Saturday, January 23, 2010

so this is haiti......

That it shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. That it is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. That was about the extent of what I knew about Haiti prior to the evening of Tuesday, January 12th 2010. That was when the first trickle of news that there had been an earthquake of possibly unprecedented catastrophic proportions in Haiti reached my consciousness & had  me confronting the fact that I knew virtually nothing about Haiti, that I had made little attempt to find out anything about it, other than the bits & pieces of information that filtered in without effort through the decades of my adulthood. Last year, as a result of an invitation from Empowerment International, I went to Nicaragua to take photos of the kids they work with in Villa Esperanza, a barrio of Granada. There, I witnessed the dire straits of those living in a degree of poverty that didn't even have a frame of reference in my everyday world. Nicaragua is second only to Haiti as the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. I considered going there also. To record & report the reality of Haiti's conditions. But I didn't follow through, didn't formulate a plan to get there. The idea of going, solo, became a bit scary. I read about rampant crime & violence in the streets. Was it as lawless as I was now imagining it to be ? It's one thing to step into the midst of Vancouver's desperate eastside for one day. Was I courageous enough to step into raging urban lawlessness for 2-3 weeks? Going to Cuba, I hoped to find the truth of Castro's 'socialism', what that actually meant to the daily lives of the people of Cuba, not the propaganda of it that was so easily rammed down one's throat.  To do that I went into the core of Old Havana, hung out there for a couple of weeks, talked to the people, asked questions, listened to their stories.  But I let the idea of doing the same  in Port-au-Prince drift away into an on-going  list of "must do someday" ideas, not only because my imaginings of its lawlessness were intimidating but because it was easier to be lazy, to not research Haiti to the point were intellectual & emotional curiosity would have got me there regardless. Easier to turn away. To not look. As the majority of the world has turned away from Haiti over its turbulent disaster-ridden 200 year long history. Haiti is the only republic in the world that earned its independence by slave revolt. That in itself is enough to lay shame on myself that I hadn't been curious enough to learn that astounding fact. That a people in the americas sucesssfully fought for the abolition of their own slavery 60 years before america's slaves earned their freedom. But the ensuing  poverty & oppression & foreign interference that has been a constant of Haiti's history ever since had left them vulnerable long before this devastating earthquake. 70% of Haiti's 9 million people had been living on less than $2 a day. There had been no running water, no clean water even, for more than 50% of the population & no electricity to the same degree. At 60, the average life expectancy is much lower than any other nation in the western hemisphere. The infant mortality rate is much higher. And the number of orphaned children is in the many hundreds of thousands. There is a huge yawning discrepancy between the 2% that is the light-skinned mulatto elite & the 98% that is the impoverished black. Political corruption both facilitates & condones that discrepancy. The minimum wage only recently was increased to $3 a day. Hard manual construction labour or toiling in the back-breaking fields 12 hours a day or in service to the rich & powerful & elitist few, will net a hardworking Haitian $3 a day!. Oh, don't we take so much for granted in this, in relative terms, affluent society of ours? Many of us would think nothing of spending $3 a day for a cup of coffee at corporate Starbucks....... or whatever one's particular brand of consumerism is in a world where we willingly spend billions of dollars a year to plaster our bodies & our homes with product names. And imagine that it somehow elevates us to some societal status of validation. Naomi Klein's 'No Logo' is an eye-opening read on the subject. The Tommy Hilfiger company doesn't actually produce or sell anything. Nothing. Except its name, that is. Hilfiger's business is the business of selling the Hilfiger name to other companies, who put it on their products. Products we  then buy &  display the ridiculously imposed Hilfiger logo. At the time of first learning this, it boggled the mind. What a culture of gullible consumeristic sheep we are. The Haitians however, with that same Starbucks-spent $3 a day, will eke out a measure of life for themselves. Build a house of ticky-tack on a denuded hill & hope it's strong enough to withstand the force of weather pattern hurricanes & fault-line eruptions. That there are no imposed building codes is of little concern or relevance when the order of the day is survival.

 We waited with bated breath for the news media to spew it out. How catastrophic is it? How many people have died? But it was so much more far-reaching than that. At 4.53pm on Tuesday, January 12th, the bowels of the planet turned Haiti inside out & revealed, for stark global awareness, the tragic impoverished ignored reality that was Haiti before the much as it is after. Poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, infectious disease, violence, corruption, as far back as anyone can remember. Governments, corporations, churches rallied worldwide instantly. As did everyday citizens who, even if their own lives are a struggle, recognized that they are nowhere near as badly off as the people of Haiti are. Indeed, as they have always been. We've seen the images, we've watched & listened to the news. We now know. Hearts have felt compassion & wallets have been opened. That's the human condition in times of great need. To want to help.

Haitian artist activist Wyclef Jean delivered a message from the people of Haiti on Thursday. Please, no more photo ops. That was the message. 'No more photo ops. We need help. Now.' They have no food, no water, no shelter, no functioning government, no security force. Endless images of their tragic state, their homelessness, of their bone-crushed children having limbs hacked off in primitive medical procedures, of their impossibly damaged & clogged infrastructure, of the lawlessness that has always been there as a survival instinct of a desperately impoverished people but now for the first time has a global spotlight shining on it. These horrific images for endless days no longer serve a constructive purpose. They have accomplished the initial necessary & hoped for effect. Monetary donations of compassion. In the hundreds of millions of dollars. But what does that mean to the tragic figures facing a barrage of cameras every day since January 12th?? Aid is not yet reaching them. Or is doing so far too slowly. The new wave of death is the tens of thousands of seriously injured whose untreated wounds are succumbing to sepsis. But there is little of the equipment & supplies required for medical intervention being dispersed as yet. While countries fight over who has the right to land at the airport, the people of Haiti are dying. Lacking the basics of food, water, shelter & medical help, they fend for themselves as best they can. And soon, the deadly diseases that manifest from contaminated water & barely existent sanitation in the aftermath of disasters of such dimension will show themselves. Some of the people  are rebelling, many are pleading for speedier help, some are quietly going about the business of building new homes, crude shelters really, with whatever scraps of materials can be salvaged from the rubble, sticks, blankets, pieces of corrugated iron or cardboard. They are existing in conditions of deplorable human misery. So many tears. So much pain & loss. But their spirit is strong beyond measure. In the midst of unbelievable trauma & chaos, they make music, they sing, they dance, they give thanks to their God for saving them. And they wait. They wait  for help, begging not to be forgotten again. The whole world, as one community, has come together, has pledged to help, with both immediate aid & far into the future for the reconstruction of their country. But so far the distribution of basic aid is trapped in the throes of chaos & disorganization & broken down infrastructure & the medical teams & humanitarian aid workers can't do the job they rushed to Haiti to do. Help is needed in Haiti. It is needed immediately. May it be available to them soon. Today.

Hats off to George Clooney for the concept & immediate global-reaching execution of an unprecendented in the history of television telethon concert. Its style & presentation was impeccable. In 2 hours of air-time, nothing & no one up-staged Haiti & its immediate need for help. Not applause. Not the sets. Not special effects. And not the artists, a line-up like we've never seen before, for not one of them was named either on the screen or by announcement. Not Wyclef Jean, who manned the telethon's execution on the New York end. And not Clooney, who was as unintrusive as a charismatic celebrity of his renown could possibly be. The focus was on Haiti & its need. And there it remained. As was the humanitarian intention of the telethon. Mr Clooney & everyone who made it happen.

Canada's preceding telethon, though successful in its fund-raising aim, 9 million dollars in one hour, a sum which will be matched dollar for dollar by the federal government, was nowhere near as successful in its style. But how could it be with neurotic egotist Ben Mulroney at the helm. Mr Mulroney was so intent on up-staging everyone & everything that at one point it seemed evident that, in his mind, the event was about him. Get it together, Ben. What little charm you do have is wearing very thin.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

the dilemma of vancouver's eastside

Infamous. Desperate. Derelict. A chronic out-of-control very visible condition of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the city's oldest neighbourhood.......... poverty, homelessness, street crime, prostitution, open drug-dealing, public drug use (the most common being heroin, crack cocaine & crystal meth). Some didn't think I should go there. But I went anyway. I was shocked. Even having read news articles and seen documentary film coverage over the years, in reality the condition is staggering. Swarms of people... hanging out in alleyways, dealing in doorways, hunkering en masse on street corners & sidewalks. I instictively knew to be furtive if I was going to take photos, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, holding the camera at waist level, using the flexible screen. But not inconspicuous enough. Twice females from the street approached to warn me what could happen. "They'll throw beer cans at you" said the first. "They get offended when people take photos...they'll grab your camera & smash it. You don't want that to happen, do you?" said the second. After the second warning I felt I was pushing my luck and stopped shooting. The city of Vancouver had high hopes of cleaning up the area before international journalists & millions of visitors arrive for the 2010 Olympics and see all.... but just 4 weeks away from the games' opening it is obvious that whatever plans the city had have failed miserably. Rumours have been rampant that all the sad lost souls on the streets of the eastside were to be rounded up and hidden away somewhere til the games were over. Draconian measures, indeed. Not realistic. Or just. Where could they put them? They are many. Jail? Shelters? Rehab? Housing would have been a solution but it seems that is not a doable option. It remains to be seen what if anything is in fact put in place in an attempt to hide from the world this desperate state of being that exists in what is considered Canada's most beautiful city.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


A young child, perhaps 2 years of age or less, sits on her mother's lap. Offered a small piece of peeled mango she seems to hold it on her tongue for a moment then........ the back arches, the eyes roll upwards, the limbs jerk akimbo, a smile of absolute bliss transforms her baby face as she writhes in this seemingly new experience for her developing senses. When was the last time I ate food in such a mindful manner that my taste buds reached their full potential for ecstasy?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

oh what a tangled web

New year's eve I was tending bar in a small private club, a semi regular volunteer gig that serves me well in that kind of social scene. I'm a non-drinker. But lest you think I'm a puritan, I smoke like a mad fiend..... but that's another story. A good time was had by all . We closed the doors at 2am. Ah, but what do I find left behind, beneath a table....a small black knapsack. This being a members-only club, our little work-team of 3 knows all the members, though errant guests do get by once in awhile without registering, as do a few crashers. We opened the knapsack expecting to find ID. None. But it did contain a large bible from what seemed to be a seniors' church, an envelope of blank application forms for opening a small business, a tattered notebook with almost illegible somewhat illiterate randomly scrawled jottings and, explaining the weight of the bag, a beautiful signed inuit soapstone animal carving, stuffed inside a dirty white sock & then wrapped in a dirty white undershirt. How absurd! Who would carry such an expensive object around in an old rather grungy-looking knapsack on new year's eve? I took the knapsack home with me expecting an enquiry from the forgetful reveller the next morning. Nothing. 48 hours later I posted a notice, without knapsack-content details, on the community boards seen by most who are members of the club. No response. A couple of days later, my son & sister were visiting & I mentioned this strange occurrence to them. They wanted to see the inuit sculpture & its incongruous wrapping. Next thing I knew, the pair of them had revealed their secret inner yearnings to be detectives & were at my computer with the contents of the knapsack spread out before them googling for clues ! The inuit artist was easiest to find. He has an extensive website. His work sells from $500 to $5000. I can believe it. There were many photographs of his carvings but none that duplicated the sample sitting at that moment on my computer desk seeking resolution to its mystery. My sister set about deciphering the clues to be found in the notebook scribblings, my son fed said clues into google. Both were breathing fire with the excitement of the challenge. One name that google connected to a phone number, found scrawled in the notebook in heavy pencil, turned out to be that of one of a group of 5 charged & convicted of a tele-marketing scam that bilked 50,000 canadian & american companies of $23 million ! The application forms to start a small business found in the knapsack now began to have suspicious implications. And the possibility that the expensive sculpture in its seedy sock bag had in fact been stolen..... the reason nobody was laying claim to its no doubt unintended & regretful loss. The notebook also contained "to-do" lists. Among the mundane many :

go to church,

attend AA,

sell tickets.

find people who would like to invest !!!!

We seem to be looking for a bible-reading church-going reformed-alcoholic semi-illiterate senior who possibly steals soapstone sculptures & has aspirations to start a small investment business. Anybody know anyone who fits this description ? *~*

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

shut the up!!

Don't you want to throttle them? Go right over & stick a knife in their backs? Doesn't matter what public space you're in, the street, restaurant, a bus, the subway, top of the cn tower, waiting for the movie to start, standing in line for the john, even the reverent public library where shhhh! silence! has been the rule of thumb for time in memorian....... there they are with their bloody cellphones stuck to their ear, talking in loud voices about their mundane little lives. What is that anyway? Can't be alone with their own thoughts for a single second lest they might have to face the reality that they don't have a thought worth musing on? A desperate need to prove to everyone within earshot , including themselves, that they're not the depressed friendless isolated urban dweller we might dare to assume they are? Cellphones..... and their users! An obnoxious in-your-face blight on contemporary society's day to day living! A total loss of consideration for everyone else's right to a reasonable measure of unintruded upon existence. A profound lack of common courtesy that is enough to make this ranter tear her hair out by the roots & ram it down the offender's throat til they are rendered speechless! Aaah, silence at last! This abuse of common air space is not even limited to lone souls reaching out to someone, anyone, for companionship, to conduct business on the go, to verify that it was milk they were supposed to pick up on the way home & not a bottle of poison to put an end to their measly sad lives. No, they can be seen all dressed up at lunch on a patio or dinner on the town, in groups of 3 or 4 or more, not even remotely socializing with each other, each & every one of them with a cellphone clamped to the ear talking to someone elsewhere. Yesterday I was riding the Red Rocket out to the west end of the city. No sooner had I sat down than the person behind me started talking loudly to some invisible contact at the other end of a cellphone. The opening lines of her end of the conversation? "Whatssup? Watcha doin'?" Doesn't even have anything of any value to say!! And on & on it went. I can feel the irritation stirring its juices in my gut but, hey, it's January 5th, not a good way to start a new year so I move, collect all my already removed wintergear, hat, scarf, gloves & take a seat at the back of the streetcar where I can no longer hear her loud tedious smalltalk. The return journey several hours later.....had just settled down, taken out & started reading Chris Hedges' excellent "Empire of Illusion" when the young woman across the aisle from me starts up on her cellphone..... very loudly, like she's giving a performance and demanding that every other rider on the streetcar be her audience, whether they like it or not. Her hostage would be a more appropriate word. Her topic of relentless conversation? A 'he said, she said' gossip reportage of the previous evening apparently. Concentration to read is impossible. Am I going to move again? No, I am not! Am I going to stay silent & irritated? No, I am not! "Miss, talk with a quieter voice!!!!" spoken quite loudly.... but no response, my voice has not penetrated the banality of her idle chatter. "HEY!!!" She glances over to me with a surprised 'who me?' look on her face. " Talk with a quieter voice" "Oh, sorry!" she says and continues talking on her cell at a more reasonable level. A few passengers cheer, in relief I suspect. But is she sorry? Has she thought about what prompted a demand for consideration on a crowded public vehicle? Hopefully... but probably not. She was still talking when I exited the streetcar. I, on the otherhand, have taken my first but not my last step of rebellion against this constant onslaught of vocal invasion. Be warned Toronto. I am about to become recognizable as the woman who's not going to take it anymore. Get out of my face with your damn cellphone. Get a life. A real life in the here & now! Try a little silence! Shut the up!!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

once upon a time.....