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Day 3

October 28, 2010

Once again, I awoke early and got ready for the day. I was assured the night before that I would be picked up at 9am and that I should be ready and waiting.

I decided that I didn’t want to spend $10 on breakfast so instead I munched on a couple protein bars that I had kept chilled in the mini fridge and watched more miners being rescued.

I went downstairs promptly at 9am and began the waiting game again. I had added a few more words to my French at this point, so I was able to joke a bit with the hotel guards, “Toujours, j’antendre.” Always, I wait.

This time, I waited until 10:15am before I headed toward the computers. Internet was a bit quicker this morning, so I was able to get my “is everything okay” email sent before Waner found me. He said the traffic was bad that morning and that it was difficult to get to the hotel on time. I was just glad they were there, although young Eric was missing. I asked where he was which delighted the quiet man who’s name I never caught. But my limited French meant that I never really figured out where he was.

I had expected to head to the New Life orphanage, but instead we headed up toward Petitionville. The guys stopped and got food. Petitionville is an interesting area because there are so many houses that were clearly once very nice. It’s the only part of Haiti where I saw American stores like CVS and actual shops selling groceries and clothing instead of it being sold on the street. Along many corners, you saw paintings hung up for sale…paintings of homes and landscapes before the quake. We continued up the hills and it was very clear to me that we were heading away from the airport, and thus, away from the New Life orphanage.

Instead we went to a lumber yard where Pastor Moise made several purchases of supplies. They explained that they would be taking me to one of his orphanages today. Okay, change of plans. It was a long drive up into the mountains, but the scenery was beautiful. Drives were always pretty quiet since my French was so limited. I felt like I was in a little bubble, never quite sure where I was being taken. But wherever we went, we passed posters and banners proclaiming the various candidates for president and senate. There was never any information or slogan, just their name and the number you would use to vote for them. Even high in the mountains, you saw campaign posters attached to trees and houses. Collapsed buildings would literally be wallpapered with them.

The roads got ever smaller as we reached Kenscoff. We stopped outside a large building that had clearly sustained serious damage in the earthquake. Alongside it in a smaller building, children watched our arrival, most offering shy, curious smiles. Waner took me into the small building which served as the orphanage. It was completely bare with the exception of one cot. The children, he explained, slept on the floor. The 2nd floor was too damaged and needed to be demolished and rebuilt. But despite that, children were still sleeping on the first floor. He talked of their plans to add mattresses and bunk beds.

Then we moved over to the school. I felt like I was on a construction site as we made our way through the dimly-lit building. Despite the obvious piles of rubble and holes in some walls, children were coming here for school and church was held here on Sundays. Each stone classroom had rows of benches and the days assignment written in French. Waner explained that the school was available to the children from the orphanage as well as to kids in the surrounding community for free. This is virtually unheard of in Haiti where schools are a for-profit business which colorful advertisements throughout Port-au-prince. They were almost as plentiful as the campaign posters.

After we left the church building, we made our way up the dirt road to another set of buildings that had not been damaged by the quake. Waner seemed somewhat impressed with my ability to name the various vegetables growing alongside the path…cabbage, lettuce, beets. I was stumped by the bowl full of what looked like colorful berries. It was coffee. I’d never seen it un-roasted. At the top of the hill, there were two guest houses with bedrooms and large bathrooms. Graduation photos smiled down from the walls. These buildings were guest houses for volunteers. That day, all the volunteers were at another orphanage they ran even higher in the mountains. Although they didn’t charge me anything the week that I was there, they did typically charge volunteers a small stipend for their food, lodging and transportation. This money was used to buy supplies for the school and orphanage. In an ideal world, American sponsors would fund their work and volunteers would stay for free, but we live in a world that is far from ideal.

Pastor Moise spoke with his workmen about how things were progressing and we wandered back down to the orphanage. The voices of the older kids wafted through the air as they sang together. The teacher led them through various arm motions that went along with the song. I couldn’t quite tell if it was French or Creole, but I was told the song was “Lord, I Praise Thy Name.” As they sang, Pastor Moise and Waner discussed the repairs the building needed. I ended up engaged with the younger children who had been following me around. My French is sort of perfect for talking to kids in the 3-5 range. I know a lot of basic words and their whole world is in the present tense. The kids were already pretty interested in me, but when I started taking their photos, their laughter rang out through the building. They were thrilled to see themselves on the screen of my digital camera. This little photo session captured some of the most endearing photos of my whole trip.

It was beginning to rain (as it does every day in the mountains) and we piled into the car to leave. I thought we were heading back to Port-au-Prince, but as usual, I was in for another surprise. Instead we drove to another town. Pastor Moise briefly stopped to talk to a woman at a small farm and then we went to Fort Jacques. The fort was apparently built to fight against the French when Haiti became independent. A young man became our guide, telling the story to me in English. I was struck by how things have changed so much for this young man. Clearly, this was a tourist destination, but there are no tourists in Haiti this year. Just aid workers and business trips.

As we walked around the site, like everywhere in Haiti, you could see the earthquake damage. One of the cannons had been lost that day when it fell down the mountainside. Walls had collapsed. The light rain continued and the rocks around the building were slippery. We went into an ammunition room that was pitch black. I turned on my camera just for the dim light of the screen. The view from Fort Jacques was amazing. You could see the airport of Port-au-Prince and the ocean far in the distance. On a clear day, you could see all the way to the Dominican Republic.

Guillaume had told me that there is a lot of flooding in Haiti because they cut down the trees to make charcoal. As you fly over the island, you can tell where Haiti ends and the Dominican Republic begins because there are so many more trees. So I strained to see where that change happened, but it was too cloudy.

As we left Fort Jacques, I noticed a high school nearby. Even though school was back in session that week throughout the country, this school was abandoned.

As the rained began to pour harder, we headed back down the mountains to my hotel.

I had dinner at the bar again. Couldn’t quite figure out when dinner time was at the hotel restaurant. Angela joined me along with a Hands On colleague who was visiting her. The lure of an extra bed in an air conditioned room meant that she had frequent guests checking on her recovery. Chris was from Newfoundland, Canada, but as he said, “I guess I live here now.” He had worked with Hands On in the past and got called to coordinate recovery efforts in Haiti. He figured he would be there until the next disaster happened somewhere else.

The talk of scorpions and tarantulas made it clear just how very comfortable our hotel was. I sipped Prestige, the local Haitian beer, and marveled at their stories. I was just there for the week. They were staying for months. This was their life.

That night, I watched covered of the Delaware senate debate. That race is particularly bizarre, but the difference between that coverage and life where I was sitting was astronomical. The arguments felt so trite. I was struck by how lucky we are to be able to argue over taxes, healthcare, same-sex marriages. They are important issues, no doubt about it. But in Haiti, they are trying to choose the person who will get them out of living in a tent.

I’d ask who the good candidate was and everyone sort of shrugged. Aid workers told me the one female candidate was becoming the favorite, but every Haitian I asked seemed to have little hope that their vote would make much of a difference. They were derisive of Wyclef Jean’s failed bid, derisive of candidate Alexis who was too close to the current government, but no one openly voiced support of anyone else.

It seems to me if aid can get to this country and there is a strong, honest ruler, real change could come to the country. But when I left, I still had no idea who would be the best choice to make that happen.


Day 2

October 28, 2010

I woke up early about a half hour before my alarm was set to go off, showered and headed downstairs to see morning at Le Plaza Hotel.
The parakeets were happily eating their breakfast and hotel staff were watering the plants.
I worked on the computer for a bit and then tried the breakfast buffet. Eggs, grits, toast, banana fritters, French toast were all on offer. A bit too early for me to be sampling the cod in some sort of red sauce. It was the most Haitian item on the menu, but I chickened out.

Ever the early bird, I was waiting outside the hotel at 8:45am. The minutes ticked by. Hotel staff exhausted my limited French pretty quickly and just watched me sympathetically. With no phone, I had no way to check in with my guides. At 10 am, I gave up and headed to the business center to send them an email. The internet was incredibly slow so it took close to 10 minutes just to open Yahoo. But just as I was going to send my email, Waner found me. I was chided for not being outside, so somehow I missed them. The crew was joined by another man who was really quiet. He seemed to be an older version of Eric.

He explained to me that the plan today would be to visit several orphanages so I could pick which one I would be placed at for the remainder of the week. As we pulled away from the hotel, I took a few quick photos of the tent city across the street. Waner laughed at me for being so timid with my camera. I was hesitant to take photos of people without their permission. So he grabbed the camera away from me and began snapping. We stopped in front of the capital building and briefly hopped out. Kids from the tent city begged me to give them a dollar as Waner snapped photos. Their pleading tugged at my heartstrings and Waner sent them on their way with a some Haitian gourdes – the local currency.

Then we were back on our way, winding down the hills to the airport. As we drove, Waner told me about his time working for Blackwater in Afghanistan and Iraq as a dispatcher. I cringed a bit. Eventually (every drive in Haiti is long, there’s always an eventually), we reached an army barracks and turned inside. Waner said he wanted to talk to someone with the Jordan army for a few minutes. They apparently have given them food supplies in the past.

They were clearly unprepared for the arrival of me. They were clearly not happy, although exceedingly polite, as they bade me from the car and stationed me a chair. Unhappy men with guns. Yay. Apparently, the problem was not so much that I was a girl, but that I was a girl who was exceptionally inappropriately dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. Waner requested to see the head of Jordan army in Port-au-Prince, but he was apparently unavailable. He then asked to speak with head doctor or the head legal advisor.

The legal advisor agreed to see us. Apparently, he and Waner had met once before, but he didn’t remember him. He told Waner that they didn’t have any supplies to distribute at the moment, but we didn’t leave. He seemed perplexed about why we were there and Waner explained that he wanted me to see that the Jordan army were good people doing good work. I racked my brain trying to come up with a reason why I would think otherwise. I felt incredibly uneducated about Jordan and could only really come up with ambivalent feelings that leaned toward positive. The head of legal affairs told me a little of what they do and said that it was good to speak English to an American because it forced him to practice. Waner commented that it’s good to know many languages so you can communicate with your enemy. He replied, “Jordan has no enemies.” Then Waner started talking again about his time with Blackwater. This was met with a skeptical raised eyebrow. Ack!

Then the medical officer joined us. He actually remembered Waner so this was some progress. They began talking about an ad that Waner was running in a newspaper in Jordan to get more volunteers. Then they started talking about names. The legal affairs guy was named Ossama. Waner was quick to point out that many people in the Middle East are named Osama and that I shouldn’t be worried by it. Honestly, I’m not a fear mongering idiot so it would have never occurred to me to judge someone based on their name. Double ack!

We finally brought this to a close with me standing with the two officers for photos. Ossama gave me his email address and I tried to memorize his name. I figured if I ran into any trouble, it wouldn’t hurt to know the head of the Jordan Army legal affairs.

When we came outside, Pastor Moise strugged to get the car started. Some issue with the fan, but after 15 minutes or so, they sorted it out and we were on our way. The regular roads of Port-au-Prince are in rough shape, but I started longing for them as we began working our way down unpaved paths of mud. Pigs and chickens roamed around. They asked for directions and a guy jumped on a bike and took us past the large orphanage that seemed to clearly have been the planned destination to a smaller orphanage around the corner.

There, we met Rev. Jules Boliere who had opened his home to dozens of orphaned children. They were working on their homework but came inside briefly to say hello. Waner explained how difficult it is to get the clothing needed to send the kids to school. He stressed that for $20-30 a month, a sponsor could provide a uniform and tuition for one of these kids. Bags of beans sat off to the side and I asked if an aid group had donated them, but apparently these bags weren’t for the kids. The orphanage was guarded so a friend was storing the bags there. The Reverend had the option to buy them from the friend if he could afford it. It was heartbreaking to realize how limited the supplies were and how precarious life was. All these kids, dependant on a man in his 80s for their survival. The kids gathered once again for photos and the Reverend gave me his card and encouraged me to not forget him.

As we left the orphanage, I saw a small boy running alongside the road. Unlike the orphanage, where the kids were clothed in American t-shirts, he wore a white shift that was similar to a fishnet. He called out me in Creole and it sounded like he was asking “why you?” He couldn’t have been more than 3. I wondered at the life this little one led, as he was left to run alongside the muddy road alone.

One quick turn and we were back at the larger orphanage we had intended to visit. Brightly colored signs proclaimed that we had arrived at the New Life Children’s Home. They had a large property of about 5 acres. The whole setup had the feel of an American summer camp. We walked past the two-story pink buildings past a building where the children were eating lunch. At the end of the property, a group of children sat in wheelchairs. It was a heartbreaking site. A smiling child with an enlarged skull, another boy with no obvious injury but unable to walk, young girls with obvious severe mental and physical challenges. In a building nearby, babies lay crying in cribs. All the children getting the care they needed, but with no social services in Haiti, there were limited resources to help them get to their full, albeit limited, potential.

I was introduced to Jean Barnard from Virginia. She told me that she and her husband had come in April. As she put it, they had planned to stay for three weeks, “collect their halos” and move on, but they couldn’t leave these kids. They are selling their house, staying indefinitely. Waner left us alone to talk and, for a moment, Fran thought he was dumping me there and that she’d have one more person to take care of, but I explained that I just wanted to work there during the day if there was work to be done. She was thrilled and so was I. I was glad that this whole volunteer trip was back on track with a purpose.

I told her I would be back the following day to do whatever she needed.

We drove back toward Port-au-Prince and stopped across from the airport. There was a makeshift food court of sorts as people cooked various items in large metal containers. Waner jumped out. I was trepidacious. This was clearly food that all the Passport Health people had advised against. But I remembered Anthony Bourdain saying that when you go to a poor country and someone offers you food they can’t spare, you apply the “Grandma’s Thanksgiving Rule” which states that when Grandma serves you turkey, even if it’s the driest, most awful turkey ever, you eat it, you tell her it’s delicious and you ask for some more.

As we waited, I chatted with Eric. He told me that he didn’t speak English, only French. But he was able to answer my basic questions about his age and what soccer teams he liked well enough. Pastor Moise told me about his children, all living the United States.

Waner jumped back in the car with several containers of food and I prepared myself to follow the Grandma Rule, but they didn’t offer food to me. Instead, I was offered a drink as they ate as we drove down the road. After a few blocks, we stopped at a restaurant and Waner told me that I’d be having lunch here. We went into a pitch black room, the only light coming from the soccer match showing on several televisions. I asked what I should order, but he didn’t offer much guidance. I told him I’d go with chicken and he placed an order for something. After a short wait, a massive amount of food arrived – chicken with peas in some sort of red sauce, white rice, salad, plantain fritters. Waner napped as I ate the food. It was good, but not spectacular, designed to fill, not amaze. But I was starving and it fit the bill for me perfectly.

After lunch, they drove me past the American embassy and through Petionville. Everyone refers to this as the wealthy part of Port-au-Prince, but it was incredibly hard-hit by the earthquake. I knew the J/P HRO camp was near here, but we drove part many tent cities and I couldn’t pick it out. This was definitely the long way back to my hotel, but it helped me to get a sense of direction about the city.

I returned home to the breaking CNN news that the miners in Chile would be rescued that night. I did some computer work, ate a club sandwich for dinner at the bar and then called it a night. I was tired from the long day, but stayed glued to the TV to see the first few miners rescued. A truly amazing night. I fell asleep as men continued to be pulled to the surface.

Day 1

October 28, 2010

My trip to Haiti started in JFK airport. You can easily spot the aid workers amongst all the Haitians. We were the ones in t-shirts and jeans. They were dressed like they were going to church. We arrived to a small band playing music, welcoming us, but were swept past them to the waiting shuttle bus. We waited to clear customs in a baking hot airport hangar. We were cleared quickly and burst out into a sea of red-capped man offering to take your bags, to drive you to your hotel, to use their phone.
Like a good city girl, I declined their offers. Allowed one guy dressed in Sean Jean to lead me toward an area just outside the gates. I scanned the crowd for a sign with my name, but it wasn’t there. I waited. Men would occasionally approach me, ask if I had a ride. I’d shake them off. Another man would approach asking if my name matched the one he had written. It didn’t. I watched another American girl, standing coolly off to the side. I admired her confidence. I finally allowed an older man to convince me that I should use his cellphone to call the people who were picking me up. We connected, but I couldn’t hear them. The phone hung up and I had some hope that they were nearby. The confident redhead approached and I saw my concerns mirrored in her eyes. She asked to use my phone. I explained that it wasn’t mine. It belonged to a man who had disappeared. We hovered together as my ride arrived just as the man returned. I saw him instructing her with the phone. As I got into the car, I saw her being led off to the parking lot. I hoped for the best.

In the car, I was introduced to Waner, my guide for the week, Pastor Moise, my driver and Eric. A boy who said he was 14, but I would have guessed 10. Eric seemed to be in charge of opening my door which only opened from the outside. They kept the windows closed and the a/c blasting. This must have been a welcoming gesture. It didn’t get turned on again for the rest of my stay. I got a little tour of Port-au-Prince, winding up the hills, past the destroyed buildings, past the tents. We picked our way through pot holes and piles of rubble. We paused briefly in front of the crumbled capital building, protected by fences where 19 posters were carefully hung, depicting the candidates running for president. But I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the other side of the road, where women washed children in their maze of tents. A half a block later, we were at my hotel, behind the security gates, where hotel staff were armed with rifles. The pool looked clean and beautiful. Parakeets chirped in a cage. It was paradise.

I checked in and was led to my room. A standard room, the type you would expect from a former Holiday Inn. Two beds, two bottles of water, four channels on the TV, the widow a/c and the mini fridge hummed. I made my way to the business center and was able to use their computers and internet for free to get word to my family that I had arrived safe. A girl working next to me stood up and hissed in pain. She was Angela, a New Zealander who had been working with Hands On in Leogane, Haiti when she began to show the symptoms of appendicitis. She had come to Port-au-Prince for the operation a week earlier and was now recovering at the hotel. Not surprisingly, she was advised against roughing it at her volunteer camp for a few weeks.

I made arrangements with my hosts to be picked up at 9am the next day and ordered a hamburger. They didn’t ask me how I wanted it cooked. I suppose I would have said well done in those circumstances. It was a quick lesson for my snobby foodie-self that I should never order a burger if I can’t get it medium rare. But I was starving, so I ate it and every last one of the over-crispy fries. Then I retreated to my room to shower and catch up on the day’s news on CNN.

In the evening, I made my way to bar. I was sitting alone reading for a bit when I noticed Angela and joined for a bit. I successfully navigated the menu with the French-speaking staff and ordered akra – fried taro root fritters. They were delicious, topped with the pikliz, a vinegar-based colw slaw studded with jalepenos. Angela, still in pain, decided to call it a night fairly early and headed off to bed. I noticed a tall man looking for a seat an invited him to join me.

This was Guillaume. He had left his wife and one-month-old daughter in France, to work in Haiti for the week. His company had been sending him monthly since December to help the Haiti government with flood planning. It was mostly advising on how to get people to shelters during hurricanes. After the earthquake, the focus shifted to rebuilding.

I felt secure here. A part of me wanted to stay safely in the hotel for the remainder of the week, but that wasn’t really the point of the trip. I went up to my room and set the alarm so I could have breakfast before my ride arrived in the morning.

How was Haiti?

October 28, 2010

In the week that I’ve been back, this is the one question that has been asked of me over and over again.

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to sum up Haiti with a pithy one-liner response. I’ve not been able to reduce a week of experiences into a few sentences.

It’s so easy with others who have been there. You connect over shared views and experiences:
The area outside the airport where you wait, hoping your ride will somehow find you.
The roundabout outside the airport that is a crush of vehicles, dust and people.
The tap-taps crowded with people coming home from work.
Parents walking their children home from school with their hand clasped tight.
The way your heart seizes when an orphaned child laughs.
The broken streets, the car horns, the music, the smoke…

You may have already read the short updates that I wrote each day from my hotel. I’m going to now go back and try to flesh out those days. I’m going to try to answer “How was Haiti” for those willing to put in a little time.


October 24, 2010

I was recently talking to a group of people about my trip when one of them mentioned that the people in Haiti were lazy. If things were bad, this person said, they should just leave.

I was shocked at his lack of compassion and his inability to see how strong the people of Haiti truly are. It’s hard to say how you would react in this type of situation, but if I was living in a tent because my home had been destroyed and family members had died, I’m not sure I would wake up in the morning, put on a nice dress and head off to work.

But the people in Haiti do. They wake up, they dress their children in their perfect little uniforms and take them by the hand to their school, insisting that their children get the best education, the best chance at a better life. They work hard all day to provide for their family and then return home…to a tent. I have do much admiration for their strength.

As you have probably seen on the news, there is a cholera outbreak just north of Port-au-Prince. I am hopeful that it would reach the mountain orphanage of Kenscoff and confident that New Life Children’s Home will be okay with their water-purification systems. But I fear deeply for the tent cities in and around Port-au-Prince. If disease takes hold in these areas with people in such close quarters, it will be a catastrophe. Hospitals are already overwhelmed with routine care.

I hope this tragedy is the incentive that governments around the world need to release the aid they have promised to Haiti so this country can start to rebuild proper homes for its people.

Crucial Twitter updates on the cholera outbreak from people on the ground can be found here.

Haiti Photos

October 18, 2010









More photos and video from Haiti can be found on Flickr.

People Doing Good

October 17, 2010

At the end of each day in Haiti, I was exhausted. But I wanted to keep everyone updated, so I made sure to spend a few minutes each day here on this blog.

Now that I am home, I will be sharing more stories from Haiti and specific ways you can help.

Tonight, though, I wanted to highlight just a few of the people who are making lives better there everyday.


My amazing chauffer runs two orphanages in the mountains. One in Kenscoff that I was able to visit and another in Mon-Repos. One of the things that is needed to rebuild Haiti is education. But education is private in Haiti. If a child does not have the money for tuition and a uniform, they cannot attend. Not only is Pastor Moise providing a home to 25 orphans, he runs a school that children in the community can attend for free. He has a huge heart.
BIG WAY: Go to Haiti. Stay at their guest house. Help rebuild the school.
JUST AS GOOD: Donate to their cause. Right now, they need school supplies badly. I will have more information this week on how to donate them.
SUPER AMAZING WAY: Adopt this orphanage. If you have a nonprofit or a church group or even just a few friends who care,each person could sponsor a child. $30/month can provide education, a uniform and food for a child.

This is the orphanage where I spent most of my time. They are an amazing example of what all orphanages in Haiti should be like. Children kept safe and educated. Doors open to children and adults with special needs. Most of all, a generous heart – sharing food and supplies with other orphanages in need.
BIG WAY: Go there. Stay in the guest house. There is always work to be done.
JUST AS GOOD: Provide a monthly donation. This gives them an operating budget and they can purchase the supplies they need and items that can help other people in the area.

On the day of the earthquake, Volner’s niece realized she hadn’t seen her cousin in awhile. She went upstairs and found him, picked him up and began to carry him down their outdoor stairs. As they moved down the stairs, the house collapsed behind him. Volner says, “God saved my son. Now I will save God’s children.” He runs a ministry in Pouille. It is literally over the river and through the woods. After driving up in the mountains, you cross a river in a small boat. Building materials and supplies are then handwalked through paths in the woods. Out of those woods, people in need appear for help.
BIG WAY: Can’t you guess? This is a tough one to visit, but so worth it.
JUST AS GOOD: Funds can be send to their partner group in Illinois.