Leapin' Louie

jeudi 27 mai 2010

Haiti March 5-18, 2010

Haiti, March 2010, Clowns Without Borders


We are David (Leapin’ Louie) Lichtenstein, David Clay, and Leah Abel on a Clowns Without Borders USA trip to bring laughter and hope to Haitians in Port Au Prince two months after the earthquake.

Our first four days will be performing for large groups of orphans and impoverished kids sponsored by SOS Villages and then 7 days performing in most of the major hospitals of Port Au Prince sponsored by Handicap International.

Our first show in SOS Childrens Villages Orphanage

March 6, 2010

We arrived all right, a Portland-Los Angeles evening flight, Los Angeles-NewYork red-eye, then a New York--Port Au Prince morning hop.

But our luggage did not. Much of the Port Au Prince airport building is destroyed so they bussed us from the plane to a empty hangar. The baggage pick up was memorably chaotic, no conveyer belt, just random piles on the floor. Many lost looking missionary groups wandering around aimlessly trying to collect their baggage..

So we are staying in tents at the SOS village in Santo, stuck with the

clothes on our back, trying to develop a new one hour show in one day. For dinner we had our first US military MRE's .

This is a camp for over 500 parentless kids. Although the camp is crowded since it double in population after the earthquake, the kids live in good conditions relative to Haitiian poverty.

March 7, 2010

The baggage did arrive today, yay, after another hour at the baggage chaos. Then we did our first show in the early evening, for about 300 at SOS village orphanage. The kids howled with loud laughter. The new show works.

Our first show in SOS Childrens Villages Orphanage

March 8, 2010

Our first full day of shows. The first one was again at the our home SOS village orphanage, this time for about 100 of the smaller kids, plus a visiting Norwegian television team. Then out to the satellite communities. SOS Children’sVillages runs 89 smaller satellite community

centers, where they offer lunch and a few supervising adults.

Our second show was way out on bad dirt roads in the countryside. Our driver asked directions five times. Finally we found 150 kids stuffed in under 2 blue plastic tarps and hemmed in tight by fence and collapsed cement and brush. No facilities beside the two tarps and a home-made table. It was hot ass noon and our facilitator said there was no shady place to put the kids. We walked around and found a strip of shade by a wall and put the kids there while we played in the hot sun. The crowd kept breaking into rthymic chants and song throughout the show, especially during Sing a Song when they were dancing and clapping like crazy. Sing a song, with Dave singing and playing guitar, and Leah clowning, dancing and mocking him is clearly a big hit here. There was a young woman in a black knit cap tight over her head leading these dancing and chants. She wasn’t a teacher, she had been playing with the young men in the dirt street when we arrived.

For the third show, more back in town, we played for about a hundred kids crowded under another blue tarp and nothing else. When I did the sponge ball trick the entire crowd jumped up and down, grabbing their heads in ecstatic shouting and laughter. For the SPONGE BALL TRICK!!! Dave, Leah and I just looked at each other open mouthed in amazement at their reaction. When I entered as the old lady most of the audience got up and started to run away. Boy they laughed hard there.

Packed into a strip of shade they danced and shouted throughout the show

At dinner we enjoyed playing with the MRE rations. Add cold water to the chemicals and it cooks itself. We found a bag of patriotic sugar cookies; cookies in the shape of the flag, uncle sam, etc, and laughed like idiots for about 15 minutes over that. At one point we had a Venezuelan guy dressed up like the statue of liberty holding the cookie torch and bystanders holding the cookie statue of liberty face in front of his face for photos. SOS Villages seems to be a Spanish organization and there are workers and volunteers from every country in Central America. A very fun bunch.

The three of us are staying in a tent) and there’s no running water around so we take showers with drinking water bottles. But sometimes its hard to find enough of those.

March 9, 2010

Three hour long shows.

The second show was in the country under a mango tree for about 120 kids. I get to be an old lady in mask everyday and dance with a man while Dave plays guitar. Then Leah comes out dressed as a man and dances with a woman and we have a little dance contest. This show was the first time it really worked well because I covered up my (relatively) young body fully with a grey blanket I borrowed from SOS. That show I also jumped on a bicycle at one point to chase Leah around during the newspaper skit. They applauded every joke and beat in this show, really slowing it down at some points.

At the third show about a hundred kids were packet into a little courtyard, under another blue tarp, right next to a loud generator that was powering a couple of welders. Adults from the community started to gather around the low wall of the courtyard to watch. I roped one of them and handed off the rope to a kid to pull on. The crowd went crazy. I kept grabbing those adults because I was playing sad and needed a shirt to cry on or whatever. They got me back though-- one of them stole my hat until Dave went outside and stole it back. I smashed myself on a pole instead of falling off the suitcase in the newspaper skit. I fooled Leah who though I was really hurt. The kids there were really loud and happy.

Sing a song under the mango tree

March 10, 2010

None of had ever done any hospital clowning before. Today we did five shows, three of them in the middle of ward tents at Hopital General in the center of Port Au Prince after the quake. We shook hands and hugged with a lot of seriously injured people.

It all went very well, much better then I thought it would go in the hospital. People laughed very hard.

First show in the tiny waiting area of a clinic tent for handicapped folks next to Champs de Mars Decided not to play in the large obvious space because it was flooded by water leaking out of the latrine. Full show for a small crowd, maybe 40 at the end, most of them newly handicapped kids. Played with kids for about an hour and a half in the parking lot waiting for water and ride.

Second show in the courtyard waiting area of the General Hospital, center of Port Au Prince. 250 people or more in a tight circle, completely blocking the front of the hospital. Full show for mostly adults waiting for treatment, laughing and screaming like maniacs. Old lady/ old man is killing.

Third show in a pediatric tent of the same General Hospital in a tent, dirt floor, full of very seriously injured kids. Some kids are getting up but most are stuck in their bed. Maybe 40 minute show, including lots of hugging and hand holding with kids. Nearly all have very difficult recent histories, family members dead--, and they were all laughing a lot. We’re playing, adding more dancing and celebrating and sillyness. 20 kids and 15 adults.

All of the kids who could move followed us to the fourth show in another pedriatric tent. More of the same. All day long there are a lot of amputees in the audiences. We’re touching everybody and getting in some pretty rowdy clowning in cramped hospital tents. Tiny girl with a missing arm and huge head bandaged hugging me over and over both of these shows. She was getting involved in all the clown’s games she could, lots of energy. Every onlooker commented on her. One girl missing only a toe, but who spent three days stuffed next to her dead mother and is still in shock smiled for the first time in weeks. 30 minute show. The sing a song skit is causing uproarious laughter. Forty people but half of those repeats from the last show. Many different kinds of amputations in the crowd. There was a birthday boy, entire leg bandaged up, immobile in bed, but we involved him a lot, I found the hankerchief in his shirt, etc.

These ward tents are dirt floored, filthy, and in between the tents there’s garbage on the ground and in some ruined underground cement there’s a big pool of the nastiest filthy grey water, filled with mosquito larvae, right between the pedriatric tents.

Fifth show in a adult ward tent, just a 15 minute show, driver is pushing to leave on time and we’re exhausted. The injuries look even more serious, many can’t tilt themselves up to watch us at all. I can’t say every adult laughed but most of them had a very good time.

Back home there’s no water so we bath with a few bottles of drinking water. Leah does it with baby wipes.

The food at the house is healthy, tasty and plentiful. Which counts a lot with all the shows in the heat we are doing. The Handicap International people were pretty clueless as to what clowns do when we arrived, but they get it now.

Port Au Prince After the Quake

(Leah and I were also here before the quake in March 2009)

Most of the city is still standing, some neighborhoods are relatively untouched, while others are destroyed. There seems to be concrete rubble everywhere, because none of it is going everywhere. I can’t imagine rebuilding this country. There’s tents, both modern camping tents and ragged cloths on poles on the sidewalk, in front of buildings, on median strips of streets, and packed tent cities fill almost every open space in the city.

Water is hard to come by. Kids often ask us for water when they see us drinking water. We’ve often put water play clowning in our Clowns Without Borders shows but that would not be appropriate here.

The highest poverty on the planet from 200 years systemic racism resulting from the only nation sounded by slave revolt.

Traffic jammed, horns honking, voices louder then traffic

80 % unemployment, young men and woman everywhere doing nothing, tough and cool.

Hundreds of thousand living in home-made shacks in shanty towns.

Palpable hunger and desperation.

The best radio I’ve ever heard, great music at every skip of the dial.

At every gas station a whole market of peddlers hustlers, and people just hanging out.

After the quake, the same and,

220,000 people dead,

halves of building sheared off, floors and walls tilting crazy angles,

nearly all of it the cheapest concrete construction possible,

Giant piles of rubble,

some neighborhoods mostly whole, some completely destroyed,

but broken cement and rock dust everywhere.

Every open space packed with tent cities, no economy, living on aid, many hundreds of thousands living in tents, about half reckoned to be in waterproof shelters. Rainy season is starting.

Everybody, all the young adults, with no work to do hanging around, waiting in aid lines, selling a basket of stuff in competition with far too many other sellers. Or hustling, or just waiting.

Every International Charitable Organization in the world driving around in smart SUV’s and vans.

Two months after, most injured people have received modern medical care.

The rubble is being carted away.

No housing has been created, and no significant progress on new housing will be made for a few years yet.

Shock and desperation everywhere.

These people are so resilient, so laughing, so musical.

How do you make this broken country work?

Thursday 3/11/2010

We played two hospitals today, Dikini and Carrefour, both hard hit areas on the southwest side of Port Au Prince. At the Dikini hospital, we were trying to decide where to start our rounds. Dave started fooling around doing slack rope on a rope that was tied between two pillars and soon we had ·150 people blocking the entrance of the hopital and did the show right there.

After that we had the same mobile kids and adults following us everywhere we went, which made a bit of sometimes too much of an invasion force when we went into the ward tents to entertain the small groups.

One old lady who couldn’t get up called us in: “Yes, yes, yes, do something for me!” she cried with energy. So we did a lot for her.

One physiotherapist was trying for a long time to get us to a particular tent and a particular boy. I ended up alone with him and didn’t have so much success with him. He just started to smile a tiny bit a few times but then froze up. We get the

kids laughing so hard but this one was just too full of pain.

(Look at my back!)


We are staying in a tent on the lawn of mansion with the workers of Handicap International who are driving us around all the hospitals of Port Au Prince. Handicap is a French NGO so most people where we are staying are French speaking, although there’s also a group of prosthetics specialists from El Salvador and workers from Togo, South Africa, Ivory Coast and other places. 35 foreign workers living in this mansion, half of them in tents on the lawn. The food is good but most of the time there’s no water. We come home with our costumes drenched through in sweat multiple times during the day and covered in dirt from prat falls. We are expert in the pouring drinking water on our heads in the shower. The tent that Dave, Leah and I are staying in has very poor circulation and is very sweaty and hot at night. We are also on the piece of grass surround by the driveway so the cars pulling in and out seem to be right on top of us.

Friday, March 12 2010

Today we did two smaller hospitals, CDTI and Saint Francois, both in Port Au Prince center.

At CDTI we started by playing a lot of tents. It was bloody hot and this was our sixth day in a row but Dave Clay had a lot of energy and we had some good improv in the tents. Each little tent would have 4 or 5 adult patients and 1 or 2 children and an equal group of family members. LIke the other hospitals, lots of bad fractures with heavy hardware on the legs, fair amount of amputees, some burns. The space is tight, we have to squeeze in and thread around immobilized limbs sticking out. We often do a fair amount of show in a tent.

Often we’ll do a little head appearing lazzi before we enter. One clown appears then disappears, then another, another, then all three, pistons etc. Then we shake hands, greet and touch everyone as we come in. We begin with our hat trick sequence with Leah playing the clown. Then a few simple magic tricks, clowning around, spinning balls on fingers, etc. In one tent we had a dance improv by tuning a radio to different stations and dancing with each other and a staff member. At another Dave had a nice improv stealing shoes from patients over and over.

We did about 6 baking hot ward tents, spending about 2 hours at it then took a break. (There actually was an office tent where we could hide at this hospital) Then a last tent and a full show out in a nice looking central area next to the waiting area.

We performed in full hot sun at 12:00 noon for a crowd of about 120 mostly adults, front row all wheel chairs and seriously injured people. Dave, still full of energy, led a dancing parade playing guitar to start the show, including several wheel chairs. At one point during a chase I approached (softly) a seriously mentally disabled boy who started screaming at me in an odd way, apparently in fear, and wouldn’t stop until people hauled him away. The crowd laughed uproariously at this.

70 minutes in the sun, we were seriously chicken fried. Collapsed, drank water for a while, then took a short ride to the St. Francois hospital.

Limited time here, we decided to do a show, it was a great one with a 150 people or so on three sides, and in back of us, completely open to us, a tent busy with wound cleaning, procedures and small operations. That’s right, you can watch the clowns while they clean your infected wound. Huge rowdy laughs from the start and all through. Leah started out with a bunch of great follow-mime style improv, very dead faced. Early in the show the intercom called out in English: “Dr. Chang to the O.R.” and a few seconds later an asian man walked right between Dave and I in the middle of a skit to do some procedure behind us. There were frequent patients in wheel chairs and gurneys trailing IV’s , being pushed through our performing area throughout the show.

I went to play with this security guard in the audience at one point and he started playing wildly with me. At one point I was hands and knees on the ground with him sitting on my back and the crowd going totally nuts. When I came out in old lady mask and costume the crowd when nuts again. When I started dancing with a man one old lady sitting next to David playing guitar was hanging on to people to keep from falling out of her wheelchair she was laughing so hard. Another woman told Dave that this was the first time she had seen people laugh since the earthquake. “God bless you clowns” she finished with.

I did sponge ball and scarf magic into the hands of several youth who were missing body parts as a result of the earthquake 2 months ago today.

When we got home, still no water. But we got them to drive us to another house, a real rich person’ mansion filled with art from all over the world where there was a shower and a swimming pool. What a cool down. What a strange world. We joked black humor to each other about doing the shows directly in front of the operating tent and laughed like crazy people. Actually we laugh very hard every night, it seems to be part of the release mechanism. Some of the Handicap International people, prosthetics specialists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, etc., think we clowns are a little loud and strange.

Dave, Leah and I spend almost every moment of the day together and sleep in a tent together every night of the trip and yet we are laughing and getting along great.

March 13 Port Au Prince

Today was our seventh day in a row. I got serious stomach sickness during the night. Apparently washing with anti-bacterial hand gel like holy water multiple times a day is not enough. The weak link may have been blowing up the spinning ball with my mouth each day. Leah and Dave are completely exhausted too.

Today we did shows at two small tent hospitals, Petionville and Merlin, and toured a few tents. It was boiling hot. Lots of amputees of all ages in our small audiences. Leah and Dave finally got going with some fun improv at the second show. We left Leah improvising by herself in the sun at one point for quite a while Dave and I went to get the gear..

I was called in try to bring a smile to a recent arm amputated three year old. I was succeeding for a while but then Dave came in with his big hat on and the kid got scared again. We also entertained a small group of amputated gangster type young men. They were a little difficult as well. We’re entertained and shaken hands and hugged dozens of freshly amputeed people every day here.

The people laughed a lot but they weren’t our best shows. Even after showers (the water is back on!) we still are sitting around completely drained and shell shocked. Tomorrow is an off day! We were thinking of offering to do a show on our off day at Cite Soleil with Simone. But now we know we need the off day to recover from exhaustion and illness.

The security guard at the house here asked me for our tent today. Even the employees of the NGO’s are living in the street with their families.

Because of the kidnappings of foreign workers we do not shop or walk around Port Au Prince. We are in our guarded compound, get rides through the bumpy traffic jammed streets to the hospitals, then get in the van and come straight home again.

At SOS Villages (our first host) they had one driver shot who tried to drive away wounded and ending up driving into and wounding two pedestrians. He is paralyzed. In another occasion two SOS Villages workers were kidnapped. Other SOS workers found the stolen SOS Village car and told the police but the police refused to even go into that (Bel Aire) neighborhood. Eventually SOS Villages paid the ransom and the prisoners were released, thin and beaten. There were also two Medecins Sans Frontieres doctors kidnapped in the middle of town very recently too.

Monday, March 15

After 7 days in a row, Sunday on our off day we went to the beach, it was beautiful and we thought we felt better, but that night Dave got real sick.

So today, Leah and I went out without Dave. First stop-- the Delmas hospital, the Cuban hospital, full of Cuban doctors. All the hospitals we’ve done are mostly tents but this one was all building and looked strong as a rock still. It was packed hundreds of people waiting in crowded lines and all the wards are jammed. Lots of doctors and nurses, clean too.

I chose a place for us in front of a a thick band of seats with about 150 small kids and parents. But it was a difficult show. People crowded in on us immediately, soon blocking the view from the seats and cornering us in. One guy was kind of hassling me. We missed Dave for show strength to power through the difficult conditions. Over 200 people had some fun, but not as much as ususal, and a lot of people in back couldn’t see much. The amplifier wasn’t working so no music either.

We did a few wards, had a nice mini-show at the Handicap International tent. The pediatric ward was a little difficult too. There was a child screaming behind us as they did some procedure. A woman was squirting blood from her breast. We managed to get most of the folks warmed up and laughing.

Second hospital, Hospital D’Espoir, a small one in Delmas 75. We had a really nice show with people laughing like crazy. Only about 50 people. Then we visited the tents to entertain the people who can’t move. Medium sized camping tents with 3 or 4 patients in each. As usual lots of amputees and lots of wounds and lots of people with immobilized legs with big sequences of metal apparatus sticking out of their skin to hold it all straight.

Afterwards the director asked if we could go do a show in an orphanage. Now we’ve received several invitations to shows here and there and turned them all down because Handicap Intertnational is bringing us to multiple hospitals every

day and we’re exhausted and sick from so much work. But we were finishing early and this was Leah’s last day so we decided to go for it.

So we ploughed on over, about 85 people there, mostly small children, plus a group of seriously handicapped older kids. A kid came up and started grabbing our stuff. He had a tattered rope around his ankle. The caregivers took him, put him back in the crowd and tied the rope to a cement block to keep him in place. An older handicapped kid who didn’t speak and had little stumps for legs, but moved around on the ground like an orangatang, came in to the show. I played with him a bit and spun a lasso around him. All the kids loved the show. I had to be the singer for Sing a Song and I can’t sing to save my life.

March 16, Port Au Prince, Haiti.

Dave’s intestines have found peace and quiet. Leah has flown home to grad school. Now we are a two man show. Now I’m the clown in Sing-a-Song.

Today we did two shows at the Pietonville golf course, now a tent camp inhabited by 40,000 people, packed tent to tent. Just walking the thin crowded mud paths through the camp was an experience. A market jammed into the main path, and garbage piles, the smell of shit. We did a show in the Medicins Sans Frontieres tent for about 80 patients and folks. The people laughed hard but they made us stop a little early because they needed the tent for medical procedures.

Then up and down the muddy trails threading through the packed tents again. Because of security problems in Haiti, us Blancs aren’t allowed to get out of the car and walk the streets in Haiti. But there’s no roads in the tent city, just tent to tent to tent.

We did the show in between two big school tents run by an Israeli NGO. I think about 700 people packed in tight around us. Great show, a lot of improv and we let loose falling into the dirt several times, soaked in sweat, performing in the sun, just covered in dirt. People laughing really hard. They’ll probably be living in that camp a long time. All the infrastructures here are broken.

March 18 Patch Adams on the way home

In 12 days we did about 30 shows, visited 9 child care centers, 12 of the major Port Au Prince hospitals, countless ward tents and performed for about 5000 people.

We did our first hospital clowning in our lives in the most intense hospital conditions currently on planet earth. On our flight home we ran into Patch Adams in the Fort Lauderdale airport. He was headed to small town Haiti hospitals with an Italian clown because his sponsors had told him the Port Au Prince hospital were too intense and dangerous for clowns still.

Patch was interesting, He lives on a commune in Virginia. His institute has established a hospital there that he said cut health care costs by 90%. Everybody from janitor to doctor was paid $300 per month. He said that they were trying to bring down the capitalist system which he saw as the only way to save the world. He said no medical school in the world taught compassion and that was what he lectured about at his 60 some lectures at medical schools all around the world. Who knew he was such a radical?

He views the Clowns Without Borders style as too show oriented. We are show oriented but we adapted to hospital clowning by touching, hugging, and greeting everybody before and after our shows. And he had to respect us because we had just been the first clowns to do all the hospitals in Port au Prince.

Time to go home and rest.

No Child Without A Smile!