Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Country Road, Ayiti

The first day in Haiti, I was picked up at the airport in Port au Prince by a massive guy with dark shades on. He did not smile. His chest was as broad as my Honda back home. He walked us through the armies of guys with red hats on, trying to help tourists to the taxis, past the armies of taxi drivers hoping for a big tipper, and past the armies of barefoot kids shouting through the razor wire fence at the edge of the airport in hopes of some spare change. Then, when we got to the Land Cruiser, he turned to me, flashed an enormous grin and extended his hand. "Hello, Jesse. I am Jocelyn. Welcome to Haiti!"
I have lived on rough roads before, driven plenty of sketchy routes, and even gotten myself stuck beyond assistance. But... the country roads in Haiti are insane. They are in an ever changing state, rapidly affected by rains. Several times, while crossing nipple-deep creeks, I wondered what it would be like to be stranded in the middle of nowhere. The deep country roads are so bad, I actually have no photos of them. It was a simple matter of: you take your hand off the handle and your head smashes through the window. You try to take any pics from the car and not only will the shots be blurry and possibly mud splattered, but the moment you click the button your driver will swerve to avoid one pothole, hit an even worse one, and your teeth will crunch into your knee. So, for lack of any pics, imagine a 4x4 course, with the additional fun of masses of people along the shoulder, donkeys everywhere, and little baby goats and chickens playing real life Frogger. It is nuts. No wonder the EU is sponsoring a huge road construction that will go from Port au Prince to Hinche, and then eventually to Cap Haitian. Let me tell you. When that road is complete, poor people in the country will have a much easier time getting supplies. It is so expensive to buy anything not grown right in your region here. For example, one package of rechargeable batteries was $40 us. I can't even imagine how much a generator is, or a new axle for a truck.
Many rivers we passed were used by people doing laundry. It was a beautiful scene, often with girls and mothers and grandmothers all taking part in a task that has not changed since the rivers of Africa. In fact, driving along the very remote roads made me think of how the Haitian culture has retained so much of its African heritage. Imagine a piece of Africa breaking off and floating all the way to the west. Though, of course, the actual history was nothing whatsoever so pleasant. And the people also bear this scar as well. Slavery and colonialism have cut deeply and so many of the difficulties in Haiti can be traced to those origins. Not excusing recent political corruption or poor decisions in national planning, but nevertheless, the scar tissue from Haiti's origins are still tangible now.
Big bamboo. There is no scale for this picture but had I been standing in among it, you could see the girth of these giants. Only seen bamboo this big in China and perhaps Hawaii. Made me feel shame for my tiny bamboo in Washington. Pshhhhh.
More examples of ingenuity. When you take a tire that would go into the river and slice it in half, twist it inside out and create the perfect planter for seedlings like peppers, you have just completed the essential goal of recycling.

As anywhere, rural Haiti has its share of money wasting. Lottery for poor Haitians.... just like lottery for poor Americans. Foolish and wasteful and highly addictive.

From the balcony of a building where World Vision meetings were taking place, I spent a day just watching the pace of life here in Hinche. It was so hot and the streets were packed with people from sun up to sun down. This guy drove the ox cart from the river to construction sites delivering sand for concrete. I saw him pass many times that day. Every time he passed, I imagined myself passing out from sun stroke if I had been hat-less in the direct sun. I sweated for him.The UN may serve some functions here and there but in rural Haiti, since there is no real crime to deal with, they become the pimps of the neighborhood. And I do not mean it as a compliment. Perhaps they feel entitled to the young women of Haiti because they are so far from home. Perhaps the power had gotten to their heads. Who knows.

Hinche is a small city with a large rural surrounding that comes in to town for markets and supplies. From this city, we based out of and took day trips deep into the countryside. I have virtually no photos of those trips not only because of the precarious drive, but also because I did not want to just roll up on someone and click a picture out of the blue. If I had to be a journalist I would fail, because I am not about to take a shot of a dying child and then move along to the next prize winning photo op. I want to bring love and respect to every place I go. And so in the country where the poverty is the most glaring, I chose not to take any shots. The stick and mud huts the the naked children, clearly malnourished were definitely there. And in excess. But, you will have to use your imagination to picture them.

Someone told me about the big sports star that came and visited the area. They said he was furious that there was no AC or hot water in the hotel. I smiled because I knew that the lack of AC in such a place is certainly unpleasant... but still. Seriously? Complaining? Just look out the window at the children carrying heavy loads in the midday sun, who wear no shoes nor any shirt. If you see the suffering of the poor people and how hard they toil for survival and can still complain, then I think you may need new glasses.

This fan was my AC and I was so glad to have it. Like Garrison Keillor said in one of his stories, "When you work in the sun, the shade is enough."

World Vision had sent a long time worker from the states, my friend, Jeff, to come and evaluate how the programs were working since the earthquake. He met with the entirely Haitian staff and asked them how he could better serve their efforts, and what the Haitians' goal was for their own nation. As opposed to coming in with the flashy American answers, it was important to him to find out the hopes and thoughts of the Haitians. I was so impressed by Jeff's gentle personality. He has lived all over Africa and has traveled extensively. His insights on efforts to help Haiti were fascinating. The goal is very much to assist Haiti to rebuild itself, and to take ownership and pride in that process. Instead of just pushing the locals aside and doing the job for them, World Vision uses the local staff to affect change themselves.

Below is one of the young men who works directly with the sponsored children. I had some idea of how the sponsorship program worked, but I found those ideas to be wrong. These young men and women are living in the area and work so hard to connect with the sponsored children, wherever they are. Sometimes this requires using Google Maps satellite view to plot a donkey ride up a mountain where there are no roads.

Each worker can take care of up to 400 or more children. They have their own jobs to feed their familes, but they also work to care for these children. The lists of things they have to accomplish with the kids is astounding. There are growth charts, nutrition tracking, school, family well being, etc... So if you see those commercials and think the money is just going into a big bank account, think again. These people are very serious about protecting and assisting children. Below is a picture of a sponsor child and the group, checking in on the family and asking questions to make sure the case worker has been completing all the necessary tasks. The response of a family member here when asked how they were doing: "Just ask anyone in the village. They will tell you the same as me. These are good people. They do very good work. We all love them."

My man, Jocelyn, taking a break from his all day translations. He speaks a million languages and and knows every single person in Haiti.

As one of the meetings was taking place, a guy asked if I might like to go see some soccer. I was in the car faster than you could say bored-of-meetings. It turned out the girls' team was still warming up so I ended up joining in with these kids practicing corner kicks. Some more kids showed up when I started playing and many watched with expressions of, "Let's see how bad this 'blanc' can play." It was fun. We took turns trying to head the ball in or arc the passes over the heads of defenders. One kid about twenty kept trying to beat my shots and was laughing and teasing me. I decided it was ok to play a little harder and soon one perfect twisting pass was flying over head. He jumped up for the ball, but so did I. We collided midair and both smashed into each other. A few small kids stopped nervously to see if either of us was going to be upset, but we both laughed and helped each other up. After that he smiled at me so I think we were cool. It is amazing how in this type of situation, whether sport or song or art, you don't need to speak the language. Not even one word. It is all about the dance and since we all knew how the dance went, we could interact and smile and laugh.

The day we drove from the country back down the four hour road to Port au Prince, I opened the back of the truck to put my bags inside. This was what I found. The driver told us roosters were only 125 here, but at home they were 250. So we piled the bags high up in one seat, squished together and rode the entire way back to the city with the windows cracked because, while these were really well behaved roosters, they were still roosters.


  1. Thank you so so much for taking the time to write this out, Jesse. I certainly hope I get a chance to hear you talk about this in person somewhere. I love the story about the soccer dance but all the details are super rich. I certainly hope there's more to come...

  2. I posted that last comment before realizing I still had a whole page of posts to go, funny! I guess I get my wish for more sooner than I thought.