AlissaJ – UNITED SIKHS Blog Recognize The Human Race As One Tue, 28 Nov 2017 14:31:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Snowing in Haiti Fri, 19 Feb 2010 04:42:01 +0000 Location: Haitian Border
Date: 11/2/2010
I get picked up at a park, where the bus driver dropped me, promising Francisco would soon be there. Ten minutes passed, and finally a young girl eyeing me from the street garnered enough courage to approach me.
I explained my friend was coming to pick me up. When she asked for further explanation it only exhausted her, and her deep brown eyes widened in horror when she supposed I was lost— or at least at a different park than my friend thought. I tried, much to my dismay, to assure her I was in the right spot—-faith, after all—-but she
finally called Francisco’s number and suspiciously eyed me when he confirmed my story. He rapidly arrived, with Tejinder—the project manager—in tow, children screaming and laughing at his turban. And thus we began the trek to cross the border.
The road into Haiti, when traveling with a swarthy, safari-geared Sikh and a Dominican, is a surreal one. The landscape folds into itself at the gates, where kilometers of humming crowds bottleneck on the Dominican Side, and a strange whiteness dusts crumbling hills and lagoons. Francisco gives me a Dominican word for this material, this
ghostly sheet of pollen or chalk or maybe just the dry snow from this new Haitian winter. But it sits on everything, dousing everything, drowning everything straight to the soil. The canvas UN trucks bump
along the dirt roads, lifting off the ground, avoiding debris. The landscape is weightless and these trucks are crisp alien things, in focus against the fuzzed ground. Lance Armstrong hitting the rocks with one foot. Like we would float up off the ocean and hills were it not for the weight of the car. A young Sikh, a wandering American, and
a Dominican voice, just careening through outer space.
The white disappears and we are back on earth again, and the sound of a market bludgeons the windows on our SUV. Scents, both ripe and rotten, laughter, bickering. They rush in the truck. I try to explain
how much I like the market, and it is lost on both passengers. Peace I like too. But the life of the market is all vivid colors and buzzing sales, and even though it has an honest stink of sweat and refuse, there is a human familiarity in this ocean of interaction. And I am so happy, so joyful to see it is alive in Haiti. Sadness can’t be seen
on these faces. Certainly it is there, but the market blurs it out.
Packets of UN supplied rice, individual portions, make their way into a new future. Francisco and Tejinder sigh. They are frustrated with the commodification of food, as if food were not a commoditiy. I think this is a conflict, all-pervasive, through most wings of disaster relief. People’s spirits are intimately connected with food, and
crisis forces an imbalance that favors physical nourishment. When we see food being sold, a thing prized above all else in relief work, really we are seeing the mind at a momentary triumph. The need to sell, to imagine, this fills the mind with the pleasure of self-sufficiency. Though it may appear brutal and crass, these are people stepping back from absolute dependency. These are people moving
on in their lives, and the resiliency which allows thoughts of markets and exchange in place of hopelessness is admirable, if not miraculous.
I put my camera in its case and roll the window down. For now, the preciously simple parts of life, the economy and entrepreneurship fill me with hope and I see that Haiti is not just broken with her soul intact, but she is alive in conclaves across the country which keep staples of merchant’s days and church hours– things inerasable by
natural disaster.

“In Transit” Fri, 19 Feb 2010 04:32:38 +0000 Location: Santo Domingo through Western Dominican
Date: 11/2/2010
The ride to camp was easy enough. What started out a promise to fly over the great island in helicopter luxury, waking at 4:30 AM for the opportunity, ended as a 6 hour long bus ride to a town and a car drive through the roaring border. The night before, as always when traveling, I disregarded many suggestions to look into hotels, not locating sleeping quarters till I arrived. Any shoestring traveler recognizes the wisdom of this move. My bank account was drained, long since committed to providing basic needs while searching for a spiritually (though ultimately not financially) rewarding goal. Why
receive thanks for relief work? With firmly scheduled langaar, I will eat more regularly than I do at home, and I have been meaning to convert to a more demanding daily plan. Instead, I have given great thanks for this rare opportunity to cultivate my soul and prune my ego, all while food and shelter are relatively secured.
Of course, few financial resources also push you into paths you may not have considered. Certainly a sweaty autobus does not seem an appealing way to cross the Dominican Republic, but what if that bus introduced you to four refugees, a zealous Christian Missionary, and
seemingly random stops at shacks offerring mouth-watering creole dishes. And at night, what if financial strain and an inoperative American phone forced you to guess conservatively at the exchange rate, securing a taxi and hotel room for 600 pesos—approximately
$16? 600 pesos? like me, you might figure the withdrawal amount on the ATM was at least $40 or so. A delightful discovery in the morning, contrasting with the sad discovery of a missing laundry bag—forcing
me to stash a pair of dirty socks in the back of the bathroom cabinet for the next unfortunate resident. I didn’t claim sainthood. So glad, so glad I speak Spanish. Otherwise, both this deal and the creole dishes would no longer accent my day.
After a length of fruitless time at the airport, I took a taxi to the bus stop, speaking intermittently to a voice named “Francisco” who would guide the Dominican characters to a small town outside the border to Haiti. The crowded bus, thick with stale air, was an exciting blend of nationalities headed towards Port Au Prince and the western part of the Republic. For a glorious 6 hours of
incomprehensible Creole, French, Spanish, and Italian, my hiking backpack rested in a miniature trailer hitched to the back, and my laptop and camera case crowded my lap.
The woman to my left was Haitian, and came from Port au Prince; she was traveling back to her country for the first time since the quake. She spoke no English and even less Spanish, so I amused both of us by playing the “gesture and translate game.” For most people this game
only teaches a language if all other stimulation is removed. In such a case, it also works better than any method.
The man to my far right was preaching loudly to a confused Haitian, who spoke no English. I’m positive he got the idea as he said “Yes, Jesus good,” responding with nods. However, when the American man started asking: “Do you think Haitians brought this on themselves?” I
felt dreadfully alone. People on the bus were from poorer families and most lacked English to know the full weight of this religious bomb. He mumbled about the French, Christianity, and how murder and eviction cause earthquakes. His neighbor nodded sleepily, no attempt to
understand the difficult language anymore. I felt like throwing up, or stopping the bus, or throwing a hard object his way. Instead, I curled over my things and tried to nap.
This ride taught me all the Creole words for body parts, which I will remember until my dying day. I will also question the intents of any missionaries offering gifts.

“Infrastructure” Fri, 19 Feb 2010 04:23:51 +0000 Location: Philadelphia to Santo Domingo
Date: 9/2/2010

The plane thumps and rumbles as it squirms away from Philadelphia’s turbulent grasp. Last time I was on land, DC Federal Agencies had been closed for days, and the coming blizzard swallows any chance for improvement. With mass transit immobilized, authority figures absent,
and 10 foot high snow drifts, our nation’s capital seems more like a zombie theme park than the brain of a Western super-power. The mind of our great country is little more than a puttering arctic wasteland; and words like “emergency situation” and “indefinite closings” exacerbate the contrast. Infrastructure—isn’t that what they’ve been
calling it? Isn’t that the word of the moment?
In the past few weeks, we’ve relished this new addition to our vocabulary. This package of syllables buzzing through the airwaves and landing on our tongues at dinner conversation. Is this the infrastructure they speak of in Haiti? This elusive attribute, this something which is “Why,” they tell us, “We simply can’t get resources
out as quickly as we’d hope.” Sometimes it is a “collapsed”
infrastructure, other times we are told “infrastructure” never graced this place—a locale just at our doorstep. A locale which we encouraged to follow an export based model of agricultural production.
A model which drove many farmers and families to the city, where jobs were sparse, living conditions were poor, and good building materials were hard to come by. A model which claimed better infrastructure, and now implies infrastructure is the impediment to disaster relief. No
one in particular is responsible for this model, and it was carried out with good intentions, but it does beg questions about the present day. Is “infrastructure” really the problem here? Are we using this disembodied concept to avoid the human tragedy here, to excuse our own
Such questions deserve consideration. For if we are using the lack of infrastructure to justify bureaucratic speed, we are kidding ourselves and the people of Haiti. What infrastructure do we suggest which would predict earthquakes? Which would build thousands of earthquake proof homes, alleviate a century of French repatriation payments, and provide emergency shelter for refugees? As long as we suggest that this infrastructure is the same which left clipboard wielding workers bumbling to cough up supplies, frightened by the lack of security—lack of guns, really—-“essential” to distribute food, medical supplies, or basic first aid—-as long as these problems of “infrastructure” plague our ability to assist as much as they strain our capacity to prepare, I doubt that it is anything we need here.
All evidence suggests the best first response came from Haitians themselves, from immediately reconfigured social networks, from aid collection and distribution by individuals labeled as thieves, hoarders, and looters. Undoubtedly, we are all human. I don’t mean to suggest that Haitians lack the all-too-human capacity for calculated material greed. I do, however, suggest that the social networks existing before and after the quake—-the network, for instance, that allowed an American Haitian acquaintance to misdial his fiancee’s
number and have the unknown mobile owner physically locate her amidst the chaos—-these networks defy conventional understandings of familiarity. Besides being literally priceless in the face of millions of dollars of aid sleeping warmly on the airstrip, these communities
are psychologically priceless. Without them, with only bureaucratic NGO’s, consent waivers, and mounds of paper work, I fear the spirit of Haiti would have truly collapsed—wrongly assumed to have happened
There are truths here, truths which soar past the vinyl realm of protocol and enter the extraordinary. There are stories, as real as the proud flesh and bone of survivors, which cannot be questioned and will not fit on the space of a clipboard. There are strange men who
bring bowls of water to survivors entombed in concrete debris for 28 days, there are newborn babies who survive collapsed lungs and rib fractures, and there are doctors whose last moments were spent as devoted volunteers. This, world, is Haiti. She is full of dignity in the face of overwhelming tragedy and incalculable loss. Under her
bright gaze a new generation is born from rubble, day-old babies kick and cry out in the camps of bed sheets and earth—still bringing that same smile from the mother—entirely exhausted, body drained and weak, but spirit soaring.