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, 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."


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.