Friday, June 27, 2014

Animal sightings

photo by Julie Rumo

A car flashes its lights at us.

We don't know why.

We think maybe our lights need to be on. We lost track of time. Is it dusk? 

We're heading down a country western road in Idaho (maybe Wyoming) somewhere south of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. We're laughing, singing and engaging in mindless car-safe horseplay. We're laid back, At ease.

We've just spent four filled days looking for grizzlies, elk, mule deer, bison, moose and gray wolves, our eyes burning into the mountainside, woodland and watering holes, praying for a least a glimpse of these magnificent animals. (God answered YES on almost all accounts.)

Now we're just kicking back in the Ram truck, late in the afternoon on a day when rain sashays with sunshine, treating us to a watercolor sky against a western range backdrop. We leave the national park system behind, and are now on the open range.

No fences.

The highway cuts through honest-to-goodness ranch-like grazing land.

And now this car passes us, blinking its lights.

We don't know why.

We round the bend and immediately see cattle, mostly mommas and babies, roadside. They crowd the shoulder. A few stand out into the road (the other lane.) 

We slow down, nearly stop, roll down the windows and bellow and moo until all the bovine stare at us. We scare a few of the babies, who jump backwards. A few quake where they stand.

Around the next bend we see more of this roadside attraction. We resume our bellowing and mooing. A momma backs up immediately, taking her two startled babies with her. We laugh. Lots.

But darn, we forget to blink, to help out the next guy. To warn him or her of this potential collision with the open range of the not-so wild West.




Sunday, June 22, 2014

The good wait

Reason 748 why traveling with friends is so much fun.

We are in an RV repair shop near Ocean Shores, WA, because our new-to-us fifth wheel's braking system failed. So we have to wait a while for repairs.

Usually, while waiting for repairs, I'd lease up the dog and go for a walk, then return to wander around the repair shop, read posters on the wall, flip through repair manuals. Yawn a little.

Julie, the mom of the three boys traveling with us, had other plans.

She grabbed a lawn chair and her tanning lotion and set up on a rocky/grassy area to catch some rays. One of her boys set a chair up for me, then headed off to play with his brother. THEY walked to dog.

I joined Julie. In a chair. In the sun. And just chatted. 

So the waiting became fun.

Oh, and the repair was minor. An electric line spliced long ago had rusted loose. New line installed.

We're good.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Stepping out of myself and into a tidal pool

I borrowed this picture until I can download my own.
I'm standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean at Ruby Beach at low tide. Because we (well, really THEY) want to explore the tidal pools.

I don't like tidal pools, where trapped murky water imprisons unseen critters that slither through a  dense cover of algae. No matter where they are.

These tidal pools connect Olympia National Park to the Pacific on the outer edges of the state of Washington. I am here with my husband, Allen, our dog, Jacob, and four-sevenths of the Rumo family from Cicero, NY. Three of the four Rumos with us are little boys, ages 9, 9 and 8. They and their mom want to play in the tidal pools. So we head down the hillside to do so.

I plan to sit at the edge and just watch. And hold my nose. But mom immediately heads back up the hill to the restrooms, leaving me -- the tidal pool hater -- to watch the boys.

We wait. I look out toward the Pacific  -- way far away because it's low tide, its waters ebbing from huge barnacle-covered rocks. Then I look back to the boys, killing time until mom returns. Kicking sand.

I sigh. I know what  have to do. I have to overcome my loathing of  murk and slither to begin these kids on a great sea adventure. "Come on, boys," I yell (hiding my disgust), and head for the nearest rock.

I look back. They follow. I look down, no murkiness. The damp sand is clean. The water cool. No smell.

At that rock we find a world  populated with sea stars, anemones, brine shrimp, sea worms, barnacles and dozens of other lifeforms. They live in water so clear I can see individual grains of sand. The vivid oranges and purples of the starfish accent the black and white muscles, the yellow lichens and green anemones. They boys giggle, dance about, point, even climb.

It's a beautiful world unlike any I have explored. No yuck or muck.

When mom returns, we explore more. For hours. So  I guess it's true. That sometimes you have to put your preconceived notions aside, suck it in and just do it, go out on a limb. Because that's where the fruit is.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Thank God for good neighbors



Finally, we reach Seattle, where all our kids and grandkids live.

And it's time to back into our campsite in a crowed campground as tight and manicured as any residential street in the big city just south of us.

We picked this place, Pleasant Lake RV Park in Bothell, WA, because it's so close to all the kids and grandkids who live scattered from Seattle (30 minutes  away) to Woodinville (10 minutes).

It's our first back-in in our new-to-us 30-foot fifth wheel. And it's tight. Very tight.

So we give it a go. And stop. Then we go. And stop. Then we go. And stop.

We just can't do it. It's like threading a needle with twine. From the side. Without light. Wearing a blindfold.
 
Then, we meet the Harley guy (he's wearing a Harley Davidson T-shirt).

He's camped in lot that mirrors ours  in a monster fifth wheel (40 feet?) he's got perfectly tucked into the pines. He steps out his door. And watches.

I yearn for his help.

"It's our first time" I say, which I think is gentler on our confidence than throwing myself at his feet and crying out for help.

"No problem," he responds, in a drawl so slow and so southern I think of molasses.

He lumbers over to Allen, who's behind the wheel and beginning to sweat, and issues soft, low and slow continuous directions and confirmations:

"Turn the wheels left. Pull forward. Turn the wheel right. Back up. Keep turning the wheels. Turn the wheels. Stop. Now you gotta swing 'er ass around. That's right. Now rock it back an' forth. Yup. Doing good. Doing good. You got 'er in." 

And then he's gone.

And we're home for the next four nights.

We meet the nicest people while on the road.

I hope this one's around when it's time for us to leave.




 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sometimes it takes a kid ...

It's all a matter of perspective.

We're on our first journey with another family (a mom and her three kids; read her blog at jrumo5.blog.com) in our new RV, a 30-foot Wildcat fifth wheel we've nicknamed Lily. 

The first three nights, we call Walmart home. On the fourth, we book into a campground in Bozeman, MT, giving us a chance to unhitch Lily. Something we've done only once.

After a few minor glitches (I still read the directions step-by-step), we successfully separate Lily and our truck (kids named him Buck the Truck), and set off to explore Bozeman.

It's morning now and time to reconnect, to stitch together that RV umbilical cord to make us  a 50-foot moving machine.

I'm driving, having to eyeball the top of the hitch receiver in Buck's bed with the hitch on Lily's front end. I'm backing up slowly, slowly, slowly, and CHUNCKCLINKCLUNK. Perfect. We're connected. Yay!

I drive Buck forward slowly and I hear Allen in absolute meltdown. "STOP STOP STOP," he screams. And he keeps screaming unintelligibly. 

I slam on the brakes, leap out and LOOK! Lily has come unhitched and she now sits crammed jammed on Buck's tailgate, causing it to bulge and buckle.

WHAT HAPPENED?

We grab my instructions. Nothing. We did nothing wrong (other than nearly destroy essential fifth-wheel equipment).

So we have to have another go at it, with Allen at the wheel. CHUNKCLINKCLUNK. But then a MAJOR CWANK! Allen pulls away slowly and Lily follows, like a lamb after her shepherd. Success. 

He stops, leaps out to examine the damage. Yep. The tailgate bulges and the top is scraped and gouged. It's awful. But it works, so we get on our way with sullenness as well as Lily in tow.

Here's where perspective fits in.

Kenley, our 8-year-old, quips, "Think of it as a birthmark." 

"What?" I ask.

"The damage. It's a birthmark."

YES! Kenley is brilliant. It's our first journey in Buck and Lily, so the damage is a birthmark.  Damage to treasure. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

A different kind of market day

Haiti Chronicles Part 9

I am in Desab, Haiti, on the last full day of my visit here as a volunteer with the non-profit Stone by Stone. And I'm excited. Because I've been promised a market day in Cabaret.

I've heard all week about the dirty, cramped conditions at market, about the animals sold as food. Well, I'm used to the ever present dirt by now. And I understand the animal-food thing. So I'm excited to windowshop on another people's culture.

I wait by the Toyota Land Cruiser ready to go. Silly, giddy. To market. To market.

Soon, others arrive for market day: Fenel, the medical clinic's administrator, is to drive. Three of the Stone by Stone board members -- Nicole and Adam Pitzer and Julie Rumo -- pile into the truck, too. They have business to attend to in Cabaret, a brief introduction to another non-profit then on to market. They promise.

Three other men pile in.

I didn't expect the three others. I've met them, but none are from Desab. They are all leaders from other mountain villages, all members of a cooperative designed to co-manage services on the mountain. I guess they're going to  market, too.

So we rumble and tumble down the road better suited for animals than trucks. We pass families waiting for a cock fight to begin, both people and donkeys overloaded with goods going to and from market, and goats and chickens scrambling to get out of our way.

We end up at Jason and Ginger Lovan's house in Cabaret, where we see four (maybe five?) more co-op leaders sitting on a wall at the entrance to a seriously tight driveway. We park, spill out of the truck and are joined by those other leaders who follow us into the house.

Unexpectedly, we're in the midst of a formal meeting of the mountain's nine-village co-operative. This is no meet-and-greet.

Ginger who, like us, expected five and not 12, scurries to provide more seating, reposition fans and offer fresh, cold water to drink.

We all settle in, for a very long meeting we didn't know was going to happen. And at that moment, I feel something big is about to happen. I sense Desab's world might be changing.

Because this ministry, called King's Cross Ministries, wants in. They want to work alongside Stone by Stone to ease the economic hardships of the mountain villages. They are just two people, but they have huge hearts for Haiti and knowledge of available resources. 

And they have great ideas to share, ideas that can bring more goats into the mountain villages, turn chickens into profits,  introduce a cash crop where food won't grow, and work cooperatively with the schools in Desab to offer much needed secondary education.

They even want to plow out a part of that treacherous road to stop erosion. Wow.

These two people, who live just down the mountain, have great plans. And, until this moment, until this very meeting, they had no idea the co-op of leaders existed. And now they can work with those leaders. And with Stone by Stone. I feel an undercurrent of excitement. I see village leaders smile, nod.

I sit, listen and take notes and accept there'll be no market day today. But that's OK. 
 
Final Haiti Chronicles Part 10: The hopes and dreams of Desab's people

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Unusual foods, extraordinary flavors

Elimene did most of the cooking. Here's she's making
coconut milk from a fresh coconut.

Haiti Chronicles Part 8

Quietly, discretely, Adam leans toward me and holds his spoon up. "Do you see what this is?"

I look. It's a round piece of something on his spoon. I don't know what it is, but it came from a delicious bowl of chicken stew made from poultry butchered and cleaned just hours earlier in Desab, a mountain village in Haiti, where I've lived for the past few days.

"Look at it. Can't you see?" No, still can't.

Then he turns it over in his spoon and I see, immediately. It's a little skull. A little bird brain that's been boiled right along with the peppers, dumplings, coconut milk, plantains, taro root and potatoes Elimene prepared as a special gift to say "thank you" for wedding pictures Julie took the day before.

Adam Pitzer and Julie Rumo are board members of Stone by Stone, a small non-profit working alongside the villagers here to get a medical clinic sustainable, without outside intervention. This week, we're here to paint the medical clinic, sort out donated medical supplies and build a trust with the people so they can believe we are serious about working for them and not instead of them.

Our cook rubbed these fish with
 oranges and lemons, then
 marinated them for a day or more.
Adam asks me to keep our discovery just between us because, I guess, of that trust we are trying to build. No problem. I'm living without running water, without electricity, sleeping in a concrete room visited by at least one tarantula and a chorus of crickets, where two Haitian men sleep on the floor to protect us (I don't know from what). So eating homemade, delicious, indigenous food is a great gift I treat with humble respect, even if it yields  surprises.


This big pot of mais moulin (sweet
corn meal) simmered uncovered
for an hour.
And it does, on many fronts (although none as unusual at the chicken stew.) We enjoy goat  stew, coconut rice with congo peas, a fish stew for breakfast, a flavorful pumpkin soup I'm told is a special New Year's meal, carrot and eggplant stew  over mais moulin (a sweet corn meal), a banana soup and red beans and rice. 

I take notes on all of the meals and actually become a pest in the kitchen, asking the women to show me how they cook. But they do. Graciously. I take copious notes. Snap pictures. I want to recreate these delicious, unusual meals. They are just that good.

So I think I'll have a dinner party, some time this fall.

And not just any dinner party.

I want to organize a fundraiser for Desab, preparing and serving food the way the Haitians do (minus the skull). Maybe even write a small cookbook. I'd like to serve up enough goat stew and banana soup and sell enough cookbooks to pay for a kitchen inside the clinic.

I can dream, can't I? Details to come.
This little pot of goat meat simmered for
two hours. Goat is tough, like beef stew,
unless cooked a long time.
Haiti Chronicles Part 9: The men of the mountain unite for an exciting future

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Crisscrossing my cultural divide

Julie Rumo poses Elimene and her husband for a wedding
photo in front of their home in Desab, Haiti

Haiti Chronicles Part 7

We're walking down, down, down a mountainside to visit Elimene and her family so Julie can take pictures.

Special pictures.

Elimene just got married and Julie Rumo, a board member of Stone by Stone, and a professional wedding photographer, wants to take pictures of the newlyweds. So after dinner, we hike down the mountain on narrow paths -- one-person-at-a-time narrow -- on a journey that crisscrosses my cultural divide.

There are no sidewalks, no street lights, no cars, no roads, just  this winding, gutted, stony path littered with animal droppings and with animals, with donkeys, chickens, roosters, goats, mules, cows and occasionally people herding them home.

These animals exist to be eaten. They free range throughout the village, foraging for food. Of which there is little. Even for the people. So these animals are essential to life here in Desab.

We arrive at Elimene's, an elaborate structure for these parts, tucked inside a weed copse. And then she emerges from her Haitian home looking like an American bride, all dressed up in a beautiful white satin gown, a few sizes too big, but lovely. Her husband steps out, too, in his rented tux. Together, they model my world.

Elimene's daughter points to the dangling chicken
While Julie engages them in their poses, their front yard fills with onlookers.  I notice a young woman  has a chicken -- a live one -- she's holding by the feet. OK. I cross that divide again. The bird dangles down to her thigh. Every now and then, its head bangs against her hip as she walks. 

I know it's alive. It flutters now and then. My heart breaks for that bird. I want to set it free. But I remind myself that these people are hungry, and if they start changing their hearts toward these animals, everyone would starve.

So I look away and engage in the situation, watching Julie take pictures. Yet I keep glancing at that poor bird, like a loose tooth, I mess with it until it hurts.

The sun is getting low, so we have to leave. But Elemene asks us to wait. Still dressed in her American gown, she hops into her Haitian barn and emerges with THAT CHICKEN! And hands it out to us. OK. Back across that divide. 

Elimene offers a chicken in payment
This poor, dangling bird belongs to Julie now, as payment for her services. 

A great sacrifice, we understand, but panic sets in.

Is Julie expected to tote this upside-down, suffering bird back up the mountain? Then kill it, pluck it, butcher it and eat it? And if she doesn't, will Elimene take great offense? If we do take it, will anyone see us set it free? And will it REALLY be free?

I can see streaks of red rising up Julie's neck, into her cheeks. She's close to the edge. I can tell. She grabs her backpack, opens it wide, I guess hoping they'll stuff the bird in there and not expect her to touch it. 

Elimene laughs and turns the bird over to her husband. And through a series of gestures  mixed with more laughs and a few English words, we learn she'll do all the prep work because she's coming to our house tomorrow to cook THIS chicken for dinner.


Haiti Chronicles Part 8: Eating in Desab 

It all started so innocently

Before the pencil wars

Haiti Chronicles Part 6

I sit on concrete steps leading to a little one-room school building in Desab, surrounded by a dozen Haitian kids quietly coloring and sketching.

I brought the supplies, through a non-profit called Stone by Stone. The children provide the enthusiasm, digging deep into my pink and green backpack for the crayons, pencils, drawing pads and coloring books they know are there. For them.

I don't know why, but the yellow No. 2 pencils are hot. All the older kids want one. I pass out what I have. And there aren't enough to go around. That means war.

The pencils transform into swords and bludgeons. The pencil-less hurl stones at the penciled. They run around me, use me as a shield. Kick dirt in each other's faces.

These kids don't have toys or a playground, so they play with nature and discarded items. Sticks and rocks, empty soda bottles, plastic lids. 

Pencils. Sharpened pencils.

They're having great fun, but I don't like being a weapons dealer. So I yell "Pa Bon! Pa Bon!" Bad! Bad! I hold my hands out, palms up and wave my fingers. They instinctively know it means "GIVE ME THE PENCILS." They obey.

Dinor
One little boy, Dinor, is still being hunted by one of the older kids, a girl, wearing a black skirt. He ducks when she comes near him. He scurries away. He looks up to me for help. I shrug. What can I do?

He slides his hand down his thigh. Charades? I don't know.

He dances away as the teen in black swoops down on him again. His eyes plead with me to help. He slides his hand repeatedly down his thigh. Slide slide slide. I should understand.

He points at the now giggling teen in black. Ducks her advance, slides his hand, looks at me and points at her.

She screams like she's been found out (A clue!), then runs after him.

I start putting the pieces together. Pencils. Ducking. Gesturing. Pocket perhaps?  Pencil?  I turn to the girl in black (who's standing right behind me now)  and do my wavy finger thing. Bingo. She grimaces and pulls the pencil/sword from her pocket and surrenders it to me.

He's giddy; she scrunches her nose and struts away.

He helps collect the rest of the art supplies and skips circles around me as we head back up the hill. Minutes later, he's off, scooting back down toward the little village square to play.

He's gone so fast I have no time to warn him. That I see the teen in black down there. Behind a tree.  Watching him. With a stick.

Haiti Chronicles Part 7: Smacking into the cultural divide

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Encountering tarantulas

Not MY tarantula, but similar

Part 5 Haiti Chronicles

 I am standing next to my bunk, fluffing my pillow in Desab, a mountainous Haitian village, when  something crawls down my upper arm.

 Then over my lower arm.  I give my arm a shake and fling a tarantula  down into my pillow.

 I'd say he was big. Maybe the size of a basketball (kidding). But big.

Adam Pitzer, my hero/protector and one of the directors of Stone By Stone, snatches up my pillow, with the doomed tarantula  clinging tightly and rushes away.  I imagine he intends to let the harmless critter go into the wilds of the Haitian bush. I don't ask. 

What a memorable encounter. 

I'd heard many stories about the tarantula (Phormictopus cancerides)  here in Desab. They don't release enough poison to kill a human, but they have long teeth, about 3/4 an inch long, and so their bite can really hurt.  Lots of people (in the US) keep them as pets because of their beautiful markings. And they live freely throughout Haiti.

My friend Paul Rumo (another Stone by Stone director) names the ones he sees here in Desab; so I name mine: Bedfellows. He's not the first one I've met on this adventure.

Little Lily lives down by the bathroom, an outhouse with a resident rat that lives down in the hole (shine your light down and you'll see him/her.) Peeping Tom lives in the dressing room (a storage room off the kitchen, which fills up with generator exhaust in the evenings). I train my headlamp on him as I dress. Emeril is already dead when we see him,  in the kitchen at the step near MY BED.

Poor Emeril. Why did he die and where was he going WHEN he died?  I don't want them killed. They live here. I am only visiting. Abend, our translator and protector, says it feels like rain, which brings the tarantulas out. So, I expect to find more.

And I do see one more. It might be Peeping Tom, because he's back in the dressing room. But he's moved closer to my world, to the wall behind which I sleep. To where Bedfellows and I made our acquaintance. And I remember that feeling, of Bedfellows crawling down my arm.

So in the course of one day, I change from pacifist to activist. DIE DIE DIE! I call for help. And Peeping Tom is swept to his death.

I feel no remorse. And I see no more tarantulas.

BTW: Paul's tarantulas  are Sharts, Jesus Freaks, Squeal and Amil (pronounced a meal). Adam and his wife, Nicole (president of Stone by Stone),  named one NBD (No Big Deal).

Part 6: Haiti Chronicles: Even without a common language, we understand each other -- finally

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Feeding starving children -- on the sly

 
Reginald's response to me
 the day after we met
Part 4: Haiti Chronicles

The sun has set on my first day in Desab, and it's dark where we eat, tucked way back in the one-floor medical clinic, away from the ceaseless stares.  Many Haitians, especially the children, watch us constantly through the exposed Rebar at the front and side of the clinic. And many of them are hungry. Not just for dinner. But forever.

So it's more comfortable for us to eat out of view.

Our first meal is yummy spaghetti  with triangles of fresh bread from the village bakery.  As we eat, we talk, engaging in an impromptu Stone By Stone team building meet-and-greet, a time to talk about our expectations for the week and expose our concerns. We talk and eat. 

And then, there are leftovers. In a country as hungry as Haiti, how can we toss out leftovers? We have too little to feed the village. And there's no refrigeration to stow what's left.

Julie has a plan. We don't feed the village, she says. We feed the smallest.

So she walks into the staring crowd and peels away the littlest ones, handing them off to me.  I walk them back through the dark to the corner office where we just ate. One by one, I lead eight kids back to plates heaping with spaghetti, forks and chunks of fresh bread. Each time I encourage them to "pataje" (pat-a-jay), Kreyol for "share." And seven of them do. Lovingly. Sweetly. Gently.

But not all eight.

Reginald in his school uniform. Anyone willing
to sponsor him in school? Talk to me. I have
the details.
The eighth is Reginald, who has grabbed a whole plate  of spaghetti for himself. He circles the plate with his arm, creating a shield against hungry invaders. As Reginald inhales the spaghetti, the starving little boy he's supposed to share with looks at me, pleadingly. DO SOMETHING, his eyes scream. Then he watches Reginald's feeding frenzy in silence. As do I.

It's the oldest of the smallest, a little girl, with a take-charge attitude, who commands Reginald to "PATAJE, PATAJE!" shaking her fork at him. And when he doesn't, she, too, looks to me to fix things. To take charge.  To be the adult.

To force a starving little boy to share food.

"Pataje, Reginald," I say, gently. OK. Wimply. "Pataje."

He clutches the dish even tighter and scowls at me. "PATAJE!" I bark, trying to sound serious and beginning to lose my compassion to his insolence. I grab hold of the plate and find myself in a tug-of-war with a little starving child over a plate of spaghetti. (This is unreal. Please. Tell me I did NOT just try to take food from a little starving child!)

My heart screams NO NO NO! This baby is hungry. LET HIM EAT! 

Reginald must hear my heart, because he senses my weakeness and steps up his battle. He locks me in a power-struggle stare, stiffens his shoulders. Frowns. I do the same.

Then, I win. I guess.

I gain access to that plate of spaghetti, grab an extra fork and hand it to the starving chid who's witnessed my assault on this other starving child, this starving baby, this child who just needed food.

When they are finished, I collect their plates, forks and delightful "mesis" (thank yous).

Reginald refuses to give thanks. Instead, he stomps  to my side, grabs my hand, does that power-struggle stare again, and, without even a hint of resignation, demands, in English, "Give me water."

"Water," he repeats, insists. "Water."

Julie, who I discover knows this child nearly as well as she knows her own, shoos him away with a fervent "ale, ale," (all lay, all lay!) go, go!  He plants his fists on his hips.  And stares at her. She rolls her eyes. I grin.

He's a little hellion, she says, kind of like the town bully. He's not just hungry. He's a brat, a rascal, a scamp. He's a little boy in need of boundaries. I see him differently now. I imagine him with a sling shot dangling out his rear left pocket (if he had pants on) and a frog in the right.

"Ale!" she snaps and points to the door. Finally, he stomps out without his water. But he's  got my attention. I'm sure we'll go head-to-head again.

Part 5: Look who's sleeping in MY bed

Thursday, January 30, 2014

24 hours in Desab

Part 3: Haiti Chronicles

What follows are vignettes from my first 24 hours in Desab, a Haitian village reaching for the stars in the mountains of Haiti. I visited  with the non-profit Stone by Stone:


  • People walk up into the mountains, well past the top of the village,  toting 10-gallon plastic buckets. They return much later (I never timed them)  with the buckets full of water (a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds) perched on a sturdy cloth ring atop their heads. And they are barefoot. And the terrain is rocky, bristly with brush. Their only water source is a spring high in the mountains.
  • A child, no more than 8, leaps onto the back end of a donkey, grabs rope reigns and entices the donkey to dance in circles, like a rodeo cowboy. Seconds later, a second smaller child leaps onto the donkey's neck. They get the donkey to dance again, then it's back to work,  They ride over to two large plastic buckets, lean over and grab them, then trot up the hillside to fetch water for their families.
  •  A very pregnant goat grazes  at the upper edge of the small village square. Throughout the day, I see dozens of goats, some with kids, some dragging long ropes, other wearing wooden harnesses designed to prevent them from going deep into the brush. Villagers know their goats. No need for fences. The animal forage freely for their food.

  • Many donkeys outfitted with wooden homemade saddles serve as cargo carts for families toting bread and vegetables to and from market, which is about seventies down the mountain. The saddles resemble those I see in pictures of early Mexican conquistadors. The one pictured above was parked outside church on Sunday  morning.


  • A young man gallops into the village on donkey back,  coming to a stop at the bakery, a rectangular building with what looks like a pizza oven inside. The rider slides a small package out from under the donkey's bridle (salt, soda, yeast?)  and hands it to a baker. The bakers make bread every day, sometimes late into the night, often early in the morning. The bakery is one of the few places to work in the village.  Mostly, there are no jobs.
  • A tarantula hangs out in the weeds near the concrete latrine. A couple of rats live down in the hole. The latrine is for aid workers. (Our culture.)  Villagers potty discretely in the bush. (Their culture.) The  smelly structure sits just feet away from the preschool. 
  • Everyone dresses up for church. Everyone. Even the children.
  • In church,  lots of children sit quietly and listen (or act like it), for all four hours of it (an unusually long service, I'm told.). If they act up, they meet evil stares from adults. All adults. The village raises its children. And children are to behave in church. Outside, they play, sing, laugh and devill each other. Inside, they sit quietly and listen.
  • Still at church,  a little girl, about 5, gets doozy after three hours. So mom (grandmom? aunt?) lays a  blanket on the floor, then gently arranges the now sleeping child on the blanket (pictured).
  • Lots of singing and swaying in church. Three little boys in the back create their own acoustic section banging rhythmically on two metal chairs. Despite this environment of very strict behavior, nobody hushes the trio. It was just that good.


  • I count 30 concrete steps  curving downhill to the bathroom from the Big House. Which means I hike 30 concrete steps up to get back, sometimes sharif the steps with foraging animals. Plus I cover a short stony trail to a piece of broken pavement before climbing two more steps into the house. Hazardous (for me) at night. 
  • A starving puppy (most dogs and people here are hungry) shrinks from people because they taunt him. I see a man, about 25, throw stones at (in the direction of?) his own dog to stop her barking. She isn't hit. And she quiets down. 
  • Dust. I've never seen so much dust.
Part 4: Our first meal

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Part 2: Haiti Chronicles

Leaving my world behind

It's all surreal.

Nothing is my normal.

I've climbed (vaulted, scaled!) into the back seat of a massive Toyota Land Cruiser with seven other people.  Our driver, Fennel,  maneuvers expertly yet quickly (don't look) through the dusty, crowded streets of Port au Prince, heading north toward the mountain village of Desab, our home for the next week.  Multiple ropes restrain a pyramid of luggage piled high on top. Just like in the movies. The old movies.

It's market day, but nothing I'm used to. The streets vibrate with people. Lots of them. Crowds of them. For miles and miles, they mill about, selling/buying toiletries, corn meal (mais moulin), fruits, vegetables, sugar cane (wheelbarrows full), sodas, clothing, candy, car parts, chickens, goats and scads of shoes. They sell from storefront shanties, or just tables set up on sidewalks. Some squat, sorting cow peas or cleaning rice. Others tote their wares on top of their heads. Chickens scratch and scatter.

Colorful taxis (called Tap Taps)  stuffed with Haitians compete for road space with us as do motorcycles (also a form of taxi). Are there five people on that bike? Yep. And four on the next.

They zig and zag down the road, as do we, passing large trucks, SUVs and motorbikes on wide roads and narrow ones. It doesn't matter. Traffic laws, apparently, are suggestions.

I close my eyes. A lot. To keep out the dust, avoid panic and to reset my brain because nothing is normal. Knitted into the all this activity is unbelievable poverty. And destruction. This daily hubbub  co-exists with rubble and debris from a massive earthquake four years ago that killed 300,000 people and toppled the capital city's infrastructure. 

Despite dire conditions, life percolates. And we rumble along, mere passersby, as we head into the countryside  zipping and of course, zagging. No vehicle is too big or too fast for us to  pass. I see to my right many layers of  mountains, all wearing their winter browns, and to my left, the sparkling blue  Caribbean.

We pass through smaller towns in smaller, but similar market modes. People swarm everywhere.

Then we turn right. Into a storybook world.Onto a dirt and stone pathway, heavily gutted by rainwater and framed at first by banana, plantain and mango trees, then thirsty scrub brush. It leads up and up and up, seven miles into the mountains. Where people ride donkeys or walk, many barefoot, toting their wares to sell and those they buy piled high on their heads. We're the only car, so they step aside, as do the dozens of goats, chickens, cows and donkeys that scatter as we rumble up and up. Some chickens have broods swarming around their feet. A baby goat follows her mother, getting out of our way.

This is an impossible road that passes through a cultural divide.  No running water. No electricity. 

Then we stop. We are here.

Part III: First-day impressions of Desab

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Haiti Chronicles: Conflicting Anticipation

Why go to Haiti?

The woman asking me this stands with me at a ticket counter in the Miami Airport.  She scrunches her nose as she asks. Like she's smelling something bad.

Well, I'm not sure why I am going to Haiti. So I say simply,  "I'm  a volunteer, at a medical clinic."

 "Oh," she snarls, as if what I've said is distasteful. Her nose is still scrunched. "Relief ... You are a relief worker. It's not my idea of a vacation." 

She walks away and I think about her words. No. This is not a vacation. But what is it? I am going to Haiti for one week with a small nonprofit called Stone by Stone that supports a medical clinic and school in Desab, a remote village about seven miles straight up a  mountainside. I have no idea what I will be doing. No idea how I can help. I have no special skills. I am not a doctor or nurse, a construction worker or a teacher.

I'm just me. A retired newspaper editor.

I get my boarding pass and join a busy waiting room where blocks of colorful T-shirts create a comfort quilt.  The T-shirted people huddle together, yet separately. There's an orange group, a yellow one, then green and blue.  Through casual conversations I learn:

The largest group is the orange one: Juniper Community Missions, a church-planting group  from outside Harrisburg, PA, heading to Leone, Haiti. I count about 12 of them.

The yellow group is BeLikeBrit.org, which built an orphanage in Grand Goave, Haiti. (The birth of this non-profit is heartbreaking.) I see, maybe, nine?

The green shirts are from Children's-Hope out of Montgomery, AL, which runs an orphanage in Jacmel.

The smallest are the blue shirts, a husband and wife, first timers with Mission for Haiti, also heading to Jacmel.

 They are as perplexed as I about their purpose. "We don't know what we will be doing. All we know is we have a heart for people and we want to help."

Bingo.

Thank you, Blue

Now I know why I am going to Haiti.

NEXT: Ascending from Port au Prince


Sunday, January 5, 2014

And we wait ...

The night breeze is damp, cool, but not cold. I feel it kiss my hands, my wrist, my face as it rolls through my hotel room window. 

Hotel room. Yes. I am in a hotel room in Hampton, VA, instead of in my motorhome heading into warmer places because our transmission broke. Otto is sick, but we get him  back on Wednesday with a new transmission, new brakes and even a new fuel filter.

Until then, it's this hotel. We live in a hotel. And you know what? It's a blast. A vacation like no other.

I watched the Food Network on TV for four hours this morning. Napped for four hours, then watched the Food Network again for four more. (I love the Food Network; I don't get it at home.)

All the while, my hubby dove into his computer and my dog? Well, he stretched out in the middle of this king-sized bed. All day. (See the picture? That's Allen on the left; Jacob sleeping in the middle of the bed; and on the right is Guy Fieri sampling BBQ at some Diner, Drive-In or Dive.) 

I'm sure tomorrow we'll do more than vegetate.

But for now, this cool damp breeze kissing my hands and my face is just the best.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Swallowing my pride never tasted so good


 I am covered in sand, embarrassment and determination.

I've just watched my 70-year-old husband scurry up a steep sand dune with an 7 year old at a beach on Ocracoke Island, the whole of which is a National Seashore.

I have failed to make the climb. I am on my knees in the sand, breathless, after going nowhere despite doing a series of Stairmaster lungs in the spilling sand.  I have failed.

Yet I cannot fail. I refuse to settle for defeat.

So I stand up, wipe myself off, and observe the dune, looking for a less parallel  wall of sand to climb. That's when I hear my friend Julie send one of her children -- I said CHILDREN -- to help me make the climb. Now these kids define litheness. One of me outweighs all three of them combined. Still, here is an 8 year old, Kenson, at my side, hand outstretched to help. How can I let him down? So I tell him to pave my way and I follow.

Suddenly Paul, Kenson's dad, is right next to me, also with hand outstretched. I make two of Paul. I could take him down in a slip. Yet his offer is so genuine, his effort so sincere. How can I let him down? So I take his hand (from time to time) and step where he steps to climb, laboriously to the top.

We make splendid (still embarrassing) progress. One of the children, I don't know who (and please don't tell me) pushes me upward from behind while Paul tugs me skyward from above.

We continue making progress toward the top.

Where I now stand. Winded. Ashamed (because of all the help AND because Julie photographed this whole shameful episode of my life) yet tremendously excited that  I made it.

Paul and I do the Rocky fist punch in the air, and then slide back down.

I'm still covered in sand and embarrassment yet now have a modicum of pride, because I (well, we) did it.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

It's Always Something

We're having a Rumo Day. (Our friends the Rumos have five children. Every day is an adventure for them.   Never wake up, exist, then back to sleep. Never. Always a little monkey wrench  works itself in somewhere.)

Three of their kids ride with us in our RV, named Otto, traveling down North Carolina's Route 12 in Cape Hatterras National Seashore, heading toward the ferry to  Ocracoke Island. The parents await us there.  We plan to celebrate New Year's Eve together. Say hello to 2014.

So we are on the road. And our 14-hour journey to meet up with their parents  now spans 29 hours because, well, Al can't be rushed.

But we are almost there. Thirty minutes to the ferry, an hour ferry ride then we will be there. Ocracoke. 

But ROAR ROAR ROAR. Something's wrong with Otto. ROAR ROAR ROAR. We've lost gears. We're coasting down Route 12, no gears and three young children yearning for  Mom and Dad.

Our first little miracle: A turnout. So we coast safely off the road with just Otto's nose sticking into the road. No problem.  We have CoachNet, a super expensive road emergency service for RVs. I call. I cry. Our policy expired in February.

Our second little miracle: CoachNet assists us anyway, finding a qualified mechanic and notifying police to come to our rescue. We leave lots of messages for the mechanic (it's Saturday night now and nobody is home). The police come and we -- me, two 8-year-olds and the cop -- push Otto to safety (Al's behind the wheel; the youngest tends to the dog.)

It's getting late and we decide to head on to Ocracoke for the night and tend to Otto tomorrow. 

Our third little miracle. All six of us (me, Allen, the three boys and our giant standard poodle) and our overnight bags fit into our toad, a Scion IQ (Go ahead, Google it ...).

Our fourth little miracle: Neither the police who watch us pile into the little car nor the Coast Guard who watch us pile out cite us for failing to meet the safety code.

Our fifth little miracle: Kenzie, Kenson and Kenley, the three little boys with us, smile, laugh and giggle despite the uncertainty.

Finally, 34 hours into our 14 hour journey, we meet up with the Rumos and snuggle in for the night, happy, laughing and pleasant.

Yes, it was a Rumo kind of day. And, thank God, it ended that way, too. 


Friday, March 8, 2013

Sturdier Stock Than I

 
I don't like Fort Davis, Texas.

It's a dusty little town forgotten by most and existing, well, I'm not sure why.  It's dusty here. When the wind blows, it brings more dust. My skin suffocates under layers of it. My hair scares me. My breathing labors. So, we're getting out of here.

But first, I need to mail off some birthday cards.

So we head to the post office, where I first meet a fellow sorting mail. He's a youngish guy, all smiles. He nods. Friendly.

At the counter, I watch as two women engage in a brief hug, then, with their arms still engaged, pull back and give each other wide, toothy grins. "It's so good to see you," one of them says. "I heard about your loss. I am so sorry."  "Oh, thanks. I'm OK," the woman in mourning says. They lock eyes briefly, then  they detach and get on with their business. Girlfriends.

My turn at the counter is sweet. I tell the postal worker my oversized card is for my granddaughter. So she digs in her drawer and pulls out a "Finding Nemo" stamp. Thoughtfulness.

I thank her and turn to leave and am stopped by the sight of a crowded bulletin board. Bake sales. Story times. A firehall dance. An involved community.

Then two men in front of me exchange greetings and the one man says to the other, "How are ya?" The older man smiles and nods, then says, "I'm just fine!  I miss (Maude? Mable? inaudible name, but definitely a recently passed wife), but I'm getting on just fine."   Resilience.

On my way out the door, a feller tips his hat and says, "Howdy." 

OK. I get it.  Fort Davis, dust and all, is a pioneer town. It's alive, perhaps, because of people like these, people who reinforce their independence with self-reliance  and a strong sense of community. 
People who don't crumble under the dust. They just shrug it off.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Well, Hello 2013; Nice to Get To Know You

We're sitting around a campfire (well, a propane-fed flame licking fake charred wood in a metal pot) at Padre Island National Seashore welcoming in the New Year (2013). 

With strangers.

It's windy, so our impromptu party of 12 (plus one dog) gathers leeward, using one of those monster motorhomes as a shield against the blowing sand and wind.

We're having tentative fun. We don't know each other. We're all so different. Some drink tequila, wine, beer; others do Coke or tea. Shy conversations abound, but all seek common ground: Where are you from? Been here before? Where are you going? And, a frequent question tonight, "What is your name again?"

We're all gray-haired, retired, not really able to dance the night away, but, strangely, I feel like I'm in a bar, a college bar. What's your major? Come here often? We're getting to know each other.

We are a community of Winter Texans, escaping the cold and icy climes of Ohio, Michigan, New York. We have a few real Texans, too. We laugh at clean jokes. No off-color ones are told.  We're warming up to each other.

And we dust off old stories new friends enjoy hearing. Like the time Howie played a practical joke on Kathy, pretending he was a lecherous Santa; or the time I had breakfast with Keith Richards. Pat broke all hearts with her story about how her Aunt Cat's alzheimer's  is winning.

We munch on popcorn, tell more tales. Laugh. Sometimes heartily. That laughter recasts  our unfamiliar as familiar.

Soon, we collect our things and it's time to go, to walk back to our RVs. This assortment of strangers are now friends.

Happy New Year.