About Nara Meli

Nara's daily aim is to see how much writing she can cram in 24 hours. Her wheelhouse includes coffee, her family, reading, London and Sherlock Holmes. Nara's a big fan of "stuff", the color yellow, gritty cities and walking. You can read more of her work on her website or follow her on twitter.

The District Sleeps Alone Tonight

I came to Washington, D.C. eight years ago. I had finished grad school in New York, and D.C. was not on the map until I met my boyfriend, who had found a job here. I was less than thrilled: My hope had been to settle in New York, and work for the United Nations. I called myself a Manhattanite: I adored The City, and I couldn’t imagine leaving it. “One month, tops.” I said to my boyfriend when he pitched moving in together in D.C. As Manhattan’s skyline disappeared in the side-view mirror of the U-Haul, I cried: Goodbye, fabulous New York.

Right away, D.C. and I got off on the wrong foot. I loathed being here: There were no skyscrapers blocking the sky, few good restaurants, no stores open past 8 p.m., the streets were too wide, no cabs… It was too hot and it had neither the gritty feel nor vibe of a big city. I wasn’t interested in the monuments, the history, the sights. I hated the tourists. To sum it up, D.C.’s worst offense simply was: it wasn’t New York. My personal situation wasn’t the greatest either: despite being in a lovely relationship, I was also job-hunting and working as an unpaid intern – the plight (rite of passage?) of a freshly-graduated development worker.

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When I am in Haiti, I don’t walk. I don’t take the tap-tap either, because of security reasons. I’m used to hopping in an SUV with a driver and crisscrossing the city, my windows rolled-up and dusty. In the morning, I pass shop stands, markets, Haitians waiting for tap-taps, on the backs of motorcycles, or walking in the sweltering heat. I look at the baskets of mangoes nestling next to vats of freshly decapitated chickens, feathers still quivering. I’ve sat in traffic for so long I’ve held meetings in the car on speakerphone.

I was prompted to write on the subject of Haiti for my first post because of the brilliant article Nora Schenkel wrote in the New York Times, where she describes her eight-month stint in Port-au-Prince. It’s a disarmingly honest, stripped down and courageous look at her experience.

As a development worker, I wanted to add my point of view on the matter. It is true: Haiti is considered a “hardship post,” and many development workers enjoy comforts (and pay) that should compensate this “hardship.” Some expats have nice houses, cooks, drivers, housemaids. But it isn’t all a life of comfort. From what I have observed over the five years I’ve been in and out of the country, the people in the country offices – well, they work incredibly hard. Many of them make personal sacrifices to be in Haiti; their families are in the Dominican Republic, in Canada, or in Miami. Some are even in DC. I don’t know a single person who leaves work early. In fact, most are workaholics who have far longer days than their colleagues who are not in the field. They deal with a gamut of problems common to many Haitians, such as power outages, fuel shortages, bad roads, and torrential rains.

What Ms. Schenkel is getting at, I believe, is the vast difference between the expats’ level of comfort and that of the majority of Haitians’. It’s not just the power outages; it’s the fact that the expats have power at all. It’s that expats do not live like a lot of poor Haitians and aren’t faced with the same constraints every day. Every time I come back, I feel it too: guilt, creeping up on me. The first time I felt it, I was in Gonaives, after the hurricane season of 2008. We went to visit a small community that had been completely flooded. The children were hungry; they followed us, asked us for food. I was there with a team to talk about the kind of large-scale project that would undoubtedly take months to accomplish, and wouldn’t put any food in these kids’ mouths for a long time. I’d never felt more irrelevant.

Working in a poor country is humbling. I wonder how the poor get by on their own, every day. I always leave wondering if I am making a difference. But I don’t think of what I or any of us do as “help”: I come to Haiti to work with Haitians. We do things together, we agree on what a project might look like, we design it together. Maybe some people are living in Haiti for career advancement, and a year or two there earns you career “brownie points.” But if you have nothing to show for it when you come home, people in your next interview will see through your CV pretty quickly.

The last time I was in Haiti, I stayed one night working late. I remember passing the darkened shacks and alleys branching off the main road on the way home. I wondered where the Haitians I’d seen earlier that day slept. My hotel, which that morning faced the bright, newly painted Jalousie community, now overlooked a dark mass against the mountain, yellow dots of light flickering here and there. The song “Mercy” by Dave Matthews began to run through my head.

So lift up your eyes, lift up your heart

Singing, mercy will we overcome this?

One by one, could we turn it around?

Maybe carry on just a little bit longer

And I’ll try to give you what you need.


Jalousie, Haiti

 You don’t have to live in poverty to help the poor. But I think it is a shame if you never step out of that SUV. I’m glad Ms. Schenkel did. Next year, I too will get out of my car to walk through the real Haiti, up close and in person.

On Description and Fantasy Worlds

I felt inspired to write about Tolkien for my first post on The Wheelhouse Review because last week, I finally saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It was a visual masterpiece that made me want to rush back to the book (last read circa 1990).

I am a huge Tolkien fan. Not in a creepy competitive-Elvish-tongue-poetry-slam-way, but I still very much enjoy it. I discovered The Hobbit when I was ten, and The Lord of the Rings when I was eleven. At that age, I was really getting into reading, and I wasn’t fazed by the length of the novel. I thought hobbits had really existed (like, a long time ago) and I spun the globe round and round in geography class to figure out where Middle-Earth could have been. It felt that real. Of course, I greatly enjoyed the magical world J.K. Rowling invented with Harry Potter, but even Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry felt too close to our reality to really pull me in. Wizards and witches spoke English, albeit sometimes with odd accents. Most creatures look humanoid. Tolkien created an entire other world, with different ecosystems, folks and creatures, and they all spoke different languages.

Middle earth, from Le Figaro blogs

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