Friday, April 9, 2010

Part II – Welcome to Haiti, 2010

Now the trip report …. I arrived in Port-Au-Prince on a steamy, muggy 85 degree early afternoon in mid March. It had just rained (which pretty much is common during the spring months). It had been five years since I was last there. On my last trip, ‘Hurricane Jeanne’ had just devastated the area several months before in 2004, bringing on several disaster floods killing upwards of 3,000 or so people. I was there to help with the disaster relief efforts working with UNESCO cataloging the incoming supplies that arrived from various UN supported countries. What I remembered most when I left after two weeks of mission work at that time was I had seen so much destruction that it couldn’t get any worse. While the chartered plane I was on was circling in to its final landing approach, that horrible memory of 2005 was immediately wiped out of my memory, as I had just seen a view that toppled my proclamation that it couldn’t get any worse.

Just as I watched the destruction of the buildings during the slow landing path, my heart skipped a beat, maybe several beats. This was really bad. I almost felt sick to my stomach with what I had seen. I was hoping that the view from the window on the plane was nothing more than an optical illusion, but it wasn’t. Welcome to Haiti, 2010.

As our team gathered our things to get off the plane, which really wasn’t much – we could only bring one gym-size bag to keep whatever toiletries and accessories we could pack in it. Back in Miami’s Opa Locka Airport where we departed from, our lead guide and interpreter Paul LaPointe gave us a very descriptive briefing of what to expect, and made us all empty our gym bags so he could go through to let us know what was practical to take and what wasn’t. In other words, if it had a cord for electricity or any kind of electronic gizmo, don’t bother bringing it. There were tips on how to take your ‘hygiene clean up bath’ with nothing more than a quart-size water container, doing your laundry, and a number of other how to survive rules. Myself, having been down there a number of times, I had a general idea of what to bring and how to take care of myself, but still the briefing was helpful and necessary.

So we disembark from the small cargo-like plane that was probably one of those old commuter airline prop jobs I used to fly in many years ago while I was stationed in the Great Lakes region. After a quick walk through Customs, we were met by a representative of the American Red Cross who provided us with two bed sheets, a plastic tarp, and a pillowcase that was filled with some other items like clothespins, nylon rope and other useful items I probably never even thought about that I’d need right away. From then we were shuffled over to meet with the International Rescue Committee representatives who then assigned the seven of us to an interpreter and guide then to be placed at the various relief settlements in and around Port-Au-Prince.

I ended up with an interesting guide/interpreter whose name is Raymond (for the life in me I couldn’t pronounce or spell his last name if I tried, so let’s just keep it at ‘Raymond’). He’s fit looking and about 30-ish in age. What makes Raymond so interesting is he seemed to have a wealth of knowledge on just about everything that had been going on in Haiti. Raymond was “THE MAN.” This guy is well connected anywhere and everywhere in Port-Au-Prince. He made it his business to get to know people, who have what, where certain things are, etc. I felt that I made out traveling with a guy that has a personality similar to mine. So we hit it off almost immediately after the initial handshake and got along great during the trip. One of the reasons I can’t remember or spell his last name, he would say it so fast, then I’d ask him to say it phonetically, and he would just say, “Bro, it RAY-mun-D (emphasis on the D), that’s good enough, Now don’t ever call me RAY, and we’ll get along just fine!” So Raymond it was – just Raymond… and make sure I pronounce that ‘D’ at the end.

Raymond seemed to have a great disposition of life itself, given the surroundings of his homeland with his common phrase, “It is what it is Mon, it is what it is.” He spoke perfect English, almost to the point to where at times I had to ask him jokingly, “are you sure you’re a native Haitian?!” Raymond had never been to the states, but he did live in the U.S. Virgin Islands during his high school years, and spent two years at the University of USVI. He was also somewhat guarded of his personal information. While I was striking up the small talk, he would kind of give me some answers, but after awhile, he would say, “Hey Mon, is this some kind of inquisition? Are you a news reporter or a relief worker?”

Okay I got the message, enough with the interviewing. I was distinctly interested in wanting to know his feelings on how things were going in Haiti, as well as my curiosity of his job, was it a paid position, or volunteer? Did he have any family members who were casualties? Unfortunately these unanswered questions remained with my curiosity of Raymond throughout the rest of the trip. I got the impression that he wanted to engross himself into what he was doing mostly to forget whatever he was impacted by this event. It was rather interesting just watching him many times which told me that there was certainly another story here, one that probably would have been just as an amazing story to tell. But, as Raymond slyly suggested, stick to what I came here for – to work.

Let me talk about the ‘settlement.’ The devastation from the earthquake in addition to something like approximately 300,000 or so people may have perished (by the way, no one really knows the actual numbers, I’ve heard anywhere between 150,000-300,000), another 1.5 million are homeless from the destruction, with most of the bulk of that number in Port-Au-Prince alone. Now mind you, the Haitian capital always had a sizeable number of virtually homeless people before the earthquake, estimated to be somewhere in the range of 200,000 at the time. Once the buildings were destroyed, it uprooted an even larger population of people who have virtually nowhere else to go. The outlying area of Port-Au-Prince in some cases is inhabitable because of the terrain which is susceptible to heavy flooding during the rains (as was the case in Hurricane Jeanne in 2004), then you have a transportation problem to move a large population of people elsewhere in the country – and the transportation infrastructure was not the best before the earthquake, to almost wiped out afterwards.

My accommodations were quite ‘interesting.’ With my Red Cross issued plastic tarp, two bedsheets, the pillowcase that had a bunch of stuff in it and my gym bag was my “house.” As I wandered about the settlement looking for a place to set up residence, obviously all of the good spots were taken. The indoor places were reserved for the elderly, injured and sick, and also served as a meeting point, warehouse, or anything else that required the use of having a roof over ones head as the principal creature comfort. I had something of a short memory lapse as I then started looking for a place with shade, quickly remembering “Dummy, you’re in Haiti, the closest shady place is in the Dominican Republic!”

So I set up my ‘house’ along a brick wall. First I went over to one of the nearby destructed buildings and grabbed several slabs of concrete, with some help from my new neighbors, and stacked the concrete up a bit, so it would be about a few inches higher than the top of the wall (which was about 3 feet high). The stacked concrete around was formed like a ‘valley’ so when I lay on the top of the wall (which was about 2-1/2 feet wide), I won’t roll off when I sleep. Plus, I wanted to be high off the ground in case it rained, and to avoid having to deal with some of the rodents that would stop by for a visit to welcome me to my new home. I emptied the contents of my pillowcase into a small box I found, stuffed the pillowcase with my change of clothes and one of the sheets, and I would have a pillow. At night I would just drape the tarp loosely over me, which helped keeping the bugs away, and the rain, which it did happen a few times. My ‘residence’ was all set up, all I needed was an address and I was good to go!

The settlement that I was assigned to was probably about one mile southwest of the Port-Au-Prince Airport, in a section of the city called Croix de Bosalles and bordered around the major highways of Route de Delmas to the north, Rue St Martin to the south, Rue Sans Fills to the east and Boulevard Jeans-Jacques Desalines to the west. If you do a Google Earth search and use the satellite feature, with a close up zoom, you can see some of the tents and encampments around this approximately one square mile area. I was told that roughly 10,000 people resided in this area at one time, so it was already heavily dense populated at the time prior to the earthquake. It was also considered one of the poorer sections of the Haitian capital, so many of these people were already in dire needs before the disaster. In the area is the Croix de Bosalles Market, which is a huge warehouse that many of the citizens of Port-Au-Prince often frequented for fresh vegetables, fish, poultry and other goods. The market was heavily damaged, and eventually turned into a sheltered settlement area as well. While walking through that particular area I noticed that the Canadian Red Cross ran most of their operations out of the market area there, as well as Doctors Without Borders.

After settling down in my assigned settlement area, which by the way was approximately five minutes after I hopped out of the back of the overloaded 1980s vintage Toyota pickup truck, Raymond summoned me over to meet one of his counterparts there and introduced me to Jon, who in turn with his broken English was able to convey to me about what kind of work I could do there to help out. I didn’t have a glamorous job, though in the five days I was there, I certainly worked and realized it was definitely the most important task – working with the settlement’s ‘Water Bucket Brigade.’ It was all about making sure that we kept water in the cisterns that would serve approximately 1,300 people within our settlement.

Okay, I figured here’s something I know that I can do, yes it was a little backbreaking work, but it didn’t take much thought and I looked at more of a chance to get some exercise and a good workout during my five days there. Well, I definitely got a workout! Keeping the dozen or so cisterns that were strategically located around the settlement filled was an all day evolution and required the work of about a dozen or so able bodied men. When we weren’t hiking the mile plus distance to the water filtration plant to fill our water containers (we had to walk it, thank goodness the terrain was all flat), we each took turns working on the pipeline ditch so the water could be pumped directly to the settlement area instead of having to walk to get it.

After the earthquake, a large number of Port-Au-Prince’s community infrastructure system from electricity, public transportation, public works and water was completely destroyed. When our U.S. military forces flew in within hours after the disaster, the number one thing that they did was began working on bringing the power plants back in operation and to provide drinking water to the Haitian residents where it was needed. Haiti had already been working on building a number of water treatment and filtration system plants in the heavily populated areas like Port-Au-Prince for a number of years thanks in part to funding from the United Nations. It had been an almost never ending task and process going back to when I first set foot in Haiti in 1994. Even during my summer mission internship work I had done during my time in divinity school from 2002-2004, there were still ongoing construction projects related to water treatment.

In virtually one swoop of the action of the earthquake, Port-Au-Prince and its surrounding communities lost their water treatment facilities. Thanks to the U.S. Air Force, they flew in six teams of civil engineers and in just 48 hours after the earthquake brought the nearly destroyed water treatment facilities back to life. I’m telling you, as an American and a military veteran, it made my heart glow with joy and pride to know this remarkable feat. The people of Haiti who benefited from this well needed action were very grateful, with many telling me this story over and over and over again.

This story of the rebuilding of the water treatment plants brings to mind of just how grateful the Haitians were of the tremendous support provided by the United States. Once they knew I was an American, I could do no wrong. Everyone regardless of age would stop whatever they were doing to either shake my hand, talk with me either in their straining of English or just blurt it out in Creole how thankful they were that our country came to their aid so quickly. It tears me up just thinking about those numerous “thank you” events I had experienced. Of course the few that knew I came from the Washington, DC area wanted me to go thank President Obama personally for them, thinking I could just waltz right up to the front door of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, ring the door bell and deliver their personal messages to the president without any problem. In what little French that I could speak, I did my best to tell them with a “Merci beaucoup je vais faire ce que je peux vous assurer que votre message revient au peuple américain” [translation: Thank you very much, I will do what I can to ensure that your message gets back to the American people].

A friend of mine provided me with a wonderful quote from Pablo Casals that's quite appropriate to add here:

“The love of one's country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?”

If there was one thing that really stuck out during my time there were the children. As bad as it is down there, I found it amazing to see how the children seemed to carry on in their own little world of happiness and fun. They took this plight more as an opportunity to expand their imagination. For example, I watched with amazement for nearly an hour of a couple of kids playing with a plastic bag. I’m talking like a shopping bag. First they would ball it up – toss it and watched it come open and fill with air and float off like a balloon. Or they would run with the bag allowing the bag to fill with air, then let go to watch it fly around, then chase it. After doing that a few times, where I thought they had gotten bored doing that and stopped – they were searching around among the garbage. I didn’t know what they were doing, but one of them kept a tight hold on that plastic bag like it was the most valuable piece of possession on the planet. It was kind of amusing to watch him search in the trash area with one hand, while he kept his other hand in use holding on to that plastic bag. I just couldn’t stop watching them, because I wanted to know what they were doing or looking for. Then I found the answer – it was string. They searched for roughly 15 minutes or so until they found enough string to tie them together to make a lengthy line. Then they tied it to the bag – and it became a kite. Now the fun really began, and they just played probably for hours after I left them.

That was just one of the many examples that I had seen of the kids doing things without any concern of not having a Ninetendo, Gameboy or whatever the super toy that children here in the U.S. play with these days. To those kids that I saw – their world was one big playground, and they seemed to act like there were no limits to their imagination. I saw several kids running around making sounds like “Rrrrrrrrroooom, Rrrrrrrrrrrroooom,” along with some yelling and giggling. I got closer to see what they were doing, and they were riding around with the “motorcycles” – sticks they found, which they put together to make like the handlebar of a motorcycle or bike. Again, just as the two kids I saw with the makeshift kite, these kids seemed to act like they didn’t have a care in the world. It was just fascinating to watch them at play.
During the course of my relief mission work, one thing that Raymond had said to me in our first meeting that sort of gave me an almost guilt feeling whenever I wanted to take pictures or talk with many of the Haitian citizens about themselves and their lives. “Are you here as a news reporter or a relief worker?” Now granted, I took that statement at the time of something of a joking comment from Raymond as he did say it with a smile, but in the time that we were together, as I said earlier, he was quite guarded and seemed somewhat apprehensive to defensive when it came to me asking him questions about himself. I ended up with this sort of complex whenever I pulled out my camera to take some pictures. I wasn’t there as some tourist on a vacation, or even as a gawker staring at an accident or even as Raymond had said a “news reporter.” So, my photo taking was minimized to pictures that I felt was very important to tell my story about my trip to others, and hopefully to continue to raise the visibility of the plight of Haiti, not just from the destruction of the earthquake, but how the conditions have been, and perhaps maybe some people out there might feel the same way I do about wanting to be involved.

In my blog here, I’m posting a few of the pictures that connect with some of the content discussion as an illustration of my experience. If you’re one of my Facebook friends, you’ll see more with some captions. But you’ll also note on the Facebook pictures, I am not in any of them. I made it a conscientious decision to not be in them. This story of my experiences isn’t about me, nor to boost my ego (I’ve got other things to help me with that). It’s about Haiti. It’s about why I went, and why I will go back, probably numerous times in the course of my lifetime.
Now why do I want to do that, especially after I mentioned when I came back, the first thing I said to several people who asked me, “how was the trip?” and my response was, “this took a lot out of me emotionally.” It did, and for the past couple of nights after I got back, I found myself waking up crying, wondering how those kids that I had met or seen playing around in the filth and garbage are doing? I wondered about one of the guys in my “water bucket brigade” who still has no idea where his family, including his wife, four children and his own siblings and parents were.

I thought about the old woman by the muddy creek who was so happy to have found a pan big enough to use to wash her clothes and clean herself up.

Or the little boy name Henri who didn’t have a care in world running around naked among the settlement proud of the fact that the only English that he could speak was, “I know Michael Jordan.”

There were families that just huddled together in the settlement with just the clothes on their backs and whatever they could find during their daily scavenging through the rubbles for anything the could find useful in their nomadic community household.

These scenes and experiencing close up front and personal is what took a toll on me emotionally. But at the same time it also gave me strength, both spiritually and mentally to keep my interest in this relief mission work. It’s become my ministry. The Haitian people have been proselytized enough, what they need is physical labor to help them get themselves together.

Over the course of my visit, one thing that I can honestly say that I did not see or hear, and that was people wandering around feeling sorry for themselves. As Raymond often said, “It is what it is Mon.” The Haitians seemed to have accepted their fate of dealing with their environment. The few who felt they have had enough had taken it into their own hands to try to leave – mostly by boat becoming illegal aliens if they make it to the U.S. or other nearby island countries. But, many who have tried didn’t make it, either getting turned away at the borders when they arrived, or by the U.S. Coast Guard who spots their overloaded and unsafe vessel, or even worse, by death for those who were taken by the sea.

It’s easy for me to disregard all of this, as I know there’s poverty and despair all over the world. We can’t save or help them all. Tossing a few bucks in donations here and there at one time sort of cleansed my guilt-ridden bleeding heart liberal mind of things. But, of late – at least in the last 16 years, this involvement with Haiti has become something of an obsession with me. Hell, I’m not even related to any Haitians and other than the happenchance of my deployment there as part of “Operation Restore Democracy.” In any event – I’m into this and fully committed so no point in belaboring the reason why or wasting my intellectual ability trying to figure this whole thing out.
What I do know and can honestly say is, my reason fits well with Proverbs 11:25 -
“A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.”
More to follow ...


  1. Thanks, Vince. You're an inspiration to us all.

  2. Really nice work Vince!! I know I've told you that via e-mail, but I finally figured out how to do it "officially" through this.

  3. Beautiful Vince! God HAS given you much and how nice to see and read about you giving it back to His kids. At the turn of the previous century there was peasant movement in Korea called Tong-ak where they believed service to mankind was service to god. Mother Theresa thought this way too, I think.

    Keep going!