Haiti Mission Trip 2012 part 5: Bonswa!

Saturday 9th 2012

Another sleepless night! Currently three nights in a row and I am not sure how much longer my body can take this lack of sleep. The problem for me remains the same, Haiti never rests! Being a little Haiti naïve, I was under the assumption that being away from the main city life would be a little slower, a smidge quieter, yet nothing could be further from the truth! Behind our compound are houses hidden in the mango/banana trees that appear to be the collection point for those who never sleep! Music like that of a Caribbean polka pumping from the residence all to the hoots and hollers of its inhabitants!  Lying in my bunk sopping in sweat, cursing the heavens above because there is no escape from this dreadful noise! My ear plugs have eluded me in the dark, and I am afraid to wake the lucky ones while searching my bags with a flashlight.  As for all the music I uploaded into my iPhone for just such an occasion; I made the mistake of storing everything using the “cloud”, and since all my data functions are disabled to keep from being charged an arm and a leg at AT&T it can’t be retrieved.  So all I have are eight songs placed directly onto my phones memory. Eight songs for eight days, yeah I’m screwed! Somewhere around 1 am exhaustion gets the better of me and I pass out, only to be rousted from bed at 3 am by the sounds of two dogs barking at each other! This continues for around an hour and is immediately replaced by the wonderful crows of chickens singing to the rising sun!  Now if all of that weren’t bad enough for yours truly; Marcanie started snoring around midnight and never quit.  Snoring in itself is not so bad, living in a firehouse with 4-6 other guys for 1/3 of my life, snoring is something you get used too.  But this man (Marcanie) is the king daddy of snoring, the Gandhi of bear growls, Lord of the buzz saw, the champion tree chopper, I am pretty sure some of those sounds could not legally be registered on a decibel meter! Long story short, another rough night and the hot Haitian coffee could not be poured soon enough.

Upside; Cody and Mason didn’t hear a thing (ahh to be young and able to pass out at the drop of a hat) they slept right through it all.  At least some of us received a welcomed night’s sleep. Everyone else was awakened at one time or another, dog barking seemed to be the complaint of choice.

Breakfast was at 7am on the nose and it smelled heavenly.  We were treated to spaghetti? I know it sounds strange right? Spaghetti for breakfast! But it was the best spaghetti ever! Nothing like what you would envision spaghetti to be, it was spicy, with vegetables and no sauce over the top! There was fruit and cereal, coffee and tea. The food was perfect.

 We gathered our tools, marching downstairs to meet with the incoming workers at 0800.  Today is Saturday which means it will be another half day of work for everyone.  Our goal this morning is to expose the steel trusses by removing the tin sheeting from the roof.  A few of us have high hopes that we may actually have a truss or two on the ground before noon, but that may be nothing more than wishful thinking.  Caz, Marcanie, Pastor Charles and the ten of us meet inside the church. A quick safety briefing is given along with mentioning what our goals are for the day.  We collectively decide that Opening up the concrete windows to create air flow and removing all the tin sheeting on the roof is our goal.  Everyone is pumped. Excited and ready to go! Once the concrete windows are knocked out with sledge hammers we can begin on the roof.  The Haitian crew decides going onto the roof and removing tin from the outside is the best plan.  Mean while a different plan is taking shape which places ladders inside the exposed trusses as makeshift scaffolding, allowing us to work in the shade and not risk someone falling from the roof.  Yes the tins are bolted to the trusses but they are bolted on using J-hooks.  J-Hooks are just what they sound like; they are bolts in the shape of a “J”. With the nut outside on top of the roof, the “J” passes through the tin with the “j” portion grabbing a steel truss securing a piece of tin sheeting tightly.  This is where the four bolt cutters we brought with us come into play.  Instead of unbolting the hooks from above, we are having two crews safely move up and down the length of the building cutting “J” hooks from the inside using ladders as scaffolding. Safe, easy and fast it worked as planned! The tins came down one at a time, everyone (who wished to go up in the scaffolding) took turns cutting the “J” hooks as bolt cutting a couple of hundred of these things can become a little tiresome. It went fairly quickly and we finished before noon which allowed us ample time to formulate our plan for the beginning of the week.  The beams and trusses were next to come down starting Monday and we definitely were going to need some sockets or crescent wrenches for this project.  Realizing the deficiency in our tool cache Paul suggested that we head into Cabaret (the next town over)with an interpreter to retrieve these items from a local shop.  John G, Mason and a few of the Haitian workers wished to tag along as well.  It sounded like great fun and an adventure to boot. 

Cabaret (Creole: Kabarè) is a municipality in the Arcahaie Arrondissement, in the Ouest Department of Haiti. It has 63,450 inhabitants. During his dictatorship François Duvalier renamed it Duvalierville in 1961 and a megalomaniacal construction project was begun. The project failed, but the name was kept until Duvalier’s successor, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, fled the country in 1986.

Marcanie took us across the street from the compound where we stood waiting for a Tap-Tap to drive by.  A few loaded Tap-Taps passed us by but finally after about ten minutes one happened to stop. It appeared to be loaded with too many people for our group to fit inside, but not thinking like a Haitian I was wrong. So with a long gaze and a long deep breath we all stepped forward to receive our first lesson from the University of Tap-Tap.  Pushing and shoving, jostling and contorting, we all squeezed on, in and even hung a little off to the side. It was unsafe, crazy and something that had my Spidey senses abuzz but it was exhilarating! We all loved the ride into town and couldn’t wait for another Tap-Tap ride back to the compound!

We arrived in the town of Cabaret to witness complete controlled chaos! In the center of town the markets were open, people were everywhere! Hustling, moving, buying and selling Cabaret was alive!  Our guides took us from tool shack to tool shack looking for a simple crescent wrench or some socket wrenches.  There wasn’t a free place to move or stand without running into, bumping or moving out-of-the-way of another person, vehicle or motorcycle. We traveled through side streets, down alley ways into areas where people were fixing cars and bikes, Marcanie took us everywhere and we talked with quite a few friendly and helpful individuals.  At one point we ended up in a two-story building that resembled a shabby apartment complex filled with building supplies. There were two men sitting in the front entry staring at us as we went upstairs and it was the only time I ever felt a little uncomfortable, on edge. It seemed as though they really didn’t want us inside. Just my opinion though, I could have read the situation wrong, but it sure felt that way.  In the end we arrived back at the first store we visited. (Isn’t it always that way?) Even though the store only had two crescent wrenches available it would be enough for the task at hand on Monday. While Paul haggled with the owner over the obvious inflated prices on our behalf, John G and I were drooling over the brand new Korean and Chinese manufactured motorcycles that were for sale in front of the store.  At one point the owner informed Marcanie we could purchase them for $1000.00 u.s. dollars.  I wanted so badly to purchase one on the spot, then cruise the streets of Haiti! Nothing would have been more exciting than traveling home knowing I survived Haiti’s traffic chaos on a motorcycle! But most importantly it would have been nice to go off on an afternoon cruise and discover a little Haitian culture on my own.  Before concluding our business with the local shop owner, the price had dropped to $950.00. I am pretty sure with a little haggling $800.00 would have left me the proud owner of a Haojin 125cc motorcycle.

The afternoon trip turned out to be quite an adventure! We had walked through Cabaret, met a handful of locals and strolled into a little store for a soda. I felt uncomfortable, out of my element and excited all at the same time. Slowly working our way through the crowds back uptown towards Tap-Tap central, our construction friends grabbed the first empty Tap-Tap we came upon. Ushering us inside and after back filling the Toyota truck bed with as many people as humanly possible we slowly made our way back to our temporary home in Leveque.

The entire group gathered upon our return for prayer and lunch.  Afterwards, Paul had made arrangements through a few of his new friends for our group with the assistance of an interpreter to go on a walk about. We heard of a village in the hills behind us and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to stretch our legs while introducing ourselves to some of the local residents. Our walk took us alongside the highway past many shanties and half destroyed homes.  Residents sat or worked in their front yards under shade trees hiding from the heat of the day.  Most waved hello, some smiled sheepishly while others looked confused at our presence.

Turning left onto a washed out dirt road leading up a hillside, the road took us through groves of bananas and plantains.  The country side was a strange mixture of tropical beauty combined with modern-day refuse scattered about without care.  After witnessing the crowded, dirty streets of Port-au-Prince and the jammed hustle of local Cabaret this little excursion was a peaceful respite for our crew. After walking with and passing many locals we came upon a concrete irrigation/drainage ditch where many children were playing in the water.   There was one small pathway leading over it and we waited patiently as donkeys and motorcycles all carrying passengers made their way across. 

Once we crossed groups of small children seemed to arrive from nowhere. Running alongside us shouting, taking our hands, some would beg for food, some would beg for water, and others were just content to receive the attention we provided.  Around a mile in we encountered our first housing encampment. Built by a group called Samaritans Purse.

Samaritan’s Purse is a non-denominational evangelical Christian humanitarian organization that works worldwide to assist people in physical need alongside their Christian missionary work. The organization’s president is Franklin Graham, son of Christian evangelist Billy Graham. The name of the organization is based on the New Testament Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus uses a parable to teach people the second great commandment – how to “love thy neighbor as thyself”.

Samaritan’s Purse works in more than 100 countries around the world. International headquarters are in Boone, North Carolina, with additional U.S. facilities in Charlotte and North Wilkesboro, N.C. Affiliate offices are in Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Hong Kong, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Field offices are located in some 20 countries across five continents.

The buildings were of many different sizes, some seemed to be small in the 14×16 foot range while others looked a little larger. There were central outhouses along with meeting halls.  At one end of the project sat rows of larger 20×60 building that for some reason reminded me of a Japanese internment camp from the 1940’s.  But they were all clean, neat and orderly.  Most were weather wrapped and it seemed every one that we saw had occupants.  Smiling and waving, we were always greeted with a smile and wave in return.

Moving farther up the hill while holding a small child’s hand I began to feel somewhat guilty.  We were walking into these peoples’ lives, staring at them, taking pictures as though they were some kind of circus attraction put there for our amusement.  Personally there were a few occasions where making eye contact was hard because of the guilt I felt inside.  My mind was racing, what were they thinking, how did they feel about themselves, about our intrusion, or the hand they had been dealt since the earthquake?  Were they grateful for the housing and assistance provided, or angry because many of the projects seemed unfinished? Had these Haitians truly been helped or hindered by the short-term assistance that eventually became less and less?  

At or around mile two we came upon another community erected by Mission of Hope

Mission of Hope: as an organization following Jesus Christ, we exist to bring life transformation to every man, woman, and child in Haiti. Mission of Hope was founded in 1998, and continues to serve Haiti daily by meeting the physical and spiritual needs of the Haitian population.

At Mission of Hope, we desire to serve the nation of Haiti, and see lives changed. Our passion is to see the hopeless find hope through Jesus Christ, and empower future generations through education to bring their country out of poverty. Mission of Hope website http://www.mohhaiti.org

The housing at the Mission of Hope complex was refreshing to say the least.  Houses were all neatly in a row with independent yards, fences and gates.  The inhabitants looked happy sitting on their porches and all welcomed us with large smiles and a hearty Bonswa! We arrived at a church and were warmly welcomed inside where we gazed at the simplicity of their building.  A place of worship built on rock in the middle of nowhere and it was perfect. We all enjoyed spending a few moments inside.  As we traveled onward through the project children swarmed us, grabbing our hands. Laughing at our faces and all of them wanted to play.  Taking a few moments at an assembly building we took pictures while playing with children.  It was nice, even Cody got into the action.  Everyone of us had a child taking very special interest in our arrival.  It was the first time during the walk I wasn’t feeling ashamed for my presence.

As we made the corner heading for home one of our guides pointed up the hill to a similar housing complex also built by Mission of Hope.  This one was strictly for the deaf community.  How wonderful to have an entire community of like-minded individuals living as one.  In America they would be considered handicapped and maybe in Haiti they still are but in this village no such phrase exists for they live, farm and work together as one. Inspiring.

While walking towards home I asked one of our interpreters Marcanie; Why if we say nothing to an individual in passing do I feel contempt coming from the person we passed? But if I smile and say Bonjour/ Bonswa (good morning/afternoon) as we pass every person lights up with a gigantic smile then waves?  Marcanie proceeded to tell me that by saying good morning or afternoon in passing you are showing a sign of respect towards that individual.  Out in the country is it expected to show respect not only for your elders but for all individuals as human beings or children of God.  If you choose not to say good morning or afternoon after making eye contact you are showing, superiority or you feel as though you are better than they are; which in turn is extremely disrespectful. Here in a country where hard times and strife seem to be an everyday occurrence, the simple principles that our country once lived by still exist.  Say good morning or good evening to a complete strangers in our country and you are looked at as though you are crazy. It is sad.

We arrived back to the Leveque Hilton to another wonderful meal prepared for us by Miss LuLu.  We prayed, we sat for devotional and then we once again partook in something that is sadly missing from our everyday lives.  Together like a family we sat on the porch and talked. Every single one of us, for three-four hours! We laughed, and joked, telling stories about our day, sharing our experiences, our personal feelings, the highs and the lows. It was pure bliss!

I want to build a patio and shade cover in our back yard so that after dinner, no one is allowed to go their separate ways, but instead all will meet for devotional time, laughing and talking about their day.  Just like we used too, as families before technology, dual working parents, after school sports and just plain old life got in the way..

Haiti Mission Trip 2012 part 4: Dust in the wind…



Dust in the wind…

Inside the church had a simple layout, one main hall, a dividing wall with a “pastors” chamber to the rear.  The inner walls were constructed with standard grade two by fours sheeted with (4×8) plywood; the entire ceiling was also covered with plywood, painted and set with a ½ inch trim plate.   I had brought one of my spare tool belts for just such an occasion.  Laden with a single jack, hammer, crows foot and pry bar, I quickly set to peeling trim while John G, took to making a purchase point for the ceilings plywood.  Our entire group looked like a WWF wrestling cage match, all circling the ring waiting for someone to “tap” them into the fight!  Two days of travel and unspent energy were waiting to wreak havoc upon this old building.  John G and I were able to clear an entire span of trim work allowing us the advantage of exposing corners of the plywood for prying.  Together with an inch gap on either end of our first board we gave it the old heave ho on the count of three.  (Now is that 1, 2, 3 or 1 and 2 and 3, or do we just go on 3?) This Lethal Weapon quote/play on words would haunt us for the duration of the trip. 

The board came down unexpectedly easy, along with 62 years of dirt! Within seconds it was black as night inside the building and everyone was scrambling for fresh air.  John and I both simply placed shirts over our mouths, braced for the tornado then stood still until the room cleared.  Laying eyes upon each other we both started laughing.  Covered from head to toe with an easy inch of dirt, we both resembled “Pig pen” from the peanuts.  The dirt fueled our fire and after acquiring a few dust masks the ceiling started coming down rather quickly.  We formed two teams on either side of the room taking down plywood, framing and roof supports all while other members cleared debris.  Everything that came out of the building was placed into neat piles for recycling later.  Nothing goes to waste here, if it can be reused somewhere else it’s either put to use immediately or hauled off to someplace else for distribution. 

A work day on the job site consisted of working from 0800-1500 with an hour off for lunch.  When informed of this my inner, self-centered workaholic, could not believe it! How will we get any work done in six hours I asked myself?  I would learn in time there was a reason for this modified work schedule and it had absolutely nothing to do with how much work one could accomplish. (i’ll discuss this revalation later)

We had arrived late on Friday afternoon starting work around 1300 and by quitting time (1500) the entire inside of the structure was stripped bare! Nothing left but four walls, steel trusses and a tin roof overhead.  It was exciting to say the least, everyone was pumped!  It was our first moment working together as a team, and we succeeded! Everyone was feeling a sense of accomplishment, which was a great moral boost after the last 24-30 hours.

Mason had pulled out his Nikon camera and started taking pictures right away.  At first I was a little bothered by this action since there was work to be done.  But after 15-20 minutes of watching this young lad with his camera, I realized it was selfish of me to think this way.  Mason held an obvious passion for taking pictures, this proved to be invaluable during our trip.  Someone once told me everyone has a “purpose” that purpose may not be immediately evident, and it may not be what you wish it to be, but if you pay close attention in time it will reveal itself.

 Mason’s purpose ended up being two-fold, one he became our official recorder with his outstanding photographic skills and the second part was his uncanny ability to relate one on one with all the children.

 While most of us traveled up to our second story perch, figuring out how tomorrow would unfold while trying to knock dirt from our clothes; Mason was already introducing himself to the local children.  His camera was an instant tool of acceptance.  He would take their pictures, showing them afterwards; this of course tickled the children greatly! This action became his personal bliss, these children where his muse; that was until a soccer ball appeared.  Futbol’ or soccer as we refer to the game is the nation’s favorite sport.  Our team was quite prepared for this fact with Mason and Paul’s church donating quite a few sporting goods for the trip.  Of course that meant soccer balls.  The minute a soccer ball hit the dirt children from all over came running to play.  This would end up becoming a nightly routine. Work ended, soccer began, and Mason would play the game of his life every night to gleeful smiles of many a child, and Caz as well….

Paul also held a disarming charm that resonated within the community! He would walk where he wanted when he wanted introducing himself to everyone. A personality trait I actually envied. At one point Paul hauled out some toys to share with the children. Two bubble blowing guns appeared and within minutes, from the second story balcony bubbles rained down upon the children like snowflakes.  This of course was accompanied by Paul yelling at the top of his lungs “BUBBLESSSSSSS”.  The children laughed, danced and chased the little soapy spheres, all while screaming “BUBBLESSSSS” in return.  Paul had an immense amount of positive spirit and energy!  We teased him for this, but it was all in good fun.  In reality some of us secretly wished we could harness some of his incredible power to use for ourselves.  Paul actually made a statement that nothing could deplete his endless bounty of energy and enthusiasm. (Not his exact words) This would be tested during the week. 

Maggie as Mason also had a way with children. She wandered downstairs and was quick to fall in love with the small children; it appeared the feelings were mutual.  There was something about Maggie’s name that led to children saying it over and over again.  It became quite humorous. Every night after the first night you could hear off in the distance some small child sweetly, quietly, saying “Maagggiiiieeee”.

 As we sat in our chairs overlooking the work site a combination of sweat and dirt pooled at our feet. (Have I mentioned yet that it is really hot here?) The word came a shower area was arranged for us on the second story of the adjoining building.  John, John, Cody and I strolled over with our solar showers to set them up and prepare the room for a barrage of dirty people.  The room was an intended shower room with tiled basin and drain.  Next to the basin sat a 50 gallon drum filled with water and a small container to draw water from the barrel.  We filled one of the solar showers and the three of us with Cody standing on Johns shoulders set to hanging the bag for use; once accomplished we also hung a curtain across the open doorway, a veil attempt at privacy from the house directly behind the structure. It was a perfect set-up! A little home away from home, except for one thing; the shower never really worked with the mass amounts of dirt and sweat stuck to our bodies. Nothing short of a pressure washer was removing that gunk! All gave it a try, and everyone (including yours truly) came back regaling the therapeutic values of just dumping a half-gallon, cool bucket of water over your body after a hot, hard day’s work.

After all had showered we were called to dinner by Madame Lulu.  Circling the table like hungry vultures, John C. settled us down by having us hold hands while he led us in prayer.  Madame Lulu spread out her arms, welcoming us to our dining experience with a warm Bon Apatite!  Having never tasted Haitian cuisine previous to this trip, I was pleasantly surprised by the fare we had dined upon at the guest house.  But I am here to say very proudly that; Rachel Ray, Emeril Lagasse, and Bobby Flay have nothing, and I mean NOTHING on Madame Lulu!  The woman is a goddess in the kitchen! To make things even more impressive she does it all with nothing more than some simple canned good, seasonings, frozen meat and a propane converted oven/stove that we carried up two flights of stairs and placed inside our temporary dining room.  No million dollar kitchen, no stainless counters, no kitchen aid cooking utensils. Just some simple utensils, a table, a few bowls and one stove! It was fantastic, it was heavenly, and for eight days her cooking was the center of many discussions. What is she going to be cooking tonight? There is no way she can top last night? But she did, she would, and we all loved her for it!

The night ended with some light conversation about the upcoming day along with some devotional time.  During devotional time, John C. asked us to recount three things.  What we liked about today? What we didn’t like about today? And where we had seen God today? 

There were a number of wonderful responses. I remember feeling at ease with the people who surrounded us; blessed by the souls sitting in this circle of trust. Cody was quiet; I believe he’s trying to figure out his place on this strange adventure. Thank goodness he’s formed a bond with Miss Maggie, Heather, Anne and Jan.  They keep him laughing and he returns the favor on a consistent basis.

It had become my turn to answer these three little questions.

  1. What did I like about today? We were finally here after months of planning. All the anticipation of traveling to this land far away and I couldn’t wait to see what unfolded over the next several days.
  2.  What didn’t I like about today? Emotions; overwhelmed by all we had seen up to this point. I thought I was prepared; I studied online and read until my eyes crossed.  Some nights I felt as though Television static was all that buzzed through my brain. 
  3. Where had I seen God?  I had seen God in the faces of all who came together today.  10 individuals who never worked on a project together, combined with 5 Haitians who didn’t know what to expect from us Americans and yet somehow, language barrier and all, we gelled together for one combined purpose.  Destroy an unsafe building furthering the town of Leveque towards building a new safe temple devoted to worship.  Really quite moving when you sit back and think about it?

As the night grew thin, we all sat on the balcony talking, texting, writing, reading and playing games on our phones.  It was nice, very family like when you think about it.   No one could run off and hide like back at home. No television to dull your senses and turn off your ability to interact with others; Just our twelve (Caz & Marcanie included) all sitting in a line, on a balcony, with our feet up, laughing, joking and regaling each other with our own little triumphs during the day.

Heaven is truly where you find it. 

Goodnight Johnboy….

Haiti Mission Trip 2012 part 3 Lets Ride..

June 8, 2012

Lets Ride….

Awoke at 0600, oh who am I kidding, I never really slept.  Between the dogs fighting on the compound, what seemed to be one hell of a party going on in the alleyway or house next door, anticipation of the days to come and the sticky, wet heat that encompassed our room, sleep never came. Pretty disappointed, because after what I felt was a long day yesterday, sleep would have been beneficial.  Came downstairs to the smells of breakfast wafting gently from the kitchen.  Shuffled my way over to some coffee and was pleasantly surprised by how fantastic it tasted.  Smooth, mellow, robust, nothing like any coffee that had previously crossed my palate!

Sitting down at a table outside, the smell of burning garbage rose over the compound and once again I began questioning my purpose for this journey.  After a while John C. and John G. joined my table, soon we were discussing upcoming events for the day and how things may play out.  Paul came down then Cody and slowly the rest of the team emerged, shuffling slowly, looking for hot coffee.  After several cups, we all began telling tales of a rough night had by all, apparently I was not alone in my suffering.  Joking about the chickens, anger for the dogs and laughter at our own silliness.  We had bonded fairly quick as a group, which usually is a sign of impending personality clashes. (watch survivor, you think everything is fine and then BAM your torch is being snuffed out)) But every time we all sat together I could feel the glue forming between us, an alliance of you will, this would ultimately prove to be the foundation for great new friendships and help us during our survival over the next eight days.

Breakfast was started with a prayer.  Three teams formed into a giant circle holding hands praying. It was a powerful moment, starting the morning off on a wonderful note.  After breakfast we chatted it up with several other members, slowly making our way upstairs to gather our things as departure time closed in on us all.  Funny thing about embarking on an unknown journey, nervousness does take hold of you whether you realize it or not.  The unknown is a tricky thing, it can paralyze to the point of inaction or spur you on to some of the greatest triumphs you may ever know.  In eight days we would all have an accounting for our performance.

After our luggage was gathered, we were introduced to our interpreters.  Caz and Marcinae (Im guessing on the spelling.) Walking directly up to Caz extending my hand he warmly accepted my handshake as I introduced myself.  I was very glad to meet this man for I already felt as though I knew him. John C. and John G. along with my wife had regaled us with wonderful stories of his caring attitude and generosity towards their group a mission trip last year.  He was an intern then, but handled himself like an old veteran.  We reminisced for a few minutes and after showing him pictures of my wife in Mellier,  he instantly remembered who she was stating; she was fantastic with the school children and a very caring person.  He then raised an eyebrow, leaned in towards me asking how I felt about a woman traveling to such far away, unknown places before myself? My retort; If you have met and befriended my wife then you learn very quickly once her mind is set there is no stopping her. He chuckled and said yes this may be true.  Five minutes with this man, my guard was completely down.  My first sense of safety crept in and I instantly knew we were in fantastic hands.

It was time to go, time to leave the Port-au-Prince Hilton.  The KIA truck was loaded with all our luggage and supplies for eight days, the Toyota was loaded with 13 willing and able bodies ready for an adventure.  The gate opened to the compound leading us out to an alley we had not seen previously, our eyes were once again opened to a strange new world of adventure and uncertainty.

The alley way was congested with people cooking food, grinding metal, fabricating gates and repairing stereo equipment that here in the United States we would have discarded like yesterdays newspaper.  The alley was no wider than a single car leaving us to squeeze ever so carefully through its bowels. As we made our way into the street (slowly) it was extremely congested, more so than the day before.  The previous day had been a holiday so many shops and businesses were closed.  The shocking moment for myself and some of the crew was the streets had been very congested the day before which left us in awe at the amount of people moving to and from their destinations today. In hindsight yesterday was merely a fraction of the population that now lay before our eyes.  Travel was slow, hot and bumpy. Once again there were times the smells became a little overwhelming.  These people moved about their day with a huge sense of purpose.  Constructions sites were a buzz, markets were humming and everywhere you turned the city felt alive!  My head hung to the glass like a voyeur trying his hardest to experience every moment without being noticed.  Traffic in Haiti still bewildered my sense of safety.  Horns honking, cars moving where they pleased, it was a very gentle ballet of automotive synchronicity. In America many of the movements  or automotive “bullying” that we participated in would have resulted with someone being on the end of a broken nose. Yet here people just waved you by, (and not with a middle finger in the air) waved thank you or stared blankly with no emotion at all.  All by the honk, beep or blast of a horn.

Our team had one stop to make before our final destination. We were hoping to acquire a few more sledge hammers for the work that lay before us.  Our van pulled into a large concrete fenced yard and to our surprise the place was not a run down dilapidated structure as we all had envisioned.  In fact the structure resembled that of a Home Depot! A home depot with parking attendants and an U.N. military vehicle with soldiers parked within its walls.  John, John, Caz and Paul went inside for a short excursion inside the man store.  Myself, Cody and the rest of the crew remained outside with our vehicle.  Personally in my humble opinion, once you have seen one Home Depot you have seen them all.  I was more interested in the heavy traffic of dump trucks (by the way we found out Haiti is where all retired Mack trucks wander off to die) tractors, excavators, and everyday vehicles whizzing by on the street outside.  A few more jokes were cracked, a couple of comments about the heat and before long we were off with our newly acquired toys.

The drive was long and hot. (have I mentioned it is relatively hot here?)  A combination of paved roads, dirt roads and just plain old pot holes left us feeling as though our kidneys were now no longer usable for transplant. (mental note, change donor card upon arrival home) Once out of the city en route on highway one we passed by several areas still heavily impacted from the quake.  We also passed by the largest tent city on the island.   Interesting really; tents, shacks scattered everywhere across the open plains, then an  occasional house under construction with a few completed homes scattered about.  Homes and shanties in desert/shrub like conditions where one would never think to build or create a homestead.  When John asked Caz about the housing situation, Caz stated the government had given away the land to residents looking for a new start and willing to build upon the site.  The site was hilly and dry but the upside was it overlooked the ocean.  Either these people were completely crazy or evil geniuses.  Genius in the fact that 20 years from now they will own beautiful homes overlooking some of the bluest ocean any human could ever lay their eyes upon. Once again being resilient is definitely not a Haitian weakness.

We arrived in Leveque almost two hours after departing the guest house.  Hot, tired and sweaty we all clamored to get out of the Toyota van.  We had parked in what appeared to be an alley.  A home on the right, a long white tin roofed 1950’s era building on the left with an enormous two-story, brand new concrete structure directly behind them both looming over the site.  We quickly learned the 1950’s era building on the left was in fact the very building we had come to demolish.  This was exciting!

We quickly gathered up, unloaded all of our equipment, hauling the majority upstairs to the second story of the new building.  This building was a new school built by a British team for the church.  The upper floor had not yet been put into operation, leaving it as our new primary residence complete with kitchen for the next eight days.  Our team had originally been scheduled to live at a new church built down the road in the town of Thomas. This would have left us commuting every morning to our job site in Leveque.  When the pastor discovered this plan he vehemently argued for our location change hoping a new team and project could meld into his community creating everlasting friendships while sharing the word of God.  He was wise beyond words.

Having moved into our three rooms. One for the kitchen, one as sleeping quarters for the men, one for the women.  We all gathered back downstairs, meeting the pastor while introducing ourselves to 5 construction workers, our new future Haitian friends. We traveled thousands of miles and there seemed to be no time like the present to get started.  Energy was high, we surveyed the building, 40x 100, cinder block with stucco/concrete overlay, tin roof, two small rooms leading into one big assembly area.  The building had several mid line cracks and a portico that had damage to three of its four columns.  We devised our strategy and came up with a plan of attack, a few of us could hear the sound of tools calling our names. Hats pulled down tight, work belts on, hammers and pry bars in hand.  Ten Americans in one foreign country with a single goal in mind.

Time for one 63-year-old earthquake damaged church to come down!

To be continued……

Haiti Mission Trip 2012: part 2 We are guests…

The Guest House. (checkpoint Charlie)

June 7th 2012

We arrived pulling through an all steel gate with an attendant standing by ensuring no one wonders onto the property unexpected.  The compound is filled with trees lining a dirt/cobblestone drive leading to a retaining wall some 30 feet high.  To the right a new project is being built consisting of concrete and cinder block. (shocker)

To the left the guest house.  A two-story building that in its day (around the 80’s I am guessing) was a top rate place to stay.  My first impression walking down a pathway into a covered porch area was that of disappointment.  (this would change later) It was not what I had expected after looking it up online.  But hey we aren’t here to lounge and relax, our group came to work and work was all we talked about for the last month.

We immediately banded together unloading the trucks, and introducing ourselves to the guest house hosts.  Tom and Sara. The two of them quickly gave us a run down of the facility, showing us to our rooms.  Men in room 3, women in room 5. A bathroom/douche at either end of the hall with two toilet/water closets nestled in a narrow hallway around the corner.  A table with community computer and wi-fi at the top of the stairs. (our last link to the world for 8 days). The men walked into room three and all of us quickly obtained a bunk bed best suited for ourselves.  There were two other teams expected that afternoon and I was looking forward to meeting them, hoping to glean some information about the area and what to expect.  I am not one to let too much bother me but I was nervous in this strange land so far from home.  Feeling a little like a cornered animal, no place to go, run or hide.  Any information that might calm my nerves would be more than welcome. Being as though I was worried and nervous I couldn’t help but wonder how my son was doing, but to my surprise he was strangely calm and relaxed.  Excited for what the next 8 days lay in store.

We met with Sara again who had arranged for us to go sight-seeing that afternoon.  We talked about going to the Baptist mission, or off to some of the more challenging neighborhoods taking in the sights and sounds, possibly seeing more tent cities.  In the end we opted for lunch and a swim at hotel  Ibo-LeLe in the province of Petionville, Port-au-Prince. Located around 1400 feet up the side of a mountain this hotel boasted some of the best views of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area.  Sara and Tom decided they would go with us as lunch and a swim away from the compound sounded enticing. It was also a nice way for them to understand and learn a little about this feisty 10 person team from California.

We loaded into our 10 person Toyota and headed off up the mountain.  Strange thing about climbing and winding through the narrow and sometimes steep roadways.  Conditions seemed to improve. Living conditions, housing, stores, streets, everything seemed a little neater, a little nicer, a little more affluent for a devastated country with no means.  HMMMM???

At one point while turning a street corner the stores seemed nicer, painted, organized, and then we rolled up on a two-story, freshly painted grocery store surrounded by a giant stucco/plaster wall.  Both entrances were guarded by men with shotguns.  Presumably to keep residents out without the means to pay for items. The method or mode of transportation seemed to change as well the higher we climbed.  Gone were the 300,000 mile abused Tap-Taps.  In their place was still late 90’s early 2000’s Honda’s, Toyota’s and Nissan’s, but also a mix of Mercedes, Land Cruisers, Range Rovers and even a few Porsches were spotted!

Could this be the actual visual translation of the rich live on the hill and the poor suffer the plains? Before I had time to ponder these visual cues we had arrived at Ibo-LeLe.  Walking down the entry way it was very reminiscent of 1960’s Cuba portrayed by Hollywood. Very open, and inviting, straight from a James Bond movie.  We all made our way out back to the pool area where we found a shaded area to sit and enjoy our lunch.  There were three levels to choose from, one in the open sun on top, one completely shaded in the middle and the lower pool level area.  Before we could settle into a few chairs we were told the middle level where we were was closed.  Looking around I noticed some men in black suits eyeing our presence.  They were sharp and wore ear phones connected to radios.  Behind us sat a table of roughly ten people who had been enjoying lunch. All talking had stopped and they to were staring directly at us.  My alarm bells began ringing, and we all quickly moved to the upper level.  I said good day to one of the “suits” who gave me a casual smile in return.  While enjoying our lunch we learned the ten person table was in fact a private party for the Minister of Agriculture.  Sweet in country less than 6 hours and I had already crashed a political party! HA!

Lunch took around 2 1/2 hours and all of us quickly learned the meaning of Haiti time.  My wife warned me that; Haiti time meant I needed to move slower, take my time because nothing in done in a hurry.  Well except driving of course.

We never went swimming as lunch took the better part of our afternoon.  The views were spectacular, and all of us took the opportunity to grab some pictures from the upper deck of the hotel.  If you squinted your eyes and pretended you could almost believe nothing had ever happened and it was the way the country was supposed to look. Yet as we stood there I was finding it shameful to be treated so well when so many had nothing.

Cody and the crew were settling into all they had seen and experienced when we weaved our way through Port-au-Prince earlier. We laughed and joked, shaking off the nerves associated with sensory overload,  but nothing could prepare us for the moment our eyes would gaze upon the National Palace.

After lunch we made our way down the hill leaving upper class behind, winding through narrow streets filled with garbage, street venders, people and cars, eventually making our way to the bottom where organized chaos reigned king once again.  Rounding one final corner we came upon the National Palace grounds.  It was pure devastation.  We had all seen pictures, we had talked a good game, but I personally was not prepared for what I saw.  It was destroyed beyond belief.  A symbol of the country’s strength, prosperity and security, leveled beyond repair.  It massive domes laying sideways like a drunk man trying to stand under his own power.  Walls sheared off, floors collapsed, sections flattened.  This once mighty building left in ruins for all to see.

In that moment for me personally I understood why the country was struggling to survive.  Imagine if the White House had been flattened. This symbol of America unites millions each year who come to see it, gaze upon its historic and valued walls.  How can a country move forward without one of its main symbols of recognition?

Designed in 1912 by architect Georges H. Baussan its design took second place in an architects national competition.  It was awarded the winning nod because the first place building was deemed to costly.  The budget for the new palace was set at $350,000 and construction began in 1914.  In 1915 the under construction palace was set ablaze by a mob that ousted then murdered President Vilbun Guillaume Sam.  This assassination led to the United States of America occupying Haiti which opened the door for the U.S. Navy engineers to oversee the Palaces completion in 1920.

There have been several attempts to start work on the palace since the earthquake with the latest taking place in 2010.  Only the middle rotunda has been cleared and all construction has been halted.

In my opinion a country needs to start somewhere.  Mobilizing your people through strength and pride can be done with a symbol such as the National Palace. A place for its government to unify and build solidarity. It gives a country hope; hope that progress on that level can trickle down to its people.  People who I would soon find out have immense pride for their country.  Band that passion, that love and a stronger country cannot help but emerge.

It was a long hot trip back up the hills through the streets to the guest house.  We were all tired from our long flights and a few of us were looking forward to a swim in the guest house pool before dinner.  We all knew tomorrow the group would ship out to our assignment.  We all had no idea what we were in for and the thought of a simple swim, some dinner and one last night in a bed seemed to be the order of the evening.

God bless this country, because from what we had seen so far its people are amazingly resilient.

To be continued…..

Haiti Misssion trip 2012 part 1


Everyone needs a great adventure! Living life in the same general confines day after day can become mundane at best. This last week my son and I took the adventure of a lifetime. We traveled to Haiti on a mission trip.

Haiti, officially the Republic of Haiti, is a Caribbean country. It occupies the western, smaller portion of the island of Hispaniola, in the Greater Antillean archipelago, which it shares with the Dominican Republic.

In 2010 a 7.0 earthquake struck the city of Leogane, approximately 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince. The devastation to the country was massive. Nearly 220,000 Haitians killed (although government estimates were higher) millions left homeless with no electricity, running water or sanitary services. Billions of dollars in aid were raised, tent cities were built, the dead were buried and the people of Haiti were left to grieve.

June 2012

Mission Impossible

Good morning Mr. Phelps. Your mission if you choose to accept it, meet with ten other like-minded individuals looking to spread gods word and lend a hand to an impoverished country. Appoint a leader from within the ten, who will represent you, your families and the church with the utmost character, honor and dignity. Have that leader appoint jobs that best suit the team. Meet at SFO on the afternoon of June 6th, with clothes, food and enough tools to effectively demolish a building riddled by earthquake damage. Once all is in place load the plane with your team under the assumption you may never return. If you are caught or captured the association will disavow any knowledge of your being. Good luck Mr. Phelps. This note will self destruct in 5 seconds……

Our team.

John C.-Leader code name: Precious

John G.- Co-leader code name: Hammer

Mason- code name: Bieber

Paul- code name: Bubbles

James- code name: OSHA

Cody- code name: Gun Show

Heather- code name: Chicken Head

Anne- code name: The Annimal

Jan- code name: Naj/Cornrow

Maggie- code name: Rosie the Riveter

We met up on the morning of June 6th, pumped and ready to go. Our minds on fire at what we assumed lay before us. We had two teenagers on the team, Cody and Maggie, who were looking for more than just the average “community service credits” to complete high school. More is definitely what they received.

We laughed and joked all the way to the airport. We met Mason and Paul at SFO as they came from another town far away from our own. Having waved goodbye to our loved ones we passed through security and set out on our journey.

First leg; 9 hours of traveling.

Day rolled into night and night back into day. We arrived in Miami on time and drug our tired, sorry butts through the multiple terminals until we settled on gate 24, our new home for the next hour. The tantalizing smells coming from a coffee shop across the way filled our senses and before long we joined the throng of local business travelers drinking coffee, eating pastries and pretending our minds were in the same time zone.

While boarding our flight for the last leg of our journey, I quickly noticed a different mood or demeanor aboard this plane. Gone were the happy, laughing families headed to Miami for a week at South Beach or Disney World. In its place were weary Mission group travelers and grumpy looking businessmen. The flight was quiet and uneventful, we all found a certain irony in the “corn muffin” snack we were given en route to Port au Prince.

Landing in Port-au-Prince it was evident we were no longer in the United States. Uniformed personnel everywhere, passengers ushered like cattle from one place to the next eventually landing in line for immigration to check our documents. Having heard many a horror story about this process I watched intently as the officer checked documents, asked questions, occasionally rolling his eyes and waving on to the next victim. There were only two of them and both seemed like a DMV worker on a bad day.

Finally it was our turn, grabbing Cody we walked up, papers in hand ready to do battle with the icy stare of the immigration agent. He looked me in the eye, stared at my documents, looked at Cody, stared at his documents, stamped them both and waved us through. Not a word passed between us. Seriously? I was shocked! It was nothing as we had been warned. In and out in 15 minutes.

Now here is where you learn the importance of keeping an eye on your bag, like you are told in every airport in every major metropolitan city in America. In Haiti, you need to be the first to grab your bag as it comes off the line. If you aren’t the first to your bag there is a Haitian in a red shirt waiting to grab it for you. Once this happens they want money for handling the bag. It’s that simple. Any job no matter how small means an income for these people. Just a dollar, that’s all it takes. One dollar. If you say yes to grabbing the bags, ten of them will argue over whose claim it is. Its quite shocking at first, but what would you do to feed your family in a country the government has basically left behind?

Luggage gathered we were met by Jackson our church appointed liaison, who had a crew of his own handling our bags. Once identified as being attached to our group the other baggage handlers moved aside out of respect and allowed us all to travel unimpeded to our awaiting vehicles. Arriving at the vehicles we were greeted by two more members of UMVIM (United Methodist Volunteers In Mission) with great big hugs and giant Haiti Hello’s. For our group it was a welcomed sight and tensions eased a bit after the bombardment of hustling for bags from men just trying to earn a buck.

The ride through Port-au-Prince to the guest house was eye-opening to say the least. Devastation, filth, and concrete dust hung in the air. Everything here is built from concrete as wood is a premium. Also concrete handles the bombardment of seasonal hurricanes better than wood products. The roads through the main city were filled with giant pot holes and piles of garbage, abandoned cars and street venders. Some roads had pavement, others were dirt, while some where a battered combination of both. City streets were filled with people, cars, tap-taps and motorcycles. There appears to be no traffic laws as drivers went where they wanted when they wanted with nothing more than the tap of a horn. In Haiti the horn is used the way it was originally intended, to warn you of an upcoming vehicle. Much different from here in the United States where it is considered an insult associated with poor judgement. While stopped trying to wedge our way between another vehicle and motorcycle our vehicle was bum rushed by a handful of children and a few adults. The children with their hands out saying; hello friend, god bless you friend, may I have a dollar? The adults selling bracelets and necklaces or water. We had been warned not to give anything, no matter what for fear of the chaos it would evoke. Yet every fiber of your being wants so desperately to help the children.

The immediate area was dirty, crowded, and smelled of sewage in some spots, but there seemed to be a strange harmony, or rhythm to the controlled chaos surrounding us. We wound our way through the street and alleys, collapsed concrete buildings and fences, eventually driving by a “tent city” that remained in effect. The tent city was at one time an organized neat row of fabric buildings but now were relegated to disgusting shanties and I found it hard to understand how people could live that way. That of course is the ugly, privileged, I am better than you American coming from inside; in hindsight you make the best with what you are given and try to forge ahead. Its human nature. Our driver told us many have deserted the tent cities and are finding better housing but for every family that leaves there are many more taking their place. Crime is rampant inside the tent cities and gangs are claiming areas as their own.

The smell of burning plastic, paper and rubber hung heavy over the area as well. Our diver apologized to us for all we had seen along with the smells. I thought it odd he was apologizing, but what I failed to think about at the time was; this was his home. He remembers the way Haiti used to be, a place of pride for himself and many of his countrymen. It must be sad to see his own people suffering day after day.

The streets climbed upwards, they grew more narrow. Still lined with merchants selling their wares, people bustling about, make shift repair shops, fabricating materials in ally ways the place was alive with activity! It was exciting. In all the dreary colors one thing repeatedly stood out and continued to stand out throughout the trip. The bright, clean pressed, sharply put together uniforms adorned by school children walking in groups around every corner.

I checked in on Cody from time to time during the drive. He was quiet and reserved looking at everything that passed our way. He Had Maggie with him so they were both sharing the very same experience. I was glad they were together, our families have known each other for many years and that simple familiarity goes along way in a foreign place.

We drove by entire blocks of housing crumbled to the ground, tarps covering some with people still living in what was left of their homes. It continued endlessly up the hillside as we rose. Yet there they were, school children, neat, clean and fresh as a daisy. Bright yellow, Blue and grey uniforms all markers of the schools they attended. it was awesome! A smile and wave would get you the same greeting in return. One last turn of a corner and we had arrived. Mission accepted…

The guest house. (to be continued)

Haiti Bound….

So it begins!!!!

2 hours and counting until my son and I leave the comforts of our humble abode, the loving arms of our family and travel just north of the equator, into the West Indies towards a little island country known as  The Republic of Haiti.

HAITI (noun)
The noun HAITI has 2 senses:
1. a republic in the West Indies on the western part of the island of Hispaniola; achieved independence from France in 1804; the poorest and most illiterate nation in the western hemisphere
2. an island in the West Indies

We will be traveling to the town of Thomas (pronouced To-mah) and working on a job site inside the town of Leveque (pronounced lu-VEK)

Never having been one to make a production out of saying goodbye. I feel the need to profess my profound feeling of pride as we (Cody and I) fall from societies “grid” for 10 days.  Helping people we have never known, making new friends, traversing a language barrier, working hard and hopefully coming back home with a feeling of accomplishment.

Leaving this country, should be an experience to say the least.  At 45 I am not what you would call a “well-traveled” man.  Unless you are referring to moving from state to state behind the wheel of a semi-truck.  Or traveling from north to south within the confines of our own state as part of the Operations of Emergency Services mutual aid response matrix.  If that is the case well then I am certainly “well-traveled” indeed.

Yet I am ready and willing to face the challenges that lay before us.  Excited to have our eyes opened to issues that have befallen a country strife with political corruption and greed.  Knowing the only source of revenue or aid comes directly from the churches.  A stream of assistance the government cannot control for fear of a people led uprising.

So with malaria Tuesday under our belt its officially travel Wednesday.  Our bags are packed well, our clothes have been treated, our snacks laid aside for the roughly 8-10 hour trip that lay before us.  We know not of what we will encounter or the problems that lay ahead.  Yet we are excited and raring to go!  As I sit here typing Cody is becoming one with his inner gamer for the last time. Clearing his head and preparing for the journey.  I too am doing the same but as we all know its writing that clears my head and readies me for the game.

I hope to find some service here and there, so I may blog about our journey.  If not there will definitely be a months worth of material when I return.

So without further ado….  In the skillfully crafted words of the late great Mel Blanc traveling through the wonderful medium of my favorite cartoon character Mr. Yosemite Sam!  Sooooo loonnnng suckers!!!  HAHAHAHAHAHA!