Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tell it only to your best friends

First of all, a confession: I have told several minor friends and even a few mere acquaintances about the Lifestyles Resort in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.  As I write this, the Lifestyles secret police are likely surrounding the base camp and preparing to execute a classic pincer move - one team fast rope descends onto the roof and swings in the windows while the other makes a frontal assault, sub machineguns spraying -  anything to keep the VIP lifestyle that much more exclusive.

If I die in a blaze of gunfire, though, it was all worth it.  Last week at Lifestyles Resort I finally lived the VIP lifestyle I so richly deserve.  There, on the beach, laid out on a plush bed, pina colada in hand, drinking in the warm Caribbean rays, I finally realized my own self worth.  Like all things, though, it came at a price.

All around the VIP area there were signs reading “Tell it only to your best friends.” An awkwardly phrased yet foreboding notice that this lifestyle is to be kept secret by the privileged few.  The mere act of writing this blog will likely sign my death warrant .

Seriously, though, it was a great time in the DR.  Yeah, I know, all inclusive resorts are lame, right? Maybe, but not when you’ve just spent a month taking bucket showers and eating nothing but rice and beans,  and certainly not when you’re with 21 of your closest friends and colleagues.  If I’d laid in my bunk in Haiti a few weeks ago and tried to picture the environs most diametrically opposed to my own, I wouldn’t have thought of Lifestyles, but it was quite a departure indeed.

Not that I deserved it, really, not as much as my companions who’d all been in country considerably longer.  I took a break from the work in Haiti because operations were shut down for a week beginning on what was to be the end of the project.  I didn’t feel I needed time off, but it made sense considering the circumstance and I was happy to bask in the enjoyment of some folks who had really earned the break.

Now, after a week of anpil volleyball, beach, food, and drink, batteries charged, it’s back to work on the school build.  Stay tuned for a blog post that speaks to this, the other reason I’m here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A New Story

I never thought that I'd have my own blog, but, as Aaron points out, it's a new story.  Sadly, my "Hammers to Haiti" compatriots have returned to their lives in the U.S., underscoring my lack thereof, and making me wonder whether the group blog might no longer do.  Until now, I never dared think that anyone would want to read about the goings on in my life, and frankly, I'm still not sure.  To say that this blog is backed by popular demand may not be entirely accurate however, I think a few people might give a shit.

Most importantly, there's this cemetery project.  A couple of weeks ago, All Hands was approached by the Mayor's office here in Leogane to build an enclosure and memorial garden atop a mass grave where some 2,500 victims of the January 12, 2010 Earthquake were laid to rest.  Needless to say, Nate and the other staffers jumped at the chance, and reached out to volunteers Tom (U.K) and Tom (U.S.), both architects, to begin the design process.

As a practical matter, they wanted a fence to keep dogs and goats from shitting and pissing and tap taps and motos from parking and unloading on a sacred space.  Easy enough, right?  And I guess it was Nate's idea to do the Zen garden type thing around the preexisting cross and plinth.  Being architects, though, and all a little bit off, they decided to do something higher concept.

At the risk of stating the obvious, a lot of decisions in Haiti are motivated by a relative dearth or, less frequently, surplus of materials, and their availability in country.  This was no different.  The design team knew we had plenty of 4x4 posts and thought, why not do something a little different with the fence.  As we neared completion, people including Terry, a writer for AOL Travel, began to ask me what the significance of the waves in the fence were, and fuckin' Boner hilariously told French AP that they mimicked the "seismic waves of an Earthquake."  It's just supposed to look nice and close off the space.  The site itself is the symbol.  

I came in along with Brendan building the third prototype to this end at our basecamp, lending my modest carpentry skills and limited aesthetic sense, and after a couple of days we thought we'd figured out how to do something pretty special.  Unfortunately the real talent, Mr. Gordon, had to get back to NOLA just a day or two into it.  There was still a lot of design left, which I don't think we fully appreciated when we broke ground, but nevertheless, we got going on it last Tuesday.  In the intervening days I've borrowed an in-artful yet apt phrase from my days at the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program: we were "building the plane while we flew it."

From the outset, building on a mass grave was a little different than what most of us were used to.  Typical construction site conventions like spitting, cussing, and cat calling had to be rethought. The cemetery is right in the middle of town and highly visible, and moto, tap tap, and pedestrian traffic is pretty steady throughout the day.  The locals took a healthy interest in our activities, even above and beyond the normal curiousity shown a blan (white person) in Haiti.  Crowds swelled the most when Jiella and Helen, both beautiful British gals and great friends, had the nailgun going - a draw in and of itself.  Yeah, it was quite the spectacle.

Locals weren't the only ones taking note, though.  To our confusion and subsequent laughter (I laugh as I write this) Jared Leto stopped by one day to ask about the project.  Lets not shit ourselves, ladies.  He said he'd lived in Haiti twenty years ago which, I later verified, and that he was in town checking in on his "beautiful, unlucky" former home.  He was short and really skinny, snapped a few photos and left promising to plug us on his twitter page or in his documentary or whatever.  Oh yeah, journalists from PBS, CBS, AOL, and Haitian television dropped by too.

Still reeling from our swim in Leto's eyes, we were visited by a gentlemen in fatigues who greeted us with what amounted to the quote of the day, if not the year, in "I saw you building on the mass grave and had to come say hi." You try to keep it light when you're building on a mass grave, you know? Needless to say, there was a few moments of comic relief when we were digging down into the mass grave the requisite 18 inches to set our posts.  

Anyway, the guy turned out to be the commissioner of the UN Police for Leogane, and a really cool dude from Cameroon called Filemon.  He wanted to thank us, and did, and tell us about his involvement in building the grave.  He said the UN Police began burying the dead there the day after the earthquake along with community members, at first, without heavy equipment.  It wouldn't arrive for two weeks.

They began in earnest trying to identify every victim, but the mayor's office proved overwhelmed and before long the dead were placed in unidentified.  While my week of work at the cemetery definitely had it's poignant moments, its difficult to put into context or humanize a grave with no names.  I expect this to change in a few hours, when the one year anniversary ceremonies culminate with a moment of silence at the mass grave, and things will be brought home to me when our local volunteers, most of whom lost one or more loved ones, share their stories this evening.

The first five or six days of construction flew by.  Tom UK, the volunteer architect, and Nate, the All Hands staffer, put their heads together along with mine and Gabby's to figure out a lot of the design elements on the fly.  The long days were marked by tap taps overflowing with tools, materials, and volunteers perched precariously; Cokes, cold by Haitian standards and delicious by any; and most of all, measuring, stringing, picking, digging, setting, mixing, screwing (;0), nailing, marking, cutting, spacing, rock-rolling, raking, shoveling, and grooming.  Everyone chipped in where they could, and the international and local volunteers were functioning as a well oiled machine.

Frumin and Boner lent their considerable skills and their last couple of days in country to making the vision a reality, making pretty tricky compound mitred joints, and working out some design elements with Tom.  When they were almost moved back onto the school build, I wondered if we could get it done without them.  They were pretty much in the zone all day, and aren't big talkers on site anyway, but they ought to know how much more special they made this already once in a lifetime experience.  That, and it might have looked like shit without them.  

By Saturday we were thrilled to be ahead of schedule and hoped that we could keep up the momentum through to the anniversary Wednesday.  Though we only dared whisper it, the hope was that fragile, we thought it might turn out to be certainly not a memorial worthy of 2,500 folks, but at least an attractive one - one we could be proud of.

Tom, our team leader was leaving, though.  A big loss, to be sure.  Not only is he the cheekiest architect I've ever met, he's a great leader and I'm happy to say, a friend.  I was surprised and honored when he asked me to take over as team leader when he left, and whereas I'd already felt a huge obligation to knock the thing out of the park for All Hands and for Leogane, I especially wanted to see his vision through.

Saturday was tough, though.  To his credit, Nate observed a couple of flaws in our design and execution, and asked that they be changed and/or fixed.  Despite some hesitation on the teams part, and understandable belly-aching from the local and international volunteers, we set about taking down a series of pickets and chords on Saturday morning.

This would set us back significantly we knew, none of us were under any illusions about that, but patience and flexibility have been watch words throughout my professional life and as a volunteer.  We weren't the only victims of Nate's meticulous nature, though.  Some of it was self inflicted, as he spent Sunday out there by himself, listening to music and rolling boulders so that they were positioned just so.  He turned out to be right, though, about everything, and I'm really grateful to him as well for his vision, good humor, and for the faith he showed in me after just a few weeks.

Saturday afternoon at a midday meeting, I informed everyone of our setbacks, and asked for patience and flexibility from all.  We tried to keep the anniversary, our goal, foremost in our minds.  The second half of the day went much smoother.

By Monday lunchtime we were back where we needed to be, and it looked as though we would finish on schedule.  Seven days into building the thing, the design was still a moving target, which was both thrilling and scary.  As Monday turned into Tuesday, our last day, we had a solid plan and motivation to execute it.  Whoever volunteers we reached out to for their specific skill set were eager to chip in however they could.  Tuesday was a whirlwind.  In the afternoon, we still had a big gate to figure out and plenty of pickets, paint, and grooming to finish up.  

It is a Zen garden of sorts, and I tried to be Zen, focus only on that which I could change, inside the fence, but couldn't help but lament the giant rubble piles marring the front and side of the enclosure.  As if on cue, Dylan arrived at the eleventh hour with a backhoe and dumptruck, and we all happily, franticly scrambled to shovel the remaining trash into the bucket of the Caterpillar.  It looked dicey for a while there, but when Jiella and I walked into the evening meeting at 5:40 still sweaty from the work site, I was proud to report to the group's applause that we had finished.   

I don't think my description can do the built elements justice, so check out the photos here and on my facebook page.  The part in the middle, the viewing eye or window - that was my baby, as Gabby put it.  Nate gave me plenty of rope in designing that, with which I almost hung myself, but eventually pulled it out (I think). He forced me to rethink and redo some of the work we had completed last week, for which I'm glad.    If you want to know more about the design and shit and how me made it look cool, let me know.  If you want to know about the "geometry," shut up and stop trying to sound smart and/or ask Nate.

As I write, I'm waiting to leave basecamp to join the processional toward the cemetery.  This morning, Haitian colors newly dried, I went out to the cemetery to hang the new sign marking the site.  Part of me thinks it a silly and pointless exercise, but I can't help but to compare this project against all the work I've ever done.  I supervised the distribution of 30,000 meals a day along the Mississippi gulf coast following Hurricane Katrina,  coordinated phone banks for five congressional races, trained volunteers to construct a bunch of homes in New Orleans, and managed a team that distributed almost 20 million dollars for homeowners in Southeast Louisiana to elevate their homes, and I've never been prouder of anything,  or felt more fortunate and humbled for an opportunity.

This was a longer post than I intended on writing, but believe me, I've only scratched the surface in  acknowledging everyone who contributed to this project.  I expect I'll have more to report once the site is truly received today, on the anniversary.  Do check out the photos, though.  If you'd passed by the site during construction, theres a goodly chance you'd see me across the street from the viewing section, thinking and planning.  There, I'd often greet passers-by with "bonswa" and ask them what they thought of our work.  "Ou renmen?" Anecdotal as it was, this relieved some of my anxiety and kept me focused, most especially the few people who told me "belle travay" - beautiful work.  I hope Leogane and you, my friends and family agree.

All my best,


P.S. If we're overdue for a chat, please don't give up on me.  Its been a crazy couple of weeks.  I still love you.  A lot.