I love expanding my knowledge of the PaP urban landscape, getting to know new routes and observing the rhythms of daily life:

  • In my opinion, Croix-des-Bouquets has the second-best painted tap-taps in the greater PaP area. My favorite is one that features a portrait of Serena Williams about to rip a backhand. I also appreciated the Legolas/Jesus piece below.
  • On Monday, the roadside drainage ditches (canals? open sewers?) of Croix-des-Bouquets were overflowing with plastic bottles. Disheartening, but unsurprising in a country with very limited trash disposal infrastructure. On Tuesday, backhoes and people were digging all the sludge-covered bottles and trash out of the ditches. Today, the piles of garbage sludge lined the streets. I’m curious what will happen next: if the trash will be removed, or if it will be allowed to slowly tumble back into the ditches.
  • On Tuesday, the road was blocked by a manifestasyon (protest) outside a high school. Students were protesting because they have no teachers: the state-funded school doesn’t have enough money to pay teacher salaries, even though students also pay to attend this public school.
  • I have yet to ask my moto driver to stop so I can try on a romper. I’ll keep you updated as this situation unfolds.
  • Every morning as we take the final turn into Noailles, I can’t help smiling as I hear the ting-ting-ting of hammers on steel, the sound of cut-metal artisans practicing their craft. More on this soon!

the best afternoon!

I’ve been playing pickup ultimate here in Port-au-Prince most Saturday afternoons. My expat friends who organize pickup also run a clinic for local kids every Sunday, and yesterday I showed up to help out and scrimmage against the older kids. It was SO fun!

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It was a gorgeous, blazingly sunny day to be out on the turf. The kids, ranging in age from probably 7 to 18, warmed up & ran a couple quick drills, then we played 4 v 4 to get ready for the big scrimmage. Above: impressive mark by the kid in grey during a warmup box drill.

IMG_1352It’s apparent that the kids LOVE these Sunday clinics. They played with so much heart and intensity and joy. The older kids won the scrimmage against our ragtag expat team!

The girls who came out to play were far outnumbered by the boys, but these girls were ! means strong (physically, mentally, emotionally) in Kreyol– it’s one of my favorite words. After the scrimmage, I spent a long time practicing throws with the three little girls holding discs in the picture below: Sterline, Emmanuella, and Djamon. They’re wonderful and they’re going to be baller athletes.

Organized sports have always been a vital part of my life and identity. Though there are tons of kids playing pickup soccer and basketball games in streets and makeshift fields all over Haiti, it’s pretty special for these kids to have access to a space like this– a big fancy stadium where the focus is entirely on them running and playing and learning. Watching these kids yesterday, I recognized in them the same effort, striving, elation in victory and frustration in defeat that I have known, hundreds of times over, in the highs and lows of playing sports. It’s a powerful and beautiful thing to share.

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I can’t wait to help out again!

P.S. Aforementioned expat friends Paul and Erin are raising some funds to keep these clinics going after they leave Haiti. Donate here if you feel moved!

 

how’s it going?

My late grandfather, a prolific writer and documenter and traveler, once told me, “If you don’t know how to begin a project, find a yellow legal pad and start writing.” So here goes!

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I’ve been in Haiti for six weeks now. My orientation period has been humbling, and strange, and productive.

Humbling, as I stumble through a new language and accept the hospitality of my gracious host families, who open their homes and the rhythms of their everyday life to me.

Strange, because as much as I’ve traveled, I’ve never had this kind of structured, scheduled orientation. I’m glad for the time & space to adjust, while the stubbornly independent part of me just wants to leap on the nearest tap-tap and go exploring.

Productive, because I’ve learned so much! I can have conversations in Kreyol; I can tell you something about how agroforestry techniques can mitigate the effects of climate change on small farmers; I know my way around parts of Port au Prince! I feel a little burst of joy every time I navigate a new patch of this sometimes-labyrinthine city, with its streetside merchants and steep, densely populated hillsides and abundant bougainvillea.

More to come. For now, some photos:

Flying over the Caribbean  |  Visiting Sokontre  |  Drawing with Nephta in my first host family  |  Walking through dry hills in the town of Kabay with MCC colleagues  |  Tarantula!  |  Green coffee, just before roasting  |  An especially colorful tap-tap in PaP  |  Studying Kreyol  |  Streets of Petionville with colorful Jalouzi in the background