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2 posts from December 2012

12/03/2012

A Few Days in Haiti

I recently spent a few days in Haiti. I returned to Santiago with a new perspective and a motive for change. This is why I travel. Haiti- HatOn November 2, 2012 I and about 16 other students made the trip from Santiago to Cabo-Haitiano/Cap-Haitïen/Cape Haitian on the north coast of Hispaniola. At around 5AM, once everyone in the group had arrived to our meeting point on campus we made our way in the guagua (bus) to the DR-Haiti border. Only three hours away, it was incredible to see the difference between these two countries which share the same island.

At the border in Dajabon, there was a constant traffic of people. I suppose this is common to most border areas, but I was especially surprised by this case. I saw tons of people crossing the border into DR, many carrying goods to sell at the nearby market. Groups of Haitian women were lined up at the DGM (La Direccion General de Migracion) waiting to be escorted to their day jobs in the Dominican Republic. According to our Resident Coordinator, these women had previously only needed a badge to cross into the DR for their work... now the process is much more lengthy and convoluted.

After a long wait at the border, sorting out the paperwork and money, we finally crossed into Haiti and made our way to Milot, the first stop on our short adventure. I will say that in my short lifetime I've interacted with lots of children from different parts of the world, but none as animated and joyful as the children I encountered in Haiti. While sitting in the guagua in Milot and waiting for our tour guides to arrive, we played with the kids standing on the sidewalk just a few feet away from our bus. One of the boys in our group got a kick out of making faces with the children and seeing their reaction. It was really the best welcome we could have received.

After driving up a steep and often muddy mountain (insert applause for the incredible Chauffeur Don Hector), we finally arrived at the  Citadelle Laferrière. The Citadelle is actually one of Haiti's most well-known landmarks. It has been recognized as the largest fortress in the Americas. Pretty astounding. The Citadelle was constructed under the leadership of Henri Cristophe, a significant figure in the Haitian Revolution, following Haiti's independence from France at the start of the 19th century.

I'll never forget the crowd that approached our guagua when we first arrived at the entrance to this historic area. Somewhere between 60 and 100 people, most selling small goods, approached our bus when they saw our bus approaching. A few people in the group bought hats and bracelets while we were there. We began our walk up to the Citadelle, led by a few tour guides from Milot. Nearly every person from our group was also accompanied by a younger Haitian male. My partner, a young man named Steven, served as a history guide, a Haitian-Creole teacher, and motivator all over the course of the hike up to the Citadelle. And what a hike it was! In the heat of midday we scaled steep hills only to find more hills to climb. The sight was well worth it. Once we arrived at the Citadelle, we split up into small groups and began our tour around the area.Haiti- Tread CarefullyHaiti- Camp LaneayBoth the Citadelle and our later stop at San-Souci Palace were some of the greatest highlights of my visit to Haiti in the beginning of November. I've had the opportunity to learn about the history of Haiti and the Haitian Revolution in my university classes, and it was incredible to experience that history so up-close and to also see the pride that Haitians have for their country.
Haiti- RyanHaiti- Palacio San SouciHaiti- KhemaniThat night, everyone was very tired from the long walks around the landmarks, so we had a chance to just relax at our beautiful hotel for the evening. Our hotel in Cabo-Haitiano had a gorgeous view overlooking the beach. In the evening, we enjoyed hamburgers, fries, and some Haitian Prestige and passed the time away playing Mafia, riddles, and other fun games.

 The next day, we made the trip to Labadee. This is a very well-known beach on the north coast of Haiti, but not everyone is aware of its whereabouts. That is because many cruise liners will take their guests to this gorgeous beach and only mention that it is on the island of Hispaniola, not that it is in Haiti. We enjoyed the sun and sand, and visited two different beaches over the course of our day there.Haiti- Khemani 3On the ride back from the beach, I got to talking with a gentleman who started a non-profit organization in Port-au-Prince. His focus has been on feeding the over-populated, urban areas by starting small gardens. It’s a program called Growing Haiti. We discussed a lot of the ways that Haiti is portrayed in the U.S. media, sources of aid that have not come through since the 2010 earthquake, and some of the harsh realities of modern-day Haiti. It was really an insightful conversation that got me thinking more deeply about the things I was seeing during my time there.Keke and JanaThat evening, we went out to eat at a nice restaurant near the sea. I spoke with the same gentleman I was talking to earlier, and he told me about his travels throughout Central America, exploring the African diaspora in various Latin American countries. It was all so fascinating. After we finished up eating, we all went out to a discothèque in the city and danced to reggae, electronic music, and Rihanna. It was completely unlike any discoteca or típico I've gone to in the Dominican Republic, but enjoyable nonetheless.

 Finally on our last day in Haiti, we woke up and headed out to do some last minute souvenir shopping at an artisan market. I picked up a few carved stones and some bracelets to bring back. We also visited one last landmark, the Monument of the Vertieres. The sun was beating down on us by this point, but we took pictures and talked about the historical significance of the monument before hopping back into the guagua and heading home to Santiago.

 Although it was a very short trip, I will never forget the things that I saw and learned about Haiti during these few days. I am glad that I had the opportunity to see the modern-day reality of this island nation, which so often is portrayed maliciously by U.S. media outlets. I hope to one day return, and hopefully for a longer span of time. And I also plan to share my experience in Haiti with more people, so that they too can learn about the modern-day situation there, it’s something which I feel everyone ought to know.

"Out" in a Closed Society

Gaydr
  

    I cannot speak on every aspect of the gay experience in the Dominican Republic, but I would like to share some of my experiences as a feminine, “out” lesbian who has been living in Santiago for what is now almost four months. I add these descriptors because I imagine that my feelings and experiences would be slightly or even much different if I was a gay man, if I was more masculine (and therefore not able to “pass” for straight), if I was in the closet, or if I was living in the more liberal city of Santo Domingo (where the above picture was taken). Although perhaps only a relatively small number of people may relate directly to my story, I feel called to share it in the hope that I can help someone else find their voice.

    Before arriving in the Dominican Republic, I was sure to do my research on LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) rights in this country. I needed to make sure that I wasn’t going to one of those places where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment, death, or anything crazy like that. I found that the situation here is not quite that bad. Homosexuality is legal, but there are no laws to protect LGBT people from discrimination or hate crimes. Same sex marriage? Forget about it; the government only recognizes matrimony between a man and a woman. I wasn’t planning on getting married here, so that wasn’t an immediate concern for me. I recognized, however, that where there are not laws to protect gay people, there is also most often a homophobic culture. I already knew that Dominican culture is heavily influenced by machismo and by Catholicism. A little googling confirmed my guess that Dominicans tend to be close-minded on issues of sexual orientation and that it is more acceptable for men to be gay. This has to do, again, with the religious influence and with strict gender roles that dictate that men must be macho and women must behave in certain ways, including being a good wife to her husband. I felt that I would be safer and that I would live more comfortably if I hid my sexual orientation. I was therefore determined to be in the closet for the first and only time in my life.

    When I actually began living in Santiago, I found my experience to be quite different from what I had expected. I didn’t expect to meet any other gay people, especially Dominicans, who were “out”. To my surprise, I met an openly gay Dominican student at PUCMM within my first week of living here. I saw how she was able to be honest with her friends and family about her sexual orientation, even while she lived in a culture dominated by machismo and plagued by homophobia. She inspired me, and the day I met her I decided that I could not be closeted during my time here. I realized that I owe it to myself to be honest about who I am and that perhaps I also owe it to other gay people who have not yet found their voice to express who they are.

    Since then, I have received support and have been accepted by all of the other CIEE students in my group and by the CIEE staff. Most surprisingly, I have also found acceptance and support from the Dominican friends that I have made. It’s not that I go around campus declaring that I am a lesbian, but the people that I have met and have felt comfortable coming out to have, for the most part, been very accepting and open. There was a moment when homosexuality became the topic of discussion in one of my classes. I was really touched when a straight Haitian student passionately expressed his support for gay rights and another Dominican student added that a gay person should have the right to hold his or her partner’s hand in the street without problems. It has been this support—unspoken and spoken, direct and indirect—that has made me a little more comfortable being gay and “out” in this country.

    While most of my experiences regarding my sexual orientation have been positive, there have also been moments that have made me uncomfortable. Daily life is relatively easy for me, because I can blend in with Dominican women and “pass” as straight. However, when I am in public with the woman that I am dating we both know that we must show discretion. When we choose to show any affection in public, we usually try to make sure we are not in crowded places. When people see us doing anything that might indicate that we are dating, they sometimes stare or make comments. Almost every day I am angered that I can’t feel comfortable walking down the street holding her hand, that I must be kept a secret from her parents (who don’t know she’s gay), and that we must look to make sure nobody is around before I give her a kiss on campus, among other things. At the back of my mind, I have a fear that at some point someone could get hostile or physically violent with us if they have a problem with seeing two women together. This fear is something that I must grapple with while I am here, that has been put into my head by a history of LGBT people being harassed, beaten, and killed all over the world simply for their sexual orientation. While I sometimes feel this same fear in New York, it is amplified by living in a homophobic culture and in a country where there are few (or no) resources and laws that protect and help LGBT people.

    Being “out” here has not been drastically different from my experiences in the U.S., but there are several dissimilarities that I must note.  In New York, I have many gay friends, there are dozens and dozens of organizations aiding LGBT people, most people in my city are comfortable with homosexuality, and there is even a gay student group at my school. I almost always feel comfortable and supported. Here in Santiago, I know only a couple “out” gay people, there are no organizations that I know of that are dedicated to gay people, most people are uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality, and there is certainly no gay group at PUCMM.  I have interpreted this lack of openness and resources as a rejection of homosexuality, and this rejection of part of my identity has most definitely made my time here more difficult.

     Living as an openly gay person in Santiago has felt how I imagine living in a small, conservative town in the United States would feel for me— at times isolating, scary, and extremely frustrating. I am enraged several times a week when I feel that I must censor myself in order to feel safe and comfortable. However, like people in the U.S. who have become LGBT allies despite living in a conservative, homophobic culture, my Dominican friends have shown me that acceptance for gay people is also possible here. I therefore will continue to be “out”, to keep positive despite the fact that I am often angered, and to help those that I meet learn about the importance of tolerance and gay rights.  While I cannot change a whole culture, I hope that my decision to be “out” will influence the people I meet and that I can serve as a resource so that other people can also feel supported and comfortable in their own skin.