Haiti – Days 10 thru 12

Posted by Ted on Mar 16, 2010 in Causes, Travel

My time here in Jacmel is coming to an end. Today was my last full day of shoveling crumbled concrete. Tomorrow I will be sitting in on a Croix Rouge ‘cluster meeting’ in the morning, and I leave for P-au-P on Thursday to start my voyage home.

Sunday started off with a trip to the market in a different section of town than I’d been yet. There was a main street and a couple of sidestreets, choked with shoppers and vendors selling everything from meat and produce to toiletries and charcoal. The most exotic item I saw, different from what everyone else was selling, was a pathetically small pineapple for $5H.

Then it was off to the beach, but this time I went out with some of the Haitian volunteers to the local party beach. There were hundreds of people lounging in chairs and swimming in the warm Caribbean water, food vendors selling grilled fish, and beverage tables where you could get sodas and Barbancourt. I got to watch three of the guys use an REI inflatable sleeping pad as a raft, which I’m pretty sure is outside of their intended design specs. After frolicking in the waves, I relaxed on shore, alternating between reading my book and watching a soccer game.

The last two daytimes have been pretty much the same as last week – clearing rubble from La Trinitie, a college in town where there were 500 students, and at least a dozen of which died in the earthquake. We’ve been excavating one L-shaped section towards the back of the school, moving over 4000 square feet of concrete uphill to the street, all so that there is someplace for the ceilings that need to be dropped can be deposited. All of our work has simply created a buffer to be filled. I haven’t picked up the sledge again, but I’m getting pretty handy with a pickaxe. I’ve taken to doing that in the morning, and relaxing into shoveling or wheelbarrowing in the afternoon.

After seeing what these buildings are made of, I’m surprised that there isn’t more damage. Everything is built with concrete blocks that are so poorly made that even freshly-molded they crumble to the touch, and they are held together with substandard rebar that is thin, easily bendable, and breaks with any sort of shearing force. While these cheap materials might hold in a single-story, they are dangerously inadequate for the two and three story buildings that line the streets. The worst part? All the removed rubble just gets remixed into new cement, perpetuating the problem. SIDR has developed a much stronger mix that doesn’t even crumble when dropped off the back of a tap-tap, but it is more costly, and thus will beat hard sell to the general populace. This is one reason they are focusing on schools and hospitals – to make sure that at least the sick and the learning will be safe.

My evenings are at least a bit different from each other. Last night I took a walk around the block, which takes me past the airport, down a bit of the main street through town, behind the IFRC compound, and alongside the walled village that houses our U.N. neighbors. The quietest of the roads is the dirt path behind the Red Cross. While there was one building that had clearly fallen down, what surprised me where what looked like several ruins that had standing columns and walls, but no roofs. I took some long-exposure pictures of them, and later found out that they were simply unfinished homes. The fact that they were saved them.

Tonight I learned a new trick-taking card game and had a pleasant break from the usual spaghetti with ketchup and mayo that the Haitian volunteers eat every night. Laura gave me a couple of MREs – veggie lasagne and peach mango applesauce. While the directions for how to use the heating pocket took me a few minutes to parse, I was impressed at both the technology and the quality. Then a few of us headed down to the Speakerman to listen to some salsa music and share some Barbancourt.

I am looking forward to going home, to seeing my wife and kitties and sleeping in a real bed. But I have to admit that Haiti has grown on me a little. I have made some new friends, and have experienced a place, a situation, and hard work, that has given me yet another perspective on how crazy and wonderful our little blue marble of a world really is.



Haiti – Days 8 & 9

Posted by Ted on Mar 13, 2010 in Causes, Travel

I had the chance to help someone directly affected by the earthquake today. A friend of a friend’s mother lives here in Jacmel, and I was asked if I could check in on her to see if she was alright. With the help of one of our Haitian volunteers, we tracked her down. We had been heading into town to go to the market, and stopped at one of a few street vendors who simply have a wireless landline phone, which one can make a local call for 15 gourdes. I was told that the woman speaks no English, so Jamson made the call. We got directions, and walked the half hour towards her home. This was a new part of town, being up on a ridge with a view towards downtown and the bay beyond. We passed the old Minustah building, the front half unscathed, the back half gone completely. Shortly after, there was the most striking vista – a ray of sun shining down from a hole in the overcast sky onto the bay, making it sparkle. In the foreground was a line of white tents. After stopping a few times to confirm directions, we ended up at the end of a dead-end street. We knocked on the gate, and a young woman confirmed we were in the right place and invited us in. Her daughter was delighted to have a visitor, and was enamoured by my camera, and I obliged her with a picture of her smiling little face. The woman’s mother whom I’d come to see, Marimathe, finally came out, and apologized for making us wait. Through Jamson’s translating, she told us that she and her family had all been home when the house shook. Her arms flailing in recreation of her reactions to the event, she thanked Jesus for saving her and her family. She also thanked him for delivering me to carry the concerns of her son and friend. She showed us the crumbling walls of the house, and told us that she’d been living on the street for two months, only just recently getting one of the ‘Shelterbox’ tents that have been deployed around the city. While still a tent, these are more sturdy than most and may survive the coming rainy season. As we parted, I held her hand and palmed her a 1000 gourdes note. The equivalent of about $25, that would cover a cheap dinner out for two back home, but here it would help feed her family of five for a week. It felt wonderful to be able to give directly to someone who lost their home in the earthquake, and to brighten their day.

It was certainly the high point of my day, having spent most of it at camp, listening to the constant coming and going of planes and helicopters at the airport during the last day of the Canadian handoff, lying down and trying to get over the cold that set upon me yesterday. It was a shame because it would have been a perfect beach day. We hopped moto-taxis back to camp, and around 7p I hopped another one back into town to enjoy a dinner that was a break from rice or pasta. At Au Petit Coin, I ordered the fish and was treated to a wonderfully cooked whole fish, served with fries and plantains. I’ve seen people be able to eat fish, leaving all the bones intact, but I am not one of them. I messily picked at the fish, building a pile of bones on my plate, but savoring every morsel.

Yesterday, I resisted the oncoming cold as much as I could, given the need to work hard. We had enough rubble to create a pathway to the street, and pushing wheelbarrows full of cement uphill was no easy task. I did some shoveling and pickaxing to break up the body stress. We’ve now mostly cleared the section we started working on Tuesday. I really wish I’d gotten a before shot to compare with what it should look like on Monday. We’ve moved somewhere near 1000 cubic feet of cement in 4 days. After coming home, I crashed for a bit before dinner.

Then a bunch of us went to see the ‘Speakerman’. Not a specific person, but a title associated with various establishments which have speakers aimed at the street. The other day it was a small general store, with chairs right on the sidewalk, playing salsa. Last night it was a Caribbean style restaurant playing Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, and Haitian rap. We shared rounds of Barbancourt & Coke, and cemented the friendships with a few of the volunteers. While I do not know if or when I will return to Haiti, I am comforted to know that my world family will be a little bigger now.

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Haiti – Days 5 thru 7

Posted by Ted on Mar 11, 2010 in Causes, Travel

I am lying on a bench in a field next to the U.N. compound, and a dog has been barking for at least an hour. The Canadians just pulled out today, having declared that the emergency is over. It’s far from.

Not only have there continued to be tremors on the island, but the rainy and hurricane seasons start soon and there are still a lot of people in tents. The ones that I’d seen in the streets earlier was simply overflow. Last night I was taken by one of the local Haitian volunteers to one of the larger evacuation camps. Imagine a walled football field turned into a tent city, with security only at the two gates. Hundreds of displaced families spilled out of olive-drab temporary homes, and I was the only ‘blanca’ in sight. It was truly sobering, but the moment that I remember most was the simple act of a young boy wanting a high-five. I was also taken to a bordello, where I politefully declined saying that I loved my wife very much. At camp, the volunteer was chastised for endangering me. While nothing happened, a fight could have broken out at either place, and the camp had a riot with arrests the day before. Everyone was right of course, even I knew that, but I’m thankful for the experience to have seen the camp at night.

We finished the grade school on Tuesday, to the point that another group may take over reconstruction. The last two days have been at L’Ecole Trinite, a college where there were a lot of deaths. We don’t know how many, and there may still be more. We’re scared of the ground floor which is under the rubble. The work has been relentless. We have spent 14 hours clearing just one section of crumbled cement and rocks, about 20′x20′ and 4′ high. It’s Thursday, and the only way I can see myself through tomorrow is that it’s Friday. I will need the two weekend days just to heal from the onslaught that by back and hands have taken.

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Haiti – Day 3 & 4

Posted by Ted on Mar 8, 2010 in Causes, Travel

Arriving on Friday night couldn’t have been better timing. SIDR only works Mon-Fri, and takes both weekend days as R&R. I hadn’t planned it – Thursday was the first day I could travel after getting my shots – but I’m very glad for the gentle landing.

Yesterday started with a visit from the Salvation Army volunteers that Laura had met a couple of days earlier, lured to our camp by the call of real coffee. Then it was time to hit the beach. Laura, Bill, and I hopped a tap-tap heading east and got off at Timoulage. We parked ourselves under a palm tree and jumped in the water. Not as warm as Costa Rica, but it was joyous. A couple of hours were spent alternating between swimming and relaxing on the sun-drenched beach being accosted by wandering vendors, as is true on beaches just about everywhere, just with different goods being sold. In Haiti, there are carved gourds, straw hats, sea shells, wood carvings, tshirts, and fruit. The nearby restaurant owner brought us icy cold glass bottles of REAL Coca-Cola, with SUGAR. After awhile, we obliged the man by going in and ordering lunch in their thatched-roof seaside eatery, sharing the establishment with two different groups of the Croix Rouge, one Italian, the other Swiss. Service was slower than you can imagine. We had a local delicacy, ‘Lamby’, which is conch chopped up and fried in butter – chewy but very tasty. We were befriended by a scrawny dog, wanting company more than scraps. After we finally got our change, he followed us back to our spot beneath the tree and hung out with us until our ride came to take us home.

The moto-taxi driver took me back first, and asked I wanted to steer. Of course I said yes, and greatly enjoyed riding back to camp towards the setting sun, with the Caribbean on my left, and rolling green hills to my right. It was quite different than any motorcycle I’ve used, with a kickstart, no clutch, and soft squishy barely-adequate brakes. Sans helmet, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, swimming trunks, and sandals, I violated all my ingrained senses of proper riding gear, but that’s the norm just about everywhere except the U.S. and Europe. The rest of the evening was relaxing back at camp, and then early to bed for the day ahead.

Today was in stark contrast. Up before 7a, I donned jeans, a lightweight white shirt, and the same Doc Martens that I’ve been wearing for 20 years. Breakfast was corn flakes with diluted condensed milk, a piece of bread with La Vache Qui Rit, and coffee. We loaded a tap-tap with wheelbarrows, shovels, and pickaxes, and then hopped on and headed into town to the school that they’d been demolishing the previous week.

I tried my hand at breaking a collapsed roof with a sledgehammer and was summarily laughed at by the Haitians when I could barely wield it with my weak arms. So I took the easier task of shoveling debris into a wheelbarrow and wheeling it across the street to the pile of rubble that inched further into the middle of the intersection as the day wore on. I took a break by grabbing a pickaxe and broke down a couple square feet of the side of a staircase. While not the most graceful, I fared better than I did with the sledge.

Shortly before lunch, I moved on to dismantling the now-hanging rebar from the roof. Using a pair of pliers, I untwisted the rusty wires holding them together, thankful for my recent tetanus shot. It turns out that the long-forgotten skills from making chainmail returned rather quickly.

Lunch was beans and rice, and chicken in a green sauce. As I sat at a dusty desk in one of the classrooms still standing, I looked up at the history lesson on the chalkboard. Written across the top was ‘Mardi 12 Janvier 2010′, which reminded me of the famous Hiroshima watch, marking the moment of catastrophe. On the desk next to me was an abandoned physics workbook which I took as a souvenir.

Après-dejeuner was more of the same, albeit at a bit slower pace. Towards the end of the day I got out my camera to take pictures of our handiwork, much to the excitement of my Haitian co-demolishers, all of whom wanted their pictures taken while weilding implements of destruction. The tap-tap arrived at 4p to take us all back to camp, where we relaxed until dinner was ready – spaghetti with Jamaican curry powder, actually quite good. Afterwards I took advantage of being a white volunteer and went to the U.N. compound next door for a shower, and retreated to my tent to enjoy being truly clean for the first time since Thursday. It won’t last.

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Haiti – Day 1 & 2

Posted by Ted on Mar 5, 2010 in Causes, Travel

The first day is always the longest. Starting in SFO at 8p on Thursday, I arrived in Port-au-Prince just before noon on Friday. As I traveled across the country through LAX and Fort Lauderdale, I saw increasing numbers of people carrying tents and sleeping bags just as I was. The first person I met was a man in the jetway in LA, who remarked upon my REI bundle of tent and sleeping bag. He was traveling with his two young daughters to volunteer in Leogane. On the plane to Haiti I sat next to a Spirit Airlines stewardess named Marie, and we talked about the beaches in Jacmel, which used to be the best resort town in the country.

Flying into P-au-P, I saw several blue-tarped tent cities and many buildings with standing walls and no roofs, looking like D&D maps I drew as a kid. After landing and getting thru immigration, I started walking toward town, and hopped on a moto-taxi, one of hundreds of motorcycles that zip around every town. Holding my pack in my lap behind the driver, my thighs ached during the ride to the tap-tap “station”. Wildly decorated covered pickups, they get their name from what one does to signal the desire to get off. I took one heading west towards Leogane, the biggest town closest to the epicenter of the quake. The devastation was indescribable – very few buildings were standing, the smells and smoke of bonfires filled the air.

A kind young man named Junior helped me find a ride to Jacmel, through the mountainous region between the coasts. The road twisted through wrinkled hills, dirt and debris piled high on both sides, and we passed by a truck that had taken a turn too quickly and fell over blocking part of the road. We came through the pass as night fell, and could see the lights of Jacmel in the distance. Once in town, we stopped to ask directions to ‘minustah’, the local encampment of the military division of the U.N., next to where Shelters International has their ragtag camp, conveniently under the watchful gunsight of a manned guard tower. I set up my tent that would be my home for the next two weeks.

Today I got a tour of the market, bustling with people selling everything from meat and vegetables to toiletries and shoes. Then we walked around town, as Laura and Bill pointed out sites that their team had removed rubble from. The most recent was the collapsed second story of a two-room school. The ground floor was not much better, with cracks in the walls and the foundation, recently painted over. They want to reopen the school, but it really should be demolished because it’s not safe. This is unfortunately the case throughout the town as cracks are covered up and called ‘good as new’. These buildings will be the first to crumble in the next quake or aftershock.

Tonight I’m sitting by a roaring bonfire in camp, with broken desks burning away, sending embers up into the night sky.

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