Plastic Gold: Reclaiming Hope for Haiti

At home I take for granted that my garbage moves through a well-planned system of collection, treatment and disposal, or recycling. It disappears from my curb and I rarely give it another thought, especially the oversized blue recycling bin that swallows the majority of our waste because my county recycles virtually every type of plastic, glass, metal and paper product. I assume it’s all carried away, processed locally and then sent off to be turned into new products.

DSC_9863But in Haiti, where I’ve traveled twice in the past year, initially as part of Off the Mat, Into the World’s Global Seva Challenge project, I approach every single plastic water bottle with a sense of disdain. The streets are lined with thousands of these bottles, empty containers and wrappers, scraps of clothing, mismatched shoes and the remnants of lives discarded. There’s nowhere for it to go on this tiny, rugged island, but into another pile.

And seeing garbage piled up everywhere I look breaks my heart.

The children I have met on my trips play amidst the garbage, sometimes barefoot or in tattered sandals that spill off into the waste. Women sit behind curbside market stalls, surrounded by rotting food and containers that represent life lived without the stability of reusable wares.

I am a visitor here, transitory and simply observing. It’s hard not to judge but then step back and really see people who are doing the best they can, truly living in the present moment because it’s all they have, survival as the sole focus.

On our most recent trip in December, exploring the historic sites of Haiti’s north coast, we were horrified to see a colonial-era fort near Cap Haitien—a site that holds the power of the only successful slave rebellion in history—also swallowed in garbage. To get to the fort, we walked a once-sandy beach trail that had become a carpet of bottles and cans and discarded bits of everyday life.

But this trail, and Haiti’s streets, are in fact lined with hope. Perpetually recovering from centuries of unrest, disaster and poor governance, the effects of the massive 2010 earthquake still felt daily, Haiti presents in its moment of transition an opportunity for a more sustainable approach.

DSC_9264Executives Without Borders and Haiti Recycling are partnering in a program called Ramase Lajan, which literally means “picking up money.” With the support of donors and organizations around the world, Ramase Lajan is establishing community-based recycling centers around Haiti. The model is one of sustainable development—a local Haitian is selected to manage the center, trained and given the funds to train and hire others. Everyone in the local community can get involved, collecting bottles and cans and selling them to the center as a means of income. The center then transports and sells the recyclables to Haiti Recycling, in Port-au-Prince, where they processed to be shipped abroad for recycling and for use in new products.

We visited a new recycling center in Haut-Du-Cap, near Cap Haitien, the first center in the north of the country. We met the Haitian manager (called the “proprietor”), Purnell. He is young and so proud of his business. Purnell and his team are now working to educate the local people, for whom the concept of the recycling center model is new, to engage them in picking up recyclable waste in the area.

As this program grows, the goal is to build a processing plant in Haiti, employing Haitians to turn garbage into gold—or at least, to turn plastic bottles into useful products like shoes, bags and other plastic goods, that can in turn be sold for Haitians or as souvenirs. And in the process, build up communities and individual leaders who represent the promise of sustainable economic development and a cleaner environment for this struggling nation. The magic of this place is its people, who are so passionate about their land and their heritage, yet often are left powerless to preserve it in the face of so much hardship.

Along with several of my friends and fellow travelers, I will be raising money to build a new recycling center in Jacmel, on Haiti’s southern coast. Each center is funded by donations for the materials, training and hiring of employees and initial start-up costs, totaling $25,000. To purchase handmade Reclaimed Hearts for Haiti jewelry that supports this project, visit http://www.etsy.com/shop/tohaitiwithlove. Make a donation or learn more about how you can support the Jacmel recycling center at www.experiencethevillage.com/recyclehaiti.

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Another Year Younger

It’s my birthday. There, I said it. And I’m not even ashamed to tell you how old I am (31), although my mom might wish that I hadn’t. And although, obviously, I’m getting older, I feel a bit like I’m getting younger this year.

I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but birthday resolutions seem like a better approach. Another year of me… what will I do with it?

Here are a few things that are on my list:

  • Keep discovering my purpose and living it every day.
  • Take the time I need for self care and inner reflection, every day.  And do a better job of listening to my inner teacher.
  • Breathe.
  • Step off the ledge into something new and exciting, and know that the universe will catch me. (So I guess I’ve already started with that one… I couldn’t have timed my big transition better.)
  • Plan less, live more.
    And a brief interlude for a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson (courtesy of Tiny Buddha): “Most of the shadows of life are caused by standing in our own sunshine.”
  • Teach yoga to kids.
  • Breath some more.
  • Raise $20,000 for sustainable relief efforts in Haiti and travel there next year to put words into action.
  • Connect more with my community, those I know and those I don’t. Meet new people, every day.

So there you have it. Just a few small items to start with for my new year. It’s not surprising, though, that most of the things on this list make me feel younger just thinking about them. That’s the great thing about birthdays – you can take what you need from them. And this year, I need to know that the sky’s the limit.

Here’s to big dreams, new adventures, and starting right now.

Flowing with asparagus

Flowing with asparagus

A view of the spring garden

I live just outside of a major city, drive my (hybrid) car nearly every day, and generally live what could be considered a modern, urban lifestyle. But I have committed in a few small ways to staying connected with the rhythms of the earth, despite the flow of life in the twenty-first century.

A couple of years ago when we purchased our house, we decided to uproot most of the grass in our backyard and replace it with wooden frames filled with rich, dark soil. With a few gardening books, some basic tools, and a lot of sweat, tears, and lessons learned, we have managed to grow a bounty of greens, carrots, beets, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, and more. Believe me, you don’t really know what a carrot tastes like until you pull one out of the ground, brush it off, and take a bite. It’s heaven.

But for me, what’s more important than a handful (or sometimes, on a good day in July, a bowlful) of fresh food is the opportunity to connect so intimately with the ground – the earth – and its sustenance. When as part of our modern flow, we can simply grab a bag of dirt-free, pre-carved carrots or a bright red tomato when it’s snowing or – the horror – asparagus in September, it’s hard to stop and remember how the whole process is supposed to work. It’s an incredible exercise in mindfulness. And I really like getting dirty!

I adopted a tradition a few years back related to asparagus in particular. It’s unquestionably one of my favorite vegetables, and it’s characteristics make it the holy grail for me. It shoots out of the ground in mid-April and appears for maybe six fleeting weeks at our Saturday morning farmers market. And with few exceptions, this is the only time we eat it – and we eat it voraciously. This past weekend, as we walked into the market in a cold drizzle, there they were – the first beautiful green bunches. I bought two big round bunches and we sunk our teeth in last night. It was heaven.

The first asparagus of the season, waiting to be devoured

Admittedly I buy lemons, bananas, avocados, and some other decidedly non-local produce throughout the year. But there’s something magical about a vegetable that’s not supposed to grow except for during this very brief period, and the rest of the time is forced out of the ground in the southern hemisphere and flown many thousands of miles to reach my grocery store. It just wouldn’t be as delicious in April if you could eat it all the time, and so I choose to only eat it when the earth tells me I should.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who thinks about vegetables as much as I do. Maybe you never find yourself contemplating mindfulness in the context of asparagus, and that’s fine. But I invite you to find yourself a little bit of dirt, even if it’s just a pot, dig your hands around in the soil, and learn something about how the food you eat grows (by the way, you can’t grow asparagus in a pot, and even if you plant it in the ground, it takes three whole season before it produces any edible shoots). Even if you can’t grow your own food, go out and meet some farmers. And set an intention to be a bit more mindful about what ends up on your plate and how it got there.

I have lots more to share on this topic, so stay tuned for reports from the backyard garden and the role of carrots in my daily practice of yoga. In the meantime, if you do head out to the farmers market and pick up some asparagus (DC folks, now’s the time!), here’s my recommendation for cooking it.

Basic Grilled or Roasted Asparagus

  • Hold one of the asparagus stalks firmly and snap off the thick woody end – it will tell you where to break it. Repeat with the whole bunch.
  • Brush the spears with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  • Grill on an outdoor grill until lightly charred. Alternatively, you can roast in the oven on a nonstick baking sheet at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until tender but still crisp.
  • Serve immediately. Savor every bite while it lasts!