Renovation Diaries - my parents are the coolest

Tonight is the first night that anyone from my family or Dave's will live in our house. My parents were supposed to stay there last night but the furnace wasn't working, so they stayed with us. At noon today, they ventured to the new place to get settled in.  At 5:30 pm they still didn't have heat.

My mother, 67 years young, bracing herself for a cold night.

The girls on the blow up mattress, after the heat had been restored.
Luckily, the heat was restored at about 6:30pm! 


Christmas at Lac Green

The past three Christmases we have spent up at Catee's parents house up on Lac Green in the Laurentians north of Montreal.

It is beautiful up here this time of the year. It's cold, but you are guaranteed a white Christmas. This year there was a big snow storm right before we arrived - knocking out power for 40,000 people, but luckily sparing us.

Saydie loves it up here. With very few cars around she (and the 3 other dogs here) get to run free, chase deer and frolic in the snow.

Us humans get to have some fun as well . Andrée (Catee's sister), Catee and I got some skiing in at Tremblant. And we also got some sledding in thanks to Andrée and her partner, Jen's construction of a luge track along the side of the house.


Happy Holidays from the Lalonde-Pristin House

No kidding. This actually is the house that we live in.

Today Dave and I are heading up to my parent's beautiful, internet-free country house in the Laurentians, Quebec. We're hoping to be back on the 28th. 


Good to be home.

Even if only for one day - tomorrow we head to Quebec for Christmas.  It's nice to spend the morning at home with the dog, basking in the couple glimpses of sunlight that shine in.  

Our windows need cleaning - don't judge!

The first photo above was taken by Lev Kuperman on our wedding day.


Orevwa Ayiti


I have to confess.  I’ve always thought that tennis is pretty bougie.  The preponderance of cable knit sweaters at the US open only confirmed my suspicions.

As a kid I never any real desire to play – prancing around in a tiny white skirt just wasn’t my thing.

Fast forward a few years to 2011. When I first arrive at Villa Creole in Haiti, the hotel had signs everywhere for a tennis court out back.  One day my friend Cristina and I followed signs to find a refugee camp where the courts once were.  After the earthquake, nearby residents who had lost their homes had relocated to any open space available, including the courts.

By mid-2012, the people living in the courts had been relocated to shelters in the hills behind them (this kills me - that people call their homes shelters, and that it is the appropriate thing to call them).  The courts had reopened, and one of the men who had lived on the courts had taken them over.  His name is Wilnes, and he also offers lessons.  Cristina happily started to play when she would come, and highly recommended them to me.  At first, I politely declined.  The thought of staying at a fancy hotel and playing tennis while in Haiti was just too much for me. But then, on my last trip, after nights and nights sitting in from of my computer and avoiding the treadmill, I needed physical activity and social interaction.  I caved, and took a lesson.

To my surprise, it was really fun, and just what I needed. For someone who absolutely loathes working out, it is really perfect for me – just social enough, outside, and requires enough attention that I don’t get bored out of my  mind while I am doing it, as I would on a treadmill or the elliptical.  Don’t get me wrong: I still haven’t gotten over my squeamishness about the preppiness of the sport, and probably won’t be wearing a little white skirt any time soon.  But for now, I am happy to have found something fun to do to pass the time while I am here.

Wilnes' shelter.


So long Jacmel

Today I start the long road home. I leave Jacmel for Port Au Prince this afternoon, and then will be back in NYC tomorrow night.

When I am here I am torn between being totally in love and wishing that I could stay longer - because of my work, I never know if I will be back. At this very moment though, I must be honest, I am ready to get back to Dave, the dog, and our new home.


Just throwing this out there: I am pretty pissed about the cholera epidemic in Haiti.

image from Reuters.

Almost 8000 people have died since it started in October of 2010.  A crazy, huge number. The biggest of any cholera epidemic in recent history.

The craziest thing is that it was brought here by an organization with an internationally recognized mandate to protect Haitians.  

My complaints have nothing to do with the fact that the strain of cholera was Nepalese.  It’s about how this has been portrayed in the media by some – as though there was just one poor innocent Nepalese soldier that inadvertently caused the whole epidemic – poor guy, he came here to help.  Let’s not blame him.

The reality is that it is highly unlikely that a one infected person could cause such an explosion of cases of cholera.  The much more likely scenario, all but confirmed by the CDC, is that at the Nepalese base, the UN was dumping its untreated fecal matter into a river, which acted as a water source for the people leaving nearby.

This is criminal negligence of massive proportions.

Think of the repercussions if this had happened in the US. BP was fined 4.5 billion USD for the oil spill, and they face civil trials on top of that.  That kind of money would be incredibly useful for Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.  But who's kidding who? It would be really useful for any country, particularly in a crisis like this.

Whereas it was not there before, Cholera is now here to stay in Haiti.  The prevention mechanisms in places are abysmally weak.  The treatment mechanisms just as bad.  You can read my previous post to find out more about why. 

The largest NGO in the world needs to be held accountable to the Haitian people, and to its donors and member states.  It needs to know that it cannot get away with this kind of negligence, not in a developing country, not ever.  By not holding the UN accountable, we are sending a clear message to the developing world that the standard code of conduct that applies to us does not apply to them.  That we punish those who run us (people of wealthy nations) afoul, but we ignore it when it happens to the poor.

*** update: please read this FP article about the UN, cholera and Haiti. Unbelievable.


Avoiding work...

There’s something about travelling in a developing countries that is conducive to waking up early.  Perhaps it was the rooster crowing outside my window at 5:30 am.

I refuse to work this early on a Sunday morning, so I am avoiding doing so by looking at design blogs (sorry Rebecca!).  Dave and I have stalled on posting about the renovations on our home because we’re trying to figure out what to do with the structure.  The first thing that you see when you enter the house is a long, dark hallway that separates the stairs from the living room.  We were hoping to take that wall down to create more light at the entrance to the house, but now we are not sure how structurally or financially feasible that is.

So instead of thinking about the décor of the house, we’re still trying to figure out a layout that works for us and our budget.

That said, it's fun to dream sometimes, and Toronto homes are great for this.  New York design tends to focus on super fancy condos, coops, and mansions, because most people in NYC don’t buy houses.  So Toronto – where young people do buy houses and renovate them on a young person budget – offers some great inspiration for us.

Here are some pics from my one of my favorite homes on HGTV's blog. I really like the simple black and white background, the natural floors, and the colorful / quirky artwork. The full post can be found here.

If Dave's going to live in it, the house needs to have an exposed brick wall.



 Happy birthday Dad!
These pictures are for you. The other day we were driving to work when out of the corner of my eye I saw this horse-powered sugar cane press, used to make alcohol.  Being my father’s daughter I of course insisted that we stop and check it out.  It was fascinating to watch.  I spent the day trying to figure out how it worked (and hatching a plan to rescue the horses). Apparently these practices stem from over 200 years ago when Haiti was still a colony.


Talkin’ about poop.

This picture has nothing to do with poo. I just like it.

For the last two weeks, my colleagues and I have been travelling Haiti, talking to people about poop. We ask them where they poop, how they wipe, if they wash their hands, and if they have toilet paper, water or soap.

What we are learning is that a lot of people, particularly the rural poor, don’t have latrines, and even less people have soap and water. This is outrageous for a country that is 2.5 years into the worst cholera epidemic in recent history.

Cholera is transmitted by fecal oral route, meaning literally when feces enter the mouth.  This sounds gross – and it is – but it’s really much easier for this to happen then one would think.  If you don’t have a latrine and you need to go to the bathroom outside, often the poop can then be blown or carried with rain into a source of water, which people then drink from (no they are not literally drinking poo – but they are drinking water that has touched poo, and that carries the bacteria).

Cholera can also be spread when feces touch fruits and vegetables which are then eaten.
Having a place to poop is a really important part of stopping the spread of cholera and everyone that we speak to knows this.  The people who don’t have their own toilet express great shame in not having one.  The problem is that for many they are just too expensive.  When we ask people about their priorities, they are clear: send my kids to school, fix the house, maybe buy a motorcycle so that they can get into the city to find work.  A latrine is understandably not high up on the list, especially when they have survived just fine without one until now.

Giving people latrines sounds like a no-brainer, and in some respects it is.  Everyone should have one.  But nothing is that straightforward in Haiti.  There is no piped water system in much of the country, so the kinds of toilets that we have in our houses are pretty much out of the question.  Dry pit latrines (just like outhouses) are the simplest solution but they can smell, and eventually they fill up and a new hole needs to be dug. An intermediate model uses water to flush, but doesn’t need to be hooked up to plumbing. All of these types will require emptying or re-digging within a few years, and that kind of service is not readily available.  Then you have to make sure that whatever style of latrine you chose can withstand all of the hurricanes and tropical storms that Haiti gets annually.  Many of the latrines that we saw completely collapsed during hurricane Sandy.

After you have chosen your environmentally friendly, hurricane-proof latrine (please share if you succeed!), you need to make sure that there is water nearby so that people can wash their hands.  This is a whole other feat in and of itself, especially way up in the mountains.  Then you need to make sure that people have a steady supply of soap to wash their hands, and Clorox to clean their latrines.

Now that you have all of the hardware set up, you need to work on the software: making sure that people use their latrine, that they clean it, and wash their hands.  Laugh if you will, but if this was so simple you wouldn't find “employees must wash hands before returning to work” in every restaurant bathroom. 

Behavior is hard to change.  It takes a long time. If all people needed to change their behavior was knowledge, no one would smoke, we would have stopped the spread of AIDS, and obesity might not exist.  People need repeated, ongoing reminders of what to do, and they need all the systems to be in place to facilitate them making the right decisions.  We asked one of the project staff how long it takes to create sustained behavior change and he responded, 'It takes a long time.  Very long. Until death.'

In Haiti, many people don’t have latrines.  They can’t afford soap.  They have to walk long distances for water. The systems just are not in place to stop the spread of cholera.

My job, as an evaluator, is to help organizations navigate complex situations like these.  I am part of a team that helps organizations to learn from their past experiences and to apply that knowledge to best meet the needs of their beneficiaries, in this case Haitians. 

The team, crammed into the back of a land cruiser.

Someone got a haircut


Haitian Picture of the Day

Beautiful picture

A sail boat off the coast of Petite Rivière de Nippes, Haiti

It reminds me of some of the Dhows we saw when we were in Lamu, Kenya.


I hiked two hours to get to work today.

Ok, that's not true.  I was going to hike two hours to get to work today, until I found out that I could take a motor bike part of the way and then I'd only have to hike for an hour. I mean, I like hiking and all, but a two hour hike in addition to a one hour drive is a bit extreme.

Until a couple of months ago I would have been able to drive most of the road in a car, but our good friend Sandy just knocked the road clear off of the side of the mountain.  So walking and motorbikes it was.

Thanks Sandy, I'm sure the villagers won't miss this road.