Sunday, December 19, 2010

Savanette, Haiti

Caroline and I enjoying fresh coconut milk in Savanette. It is very common to see people drinking coconut milk like this or eating freshly cut sugar cane.

School in Savanette

From up at the rectory of the local church where we stayed, we could hear children in the school singing or reciting their lessons. Late one morning, Caroline and I went down with Father Erus to visit the school.

The room full of little children wearing pink shirts were getting ready to eat lunch. The white bucket on the table in the photo holds the rice and beans they will eat. For many, we were told, this will be their main meal of the day. For some children, this is the only meal they will have during the day.

The two women outside are cooking the lunch for the children. It's a simple meal of beans and rice and a gravy that is made of beans. All this is cooked on charbon fires.

The school has a couple hundred children and relies completely on the Catholic Church for donations. There are few books, let alone any other teaching instruments. A simple blackboard and chalk are the most basic tools of a Haitian School.

This is the only school in this town that operates consistently. There is a state elementary school and a state high school. For the few days we were there, neither state school was operating. I was told that sometimes professors come and sometimes not. Since they are paid sporadically, when they are long overdue their salary, they simply don't show up. Once they receive pay, they return to school.
Children come everyday and wait a bit to see if a teacher arrives. If teachers do not arrive, the children walk home. I remember on previous visits when leaving at 4.30 or 5 am to travel, the roads would be full of children walking to school. Some travel distances of several miles each day to attend school.
As I mentioned earlier, there are thousands who live in encampments in the countryside around Savanette. Many of those children living in the countryside walk several miles each day to attend school.

The Market in Savanette

These are some shots of the market in Savanette. Many people sell goods such as beans, rice, bread, fish, freshly slaughtered meat, sugar cane, picked coffee, peas.
Other people cook and prepare food such as the stews you can see here. You can also see the market stalls under which people set out their items to sell. I believe the meat here is beef, which is not very common. Mostly the meat that can be found is goat, some pork and chicken. Not many people can afford to have meat in their daily diet. A little meat is usually mixed in with the rice and beans Sunday dinner.
It is easy to see that the sanitary conditions are very poor and this contributes greatly to the spread of disease. It is not uncommon to see Clorox Bleach which is used as a simple disinfectant. In fact, a small amount of clorox is thrown into water barrels to disinfect before using the water to cook or bathe by those who can afford it.

Savanette Haiti

While walking through town, I came across these two little children. These are probably the only clothes they own and if they do own more, it is not very much more. Immediately behind them, you can see the dedicated trench for sewage which flows through the town and dumps into the river that I posted photos of previously.

Savanette Haiti Sunday December 5, 2010

My mom has a good friend back in Wilmington, NC named Eunice Queeny. Eunice heard that I was going to Haiti and she started making these simple dresses for me to take. We took in about 25 of the roughly 90 she made (the rest will be brought in on subsequent trips).

On Saturday, these little girls gathered at the local church more than likely hearing that there were "blond" people visiting.

The thing about Haitians is that they never beg. They may follow you or stand nearby or want to speak English, but they will nearly never ask for money or food. It is obvious their situation is not good because of the way they are dressed or they may look hungry.

Caroline and I immediately thought the dresses we had packed would be great for the girls so we went through them sizing them up for each girl. After we had handed them the dresses, we told them to wear them Sunday and we would take a picture.

During church, these little girls all passed by us, smiling, wearing the dresses and their best shoes, some with ribbons in their hair. After mass, we took this photo.

It really takes so little to make the lives of these children better.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Savanette December 3, 2010

The authorities and many NGO's are trying to halt the spread of cholera. The one poster which appears in the clinic "Centre Sante De Savanette" as well as the catholic clinic I visited, explains to people in few wrods and images how to use sanitary methods when disposing of excrement and how to sanitize your hands. The banner across the street in the town says; "Washing hands with soap is a remedy against microbes"
This clinic and the small catholic one are the only medical services available to the 1400 inhabitants and the countless thousands in small encampments around Savanette. There is a Doctor in the area who rotates visiting these clinics as well as others in towns farther away. There is a nurse for each location, but very limited supplies for treating patients. I will post photos of the catholic clinic which was much cleaner and better stocked than the state one pictured here.

Savanette December 3, 2010

This is the stream that runs along the side of the town. Near the pig, you can see the sewage that drains into the stream from the open trenches that cross through the town. In the background you can see people in the stream, some cleaning clothes, others drawing water. They actually are upstream from where this trench is dumping sewage. Just about 200 yeards in the other direction which is downstream, I saw women bathing in the water. You also have to remember that farther up as well as farther down stream there are other towns and villages where people are bathing in, drawing from and cleaning clothes in this stream which is also receiving the sewage from all these towns and villages. I can only imagine how polluted the stream is towards the end of its flow.

Savanette December 3, 2010

Savanette is a small town of about 1400 people. There are many more that live in small encampments around the town. It is nestled between mountains in the Central Plateau region north east of Port au Prince. The town and immediate area has no electricity or clean drinking water.

At night, it is pitch dark and the stars are magnificent. In the mountains you can see fires burning where people are burning trees to make charcoal or Charbon in fench and creole. Charbon is used to cook and heat water. It is the only real source of fuel for the majority of the country.

I stayed with Caroline and Father Rahab at the Rectory of the local church which was built in 1956. The conditions there are very comfortable for Haitian standards. Many houses in Savanette are made of block or wood with roofs being tin or thatch. From what I saw, floors inside are dirt. Sewage is collected in open trenches and dumps into the river that flows along the north side of the town.

Savanette is not in the cholera area, yet there are many signs in the streets advising people to use caution, wash their hands and dispose of excrement properly to avoid it. Rivers are a source of cholera and so far it has not appeared here despite the fact that people draw water from it, defecate in it as well as allow animals to defecate in the flowing water. People also bath and wash clothes in this water.

Clorox bleach has become common as a means to disinfect water before using it to cook or bath or wash clothes.

There is an internet cafe in town which surprised me. It was started by some young guys, but on the days we were there, there was cloud cover and hence no sun or energy to power the laptops. The one guy was from Savanette and had been living in Port au Prince when the earthquake hit. He spent just over 24 hours buried in the rubble of a building before he was rescued.

Monday, December 13, 2010

December 2 2010

I met Caroline Ryan on November 30th. Caroline lives in Billings MO about 4 hours from Saint Louis. She and I would be travelling together to Haiti to meet up with Father Rahab and other people to spend a week visiting towns, villages and orphanages. There were supposed to be other people coming in, but the slow burning fear people are warmed by when they see or hear or read about Haiti, kept them safe in their cloistered lives in middle America where they can get a Big Mac 24 hours a day.

I had packed up hers and my collected donations into two 50 pound boxes. She spent the next two nights in Saint Louis and was going to fly down to Miami the morning of the 2nd of December. I was flying down on the 1st to Miami and we were to meet at the airport at noon on the 2nd.

We left Billings in the late afternoon and stopped in Rolla MO at a UPS distribution center to weigh the boxes and ensure they were not over the limit.

Unfortunately, Caroline was not allowed to check in the boxes and had to leave them behind. American Airlines has an "embargo" on checking boxes in on flights to Haiti for December and the first part of January. Apparently, there are too many people this time of year trying to bring things in to Haiti that American has had to institute restrictions. Poor American Airlines, they really have so many burdens. I'm so glad they have decided to restrict and make it more difficult for people to bring things in to Haiti. You know things like tampons for women who have nothing, hand sanitizer so that the spread of cholera can be limited, clothes for naked children, vitamins for malnourished children, shoes, coloring books and crayons, soccer balls.

Is it just American Airlines that has finally stood up to this blantant abuse and advantage taking by people trying to bring in these useless items to a country where people bath in the same water they shit and piss in? It's about time someone or some company has finally said no.

So in any case, 100 pounds of donated and bought items to help some Haitians at this time of year sat at the Saint Louis airport. To add insult to injury, they sent Caroline an e mail (which she could not read while we were there because there is limited electricity and that is what is needed to obtain an internet connection) stating that if she did not collect the boxes by December 10th, they would be destroyed. We did not get out of Haiti until the 11th.

Fortunately American Airlines doesn't always uphold it's policies (tsk tsk) and the boxes were not destroyed.

I, on the otherhand, learned that her boxes were not shipped when Caroline called me as I sat on the shuttle from my hotel to the Miami airport with my two 50 pound boxes and two carry ons (one of them a two room tent for a family in Port au Prince --- Thanks to Jan Bond of San Diego for donating the money for this purchase).

I was more fortunate. At the ticket counter after initially being told I could go BUY luggage and transfer all the box contents to the bags, the Supervisor allowed me to check them in. Afterall, rules are to be broken especially when you ask nice. The actual begging came in when I was told the tent was 4 inches, can you believe my audacity and stupidity, 4 whole inches too long to be taken on board as a carry on. I asked the woman if she had been to Port au Prince and had seen how these people were living. I was very nice and finally had to beg her. I guess she had a little of the Christmas spirit because she let me through. I was not so fortunate with American Airlines in my previous trips to Haiti where I have had to pay hundreds in additional fees to bring in supplies.

So Caroline and I arrived in PAP at around 4.15 pm. Previous trips, the chaos and quick thinking started as soon as you left the aircraft and found yourself on the tarmac making your way to the hangar serving as immigration and baggage claim. On my first trip, I wondered why people ran.... I learned that pretty quick. Now, however, they lull you into a sense of normalcy as they have jet bridges now and the corridors are new and clean.

It's when you get to the stairs taking you to the shuttle buses to the hangar that the fun begins. Every man for himself which continues when you get to the hangar and there are no immigration forms to fill out and "someone has gone to get them". I remember fixing Caroline in a place and shoving my way through the crowd for a form. The first timers are easy to identify. They are the ones making that scruntched up face which says "how rude" or "wait your turn"... silly geese, you better learn quick or by the time you get around to eating the corn thrown at your feet, it'll all be gone.

Those of us who have done this before get clever. My hat off to the young french woman who shoved her way up and volunteered to assist and hand out forms, she got a hand full and took care of herself and her companions and then let whoever could grab the remainder have them. We smiled at one another, shook our heads and I told her "bien fait" She said "merci" and we proceeded to the next stage.

Most people go to a counter or table or a wall to fill out their forms. The experienced shove into the immigration line and use the back of the person in front of them or their luggage as a desk top to fill out the form. The form gets completed as you progress in the line. Once through, it's time to queue for a cart. As most people are bringing in lots of things, there is a demand for carts. Carts are plentiful, the problem is that they cost $2 each. Most people travel with $10's and $20's. If you have exact change, you get to jump the line because the women selling the tickets for the carts NEVER has change. So as the novices stand there with their 10's and 20's, those of us who bought gum and water in Miami to stock up on 1's, go to the head of the class.

Then comes the luggage retrieval. Again, traveling in two's allows one person to stand guard at the cart and the other to push through the crowd, identify a Haitian personnel that looks competent and start collecting bags, boxes or whatever and loading up the cart.

Now in most places, once you have a cart, you can negotiate out of the airport yourself. Not in Port au Prince. First comes the customs control. Your packages will be opened. This is why you place clothes or vitamins or tampons on the top of your packed items. There is no interest for that. Wine, if you happen to bring it in, soccer balls, shoes, that stuff goes on the bottom. That's the stuff they may want.

Once you are though this, it's time to go through the big archway and make your way along the last smooth concrete you will see for your entire time in Haiti. Within several feet you are walking on crumbled concrete, stones and over pieces of metal that at one time in the distant past were the guide rails for a non existent gate. Negotiating over all this with a cart piled high with four 50 pound boxes requires two people and the Haitian you "hired" inside now meets up with his partner and they move your baggage through the crowds to the "parking area".

All this time, people are asking you in Creole, French, English, Spanish if you need help, who are you looking for, do you have a ride..... There are small walls and fences and the best thing is to step up above everyone else and scan the crowd. This is where being white comes in handy. As I step up and glance around, I become a lightening rod and anyone looking for me can easily see me. I also only travel with my red STL baseball cap, so who ever is meeting me can spot me.

This time, no one was there. The traffic was insane and I soon realized that we would have to wait. I positioned ourselves near the fence and waited. Our Haitian bellmen hanging out nearby, one always within range so that no other "bellmen" could swoop in and take away their fare. Many times, others in the throng will make eye contact with you and through gestures try and lure you away from your "bellmen". It's a game and there is no sinister meaning behind their attempts to get you to go with them. Everyone is desperate to make a buck.

As it started to get towards dusk, the crowds thinned and our ride arrived. We loaded up the Toyota 4 x 4 and I climbed up on top to wait for a friend, Dieubon Lucien, to arrive. He and his family live in a tent in front of their destroyed home and I had supplies and money for him. He was stuck in traffic and arrived just as it was getting dark.

While waiting for Dieubon, I realized that loading up the two 4 x 4's next to us with boxes marked "cholera" was Sean Penn. Here he is with some of his team. I eventually shook his hand and had a quick word with him. I really wanted to ask him what Madonna was like back in the day, but he seemed busy.....

We set off for the central plateau which is a good 3 hours north of the capital. The road that the European Union is building is great by Haitian standards and winds up the hills and into the moutains. It is not complete and there are sections which suddenly become gravel and rutted and then soon turn back to asphalt. This time we were heading to a town north east of PAP called Savanette. In Mirebalais we left the road and continued on what I can only describe as a goat trail. We covered the 13 miles in 2 hours and 5 minutes...... in pitch darkness with the Toyota's headlights dancing off the cliffs and trees.

We arrived in Savanette around 11 pm and had dinner: Goat, Plantain, Rice and Goat gravy..... In Haiti, you eat goat. Lots of it. Seriously, you eat a lot of goat. It tastes good, actually, but if you ever go to Haiti, bring dental floss. It's odd, but goat meat shreds in a unique way when it's chewed and it sticks between your teeth.

Back in the USA

Arrived back in Saint Louis Saturday night at 10.30 pm. We left Port au Prince for the border with the DR around 3 pm on Friday. The roads were clear, but we were told they were still blocked towards the city center. Many people were taking this route and I would imagine that by today it has become very active with people trying to get over to the DR.

The bus ride from the border to Santo Domingo took 6 hours and was a real experience. I don't know what was more entertaining, the blaring music, the crammed conditions or the vendors trying to sell us peanuts at every check point. If you think of those movies where the forlorn Americans are crammed on a long distance bus crossing some rural part of Venezuela or Peru with luggage piled every where and chickens at your feet, you're close (except there were no chickens, they were ducks and that was on another ride from Savanette to Port au Prince a few days prior).

I did not have any real opportunity to write during the trip as electricity and hence connections are limited. Besides, it was unusually cloudy and in many places internet cafes are solar powered so when there is cloud cover, there is no internet...

I did start a diary on my iphone which I will edit and start posting tomorrow along with pictures. At this point, all I can say is Haiti is still in a mess, they need help and the people are still amazing and wonderful.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Port au Prince

Connection possibilities have been virtually non existent. We travelled down to PAP from Hinche on Wednesday leaving at 4.30 am. The country has been experiencing civil unrest due to the election results and the belief that the results have been fixed. There have been road blocks along the way and we fortunately met up with three Chilean medical team people stuck at a road block. They have been most gracious in allowing us to hunker down at their compound for the past two days. We understand the airport has reopened, but it is difficult to get through road blocks.

At one road block north of Mirballais, we met up with Father Banife and Pam Keck, a nurse from Hot Springs, Arkansas. Pam and I met on one of my previous trips in back this past spring. Pam has been been at the orphanage in Hinche for the past week and was to return home yesterday.

Today is day two with our Chilean friends. Hopefully we will be able to get to the airport tomorrow and get flights out. I plan to update my blog when I get back and have photos from the villages and towns we visited. The only improvements I see are the road and small bridge construction between PAP and Hinche. Other than that, the tent cities seem to be growing. It is raining today and I can just imagine those cities around PAP with over 1.5 million people...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Last Trip of the Year

It's a rather cold morning in Saint Louis and I'm sure I'll be missing this when I land in the tropical heat of Port au Prince tomorrow. It was a busy day yesterday driving from Saint Louis to Springfield and back (total 8 hours in the car) plus the time there. I met up with my travel companion, Caroline Ryan. She just returned to Billings Missouri outside of Springfield after some 35 years in San Francisco. SF to Billings, MO.... WOW.

We packed up her donations into cardboard boxes and then headed to Rolla Missouri where we stopped at a UPS hub to weigh the boxes and ensure they did not exceed the 50 pounds.

Together we are bringing in clothes (some beautiful dresses made by Ms. Eunice Queen of Wilmington, NC), vitamins, sanitary supplies, shoes, a tent and miscellaneous items. The dresses were transported by my parents in their car from Wilmington to Los Angeles where I picked them up over Thanksgiving. These little bundles will have crossed the US twice before they make it to some needy children in the tent cities of Port au Prince. Thank you Eunice!

I'm flying down to Miami tonight and leaving on an early afternoon flight with Caroline into Haiti. I am hoping that I will be able to access the internet and do some updating while there, but electricty and connections are limited so this may be difficult.

Thanks to everyone for your donations and well wishes. I know it is hard for many people in our own country right now, but the situation in Haiti seems to go from bad to worse. I am anxious to see if any progress has been made in rebuilding and helping people get back to some semblance of order to their lives. I have been in contact with people in one town where I have been several times and have been told there are many people sick and many have died from Cholera. Hopefully this epidemic is or soon will be under control.