Thursday, December 2, 2010

SOIL in the news!

Nicholas Kristoff has a good article about Haiti here:

He also mentions SOIL and their great work helping mitigate the cholera crisis!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Substitutionary Atonement

The common Christian belief of substitutionary atonement really bothers me, and is one example of doctrine and dogma gone wrong. I see it as having some value when we understand how it came about, what it meant in context of early Christianity and Judaism, and when it's not expanded beyond a useful idea and codified into doctrine and dogma that defines what Christianity is. (Instead of, for example, what Jesus says is important and is not important.)

The ideas behind substitutionary atonement (i.e. Jesus died for our sins) are compelling when put in context of the common religious beliefs of Jesus' and Paul's time. Judaism and other religions believed in sacrifice to please the gods or to atone for sin against God. In addition, the Pharisees, a very strict, powerful, and influential group within Judaism taught that one's religious and moral obligations were fulfilled primarily through ceremonial deeds. So when Paul speaks of Jesus as a sacrifice to end all sacrifices, it's important to understand that much of Paul's perspective and particular emphasis comes from the fact that he was previously a very zealous Pharisee. With him, the idea of Jesus' atonement has a real practical meaning, it does something – it ends the overall emphasis on sacrifice and ceremonial deeds, opening and pointing to a new way of the spirit, of life, love, and understanding. This is a living way, based on good deeds flowing from love and personal transformation. Combined with seeing our relationship with God as a friend or heir instead of a slave or servant opens up the realm of spirituality instead of rules, legalism, and the kind of blind faith where we just do things without knowing why. Why is something good or bad? We are supposed to know and understand this if, as Jesus says, God's will is made known to us.

Nowadays, substitutionary atonement does the exact opposite of leading the religion toward a living way based on the spirit, where love and good deeds through personal transformation are key. It reinforces the spirit of the Pharisees but packages it as a wolf in sheep's clothing by drawing on Paul's ideas and imagery about Jesus. As a result, it is believed that Christians (and people in general) are saved through particular beliefs about Jesus which can have little to do with their actual moral and spiritual development. These beliefs trump everything else, including Jesus' own very specific teachings and emphasis on following his example and path, as well as coming to intuitively understand what God is about and even move toward being “one with God” as Jesus prayed would happen with all his followers. The current beliefs create much more acceptance of the excuse “Christians aren't perfect” used to explain why Christians don't actually follow Jesus' example and teachings. (Examples of Jesus' insistence on his example and teachings are: “if you love me follow my commandments” and vice versa, “my mother, brother, sister are those who do God's will”, the emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount on putting into practice what he says, and of building your life on the solid foundation he lays out in the Sermon on the Mount that can weather the worst storms).

This view of atonement actually takes the power out of what Jesus taught and the example he lived, sapping its meaning and substance. Then Christians take Jesus' words “I am the way, the truth and the life – nobody comes to the Father but through me” combined with this shallow and weak understanding of atonement, making an even worse set of doctrines that “keep the doors of the Kingdom closed to others”, meaning that many Christians don't enter into the gate of Jesus' reality and way of life and thus are spouting all kinds of nonsense to the rest of the world. In Christian terms, they are not pursuing and entering the reign of God or the kingdom of God, and by their weird ideas are actually putting up barriers for other people as well. Seen through the lens of substitutionary atonement, belief in Jesus in particular – and not what he stood for (in its full spirituality, not just rules) – is what's important and makes Christianity superior to and separate from any other religion, as opposed to the actual core spirituality and essence of love. The bible emphasizes that God is love, and Jesus directly says that God is spirit. He says the things that matter the most are loving God and loving our neighbors (everyone) and especially those people who are different than we are. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for forgetting what is truly important – mercy, justice, and love. The commonly held doctrines today deserve the same criticism. Jesus' death didn't wash away our sins. Aligning ourselves to him and his love which transcends death does. This is not something that requires a belief in outdated, human-created, and exclusivist doctrines.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cholera Epidemic in Haiti

SOIL (the organization I worked with in Haiti in August) is doing great work to help prevent the spread of cholera in Haiti.

Read about it here if you're interested!

Article about Sam Harris, the guy whose book I'm responding to

I just read this article about Sam Harris and thought it was good:

My book is a response to his books, so I'm glad that his do so well (keeping my fingers crossed for mine!) and that mine can still come out in a timely matter compared to his!

Monday, October 4, 2010


I'm about to head out to take the GRE. Feels weird to be doing that - it has been just over 5 years since I originally took it, and hence the need to take it again!

I need it for my application to Columbia University's Earth and Environmental Engineering Ph.D. program. Sounds pretty cool, huh! Ok, at least it does to me.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Interview with Barack Obama

Wanted to share a link to a good interview of Obama by Rolling Stone. I am impressed by his knowledge and consistent stance on things.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Interspirituality and "What makes a Christian a Christian"

Brian Gorman started a blog topic ( "Drawing and Erasing Lines") about what makes a Christian a Christian, among other things. The two of us and some others have an interesting conversation and exchange going on. Feel free to check it out and make some comments if you're interested.

I'm focusing more on interspirituality and cultural critique of the bible (to sort out what is myth/story that points to truth (or contains truth) instead of actually BEING the truth itself, for example.

I find it a really fun conversation - I hope someone else checks it out and finds it interesting!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

9/11 Mosque - Part 2

The Rev. Terry Jones of the congregation in Gainesville, FL that was going to burn Korans has called it off.

As reported in the article above, he arrived in NYC last night and he met with the imam in charge of the new mosque. After that meeting he is committed to not burning the Koran ever. I'm curious what their interactions were like, and what this pastor dude has learned. I want to see more details! I'm just glad that he was willing to meet with the imam in the first place. Just a small seed of open mindedness can grow bigger!

This afternoon, Ebeth, myself, and our friend Misha will be riding around NYC via bicycle and will check out the 9/11 site. Here is an article about the construction that is planned and underway in the area. It's actually starting to come along!

Friday, September 10, 2010

NYC Mosque

I think I will keep this blog for all my general blogging, even though I started it just for my trip to Haiti. It also serves as a good reminder of Haiti now that I'm back in the states.

A friend shared this link through facebook to an article by a Muslim woman reflecting on the controversy over events related to the mosque in Manhattan near the 9/11 Ground Zero site (a few blocks away from it) -

This is a topic I'm passionate about and hope to write about in my forthcoming book, a response to Sam Harris' "A Letter to a Christian Nation". I submitted some hastily written thoughts to the website and am including them below.

Thank you, Matteen for this article - I appreciate your insights, the struggles you face, and your efforts at being involved in civil society. This is a very complicated subject because in all religions there is hypocrisy and people who twist the religion for their own ends. That said, it seems that people do need to have a conversation about what is actually in the contents of the religions. The Hebrew Bible (or Christian Old Testament) does have a lot of horrible violence in it, with very similar laws or themes as the Q'uran. There doesn't seem to be a problem now with religious Jewish people taking those laws too literally - was this a long process of getting past it, or did Judaism somehow "effectively deal with this problem"? I don't know. Then you have Christianity which proclaims Jesus as the consummation of the old laws, and he is consistently nonviolent and pacifist - even Paul with his line of "do not return evil for evil but return evil for good - this is like heaping burning coals over your enemies' heads" is committed to a love that overcomes and transforms evil. Yet, in the course of history Christianity has been extremely violent and many of the people fighting the biggest wars in history say they are Christians, and fought other Christians no less (like WWII for just one example).

In addition, many countries in the West have political leaders that claim Christianity as their religion (and as others have pointed out, this is even an important qualification for many of the highest positions) - yet foreign policies are often very destructive (like US policy in Haiti - see "Damming the Flood" by Peter Hallward). Why is there not as big a push from people to make Christianity more consistent? I think it's because being a dominant structure/institution in the West, it is powerful, it feels harder to criticize it, and because with this power and level of acceptance it can do evil in a less conspicuous (more hidden) way. Contrast that to Islamic extremism which is very open and a goal of it is often to draw attention. I for one, am ashamed of all the evil that has been and is being done in the name of Christianity (as well as in the name of anything) and I am trying to speak out about it, to do something about it. It just seems that one can never do enough!!!

As for the mosque, here's a suggestion. Once it's built, why not start a program there in cooperation with churches, synagoges, and other groups to bring Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists, etc. together so these different groups of people can actually get to know one another? That would be a great way to show that the mosque can have a positive effect in the NYC community at large and is trying to address some of these questions. And by the way, it's not just the mosque's responsibility to do this - synagogues, churches, non-religious groups, and so on should be doing similar things! It's silly to say "the Muslims need to do this x, y, or z good act." EVERYONE needs to do good acts!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Last Days in Haiti!

I am already back in the states, making my way up north by bus and train. My last couple of days in Haiti were fun and interesting. I spent them in the capitol, Port au Prince, where most of SOIL's action is happening. They are taking a hiatus from building ecological toilets to meet with the various camps who use them, to make sure they are being used and to answer concerns, questions, etc. I thought this was a smart move - sometimes such details get swept under the rug in a big push to get work done!

While in PAP, I attended one such meeting above and met a sweet little girl who is either moving to NYC or just visiting for awhile. I spoke with her mom for a little while too. The meeting was held near the major composting site where the contents of the toilets are emptied and left to compost. (Contents = poop + sawdust + sugar cane fiber shreds [bagasse]). It was hovering around a temperature of 140 degrees, indicating that the thermophilic (heat producing and loving) bacteria are doing their job and making it nice and safe from pathogens. I got to talk to one of the co-founders, Sasha Kramer, who to me is like a rock star.

Another morning I got to go on a "drum run" where they drive around to a number of camps and pick up the full drums with their contents and replace them with clean empty ones (and also replenish their supply of bagasse and sawdust). The hardest was a camp where the toilets were down a significant hill. And because the camp was large, there were 15 or so drums to collect! Each of these probably weighs between 30 and 60 lbs, as some were more full and compressed than others. Literally hundreds and perhaps a few thousand people live in some of these camps, in improvised tents made from tarps. At one camp, there were a number of rather strong young guys hanging out and I talked to them some, wondering if they had a basketball court as they looked like they could be ballers. They didn't and asked if I could pay for one. Oops, I walked right into that one! As I was leaving, one guy asked me for money and treated me like I was the leader of the group. I explained I really was working for the Haitians I was with, and that I don't have money (at least now that is true as I don't have a job...). It was just strange to be assumed that I was the boss largely because I'm white. As if young white people don't have a lot to learn and need to move up in experience, and can't be inexperienced compared to Haitians who have been working in SOIL for a long time!

In the afternoon, most of the SOIL group went to an area of town called Cite Soleil, an especially poor and crowded area for a toilet inauguration. This is where a big party is thrown kicking off the grand opening of the toilets, and staging some theatrics to show how they are used. This gets a lot of audience participation, and in general it's quite a sight because we all get rushed by bunches of young eager kids wanting to play, to hold our hands, to teach us their secret handshake, and so on. One early adolescent girl brought me a young child who was crying so I just took her and held her and she felt better and within a few minutes completely passed out in my arms. I had never experienced that before, and had always marvelled when I would see how konked out little kids could be in their parents' arms. Loud noises, moving around, etc. don't phase them - they are out cold!

Then I met up with a guy from Mennonite Central Committee for dinner in town, with an exciting 15 minute motorcycle taxi ride to get there. We had fun, and when I returned to the house, partied it up with some of the other guys there who were also leaving the next day. (The house I stayed at had people working for other NGOs or as freelance journalists). There were some really neat people there and we had a lot of fun.

So that was the last day and a half in brief. It's good to be back - being so poor at Kreyol was a little overwhelming. I wonder when I will go back again (I want to) and will also try to find some Haitian folks to practice with in NYC.

Not a lot of reflection in this post - I'll take a stab at that later!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Recent Haitian history in a nutshell

So a friend asked for more detail on Haiti and I wrote at length about it - that makes it easier to blog about and polish since I already have written a bunch of text!

My last post about the book on Haiti's history was a tad melodramatic, but I stand by that b/c it is a very dramatic history. So basically from 1957 to 1986 Haiti was ruled by two dictators, Francois Duvalier and then his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (nicknamed Papa Doc and Baby Doc respectively). As the 80s went on, people really started getting frustrated with the government. Pope John Paul II visited in 1983 and tried to get people more active in public life, to make a difference, and criticized the inequality of wealth, isolation of the rich from the poor, and so on.

During the 80s, liberation theology (pointing out that a major theme of the gospels is equality of all people and concern for the poor) is becoming better known in Haiti and is being taught in many churches. The very poorest people start banding together and thinking about how to stand up for their rights. Jean Baptiste Aristide, a Catholic priest devoted to liberation theology and nonviolence is asked to run for president by his supporters. He reluctantly does, and sees it as his cross to bear. He is overwhelmingly voted as president in 1990, following which there are two Haitian military coups and he is outsted 8 months into his term in September 1991. (The first one was preemptive, a month before he officially took office but after he was elected - this failed b/c so many people turned up at the national palace to protest and block the action).

The US didn't really like him because he saw how much damage US policies did to the Haitian poor. Most of the foreign aid to Haiti was contigent on Haiti accepting economic policies that benefitted the US (keeping tariffs and taxes low, letting food imports flood Haiti's market destroying local production and self-sufficiency, keeping the minimum wage low even tho it was only $1-2/day - that is NOT enough to live on here!). Even though the US goes around "saving" countries from violent dictator coups, the US didn't do anything and even subtely sided with the military coup. (1991) Then Clinton becomes president and figures he needs a foreign policy success so decides to help Aristide get back into office (a repressive and violent gov't has existed in these three years between 1990 and 1993 when clinton decides to help). Once again, the US (under Clinton) has demands on what economic policies Haiti must take with regard to trade with the US, being unfair, selling off state owned business to the highest bidder no matter who it is, etc. (Apparently this is called untrammeled privitization - I want to learn more about this term.) Aristide negotiates an agreement saying that he will sell off those businesses but doesn't want it to be untrammeled - he wants to make sure that the profits of running the business go not to foreigners but to people in Haiti, and to set up arrangments that some profits will actually go to the poor (to finance development projects) and to the local communities of the factories. The US agrees, helps him get back to be president, and then reneges on its promise. The US says, no you can't do that - we got you back in power and if you want aid you have to do things our way even though previously we negotiated on this. Aid is makes up something like 50% of the total gov't's revenue, so Aristide had no choice. (Many people outside of Haiti criticize Aristide for his so-called compromises, but it turns out that more often than not he was actually forced to accept some policies that weren't the best for the poor.)

The hypocritical thing in the US pursuing democracy and open markets is that this is FAR more "open market" than the United States itself, which has regulations both for safety and to protect its own financial interests (such as subsidies or tariffs to benefit US farmers). The US requires specifically that Haiti have none of these financial protections, and the economy is wrecked as the US prospers by being able to dump all sorts of products on Haiti, and buy cheap stuff from Haiti at starvation wages. (Haiti has one of the most liberal, or open, markets of any country in the Western Hempisphere - far more so than the US.)

Even so, with limited funds and people trying to kill him, Aristide raises the minimum wage to $5/day, starts housing, job projects, education, and literacy projects that actually work for the people living in the slums, and so forth. He also abolishes the army! He saw that throughout its history the army has only been used to oppress the poor and support dictators. Haiti has never had to defend itself from a foreign gov't after independence in 1803 (+/- a few years) and its military budget eats a large portion of its total budget. An American military person (quoted in the book) even admitted it was a wise thing to do. So what did Aristide do with the old Army Headquarters? He turned it into the HQ for Women's Affairs!!! Isn't that great?!?! And to be fair, he even did make a reintegration package for army people to give them money and training so they could integrate into society. He wasn't a jerk about it!

The Haitian elite hates him (1% of the people have 60% of the wealth - it truly is an insulated, small elite) and pretty much hate the poor people. The corrupt, high ranking army folk hate him too. He finishes the last approx. 1.5 years of his term (serving a total of about 2 years of a 5 year term). After that, in 1996-2000 he does not run for president but stays active helping organize with the poor and (the vast majority of Haitians) their grassroots political party - Lavalas (Kreyol word meaning "flood" and "all of us together"). After his term is up, the US pressures the next gov't to undo everything, make the minimum wage $1-2 per day again for the sweatshops, etc.

2000 rolls around and Aristide runs for president again. He wins overwhelmingly in an election that the UN and international community both agree is a fair election. Lavalas also wins overwhelming majorities in ALL levels of government in the legislative elections held a few months after the presidential election. There is one minor flaw in legislative elections (not presidential elections), but the UN and international community openly say this flaw did not actually affect the outcome of the elections in any way. The new Bush administration does not like Aristide and twists this, quoting out of context and inventing lies, to say that he is a dictator that rigged the elections. The US pays for Haitian militants of the previous regime (1991-1993 folks, and others) to have military training at an army base in Georgia (yes, the US state and a US army base) and the Dominican Republic. A massive propaganda campaign is undertaken to smear Aristide's image.

Towards the end of 2003, these people funded in part by the US literally start taking over towns, driving out and killing the police, burning police stations, and burning government buildings. They openly say that their goal is to take over the government through force and killing Aristide's supporters. The US calls these people freedom fighters and says it's a sign that the dictator Aristide has lost his moral credentials and popularity. Yet, whenever the opposition has a public protest, Aristide supporters literally outnumber them by 10 or 20 times. One attempted coup happened and tens of thousands of Aristide supporters showed up to surround the palace and most people in the paramilitary group just wouldn't openly slaughter ALL those people to get to Aristide. (Even back in the 1980s, people would try to kill Aristide as he preached a sermon, and church people would take bullets for him and they'd manage to get him out.)

So even though this paramilitary opposition has so much power and has literally taken over several cities in Haiti (including the one I'm staying in now - but this was back in 2003-4), they can't take Port-au-Prince (PAP - the capital) because the million poor people there love Aristide. He knows the poor and has walked with them his whole adult life, not telling them what to do, but listening and trying to assist. The US has banned all arms exports to Haiti, so the police there do not have supplies (the ban extends even to bullet proof vests, riot shields, tear gas, and rubber bullets). Remember, though, the paramilitary opposition does have US funded weapons through the Dominican Republic. South Africa, an Aristide ally, (Nelson Mandela supports him) sends a shipment to the legitimate Haitian police.

The US sees that the militants, even though they have far superior force, cannot touch Aristide and accomplish the coup. The day before the South African arms shipment for the police arrives, the US literally swoops in with Marines and abducts Aristide and his wife (Feb 28 or 29, 2004). The US denies this. The US takes him to the Central African Republic where he has no ties/relationships and he is held under house arrest as his opponents take over Haiti's government over the next few days. The US claims that Aristide asked for assistance to flee Haiti and requested to be taken to the Central African Republic (where he knows no one and where it's another dictatorship), and said that Aristide's request for asylum in South Africa (where he has allies) was turned down. The South African government formally responds saying they were never asked in the first place to receive Aristide...hmm. Shortly thereafter, they welcome him with open arms.

The book also points out that before the coup where the US snatched him away, in the years 2001-2003, there were very few protestant churches in Haiti backed by the US (financed by US churches). All of a sudden, tons of conservative evangelical churches move to Haiti and start teaching that only the afterlife matters, not the quality of life in this life. I forget the number, but it was a huge difference during those years - something like 50 expanding to 500.

AFTER the coup (Aristide abducted by US), UN peacekeepers are *finally* sent to Haiti. The UN people are told that the poor people who are mostly doing nonviolent protests but occassionaly get violent in defense or anger at the paramilitaries are the enemy. Everywhere else in the world, UN peacekeepers help set up negotiations, get both sides talking, and so forth. Not here! The propaganda campaign against Aristide has been so effective that most mainstream media publishes only anti-Aristide baloney about him being a dictator, etc. The big world powers say that the military government in charge is legitimate and everyone else are enemies to be killed. The UN literally supports raids into poor slums of PAP where Aristide suppoerters/activists and sometimes randomly people are killed and terrorized. What the hell! Some mainstream media and major human rights organizations notice that there seems to be a major imbalance of power and criticizes the UN operations as facilitating death squads (providing cover for and blocking exits so the paramilitary folks can kill more safely and effectively). Occassionally the media does note the overwhelming popular support (i.e. *democratic* support) for Aristide. Many, many Aristide supporters are killed. In 2006, Rene Preval becomes president (same guy who was president 1995-2000). He's not horrible, but does little to improve the condition of the poor. Many people here aren't crazy about him but were thankful for peace during this period.

Now, Haiti is having elections this November, for the presidential term 2011-2015. I personally think that some of the popularity of Wycliffe (singer who wanted to run for president but can't b/c he doesn't live in Haiti) was due to the fact that he is NOT a politician. Many of the poor were so glad that Aristide was a priest, not a politician, as most people here really don't trust the politicans. History does teach them not to! More so than that, Aristide knew and worked alongside the poor. When he was first inaugurated (1991) he had a huge picnic and pool party at the national palace where thousands of poor people from nearby slums in PAP were invited!

There are 19 people running for president of Haiti in November. The first portion of the election determines the top two candidates. There is then a second round of voting just for those two candidates. I don't know nearly as much about the period 2007-present b/c the book ended at January 2007 (book was released early 2007). Yvon Neptune, Aristide's Prime Minister during his second presidency, is one of the candidates. I got a good impression of him from the book, and he was quoted quite regularly. I confirmed on Wikipedia that Neptune was prisoned illegally, along with other high-ranking gov't officials during Aristide's term, and subject to inhumane treatment. International human rights organizations condemned this, and at one point even the US commented negatively on the political punishment of the previous gov't by the current gov't without any grounds.

So that's it in a big nutshell, and all this info is substantially, very well quoted and referenced in the book.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Here are some pictures of the rooftop garden and compost (dry) toilet, with Dante featured. These correspond to some of the projects I mention in the previous post below. I need to take pictures that show a better view and perspective of the roof but this is a fine start.

Monday, August 23, 2010

New projects!

So I've got some more projects to do now! I'll give a small recap of what I've done lately.

Dante and I have been working on the rooftop garden and compost pile. We did a bunch of cleaning, clearing away of old "yard" waste (mostly into the compost!), sprucing up, and work on the compost piles themselves. (Harvesting finished compost, consolidating piles, etc.) The compost pile area could use a roof so when it rains it doesn't get overly soaked and leak out everywhere. There is enough scrap tin roofing around that we can use it for that. We also got the dry toilet* back in working order so that can be used and the contents composted. After some tender loving care, the compost pile is up to 140 degrees F!!!! I'm such a nerd - I love this stuff. I have found that Haitians are very resourceful and creative sometimes out of necessity, when money or materials aren't available they find a clever way to get the job done (i.e. building or fixing something). Oh, there is also a random solar water heater on the roof, and I fixed that up, cleaned it off, and tested it out. It's not one of those panels with heat exchanger tubes in it, it's a hemisphere of mirrors with a platform in the center (like a sattelite dish) where you can place a pot of water and heat it up that way. It works really well! It was fun playing with it.

The bigger projects are that the larger compost sites in the nearby towns of Limonade and Milot also need some TLC, to make sure they're working properly and geting up to temperature. They are probably a little dried out. Dante, Agronome (more on him later), and I are also going to take finished compost from the Milot site and plant some corn in a controlled experiment - corn in normal soil, corn in 100% compost, corn in 50/50 soil/compost, and the same 3 categories also watered with diluted urine water - so 6 categories in all. This is very useful as a visual to show people the benefit of using compost and urine as soil amendments. I'll be working with this dude known as the "Agronome" who is a Haitian about my age who studied agriculture in university. I think he's even nerdier than I am when it comes to this stuff!

One random thing - anyone who enjoys juvenile humor about excrement as I do would appreciate the words for "taking a dump" or "going number 2" and for "taking a leak" in Kreyol. Taking a dump and poo itself are both kaka (either verb or noun), and peeing is simply pipi (pronounced peepee - also either verb or noun).

I'm glad to be able to do something useful. Everyone in Port au Prince is super busy and I'm able to help them get these other projects crossed off their To Do list since they are too busy to come to this part of the country! In general, I really love everyone I work with, and all the Haitian people I've met as well. They are super friendly, and my Kreyol is progressing, which is helpful!

* SOIL builds and implements dry toilets, as opposed to composting toilets or wet non-composting toilets. This means that the material doesn't actually compost while in the toilet structure, but must be moved to a composting site for composting there. Additionally, it's a dry toilet, meaning that urine is captured separately. There's a urine diversion tray built in to the toilet so the urine is collected in a separate tank. The poo and organic cover material go together and stay very dry since the cover material is extremely dry. This has the added benefit of killing any pathogens (bacteria, parasite worms or eggs, etc.) that are in it, since they all die off rapidly in dry conditions. At home I used leaves or highly shredded paper from work as the organic cover material. Here they use bagasse, which is the leftover plant material from harvesting sugar cane. It is in superabundance here, and the factories are happy to give it away.

I will write more about the pros and cons of these toilets later!

Learn about Haiti

I spent a lot of this past weekend reading. A particularly insightful, troubling, well-written, and (not exaggerating much here) earth-shaking book I devoured is "Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment." Paul Farmer, the Harvard doctor who set up the famous network of health clinics in Haiti (his great biography is 'Mountains Beyond Mountains') reviewed this book, saying that it is "THE best book for anyone wanting to learn about recent politics in Haiti." And Paul Farmer is LEGIT!

The book goes a long way in explaining why Haiti is so incredibly poor and how it has been beset by a wearisome history of oppression - both domestically and internationally. Surprisingly, the US had a major part to play, and not the positive one I might have hoped for. US and international aid agencies also have not only flaws but outright agendas that often help cripple the country.

For some people this book will be (highly) political. For me, it is simply and profoundly about truth. What happened in the beginning of Haiti's independence, and in its more recent history? What were peoples' motivations? What were the consequences (or fruit) of their actions and decisions? In these decisions, were the Haitians treated with dignity and respect? Where was profound hypocrisy involved?

I truly, truly, truly cannot recommend this book enough. It opened my eyes to a lot of things I had never realized or understood before. It made me furious, it made me cry, and it also gave me hope. (Geeze, that sounds melodramatic, but it is seriously true!!!!) Please, please, read this book!

(The version I read came out in 2007. There is an updated version coming out in November 2010 that additionally covers the period 2007-2010. I would recommend getting the book now anyway!)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Le Bourgne, Jack, and Wisnell

Unfortunately I didn't take many pictures in Le Bourgne...sometimes I feel out of place being the only person walking around with a camera! This is a "tap tap" - a common form of public transportation. They are modified pickup trucks, and usually very colorfully decorated - very reminiscent of how trucks were elaborately painted in India and Nepal. Unlike there, most here in Haiti have Christian imagery and/or phrases. (The books in the pictures are bibles, one portrays Mark and the other Romans)

Le Bourgne is a beautiful but poor town by the ocean. There is a beautiful beach just 30 minutes away by tap-tap. Erinold (an employee of SOIL, I earlier misspelled his name as Arinol) has some family there, so we usually ate meals with them and stayed in an apartment SOIL owns. A family lives on the first floor of this apartment, and on the second floor there are two rooms, sparsely furnished. The three of us stayed in these, and there was no electricity to have a fan so it was unbearably hot. Jack and I decided to move our bed (we had to share a bed!) to the roof where it is cool and there's a nice breeze. Wisnell also moved his mattress up there and LOVED it. He was so excited to be sleeping up there! I am amazed at how people here get used to sleeping in the heat, but that doesn't mean they like! Jack and I actually got cold!! - probably the only time I'll ever be cold here in Haiti. It was great going to sleep under the stars, and waking up to the morning view from the roof. Rooftops are a big thing here, and the place I stay at in Cap Haitien also has a great rooftop with a garden and a compost pile. I will put up pictures on that and the projects I've done around the house in a later post!

We went to Le Bourne to meet with the mayor who is a big supporter of SOIL. Jack wanted to talk to him about his ideas (more on that later). Unfortunately, the mayor was actually down in Cap Haitien so it was ironic that we swapped places. It was a fun trip, and we met a lot of people there, including a woman named Rosie who lived in Jamaca for 20 years but moved back to Haiti to help improve it. We visited with her, and saw her place outfitted with a small solar panel, rainwater collection, food gardens, banana trees, and coconut trees. We ate coconuts hacked open at the top with a machete. They were really good. I'd never eaten the coconut "meat" straight itself before - it was tasty!

Also, a little about Jack and Wisnell. Jack is finishing up his last year of undergraduate study at Notre Dame. His professor is also a priest who has lived in Haiti (crazy huh) and so he is doing research with that priest for SOIL, checking for the presence of helmunth eggs in the compost. He's applying to medical school and wants to live in Haiti after that and set up a clinic, school, and ecological haven. His parents and one sibling are on board and are considering moving out here with him! Jack and I were all excited that I could come out and help work on setting up composting, a fish pond, gardens, greywater treatment, and so on. He's shooting to buy 5-10 acres of land in or near Le Bourgne (he loves the town), so he's making up plans and figuring out how much he'll need to fundraise over the next few years. It is relatively cheap to start something like this in Haiti so I'm confident he'll be able to do it! He's also read Ghandi and likes his emphasis on self-supporting villages and enterprises so we were dreaming about what that could be like. Maybe I'll do an official project through graduate school with him and his project!!

Wisnell is a student and also works part-time for SOIL. He works with children and creative projects to teach about environmental topics, like a "trash to art" project. In the future he wants to continue working on such projects, and to be active in helping poorer people to communicate with each other and work together to build a better future for themselves, and to try to encourage people from the upper classes to build relationships with poorer folks, too. His English is much better than my Creole, and it's fun to work with him on helping each other learn. His younger brother Rosemond won Haiti's version of "American Idol" and now lives in Palo Alto, CA and travels to LA to record music. Wisnell was very happy when I told him I would love to visit Rosemond next time I go out to visit my brother in the Bay Area!

Picture Time!

Weekends here are very slow, so I've got oodles of time to catch up on blogging! Some people at the house here actually live in the town of Milot, about 30 minutes away, so they go home on the weekends. Jack just left on Friday, so I'm the only "bla" (white person...very flattering word, huh!) around. Wisnell is a student and he goes home for most of the day on weekends to see his parents. Tony, our house manager and security guard extraordinaire is in and out. So it's just me and Tikka, our dog. We really bonded yesterday since it was just the two of us. She is an imperfect yet welcome outlet for affection since Elisabeth is so far away!

Here are some pictures from the trip to Le Bourgne!

We passed on a couple of pickup trucks with long, extended beds and tarps for shade to take us to Le Bourgne. Apparently, Wisnell and Erinold were wanting to wait for this van, which has air conditioning. The only problem was that we waited 2 hours in the heat for a two hour ride! Jack and I were complaining! Well this van obviously started undergoing some repairs, so we caught the next one, a pick up truck without a tarp! Oh well, se la vi!

This is a shot looking down the street to the right of where Jack and Wisnell are looking in the next picture.

Jack and Wisnell! Erinold disappeared for a couple of hours - I think he found a friend or something.

Now this picture is shot looking in the direction that Jack and Wisnell are looking in the previous picture (and a little to the left). Those houses don't look very secure on that hill!

Monday, August 16, 2010

quick update

I went on a trip this weekend to a small town called Le Bourgne about a two hours' drive from Cap Haitien. I went with Jack, an American student at Notre Dame, Wisnell, a Haitien who works for SOIL and is also studying English, and Ariand, another Haitian dude that the SOIL people here know who has some family in Le Bourgne. We didn't have electricity there so I've been away from the internet. Tomorrow is my first full weekday in Cap Haitien so it'll be exciting to see what it is like. The house I'm staying at is teeming with people - employees who live here, people who help with the cooking, and other friends who just drop by to hang out. We also have a sweet dog named Tikka. I'm diligently studying Creyole, but it takes time!

Hope everyone is doing well.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Arrived in Haiti!

My bike ride is done, and it was super fun, although predicatably hard at times given the heat and whatnot! I LOVE, the hospitality website for people who are doing touring rides across the country (foreign countries as well). I stayed with so many wonderful, nice, and interesting people along the way from NC to FL!

Here's an update on my day in Haiti so far:

After a long delay due to mechanical issues, my 8:30 AM flight finally left at 3 PM. I had a good flight, and all the Haitians waiting at the terminal were super friendly and had lots of energy. They were apparently discussing the whole topic of Wycliffe Jean running for Haitian President.

Anyway, I was relieved that the airport wasn't as crazy as things in India or Nepal. (Ebeth and I traveled there earlier this year). I found Amy, my SOIL person, relatively quickly. There were also some Mennonite folks arriving that day so I thought that was interesting. One group was MCC and another seemed to be a conservaitve Mennonite group (a woman had the head bonnet thing on and said she was Mennonite). I had thought to myself if I couldn't find Amy, I could go with the Mennonites and use their resources to find out where Amy and the SOIL group are. (If for instance, the lateness of my flight screwed things up with the SOIL schedule). Of course, everything was fine.

One thing that was scarier (but still fun) than INdia/Nepal was the motorcycle ride to SOIL's office and my lodging. THe roads were worse than Nepal, many were unpaved and very rocky/bumpy, and it's noticeably hilly. The trash isn't nearly as bad as India and Nepal which is also nice. Just based on what I have seen, it will be easier to adjust here than India/Nepal. I think I will like it a lot here. I've met a lot of neat people at the place I'm staying. SOIL doesn't have room for me at their offices, and I'm staying just two blocks away at a "Coalition House" shared by several NGOs. I currently have a room to myself with three beds in it, and two fans. I'm most excited about having a fan. That is great! Makes a HUGE difference. Also, there is an internet place right across the street, and on the top floor people have computers with internet access. I'm at the cafe across the street now.

Tomorrow I fly to Cap Haitien, a town in the north, where SOIL originally started. Their operations up there are now largely Haitian-run and managed, which is a good thing. Cap is definitely supposed to be less hectic than Port-au-Prince, and there is even a super fun festival in Cap this weekend that I should be able to go to. It'll be interesting to see what I will get involved with up north, in terms of projects and helping out. I'm planning to meet with the Haiti MCC (Mennonite Central Committee - an organization that does development work, mostly by supporting local initiatives) at the end of August and I'm curious if anything fruitful will come out of MCC learning more about SOIL. I really think their goals and methods line up very, very well and at the minimum I think they would both be glad to know that the other exists and be encouraged by that.

That is all for now. Love to you all,

Friday, August 6, 2010

Lots of biking

I'm currently in Savannah, Georgia in a beautiful thunderstorm being enjoyed after some excellent Thai food with my hosts, Mike and Patty. The riding has been intense, with all the stuff I'm carrying on the bike (food, clothes, tent, sleeping bag, etc.), the extra drag, the extreme temperature/humidity, sunlight, and so on. I definitely overestimated what I can do in a day, based on my experience with century rides in a controlled setting on my racing bike. Oops! 95 to 100 miles is definitely my limit, with 90 being better, and 75 being comfortable. I went 95 today towards Savannah, and fell short by 15 miles and was graciously picked up by Mike. I was rolling along at 9-10 mph at that point, just drained. In general I didn't and don't feel too bad at all, I just can't go fast on my bike! (And my butt hurts a lot while sitting on the bike seat).

Overall it has been a great experience. I enjoyed camping on my own, and I've really enjoyed my hosts so far through I stayed in Charleston, SC the last two nights, having arrived two nights ago after a 12 hour day of biking (8 AM to 8 PM - UGH!) but had a rest day there. Cedric and his housemates and friends were awesome. We went to a going away party for some of their friends that were moving to NYC (so Ebeth and I will hook up with them there!), and on my "day off" went to the beach, swimming in a pool, enjoyed root beer floats, and just hung out. They were a fun group and very active in community affairs, sustainability, and the like. You meet such interesting people through this whole hospitality thing, it's great! I've got to hit the hay now for another long day of biking tomorrow. I have 120 miles to get to Folkston, which is totally unrealistic, and Mike is being kind enough to drop me off far enough that I only have about 95 miles to go.

I've heard more about Haiti as well so I will try to put that up later!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Haiti Sneak-Peak

A few days ago I enjoyed receiving an email from a SOIL administrator in Haiti answering a barrage of my questions – until then I had no idea what any of the practicalities of my accommodation would be! It turns out there is a house near the SOIL office in Port-Au-Prince that is shared by a couple of other NGO's working in the area. The house itself is used as common space, and most people sleep in the yard in a tent. I was highly amused by the tentative-sounding email asking if I would mind sleeping in a tent the whole time I will be there...and further, if I could possibly bring my own tent! Luckily I was planning on bringing a tent anyway for the first couple of days on bicycle when I'll be sleeping in national parks! So instead of leaving that with my Great Aunt Jane in Tampa, I will bring it to Haiti. (I'm leaving my bicycle with her. Everyone is always curious what I will do with it! Then I take the Amtrak to Miami and fly from there. Tampa to Miami is an impressive 250-280 miles and I don't have the time to ride almost 1,000 miles!)

I will also be responsible for paying for my own food, which luckily will cost only about $5 per day. My first week I will likely get a tour of a compost facility that is being built in Port au Prince, I'll get a “toilet tour” (whatever that is!), and probably get to see a public composting toilet being built. I'll have a lot of flexibility and independence in my schedule since everyone is so swamped with projects and work, so I'm hoping I'll find a project that I'll naturally want to attach myself to and go from there.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The trip is coming up!

I'm getting excited about the bike ride coming up - my bike's being tuned up, I've been putting in some good pedaling miles, and have my route confirmed. For 6 of the 8 nights of the bike trip I'll be staying at random peoples' homes, facilitated by the cycling hospitality site It has been so fun to be in touch with these people who are willing to host bikers passing through and who are excited to share their passion for biking, adventure, and hospitality. Many people in this "outdoorsy" crowd are also concerned about the environment and so it's been encouraging to hear all the support not only for the bike ride but the work in Haiti. One person even researched me on google and found this blog and made a donation!

Elisabeth and I have been back in the states for a little under two weeks now from our trip to Nepal, India, Thailand, and Cambodia. We completed a stressful apartment-hunting trip to New York City by bus. Manhattan is a crazy place where money is king even more so than I expected! (Elisabeth is about to start her Ph.D. program in physics at NYU in Manhattan.) The brokers were more pushy and "in your face" than the touts in India!

I've also heard from the folks at SOIL about what to expect in my first week, my accommodation, and so forth. Flexibility has been key since they are so busy and it was useful to be fine with not knowing any details until the last minute. I'll post more on this and some related observations from my earlier travels in a subsequent post.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Recent Update from SOIL

A quick update on what is going on in Haiti with SOIL, and thus perhaps what I might be doing when I arrive!! ---

SOIL is working with OXFAM Great Britain on ecological sanitation in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Port-au-Prince - this is where the displaced people from the earthquake are staying. It would be really interesting to work in this area, as proper sanitation is important for the quality of life in these camps. It must be hard enough for people as it is, so you don't want them getting sick too! It's also a great chance to show that wastes can be dealt with properly, even in emergency situations.

A new composting facility is being started in Port-au-Prince. It will be exciting to be a part of that project.

From the SOIL website:
• As of June 15, 2010, we have installed 44 urine diversion toilets and 16 arborloos and composting toilets accessible to children and handicapped persons.
• Our toilets are scattered throughout the city in 15 neighborhoods including Delmas 33, Nazon, Jake Toto, Bwa Grifen, Delmas 3, Karade, and Cite Soleil.
• We are clearing the land for our pilot compost site and expect to begin work there by June 21. In addition to this primary facility, we have started 2 smaller compost bins in Delmas 33 and Cite Soleil, where composting of the toilet materials (poop!) has begun.
• We have trained 53 masons to build UD toilets, and have also trained 12 people to set up and maintain a compost site!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hot, sunny, hilly bike ride

Around May 14 I biked from Kathmandu to near Kodari by the Tibetan border to revisit The Last Resort, a place where you can bungee jump, canyon swing, and do other awesome adventure activities. Elisabeth and I had gone there a few days before and I wanted to go back for another canyon swing (so fun) and a FREE fourth jump on the canyon swing (on each progressive jump you can do crazier things). We took a bus there the first time and mostly slept so I forgot how hilly it was. (One friend says, duh - the Himalayas are hilly, what do you expect! - but it's not really the Himalayas around Kathmandu!! Yet she has a point that I probably should have realized that in general Nepal is so hily!!!) Anyway, it was a 110 km ride, I left at 6 AM and did not think ahead about the extreme heat, sunnyness, and super hillyness. So needless to say it was quite a challenge.

I got a flat tire about 1.5 km outside of a town called Banepa (near Dulikhel) - look up "kathmandu valley map" if you are intersted. That put me about an hour behind while finding and getting it repaired at a local shop. 15 Nepalese Rupees for the tire patch and their labor. That's about 20 cents, and I tried to give a little more but they refused! Most of the time as a foreigner, people try to rip you off, charging anywhere from 3-10 times (yes, 10 times!!!) normal prices!!

I needed to arrive at about 2 PM to be able to do a jump. At 3:30 PM I still had 5-10 km to go and it was all uphill. I arrived at the bottom of the roaring river and it was obvious to me that to be jumping off bridges above that river I still had a ways to go! Since I was so late, I rested for awhile as a puzzled local kid came and sat next to me, probably curious why I was so beat. We shared some snacks and I rode about 20 minutes to the nearest town and hopped on a 4-hour bus back to Kathmandu. Yikes!

But this is good fun and good prep for the ride to FL for SOIL/Haiti! I guess that's the only reason I'm posting it on this site!!!!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Welcome to my blog! I am not in Haiti yet but will be in August. Here is the intro to what this is about...

Please join with me in a new adventure! I will be spending the month of August in Port-au-Prince, Haiti with a great non-profit group called Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL). SOIL works to provide public composting toilets and other sustainable development to tackle Haiti's pressing issues of soil fertility and sanitation. Many Haitians do not have access to toilet facilities, and sanitation-related disease symptoms such as diarrhea area major cause of death and suffering. This has only be exacerbated with the recent earthquake. We often take our bodily waste for granted, but dealt with properly through composting it can be a safe and productive economic resource. Composting of human wastes transforms it into a rich agricultural fertilizer that can restore soil and dramatically increase crop yeilds for subsistence farmers. SOIL is unique because it is based in Haiti, employs most of its staff locally, and workds to build indigenous sustainable development capability.

I will be flying to Haiti from Florida, but will first be riding my bicycle from Greensboro, NC to Florida - about 700 miles over 7 days - to raise money for SOIL through the non-profit cycling team I belong to, Adventures for the Cure (AFC). All of the money collected through the AFC website will be sent to SOIL, and it is all tax deductable since both are 501-(c)3 non-profit groups. Donating through the AFC webpage or sending a check to AFC will allow everyone to track the progress of the fundraiser online. I hope to raise $5000 for SOIL.

To donate and read more information, please go to the following website:

Please contribute if you are able - I know these are tough economic times. Your money will go toward meaningful and important long-term development in Haiti that will both reduce disease and increase food production.