Sunday, October 20, 1991

Airplane Ticket, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, USA, 1991-1992

Airline ticket, from when I traveled from Los Angeles, USA to Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii, from late 1991 to late 1992.

20th October 1991 to 27th February 1992 in Australia
27th February 1992 to 25th May in New Zealand
May 25th to September 11th 1992 in Hawaii (was supposed to fly back to the mainland on 5th September but Hurricane Iniki interrupted that plan!)

3rd January 2012: Shortly after I returned to the United States from Haiti, I hit the road again, this time to Australia and New Zealand, with a stint in Hawaii before I returned back to the mainland of America.  You see where this ticket - an open-ended ticket good for one year, something hard to get anymore! - is purchased with British Pounds and states that it cost US equivalent $2,798?  Well, no, it didn't cost me that much - it actually cost me just under US$550.  When I was traveling in Europe, I discovered the wonderful world of the airline ticket wholesalers based in London, who using the vagaries of currency exchange values and bulk purchasing can get you tickets for mere pennies on the dollars, provided you weren't picky about what dates you flew.  At least they used to - not so sure if that happens anymore. 

Saturday, October 12, 1991

Postcard from me to my family, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, 12th October 1991

Postcard from me to my family, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, 12th October 1991

Oct. 12, '91
Hi Everybody!
After having been to places like Cape Canaveral, this was a letdown. And Houston is this big, ugly, soulless city - awful - but the hostel is the BEST - so comfortable & friendly! Went to a fantastic laser light show at the planetarium, to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" - made Houston worth visiting!
Love, Laura

Commentary, 2nd January 2012: Seriously, that laser light show at the Planetarium in Houston was the best I've ever been to, before and since.  One thing I don't mention in the post card was the fact that there were people in the audience lighting up and handing around marijuana joints - ya, I partook, might as well have after all, I'd have gotten a contact high regardless, the smoke was so thick!

I'm almost embarrassed by what I wrote about Houston here, about it being ugly and soulless, but at the time, it really did feel and seem that way.  Houston was still recovering from the massive real estate crash of the 1980s, entire skyscraper buildings were empty or nearly empty... I remember walking down the streets of Houston in the early afternoon and finding the sidewalks remarkably lightly trafficked; after 6:00pm the streets were completely empty, a total ghost-town.  I've not been back to Houston since, but I have friends who live there and report that downtown Houston is much more lively now.

Wednesday, October 9, 1991

Postcard from me to my family, dated 9th October, 1991, postmarked New Orleans, Louisiana 10th October 1991.

Oct. 9 - 91
Address until April 4, 1992
L. Difiore
c/o Involvement Volunteers
P.O. Box 218
Port Melbourne 3207
Victoria, Australia
Hi Everybody! Walked around the French Quarter, ate Beignets at Cafe du Monde, going to Preservation Hall tomorrow - birthplace of Jazz! Weather is terrific - finally! Next stop: Houston
Love and miss you all,

Thursday, October 3, 1991

Postcard from me to my family, Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida, 3rd October 1991

Postcard from me to my family, Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida, 3rd October 1991. Postmarked Tallahassee, Florida 9th October 1991.

Hi Everyone! This place is COOL! Saw "Hi Honey I'm Home" being taped, traveled in time in a Delorean, was in a subway car destroyed by King Kong, got attacked in the shower at the Bates Motel, bled all over the stage; all in a day's work, eh? Oh - flew with the Jetsons, too!
Love, Laura

Tuesday, October 1, 1991

Stranger In An Ever Stranger Land

The flight is short between two worlds, less than two hours and I'm landing in an odd, strange world. I remain seated as those around me rush to grab their bags full of their ever-important-stuff from the overhead compartments, rushing to leave the plane even though no matter how much they rush, it always takes at least fifteen minutes to debark and at least an hour to get through Customs and Immigration.

Americans. Always in such a rush to get to the next red light.

I'm always the last person off an airplane. Sometimes stewardesses will ask me if everything is all right, as I sit and wait for the hurried I'm-Very-Important people moving around me. This time is a bit different: there is another person three rows ahead of me also waiting until there is no choice but to leave. Glancing over, our eyes meet and there is a silent moment of Hello Fellow Real World Avoider.

I hate the rush. I hate the end of a trip. I hate what I know is about to come: Culture Shock. Not the shock of a new land: the shock of the old. Returning home to my own country, to what some consider normal life. Yet I have no choice, I can't stay on the plane forever.

Walking through the door and down the perfectly temperature-controlled accessway, I am struck hard by the sterile smell of the air. So clean, so filtered, so dead. Who knew air could smell dead without a carcass? I'm instantly brought back to the moment nearly two months earlier when I walked through another airplane's door just after landing in Haiti, onto a rusted stairway pushed by three men to the door of the plane. Leaving that plane, I walked into direct sunlight and thick, humid, sweet-smelling, abundantly alive air. I remember the captain of that plane warning each of us as we walked down those shaky metal steps to stay to the left: the right hand side of several steps was rusted through. The air was rich, thick, and sweet as I walked across the tarmac to the doorway of the terminal.

There are lots of ways to reduce culture shock when traveling; hell, half the fun of traveling IS the "shock" of different ways of life, different foods, mannerisms, languages, and styles. No one warns you about the shock of coming "home," no one prepares you for how much harder it is to return to the normal from what has become normal.

No matter how many times I've traveled, returning home just gets harder, readjusting to America becomes ever increasingly difficult.

Leaving the accessway, I join the loud throng of people rushing from one Customs and Immigration line to another, hoping to get on a "fast" one. After the sterile dead air of the plane and accessway, my eyes begin to water from the coarse smell of heavy artificial perfumes, deodorants and floor cleaner. I hang towards the back and just watch and wait for my turn to leave sacred international ground and walk onto official American soil.

It is so loud. The crowd isn't large, likely less than 200 people, but my ears hurt already from the brassy, harsh American accents around me. I can't help but think do I sound like that? Seven televisions are strategically placed around the room to occupy us while we wait for our turn through customs and immigration. Occupy us...or begin our American enculturation. Just in case the TVs aren't loud enough to be heard, closed-captioned words scroll across the bottom, some in Spanish, so no one will miss a single word of the ever-important trash on the television.

During the nearly two months I was in Haiti, I only watched TV for one hour. The family I stayed with in Port Au Prince was blessed with electricity for only a few minutes a day. One day, towards the end of my stay, the grapevine informed us we would have power for two whole hours. When the single electric light in the house flickered on, signaling the return of power, the entire family excitedly rushed out the door and down the street to the rich television-owning neighbor, already in the process of running an extension cord to his precious television placed on the crumbling sidewalk in front of his pieced-together scrap metal home. Everyone from at least a three block radius gathered around to watch this old 1960s-era black-and-white television. Food and drinks quickly passed around, all laughing and sharing the latest gossip, few actually watching the only station the battered metal hanger of an antenna received. The return of the television was simply an excuse to gather, share, and enjoy each other's company: socialize and party. No one but me noticed the news about the Army overthrowing the government - very likely the reason we were blessed with this much electricity today. Growing up on television like most Americans, I didn't need to understand the language of the reporter to know the news was not good. I tore myself away from the screen, amazed how in less than 15 minutes I was sucked right back into Television Zombie Mode, and rejoined the party.

Electricity. In America, we not only take power for granted, we assume everyone around the world has it. This assumption of power was the reason I was in Haiti: I was sent down here by a Baptist ministry to set up six brand-new, expensive computers at their Peytonville mission and train the missionaries in their usage. Train American Baptists how to use computers in a country with virtually no electricity, as if Baptists in a country of Voodoo was not ironic enough. The project took one day...they only wanted me to describe what the specs meant and give them a brief rundown on setup. These particular American Baptists had been in Haiti long enough to know that the best usage of these computers would be to sell or trade them to some corrupt official or another for pencils, papers, books, a new water filter, bicycle tire tubes and food. Which is exactly what they did.

I reluctantly pick a line and wait my turn facing the stern immigration official. I feel naked without the close throng of curious children that followed me everywhere I went in Haiti, some shyly three inches away from me but never touching, some boldly holding my hand, my arm, touching my rare-to-them white skin, always one brash kid or another touching my hair to see if I was real, startled when I spoke aloud to prove I wasn't a living zombie. I now stand alone surrounded by strangers, feeling somehow unsafe and crowded, despite the minimum 18-inch personal-space barrier we Americans unconsciously insist upon. Children were everywhere on the streets of Haiti, always playing, shouting, arguing, talking, conspiring to play one prank or another on each other. Some had families and ramshackle homes to return to; some lived every hour on the street. Regardless of their family status, they expressed a joy in their lives with their every movement and the freedom to run the streets without fear, despite the many real dangers.

The only children I see in this secured, enclosed official room are grimly hanging onto their parents, whose eyes dart around constantly watching for some stranger or another to snatch their precious children from their arms and somehow sneak them out past immigration, customs and security officials. A room that doesn't even have bathrooms for a pedophile to hide in - just in case you might want to dump the drugs you were illicitly carrying into the country. I can't help myself but smile back at one young girl who smiled at me...her paranoid mother sneered a "how dare you!" look at me and moved three lines over. It saddened me, then I reminded myself I must look pretty rough and skanky after over six weeks of Port Au Prince street-family life. That family had a house, three walls were made of wood and concrete, one of scrap metal, but no "proper" shower: just a cast-iron baby-sized vat to wash in. A house that was a warm, loving laughter-filled home, despite its lack of electricity and plumbing. I miss my "family" already.

How quickly I forgot that in America, Appearance Is Everything. A smile on the face of a well-dressed, stylishly-coiffed, manicured-nailed woman hauling tons of expensive luggage towards a child is far less threatening than one from a woman in torn, dirty jeans and a smelly ragged sweatshirt carrying only a small backpack that has traveled more miles than Greyhound. I understand, but wish it wasn't so.

Appearance Is Everything. Have you ever noticed that serial killers are always attractive, well-dressed white men? Their neighbors always say they seemed so "nice"... are always so shocked that such a "nice" young man could do such horrible things.

Of course, by "nice" they mean attractive and well-dressed.

My turn. I hand my passport over, the official struggles to find a blank space big enough for the stamp saying I'm now back in America. He asks me about the uprising and troubles in Haiti, says it must have been scary for me being in the middle of a military coup. Laughing, I reply that the soldiers sit around on the corner smoking and drinking, waiting for the news reporters to show up. Despite what was likely being reported on American television, there really wasn't thousands of soldiers running all over the streets shooting innocent civilians. He waves me across the blue line and I officially enter America.

"Welcome Home," he says.

Yes, welcome home.

* * *

©1991, Laura DiFiore

In 1991, I spent nearly two months traveling around Haiti after a brief stint as a volunteer for a Baptist mission. I'm not Baptist - in fact, I'm not any religion - but the volunteer position was a great opportunity to visit this very misunderstood country. In September, 1991, two weeks before I returned to America, there was a military coup that put General Raoul Cedras in power. The above is a Musing I wrote shortly after I returned to America.

A very slightly modified version of this essay was subsequently submitted in response to an assignment for my Cultural Anthropology class at Pikes Peak Community College, 2005.

Impression Notes, Haiti, 1991

Impression notes written shortly after returning to the United States after six weeks in Haiti, approximately October, 1991. Transcription below each page.

 an evocative image article

Why go-Not a typical tourist place, people very friendly, despite their persistance in selling you things
You laugh a lot when in Haiti
Getting there
customs no problem
money-buy in Miami airport much better rate, spend only gourds "I have no dollars"
Bring things to trade - mens shoes, sneakers, cheap watches, oreo cookies, ball point pens, all decent quality not pure shit
What it was like
w/small amount of past and current history
problems - water, electricity maybe 1 hour a day
national palace under guard not open to visitors
lots of statues of "famouse" haitians everywhere
garbage on street corners in neat (huge) pile, not spread out everywhere, absolute filth everywhere yet actually quite neat
woman asleep on her fruit in market
"bank" is place to buy lottery tickets, "marriage" is a kind of lotto
Couldn't find map or store to buy one! "Try the library" said women at hotel desk "Is it open today? (Saturday)" "No, it open maybe one day next week, maybe today not."
cattle/goats on median strips, side of road, rooster typed to ice-drink cart "for cock fight" said John
drink only bottled, small amounts of water at most hotels won't bother you
illiteracy 80% of population (took Australian dollar checks like American!) (lady next to me on plane filled out immigration form for native returning to haiti who couldn't read the form
smell of burning sugar cane
iron market, meat on tables, flies, smell, art stalls "come see what I have"
Bargain EVERYTHING, but be cautious. Very aware of the value of the dollar, know more about us then we them
girls in dresses coming home for lunch from school, kids solomnly walking to church 2x2
church itself
voodoo hearing the drums on saturday night, lack of problem being Christian on Sunday, Voodoo on Sat and Wednesday
missions their place in haiti
up in mountains much cooler, notice lack of trees, nearly completely deforested people use for
coal for heating cooking
men w/hand trucks
taxi drivers
the constant entourage, paying $10 to walk with you
"blanc, blanc"
cooking in the streets

Handwritten notes:
Hardship of the tourist in Haiti
Safety Factors
Asked for Scrambled got easy over
Weekend in Port au Prince
Places to eat
Restaurant ------ several times frozen USA fish!
Prestige Beer (not bad!)
Mission Cafe (VERY American)
Don't like photo being taken - although may for a few $ - "stealing soul"
tourists' dilema - poverty vs. rich white american
airport-walking all over the place, people bribing the x-ray guy
"All we need is love"

"1960-More than a million of the old 48-star flags are sold in uncut bolts of cloth to Haiti, resulting in an island ablaze with stars-and-striped dresses, shirts and kerchiefs, tablecloths and sheets." Washington Post Jan 11 1991


Cadogan's book
article from post
personal experiences

Handwritten notes:
Pointing to cars(?) "How much in US is that?"
Washing clothes in river
Man discretely urinating on side of building

3rd January 2012: When I returned to the United States after six weeks in Haiti, I jotted down some quick impression notes to use as inspiration for several articles I'd been contracted to ghost-write about my experience in Haiti for a travel magazine.  It is amazing to me how reading these today, over 20 years later, how many memories of my time there come rushing back to me.