08 November 2013

Haiti, November 2013

It is positively pouring as I write this. I'm sitting hunched over my laptop in a darkened room, on a simple wood-frame bed with a one-inch thick mattress. The rain is soothing. And the occasional drops penetrating the screened window tease my skin with its cool, cleansing qualities.

Stepping out of the Port-au-Prince airport this afternoon into a sweltering heat seems like just a scenario I've experienced dozens of times in dozens of other places.  Except this time it's in a place which evokes mysterious dread and hopelessness interlaced with heavy sighs. I promise no one has said, 'You're going to Haiti? That's awesome!' Even as the plane touched down on the runway, my companion and I had exchanged quizzical glances — what, indeed, would we find here.

Now, six hours later, I'm filled with possibilities, hope and an enthusiasm that's keeping me awake (and writing) rather than getting the rest I'll probably need tomorrow.

I'm here with a micro-lending NGO considering an expansion here. My attraction to this particular group is their model of working through established, trusted community infrastructure, no matter it's affiliation. In this case, it is a local ministry with a vision of equipping the poor with the means to transform their own families, and ultimately communities, through small business loans.

Which is how I find myself in the guest compound of the ministry. A representative of a partnering organization met us at PAP with two pastors and a translator. The ride through PAP included sometimes paved, mainly not, roads in various stages of decay or destruction. Streets teeming with cars and people took us past decent neighborhoods, international headquarters for various NGOs, a plethora of UN locations, and everywhere the small, sidewalk markets.

Inside our gated, beautiful though sparse guest compound, we unloaded our gear and joined the others for our first traditional Haitian meal: a chickpea soup with beef and vegetables. [No worries to those who know me... my vegan diet was established early in the trip and they seemed to relish ladling out my soup sans boeuf. After all, it meant more boeuf for everyone else!]. Our hosts are engaging, impassioned, and fun. It was great sorting out language conundrums around the table: english, creole, french, the spanish still stuck in my head from Nicaragua. Such joy listening to the lilting French I really love, but haven't heard, or had the opportunity to speak for quite awhile! I doubt I will be up to speed in the 2 full days we have here, but it is certainly something I look forward to in coming back.

Just the short time I've been here confirms what I've already learned over and over again. Places deemed miserable by others all contain pockets of hope and joy. And I love nothing better than slipping my hands into them.

18 April 2013

Telling Stories Workshop - Cairo - Day 4

Our fourth day we began the documentary portion of the class with the 4 resident boys. I had picked up some photo books of works by photographers such as Berenice Abbot, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Our first discussion required them to choose a photo and using the clues in the photo make up a story about what they thought was happening in the photo. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson
We went up to the fourth floor and sat in a circle on a rug in an empty room. They loved the assignment, and I loved hearing their stories. Interesting with these boys, a few of the selections had to do with a person or persons (perceived as poor) needing to get away from the stress in their life to have a quiet place to think. It was so satisfying to watch them pore intently over an image and then focus on the most minute details in the photo to formulate their stories. 

After a break, we reviewed their images from El Azhar Park. They really took the composition and technique lesson to heart! And they were proud of the results, and talked about which techniques they used in their photos. We reviewed all of their images with the entire group huddled around my laptop. Everyone was allowed to weigh-in on an image, but the photographer had final say if they wanted to keep it. Some were more critical than others, needless to say!

To introduce them to their assignment of documenting each other's day-to-day lives, we reviewed images from a project I did with HURINET, a human rights group in Uganda. It was about the Bat'wa Pygmies whom the Ugandan government has forced out of their native lands and habitat for the sake of eco-tourism (as in silver back gorillas and the westerners who want to see them). 

The boys related to the issue of homelessness that these people faced. I provided a selection of 14 images, and they had to narrow them down to the six they best felt told the story. (Of course they had to defend their selections)! 

Afterward, we discussed what types of images might tell the story of their own daily lives at the Center. They were excited to hear they would get to use the digital point-and-shoots FACE USA and The Palmer Foundation had donated.

Did I mention these kids ranged in age from 11 - 15? They stayed focused and engaged the entire day... more so than many college-age students in university classes I've taken!

17 April 2013

Telling Stories Workshop - Cairo - Day 3

After a successful morning orienting the street kids to photography (with the same material we covered yesterday with the resident kids), we headed out with them to the Citadel.

As soon as we arrived, everyone was excited to get started taking photos. The long walk up to the main entrance was slow, all of us stopping at various points to take photos, pose for photos, or look at photos others had taken. Happy was the mood!

Once we made it to the entrance, however, spirits lagged. Initially, it seemed to me, the problem was with my camera. They didn't like the fact it had a zoom lens. Not understanding Arabic, I had no idea, until voices were rising and everyone seemed to be looking in my direction. It took much discussion among 4 different guards with a call to the Supervisor to resolve the issue. In the end, they feared I was a spy and would take photos of their antiquated aircraft and missiles. Thus, my camera spent the day hidden in the back of a van.

Later, when we asked the boys how they enjoyed their outing, 14-year-old A--- observed: 'The day was beautiful. It was the people who were ugly.' I was flummoxed by what he meant. 

As it turns out, he was referring to the incident at the guard station. Only, it wasn't just about my camera, it was our bringing the boys into the park. (And these guys arrived early at the Center that day to wash and change before our trip. They looked like normal kids to me...) One of the counselors took offense at the insults the guards were saying about them. The guards were hoping by not allowing me in with my camera, we would all just go home. Ha! They obviously do not know about the iPhone 4S and it's marvelous picture-taking skills. 

Having these boys sit in and participate in this workshop is indescribable. Often they are tired from lack of sleep the night before (imagine: it must be hard getting a good night's rest sleeping on the ground with traffic all around you). One may doze occasionally, but at any moment, he's raising his hand to share his insights on a photo.

Two days, at this point, spent with 8 different kids of the streets, and I have never seen such respectful, polite, and well-behaved boys — even in the midst of jeering and foul talk aimed at them by those in positions of power.

My wish is people would look past class and education and judge others individually on their character. Everyone is deserving of respect. And if you can't proffer it to one because you feel they are beneath you ... maybe you need to evaluate your own character. I used to tell my own children when they would ask about someone less fortunate in any respect: "But for the grace of God go I." 

Don't think for a moment everything you have couldn't be lost and you could never end up on the street. Especially in America with the recent economic disaster... that very thing has happened to countless middle-class Americans. But for the grace of God, goes each of us reading this and ending up in a comfortable bed tonight.

14 April 2013

Telling Stories Workshop - Cairo - Day 2

9 April 2013

Getting out of the car at FACE Salam Center (FSC) is akin to arriving at a movie premier (I'm guessing). Young men ready to carry your bags, help you from the car, and walk you inside as you shake hands with others who seemingly materialize out of the steps leading to the building. (Shaking hands in Egypt is not the usual USA clasp hands, pump up-and-down 3 times. It's a slap, lightly grasp, and pump-down-once affair).

Then there are the kids who make FSC their home (some for a few hours a day, some 24/7... it's their choice). They want to know your name, they want to shake hands, they want to practice the English they are learning. They want a hug. Or a kiss on the cheek. They want to be treated with respect. 

And as I found out in our first classroom session with the resident students (those still living on the streets will meet tomorrow), they return the respect with attentiveness and participation I would never expect from young teenagers.

I think one of their favorite slides from the lesson was Eadweard Muybridge's stop-motion of a galloping horse. (Which is, by the way, the first-ever motion picture!). 

After going over composition and basic techniques, it was off to Azhar Park for an afternoon of shooting. 

Each student was paired with a staffer who had a list of shots to take. 

Did the follow the list? Did they even try? I won't know until tomorrow afternoon, but even if they didn't, each one shot two disposable cameras of 27 shots each. So.. they did something!

And what a wonderful day. The sandstorm enveloping Cairo for the past two weeks had dissipated. Breezy, low 80's, sunshine with a meandering cloud or two. Perfect for observing changing light on a scene, and perfect for walking through a stunning park making friends with Egyptians enjoying a delightful day with their friends and families.

The day was void of whining, fighting, disruptive behavior, disciplinary measures — truly remarkable for 4 teenage boys aged 12-16. When I let Kashif try out my camera, the other boys waited to be asked if they wanted a turn. They never grabbed at it or resented giving it up to another. And that perhaps, was the biggest surprise... that they treated one another with affection and respect. I think it is the work FACE has done that has given them a framework of famly.

Telling Stories Workshop - Cairo - Day 1

8 April 2013

Yesterday I left Leipzig in a literal fog and arrived in Cairo in a sandstorm. With special thanks to The Palmer Foundation for funding the equipment and training, I have come to teach documentary photography to some street youth through the non-profit, FACE, as well as to train their staff in self-documenting the organization's endeavors. Hala McIver, Director for FACE USA, and I are spending our evenings in a humble, yet charming hotel in Heliopolis, near Korba - a popular shopping area. It's best perk is the fantastic Indian restaurant just off the small lobby... perfect for this vegan blogger.

Each day we will be traveling out to Salam City where we are based at FACE Salam Children's Center (FACE stands for Foundation to Aid Children in Egypt).

The first day is always a crapshoot. I try to expect nothing, which in turn (I feel) makes everything interesting. And today did not disappoint. We did a run-through with the staff so:
  • the could get familiar with the material and to aid in translation
  • I could ensure there was nothing untoward or offensive in the images in my presentation.

After a con-call for the top staff took away three of my audience, we found ourselves with what would prove to be our core group of four guys: Mohamed, Mohamed Hassanein, Ahmad, and Hassan. All are full-time staff with FACE (having studied social work in their schooling). Each has a remarkable grace about them: you feel it when you meet them and you see it in the way they interact with the boys.

Forget about rigid plans and processes. In a foreign country with a language barrier, things can quickly take a life of their own. And so, having finished a basic overview of composition and lighting in photography, I was tricked into launching an introduction to Lightroom, something not scheduled until the second week. But hey, as an avowed techno-geek who views any day with a BH Photo-Video box at the door as holiday — I can understand their impatience to know everything. NOW! (And there's not only the verbal language barrier, there's the operating system barrier as well – PC vs. Mac. And Arabic keyboard vs. English.

Loving challenges as I do... this is Heaven!

11 July 2012

7 July - New Delhi

Day one is usually for acclimation unless I'm on an assignment and schedules are tight.

In the breakfast room I met a young woman named Jen, a Spanish teacher from Florida working in the summer as a flight coordinator for a youth tour company. She ushers high-schoolers from home to the destination country, hangs out a bit, and escorts them back. She's slated for a city tour today, and I'm slated for the Internet check-in, ATM hunt, and catching up on any lost sleep. We agree to meet this evening.

During the day I took care of such errands as email, arranging my room, surfing the web, and then, finally, when I could delay it no longer, getting out of the hotel for that first solo walk about the hood. This is necessary to conquer the 'I-don't-know-anything-this-is-so-foreign-I-think-I'll-just stay-in-my-room mentality. My goal: ATM finding.

TRAVELER'sTIP  I can't remember the last time I exchanged foreign currency during my International travels. Airports all seem to have ATMs; I tend to have some currency on hand from previous trips; and the transaction fees from ATMS are often far less than exchange fees.

It was a relatively short walk. Down the alley. Turn left onto the side road, Esplande. Walk to the main street. Cross. Bank is on the right. Relatively simple. But here are the instructions they don't give: 
1. Ignore the stares and laughs of men. 
2. Don't panic when you don't see another female until the main road. 
3. Watch out for the homeless dogs and men lying about. 
4. When turning out of the alley, stay in the road as the sidewalk is virtually non-existent. 
5. Be prepared to walk sideways between bicycle taxis on your left and cars and human-drawn carts on your right. 
6. Don't step in the mud. 
7. When crossing the street, find something moving and walk parallel quickly sidestepping to the right in any open space. 
8. Repeat #7 until arrival on the other side. 

Seriously. Isn't there a gaming app called 'Need for Survival: Walking in Chandni Chowk.?'

The miracle wasn't getting to the bank. The miracle was there was cash in the ATM. I was grateful to discover this after having to fight for my place in line. I'm learning Indians (particularly men) have a loose idea of 'line.' The ride from the airport should have prepared me for that.

A rest in the afternoon, and then Jen and I met up for the Cinema. Awesome! Bollywood in Delhi! We were two of about 6 women and two hundred men in the one-theatre cinema. The movie: Bol Balchan. It was a calvacade of Bollywood favorites in an uproariously funny plot of mis-identity, dual-identity, and non-stop action. 3 hours long with Intermission. In Hindi, lightly peppered with the odd English phrase, such as "Hard work is the keyhole to saxophone."

Back outside, it was now after 10pm. Even at night, the same rules applied. Walking sideways over the mud and quickly sidestepping pavement-sleepers, we made our back.

08 July 2012

Arrival in Delhi

On your first visit to India, you must ride in the front seat as you leave the airport. This will prepare you for your visit. The streets in any Indian city are a microcosm of life. I am convinced.

As my driver carefully kept the middle of the car centered over the white dotted line, I marveled at his calm while more frenetic drivers jostled to the left and right blowing their horns like it would make a difference. Though the highway was marked three-lanes, the actual number was in constant flux.

Perhaps the streets are a better picture of India vs. The West. My driver is India: following his own clock, making his own lane, and enjoying the scenery along the way. The crazy drivers blowing their horns and careening past bicyclists, tuk-tuks and other cars? It's the Western way of life: get where you can as fast as you can and never mind the cow in the road.

I like the Indian idea of life. Take it as it comes. Things aren't always what they seem, so one can rarely judge. 

My hotel, for example: When Sahid pulled up in the midst of the cycle market in Old Delhi at 11pm, it looked like a beehive of nefarious activity. Men and boys everywhere doing something, talking, yelling, hanging around... all amidst a background of greasy parts, scattered bikes, and human life. And just down there, a tiny dark alley, is Tara Palace, my driver says assuredly.

The dingy door sign, lit sporadically by the quintessential flashing neon sign above, indicates it was indeed the correct alley. 

Fortunately, I've traveled enough in the developing world to know what's behind the door is often very different than what is lying in the street. While I may have had a bit of apprehension, it wasn't even bordering on 'worry.'

Sure enough, when I stepped into a cool, immaculate marble lobby, I raised my eyes heavenward, smiled, and whispered 'Thanks.'