Monday, August 16, 2010

Of hugs and bon swas

Day 1 Continued (Sunday, Aug. 1)

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

After our team’s bumpy, two-hour ride in the back of a truck from the airport to our hotel near Leogane, we were promised some time to rest. We had been traveling for 18 hours, including a redeye from San Francisco to Miami, followed by the final leg from Miami to Haiti.

Our hotel is a work in progress. Some rooms are finished, whereas others are being constructed. Five rooms had air conditioning, which we paid extra for, and four of those went to the women in our group. My room had a simple 3-speed air fan, a double bed covered with a simple sheet, a table with two chairs and a tiny bathroom. The entire space was perhaps 150-square feet. We did have a shower – indoors even – with one handle with no H or C to designate the temperature of the water. We assumed it was cold, or at least we hoped it was. After working in 95-degree heat during the day, we wall wanted to take cold showers upon returning to our rooms late in the afternoon. But growing up in Arizona, I can tell you I took many cold showers that were actually warm. The prospect of taking a warm shower after working all day at the orphanage did not appeal to me.

Later that night, my roommate, Doug L, and I would put up a mosquito netting in our room. Opening the window was not an option, because that would let the mosquitoes in. Mosquitoes can only bite you if you let them inside. We decided we would rather sweat than hear mosquitoes buzzing about.

Our team’s R & R ended much sooner than promised. Our leader, Jonathan, a software guy leading the construction team, let us know we would be boarding the truck and driving the 25 minutes to introduce ourselves to the kids. Eating was also on our minds, and dinner was provided for us at the orphanage. We hired the orphanage cook to cook meals for us during Cornerstone Fellowship’s summer mission here.

Our team was now complete: 18 in all, with three staying over from the previous week. We were growing accustomed to looking out the back of the truck at the busy traffic behind us. Most of the Haitians stared at us, and we stared back. Car and truck horns are not your ordinary horn honks; most are loud air horns. We would hear that sound thousands of times during our week here.

Even though Americans have been coming to the region more frequently in the past six months, white people just aren’t a part of the culture. Americans don’t retire to Haiti, as they might so in neighboring Dominican Republic or Belize or Costa Rica in Central America. Haiti does not have a sewer system, a water works, garbage pick-up, and most homes don’t have electricity, so no air conditioning or even a fan. Hence, it is not the kind of place people come to vacation, though one of the cruise lines owns an island near Port-au-Prince. Only two airlines fly into Haiti.

Finally, we sense the truck slowing down for a right-hand turn, meaning we were closer to the orphanage. My heart beat would slow down dramatically once off the rough road.

Once the truck stopped, we sweaty Americans hopped off and were immediately greeted by the friendly children. Most were smiling broadly. We exchanged “bon swas, to introduce ourselves, making us fast friends. Some kids wanted to be picked up and held. Most would quickly grab your hand and just hold it and stare at you. A few kept a safe distance, not knowing what to think of the Americans. We were coached to let the kids determine how friendly to be. Pushing the children for hugs or high fives was not on our agenda.

The Haitian hellos lasted for five minutes. There are 78 children in the orphanage, but not all of them are present. I came in contact with perhaps 50 kids in rapid fashion.

In between greetings, I glanced around at my new settings. Our headquarters would be here, at the girls’ orphanage. The boys’ dorm was a quarter mile away, across the street. Before the January 12 earthquake, the orphanage did not include boys. The population doubled with one swift wind. Many of the children lost one or both parents to the hurricane.

The orphanage (I am choosing not to include the name of the orphanage in order to protect the identity of the children) is not your typical Haitian cinder block building. It is a temporary facility made of plywood walls and a tin roof. A cement floor gives it a sturdy foundation. Three doors connect to the outdoors, but there is only one window. Despite the typical 95-degree heat and high humidity, there are no fans in the room, requiring electricity, which is not hooked up.

The building consists of two dorm rooms; one for the older girls (roughly 12 and up) and one for the younger girls, with roughly 20 bunk beds filling each room. A storage room and dining room (our designated adults only room) are the third and fourth rooms. The entire building is perhaps 400 square feet. The kitchen is out back.

The “outhouse/shower” is 20 yards away and consists of cinder blocks with tarps acting as doors. Knocking, we would find out, consists of pounding your hand on the tarp and waiting. Inside is a hole in the ground. There is no toilet. Sometimes, toilet paper is present, sometimes not. As I peak inside, I secretly hope I will never have to use it.

Across the driveway sit five tents, two of which house local families who lost their homes in the earthquake.

In the distance, a hundred yards away, sit two large mango trees. Before long, children grab our hands and start walking us to the “trees.” We would soon realize that the massive amount of shade the trees offer make it the perfect place for the children to play. Virtually everything the kid team did with the kids is done in close proximity to the trees.

A small herd of goats eat grass and weeds nearby. Each one pants feverishly but cannot go far; each is tied by rope to a big-rooted weed or shrub. During the week, I did not see the goats ever drinking water.

The construction team quickly huddles to review our work schedule. Making cement pillars was primary on our list, as well as repairs to the front gate and various other repairs. If lucky, the church’s 10-foot x 30-foot storage unit would arrive from the Port-au-Prince port after being shipped by sea from San Francisco. The joke was that it took two weeks to ship the storage unit 6,000 miles through the Panama Canal, but it might take 40 days to go the final 20 miles. Such is the way business is done in Haiti, we are told.

Inside the storage unit is 40,000 pounds of equipment, tools and parts we would need to rebuild the orphanage, to California building codes, not Haitian, which don’t exist. That’s why the country virtually collapsed en masse under the stress of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco was a 6.9. In Haiti, the bricks and cement structures are not strong enough to survive such a tremor. In our six days there, we would find out how just poorly constructed local homes and businesses are. (Across from our hotel, I can see a half a dozen homes being rebuilt in the same manner as before. Local construction techniques, for the most part, have not changed much.)

We played with the children for a little while longer, and then it was time to return to the hotel for our promised R & R. Even though we are exhausted, we want to stay with the children and the children want us to stay. We need rest for the next day’s work, though.

Seeing the children’s sad faces makes leaving difficult. Our group’s demeanor took on a somber feel on the drive back to the hotel. The children and their dismal circumstances are on our minds.

Caption: My teammate, Dustin, took a picture of the orphanage's toilet with his cell phone. This is a typical outdoor outhouse, with only a hole in the ground for doing No. 1 or No. 2. This is a good day; toilet paper is in the corner.

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