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Category: voyages

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.


Mines ahead, behind, to the left, to the right. Mines inside us. Mines in our sleepy, exhausted eyes, trembling and worried, trying to stay awake. Seeking out objects of death whose characteristic is that of never being seen—they wait their entire life and are born only for a second to die with you.

Move by day. Move by night. Eat cornmeal or eat nothing. Save the last can. Boil tea gathered from bushes. Cook in black pots in the earth plowed by tires. Eat the last can. Eat with your hands from flaking enamel plates. Fantasize about fresh water. Salivate salt. Shiver from the cold an hour after the moon rises. Suffocate from the heat an hour after the sun rises.Dream about a bed.Wake up with rats.Go to sleep with fear.

Disdain tears.

Avoid dogs.

Defecate in front of others. Bathe in the river, swim during the crocodiles’ siesta, keep away from snakes, dry your body with your hands, extract the shudders from your bones, cover your skin with filthy clothes. Vomit your own smell. Sleep in the open air, sleep on the alert, in transit, in abandoned houses, on mattresses of straw and lice, on blankets with holes and mange. Listen to the wind beneath the divan. Listen to the sound of leaves laughing as they scrape the cement on the ground.

DANGER MINES. Do not touch anything, tread on existing tracks, walk backward retracing your steps, the same steps, exactly, or —

On short breaks in the True North, I eat books. While in this imaginary world I slip in and out of others, good ones and bad ones, slogging through the dull and lapping up the delicious. I met the author of this one before I knew the words were his. Read them in our native Portuguese first, Baía dos Tigres, conversed in our adopted French, but reading an excellent English translation has brought it to life anew. It, as in death taste, death smell, mortality, but sinewy and vivid and locomotive. This is non-fiction.

“The problem is basically a political one… You say you’re on a journey, but there are various kinds of journeys, as you know. Is it to gather information?”

“No. It’s to meet people.”

“But you’re a journalist. People give information. A journalist investigates. You’re on an investigation.”

“No, I’m on a trip. That’s different. Working on my own. People tell stories. I’ve already said I’m not here for my newspaper. I’m not even interested in the peace process.”

“But later you’re going to write about this and make good money; it’s always like that with foreigners.”

I’m still so inspired and grateful, friend. I had to share.

ayiti yo pa vle wè a

It didn’t rain the day of Michel Joseph Martelly’s inauguration. It didn’t rain the day after either. I would have remembered, I think. Rains are something that stick in my memory now, each downpour bringing with it a different rhythm, a different kind of destruction. I still remember the rains one Friday afternoon in September, how dark grey clouds curled across the sky, layering and pooling to turn it black. Winds whipped plants, trash, tarps and things in frenzied circles, ripping through fragile tents and makeshift wood-and-blue-plastic shelters, rain shooting down in heavy pellets to drown it all. I remember other rains in October that turned parts of Tabarre into a great, brown river, rushing and disappearing into the cracks and holes where pavement had collapsed.

The rains in May are different. The clouds come in more timidly, usually around late afternoon. They start in the mountains, drizzling down over Thomassin and La Boule first, crawling across the skies over Pétionville, until they reach the Centreville of Port-au-Prince, close to where I live. It rains most evenings, sometimes in the late afternoons. Water cascades from the sky in ribbons, though not for long, and not as aggressively as September. Not yet. On the days it doesn’t rain, the stickiness coats your skin, making it wet another way. It’s a wetness you carry with you, heavy, hiding under your clothes and trickling along the back of your neck.

Last week I marked eight months in Haiti. I’ve been quiet here, but not still. When I arrived, the election campaigning had not even begun. The first posters had not yet been pasted or hung, the first radio jingles not yet stuck in my ears, the already snarling traffic not yet crushed to a standstill by the first campaign tours, parties or parades. The walls, mostly bare for that brief two-week window, would soon have their cracks and stresses covered in blue, red, green and pink headshots of the candidates. Some walls were already dotted with spray-paint scrawl, like a never-ending news ticker: down with MINUSTAH, down with Préval, jen kore jen and fas à fas and other Wyclef slogans, pleas to Obama for help. Nou bouke, we’re tired. These gave way to messages about cholera, the provisional electoral council, and slogans and insults for the presidential hopefuls, by then whittled down to a tangled three and then a final two. “Give me my mother” battled it out with “Tèt kale,” the bald-headed slogan winning the ultimate battle: marketability. In the republic of logos, the best packaging wins.

Today it rained twice. First, mid-afternoon, while over a beer with a maybe-future Minister in the new administration, he told me he had predicted Martelly’s rise 15 years ago. “I said to my daughter in 1996,” he went on, his assertive enunciation carrying the softest of rolling French arrrrrrs, that Sweet Mickey was the only one capable of taking on Aristide and winning. Mickey had an organic connection to the people, he explained, because of his music.

It’s raining again now, rolling past with a purpose, thunder exploding over the building across the road. There is months of this to come, and storms, and after that, the hurricanes again. But for now the sticky heat has broken. The cicadas will be quiet tonight, and all over Port-au-Prince people will prepare for sleep on sheets and mattresses and ground that is very very wet.

nan boudam

I’ve been in Haiti two months now and all my writing is going elsewhere. Some of it is secret. Fais-moi signe if you want in, car j’suis pas complètement à l’aise sharing it publicly pour l’instant.

It goes on: mud cholera heat elections campaign parades sweat sun hurricanes rains rubble dust smoke fires blackness traffic roadblocks protests cabrit rice barbancourt ti-punch tarps camps wind shacks 4x4s mountains sea monsters markets bodies shotguns sweetness sunsets sunrises roosters radio crackle comedians kompa smiles whispers coo-cooing chouchouuu.

aweh, my ma se kind

It was the word “prawns” that first caught my attention. Stumbling sleepy somewhere around about 2 am on a frosty night in Newtown, I thought I must be hearing things. But then there it was again on their lips, praaawns. They wanted to hit another club just not that spot “with all them prawns and snakeskin pointyshoe n***as.” Heh heh heh. Instead we went to an all-night eatery across town, where tipsy patrons jumped up on the seats to lead a few rounds of Shosholoza, the day’s futbol games looping on corner TV screens. They tried to get me to sing too, but I didn’t know the words.

And so I sat and reflected on why I was back in South Africa. On prawns and makwerekweres, the origins of idle hatred, living frustrations, bodies and borders, the chasms between us, and how far one person has to be pushed before they feel the need to break their brother.

I spent the past five weeks or so traveling from one end of South Africa to the other. The N1 highway starts in Beit Bridge, where Mzansi touches Zimbabwe, and ends 1,929 km later in Cape Town, bending toward the mingling Indian and South Atlantic oceans. The N1 is where the story starts for a lot of foreign nationals in the country. They cross the Limpopo river, by bridge or bush, and the N1 is on their lips. That’s the road that will take them to Joburg, jobs, a different life. It’s also the road on their minds when they look for a way out. An escape from harassment, from threats, and from the promise of violence. The N1 goes both ways.

I was lucky enough to work on this project alongside my wildly talented friend Dominic Nahr (fresh from a Magnum Photo nomination! Yea!), and am deeply indebted to the support of the Pulitzer Center in DC. Our first Pulitzer Center blog post from the northern border is here, with more dispatches appearing here as they come. It’s worth poking around my twitter for updates too.

I still have piles of interviews, notes and audio to go through and Dom has such striking photos to share, so please do check back in. This is an important story. It’s not about spoiling any Black Star-inspired unity myth, not about simple racism or throwing blame or a jobs-and-housing cause and effect formula. It’s the most human of stories: about movement, the tugging and shoving of bodies. It’s about skeletons from the past and a crisis of poverty. It’s about being at a breaking point — just before you, or your entire world, explodes.