Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Been there, done that, made it home again

It is the week before Christmas and that means I’ve just returned from my annual trip to the exotic island of Haiti. This year’s trip was a little different from most in that we only had one long trek back into the mountains and that was easier on my old goat ass. All in all it was a different type encounter this year and yet was very uplifting. The poor folks of Haiti are just as poor as always, maybe even a little worst for wear as a result of four major hurricanes in the early fall. Since that time there has been practically no rain and many of the river beds are dry from the coast way up into the mountains. An interesting fact is that, in the area that we have worked for the past 12-15 years, there was almost no erosion and things have faired much better than in other watersheds on either side. Last year our collective efforts resulted in the planting of 970,000 trees and the fertilizing of about 55% of them. Work like this over a period of many years has firmed up the mountainside and erosion is no longer washing the mountains into the ocean. As we drive from our secure coastal retreat into the mountains and view the hillside there is a clear difference in the planted areas and those where no activity is going on. Visually it’s the simple difference between green and brown, or planted and barren. The barren areas are still washing away homesteads, gardens, roads and lives and the planted areas are holding firm and promoting new activity, fruit and coffee trees, tree nurseries, fish ponds and a clear way for future generations to survive. The difference you can see is all the motivation one needs to go back each year and do what you can to help in this life altering effort for these deserving people.
This year our group included three young college kids that got their first taste of what life in another culture was like. Needless to say, there were some wide eyes and disbelieving stares as they rode thru the streets of Port-Au-Prince and saw open sewage, crowded streets, dirt huts, straw roofs, no electricity or running water and filth to an extent they didn’t know existed. The smokey haze of tens of thousands of charcoal cooking fires and as many diesel powered vehicles will scorch your eyes and literally take your breath. I’ve been back three days and my eyes still burn. The visual impact of hundreds of barefooted, malnourished children (1 in 8 die before the age of 5) will stay with you long after you’re back, safe and sound in the States. Another image that stays with me is what I call 3WD’s. Third World Dogs are the same world wide, with their distended bellies, protruding ribs and sunken eyes. When I think of my beloved Border collie, Maggie, and her contented look, sleek coat and full belly I feel a sense of sorrow for all the animals that don’t have the privileges our pets do.
This year we trekked into the back country and put the finishing touches on three water cisterns. We attached the PVC guttering (made by splitting long ways a 20’ section of 6” pvc pipe) to the eaves of houses we had covered with metal roofing and then channel the rainwater into smaller pipe until it is dumped into a 500 gallon fiberglass tank. In most cases this is the difference between a water source outside your back door or walking 2 miles or more up and down a path that would challenge a sure footed goat. The single effort of providing a source of clean water can change the lives of people in more ways than you can imagine and I would encourage anyone reading this to play any role you can in efforts of this sort.
This year our permanently based missionaries had paired each of our group with a Haitian teenager who became our charge for the week while we were there. These are all kids from the beach ministry program, which is made up mostly of orphaned children who live in the sparse wooded areas along the coastline near our compound. A year ago these kids could not read or write and were accustomed to existing off of what they could scrounge and eat from the native fruits. The price we pay for a Big Mac would feed them for a week and a fine steak dinner would keep them fed for more than a month. We treated these kids to a trip into Port-au-Prince to the museum, a picnic dinner in the park and caped it off with an evening visit to the symphony hosted by the School of Music at the only university in the country. The looks on their faces as we exposed them to these sights would make you feel real good about what you were doing. Our group consisted of three accomplished musicians and some real good vocalists and on our last night there we treated the local community of a hundred or so folks to a concert made up of Christmas carols and religious songs. It was amazing to hear the loud voices of the “beach kids” as they sang along with us. The missionaries have been teaching them these songs for the past month or so and they really belted them out.
Our accommodations in Haiti are in a walled in compound about 2 hours outside Port Au Prince. The property is owned and controlled by the Presbyterian Church and is the “base camp” for the 20 odd groups that make this pilgrimage each year. By our standards it is pretty primitive, with only cold water and electricity only by generator from 6-8 am and again for two hours in the evening. But we have one good cooked meal, a soft bed and a secure place to rest each night. Our days usually start early, since it is a 45 minute ride in the back of an open truck up to the area in the mountains that we work and then the hike from the road that can sometimes take up another hour or so. Our work includes making upgrades to the 6 schools that we sponsor, the never ending chore of installing water cisterns, damming up and stocking small fish ponds to grow fish, both for sale and consumption and building small houses (12x24 is room for at least 6-8 family members). Houses we build are concrete if they are within a mile of a road and wooden if they are further in. There are no Redi-Mix trucks in Haiti so concrete is mixed by hand by finding a flat spot on the ground and then shoveling in sand and rock and mixing in bags of cement. Water is brought from the nearest source by 5 gallon buckets perched atop the village women’s heads. The final mix of crude concrete is then moved to the work site by a bucket brigade. This is back breaking work that will make you eager to get prone and close your eyes.
For the last 2-3 years I’ve said “this is my last trip”….but the worst part of the ordeal for me is the airport crowds during the holiday season. I’m not a fan of large throngs and crowded spaces. Physically this trip didn’t beat me up as bad as last years and that was my main concern. The MRI I had earlier this month shows an S curve in my lower back that I’m pretty sure should not be there. My doctor told me that to fix it he would have to render me impassable thru an airport metal detector. I haven’t got my head completely around that yet but I fear there are screws and pins in my near future. Oh well…anyone know where I can get a 4x4 wheelchair?? Crookedpaw