Sunday, July 1, 2012

This is Haiti

For my last summer as a student - ever - I took the opportunity to visit Haiti for 5 weeks and administer questionnaires about the experiences of people with disabilities. Team Canada Healing Hands performed the first round of surveys in 2009 and embarked upon a second round of data after the earthquake for a current needs assessment.

These past few weeks here have been quite the immersion. For starters, did you know that Haiti is in the Caribbean? I know, geographically, that is obvious. However, it's attached to the Dominican Republic where people travel for spring break and other vacations. Yet, somehow I didn't expect to see the tropical beauty prevalent in Haiti. I expected poverty, broken houses, potholed roads, hungry people. I did not expect banana, mango and breadfruit trees everywhere, beautiful mountains, lots of geckos and white sand beaches.

Of course, there is still poverty, broken houses, potholed roads and hungry people. As one of the many people who saw pictures of the devastation immediately after the January 2010 earthquake and almost nothing since, I was shocked by how much progress has been made. Except in the poorest areas much of the rubble has been cleared. Construction is taking place everywhere - maybe not construction that I would feel safe standing - let alone sleeping - in, but construction nonetheless. People are busily selling anything that can be sold. Sure, there are beggars, but even Canada has beggars.

This is not to downplay Haiti's struggles in anyway. Haiti is known to be the poorest country in the western hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. This is to demonstrate that Haitians are people who live in a poor country which was recently devastated by a natural disaster, on top of historical devastation of the more man-made variety.

The vast majority of Haitians I have met are friendly and open to answering my questions. Some have mentioned to me their lack of optimism for governmental change due to corruption. Others have talked about the varieties of aid-workers who flocked to Haiti in 2010. I've been told that they can tell who actually cares and who cares more for the salary and perks of an aid job. The big differences being that those who care come to Haiti with skills they can offer, take time to learn the language, and speak to Haitians about their lives. Interesting that there would be anyone who came to Haiti to "help" yet has no skills to offer, hasn't taken time to learn a few words and hasn't asked the Haitians about their lives and how they can work together?

The point is simply to remind those of us lucky enough to live in a safe, developed country with educational and job opportunities that while it is easy to look at a poor country such as Haiti and either judge them for their poverty or feel sorry for them, that Haitians need neither judgement nor pity. What Haitians want, so far as they've told me at least, is a chance for their children to go to school, jobs for themselves so they can provide for their families and have improved access to food, water and maybe some nonessential items like nice clothing and furniture. Haitians want to be treated with dignity and respected as persons. While each of these desires is quite reasonable, achieving those will require commitment from those in power and collaboration among the many aid workers here to help. Such a reasonable desire perhaps looks a lot less reasonable when achieving it requires the collaboration of powerful individuals.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"Pirates" of the Caribbean

Last week my Mom and younger sister Clare were here in St. Lucia for a conference. Thankfully they remained a few days after it ended so we had time to hang out and explore together. One afternoon I got out of the hospital particularly early so we headed up to Gros Islet to explore.

Gros Islet is a little town at the northwest side of St. Lucia and I'd only been there one night previously for a Jump Up, or street party. The town appeared quite different during the day, although we didn't really bother exploring and headed straight for the beach. Wandering north we entered "all-inclusive hotel land" and were struck by the dozens of inhabitants in/around the pool in front of the hotel surrounded by palm trees overlooking a white sand beach and clear caribbean sea - and the sparsity of persons actually on the white sand beach or in the clear Caribbean sea. Honestly, they'd likely have been just as happy with a hollywood backdrop of the same view...

A little further north and we found ourselves along a slender arm of sand connecting St. Lucia to Pigeon Island which formerly housed pirates and outlaws since they had a clear view of all oncoming attackers. As we walked out we gazed across calm, turquoise water to our left and turbulent greenish Atlantic water to our right. What an incredible difference to view white capped Atlantic waves crashing on the rocks while a mere 40 feet away a turquoise sea calmly lapped at the beach.

Hours later, returning home we stopped to swim just south of resort land. Just as visions of emerging back onto land danced in our heads a storm appeared on the horizon. Rather than emerging to dry off in the midst of a storm Clare and I decided to remain swimming while Mom sought shelter for herself and our stuff under a pathetically leafed tree which offered no shelter.

The rain felt more like hail and sinking deeper into the water so only our heads were exposed we peered out across the water pockmarked with raindrops and a sheen of mist rising inches upwards. Off in the distance at the edge of the inlet were 3 sailing ships which took on the appearance of pirate ships.

After such a lovely day, we eventually emerged wrinkly fingered from the ocean into a cooler evening breeze, dressed in our then-wet clothes and sat our wet selves on the front seat of a minibus to head home. The driver appeared happier to see us get off than he did to see us get on.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

CME in St. Lucia

Yesterday at the hospital I was told one of the local doctors would be presenting on Dengue for Continuing Medical Education (CME). Of course, being currently at risk of catching dengue and knowing almost nothing about it I was quite excited to attend.

This evening, along with a room packed beyond standing room only (the organisers brought in double the amount of chairs initially in the room and still people were standing in crevices), I heard two really awesome talks.

The first presenter is from Oxford and also teaches at the London School of Tropical Diseases. Apparently he's written THE textbook on tropical medicine and visits occasionally to partner with some doctors here. His talk was amazing and brought home - in graphic medical detail - that almost everything I love to do in life is actually a remarkably quick route to a horrible death, unless I am ridiculously lucky. I really hope I'm lucky.

The second presenter went into the pathology, physiology and epidemiology of dengue which was amazing. One lucky discovery is that the mosquitoes which carry dengue are only active during the day, so at least all my mosquito bites/netting precautions at night are only protecting me from an itch whereas my time in the hospital during the day hopefully protects me from dengue. The only difficulty with the second presentation was her assumption that every doctor in the room was exceedingly familiar with dengue - and she consequently raced through the slides which were most interesting to me - pathology, physiology and treatment. I still learned a lot and it was nice to feel cool surrounded by St. Lucia's doctors at a CME event.

In other news, I continue to swim in the Caribbean ocean almost daily. The coconut vendors are beginning to know me quite well and I got my first discount on a coconut today which was very exciting - cheaper even than local rates! Then, of course, I jogged down to the beach and had a little swim before heading off for an evening of educational delight.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A not too shabby day

Today, I made a few discoveries about what the perfect day might consist of:
1) I was allowed to leave the hospital early (by 12:30pm!) on a Friday afternoon
2) I caught both buses en route to home pretty much right away
3) The afternoon was so hot and sunny that I stopped by the market and paid less than $1 for a coconut.  After drinking the coconut water the vendor chopped a little piece of husk off for me to use as a spoon, dig the coconut pulp out and eat.
4) About to embark on a 30 minute walk along the airport runway to get home and change out of work clothes, a woman pulled up, asked if I wanted a lift and dropped me right where I wanted to be since she couldn't stand the thought of me walking such a distance in that heat
5) Arriving home, I spent a few minutes lounging in the backyard tanning
6) After tanning I decided to walk the 5 minutes to a gorgeous white sand beach and swim in clear Caribbean waters
7) After my swim I arrived home to supper being cooked for me - fresh fish and desert was a flourless chocolate cake
8) Now, as I type this blog post a warm breeze is blowing through the windows and the lights of Castries glimmer across the water
9) I felt thirsty and quenched my thirst with a local mango
10) Soon, I will venture to a nearby town for a fish fry street festival

Certainly, there is room for improvement in the above list - and much more could be added. As Fridays go, this one was pretty f'ing awesome.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Water, Water Everywhere!

Hurricane season has officially hit with a number of rainstorms. As a lovely neighbour explained to me the other day, hurricanes hit St. Lucia so badly because its the hottest few months of the year and the soil gets dried out and silty - therefore any rain or wind can seriously erode the hills which comprise St. Lucia and all the houses and roads precariously perched alongside. If that is so, the last couple days have hopefully seen enough rain to stave off too much erosion should a hurricane hit.

Today has mostly been rainy and seeing as how it was my longest day at the hospital I was quite happy for that. It's difficult to work in a hospital ventilated by cross breezes and gaze out the numerous windows at beaches, ocean and tropical hillsides knowing I won't be out in them for another few hours. Those same landscapes covered in rain are more beautiful at a distance.

Friday I received permission to leave the hospital early and went to Rodney Bay just north of Castries. It was my first exposure to tourist central and there were shopping malls, tourists and hotels galore! I took the bus to the marina and then walked along the highway to the town center. It was about a 30 minute walk so I was grateful to meet a man selling fresh coconuts just as I entered the town. I enjoyed the fresh coconut juice and he then chopped the rest open for me to enjoy the flesh. I finally wandered into a hotel and through the spacious lounge area onto the beach.

A couple hours later I met up with some fellow med students from Kiwiland as we ventured back to my coconut vender friend and started the evening off right by creating mojitos from fresh limes, mint and local rum. To finish the night we went to nearby Gros Islet for a "Jump Up" a street party complete with Caribbean music, tons of bbq'ed food and a hilarious mix of dancing locals and attempting to dance tourists.

To finish off the weekend right I spend most of Sunday on the beach and swimming. I built a sandcastle with the kids who live where I'm staying and I discovered that the little tiny clams I've always ignored before are apparently quite a tasty treat here taken home, washed and fried. We were chased off the beach by a 10 minute rainstorm which lasted just long enough to ensure I remained soaked as I sat in the back of the truck on the drive back to the house.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Thankfully the hospital is airconditioned! I spent today in the operating room and was actually rubbing my arms to stay warm by the end of it. Stepping out into the hot breeze almost seemed nice after that, for the first 10 minutes. Apparently I have an amazing schedule here and most days will be at the hospital from 730 til early afternoon - leaving the rest of the afternoon and evening free to explore!

After finishing at the hospital I unlocked my phone - felt pretty cool knowing how to do that - to purchase a local sim card. Wandering through the downtown of Castries I was then stopped by a guy who had given me directions this morning and wanted to make sure I had reached my destination alright. Castries has a population of 10,000 and 60,000 if surrounding areas are included. That officially makes it a smalltown city and I hope to become friends with a few people en route.

They say pride goes before a fall, but in my case it goes before a free "bus" ride. Becoming proficient with local buses I began the last leg of my journey home in the blazing sun - on the lookout for passing buses. My experience so far has been that every other car will offer me a lift, but I've also received enough warnings on safety to not venture into any of said cars. After only 3 minutes of walking a bus drove past me and after verifying that there were passengers on board I flagged it down. The driver asked me if I was going to the airport and I told him just a little further past. He drove me to where I wanted to go and as I got off I tried to pay him. At that point I discovered (thanks to his rejection of my measly bus fare) that I had jumped into a taxi hired by other people who were going to the airport, and who had graciously picked me up and taken me past their destination to mine: AMAZING.

Monday, May 30, 2011

St. Lucia!

True to form, now that I am visiting another country, I feel the urge to blog again. This afternoon I flew into Hewanorra international airport pre-sunburnt. Living in St. John, NB I've become as fanatical a weather watcher as any retiree. Any forecasted sun causes me to rearrange my week so I can be outside for those few hours - unfortunately, I only had to rearrange my week twice since February.

Having blanched to a glow-in-the-dark white this past winter I was grateful to see sun again for the few days I spent in NY this past week. It was the first time in 8 years that I'd been in NY not working for WYA as either intern or staff - it felt weird to stop by the office and be the distractor rather than the distracted. WYA invited me over for a delicious BBQ to catch up with the staff and meet the interns and it was great to see how much progress had happened over this past year - and also what hadn't changed (still problems with the air-conditioning...).

For my last day in NY Anna, Clare and I visited City Island which is the Bronx equivalent of the Hamptons. We wandered all over the island in search of imaginary dream homes and sandy beaches. We found the homes, delicious butter soaked shrimp and lots of sun - so much so that at the end of the day Anna and I looked like freshly baked lobsters. By evening I was already in pain which made carrying my backpack through the airport difficult today. It also meant that arriving to St. Lucia and easily 35 Celsius + humidity I still kept my jacket on to prevent further burning.

St. Lucia is gorgeous and honeymoon destination extraordinaire - over half the plane consisted of newlyweds. The country is gorgeous; palm trees, banana plantations, rainforest in the middle, rolling hills and of course the beaches reaching out into aquamarine water on every side! All the St. Lucians I've met so far have also been incredibly hospitable and I hope it continues, for purely selfish reasons.

Tomorrow I meet the hospital director and discover what will be expected of me during my elective here. I'll likely leave most of those details out of future blogs due to confidentiality and of course courtesy for most people who find medical stuff gross. In the meantime I'm off to sleep to the sweet sound of the loudest crickets and frogs I've ever heard.