I must have met Masimba, appropriately, at Love Movement. I say must have because, though I don’t quite remember ever meeting him (in my mind, he’s just always been there, an integral part of the city’s scape and air and life and sound, a role occupied by but a few special ones in Toronto), the man put up some photographic evidence:


He snapped this in the basement of Alto Basso on College Street, late in the summer of 2003. I have only a vague recollection of this moment: Love Movement’s resident DJs Fase and Nana hamming behind the decks, me posted up with a Heineken in hand, smiling at them over my shoulder, not realizing I was included in the shot. When Masimba posted it to social media some years ago, I admit to feeling some combination of touched and horrified. The photo is not flattering, y’all, but it was from an important time. I was 21 and had just landed home for the summer, back from a semester abroad in Madrid where my Cuban rapper/DJ neighbours in Lavapiés and I would spend afternoons talking music and race, and weekends dancing til dawn. One of many worlds to navigate. Back in this other world of Toronto, I spent a short summer sneaking out of my (strict, immigrant) parents’ house to hit rap shows, open mics, and weeklies all over the city, often rolling solo because I didn’t yet know many people who were also into the music I loved. I didn’t yet know myself, either. I’d only recently started to DJ (that didn’t last long), started to co-host a hip hop campus radio show (neither did this), and started to freelance for music magazines (my first-ever published review, unpaid of course, was for an Oddities 12-inch I purchased myself). One of Masimba’s friends wrote last week that, pre-Drake, the Toronto rap scene was like a family. The distant sweetness of nostalgia makes me inclined to agree. I was the chubby, frizzy-haired Portuguese writer girl at the rap show, screwfaced, shy, and happy to be there. Nobody made me feel like I didn’t belong. The basement of Alto Basso filled every Monday night with unfamiliar faces that, over time, became friends, nods of recognition became hugs, and some friends eventually became family.

To look through Masimba’s FB albums is to journey through recent Toronto hip hop history. Jokes and candid moments from places that don’t exist anymore or are called by other names: Bamboo, IV Lounge, Movement Culture parties hosted by Sandra and Noah. He captured Fatski’s million-and-one variations on the b-boy stance, TT’s finger-in-di-air holler, Nehal cheesin, and El looking like the coolest cat in the room from absolutely every angle. Sa’ara B’s electric smile. Big Tweeze in his classic lean. DJ Serious on the decks. I love all of these photos.

These were the days of street teams pressing flyers in your palm for the next show as you walked out of the last one, and Georgie Porgy pushing CDs on the corner, all: Do you like real hip hop? The days of shows at Revival and B-Side and The Comfort Zone and The Big Bop and The Hooch and NASA, Planet Mars (before my time still), Peachfuzz, In Divine Style, Never Forgive Action, Cell Division mixtapes. Of making pause tapes to the Mastermind Street Jam on Energy and Real Frequency on CKLN. Of spotting people in Equinox199 ‘Balance’ and Too Black Guys t-shirts. In the winter, a Big It Up toque on every head’s head.

Then there was the Sagittarius Coolout. I think I looked forward to Masimba’s birthday more than my own, to those sweaty dance tangles and happy-to-see-you! reunion vibes that cut through winter’s alienating chill. I look back so fondly on those nights, even as we’ve all changed, moved, grown older, and grown apart. I’ve missed the Coolout the last few years, rolling back into town for my holiday visit a week too late, but I was counting on returning to Toronto early this December. I hoping to catch up on hugs and cut up a dance floor with my people again. Hoping. Was.

It’s been two weeks since Masimba left us to join the ancestors, since the flurry of long-distance calls and messages, since heartful tributes from friends and strangers flooded my timelines. This lovely man who called me young lady or sis, a brother to so many, he himself went by DJ Son Of S.O.U.L., and his presence was love. Revisiting photos and memories, reconnecting with dear ones I’d lost touch with, all of us mutual and willing victims of time and geography, has filled me with gratitude. This aspect of his legacy lives on. Of course, then there’s the music.

I posted a tribute back in 2008 to DJ S.O.S. and his birthday fête, including a link to one of his sets. I’ll happily re-share it here: The Sagittarius Cool Out 2007, Parts One & Two. The download will be live for the next week, so play it, laugh loudly at the ad libs, throw a finger in the air, dance. If you come around late, hit me up and I’ll gladly post it again.

This isn’t a eulogy — there have been too many this past year. Instead, this is a hug. Along with music, hugs are one of the sweetest gifts and most healing blessings he bestowed, and so I’m offering up the biggest, warmest, most open, joyous one I can muster.

Hugs for the past and future journeys, for yours and his and mine, for wherever they may take each of us, whoever may join us, whatever may come. Hugs whenever we may cross. Hugs for magic. Hugs for peace and love. Hugs honouring where you’re from, for the people who made you, for forgiveness, hugs for knowing yourself. Hugs to hold up the ones who need them. Hugs to celebrate dreams coming to life. Hugs to try harder, be better. Hugs, just because.

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springtime in port-au-prince

Late February twilight in Delmas 5, Port-au-Prince. This tree is in full bloom now. By Susana Ferreira

A man called into Radio Caraïbes FM this morning, agitated and groveling for sympathy. Digicel, the Jamaica-based Irish-owned telecoms company that rules mobile phone life in Haiti, nearly destroyed his relationship. “I was supposed to meet madanm mwen on Saturday,” he said. He sent her a sweet little text message: “I’m waiting for you, chèrie.” She received his note, with much confused chagrin and much rage, five days later while he was at work. Now she wanted to leave him, he wailed. “Is this the state of communication in our country?”

I listened to his consumer dissatisfaction and heartache spill all over the radio while stuck in traffic — a terrible snarl near the forever dicey old cemetery, where Route Delmas, Route Freres and Petionville touch. At the tap tap station, a parked chauffeur dry shaved his head with a cheap blue razor, torso bowed out the side toward his mirror. Driver’s windows rolled down as familiar faces passed each other in opposite directions, pounds and broad grins in the slow crawl. “Brother, I haven’t heard from you! Call me!” A boy clipped through traffic in flip flops, clap clopping as he ran past us, quick on his feet but his expression heavy. A half-hearted “Uh! Uhhh!” up ahead, the plaints of someone he had just robbed, not bothering to give chase. I shrugged. Little thieves need to eat, too.

Everywhere there are handmade kites for sale, my favourite green-skinned breadfruit piled up gorgeously on the side of the road, women swaying under the impossible weight of merchandise piled in giant tubs on their heads. You can’t throw a grenadia in this town right now without hitting a political meeting. Deputy and senator and presidential hopefuls are rallying support, drawing lines and loyalties, promising pay outs months ahead of this year’s elections. The woo is strong, and it is served up in every corner restaurant accompanied by steaming mounds of rice.

My phone lights up constantly. Did you sleep well? Have you had your coffee? Be careful if you go to this part of town today. Did you hear about this accident with a water truck? I wanted to be sure you’re okay. How is your family? How is your grandmother? How is your heart? When will I see you again? And: Are you staying for good this time? I say no, but no one wants to hear it.

The evening rains came back this week. The downpour begins around 9 pm or 10 pm, hard, and carries on heavily until long after I’m asleep. Cool clouds linger past dawn, and the city that slumbered in stickiness wakes to chill and mud. By mid-morning, the sun finally eases out from behind the grey. The mud warms. Mosquitos twitch. Cellphone signals bounce out into the open skies, carrying schemes, gossip, and poetry to the tired, the ambitious, and the lovestruck.

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a lot of questions, no answers

The last time I talked to James was November 21st, 2012. The day before he was kidnapped.

It was midday Haiti time, evening Syria time, when he popped up on Skype — that moody pixelated avatar that looked like he’d snapped it in a foggy bathroom mirror.

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, Susana Ferreira wrote:
> homie. where you at? how are you?

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> Hey you!

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> what’s the word Doggg???

We’d met earlier that year when we participated in the first RISC training, an intensive medical course for freelance journalists, hosted by the Bronx Documentary Center. By day we’d learn about tourniquets, head trauma, spinal injuries, and shoved bloodied gauze into a plucked chicken as practice for packing wound cavities. By night we’d drink pints, eat greasy New York slices, and trade stories about our respective corners of the world. It was a great, friendly group of people, and I was in awe of the cross-section of talent, camaraderie, humility. On the last day of our training, April 20th, we gathered at The Half King on 23rd and 10th to toast the memories of two journalists who had died the year before in Libya, Tim Heatherington and Chris Hondros.

James had been to Libya. He’d been kidnapped in Libya, too, and watched as his friend, South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, was killed by pro-Gaddafi forces and his body abandoned to the desert. He’d seen the ugliness of war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, too, but he didn’t carry that ugliness with him. He had a youthfulness to him, a tremendous light behind his eyes. Every other eulogy I’ve seen since the news broke makes mention of Jim’s lady-killing grin, but that giant smile started way up his face, behind his eyes. Then again, it could be that my memory is fuzzy — we’d been drinking the last time we crossed paths, after all. Most of my Blackberry photos from that night at The Half King are a gleeful mess, war reporters and photojournalists mugging goofily, flushed, caught mid-joke or mid-giggle.

I kept in touch with some of the extraordinary colleagues from the RISC training, but none more closely than James. He added me on Skype right away and we talked frequently over the next months as I went back to Haiti and he pinged between the States and the Middle East.

On 11/21/12, at 11:29 AM, James Foley wrote:
> I’m in Syria, just a had close call with a tank round yesterday so we pulled back to a safe town, nice to have a sunny day with no shelling

Our conversations often circled the same themes: we bemoaned the crap pay and lack of support we got as freelancers, laughed at ourselves for accepting that crap pay and lack of support with gusto, talked about upcoming assignments, enthused over dream assignments, made promises to move away from our respective regions and on to other parts of the world by year’s end, and lamented our mutual chronic indecisiveness in finding a next spot to settle. He wanted to keep bearing witness, but wondered aloud if it was time to step back from war. He forever downplayed his own discomforts and worried after my well-being to an extent I found comical, checking in post-Sandy or scolding me for getting dengue fever while he was the one wearing Kevlar, ears still ringing from nearby shell blasts. His regular pop-ups and pep talks were a comfort, they were motivating, often hilarious, and they were absolutely a blessing. Before we logged off for the last time, we talked again about a reunion in New York around the New Year. He’d be leaving Turkey and Syria by mid-December to spend the holidays with his family in New Hampshire, and I’d be flying to Toronto around that time for the same. A little freelancer career counseling and commiseration session back at The Half King was just what we needed to start 2013 and a year of fresh adventures off right.

James Foley is in the far back row, last on the left. Matt Power, wearing green and also in the far back to the right, passed in March. Photo by Ricky Flores.

A month later, as I wondered why his foggy avatar hadn’t popped up in so long, I found out from another journalist. Kidnapped. The new year started with a public countdown by the Foley family, marking the days since gunmen nabbed their son, their brother on his way back across the Turkish border with almost no trace and no news. The count ended yesterday, day 636.

I didn’t know James long, but I’ve felt his absence heavily. I can’t say how many times I tucked away an anecdote, usually about some goof-up I’d made, thinking: “When Jim comes back, I’ve got to tell him this.” I thought of him when I finally decided to move away from Haiti, wondering whether he’d be proud or laugh at me for dragging my feet for so long. I thought of him every time another journalist was kidnapped, or another journalist released. I thought of him as Syria spiraled, and I thought of him as ISIS rose up and swept through. When the headlines and stills from that video exploded across my timelines yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help searching the face in those images to see if it was really him. I have not and will not watch the video of his murder. I have a long list of questions about what happened to him during those 636 days, but I’m not sure I want to hear any answers right now.

I don’t know why I wrote this. It’s self-indulgent in a way that I’d normally find repellent — his kin and oldest friends could say so much more about Jim, the sound of his laugh, the flaws that made him infuriating and uniquely him, his goodness and humour and openness and curiosity. I suppose I just wanted to say something. That I feel grateful to have known him, even so briefly, and to have had his positive presence in my life during some trying months. That I admired and respected his commitment to following front lines, to documenting injustices, to bringing connection and friendship and light to some dark corners. I can’t tell him this any more, because I know now that his fuzzy blue avatar will never again pop up in a Skype chat, but I’m so glad James Foley existed.

Rest in power, homie.


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Tabarre March 2012 and Baz Gwo Wòch, Furcy April 2014. Everyday Haiti, everyday lucky, Instgrammed.

A very short compendium of Life Skills and Small Sagesses picked up over four-ish years in the blessed, beautiful Republic of Haiti, though useful far and wide:

1) How to hide cash, phone, keys, and anything else you may need (which is to say, nothing else) in a bra to keep from getting stolen during the inevitable finger-crawling-body-crush during Carnival. Lifehack for the braless: put everything into the pockets of a pair of shorts worn under your jeans.

2) How to ride a motorcycle taxi. Excellent core workout. Ass out, thighs strong, back partially arched, but body still loose enough to flow with the curves, hills, sudden stops, and shifts in speed. Arms can stay relaxed, fingers tapping nonchalantly just above the knees. Optional: bump up the IDGAF levels by typing up story notes and firing off emails on your phone while weaving through traffic. If you can write and file assignments this way, a frosty Prestige beer can be your reward when you finally hop off the bike at the end of the road.

3) There is no better reward at the end of a sticky, dusty, shouty, melty, dramatic day than a frosty Prestige.

4) Lime on the face eases the sting of tear gas. Some people go for toothpaste, but if they’re in season, I swear by lime. Secondary bonus: citrus facial treatment. When you wash the layers of black tire ash and grime from your face after the protest, soft glowing skin awaits.

5) DEET melts nail polish. Nail polish hides grime. Mosquitos are vile little evils. Learn to make your own repellant with grapeseed oil base and lavender, eucalyptus, citronella, and vetiver essential oils.

6) When someone in the street randomly tells you they love you, the appropriate response is “Thank you.” Love is love. Keep it moving.

7) How to eat a ripe mango without a knife, no mess, no fuss. Choose a fruit free of dark spots and gently massage it, starting at the top and stopping just short of the bottom. Tear off a small piece of the tip with your teeth. Drink.

8) Rain can be more destructive and frightening than bullets.

9) The subtlety of egos, angers, and body languages. How to take the temperature of a large crowd or an imposing individual who may or may not try to lock you in their office to assault you. How to taste the exact moment just before things turn, anticipating your last window to make a safe and graceful exit. This can save your life.

10) The art of cool, quiet patience. My first lesson, and one I’m still learning. You will be trapped by horrendous traffic, the power will cut, the cooking gas will run out, the signal will drop, essentials will break down, and someone will be hours late or not materialize at all. The key to waiting is to never actually be waiting. Save your anger, smooth out, and drink every moment. If you can’t, at least drink a Prestige.



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I woke up
And forgot who I was
But remembered a thunderous dream
Of having to be someone.

/mia-skye sagara


It is a strange thing to feel in exile at home, rather than at home in exile.

My last real home, or closest thing to home, was Port-au-Prince. I spent nearly four mostly-consecutive years in Haiti, but a few months ago decided that I needed a breather. I wanted to be quiet and still and nowhere for a little time, to think and to write, before packing up again and either returning to the heat or moving elsewhere. Nap swiv.

And so I landed in West End Toronto for the summer. The friends who have gotten used to seeing me pop in a few times a year for short visits are not quite sure what’s up now that I’m hanging around longer. They are almost startled to bump into me on the street or at parties — Oh, you’re still here? Others, who I haven’t crossed paths with in years, are confused about where I’m supposed to be. How’s New York? they inquire. When do you fly back to Paris?

I blame my blog name in part. I’ve used “nowarian,” a word born of the playful genius of Caribbean English, as my username, social media moniker, and blog identity for nearly a decade. In that decade I have moved house at least 22 times (that I can recall) in five countries. This has made me very good at packing and unpacking, a master at airport security lines, more graceful with goodbyes and heartfelt with hellos, and kept me from accumulating more than I can carry. My shoulders have never been stronger, my keep-or-toss decisiveness never sharper.

But lately, I’ve been complaining to friends, the word has started to feel like a burden. What if I want to accumulate things? What if I want to lay down roots? What if I don’t want to be from nowhere? After so many years away I’m a ghost in my own home town, a foreigner in my fatherland, and the last place I felt entirely in my element is a country that, even should I decide to live out the rest of my days there, will forever view me as an outsider.

Adaptable Otherness, in a way, is my jam. This is how I was raised in West End Toronto, crashed up against all these other kids whose parents’ life choices and migratory options forced us to grow together, all different skin tones and hair textures and cooking spices that seeped into our bargain bin, hand-me-down, and home-made clothes. I can’t recall if we asked one another where we were from. I’m not sure we cared at that age. At lunchtime we traded leftover curries, cured meats, greens, thick soups, beans and rice, spicy roasted peppers smothered in olive oil and garlic. We taught each other how to swear in our respective native tongues, played tiny interpreters at parent-teacher meetings, and developed a collective way of speaking that incorporated our many accents. Nobody stuck out as different, because we all did. I romanticise those days, though I know I shouldn’t. The poorest kids were sometimes shunned for being too fresh-off-the-boat, frayed fabrics, faces dirty, bruised. Mr McLean choked one of the Jamaican kids up against a wall after recess. The French teacher screamed at the Mexican kids, calling them gangbangers. I still sting with the memory of the school librarian taunting me, her British accent echoing, asking if I knew how to speak English.

In 2008 I called up Dr Winford James in Saint Augustine, Trinidad on a day when he was feeling “good and strong, good and strong” to ask about nowarians. He was as solid an authority as any, it seemed, as he helped write the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Dr James explained that the word has origins in Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Tobago, and Trinidad. There was no one correct way to spell it (nowarian, nowherian, nowhereian, nowierian), just as there was no single agreed-upon meaning. He walked across his office, found his copy of the dictionary, opened it to page 409, and read aloud an official definition:

no-wher-i-an 1. A person who is not connected with any church or who professes no religious faith. 2. [By extension] Sb who is not respectable; sb of no consequence. 3. [By further extension] [Derog] An unkempt looking knockabout; a person of no fixed abode.

Yikes, I said. Dr James tried to mellow the harshness: “It’s a term that has a kind of semantic potential,” he said. “It has shades of meaning.” Shades that can shift and migrate. If a nowarian can be from nowhere — disconnected from his or her roots and surroundings — then a nowarian can be from everywhere too. At the time, I found some comfort in this.

“I don’t belong here,” a friend said to me one night in Port-au-Prince before I left, as so many have on so many Port-au-Prince nights. This one was a blond American, a foreign aid worker. She hadn’t grown up questioning, in ways subtle or enormous, whether or not she belonged in her Northern California town. This discomfort was new for her, and no matter how long she stayed or the effort she made, she said morosely, she would never belong in Haiti. Of course she wouldn’t, I thought. Aloud, and naively, I wondered: why was that so awful? She looked at me, bewildered by the question.

*   *   *


[Because it needs to be addressed: Sorry for the silence in this space. I have drafts on drafts, accumulated over the past year plus, but none of them felt right. Like everything else, I’ll throw blame on the burden of that word, hungry for motion, nowarian.]

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papadocratic caucus

Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti’s former President-for-Life and son of François Duvalier, in appeals court. 28 Feb, 2013.
Photo by @etiennecp.

One hot February afternoon last year I was sitting under one of the broad, white tents that was often erected on the National Palace grounds for special events — inaugurations, visits from foreign heads of state and the like — waiting for a promised interview with Haiti’s then-Foreign Affairs Minister, now Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe. One of his aides, an omnipresent Canadian, came and sat down next to me. The aide pushed for details on what questions I wanted to ask Lamothe, stressing that there’d “only be time for one,” and asked if he could shoot video of my interview. I declined the strange request and said, vaguely, that I wanted to talk to him about the campaign to re-brand Haiti’s international image and the many challenges on that particular road. What kind of challenges, asked the aide, barely concealing his alarm. I laughed that there would be quite a number of bumps in any Haiti brand makeover. Shaking off negative stereotypes to attract investors would be tough — chief among them, the long associations with instability, inequality, and Duvalier. An investigating judge had just recently ruled not to bring human rights charges against the former President, who had returned from exile the year previous. The government aide scoffed at the D word.

“Don’t ask him about that,” he said sternly. “That’s the past. We’re looking to the future.”

I didn’t get my interview that day after all. But despite repeated attempts to shove the Jean-Claude issue aside, a year later the Duvalier name is on airwaves, printed in newspaper pages and slips off people’s tongues every moment of every day in Haiti. Even the Senior Duvalier, François, has been pulled back into conversation, with sharp local reactions this past week to an adoring memorial penned by his grandson, Nicholas.

In the case of Nicholas’ father, Jean-Claude, the human rights violation charges may have been dropped, but certainly not forgotten. I’ve been following the appeals process in a downtown Port-au-Prince courtroom since hearings began in late January, where alleged victims of his regime spend their Thursdays giving personal testimony of their unlawful arrests, solitary confinement, beatings and other tortures. The process is long, and few are optimistic about Haiti’s judicial system, but at least this particular piece of Haiti’s history is not being laid to rest, or rebranded, any time soon. Some of those testifying will participate in a number of memorial services tomorrow, April 26 — a day that is significant for a number of reasons.

Fifty years ago tomorrow was, according to documentation, a particularly evil day in a period that was already deeply marked by violence. Papa Doc was in charge. From Red Heat, the context: post-Trujillo President Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic calling for François Duvalier’s ouster, mass arrests and tortures of student protestors in Port-au-Prince, John F. Kennedy mulling over whether to invade or support a coup lead by ex-Macoute Clément Barbot, and a nascent mutiny astir within the Haitian army. Duvalier Sr purged the army and threw himself a party to mark his apparent unfuckwittableness. And then:

Amid the celebrations, on 26 April, a limousine was taking two of Duvalier’s children, fourteen-year-Simone and eleven-year-old Jean-Claude, to school. Two blocks from the National Palace, another car slowed down alongside the limousine. With perfect precision, three shots were fired. The driver and two Tontons Macoutes, the children’s bodyguards, slumped down dead where they sat. The assassin did not fire on the children, who scrambled out and ran into the school, unharmed.

General Constant and Duvalier’s physician, Jacques Fourcand, begged him to calm down, lest he have another heart attack. “The children aren’t hurt,” said Fourcand. “You have time for sober reflection.”

Sober reflection was not Duvalier’s strong suit. Instead, he ordered sixty-five of his officers to be shot immediately without trial. The Tontons Macoutes were unleashed. Guns cocked, they swaggered through Port-au-Prince, shooting and killing anyone whose car was the same make as the assassin’s. Hundreds of civilians disappeared that day. By nightfall, bodies littered the streets.

The sharpest shot in the Haitian army had been one Lieutenant François Benoît, though he had been purged the previous week. In a blind fury, Duvalier became convinced–without evidence–that Benoît was the only man in Haiti capable of pulling off such a feat of shooting. The Macoutes went to look for Benoît. Twelve hours previously, he had escaped into the Dominican embassy. Instead, they went after his family. A squad arrived at the Benoît residence with submachine guns, and killed his father, his mother, a family friend, their servants, and their dogs, before setting fire to the house. Benoît’s baby son, Gérard, perished in his cradle.

(Barbot, as it turned out, had been the shooter. Not Benoît.)

This was followed by an aggressive stand-off at the Dominican embassy, flaring tempers in Santo Domingo, and plans for a sped-up U.S. invasion. Explanatory leaflets were printed in preparation, and American, Canadian and British warships convened in the Gulf of Gonâve. The OAS sent a team of investigators, and Duvalier ordered a carnival parade be hurried together to entertain them. To them he turned and asked, “If the OAS claims the right to intervene because of repressive internal conditions, why don’t they land troops in Alabama?”

There was no intervention, of course. Papa Doc carried on, and when he invited a group of journalists to the palace some weeks later, a group forever prone to promoting negative stereotypes about Haiti, he assured them: “The country is calm and peaceful.”

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if the bear starts eating you, it is no longer being defensive


I saw an elk for the first time a few weeks ago. We were both out in the rain, a cool layer of mist hiding the mountain peaks from view, darkness creeping up close behind. Wandering along the trees and lost in conversation, I didn’t notice her at first, but nearly dropped my phone when I did. She was so close. Long neck bent toward the grass, her thick coat carrying the honey of a spring that still seemed shy in coming to the Rockies.

I spent part of the past while nestled high in the mountains as a resident of the Banff Centre, where the days stretched out forever and the first grizzlies and black bears were just beginning to stir from their long slumber. I drank in that air like I’d never taken breath before. Before that, it was the Toronto Island for days and nights of writing, listening to the crash and lull of Lake Ontario, and a massive cleansing equinox bonfire. I’d follow coywolf prints on long walks along the beach, and some nights I swear I could hear them yipping demurely in the distance. Thick ice gave way to grassy fields and flowers, and red-winged blackbirds played host to my first vernal welcome in years. I’m lucky to have access to this kind of gentle exile.

Other luxuries: wading through thick snowfalls on soft sand; the intimacy of tall firs and spruces and pines; admiring high tide’s red earth designs along the shore; a hike up Sleeping Buffalo Mountain before sunset; watching storms crawl in and daylight fade away beyond the peaks, beyond the horizon, a disappearing act. It was stunning, in icy shades of blue and grey, but it all felt utterly unreal to me at the time. Beautiful, uncomplicated fictions that demanded nothing.

(I was wrong, of course.)

I’m now back home in Port-au-Prince, where the days grow warmer and the evenings are sticky with rains. There is no other word for PAP right now but home; I haven’t hung around any where this long for at least the past decade. But, familiar as it may be, the city still challenges me. Port-au-Prince is an all-consuming place, the churning centre of a country that extends far beyond its borders, but that can still be difficult to grasp from inside. The Haiti peanut gallery is vast and opinionated, and the daily barrage of radio rumour, political gossip and packaged press releases can only be tuned out while in exile — and even then, much too much noise seeps through. Too many different versions of the same place, and they are all alive and true. I think. While at a distance, the various Haitis changed size, shape and temperature in my mind. Many of the conversations I had about them did not.

“Oh, Haiti?” said Old or New Acquaintance. “You don’t hear much from there these days…” With those last two words, trailing, I’d see their gaze shift and dissolve, mirroring the struggle of an imagination that couldn’t call up any current, concrete vision of this far-off place. There’s a lot going on, I understand. And for many, it is Haiti that’s unreal.

Dark, formless, incomplete pictures of suffering, violence, something vague about a natural disaster. Was it an earthquake? (It was.) Have people recovered? (Not quite.) I take this to heart, as a Port-au-Prince-based journalist, that I’m not doing my job well enough. (Perhaps I’m not.) But even with the wealth of stories already out there — fiction and documentary, earnest and self-serving, saccharine PR and nightmarish condemnation — it remains difficult to break this other hollow, malformed mould. It is a challenge to absorb new visions and versions in a space that’s already occupied by shadow-casting stereotypes, and to know which one of them to trust. When asked, I hardly know where to begin. Even long-time residents may only ever live in one Haiti, tucked away on the mountain or in a dusty compound, confined to a world of VIPs or pats on the back. Seeking and digesting multiplicity requires some faith.

(And, you know, I’m cool with it. Growing up between worlds, between languages, a cultural and class go-between, has served me well. But my own forever-shifting identity, in the context of a place where I’m an “expat” and not an immigrant or diaspora, and the baggage and privilege and strange social circles that come with that, is a separate conversation.)

This is why, in part, I’ve stuck around. Though these places try my patience and break my heart again and again, there are still more to see and meet and taste and berate and dance with and be confounded by. There are ones that have not yet deceived me, charmed me, or beat me at dominoes. There are places and stories that take their time to emerge. They unravel, fleck by fleck, moment by moment, even as they take care to unravel you.

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groundhog days

A decade of concentrated assistance and hundreds of millions of dollars of international investment on the part of the United Nations, international development banks, and bilateral donors, does not ensure the successful installation of ______ ______ and ___ ____ _____ in a poor country with fragile democratic institutions while in the process of nation re-building. The international donors bear significant responsibility for this failure as a result of their overly optimistic presumption that huge external resources and concentrated international expertise, with little consideration of absorptive capacity or measure of the true interest in change, could quickly transform a nation. Haiti provides a textbook case of the difficulties that can follow naïve and unrealistic levels of intervention.

This paragraph is nearly ten years old. Specifics blanked out by me, as this can apply to rule of law, justice, land tenure, agriculture, infrastructure, water, sanitation, housing, etc. Its original heading, “Lessons Learned,” seems rather impolite.

Speaking of which — please forgive my six month silence on this thing. I’ve been occupied with a Canada Council-funded project (she’s still finding her legs) and a new-ish gig, but am still here. Still in Haiti. Still watching, smelling, waiting, breathing, tasting, smiling, listening.

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history rolls in and out and back with the tides

First published in 1993, Lillian Allen’s collection of poetry “Women Do This Every Day” included this not-so-blind item, made less scathing — and, in some ways, sadder — with events and non-events of this past year and a half:

(for Haiti)

the dust that makes you will someday
turn to mud in the rain
and fertilize land for the peasants
its fruit shall bear no resemblance of you
only a song of the past about evil days
long gone
shall we remember your name

Evil days, not long gone, but parallax. A long conversation on a longer car trip recently had me listening to these words come out of my own mouth:

“I don’t know how I feel about right and wrong anymore.”

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welcome to somewhere

Being away from West End Toronto for the bulk of Euro2012 made me terribly homesick. I’ve spent most of my adult life away, but that scrappy cement patch of autobody shops, faded warehouses and parkette drug deals will always be my most primary of homes. No one does international futebol championships quite how we do. The flags! The honking! The aggro traffic-stopping revelry! The drunken giddy shouting at strangers! My current home of Port-au-Prince appreciates a good match, and while I was warmed to hear the neighbourhood men yelp as though collectively wounded with every near-goal and near-save, this soccer crowd just didn’t cut it for me. I wanted excessive public rowdiness. I wanted to be home.

Maybe distance has made me nostalgic, but I now look through love-lidded eyes at my old immigrant-enclave hood. I smile at the Portuguese sports bars (and the Super Bock-tipsy aging construction bachelors), recall the corner store where I used to buy patties after school, and take delight in the dilapidated discount strip mall that has slowly emptied over the years. I used to scowl at the noisy gino-mobiles, the ugly flat-top buildings, the dull desolation. The drug dealers made me furious for taking over the playground (also my shortcut to the bus stop), coming and going in a constant cycle of street, arrest, jail, street. I often had the feeling that I lived in an abandoned space, one where people were resigned to carry on because they didn’t have the heart to give up completely. Tired faces, low wages, drop-out kids. Our area didn’t even have a name, like the Annex or Corso Italia, presumably because no one could be bothered to coin one.

It was so depressing it became funny.

“This neighbourhood is where dreams go to die,” I would tell my brother, and he would crack up. “Yeah,” he’d say, forcing a straight face, “I went to the Galleria a few days ago, and I’ve been depressed ever since.” The strip mall was the apex of this mini-empire of hopelessness. My classic illustration: every December the mall would set up Christmas decorations and a modest throne for Santa to sit in —- to take gift requests and snap photos with little mall rats, as is the great mall tradition — but Santa never came. In the 20+ years I lived in the area, the Galleria’s Christmas chair was always empty. I laughed when I got older. Why would he come here, anyway? Not like anyone on this block was getting presents.

The neighbourhood is changing, though. The Zellers discount department store in the mall is slated to shut down this month, skeevy off-track betting joint PM Toronto is already boarded up, and the rest of the Galleria is to be demolished and built-over with condos. On recent visits I’ve started to notice people jogging, bike locks have sprouted, and there are now creative-class espresso shops and hipster bars up the block from the working-class bakery/cafes and sports dives, competing for new residents’ attentions. I have mixed feelings about this. Not bad, just mixed.

One positive outcome: I’ve been compelled to finally start writing about my neighbourhood.


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