20 December 2012 – 21 January 2013
After crossing the border to Haiti I arrived at Sashana Forest (SF) in the afternoon on 20 December where I was welcomed by the 6 international volunteers and the 2 people who managed the place - Jeff and Franzi (and later Nick) trained in Sadhana India where the project initially started. After a couple of weeks around 20 people came to attend a perma-culture course. There were also a few local volunteer and couple of security guards. Some of the local volunteers were initially offered free accommodation at SF, but they are superstitious and don't want to spend the night there - occationally the nearby caves are used for all night vodoo sessions.
The aim of SF is re-forestation by introducing indigenous trees especially food producing trees – in Haiti the primary focus is on the Chokogou producing mayan nuts that are useful for baking, cooking, etc. The project is non-business so the trees are provided freely to the nearby community of Anse-a-Pitre. Part of the project is to live sustainably which implies organic food, alternative energy and composting amongst other by utilising perma-culture techniques. The project also aims at eliminating animal suffering which entails vegan food – neither is it allowed to smoke, drink alcohol, tea/coffee or having other stimulating intakes.
The town comprises around 12,500 people with one long, concrete main street while the rest are dirt roads. For Haiti it's probably normal (I'll find out later) but it's a poor place – especially compared to Pedernales just across the border in the Dominican Republic. Some people live in concrete houses but most live in clay houses with bamboo roofs and a small piece of land to grow food - water is collected from on the canals in town. The only thing that is truly abundant is clothes – Haiti still receives so much clothes as foreign aid that it's sold at the market and lying around everywhere around town. It was quite funny watching Haitiens wearing t-shirts with statements they most likely didn't understand.
Despite the poverty they seemed to be happy people – always friendly and most often smiling and greeting me when I walked around town. Most of the other volunteers were called “blanc” which isn't racist but a common Haitian term for all foreigners – for some unknown reason I was always called Allemand. If drugs were widespread it was well hidden. I saw some people taking drugs and also some being influenced by drugs but far from what could be expected for a poor place like this right on the route from South America to the US – I was never offered anything. Neither was begging a big problem – only a few kids sometimes asked for 5 pesos.
In many ways it's an unspoilt place – many things are like 40-50 years ago in the so-called “developed world”. Kids are playing with self-made balls and cars, balancing old wheels with a stick while running through the streets, etc. The kids are more often naked because it's cheaper and easier not to think about diapers. The river and canals are used for everything possible; watering fields and gardens, showering, laundry, washing cars and motoconchos, etc.
Safety and security
We could walk around freely during daytime but after dark SF had the rule never to walk alone. I often walked around town alone during daytime and a couple of times at night time – people were always friendly and I doubt safety was a real issue.
The security guards were not for our personal safety but as a preventive measure to limit steeling which had been a big problem in the past. During my stay nobody had personal items stolen but from SF were stolen chicken wire, a tarp covering the composting poo (!) and a motorcycle wheel locked to a trailer under a pile of rubbish in the UN tent (insider job?).
All work days (Sunday to Thursday) were from 6 am– 12.30 plus additional chores like dinner cooking and cleaning. Workdays started with a morning circle with different activities e.g. singing, dancing, non-competitive games, etc. I did my best to stay positive but as everyone who knows me well are aware, I don't like neither singing nor dancing – and the games more often seemed childish and uninspiring. What I did appreciate, however, was the hugging that ended every morning circle.
After the morning circle came the daily chores which consisted of 2 shifts; first shift from 6.15 – 8.30 and second from 9.30 – 12.30 followed by lunch. First shift primarily comprised breakfast cooking, watering, grass cutting and mulching of SF's trees and trees in town as well as tree planting different places in town. Second shift primarily comprised lunch cooking, toilet cleaning and composting, collecting mulch and and seaweed, planting seeds, nursing and transplanting trees, cleaning up the recycle area and the UN tent which had been neglected for a very long time. The first couple of weeks when we were only 8 people almost all work time was spent on housekeeping chores in SF which disillusioned me, since I expected using most of the time planting trees and interacting with the local community - and even when planting trees we rarely met the locals who owned the land we planted on. Later when about 20 people arrived to attend a perma-culture course it created more time for planting trees in town which I signed up for as often as possible.
Workday afternoons were free except for those who signed up for dinner cooking and cleaning. No competitive or warlike games were allowed which pretty much ruled out all games. So sometimes people did individual projects but mostly time was spent relaxing (particularly reading) and laundry (clothes became dirty every day). I spent most of my time sunbathing by the “pool” which was the most pieceful place I could find.
During weekends there were no shifts except the Friday morning market and of course cooking. Most people went to Pedernales to do practical things such as shopping and internet and sometimes people took a walk alone or in small groups – e.g. to the beach, a nearby cave, around Anse-a-Pitre. I spent most of my weekend time in King Crab Cafe in Pedernales where there was free wireless internet – frustratingly slow but at least it always worked contrary to the internet cafes .
The food in SF is vegan which entails no meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, honey etc. but also other rules like no processed ingredients, very limited use of cooking oil and strong spices, etc. Instead we ate lots of fruits and vegetables, lentils, beans, grains, etc. – many of which I had never heard of. With these limitations, no knowledge of vegan food and an always dark, smoky kitchen, I preferred to cook as little as possible. In general the food was very delicious; however as it's limited how many different ways you can cook the same ingredients, we often ate similar dishes with minor varieties as both money and market selection were limited. When we became many people purchases (for some unknown reason) didn't increase proportionally, so food portions declined and became more boring e.g. rice and beans.
During the 4½ weeks I was in SF I lost about 10 - 12 kg wating vegan food and having no alcohol, etc. A good diet if anybody is interested!
SF was very concerned with health – especially hygiene was important with so many people living together using organic toilets, cooking over open fires, etc. But also eating properly, drinking enough water, taking care of scratches and wounds, etc. Part of this was also covering up from mosquitoes and sandflies - especially the sandflies were a constant nuisance since we couldn't use deet and they seemed not to be repelled by my citronella.
I was sleeping in my tent and like when I'm camping we rose with the sun and went early to bed usually between 7-9 p.m. Sleeping however was seldom easy – most often there were all night loud parties in town.... and maybe the noise confused the animals because dogs, roosters, donkeys, etc. also went on all night. And as in hostel dormitories some people were less considerate chitchatting late evenings and sometimes during the nights – and also early mornings in the weekends when people not having chores had a chance to sleep late. It was hot when we went to bed and then it got a bit chilly during the night, so every night I added layers of clothes as the night progressed.
The volunteers – social environment
My first days in SF were definitely the best being new to everything. Very quickly it got annoying that all conversations were internal since 5 of 8 volunteers had been to Sadhana India at the same time – always talking about the people, songs and dances they knew, the things they had done, making internal jokes, etc. Initially I wasn't happy when I heard that 20 more people would soon arrive to do the perma-culture course but then I started hoping that they could change the group dynamics and conversation contents. Things did change but to other subjects for which I have little interest – vegan food, gardening, music, dancing, meditation, yoga, healing, sowing, etc. - it's okay for a while but over weeks it became less interesting. In the evenings people played different instruments but amateur music (and singing) is not my preference. Don't get me wrong – except for one young, annoying girl (self-centered, bezzerwizzer and always good for a negative comment) everybody was really kind, caring and friendly – I just have other interests than they do.
So to sum up - I wasn't really happy during my time in SF and it had several reasons. First and foremost I came for the voluntary work planting trees and interacting with the locals despite the vegan food and other restrictions – everybody else came for SF and/or the perma-culture course; tree planting being secondary. In adition my challenge increased over time as it became increasingly more difficult to find a place for solitude – either for me alone or to have a deeper conversation with someone (which I really missed) – the few times it occurred were more often when I had a job with just one other person for a couple of hours. I'm not sure but maybe the age difference also played a part – the average age was around 26-27 so for obvious reasons I'm a different place in life. That said I did get some new friends and Jeff and Franzi (and later Nick) did their best to include me but it wasn't enough to make me really happy. I guess I was in the wrong place at the wrong time in my life.....maybe another time it'll be different....