Haiti Journal: Part VI

June 29th, 2018 by Keith Hemstreet

March 17

This morning several of the young girls from the elementary school are outside their dorm sweeping the walkway, picking up trash, even raking the plots of dirt out front, giving the area the overall appearance of well manicured space. I sit down on a wall nearby and chat with them. Ricky and Shae’s daughter, Amelia, walks over and joins us. Amelia communicates easily with the girls her age. In her previous visits to Canaan, she has developed a friendship with many of the students and they all seem to enjoy one another’s company.

Two of the girls outside cleaning are Sophie and Nataniel. We all talk a little about our upcoming trip to the beach. “When are we leaving?” Sophie wants to know. I tell the girls I’m not sure, but that it shouldn’t be too long. When the girls are done with their chores they begin to play. Sophie spins the broom like a baton, around and around, faster and faster. She drops it a few times and giggles as she picks it up. She is another one with a smile so cute and genuine it brightens your day.

In these moments – the simple interactions with the kids, conversations with Pastor Henri and Sister Gladys, observing teachers working with students – it is clear I am getting far more out of Canaan than Canaan is getting out of me. How do I change that? It’s not that I want to take away less, but that I want to give more. Attached to any hypothetical answer is the reality of greater sacrifice. How willing am I to alter my own life to help others?

As I watch the girls play I wonder about their parents. Are they living? And if they are, where are they right now? What is their situation? How terribly sad it is that they cannot see their daughters in this moment. That they cannot be a part of their daughters’ lives. And for the girls themselves, how tragic that they are without their mothers and fathers. The thought brings tears to my eyes and forces me to look away while I gather myself.

Canaan Christian School HaitiAnother hour so is passed in the shade, strolling around the campus, watching a crew chop away at the rocky soil and clear out a hole to plant another tree. From what I have been told, the property on which Canaan sits was initially a barren hillside. Pastor Henri and Sister Gladys initiated the land’s restoration, planting over time what now amounts to hundreds of tall trees. How the trees grow in this white, chalky soil I don’t know, but they do and their importance cannot be understated. They shade the walking paths and a large swath of the campus, taking the heat factor from nearly unbearable to tolerable. One only needs to step from the scorching sunlight into the shade to appreciate the difference.

Beach Party Time

Not long before noon we load the first truck with the older kids and some of the Canaan staff. The truck is a large, open air flatbed with a roof. It can hold about 20 people. More than that number climb inside and the back gate is closed. To secure the gate, a rusty piece of wire hanger is placed through two metal rings and twisted around a couple times. Packed beyond capacity, the truck leaves for the beach. As it bumps down the rocky path the kids shout and laugh with delight.

The rest of us wait with the elementary school kids, passing time in idle conversation. Some of the boys play with a soccer ball. Others shoot hoops. While the campus is kept relatively clean and has metal bins placed throughout, some of the trash naturally finds its way onto the ground. Waiting for the truck to return I walk around the cafeteria, pick up random pieces of garbage, and toss them into the bins – plastic water and soda bottles, plastic bags, crushed cans, cardboard packaging, candy wrappers from the treats we brought for the kids, a few rusty old batteries.

Walking toward the bin with a handful of trash, I pass a woman pushing baby Jacob up the hill in a red stroller. He is wide-eyed and barefoot, dressed in camouflage shorts and a white t-shirt, and draws immediate attention from just about everyone. I squat down next to him and tickle his belly with my finger. He smiles and giggles. Others crowd around and take turns tickling him and talking to him in high-pitched baby voices. This show of love and attention, the ease with which Jacob smiles, coupled with his reversal of health since having been brought here with severe malnutrition, is yet another example of the life changing power of Canaan.

To the Beach in the back of a Flatbed Truck

A little over an hour passes before the flatbed truck returns. It is quickly loaded to capacity and beyond with more kids and staff, boxes of food, crates of soft drinks and games. I am the last to climb into the back of the truck and have to press against others to move my body inside just far enough to close the back gate. Again, I estimate there are 20+ people piled into the truck. The majority of us are standing, as there are only a few places to sit. One of the male staff members closes the gate behind me and twists the rusty wire hanger through the metal rings to secure it. He then warns those standing near the gate not to lean against it because, you never know, the rusty wire could give way and send us tumbling down the highway.

As the truck rattles and thumps back down the driveway, people sway front and back and side to side. Unless you are tall enough to press your hands against the metal ceiling for balance, there is nothing to hold on to. At the bottom of the hill the driver stops short and half the people topple over each other like bowling pins. This gets everyone laughing, and fortunately, no one is hurt.

Outside the gate the usual gathering of a dozen or so people fill cracked and broken plastic containers and buckets with water from the small pipe the juts inexplicably from a cinderblock wall. A naked toddler stomps around in the mud. An older woman scrubs wet clothing with soap. A man splashes water on his face. All turn to watch us go by, the good fortune of Canaan students glaringly apparent.

Just down the street we stop for gas. Everyone stays in the back of the truck while the driver gets out and fills the tank. The air is still, the smell of petrol strong, the heat intense. My face glistens with sweat. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and take a few photos of our cramped quarters.

Bus Trip HaitiAfter a few minutes we are moving again and the air begins to circulate through the truck, clearing out the smell of petrol. The driver shifts gears, the truck speeds up, and the children begin to sing. Their voices rise up and over the roar of the engine. It’s enchanting, all these little voices singing at once. There is a peacefulness to it, a healing power. The hope of the world can be felt in the voices of children.

I find myself invigorated. My spirits lift. A French song ends and another begins, this one in English. Looking through the gates at the passing landscape, I feel as though I have eased somewhat to the geography of Haiti. It is more familiar to me now and with that familiarity comes a comfort. What began as foreign, downtrodden and potentially hostile, a place that was ravaged and crumbling, has become more beautiful. “Beauty is no quality in things themselves,” said the Scottish philosopher David Hume. “It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”In my mind a transformation seems to have occurred. I notice far more trees along the coast than I had previously taken account of. It’s overwhelmingly green and lush. Looking to the mountains, blazing under a white sun, my first thought isn’t of the oppressive heat and prolonged drought, but the sheer magnificence of the terrain. The potholed road we turn onto that tosses a bunch of unbuckled kids around the back of the truck isn’t something to be terrified by, but part of our great adventure together. We are on our way to the beach for a cookout. I see smiles and hear laughter. The kids are singing. People are happy. Outside the landscape is illuminated. All of a sudden this seems to me as splendid a moment as I have ever experienced.

Despite having been here less than a week, I am beginning to feel a connection to this place. I am more relaxed than I have since we arrived. The unease I felt early on has dissipated. Not completely, I have to admit, but enough to allow me to embrace each moment more fully. For the first time the idea of returning in the future is something I find myself considering.

 

Haiti Journal: Part V

June 18th, 2018 by Keith Hemstreet

March 16

U.S. Embassy Alerts

The following morning I download my email while lying in bed. More warnings from the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. “Demonstration Alert – Downtown area of Port-au-Prince (Ministry of Interior near the National Palace in Champs de Mars; Grand Rue; St. Jean Bosco Church towards Bel-Air; Ministry of Social Affairs on Avenue Charles Sumner) Events: On-going demonstrations and barricades. Actions to Take: Please avoid the area.” The email is from the previous day, but similar alerts are issued daily.

My hope is that the protests are unorganized, benign and more importantly that they do not escalate. Whether or not to even read the U.S. Embassy alerts is something I am struggling with. On the one hand it’s necessary to stay informed in order to avoid walking blindly into a bad situation, while on the other, the things I am blind to don’t cause undue stress. Ignorance is bliss, I guess, until it jumps up and bites you.

I put away my phone and appreciate for a moment the perceived security of Canaan – the stirrings of those in nearby buildings, the wind in the trees, the voices – but lingering in bed will only allow troubling thoughts to return. It’s like that Mark Twain quote, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Nothing good comes from worrying about situations that may or may not come to pass. I decide it’s best to get up and busy myself with the morning routine.

Our goal today is to finish the ceiling. I dress, drink some water, make sure all of my bags are zipped up — i.e. closed off to rats — and walk down the hill for breakfast. Aside from being tired, I have felt good so far. No intestinal disruptions. Wanting to keep my stomach in good order, I stick with the breakfast that’s worked for me – peanut butter and marmalade on white bread and a cup of hibiscus tea with sugar.

Getting to Work

After breakfast we begin our work by cutting two more beams, affixing them to the metal brackets, and nailing the brackets into place. The U-shaped brackets Pastor Henri has are at least ½ inch longer than the height of the 2×4 beam, so we have to cut small pieces of wood and wedge them into the bottom of the bracket to fill in the empty space. It is not ideal, and would probably make a professional carpenter cringe, but to us this seems the best solution.

We then cut 2 of the last 3 pieces of plywood, both irregular quadrilaterals. After, we snip all remaining wires that hang from random holes in the ceiling. Despite the repeated assurance that there is no power coming to this building, I can’t help but be unnerved by the task. To me, it’s sort of like playing wire snipping Russian Rolette. “Okay, here I go. Snip! Phew, still alive! Your turn.” I snip some of the wires, Ricky snips more, almost, but not quite sharing equally in the risk of electrocution.

When we lift the plywood pieces to the ceiling they are only off by a small fraction of an inch, which works just fine. Again, the accuracy of our cuts is a credit to Ricky’s geometry skills. I wonder how it might have turned out had Ricky not been here and I had been put in charge of this project. As a laborer, I can contribute. As the lead architect, it would have been a mess.

Pastor Henri shows up when he has a free moment to lend a hand, and Rafael stops by regularly to lift, hold, and hammer. Ricky and I break briefly for lunch, then spend some time in the kitchen washing dishes. Like all chores here, it is an exercise in teamwork. Ricky gathers plates and utensils, scrapes excess food into a trash bin and piles it all on the edge of the sink for me to wash. Inside a large sink are two buckets of water, one with soap, one without. The water has a potent smell. Some sort of sterilizing agent. Bleach, maybe. I work my way through a growing pile of dishes, dunking each into the bucket of soapy water, scrubbing them clean with a sponge, rinsing them in the clean water, and finally setting them on a rack to dry. In comparison to the ceiling work it is a chore of such methodical simplicity I find it almost meditative.

As the day wears on, lifting the wood becomes more of a challenge. My shoulders burn and my arms begin to shake when I lift them over my head. My clothes are soaked through with sweat and covered in sawdust. At one point my arms give out, I simply cannot hold them over my head any longer, so I climb one step higher on the ladder and use my head to brace the wood against the ceiling.

Once a plywood piece is put in place, two people hold it up, while a third person affixes an adjustable steel pillar between the floor and ceiling. Positioning the base flat on on the ground, the metal pillars are twisted clockwise to extend the height, allowing a flat piece on the top to press tightly against the plywood, holding it securely in place. Then we can work on putting up the support beams, which secures the plywood sheets permanently in position. I am not sure if this is how it is typically done, but it seems logical so this is how we do it.

We finish around 5:30 p.m. and not without an overinflated sense of pride. I have never done anything like this in my life, and it doesn’t look half bad. Pastor Henri even gives his approval. After taking in the details of our handiwork, he nods his head. “I like it,” he says. “This will work.”

A Chat with Maurice

Outside the cafeteria I sit in the shade and talk with Maurice, who I would guess is somewhere between 7 and 9 years old. Maurice is a strong boy and appears healthy, but he is in need of constant supervision. He has a hyperactive energy about him and has a hard time communicating socially. I am told his mother struggled with various addictions while she was pregnant, which most likely contributed to Maurice’s difficulties.

Maurice and I talk about superheroes. He tells me that King Kong is big, strong, and climbs buildings. “Hey, I’m King Kong!” he shouts, pounding his chest. He also likes the Hulk, whom he imitates by flexing his biceps, growling and showing his teeth. I have noticed Maurice is always playing the air drums with his fingers – while walking around, in between comments or when he is just looking for something to get into.

Maurice asks if he can see my phone. Says he wants to play Temple Run. It’s the same request I get from my daughters at home. They love Temple Run. For some reason I find this heartwarming. Maybe it has to do with the similarity of childhood interests, or the discovery of common ground between Maurice and my own children. To me it’s an indication of how easily kids can connect, play together, and form friendships, regardless of where they are from. Children harbor no prejudices. It’s a shame we can’t let them stay that way.

Before I can answer Maurice, he starts searching my pockets for the phone. I gently take his hands, move them away, and tell him I don’t have my phone with me. “Hey, can you get it?” he asks. “Can you get your phone for me? I want to play Temple Run!” I tell him not right now, but that I’ll bring it down later. He nods, indicating he’s okay with this, and goes looking for something else to do.

I stand and walk into the cafeteria to ask what time we should be back for dinner. The students are all seated and eating. When I turn around, I see that Maurice has followed me inside. From the table closest to us, he picks up a bowl of mango slices that were meant for the everyone to share and says, “Hey, can I eat this?” He then proceeds to shovel a handful into his mouth. Several of the kids yell “Maurice!” and before I know it he is face down on the ground with a woman standing over him. She holds the bowl of mangoes in her hand and passes them off to one of the students before lifting Maurice off the ground, taking him by the hand and leading him out the back door.

What in the world just happened? I think, and walk outside, realizing I didn’t even ask the question I intended to ask. Hiking back up the hill, I can’t help but feel guilty. It was me that Maurice followed into the cafeteria, which makes me partially responsible for the resulting drama. The last thing I want to do is further complicate that child’s life.

I am quick about washing up so that I have a little time to type some notes into my journal before dinner. The air inside my room is still. The heat impossible to ignore. Even when I stop moving, I continue to sweat. Lying back against a folded over pillow on the lower bunk, I prop my laptop on my legs and type as fast as I can.

Visit the Canaan Christian Community Website

Haiti Journal: Part IV

May 24th, 2018 by Keith Hemstreet

March 15

With each new day what hope is there among the Haitian people that they might experience, in their lifetime, real change? When progress seems a distant prospect, each day requires a level of grit and determination, of patience and faith, that would be difficult for many living in the developed world to fathom, much less sustain.

I think of this reality in contrast to the morning that greets those just a two-hour flight away in Miami, or even on the other side of this island in the Dominican Republic, a nation far more developed and stable than Haiti. I think of the masses in these places waking up with electricity, air-condition, modern plumbing, tap water that is drinkable. Access to basic amenities cannot be fully appreciated until one spends time without them. When you do go without, it does not take long to see basic amenities for what they are – a miracle.

These are the thoughts that shift about in my mind as I lie awake in the darkness. Beyond the screen, on the mountainside, I hear the first stirrings of life – people talking, a woman singing, a dog barking. As light begins to spread over the sky, I doze off, only to be roused into a semi-conscious state by the sound of rain landing atop the tin roof. After a light shower, the sky opens and the rain falls hard upon Montrouis. The deluge suppresses the heat. There is actually a coolness in the air. This is a gift and makes for an easier start to the day.

Everyone is up and dressed and moving about our quarters, waiting for a break in the rain before venturing outside. When the rain lightens up we walk down the hill to the cafeteria. Big drops or water paint our clothes with dark circles. Two stray dogs tussle and jump around in the puddles. Flowers droop. Trees glisten. No one is outside. All is quiet.

Inside the cafeteria, water drips from the roof in various locations. I count five buckets collecting water, about half the number needed. All of the buckets are close to or completely full of water. The other leaks simply pool on the floor. A few Canaan staff members eat at a far table beyond reach of the leaks. The rest of the cafeteria is empty.

We sit at the corner table nearest the door. A plastic pot of hibiscus tea had been put out and I pour myself a cup, add sugar, sit down. Steam rises from the top of the white mug. I put it to my lips but it is too hot to sip. The rain picks up again. Another downpour. Water falls from the ceiling as if from an open faucet. It is peaceful, therapeutic, listening to the pattering of rain atop a tin roof. In a heavy rainstorm it can be so loud it drowns out just about all else. The noise forces you to pause, to sit without speaking, to appreciate the momentary lack of activity.

A Tour of the Canaan School

After enjoying a leisurely breakfast of peanut butter and marmalade on white bread and a second cup of tea, the rain lets up and Principal Naomi takes us on a tour of the Canaan School. The rooms are warm and muggy after the rain. Under the gray sky, the classrooms are quite dark. Small wooden, cubicle desks are lined up against the wall. Student artwork, A-B-C charts, pictures of fruits with the English name underneath, and Happy Birthday messages are tacked around the room. Holes higher up in the cinderblock walls provide ventilation.

The décor and educational materials remind me of what you would see in a classroom in the States. The classrooms are tidy. Lessons are taught in English and French. The older students at Canaan know three languages – English, French, and Creole. French is the official language spoken by Government officials and employees, so it is important to speak French fluently if you wish to be considered for a government job. Creole is likely the first language of most of the children, though students are discouraged from speaking it on campus. English and French offer more opportunity, I am told.

The students all stop what they are doing when we walk in and must be coaxed to continue with their work. The girls wear blue plaid jumpers, the boys navy shorts and short sleeve oxfords with red ties. The teachers are attentive to the children and go about their lessons. They also wear uniforms – a navy skirt and white blouse. One of the elementary teachers, Sister Hannah, is from Eastern Canada. She is 18-years old and will start college next year. The other teacher, Sister Liz, is a young woman from the state of Washington. Today is her 21st birthday. At Canaan, when addressing an elder, the terms “Sister” and “Brother” are placed before a person’s name as a show of respect.

It is obvious we are a distraction and I only make myself more of one by taking photographs. The kids smile when I point my camera at them, so I put it away until the kids take to the playground. They play tag and we each take turns pushing the them on the swings. Jackson gives one of the small girls the ultimate “underdog” push, were you run underneath the swinger and push them as high as your arms will extend. The chains slack on her way up and snap back when she falls. Her smile is a perfect snapshot of that momentary euphoria children so easily access.

After recess we tour the upper school, just across the road, where middle and high school students attend classes. The rooms are larger, clean, organized. There is a small library, locked with a padlock. The windows are hazy with mildew and age. I put my face up close and peer in at the well-stocked shelves of books. Curious as to what books are popular among the students, I make a note to request access before we leave so I can browse their collection.

Walking back through the courtyard a girl’s voice calls out, “Hi Keith!” When I turn around and say “Good morning,” I find myself staring at four girls standing shoulder to shoulder. I am still placing names with faces, so I speak to the group. “How are you all doing today?” I ask. “Good,” one of them answers. Two of the girls look at each other and chuckle. I wonder if they are making fun of me. Why would they not? I’m the pale, goofy guy who walks around with a camera and can’t stop sweating. If I were them, I would make fun of me. After all, there’s quite a bit to make fun of. “Have a great day,” I say. “I’ll see you later.” The girls smile and say, “Bye.”

The teachers at the upper school are Haitian. The math and science teacher, Brother LaPort, studied Chemistry at the University in Port-au-Prince. He also learned German and speaks fluent French. Brother LaPort looks young, mid-20s if I were to guess. One of his courses is calculus, which he teaches to the oldest high school students. He is dressed in blue slacks, a long-sleeve, white oxford buttoned at the neck, and wears a red tie.

The uniforms bring an air of professionalism to the school, but the male uniforms, in particular, seem asphyxiating. I am wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt, wiping sweat as we talk, and can’t imagine how they concentrate in this heat and humidity. That said, Brother LaPort appears comfortable, going about his business without a bead of sweat on his face.

We wrap up our brief conversation, shake hands and leave him to his work. I am so impressed by this tall, soft-spoken, highly educated man. Outside his classroom, Ricky and Principal Naomi discuss how fortunate they are to have Brother LaPort, as any school would be. From what I gather during our short interaction, he seems a tremendous asset to Canaan and an excellent roll model for these young children.

An Education In Carpentry 

Before we begin work on the kitchen ceiling, we go to our quarters and carry two suitcases full of school supplies back down the hill – reams of white and lined paper, wooden pencils, pencil sharpeners, colored markers and pencil sets, crayons, ballpoint pens and notebooks. There are also soccer and volleyballs and an assortment of other sporting goods for PE. Principal Naomi was especially thrilled to have the paper. “Paper!” she said, excitedly. “We really need paper.” Apparently, they had not been able to find any locally.

The clouds move away and the sun quickly dries the dampness left by the storm. The rest of the day is reserved for work on the kitchen ceiling. Ricky, Jackson and I measure distances, scribble them in my journal, and try to determine the corresponding angles. Ricky seems to have retained what he learned in high school geometry, whereas I did not. Jackson, Ricky’s nephew, also helps. They are the brains of the outfit. I am little more than an additional set of hands.

Once they are confident with their calculations, we use a long straight edge ruler and wood planks to pencil our cuts on large sheets of plywood and 2x4s. Ricky and I take turns cutting the wood with a skill saw, the same saw, Pastor Henri tells us, that he just used to carve up a goat for Sister Liz’s 21st birthday dinner tonight. Upon hearing this, I cannot help but visualize the scene. But soon work continues, and my mind is once again occupied by concerns for my own safety. When using the skill saw, I remind myself, try not to cut off a finger, or worse, a hand. When climbing the ladder, beware the jagged, rusty nails that could easily tear open your scalp. When hammering, be careful not to crush your fingers. High on my wish list for this trip is avoiding serious injury and a trip to the clinic.

Mid-afternoon, Shae and Jackson run camp for the kids inside the new cafeteria. They play paddle ball, blow up beach balls, and play other games while Ricky and I continue work on the ceiling. At one point, he and I are asked to break away from our work and act surprised when the kids run in and douse us with crazy string. The ambush goes off without a hitch and fills the room with smiles and laughter.

By the end of the workday I have measured and cut wood, held large sheets of it over my head while balancing on a ladder, hammered nails into solid concrete and sweat through my clothes multiple times. Working with Ricky, Jackson, and an occasional visit from Pastor Henri has made the experience a real pleasure. Toward the end of the day, when we could hardly lift our arms, we were assisted by Rafael, a local Creole speaking gentleman who handles maintenance on campus. Rafael, despite being older than us and lean in stature, can hammer a nail into cement with five our six whacks, where as it was taking Ricky, Jackson and I 30 to 40. Today’s progress was not at all bad for novice carpenters, but we still have a way to go.

Before dinner I hike back up the hill to our quarters and walk into to the bathroom to freshen up. Looking in the mirror, I see that my face and neck are covered in red blotches. A heat rash of some sort. In addition, I have a couple dozen bugs bites on my face, neck and arms. The heat and bugs add to the challenges of life in Haiti. Coming from a cooler, dryer climate, my body is taking some time to acclimate. It is not an easy environment in which to function, but I assume like anything, you adapt. I turn on the spigot and splash cool water over my face, dab it dry with a towel and sit still on the edge of the bed in the hopes that the rash will dissipate. When I look in the mirror after a ten minute rest the blotches are far less noticeable.

A Short Hike with a View

Ricky and Shae come into the room and ask if I’d like to hike to the water tank atop the hill where there is a nice view of the mountains and the ocean. I grab my camera and join them, walking slowly, almost at a stroll, to keep from overheating. Jackson joins us, as does Ricky and Shae’s youngest son, while their daughter plays with the girls her age down by the cafeteria. The sun is low on the horizon and not so hot. The duration of the hike is no more than five minutes, which suits me fine. Along the way we pass a stray donkey, alone on the hillside, pulling scarce sprigs of greenery from the rocky soil.

From the water tank, the view extends in all directions. To the west is the shimmering Canal de Saint-Marc. Just below us is the property of Canaan, canopied with tall trees. On either side are small hillside villages, mostly void of trees. To the east are mountains, tall and rugged and green. They remind me of summertime mountains in parts of the Southwestern U.S.

Later I find a map and see that these mountains are called the Chaine des Matheux. The tallest among them is a 5,203 ft. peak that is unnamed, at least on the map. This elevation is significantly lower than Haiti’s tallest peak, Pic la Selle, which rises to 8,793 ft., but the Chaine des Matheux are impressive nonetheless. The ocean breeze from atop the dry and dormant water tank is steady and pleasant and the view is one of the prettiest I have seen in Haiti.

As I snap photos, the dinner bell rattles from somewhere underneath the treetops of Canaan. It’s time to eat. We hop from the tank and walk back down the path to the cafeteria.

At the cafeteria we are greeted by Tadgina. “Hi Tadgina,” I say. “Anything spectacular happened today?” I am surprised by her excited reply. “Yes!” she says. “Oh wow, let’s hear it!” Ricky says. With a shy, but proud smile, Tadgina says, “I got a one-hundred percent on my geography test.” We all congratulate her and slap high-fives.

Pastor Henri makes his way over to us, leans into the conversation and says, “Go get yourselves some goat!”

Ricky and I shoot each other a quick look and do as he says, following Pastor Henri to the serving table to fill our plates.

Visit the Canaan Christian Community Website

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.