Haiti Journal: Part III

May 14th, 2018 by Keith Hemstreet

Haiti Journal, March 14 (continued)

Montrouis HaitiWindows down as we drive at 50+ mph on a two-lane highway toward the town of St. Marc, the nearest place to buy wood for the cafeteria ceiling. Large piles of trash sit in the street that we drive around without slowing. It could be that the piles have been made for collection, but as cars pass, more trash that blows off the heap, scattering around the landscape.

There are vendors along the side of the road. Hundreds of people standing about the sidewalks. Others are walking. One man waves his arm at us we pass. Suddenly, the driver slows down, pulls over, and looks back. He puts the pickup in reverse and drives backward toward the waving man who is now running down the hill. The man jumps in the back of the pickup, taps the roof and we drive on.

Navigating St. Marc

A sign reading “Bienvenue” greets us in St. Marc. Just past the sign the hitchhiker sticks his head around by the window, says something in Creole, and we pull over. He jumps out, shakes the passenger’s hand and says “Merci.” We continue into the city.

The streets are bustling. A fleet of motorcycles and scooters, nearly all carrying two or more people. Shops, buildings and vacant, crumbling structures. More earthquake and hurricane damage that has not been repaired. There may have once been a charm to St. Marc. Many of the buildings look to have been designed in the French colonial style. There is a beautiful cathedral and the town itself is built on hills that overlook shimmering, turquoise Bay of Saint-Marc.

The men drive us to a bank, park the pickup and we all get out. We are there to exchange U.S. dollars for Haitian Gourde. If you pay for anything in U.S. dollars, Ricky has been told, you are more likely to be overcharged. An armed guard stands outside the bank’s doors. Inside they search us with a handheld metal detector to make sure we aren’t carrying weapons. Another armed guard makes me take off my hat. In either corner of the bank is a policeman holding a shotgun.

The bank has air conditioning, which feels incredible. A line of people, 30+ deep, wait their turn for the tellers. I look for a place to sit down and soak up the air conditioning, but there are no empty seats. By way of hand gestures and Creole neither Ricky nor I can understand, we follow the driver back to the pickup and leave the passenger at the bank. We drive back into town, presumably to find wood.

Ricky and I are the only foreigners I see during our 4+ hours in St. Marc. For the duration of the trip, neither of us knows exactly where we are going or what we are doing next. The heat and continuous sweating slows my mind and body. We don’t even know the names of the men we are with. We simply have to trust in them to lead us, which we do, by way of our trust in Pastor Henri and Sister Gladys, who arranged for these men to work with us.

The next stop is a dark, narrow garage full of lumber. We point at some of the wood and try to explain what we need. There is an exchange between the driver and the man at the garage. He then gestures for us to sit. We wait quietly in the dark heat for 15 minutes. I am so tired I could sleep sitting up. Eventually, an older man comes out of the back and speaks to our driver. Ricky and I follow them both the pickup and the four of us drive back into the city to a second lumber garage.

This garage is similar to the first, dark and dusty, with high stacks of lumber piled from one end to the other. Outside a boy of about four is lying atop a pile of dirty clothes heaped on the ground in the driveway. I smile and say “Bonjour.” He replies with a “Bonjour” and rests his head atop the clothes.

The older man carries out a 12-foot long plank of wood and sets it at an angle atop the pickup. I ask if I can help, gesturing to the planks. The man does not respond and continues back to the garage for a second plank.

While he is working an older woman walks up the driveway, speaks in a stern tone to the boy lying atop the clothes, then spanks him twice on the butt. She walks away, still reprimanding the boy. For what, I don’t know. The boy acts like he’s experienced this before. Throughout the ordeal, he doesn’t as much as flinch.

The older man eventually loads eight planks of wood and secures them to the pickup with a rope. Ricky tips him with some currency he has from a previous trip. Whatever it is he gave him, the man accepted without complaint.

My Ignorance in Tipping

We pick up the passenger we left at the bank and he hands us each a roll of Haitian Gourdes. For the sheets of plywood we end up at a third lumberyard, a five minutes drive from the bank. A dozen men sit outside. When we walk up two men jockey for position in front of us. A younger guy, probably 20-years old, and an older man around 40 seem to be arguing over whose turn it is to help.

After inspecting their supply, we do our best to explain that we need seven sheets of 96 x 48 plywood. The argument over who is going to help escalates, as the two men try to out muscle each other for possession of the first sheet. The other men in the garage start shouting. Finally the older man relents, and takes a seat on a stack of nearby plywood, his shoulders slumped.

The young man first unties all of the beams on the pickup, lifts them and lays them in the street. He then loads the plywood sheets in the back of the pickup, and reloads the beams on top. The beams stick up so high I am worried they will take down a power line. I go to the driver and try to explain, pointing to the wooden beams and the slumping power lines just up the street. He tells the young man loading the wood and together they reposition the beams so that they sit a few feet lower.

Haitian 50 Gourde Once everything is loaded and tied down, I give the young man 50 Gourde, as this is the amount suggested by the passenger. The young man refuses the bill, gestures to all the wood he’s piled on the car, and walks away shaking his head. I hold out the 50 Gourde to the passenger who suggested it and say, “Should I tip more?” He takes it out of my hand and goes after the young man who loaded the wood. I don’t know the dollar equivalent of a Gourde, nor what the acceptable tip for a job like this might be. I’m working solely on the advice of the two locals we’re with, and unfortunately, we can’t communicate.

Next thing I know the passenger and the driver are yelling at the young man, who continues to brush them off. I walk the passenger and say “more” while holding out the bills he gave me. Ricky takes out his cash, too. The other people who are gathered on the sidewalk are adding their two cents. The passenger takes my cash, peels off two more 50 Gourde bills, and gives them to the kid, which he accepts.

Only later, when I am able to look up the conversion rate, do I realize that 150 Gourdes equals about $2.30. My first offer of 50 Gourde was only $0.77. No wonder he was upset. I insulted him and am upset with myself for not knowing the conversation rate before I arrived. Even $2.30 seems low, especially by American tipping standards, but it can also be a mistake to pay someone more than is accustomed, inadvertently causing a dispute between the person you tipped and others also working for gratuity. This is why you should relay on a trusted local to advise you in your transactions.

In 2016, Haiti raised the minimum wage to $4.84 for a full day of labor. A tip of $2.30 is almost half of the minimum wage for a day of work, and he made it in 15 minutes. In this context, our tip seems more reasonable.

A Fondness for Creole Rap

Assuming our trip to St. Marc is over, I’m surprised when we pull over and stop just blocks away. The passenger gets out and disappears into a grocery store. Ricky, the driver and I decide to get out and follow him inside. Ricky and I each buy a cold coke and large bottle of water. We also buy two cokes for the driver and passenger. When I look back, I see the passenger checking out in the next line over. He’s buying big bottle of wine, some sort of candy and a few other items.

Back outside the passenger disappears into a crowd of pedestrians, while the driver walks across the street and sits on a wall next to some teens listing to music on a boom box radio. Ricky and I decide to get back in the truck.

Almost immediately three young kids approach the pickup and ask for money. Not wanting to attract more attention, we tell them we have nothing. However, Ricky is drinking a large water and I am drinking a coke. The boys are persistent but kind in their pleading, and Ricky finally gives in, handing over his bottle of water. Two of the boys smile and walk away. One boy lingers. He is shy, not at all pushy. He gestures to my coke then pretends to drink from a bottle. Since I’d already had a couple sips, I hold out the coke bottle and point to it to make sure that is what he is asking for. When he nods, I screw on the top and hand it to him and he runs to catch up with his friends.

The driver walks into the street, shouts and motions for us to come sit with him. By this point, I am ready to be back at Canaan. To be the only foreigners lingering in the open does not seem like a good idea. My concern is based primarily on the State Department warnings I had read before arriving regarding violent crime in Haitian cities. If I had not read the warnings, I would feel much more relaxed, as there is nothing particularly ominous about St. Marc. Since it seems we may be there a while, and sitting in a hot truck is less than appealing, Ricky and I get out, jog across the street, and take a seat on the wall next to the driver.

Behind us is a town park with tall trees and shade. There are people in the park with little carts on wheels, selling random goods. Next to us is a group of teens wearing tank tops and wool ski caps. They are listening to Creole rap. One wears a thick gold chain. I wonder about the wool ski caps. How is that tolerable in this heat?

I really enjoy the music they are listening to. The songs have an infectious beat, and the rhythmic flow of the Creole language seems perfectly suited for rap. I wish I knew the language so that I could understand the lyrics. As the song picks up tempo, I notice that Ricky and I are both nodding our heads to the beat, just like the teens seated along the wall. What a laughable sight he and I must have been for locals – two stiff, older white guys trying their best to fit in with the cool kids. The ten or so minutes we sit on the wall at the park listening to Creole rap turns out to be, for me, the most enjoyable memory of our day in St. Marc.

When we arrive back at Canaan, we thank the driver and passenger, and several of the high school boys help us unload the lumber. It’s getting late, so we decide to push the ceiling work off until the next day. Pastor Henri asks which one of us is going to preach at Sunday’s mass. I tell him that Ricky spoke at my wedding, and that he was really good. So good, in fact, I’d like to hear him preach again this Sunday. I make it clear that “I’m no preacher.” Pastor says, “Here, nobody is going to laugh at you, so this is a good place to give it a try.” The conversation continues, until I offer to make a short speech, 2-3 minutes tops.

The Origin of Canaan Orphanage

At dinner, Sister Gladys tells the story of Canaan’s beginnings. When they arrived to settle on the land, a man approached them and asked, “Who are you?” Pastor told them they were the new owners of the land. The man said, “I have come to this land everyday for for ten years to ask God to send to me the people who belong here. You are not the actual owners until you tell me what you intend to do with this land and what you plan to name it.”

Sister explained to the man that they bought the land to start an orphanage and have already chosen a name. “It will be called Canaan,” Sister said, after Canaan of the bible, the “promised land” where Moses led his people after they had been freed from slavery. The man smiled and said, “Ah-ha, that is right! My prayers have been answered! Now, I have just one last question. What took you so long?”

Basketball and Homework with the Kids

Canaan Library Montrouis HaitiAfter dinner, I go outside and dribble a basketball around with the kids. Remembering a trick I learned form a teammate in grade school, I demonstrate how to dribble between your legs while you walk. Several kids attempt it. A few catch on pretty quickly. Others are too short to make it work.

That night Ricky, his nephew Jackson and I go to the cafeteria to see if anyone needs help with homework. There are a handful of kids in the cafeteria. I work with a few high school students, two girls and a boy, but my contribution is minimal, at best. The girls are named Tadjina and Isaura. The boy doesn’t need help with homework and I don’t get his name.

Jackson helps Isaura and I help Tadjina with a map of Puerto Rico. Tadjina, I notice, smiles at just about everything. And she should. She has the type of smile that causes others to smile, too. Tadjina mentions that she been to the U.S., so I ask where. She says, “A few places. Kansas, New Jersey, Florida.” Her favorite was Disney World, and her favorite ride at Disney was Space Mountain. As we talk, she continues to work on her map. I realize I am more of a distraction than anything, and decide to leave her to her work.

I slide down the table and talk to Isaura. She is sweet, very easy to talk to, and asks me to repeat my name. “Keith is hard to pronounce,” she says, and asks my last name. When I say, “Hemstreet” she laughs, then says, “Do you have another name, maybe an easier name?” I tell her my middle name is Michael. She says, “Okay, that’s easy, I’ll call you Michael. And you can call me Isa if that is easier.”

She asks about my family. I tell her I have three daughters and she asks their age. “Thirteen, eleven and eight,” I say, holding out my hand to demonstrate their heights. Isa says I should bring my 13-year old daughter next time I visit, since they are close in age. When I leave, Isa says, “It was nice talking to you, Michael.”

Jackson stays on and continues to chat with the students who all seem to be about his age. Ricky is helping a girl with her algebra and stays, as well. I walk back up the hill to our quarters to write for a little while before bed, seated under a mosquito net on the top bunk nearest the screened window.

Quickly, my eyes grow heavy. I put away my computer, lie back on my pillow and appreciate the fact that I am perfectly motionless for the first time since I woke. In no time, I am asleep.

Visit the Canaan Christian Community Website

Haiti Journal: Part II

May 4th, 2018 by Keith Hemstreet

March 13

Our quarters at Canaan are on the second floor above the crouche (pronounced “crush”). The crouche is where the babies are kept. I can hear one of them crying. The building is cinderblock with a tin roof. There are two sets of five steps, at a right angle to the door, which is a metal gate painted many colors and secured with a padlock. There is a screen door behind it. The railings and steps are also multicolored.

Several Canaan students and Sister Gladys are there to greet us and help us carry our luggage inside. Several of our large suitcases are loaded with school supplies, games and treats for the kids – reams of lined and blank white paper, pencils, erasers, sharpeners, pens, markers, colored pencils, soccer balls, volleyballs, whiffle ball sets, bubbles, lollipops, granola bars, tooth brushes and toothpaste, and so on. Ricky says this is the only way to bring supplies to Canaan. Supplies shipped to Haiti will almost never arrive at the intended address.

Canaan Haiti

The building is open air, walls of screens allowing for good ventilation. There are three rooms, each with four sets of bunks, two bathroom areas, and a living area with a couch and chairs. Everything is clean, the beds made, mosquito nets tucked away, towels rolled up and resting near each pillow. As I tour the quarters, I notice that several large holes have been chewed into the screens. The holes are large, the size of a softball. Rats, I assume.

The walls that divide the rooms rise about 7 or 8 feet. Enough to give you visual privacy. The ceiling sits another 5 to 7 feet above the top of the walls. The bathroom walls are lower than the walls in the bedroom, probably 6 feet, just high enough that you don’t have to duck to avoid being seen by someone in the other bathroom.

I sleep on a top bunk right next to a large screen to make use of the breeze. I am in a room of my own and sweating as I climb into bed. Ricky, Shae, their nephew and children all share a second room.

March 14

I lie awake atop the covers much of the night. The squeaky fan overhead keeps me comfortable until sometime around 2am, when the generator turns off and the fan stops. Those awful and exaggerated thoughts that seem to accompany me on every trip to the developing world once again plague my mind – What if my appendix bursts? What if there is another earthquake? What if there is civil unrest on a large scale? Paranoia is difficult to remedy in the middle of the night. I make an effort to shut these thoughts down completely. Surprisingly, I am able to. Eventually, I fall back to sleep.

Before sunrise, I hear people singing. Children’s voices, singing long and beautifully in Creole. Lying in the dark, listening to the angelic voices of children coming from somewhere down the mountainside, it seems as if I am in a dream. More people rise and sing from another part of the mountain, the adjacent village, it seems. Birds, dogs, roosters all contribute to the early morning bustle. Also in the adjacent village, a couple is awake and arguing about something.

A nice breeze comes up the mountain as the sun warms the sky. I am comfortable lying there watching the sunrise, but by the time I slide down from the bunk and walk ten steps to the bathroom, sweat has beaded on my upper lip.

Everyone else is awake and prepping for the day. I decide to freshen up before the day begins. The shower is a single spigot (narrow pvc pipe), which when turned on releases a small stream of cool water. After showering, we go for breakfast. I am sweating again before I even reach the cafeteria. Breakfast is eggs with onions and green peppers. Bread with peanut butter and marmalade. A banana. Scalding hot eucalyptus tea with sugar, which is delicious. When I finish, I am perfectly full.

A Tour of the Campus and Clinic

We then walk down the path to observe the students of Canaan in their morning ritual. They file from the school and stand in lines to recite the Haitian pledge and the Christian pledge and raise the flags. The principal is a missionary from the state of Washington. Her name is Naomi. She inspects students uniforms as they enter the school. Certain kids, it seems, will sit out at recess due to uniform infractions. Principal Naomi is stern yet loving and reminds me of my elementary school principal, Sister Mary Victor, a nun whom I credit in part for instilling in me discipline, pride, respect.

After the students go to class, we chat briefly with Principal Naomi then walk the property. The Canaan campus is lush in comparison with the adjacent villages, with hundreds of tall shade trees and a scattering of colorful bougainvillea. Lower down the hill the landscape opens up and the ground is mostly rock. Three women pass by, climbing the hill with large buckets of water balanced on their heads. Nearby, a thin horse forages for greenery on a mostly barren, shell rock hillside.

Montrouis Haiti

Just inside the entrance of Canaan, is the clinic. It is open to the public. Visitors pay a minimal fee, only if they can afford to. If they cannot, their service is free. A few people are gathered outside awaiting treatment. Shae has worked in this clinic many times before, but it is now fully staffed with Haitians. As we walk back up the hill, Shae tells me that the reddish tint you sometimes see in a child’s hair is a sign of malnutrition. Bloated bellies, too. When a body lacks protein and iron, the liver kicks into overdrive, building up fluid in the stomach, which causes the bloat.

The Story of Chevy

Making our way back to office, I notice Pastor Henri exchanging a few words with one of the young boys, about 7-years of age. His name is Chevy. He smiles at whatever the Pastor says to him. Shae whispers to me that Chevy is one of the Pastor’s favorites. When Chevy runs off, Pastor Henri tells me his story.

He opens by saying, “God opens doors.” As an infant, Chevy was dying of malnutrition. There is a charity that provides a supplement called Medica Mamba, a high-calorie, nutrient rich peanut butter, and Chevy was eligible. Members of this charity deliver the Mamba to those in need then check back on regular intervals to monitor progress. Chevy went through two cycles of Mamba, but when members of the organization went to see him, his weight had not changed. They assumed Chevy’s father, who had four older children, was feeding the supplement to himself and older children, leaving nothing for Chevy.

When Pastor Henri learned of this he told members of the organization, “We want Chevy at Canaan and he’s not leaving.” Soon after, Chevy was brought to Pastor Henri. He was fed and cared for, but remained in poor condition. An x-ray revealed that Chevy had two kidney stones. He was not even a year old. He went for surgery, but the Doctor’s could only remove one of the stones. Chevy grew weaker and was very near death. They decided the only hope was to fly him to a hospital in Miami where he could have surgery to remove the second stone. Problem was, Chevy had no papers, no birth certificate.

So Pastor Henri and Sister Gladys took Chevy to the embassy at Port-au-Prince where Sister argued with a man for five hours. Over and over she told the man she was not leaving until they had his papers. She kept to her word. Through contacts in the States, an American doctor arranged to have Chevy flown to Miami on a private jet. When he arrived at the hospital, the second stone was immediately removed. Chevy was kept at the hospital for an additional 4-months while he was fed and nursed back to health. When he returned to Canaan, Pastor Henri said, “He was big and healthy and smiled constantly. It was like he was happy to be alive.” From this point, I notice that what Pastor Henri said is true. Chevy wears a big smile constantly.

We return to the cafeteria for lunch. Set out on the table are plates of cold cuts, peanut butter, marmalade and bags of sliced bread. Sitting atop the food is a plastic dome to keep the flies away. I make a peanut butter and marmalade sandwich. When I finish the first, I am encouraged to make a second, so I do.

Learning About My “Upgrade”

After lunch Pastor Henri says that he has a project in mind for us. The “new” cafeteria, which is adjacent the current cafeteria, has been under construction for 16 years and it is very nearly functional.

We enter though a metal gate that serves at the door. The main room is spacious with tiled floors, colorful murals on the walls, metal beams and a tin roof. There are two small rooms in the back that will serve as the kitchen and pantry. The low ceiling over these rooms is cement and cracked in many places. A half dozen rusty copper wires jut from several different holes in the ceiling, intended, I assume, for light fixtures that will never be installed. As for the shape, or dimensions, the ceiling is what those versed in geometry would call an “irregular quadrilateral.” I had to look that up. In high school, I was no good at geometry.

Canaan Construction Project

Pastor Henri says he would like us to install plywood and support beams on the ceiling to provide extra reinforcement and give it a nicer look.

“I do not know when there will be another earthquake, but there will be one,” Pastor Henri says. “And when there is, I want the people working in here to be safe.”

As he explains his vision for the ceiling, I worry that I will be able to contribute very little to this project. Construction is a skill set I do not possess. When the Pastor leaves, I say to Ricky, only half-jokingly, “Are you going to tell him there’s no chance of us pulling this off, or should I?” Ricky laughs. “I tell everyone that they get an upgrade when they come to Haiti,” he says. “If you screw in light bulbs at home, you’re a carpenter here. If you are a nurse back home, you’re a doctor here. I have faith we can figure this out.” Sadly, I’m a screw in the light bulb guy. Carpentry is a leap I don’t know that I can make.

Playtime at Shae’s Camp

After lunch I follow Shae, Ricky and their kids to the basketball court to help set up games and crafts. The younger elementary aged kids arrive as we are setting up and Shae shows them how to decorate visors. They write their names on the visors, draw pictures and affix stickers to them. Each of them is happy to show off their creative work. “Look at mine!” they say, holding out their visors for me to see. Visors done, we all blow bubbles and inflate a few beach balls that get batted and kicked around.

Canaan student Haiti Keith Hemstreet

Next is a relay race involving a whiffle ball and paddle. With their newly decorated visors shading their faces, the kid’s all shout and cheer and laugh throughout the race. Several try to cut line to get an extra turn. There is some shoving and elbowing and we try to restore calm by assuring them they’ll all get another turn.

The middle and high school kids arrive and Shae transitions into different games in which they can all participate. But first, some jumping jacks and high knees to warm up the older kids. I join the exercise, thinking that I probably have not done jumping jacks since high school football practice, 26 years ago. After the first round I am drenched with sweat and out of breath and decide to sit out the second.

Shae knows lots of games and runs the show at “camp.” Her cousin Jackson is a great help, as well. They have close to 50 kids in a perfect circle, all paying attention and participating. No small feat. I simply assist where needed, chat with the kids and take photos.

There is one boy, a tall teenager, who is missing an arm. He has a very genuine smile and a kind way about him. I ask Shae about this boy. She tells me that he was trapped in the earthquake for several days before they found him. He was only six years old at the time. The scares on both sides of his face were left by the days he spent squirming back and forth in a desperate attempt to tear himself free. I assume his parents died in the quake, but I do not ask. It is hard to comprehend such a grim tragedy, yet the reality of it stands before me – a smiling teenager with one arm. I turn away, tears in my eyes, wondering what we are we to make of life’s boundless inequities. These circumstances are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile.

Canaan Students Recess

Ricky comes back from the office and asks me to join him on an errand. “We’re going into St. Marc’s to buy some wood for the ceiling,” he tells me.  Soaking wet with sweat, I run to fill up my water bottle, then jump into the back of an idling pick up truck. Two locals sit up front. The driver is in his 20s, the passenger is probably 30-something. Neither speaks English. “Bonjour,” I say. They both nod and we begin our descent over bumpy terrain toward the interstate.

The heat inside the truck is stifling and I roll down the window. As we turn onto the paved interstate, I begin to wonder how I’m going to manage my “upgrade” from a light bulb guy to a full-fledged carpenter.

Visit the Canaan Christian School Website

Haiti Journal: Part I

April 25th, 2018 by Keith Hemstreet

March 13

On flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince. Isle seat, 13C. Total flying time just under 2 hours. I am traveling with my wife’s cousin Ricky, his wife Shae, two or their children, 6 and 4, and their nephew, 14. We are en route to the Canaan Christian Community, an orphanage and school, in Montrouis, Haiti, to volunteer for a week.

I fall asleep during take off, then wake and write for an hour. After closing my laptop, I read a few more pages of Tracey Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, a book on Dr. Paul Farmer, and man who has devoted most of his life to providing medical care in Haiti.

No one is seated next to me, so I move to the window seat as the coastline of Haiti comes into view. Outside are mountains, mostly barren, stripped of forestation. No trees equals less rain equals longer droughts and the hills and mountains of Haiti show it. This is arid, scorched earth.

Flying over the city of Port-au-Prince, I see makeshift homes, industrial buildings, dwellings that have been destroyed by natural disasters and never repaired. Trash litters the hillsides. Thousands of people crowd the streets, hundreds gather in a dried riverbed. Before I even land it’s clear the desperate conditions in which many Haitians live.

A Brief History of Haiti

The Taino are the native people of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Their creation story tells of how their people originated from the caves of Hispaniola’s sacred mountains. In the decades following Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492, the Taino were nearly wiped out by the Spanish.

During the 17thcentury France staked its claim to the western third of the island. Utilizing the labor of several hundred thousand African slaves, the French established sizable forestry and sugar cane operations, turning this territory into one of the richest in the Caribbean.

A slave revolt began in 1791 and was led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a leader well versed in stoic philosophy and the writings of Machiavelli. L’Ouverture is quoted as saying, “I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man.” Despite Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts to squash the revolution, Haiti won independence from the French in 1804. From that time, Haiti has been marred by political corruption, environmental plunder, and catastrophic natural disasters.

Arrival in Port-au-Prince

We pick up our luggage. Pastor Henri and Sister Gladys, the couple that runs the orphanage, walk us right through customs without a problem. This is unusual. Ricky explains that when you arrive without the Pastor, who has obvious connections, security conducts a thorough search of your luggage. Once they have removed everything from your bags and are satisfied, they leave a mess for you to repack. As we walk through the doors, I feel lucky to have bypassed such a situation.

Outside the heat is heavy and I notice the smell of burning tires. Burning tires, I have read, can be an indication of a demonstration, a large group of people angry about something and protesting in the streets. Prior to leaving, I registered with the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince and the State Departments Safe Traveler Program. Since then I received numerous email warnings informing me of demonstrations and areas of the city that should be avoided. I check my phone, but my emails will not download. I wonder what might be happening and grow concerned we may get tangled up in a some kind of situation as we leave the city.

We drag our bags to the parking lot, where a pickup truck and a crimson colored minivan await our arrival. Josh, Sister Glady’s son, is also there to greet us. He was born in Haiti, but has lived all over — Ft. Lauderdale, California, and Corvallis, Oregon. Now he works at the orphanage in Montrouis.

All of our luggage is tossed into the back of the pickup and strapped down. We all pile into the minivan, which, I am grateful, has air condition. Pastor Henri tells us it was donated by the parent’s of a Canaan teacher who is from Canada. It took four months for them to get the minivan out of customs, and when they finally did, all of the van’s tools had been stolen.

I help Sister Gladys into the minivan, as her knee gives her problems. Josh drives the pick up, our luggage secure, but fully exposed. Ricky tells me he usually rides to the orphanage in the back of the pickup. It’s an hour and a half drive. This is hard to fathom. Even harder once we begin to navigate the dangerous streets of Port-au-Prince. Again, I am grateful for the closed-off mini-van and its air condition.

Port-au-Prince Haiti

I notice several remodeled pickup trucks and vans with people hanging off the sides. These are called “Tap-Taps” and are used for public transportation. People “tap-tap” if they want to get off, which is where the name comes from. They are all colorfully painted with murals and portraits of iconic figures – I see one with Bob Marley, another with Tupac – and converted to carry as many as 15 people, though not safely. There is a driver and a man in the back who collects the fee. Without a fee collector, many people would jump off without paying. Every Tap-Tap I see is filled to capacity. People, I have noticed, ride on the tops of buses, as well. Not very safe, obviously, but even less so in Haiti given all the low hanging power lines.

Many of the buildings and houses of Port-au-Prince are still in ruins from the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 and left 1.5 million homeless. There are also a large number of structures that appear to have been abandoned early in the building phase. These structures consist of cinderblocks stacked three or four feet high and rebar sticking out the top. Many seem to be occupied anyway. The unfinished structures where people have taken up residence are made slightly more whole with scraps of material. All of these dwellings are without plumbing, open to the elements, some with improvised doors, gates, or plastic tarps to create some sort of barrier.

Trash litters the landscape of Port-au-Prince. The streets, gutters, and hillsides are all covered, as if it fell from the sky in a recent storm. Vendors line the main thoroughfares of the city. Most appear to be selling similar goods. There are thousands of people everywhere. Hundreds of mopeds and motorcycles navigating the streets. Whatever traffic laws have been written are disregarded. The way people drive reminds me of Cairo. A cacophony of horns.

Throngs of people walk along the side of the roads, as cars race past at high speeds. There are women balancing large baskets and buckets on their heads without the use of hands. Small children, alone, casually watching cars whizz by from an unsafe distance. All of these people seem to be one misstep away from of being run over.

Armed Guards and Groceries

We pull into the parking lot of a grocery store. It is guarded by at least five men with shotguns hanging off their shoulders. We step out of the van to the sights, sounds, and smells of a chaotic city. It’s sensory overload for a first time visitor. The people and traffic. The shouting and honking and men with guns, their fingers resting on the triggers – a scene in which it is hard to pinpoint any semblance of order.

Inside the grocery store I look around at shelves stocked top to bottom with an assortment of goods. Canned goods, sauces, pasta, rice, cereals, breads. Refrigerated sections with meats, steaks, fish, chicken, sodas. Another station with hot pizza and fried chicken. Every shelf is full, top to bottom, with many of the brands I see back in the U.S. To find myself browsing a well-funded, well-managed grocery store comes as a surprise, to be honest, given the conditions of the surrounding area.

I stroll the isles as Pastor Henri and Sister Gladys fill their carts. Ricky mentions that he’s been told to keep his passport with him at all times. When I ask why, he says, “In case we ever have to take off running.” This is alarming. In Haiti, it seems visitors need to be prepared for anything. There could be a robbery, a riot or an earthquake. “I left my passport in the van,” I tell him. “Should I go get it?” He tells me we won’t be there much longer and that we should be fine. For the remainder of the shopping experience, I feel vulnerable without my passport. I also make a mental note to be hyper-aware of my surroundings.

Inside the store there are lots of people just standing around, loitering, with no intention of shopping. Every one of them watches us shop with gazes that are impossible to interpret. I wonder if they are in the store for no other reason than to enjoy the air conditioning. If they are, I don’t blame them.

Pastor Henri and Sister Gladys fill two carts. Beef, steaks, chicken, potatoes, bread, peanut butter and jelly, pancake mix, eggs, pasta and sauce, drinks, candy. I go and check on the van. A man with a shotgun stands a few feet away. I walk back into the store, grab a coke from the cooler and Pastor Henri pays for it while he is checking out. We load everything into the back of the mini-van and climb inside. Before Pastor Henri starts the van, he says a prayer, thanking God for our food, for the blessing of guests, and for our safe drive to Canaan. I open the Coke and take a sip. It is cold and sweet. More than just a coke, it seems an indulgence.

Night falls over Port-au-Prince. Moving back into the traffic and out of the city, I notice several vehicles driving without lights. No headlights, no taillights. I worry about this for a moment, then forget it, assuming that out of necessity those without lights have become adept at nighttime driving.

There is both a comfort and an eeriness to taking your first drive through a new country at night. The darkness protects you from the reality that exists outside and shields your presence from others. Yet it also works in reverse, deepening my anxiety over all the unknowns.

A Tragic Accident

Twenty minutes into our drive we stop at a gas station to fill up and use the bathroom. A man with a shotgun guards the station. Another man sits in a chair, guarding the bathroom. I get out of the van, stretch, notice the smell of smoke in the air. It isn’t tires this time though. This smoke smells like a campfire. It’s wood. I wonder about the average life expectancy of a Haitian given the high rate of diseases, the recurring natural disasters, the constant smoke in the air, and make a note to look it up. A vintage school bus pulls into the gas station, painted green, the inside packed, with a dozen more people riding on top. Across from the gas station a building is under construction and nearly complete. It is two-stories, painted yellow with white pillars. Possibly a hotel, or an office building.

We leave the gas station continue down a two-lane interstate, driving 50-60 mph. A few minutes into the drive, I am looking out the window in somewhat of a trance when I see an explosion of glass and metal. Right beside us, in the oncoming lane, the hood of a pickup folds like an accordion into the back of an abandoned dump truck. The pickup’s airbag deploys. I look back as we pass and see dirt and gravel pouring from the dump truck onto the pickup’s smashed windshield. Pastor Henri pulls the minivan to the side of the road and stops. I certain we just witnessed a fatality.

The Pastor opens his door and jogs toward the pickup. Ricky tells me to follow. We jump out, look around to make sure the traffic has stopped, and run down the street to the man in the truck. The driver is conscious, but groggy. Headlights of stopped cars provide enough light to see. Shae comes to check on the man, as well. The Pastor talks to him in Creole. More people gather. There is yelling. People shouting things I can’t understand. Several men start pulling on the back of the pickup.

Ricky and I run to help. I overlap my arms with another man’s arms as we tug at the back of the pickup. We are trying to tear it away from the dump truck, which is still pouring dirt and gravel over the top of the pickup’s splintered windshield. Within a couple minutes, there are at least 20 people at the scene. Everyone is frantic. More people join us in the back, trying to tear the pickup away so that we can free the man from the wreckage. It’s no use.

From nowhere an old truck with a tow pulley makes its way through traffic and stops at the crash. The driver lowers a pulley off the front of the van and latches it to the back fender of the pickup. He then starts the pulley crank and puts his truck in reverse. The back of the pickup is lifted off the ground. The fender starts to bend. The tires of the tow truck are spinning. Smoke fills the air.

I turn and run, yelling for Ricky and Shae to do the same, worried that the fender is going to slingshot into the crowd and kill someone. I turn back just as the hook slips loose and snaps backward, nearly hitting several people. Everyone is yelling and running around. Undeterred, the man again hooks the pulley to the fender and tries again. Again the pickup is lifted off the ground. It’s the same scene — squealing tires, smoke, the fender bending even more — but this time the strap snaps and the pickup drops hard to the ground.

Shae is distraught, worried that the driver will die before we can free him from the pickup. I run back to the minivan and explain to Sister Gladys what is happening. Jogging back to the scene I meet up with Ricky, Shae and the Pastor. There are now 40 or 50 people standing around. More people yelling in Creole. The scene is chaotic. A minute later, a flatbed truck of police arrive. They are dressed in military uniform. Where did they come from?

Finally, the Pastor says, “There’s nothing more we can do. They are going to have to cut him out somehow. Let’s go.”

As we drive away from the accident, I say a prayer for the driver, feeling somewhat empty and helpless given the things I have witnessed within an hour of our arrival.

Travel As Service: A Mission Trip to Haiti

April 16th, 2018 by Keith Hemstreet

Travel can do many things. It can excite, or it can frighten. Travel can relax, and it can also be trying. The beauty or chaos of a new place can awaken senses that lie dormant when we are at home. Travel can introduce us to new people, cultures and environments. It can teach, and it can inspire. Travel can even change our perspective on life. The best travel, I believe, does all of these things.

Pico Iyer’s essay Why We Travel opens with the line: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.”

This sums up the purpose of my recent trip to Haiti. First, I traveled to lose myself. To leave behind, if only for a moment, the day-to-day routine and cast aside recurring worries I couldn’t help but feel were superficial. Next, as Iyer wrote, I traveled to find myself. To rediscover the person I truly am at heart once the rigors of daily life were stripped away.

There is a dangerous complacency that can arise in those who sit idle — a sealing off of the mind can occur, a distrust in outside ideas, a settling into one’s ways. In other words, idleness can lead to single mindedness. A tried and true cure for this condition is travel. More specifically, traveling to a part of the world that is very different from your own.

My entire adult life I have talked about the importance of volunteering. I discuss it with my daughters and friends. I speak about it at schools when I am promoting our book series. I compliment those who give of their time every chance I get. But never once had I committed to doing it myself. My charity consists mostly of small donations to various causes. Lately, though, this effort did not seem enough, and I began to feel like a hypocrite, always talking, but never doing.

As it happened, over the holidays, I was presented with an opportunity. For twelve years, my wife’s cousin, Ricky, and his wife Shae have been active in the Canaan Christian Community, an orphanage and school in Montrouis, Haiti. They visit regularly, serving in whatever capacity is needed. When at home in Kansas City, they spend time raising money for Canaan. I have always admired their dedication and when it came up that they were visiting Haiti again in March, I asked if I could join them.

A few days into our journey, as I crawled under a mosquito net to record the day’s experiences in my journal, I wondered how I would ever be able to convey in my writing anything that even came close to what life was actually like in Haiti. How would I be able to sketch an accurate image of a country after only seeing a small part of it? How would I understand a nation of people after only meeting a few? It isn’t possible. In Haiti, I was an outsider, a foreigner, and I left knowing far too little to draw any conclusions. Therefore, all I can offer is my own experience, framed by the places I visited and the people I met.

For that reason, it seems the best way to tell this story is by publishing a few excerpts from my journal. By the end of the week, I will post my first entry, “Haiti Journal: Part I.” Additional excerpts will follow in the coming weeks. At the end of each post I will include a link to Canaan, should anyone wish to donate to this extraordinary orphanage and school. The children at Canaan are fortunate in many ways. They are educated, fed, housed and loved dearly. But they need continued support. U.S. dollars go a long way in Haiti. What the average American might spend on a family dinner at a restaurant can buy much needed school supplies, solar lights, medicine, or a meal for the entire orphanage.

Our mission at Travels with Gannon & Wyatt is to bring the magic of nature and far away cultures to the imaginations of children and their families. In our blog, we are able to delve deeper into the places we visit. When we can, we also do our best to help if help is needed. If our humble effort does nothing more than raise awareness and trigger compassion among readers for those born into difficult circumstances, then we feel we have made strides toward our goal.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to read this series of blogs.

Visit the Canaan Christian Community Website

Five Inspiring Quotes on Nature

December 18th, 2017 by Gannon & Wyatt

These five inspiring quotes on nature remind us of the importance of the natural world in our lives. So, while you have some time off from school and work this holiday season, get outside and explore. Take a walk in the park, a hike in the mountains, or a stroll down the beach. Watch a sunset, or better yet, a sunrise. Sit at the edge of a pond and observe the refection of the clouds as they move across the water’s surface. Enjoy the sights and sounds provided by mother nature. Let the peacefulness of your surroundings calm you.  don’t forget to  leave your devices behind!

Nuuk Greenland Sunset

Five Inspiring Quotes on Nature

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. —John Muir

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. —Lao Tzu

If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.  —Vincent Van Gogh

Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake.   —Rachel Carson

Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich. —Paul Hawken

Grand Tetons


Jane Goodall Movie

November 9th, 2017 by Gannon & Wyatt

A movie on the life of Jane Goodall is coming to theaters near you!

One of the great champions of the nature world, Jane Goodall left England at 26-years old to study human beings closest relative, the chimpanzee. Setting up a camp in the Gombe Forest of Tanzania, equipped with little more than a notebook and binoculars, Jane began studying chimpanzees in their native habitat. Soon after, she became famous around the world for her work. Today, at 83-years of age, Jane remains a strong voice for the protection of endangered species and the environment.

One of the original inspirations for Travels with Gannon & Wyatt, Jane Goodall is wonderful role model for youngsters who are curious about wildlife and the environment. Her life’s work is an example of how one dedicated person can truly help make the world a better place. Let’s face it, today we need more people just like her. Our hope is that this film will inspire more young people to stand up and help protect the natural world. Because who knows, the world’s next great environmental hero might just be you!

Be sure to watch the trailer and CLICK HERE to find a showtime near you.

To learn more about Jane Goodall visit the Jane Goodall Institute.

How Do Hurricanes Form?

September 1st, 2017 by Keith Hemstreet

This past week Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas. Before the flood waters have even receded, another powerful storm, Hurricane Irma, is developing in the Atlantic. Hurricanes are the most powerful storm on earth. But how do hurricanes form?

How Hurricanes Form

Hurricanes form when moist air rises over warm ocean waters. The humid, warm air meets cooler air at higher altitudes, creating large storm clouds. Add wind and circulation and you have all the ingredients for a superstorm.

Where Hurricanes Form

Hurricanes form over the ocean in the earth’s equatorial regions. The scientific name for these super storms is Topical Cyclone, but they have different names depending on where they form. For example, in the Indian Ocean they are called cyclones. In the South Pacific nearest Asia they are called typhoons. If they form in the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific nearest North America they are called hurricanes.  These storms are also given actual names, just like a person. In the southern hemisphere, tropical cyclones rotate clockwise. In the northern hemisphere, counterclockwise.

Hurricane Season and Categories

Hurricane season season runs June 1 and November 30. When a storms has sustained wind speeds of 39 mph, it is officially labeled a Tropical Storm. Once winds reach 74 mph, it’s a hurricane.  Hurricanes are categorized by the highest sustained wind speeds. There are five categories of hurricanes:

Category 1: 74 to 95 mph

Category 2: 96 to 110 mph

Category 3: 111 to 129 mph

Category 4: 130 to 156 mph

Category 5: 157+ mph

Hurricane Harvey Relief 

With 130+ mph winds, Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 storm when it came ashore in Texas. I have a family member in Victoria, TX, where winds topped 110 mph. Her home received extensive damaged, but she and her family made it safely through the storm. Harvey has impacted hundreds of thousands of people. Lives have been lost, others turned upside down. Growing up in Florida, I have experienced the devastation of hurricanes first hand, but Harvey is different. Parts of Texas received over 3 feet of rain! Our hearts go out to all dealing with the aftermath of this storm! For those wishing to help the recovery effort, here is a link published by the New York Times, WHERE TO DONATE TO HARVEY VICTIMS.

Ironically, it’s tragedy that often inspires the best in us. Here again is an opportunity to show our compassion for one another, an opportunity to help people who suffering, an opportunity to show that we are one human family.

A Visit to the American Museum of Natural History

August 14th, 2017 by Gannon & Wyatt

Spending one single day at the American Museum of Natural History is not enough. You could literally spend days, even weeks visiting the museum’s many amazing exhibits. The museum has an Earth and Space Hall, Animal Hall, Fossil Hall, Environment Hall, Human and Culture Hall. So, yeah…the museum is BIG! And the exhibits are so incredibly life-like! Trust us when we say, there is plenty at this museum to keep kids engaged for hours on end. We’re talking lions, buffalo, gorillas, grizzly and polar bears, not to mention a gigantic life-sized blue whale…and that’s just a short list of the animals on display. And if you’d like to imagine what might happen if the museum sculptures actually came to life, be sure to check out the movie A Night at the Museum.

One of the most inspiring things we saw while visiting was a message to “Youth” from President Theodore Roosevelt. It is etched into a marble wall just beyond the museum entrance and reads:


I want to see you game boys. I want to see you brave and manly and I also want to see you gentle and tender. Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground. Courage, hard work, self mastery and intelligent effort are all essential to a successful life. Character in the long run is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of and of nations alike.

Unfortunately our time in New York City was limited, so we only had one afternoon to tour the museum. Still, we made the most of it, visiting every floor and photographing as many of the spectacularly life-like dioramas as we could. Our hope is that these photos will inspire you to make your own trip to the American Museum of Natural History next time you visit the Big Apple. It’s definitely worth the time!

Happy travels!

Soul of the Elephant

July 27th, 2017 by Gannon & Wyatt

Released in 2015, Soul of the Elephant is the 16th movie by the award-winning filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. The adventurous couple has been making films, protecting wildlife, and preserving habitat in Botswana for over 30 years. We are big fans of the Jouberts. Their films, photography and dedication to conservation inspired us before we traveled through southern Africa conducting research for our first book, Travels with Gannon & Wyatt: Botswana. Truth is, the Jouberts’ work still inspires us today.

That is why we were shocked and saddened to learn that the couple was recently attacked by a Cape Buffalo. According to reports, the couple was walking to dinner at their camp in the Okavango Delta when a buffalo charged from the bushes. Dereck suffered broken ribs and a fractured hip, but his wife’s injuries were far more serious. She was trampled and gored by the buffalo. The horn shattered bones and came within millimeters of rupturing a major artery. For eleven long hours Dereck remained by her side doing all he could to keep her alive while they waited for medical help. At the hospital, Beverly underwent reconstructive surgery and spent five-weeks in intensive care. The fact that she survived is a miracle.

Dereck and Beverly Joubert, Wildlife Films

But you can’t keep these good explorers down. After leaving the hospital, they took to social media, writing: “We are sharper, more focused and resolute to do what we can to change a version of the future where there are no buffalo, no wildlife, no rhinos to save, no lions…because the wildlife of the world is in a similarly traumatic phase, (in the ICU) and if we don’t perform emergency interventions we will all be writing obituaries about nature.”

We at Travels with Gannon & Wyatt send our best to you, Dereck and Beverly, and want to thank you sincerely for all that you do to protect wildlife and help make the world a better place.

You can learn more about the Jouberts’ films and conservation work at Wildlife Films.

Warning: films contain graphic wildlife footage that may be upsetting to some viewers.

Summer Reading List for Middle Graders

June 8th, 2017 by Gannon & Wyatt

As another year of school wraps, we at Travels with Gannon & Wyatt have put together an exciting summer reading list for middle graders. The beauty of long summer days is that they give us plenty of time to play outside, hang out with family and friends, and read!  So grab a book, fire up your imaginations and embark on  an epic adventure! Happy reading everyone!

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Imagine walking two hours each way in a country ravaged by war to collect water for your family. Told from the perspective of two 11-year olds in Sudan, this is one of the most moving books we have read in a long time. Based on a true story, we highly recommend this short novel to all young readers.

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

A heartwarming and tragic tale of young boy and a mischievous stray named Old Yeller. As faithful and brave as a dog can be, Old Yeller helps young Travis navigate the dangers of the Texas frontier. A Newbery Honor book and a classic, Old Yeller should be on every youngster’s reading list.

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Ever dream of setting off into nature and living off the land? Another Newbery Honor book, My Side of the Mountain tells the tale of young Sam Gibley. Fed up with life in New York City, Sam  sets off to live in the deep woods of the Catskill Mountains and journals about his experience.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

The story of 12-year old Artemis, super-genius and criminal mastermind, is just good fun. The first book in this series opens in sweltering Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, with a moody Artemis and his heavily armed butler on a mission to restore his family’s fortune.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Dog Days by Jeff Kinney

If you’re looking for a good laugh, book #4 in the series is a hilarious summer read. In Dog Days, young Greg, a boy who prefers the indoors, is forced outdoors to participate in a number of summer activities that inspire “family togetherness.”

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

Another humorous tale about a boy who relocates with his family from Montana to South Florida, this book is really about the price of development in paradise. Hoot includes an amusing cast of characters, including a renegade eco-warrior, a school bully and a bumbling police officer. It also makes readers think about the damage we often inflict on nature in the name of “progress.”

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

For those young readers (and adults) who appreciate a masterful work of literature, there may be no better choice. Set in the harsh backwoods of Florida, a landscape teaming with hungry wolves, bears and alligators, The Yearling tells the high-stakes tale of young boy and his adopted fawn. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Yearling has been hailed as a great work of American literature. [ideal for slightly older readers, ages 12+]

We look forward to seeing some of you on our school tour next year! We hope you enjoy our summer reading list for middle graders. Remember, the more you read, the more you know, and the brighter your future!