Haiti 2010 Journal
DAY 1 - July 15, 2010
Eric and I arrived in Port-au-Prince where we were met by Rio. After quite a long wait we retrieved our luggage and proceeded to customs. We were very nervous as we stood before the customs officer due to all the news about people being charged import duties and even having many items taken away. Rick was prepared having memorized just the right creole phrases such as - "how ya' doin?"="sak pase", "MY dental equipment"="pa'm ekipman dantis", "Thank You",="merci". The officer gave a wink and a nod and we were through without any trouble. Rio arranged for his friend, Placir to pick us up in his truck and take us to Gigi's house in Petronvile just outside Port-au-Prince. Plaisir is a coastguard officer and former police commissioner so we felt very safe. The impact from the earthquake was visible as soon as we exited the airport where we could see the cracks in the control tower. After a short drive we unpacked at Gig's house, had a bite to eat and then we were off again to tour the city. Frito was our driver. As we approached Port-au-Prince we first stopped at the Barbancourt rum distillery. This historic site was among the very few that weren't impacted by the earthquake. From there we made a pass through downtown. There seemed to be tent cities and refugee camps everywhere. We saw people living in the median, on the sidewalks, in parks, and they completely covered the main square in the center of the city. I must say I was shocked not seeing any relief supplies, food distribution or water distribution the entire 5-days we were there. We saw several expensive new vehicles displaying the names of every relief organization but they didn't seem to be doing anything. Seeing the collapsed buildings just stops your heart. It's easy to imagine the terror and panic that must have gripped the city as so many buildings pancaked and people lost their lives. Everywhere we looked people were still digging out or managing to camp right on top of the rubble that lined every street. We returned to Gigi's house before it got dark to enjoy the delicious food she prepared for us.
After dinner we visited the house of Vestal and his wife who is a psychologist. I had a long conversation with her about her work treating children from depression after the earthquake. She specializes in working with abused and orphaned children. I told her about our work in Honduras. We shared a cold beer and shed some tears together.
By then we were exhausted and knew we would be leaving early in the morning for our 3 hour drive to Verrettes. So we returned to Gigi's house where Eric and I went to sleep in Gig's bedroom. She, like most people in Haiti, are afraid to sleep in their homes. Gigi's sleeps on the coach near her front door, in fear that another earthquake will happen and trap her in her house. That makes for some scary dreams.
DAY 2 - July 16, 2010
Rick got up and went to buy fresh french bread from the bakery on the corner. Buying anything in Haiti is always an experience - they even bargain for the price of bread. Being a white guy, Rick being there didn't help Rio's bargaining position. Rick acted very conspicuous and went in the back room to take pictures of the break making operation which the works found very funny and odd.
We had breakfast, went for a walk through a nice gated community where most of the UN workers live and then we piled into the truck for Verrettes. Dr. Amicia joined us along with Plaisir, Vestal and Frito.
As we would through the city heading North there were endless sites of destruction and collapsed buildings. After a while you become numb to seeing such depressing conditions and how the people are forced to live. As we left Port-au-Prince we saw the rubble piles and the sites where there are now mass graves.
The ride to Verrettes is quite pleasant. The mountains are to the right and the ocean to the left plays hide-and-seek as the road twists and turns. We pass a few villages, small motels and lots of open land as we go. St. Marc's is the first major town we come to which marks the northern most point of our trip. From there the road turns south and we are about 45min hour from Verrettes. We turn off the paved road and follow the canal to the school which is actually in the village of Canneau. Workers in the rice fields waved to us as we passed by. Again, there's no hiding when your the only white guy for 100 miles.
As we approached the school the first kids shouted out as they saw us and then they all ran to the front of the school and began singing their greeting song. It's so heart warming to hear their voices singing as we drive up to the school - I can;t imagine a better way to be greeted. As we open the doors to the truck we were instantly surrounded by 100 children competing for our attention. Marise Louis, one of the older girls in the school, was so shocked when I greeted her by name - I remembered her name and recognized her right away. We entered the classroom and were greeted by the teacher and the students. Rick prepared a few creole phrases and the Rio translated the rest of what he had to say.
After the greetings and welcoming was over it was time to get to work. Rick unpacked the dental equipment and generator. One of the teenagers had to hop on a motorcycle and run to find some gas. We had oil but no gas for the generator. We had everything set and with a few tugs we had electricity flowing. Amicia tinkered with the settings on the dental drills and we were ready. People had arrived long before sunset with hopes to see the dentist. The very first patient was in a lot of pain and needed to have 2 teeth pulled. the next patient benefited by having the drill as Amicia was able to save his tooth. It was amazing an awful. Imagine the sound of a dental drill, a generator and people moaning in pain. Now also imagine the view looking across a field where kids are playing soccer and birds are singing as this is all taking place. The feeling of being able to provide help dampened all other feelings as we got under way.
Rick ran back and forth looking at the water well, the school, helping the dentist and playing with the kids. Eric played soccer and even taught some of the kids how to play basketball. We brought several ball for the school where it seems they never saw a basketball before. The day passed quickly. Amicia saw 70 patients, treated several, logged each patients needs and worked until she ran out of supplies. She comes every Friday and the crowd never seems to get any smaller. We took a ride into the center Verrettes and bought enough juice and snacks for all 100 children. Again, the shopping experience was interesting as we picked up the supplies at the open air market. Rick and Eric were the only white people as far as you could see. Everyone found them quite interesting - and they were all very friendly. Any sense of being nervous was taken care by knowing Plaisir was close by along with Pastor Philip and Zachary who are well known in Verrettes. We returned to the school with the food and drinks where we handed it all out and were thanked by each individual student. As the day ran down we packed up said good bye and drove around the hill which separates Canneau from Verrettes. We were taken to the grounds of a mission center where we would spend the night. The house has 5 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a dinning room and a kitchen. We each claimed a room, setup our mosquito nets and settled in for the night. The women prepared dinner for us which we anxiously ate leaving no leftovers. After dinner the men all took a walk into the center of Verrettes and sampled some of the snacks being sold by the street vendors. Again, Rick and Eric couldn't attract any more attention. It's safe to say we were off the beaten path and not too many while folks make it this far into the rural landscape. But again, no worries. We felt safe, welcome and casually walked around - but we didn't wonder away from Plaisir, Rio or Zachary. The local beer, Prestige, is very good and really hit the spot. We walked back to the house and quickly fell asleep.
DAY 3 - July 17, 2010
We were awakened by the sound of men singing as they were swinging hoes working in the field next to the house. It was a scene from the last century. We had breakfast walked around admiring the trees and the view while getting ready to head back to the school. An old man appeared with a sickle to cut the grass by hand. Rick gave it a try after watching him for a bit.
We packed up our gear and returned for one last visit to the school. This time we walked the grounds assessing the site for a future water tower, saw the boundary of the land and even met the neighboring farmer. We stood there watching the kids walk over the hill coming back to school. Again, it seemed like we stepped out of a time machine and arrived in the 1800's.
We made a list of items we would like to consider for future projects, said our good byes and left of our return trip to Port-au-Prince.
Rick, Eric and Rio opted to ride in the back of the truck this time. After driving for about 1 hour, Rio made a surprise stop at a historical sugar mill and hotel. The mill was a museum dedicated to the slave trade and french owned sugar plantations that once dominated the island. The hotel was a nice resort that could have easily been found in the Florida Keys. The parking lot was surprisingly full of UN, Doctors Without Borders, World Relief and a number of other relief organizations. I thought we stumbled onto a convention - but it turned out that we discovered the place they all go to relax after driving around all day in those nice new vehicles. Is the cynicism I feel that obvious?
We enjoyed some cold drinks, had fresh conch (lambi), walked the beach, took in the view of a sailboat passing by, walked the grounds and then continued on our trip back to Port-au-Prince. The ride was pleasant up until we entered the limits of the city where we could see the first refugee camps on the hillsides.
We arrived back at Gigi's house shortly after dark where she had food ready for us and shortly after we went to sleep.
DAY 4 - July 18, 2010
We slept in later than we should have. Gigi prepared a nice breakfast and then we hurried off to the center of Port-au-Prince for Sunday service. We almost missed the service at the Episcopal Cathedral. The service is held outside under a tent since the cathedral collapsed. While it was devastating seeing the ruins, the site had been cleaned and the material that could be salvaged was neatly arranged waiting for the reconstruction to begin. The bells which once hung from the tower were now in a pile. The bricks were sorted and the remains from the fresco covered walls were piled like a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be reassembled. Rick asked if he could take 2 bricks back to FL and gave a donation towards the reconstruction. A nun gave us a tour of the site where the convent once stood and told of how she fled with the other sisters the day of the earthquake, narrowly escaping with their lives. There are countless stories from so many perspectives about the 45 seconds that changed Haiti forever.
We then walked 2 blocks to the Catholic cathedral. We were surprised to see that not one brick, piece of rebar or glass had been moved since the building collapsed. It was so sad to see such a grand building lying in a pile of rubble. We were told the plans were to tear down the remains and build a new cathedral on the adjacent piece of land. Rick collected a few pieces of glass which were once part of the stained glass windows.
From the cathedral we walked a few blocks and then returned to our car which was having a tire replaced while we took our walk. Amicia and her husband were waiting for us by the car.
We made a few passes through the city looking at all the refugee camps, buildings lying in ruins and so many people struggling to hold on to the bit of civilization that still remains. We talked about how life carries on in the refugee camps - weddings, funerals, births, birthdays, work and school. It's almost impossible to imagine and even worse trying to imagine the long lasting impact it will have on the children.
We headed to the south side of the city were we dropped Plaisir off at the Coastguard station. We took a walk out on the pier and saw the ships. We thanked Plaisir and then headed further down the road. It had begun to rain and the streets quickly flooded and garbage was running through the streets. As if it couldn't get much worse. The garbage which had been piled along the streets floated like rafts down the streets which were now flowing like a river. We saw one canal completely clogged with plastic and styrofoam. It was horrible. We drove up and down several streets taking pictures of the horror. We then headed back to Gigi's house and prepared our things for the return home. We sat up talking, eating and sharing stories of what we saw until it was late.
DAY 5 - July 19, 2010
We had a few hours before we had to head to the airport so we made a quick run to some local shops to buy souveniers. Rick wanted to buy the traditional small wicker chairs everyone uses in the markets. Eric wanted a flag and then there were so many paintings, carvings and painted metal items that called out to us. Ignoring the limited room we had in our suite cases, we bought way too much stuff. It was a combination of just being such nice art work and the sense that we needed to support the artists being among the few tourists that were around to appreciate their work. We bought and then bought some more. in the end Gigi's had to help us literally tape one of the items to our suite case because it just wouldn't fit inside. It all made it home safely including the 6 breadfruit we brought back for Rio.
In the end it was an amazing trip. We made some long lasting friendships, we felt good about the work we did and we feel blessed to be able to share what we have with people that are so warm and appreciative. Haiti has the capacity to be a wonderful inviting place but it will likely take generations to rebuild and repair the broken lives of the people who are left to carry on the long traditions of the island. We plan to return in 2011 to install a solar powered waterpump, water tower and sinks for the school and clinic in Verrettes.