That Little Splinter
December 11, 2010

I’ve posted several short videos of my time in Haiti, with all of them simply showing some of the things I experienced. Like helping paint a school. Visiting a jungle market. “Suffering” on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Visiting a nursing home. A sampling of lovely Haitian singing. But until now I just haven’t wanted to wade through my Port au Prince footage.

You’re probably tired of hearing of my trip to Haiti, but this one little part has been holding me back from really continuing with other non-related posts. It just seemed so trite to post my thoughts on what I feel is wrong or right with religion, or what’s hard in my life, when issues of survival plague much of the rest of the world.

And especially since beautiful, precious people just a short flight away are gasping for life amidst a sea of destruction, poverty, and preventable disease. It’s just hard to continue life as usual with my petty philosophical complaints. At least I have a relatively safe, comfortable home in which to ponder such things, and basic resources that make it possible for me to spend time on things other than survival, and technology that keeps me in touch with the rest of the world.

But anyway, I’ve finally managed to put something together that sort of communicates the frustration I still feel with the whole Haitian situation. The sadness, confusion, and anger I felt when returning back to the states. And this video says it far more concisely than I could in text. Enjoy…  (You’ll have to click “Watch on YouTube” because of copyright issues, but it’ll play.)

One of the reasons this issue has held me back in recent months is because my footage from Port au Prince was quite different than the other footage. Port was our welcome sign to Haiti. It was the very first punch in the gut that sent my soul spinning, and it’s been spinning until now.

You see, my time in the remote jungle was in some barely perceptible way (and I say this carefully) cushioned by certain things. Even though the people of the remote parts of Haiti have even less materially in many ways than those in the big city of Port au Prince — at least Port has electricity, for instance, and stores and such, while the villages have absolutely none of that — I experienced an element of friendship that I developed with the locals and the wonderful missionary couple who care so deeply for the people. I was able to share in the joys of language-inhibited conversation, when universal nonverbal messages, like smiles, are perfectly understood. So there was that social element that helped me sink into the life there instead of just reflecting on it.

And then there was the scenery of the jungle. Even though nearly all wildlife is extinct in Haiti, at least there were pretty trees and green mountains to appreciate. They helped soften the hardness of the life there. Seeing people hand-plow a meadow surrounded by banana trees , flanked by a river and guarded by mountains, gave me some sort of relative peace.

But there are no trees in Port au Prince. Not many anyway. There are no emerald mountains or plantations. Almost all have been raped and everything is brown. Or gray. Mostly gray because of the cement everywhere. Crumbled cement. Dust. And smoke from burning trash. Diesel smoke from trucks and bulldozers with their near-futile attempts at cleaning up debris. Gray with spots of blue and white all over the place. The tents. And except for the neon colors of brightly painted walls (the ones that are still standing), which reflect the still-vibrant spirit of indestructible Haitian culture, everything else is gray or brown.

And so it has taken me months to gain the distance I needed to approach my scant Port au Prince footage with some semblance of objectivity. I believe my emotions still come across in the video I created, but believe me, what’s there is FAR more tame than the thoughts I would have expressed earlier.

With that in mind, I hope you’ll forgive me for posting yet another reflection on my time in Haiti. I just had to detour once more from my usual postings to address what has been a splinter under my existential fingernail. I’ve just not had the emotional or intellectual capacity to post on other things, so that’s one reason why my posts have been sparse in recent months. Thank you for understanding.

And if you would, please take a brief pause to send positive vibes toward our brothers and sisters in Haiti. They could use it right now.

Haiti: Perspective
September 7, 2010

I’ve gotten a little emotional distance from Haiti since I last wrote. It’s taken a bit to more fully re-enter American society. (And the insanity of football-season commercialism is still especially hard to swallow.) I’m struggling to resume what had become my normal life while also bearing in mind the struggles of those without. My life is here, not there. And yet when you see the things I saw, you can’t just walk away and do nothing, or not try to adjust anything at all. Still, guilt does no good, whether I hang it over my own head or try to push it on others. Making accusations of American selfishness also does no good. And the old “there are starving kids in Africa (or Haiti) so you’d better be thankful and clean your plate” just doesn’t cut it.

But I’ve sort of been Davey Downer for the past couple weeks, much to my wife’s chagrin especially. Because I’ve had a heavy heart in trying to figure out how I should now live, with the knowledge that I do have some small responsibility for helping, now that I’ve seen. But I can’t just drop my life like I may have been able to do when I was younger and single. That would be as irresponsible as doing nothing.

It’s with that tension in mind that I still want to recount for you one moment (among many) from my last full day in Haiti, and my first moments back in America.

On Sunday in Marfranc village, we attended the church we had been helping to paint their school. And that’s when I heard about Mishlove (sp?).

Mishlove is a baby girl I heard our hostess Joline talking about shortly after the church service ended. She was telling how she had found this baby with her family. How she had picked her up, and how the baby couldn’t yet stand on her own, and she would just immediately plop back down and couldn’t lock her knees. And how she seemed weak and a frail for a baby who appeared to be at least 5 or 6 months old. So Joline asked her family how old Mishlove was. It turns out that Mishlove is over a year old. About 14 months.

Now I wouldn’t consider myself one who gets all goo-goo about babies. And since I haven’t yet had one myself, I really haven’t known much about baby development. So, not knowing what was normal, I had to ask, “So when do babies typically start walking?” “About a year,” came the reply. And this baby can’t even hold herself up, much less stand? I had to know why. “Malnutrition,” was the one-word explanation. Her mother’s milk dried up because her mother was malnourished, and now this baby doesn’t have enough food. This lack of basic nutrition shocked me, even though I wasn’t surprised after seeing all I had that week. So I had to see this child.

And then I held her. To actually hold a little malnourished child is a profound experience. Nothing like lazing on the couch yawning at a weepy infomercial about Africa. To actually feel the lightness of her little frail body. To hold her to my chest, look down and notice her head tilting back and forth for lack of her neck muscle’s ability to hold it firmly in place.

And then she laid her head on my shoulder, not because of her affection for me or because I made her feel safe. But because she just seemed too weak to hold her head up. And this little girl is over a year old. She should be traipsing around, or at least pulling herself up and meddling in everything. But she can’t because she’s malnourished.

And that’s what malnourishment looks and feels like. To not just hear about it or watch Sanjay Gupta talk about it on TV, but to actually feel it in your arms, laying its head on your shoulder. To feel its dependency. To realize that a precious little human, by the mere fact of where she happened to have been born, through no choice of her own, through no consequence of her mistakes or even the mistakes of her parents, is helpless. Unless someone does something to help her, she will die. Literally. Die. Just because she doesn’t have enough food. And it’s entirely, easily preventable.

It does something to you. You just cannot look at the world as usual. And to think that just an hour and a half away is the world’s richest nation, with relatively unlimited resources, and we complain when we have to pay a little more for taxes and health insurance. You realize that something in this world is broken.

So the next day we flew home. And when we landed, as we taxied toward our gate, I looked out the plane’s window and noticed a seemingly endless row of shiny cars parked just beyond the fence surrounding the runway area. The airport workers’ cars. And beyond that cars packed in the main parking lots. And beyond that, cars jammed on the roads. And I wondered how much food could be bought for the price of even one of the cheapest cars. Or how many Haitian children’s school tuition could be paid. Or how many people could have shoes on their feet.

And then we entered the airport and I nearly cried when I saw the magazine stands. Row upon row of glossy magazines with headlines like, “Retire Rich!” and “You can get more money!” And there were others that punched me in the gut: “Yachts of the rich and famous” and “Must-have fashions for fall!” “Designer shoes to splurge on” and “Home theater makeovers” and “Luxury iPad cases that cost more than the iPad.”And on and on, and the buzz of all the billboards and magazines perpetuating rampant, uncontrolled materialism began to spin around me, a wailing storm of confusion.

So I spent $8 on a little cup of beer. And tried to catch my breath. All I could think of was how completely. Fucked. Up. We are. When we think we just don’t have enough and how we “need” more and more and more or else we won’t be truly happy. Or how we think that because we were so disenfranchised by the system or by our parents or by our lack of toys when we were children (or adults) that we haven’t been able to live the exact life that we want to and we can’t afford to live our dreams.

And how Mishlove and millions of other malnourished children like her are just a short flight away. How half of our world’s population lives below the poverty level, on less than $2 a day. How Haitian parents can’t properly feed themselves much less their children on that. And at the same time we have an obesity epidemic in America. We have diabetes because we eat too much sugar in our oversized diets. Rural Haitians have diabetes because sugar cane is about all they have to eat.

So something is definitely broken. And I cannot fix it. But I can help Mishlove. At the very least, I can support my friend Joline who lives there and who is making sure Mishlove gets the food she needs. I can pay for one of Mishlove’s older sisters or brothers to go to school so they can at least have an improved chance of learning, growing up, getting a job that pays decently, and being able to later support others in their home village. So while I’m not Bono or Bill Gates and I can’t change the very complicated root causes of poverty, I can positively adjust the life situation of at least one person in one place.

So I’m trying to figure out the best way to do that. In the meantime, I may make mistakes and I may be irresponsible and I may waste and I may be greedy. But I will try to be better, and wiser, and more responsible and more intentional and more content with what I have. And that’s all I know for now. I’ll let you know when I get all figured out. 😉

But the really beautiful thing is, all the while, even in the midst of poverty, malnutrition, and general suffering, the Haitians have hope. They are strong. And they just keep singing and laughing and living. Doing whatever it takes. Somehow making it work. And that gives me some perspective.

Haiti Rundown #2 – Degaje
August 24, 2010

This picks up after we had arrived and settled into our cooperative house in the jungle….

Days 3-5:

Most of our bags did not arrive with us,  so many of us only had what was in our carry-ons. We expected such a twist, so I at least had one change of clothes and necessities, but one change of underwear in the sweaty jungle can only go so far. Anyway, this little detail set the tone of our stay, as we grew more attuned to the Haitian principle of “degaje,” which is best summed up by Tim Gunn with, “Make it work, people.” Just go with the flow, do what you gotta do, rig it, whatever; just don’t lose your cool.

We woke on Day 3, ate incredibly fresh fruit and hiked into the center of the village of Marfranc to get to work painting a school. My friend Steve and I focused on spraying the upstairs, which was bare concrete, with base coats of barely tinted paint, more like colored water, which quickly soaked into the concrete. To paint the top of the second floor’s outside wall, I salvaged a long bamboo stick and taped it to a roller. Made it work. The others painted the several downstairs rooms. Because of the thin paint, this process continued for multiple coats over the next few days. It was hot, dirty, sweaty work, and we all loved it.

We had planned to make farther hikes up to some even more remote villages in the mountains to scout sites for a clinic and a school. But we needed a truck to take us to a distant drop-off point, and our host’s truck was broke, and the clutch we brought with us for him to fix it was the wrong part. So we stayed in Marfranc. Degaje. And it turned out wonderfully.

In addition to multiple trips to paint, we also paid a visit to the local nursing home, where we brought a different kind of paint, for fingernails. I didn’t like the idea. I hate nursing homes. The stench, the sounds, the sock-clad feet dragging under wheelchairs. The loneliness. But that’s not at all what we found. We found massive smiles. Clapping. Fresh air, zero stench. Laughs. Dancing. And dignity. Far smaller than any nursing home I’ve been to, and far more public. No one had their own room, just their own cot and bedside table, sharing two single-room, open-hallway barns, for lack of a better descriptor. One for women and one for men. No closed windows, no doors. No privacy. But also no beeping medical equipment. No sterility. And not as much senility in my opinion. Just lots of precious souls encouraging each other to degaje. We handed out plastic shaving razors to the men, and then we moved over to the women’s structure. And that’s where my comfort zone disappeared, thanks to Joline, our hostess with the mostest, who invited us to paint the ladies’ nails, because they love it. It was the little push I needed.

I painted a few ladies’ nails, the first one’s name was Ramon, a frail lady. She had pus running from her eyes and had difficulty hearing. But she held herself with dignity and a refined toughness that only comes from degaje-ing over a lifetime of hardship. She pulled my hand to her lips for a kiss of silent gratitude. And with that I imagined my late grandmother, with her gentle touch, and all the other mother figures in my life, and how Ramon had this aura about her that all mothers share, and she felt like my grandmother. She loved me and I loved her. All the ladies, maybe 30 of them, got their nails painted, including a young lady, maybe in her teens, who apparently had MS or a similar disability. She can only just lay in her cot, with zero response, only looking as the world spins around her. And Steve, perhaps our “toughest” team member knelt down and painted her nails to make sure she wasn’t left out. It was a beautiful day.

One of the days we walked around the market, which only happens two days a week. Market day is when people from all the surrounding tiny villages pour into Marfranc to buy and sell whatever they may have been able to harvest, kill, or otherwise acquire. When you look around at the mountains and jungle, you would never know there were thousands of people living all over the place, under the canopy of banana and cacao trees and behind veils of sugarcane. But on market day they all come out of hiding, wade across the Grand Anse river (there are no bridges), and buzz around the central village.

The sounds: Machetes hacking through cow legs. A hand plane shaving an ice block, making (literally) shaved ice to douse with black syrup from an old antifreeze jug. Machete blades dragging across hand-turned sharpening stones – one man, squatting on the ground, hand-turns a crank that spins an old motorcycle rim, which turns a leather belt, which turns the grinding wheel for the man standing up, holding the blade to the grinder. People shouting. Vendors announcing their wares. Goats bleating. Pigs grunting. Young men slamming dominoes on a piece of plywood. Plantains sizzling in oil in a cast-iron cauldron over an open fire in the street.

Which brings me to the smells – Cow skin and fat festering in the very hot sun. Food simmering next to it. The fragrance of ripe tropical fruit blends into the air, but the sweetness is tempered with the earthy must of the pigs’ wallow nearby. Around the corner is the smell of fresh tobacco laid out on paper, and an old lady smoking her thick, self-made roll of it. And there’s lots of sweat. And that is the market. After people get what they need, they carry it on their heads or drag it behind them (especially if it’s a live animal), strip down, and wade back across the chest-deep river, back to their homes under the trees.

After spending our days painting walls and painting nails and roaming the market, we hiked back home, through a centuries-old cemetery, through a narrow pass in the jungle foliage, past an old sugar pressing plant, down a hillside path overlooking banana plantations and people singing together while they hand-plow fields. Those were most of our days.

Except the day we went to the beach, which, all I can say here, was by far one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever visited. Absolutely breathtaking, and refreshing after our hard work days. A big, private cove flanked by green-covered limestone cliffs. Crystal clear, aquamarine water. And an old sunken WWI German U-boat laying right in the middle of the cove, hinting at the undercurrent of constant political turmoil in Haiti. We played on its rusted skeleton. And there was a swim-in cave. And powder sands. And I can’t say enough.

I’ve taken too much room already, so I’ll save our last full day, return trip, and deep thoughts for next post.

Haiti Rundown #1
August 17, 2010

Had zero web access while there, so I’m having to re-cap. Here’s an idea of some of the things I experienced on the first two days of my trip to Haiti, as we traveled to our final destination:

Day 1:

There was a distinct variety of people in the Miami airport gate for the flight to Port Au Prince. A couple church groups in matching t-shirts with logos like “Mission Haiti 2010.” I felt sorry for one of those groups, who looked very tired, lost, and overdressed, but at least they all matched. There also were some Mennonites. And there were a few men in Rotary Club golf shirts. Some people from a company that makes shelter boxes. Maybe a journalist or two. And of course our rag-tag group (no matching shirts allowed!). And then you had a lot of Haitians, whose faces were noticeably more drawn than all of ours.

Landing in Port Au Prince, we flew over lots of blue tarps, tent cities. Lots of walls without roofs. Also thousands of tiny tin-roofed shacks crammed against each other with rag-clothed humans wandering everywhere between. Burning trash. Broke-down bulldozers. UN trucks. After landing we were welcomed by humidity, heat, and a lot of sounds. We waited in customs and baggage lines and eventually made it out of the very sweaty airport an into sweaty streets, where mobs of people seeking any kind of work tried to get our attention, help carry bags, sell us cell phones, whatever.

Immediately, images of utter devastation punched me in the face and sank into my heart. “You wanted to see it?” the scene seemed to say. “Well, here it is. You asked for it. Welcome to Haiti mother-f-er.”

Crumbled buildings filled the foreground and the horizon. People bathing in street gutters. Re-bar sticking out everywhere. Ladies cooking their families’ meals in the micro-space between the street and their tent. A man re-bandaging his wound. Obviously malnourished people staring at our baggage-laden van. Diesel engines whirring, horns honking, motorcycles crowding every turn, people shouting. But also saw lots of smiles. Perfect white teeth lighting up smoggy streets. There was some unseen beauty, peace, and hope weaving itself between, under, and around the destruction.

Drove to Sister Mary’s, a sweet and spunky nun who runs a charity hostel. She had a little tent city within her compound. Hundreds of people living in sun-faded blue Lions Club-donated tents. One large tent converted into a school. Kids playing soccer. Laughing, goofing off.

Ate an amazing meal, had wonderful conversation with other visiting helpers, experienced beautiful prayer and a sense of connection with strangers, and then fell asleep sweating.

Day 2:

Headed to a smaller airport to fly from Port Au Prince to the little port town of Jeremie, on the more remote southern peninsula. Crammed into a tiny, old plane and waited a long time…dogs on the runway blocking landings and takeoffs. About to take off, we abruptly turned around and headed back to the plane parking lot. Hydraulic fluid was puddling out of our plane. Switched planes, dogs were shooed off the runway, and we flew. Marveled at the beauty of the island below, but also noticed major deforestation, erosion, and dead reefs. Landed on a dirt strip, exited the plane walking toward the little one-room airport, and noticed children and ladies casually walking across the “runway” to their homes in the jungle just on the other side, carrying water and fruit on their heads.

Then made a grueling 1 1/2-hour ride in the back of a little flatbed trailer towed behind a truck, winding down rocky, pot-holed dirt roads toward the village of Marfranc in the Grand Anse river valley. Got covered in dust and got a sore butt. Said “Bonjour” to a bunch of people all along the way, half-naked kids carrying water, old ladies carrying fruit. Young men carrying what looked like red diesel but was Kleren, the moonshine-like spirit distilled from sugar cane, used as the base for rum. People bathing and doing laundry in the river beside the road. Excited kids, most of whom rarely see white people, shouted “Blanc!” pointed at us and jumped up and down. So many half-naked kids, and some not wearing anything but a smile.

The farther we got from Jeremie the more it began to look like remote Africa: Homes made from hand-hewn boards, corrugated tin, mud, rocks, rough concrete, thatched roofs of banana and palm leaves, dirt floors, absolutely zero power lines or phone lines, no power, no plumbing, no water except what the kids harvested from the river or an occasional hand pump. Each family has an average of about 6-8 people (often more) sharing a one-room home, which is usually sized about 20 feet by 15 feet by my estimation. But smiles everywhere and surprised stares following our little parade of white people.

Finally there: Turned off the main road, down a smaller, muddy road that briefly snaked between even smaller huts, set off behind banana trees, and came to the home of our hosts, the Moores, who have lived in Haiti for the past 15 years. Their home was built to serve as a hostel for work teams, so by comparison to all other homes in the area it was like a mansion, although it was the size of an average three-bedroom American suburban home. We pulled into the rock driveway, peeled our asses off the trailer, dusted off, and were greeted by the Moores, their local helpers, and Bouki, an incredibly excited chocolate Lab with an oral fixation.

After scarfing down a small meal, some of our team hiked into the center of the village of Marfranc. There they soon were offered a baby. “You like our baby? You want her? You can have her. Please take her.” They were in desperate need and wanted their baby to have a better life. This was our introduction to the realities of Haiti.

More to come, including pix and vids.

I’m Off to Haiti…
August 8, 2010

By the time you read this (unless you’re up too late or a Kiwi), I’ll be on my way to (or already in) rural Haiti. Been looking forward to this for a long while now. Had a bit of panic today when I realized I misplaced my passport (but found it). Also whacked my nose and thought I broke it (but didn’t). Also mis-stepped and thought I tweaked my ankle (but didn’t). So I’m on my way finally.

While I’ve enjoyed the privilege to visit many nations before, this trip is a bit different. Until recent years, such trips found me over-preparing so I could be the most effective missionary possible. That’s not the case with this one. In fact, my biggest trepidation is that I am completely  unprepared. For instance, I feel like I haven’t practiced the Haitian language enough. Part of the problem is that this is one of the first trips that I don’t have the “plan of salvation” memorized in the language of my host country. In the past, that task gave me a big goal for learning more of the language. This time, however, this will be my first journey with a group that isn’t set on getting people “saved.” We don’t have team t-shirts or slogans or a mime drama to perform. Yes, all of us happen to be from my faith community, but we are simply going there to help and learn. Definitely not a vacation, but also not a “mission.” This is nice.

The main reason for me to learn the language this time is simply so we can listen in order to most effectively understand and  learn the best ways to help while we’re there. This is in significant contrast to multiple past “missions,” when we learned a language so we could talk more than listen, to be heard more than hear.

And so I’m a bit awkward feeling as I leave. I feel like I’m not doing enough. I’m just going there to…help. And watch. And learn. I’m  not going so I can preach in the streets. I’m not going with eyes geared toward seeing a country as a salvation project. I’m seeing it as a chance to be a guest in the homeland of smart, life-experienced individuals who may have a lot to teach me, but who also could use whatever helping hand I can give. But helping involves listening and working together, not just talking. So I’m going to try to listen, and just be aware.

I feel incredibly inadequate to be going for just over a week, thinking that I’ll be able to make a difference. But I’m trying to see it as just putting in my little shift, and working my butt off while I can. (My dad kindly described what I think I’m after by mentioning Isaiah 58:6-9. And even for those of us who don’t take everything in the Bible literally, I think that scripture captures it quite well for me.)

Anyway, I am incredibly grateful for the many of you who have made this trip possible with your donations, thoughts and prayers. Thank you.

As electricity, internet access, and time permit, I’ll post updates here (and possibly also at www.journeytohaiti.com).

Stay tuned.