Sunday, September 25, 2011

Life Lessons

Some of the most important things I learned in Haiti:

  • Flushing toilets, hot water, and clothes dryers are all luxuries in life:  I will never take them for granted.
  • Paved roads are also a luxury.
  • You can live without electricity.
  • Driving a car is a privilege that I truly enjoy, but never realized how much I enjoyed it until I couldn’t drive here.
  • If I never own a microwave again in my life, I would be okay with that.
  • Hurry up and wait tends to be the norm here, so never leave home without a good book.
  • Swimming in the ocean is good therapy.
  • Rainy, cold days in the mountains really make you appreciate the sunshine so much more!
  • Compassion toward others is more clearly shown through actions, not words.  
  • Malnutrition is one of the worse conditions a child can suffer from, yet sadly, it’s also one of the most preventable.
  • Talk to people.  Everyone you meet has something to say.
And perhaps most importantly:
  • Try new things.  It’s liberating and life is short.
  • If you can, go somewhere, meet new people, learn a new language, it opens your mind to many things in the world.

The Ending of a Chapter

It’s hard to believe that this year of my life is almost over.  It seems like yesterday that I was packing my bags to move to Haiti for a year.  This chapter of my life is ending, and when I get back home, a new one will begin.  I’m still not too sure how I feel about that.  I know that it’s time for me to return, but a large part of me wishes that that I could stay.  I know now that Haiti will always be a part of me:  “lot peyi mwen”, my other country.  There’s a really good prayer that a friend of mine shared with me a couple months ago.  I just came across it again recently, and I think that it really describes my work here in Haiti, especially since it is drawing to an end.  It not only applies to missionary work, but it can also be applied to the work we do in our everyday lives.  It was written by Oscar Romero (1917-1980), the Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador:

Prayer of Ministry
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts;
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s work...
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying
that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No sermon says all that should be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
That is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow,
We water seeds already planted
knowing they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that affects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very, very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the Master Builder
and the worker.
We are workers, but not master builders...
ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future that is not our own. Amen.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jacmel after the Journey

This is part II to the last blog entry:  The Epic Journey (which can be found just below this entry).  If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend reading it before reading this one.
Ok, so where did I leave off?  Oh yes, Liz, Stefanie, and I arrived at our hotel in Jacmel Wednesday night around 7:30pm after our 12 hour hike from Kenscoff.   I was sore, filthy, and exhausted.  After practically falling asleep in my dinner, I showered and collapsed into bed.  Thursday was a day of rest.  We ate, swam, and napped throughout the day.  But by Friday, we were all rested and raring to go.  We decided to go downtown Jacmel to shop a little and browse in some of the art galleries. 
Jacmel is my favorite city here in Haiti, thus far.  It is a beautiful coastal town that was once a center for tourism here in Haiti- when tourism still existed.  The city is full of old colonial architecture and is rich in Haitian culture.  The people who live in Jacmel are friendly and welcoming.  In addition to beautiful beaches, the city is full of art, live music, dancing, and good food.  We typically stay at Hotel Cyvadier, which is a small, simple hotel located on the coast.  The hotel is located on a cliff overlooking a picturesque cove beach surrounded by rocks.  The rooms are comfortable, yet simple, and the food is very good.  I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to come and visit!

So back to Friday:  It was Friday morning and we decided to venture downtown.  It was a hot, sunny day and we were dressed in shorts and tank tops.  We jumped on the back of some motorcycles taxis and headed downtown.  Just when we reached the downtown area, we noticed that some of the streets were blocked off and there were hundreds of people out and about who appeared to be dressed in their Sunday best.  We decided to get off the motos and walk a little way to see what the hype was all about.  Liz, Stefanie, and I started to make our way through the crowd.  All of a sudden, there was Haitian Jesus, right in front of my face, walking down the sidewalk carrying a wooden cross.  Haitian Mary was walking alongside him and weeping.  It was at that moment that I remembered it was Good Friday, and the Haitians were performing live Stations of the Cross down Main Street.  Many of the onlookers turned to glare at us.  We were definitely out of place and far from being dressed appropriately for the occasion.  We hightailed it out of there pretty quickly.  We soon realized that all of the stores and galleries were closed for the holiday.  So much for our downtown experience!  We went back to the hotel where we relaxed for the rest of the afternoon.
On Saturday morning, we were joined by two more of our friends who came to meet us in Jacmel for the remainder of the weekend.  We had no plans for Saturday and considered going to the public beach where they often have live bands on the weekends.  While we were eating breakfast that morning, Christophe, the manager of the hotel, approached us and asked us if we were interested in going on a boat ride.  Christophe knows us from our prior stays at Cyvadier and is always very accommodating when we go there.  He told us that he has a friend with a boat who was wondering if we would be interested in going for a ride.  We agreed, but we didn’t know what to expect.  Would it be a little wooden Haitian boat?  Oh well, we figured, it would be an adventure if nothing else.   So we waited around all morning for the boat to come.  First they said it would be there around 10:00, then 11:00, and finally at 12:30, the man from the front desk at the hotel came to our room to tell us that the boat had arrived.   We walked down to the hotel beach and there it was…  The boat was amazing.  It was a big yacht-like fishing boat equipped with a sound system and everything!  How did we get this lucky?  The group of us consisted of the owner of the boat with his brother and cousin, as well as an Italian couple that was also staying at Cyvadier, plus the five of us.  We all got on the boat and Christophe’s friend took us to a private beach where we could swim.  They cooked a lunch of fish and lobster over a fire right on the beach.  Then some friends of the boat owner showed up with jet skis and water skis!  We couldn’t believe this was really happening.  All we could think was:  are we really here or did we die somewhere along the way and end up in heaven??!!  Take a look for yourself:

We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the ocean and the sunshine and then they dropped us off back at the hotel.   
Saturday night was a big night in downtown Jacmel because it was the night before Easter.  Many people dress up in eccentric, colorful clothes and parade down the streets forming rara bands.  Rara bands are large groups of people that play horns, drums, and other homemade instruments.  The rara bands are most prominent around special occasions and big events/holidays in Haiti.  They are very popular around Mardi Gras and apparently the night before Easter as well.  We went out to an outdoor restaurant/bar on Saturday to get a glimpse of the celebration.  We met up with all the others who had been out with us on the boat that day.  It was so neat to see all the people out on the streets celebrating.  It was a representation of the “real” Haiti, illustrating the rich culture of the Haitian people that is so present in everyday life here. 
On Sunday, before heading home, we decided to stop at Bassin Bleu.  Bassin Bleu is a well known waterfall here in Haiti.  I had the opportunity to visit Bassin Bleu on my first trip to Haiti in 2007 but had not been back since.  In order to reach the waterfall, it is possible to drive part of the way, but then you must hike for the last little bit.  The waterfall is spectacular.  We arrived there and basically had the place to ourselves, so we swam for quite a while.  The pictures don’t begin to do it justice, but here’s a glimpse:

The whole weekend turned out to be an experience of a lifetime.  I don’t think that we could have planned it even if we tried, and I’m glad that we didn’t.  Often times, when you try to plan something, it never works out the way you want it to.  Moral of the story:  Take risks.  Take advantage of every opportunity and experience that comes your way…You never know what may be in store!

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Epic Journey

In Kenscoff, there is something like a legend:  The hike to Jacmel.  Almost everyone I’ve met who knows anything about Kenscoff is familiar with the hike, but not very many have actually completed it because this is no ordinary hike.   Kenscoff is located roughly 5200 feet above sea level, which is pretty high!  Jacmel is a beautiful city located on the coast.  One of the largest mountain ranges in Haiti runs just past Kenscoff.  In order to get to Jacmel by foot, you must cross a portion of this mountain range.  Long ago, there used to be a road that was passable by car, but over the years, the road has been virtually washed away and it is no longer passable by vehicle.  Short portions of the road are still passable by motorcycle, but really the only way to do it is by foot.  As the crow flies, the distance is not too far.  When you are walking though, it is much farther because the road is up, down, and winding.  Legend has it that the walk from Kenscoff to Jacmel takes two days.  You walk for 6-8 hours the first day, depending on how fast you walk.  There is a little town about halfway called Seguin where they have what would be about the equivalent of a Haitian bed and breakfast, where supposedly you are able to spend the night.  Then the second day, you walk for approximately another 6 hours to arrive in Jacmel.  And that’s all I knew.
One evening at the beginning of April, I was sitting in the kitchen with my fellow volunteers Liz and Stefanie after a long day of work, and the topic of “the hike” came up.  (Once again someone we had met a few days prior had asked us if we’d ever walked to Jacmel after they heard that we were currently living in Kenscoff.)  Anyway, we all looked at each other and decided that we were going to do it.  If others could do it, we sure couldn’t live here for a year and not do it.  I must say, when you stand out on the porch of the retreat house, which is located on the back of the orphanage property, and look out over the mountains in the direction of Jacmel, the thought of walking seems pretty ominous.   But we were bound and determined at that point to make it happen. 
We decided to go over the weekend of Easter because it was a time when all three of us would be able to get off work.  We arranged our work schedules in April, so that we could take a five-day weekend over Easter.  That was about the extent of our planning.
The night before we left, we had packed up enough food and water to last us for one day because we planned on staying in Seguin for the night.  Everyone asked us if we were going to leave before sunrise.  Of course we said no, seeing as it was our day off and we figured that we only had 6-8 hours to walk on that first day, so there was no point in leaving so early.  Also, we made the decision to do it on our own, without a Haitian guide.  At that point in time, we had been living here for 7 months and knew enough Creole to get by.  Plus, according everyone we talked to, told us that you stayed on the same road the whole way there, so it was easy to find the way.   On the morning of Wednesday, April 20th at 7:30am, we set off for Jacmel.  We took motorcycles for the first 30 minutes of the journey.  They picked us up at the orphanage and dropped us off at the beginning of the road to Jacmel, where you can no longer pass by motorcycle or vehicle.  The hike began.  It was some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen in my life, let alone in Haiti.  The view was absolutely stunning!  The never-ending expanse of mountains beyond mountains was breathtaking!!  The pictures don’t even do it justice, but here’s a small glimpse:

So we walked, and we walked, and we took a few breaks, and we walked some more.  The first part of the hike was difficult, but tolerable.  After lunch, we arrived at a portion of the path that literally went straight up a mountain.  It took us a long time and a lot of breaks, but finally we arrived at the top of the mountain.  We figured that we would be arriving in Seguin (the halfway point) at any time because everyone had told us that Seguin was located at the top of the mountain.   Instead of reaching a town though, it looked like we stepped out right into a scene from the Wizard of Oz.  All of a sudden the clouds started rolling in and it got really foggy.  The road straightened out and we were walking across the plateau at the top of the mountain.  The road was lined on either side with HUGE pine trees.  We were walking and all we could see was fog straight ahead and dense pine forest on either side of the road.  We kept thinking, oh we must be close; I mean how big can the top of the mountain be?  Well, let me tell you, it can be huge.  The flat plateau of the top of the mountain went on for miles and so did the pine forest. 

We met many local Haitians along the way and they kept pointing us in the right direction.  Finally, we made it to the end of the pine forest and found Winnie’s house (the closest thing to a Haitian B&B).  By this time, it was around 3:00 pm.  The house was small, but nice by Haitian standards and was located in the middle of nowhere.  There were tents set up all throughout the yard, which we were told were for the local Haitians who traveled very far by foot to go to the market and needed a place to stay overnight.  We found out when we arrived that Winnie, the owner of the house, was not there and that they didn’t think that they had any rooms available in the house.  No rooms available??!!  There was nobody around that we could see.  The place was like a ghost town, and they had no rooms?!  Of course, after some negotiation, they decided that they had one room available in the house.  The room had one double bed and a mat on the floor, so we would have to share.  That was fine with us, we said, “how much?”  Only $60 U.S. per person.  WHAT??!!  One hundred and eighty dollars was a little out of our price range.  Ok, we said, “How about a tent”.  “Oh, they are all occupied,” they said.  But there was nobody in sight??!!  Finally they agreed to put us up in a small tent, but we were told that we might have to share with someone.  Ok, fine, we said, it’s better than nothing.  “How much for the tent?”  The man responded, “$ 50 U.S. per night.”  Well, $150 was a little out of our price range too let alone to sleep in a tent, with strangers, in a town on the top of a mountain, in the middle of nowhere.  I said to the man “that’s crazy!  It only costs $45 per person to stay in Jacmel, on the beach for a night” and he said to me “yes, but this isn’t Jacmel.”  That was my point, this wasn’t Jacmel.  Before I could try to bargain more, Liz was out the door and halfway down the driveway with Stefanie right behind her.  I had about a 30 second fleeting thought of:  oh shit, what are we going to do?  Then I took off after Liz and Stefanie. 
We had no clue what we were going to do.  It was going on 4:00 pm and we knew there was no way we could make it to Jacmel before dark, at least not at the rate we were going.  But, there was no turning back at that point.  So we kept on walking.  We figured that if we could just get to the town of Seguin, we could take a tap tap (large truck that carries lots of people and serves as the only form of public transportation) and still arrive in Jacmel before dark.   We thought that we were really close to the town of Seguin, but as it turned out, we still had about an hour walk ahead of us.  The landscape completely changed again and it looked like we stepped out onto the planet mars.  The soil was nothing but red dust and there were large gray pointy rocks sticking up all around us.  There was hardly an animal in sight and almost no vegetation growing.  We had arrived at the ends of the earth. 

The people lived in small wooden shacks.  They were extremely poor, and after seeing the conditions and the landscape, I could see why.  They directed us into “town”.  Downtown Seguin was nothing more than a dirt street with a couple of small privately owned shops.  There were no cars, let alone tap taps in sight.  So much for that idea.  The people told us that the nearest tap tap station was just down the mountain in a town called Parado.  Now we just had to get down the mountain!  We found some guys on motorcycles and asked them if they could take us to Parado.  By now it was after 5:00pm (and it gets dark around 6:30).  After a lot of haggling, they agreed to take us for one thousand gourdes (the equivalent of $25 U.S.) total for all three of us.  We thought we were getting ripped off because we figured that Parado was fairly close.  Never trust a Haitian when it comes to estimating distance.  One person may tell you 10 minutes, another may say 30 minutes, and you may find out that it takes an hour.  In this case, it took us 1 ½ hours on the back of a motorcycle to finally reach Parado.  The motorcycle ride was breathtaking.  We were heading straight down the mountain and there were thick, jungle-like trees and flowers on both sides of the road and we had the most amazing view of the coast!  We finally arrived in Parado, a town with a paved road, stores, and tap taps!  Welcome back to civilization!  We were able to find a tap tap driver who agreed to drop us off at our hotel.  We crowded into the back seat of the extended cab pickup truck (the bed of the truck was already full of people), but after the day that we had, we were willing to pay a few gourdes extra to sit inside.  Only about 10 minutes after we started driving toward town, it started raining.  Not just a little rain, but a torrential downpour.  Talk about being grateful!!  We were grateful that we weren’t still walking, grateful that we weren’t on the back of a motorcycle, and grateful to be so near to our destination.  We arrived at out hotel at 7:30pm.  The whole journey completed in 12 hours!!  Mission accomplished.  Now we had the rest of the weekend to relax in Jacmel.  Little did we know, there was more excitement to come! 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Just a few highlights

Since I haven’t written any new entries in my blog over the last 4 months (surprise, surprise, everyone knows how bad I am at writing on a regular basis), I thought that I would take the time to catch you up on some of the highlights that have occurred in my life over the last few months...Since some of the stories are rather long, I might have to enter them in a series of posts, so keep a lookout for some new stories to come!!

Monday, March 28, 2011

It Takes a Village

My apologies to all of my faithful readers for not adding any new entries in the last two months.  Sometimes the monotony of everyday life and work takes over, and I don't take the time to write or I feel that I have nothing interesting to write about.  Sometimes, it takes an event - something out of the ordinary - a moment in time that really impacts you and encourages you to write it down.  I had one of those moments today.

Work in the clinic started out as usual...just another Monday morning.  I was checking my emails, which I had neglected over the weekend.  I was in my own little world, but soon I noticed a buzz around the clinic.  The nurses were standing at the door talking to some of the other orphanage workers who had congregated outside.  I could tell by their tone of voice and facial expressions that something was amiss.  The more excited the Haitians become, the louder and the faster they start to talk.  Therefore, the harder it is for me to understand.  When things didn't seem to be calming down after a few minutes, I went to ask them what was going on.  They told me that Ernest's house was on fire.

Now, in order to understand the rest of the story, you first have to know a little bit about Ernest.  Ernest lives just down the road from the orphanage.  He has a wife and two daughters.  The oldest of which is in her mid 20s.  She currently works in the city during the week and goes to college.  She comes home to Kenscoff on the weekends and visits her family.  The youngest daughter is around 14 years old and lives at home.  Ernest's brother and his wife and their children also live in the house.  They have a small shop next to their home where they sell beer and coca cola and other small items like bread and powdered milk and vegetables once in a while.  The family is always sitting outside in the afternoons.  I frequently see them when I go for walks after work.  They are usually cooking together, laughing, talking about the weather.  They are always so welcoming and happy to see us.  Every time I walk by, I make a point to stop and greet them and ask how they are doing.  They are quick to greet me with a hug and a kiss.  They always invite me to stop and have a drink or just take a rest.  It is so nice to be so welcomed in a community where you are the outsider.

But back to Ernest.  Ernest is probably in his 50s.  He is a small, soft-spoken man, and one of the hardest workers you can imagine.  He works here at the orphanage as a night guard.  During the day, he works many other small jobs as well, such as gardening.  He frequently brings us broccoli from his garden because he knows how much we like it.  One night, when I was walking up to the clinic to go to sleep, Ernest was on guard duty.  He walked me back up to the clinic and we had a discussion about life, in my limited Creole.  He told me how difficult life in Haiti is.  He told me that he wanted his daughters to have a good education and that he was currently working three jobs to keep his oldest daughter in college.  He told me that sometimes it's just not fair here, and he wished it wasn't so hard to provide for his family.  He never once asked me for a dime, knowing that I'm a blan (a foreigner), and so I must have money.  He wasn't looking for help or handouts, he just wanted someone to listen.  At the end of the conversation, he said "That's life in Haiti."

So, needless to say, when I heard the nurses in the clinic saying that Ernest's house was on fire, I was worried.  We asked if there was anyone in the house, but they seemed to think that all of the people were safe, and that no one was in the house.  The nurses decided to go for a walk to see how bad it was.  I, of course, went with them.  I was overwhelmed at the sight when we arrived.  This is Haiti, there are no fire trucks or emergency teams to come to the rescue.  What I saw was much more astounding.  The whole village was there, or at least it seemed.  The huge water truck from the orphanage (which we use to haul water up from Kenscoff village to fill our cisterns) was on the scene.  There was a long hose attached to the water truck.  The hose typically fits into the top of the cistern while it is being filled.  Today, the hose was being used to extinguish the fire.  I recongized the men on the roof that were handling the huge hose.  They weren't firemen.  They were locals from the area.  A few were orphanage workers, one was the local town welder, and many were neighbors.  Others on the ground had buckets and were helping to haul water.  The women were helping to sort out the singed clothing and few belongings that were salvaged from the house when the fire was discovered.  Everything that was pulled from the house was just strewn about on the ground.  I recognized Ernest's sister-in-law trying to dig through the piles of clothing to see if anything was going to be salvagable.  It looked like most was not. 

The scene brought tears to my eyes.  Not because Ernest's house was on fire, which is very sad, but because of the way the village came together.  Everyone in the surrounding area gathered to help their neighbor.  They were all pitching in to help in any way possible.  Isn't that what life is about?  Isn't that what the gospel teaches us to do?  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Helping others in a time of need and asking for nothing in return.  It was a very meaningful moment for me.  And, perhaps most importantly, it was a reminder of the overall amazing character of the Haitian people.  

As we were leaving Ernest's house to go back to the orphanage, I saw him sitting near the side of the road.  The other men were still working to put out the last of the burning embers.  Ernest smiled and waved to me, almost as if saying "hey, thanks for coming over" despite the circumstances.  One of the women I was with looked at Ernest and said to him in Creole, "Ernest, you know if you need..."  Ernest just nodded and smiled.  Then he turned to the rest of us and said with a smile on his face "bon apres midi tout moun!!"  (Have a good afternoon, everone!) 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

One Year Later

January 12th, 2011 marks the one year anniversary of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that destroyed Haiti's capital.  The following is a short reflection that I wrote for the CMMB website in regard to the anniversary of the earthquake:

As I drove through Port-au-Prince this week on the way to the HIV/AIDS clinic with some of my children from the orphanage, I was once again reminded of the devastating situation that continues to exist here in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake of January 12th, 2010.  The number of Haitian people that continue to live in tent cities now, nearly one year after the earthquake, is disturbing.  The tents I saw as we made our way through the city, were mostly made from bed sheets, discarded scraps of fabric, and torn plastic tarps, all held together by tree limbs or rusted pieces of metal.   I can’t help but think:  what do they do every time it rains?  They have almost no protection and no privacy.  Now, with cholera continuing to sweep through the country, those living in the tent cities are some of the most vulnerable to this horrible illness.
Thankfully here at the orphanage in the mountains of Kenscoff, we are isolated from most of the difficulties that Haitian citizens are facing in the more populated areas of the city.  Following the earthquake last year, we accepted about 50 new children into our home here at St. Helene.  Their stories are heartbreaking.  Almost all of them lost their homes.   Many of these children had lost one or both parents in the earthquake.  Some of them were sent to live with extended family:  aunts, uncles, older siblings, elderly grandparents.  Since these family members had lost their homes as well, they were forced to move to tent cities where they endured some of the most wretched conditions without proper sanitation, food, or clean water.   After realizing that they could not provide for these children, many of those caregivers brought the children to Nos Petits Freres et Soeurs (NPFS) to seek help.  Now, these children call St. Helene home.  They live here with their brothers and sisters and are well loved and cared for.  They attend school here at the orphanage as well.  The one thing that is apparent among these children is that they are happy.  They are always smiling and laughing and quick to greet me with a hug and a kiss.  Here in Haiti, it is very easy to overlook the positive and just see the bad and the ugly.  I am so thankful to be able to care for these children working as a CMMB volunteer as part of our St. Helene and NPFS family.  I hope and pray that 2011 will be a brighter year for Haiti and will help to bring about the positive changes that the people so desperately need.