Things One Sees in Haiti

Think I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, one never knows what they will see next in Haiti.

Case in point, while I was typing the above sentence the guest house plunged into darkness as our electricity shut off.  Luckily the battery on my laptop still works. Unlike the battery on my DeWalt drill, which has bitten the Haitian dust.

Earlier today I was talking with the Heartline guest house secretary, a young Haitian woman, and I told her in my entire life back in the US I have only gone a few days without electric power.  She was like, “In your entire life??”  Yes, life growing up for her was different than life growing up for me.  Not to mention I didn’t go through an earthquake 3 years ago.  She told me her earthquake story.  Walking into college on a sidewalk when the rumbling began.  A wall started falling toward her so she jumped out of the way, but into the street.  The last thing she remembers is a green vehicle coming right at her.  The shaking threw her to the ground and she was hit by both falling wall and what ended up being a green Toyota Rav4.  The Rav4 ran over her and concrete chunks cut her in several places.  Besides some scars which have healed nicely, she is remarkably recovered with little outward evidence of the traumatic event.  Three other people on the sidewalk directly around her were all killed.  One of them was her English professor. 

The earthquake was a terrible episode in the history of Haiti.

I’ve tried keeping a mental list of odd things I’ve seen recently.  Like five people on a moto.  Or equally impressive, two guys on a moto with a gigantic TV balanced between them (a box-like one – old school).

Or one night while out driving seeing a guy beside me walking discreetly, then jump onto the rear bumper of the pickup in front of me, crouching low so his head barely stuck over the rear tailgate, getting a free ride.  Looked like a movie stunt.  The truck in front of me sped up to probably close to 40mph, none the wiser that a stowaway passenger was clinging on back.

One time I was making an airport run in the morning and a small truck loaded with sugar cane was beside me, four guys perched atop. A haggard man came up and demanded a stick of sugarcane, but they wouldn’t give him one. So he held them up with a rock, believe it or not. They still wouldn’t give him one so he threw the rock at them. This annoyed the men, and one of them in the truck stood up, carefully balanced, and began brandishing a sugarcane stick. About this time one of the guests in the car I was driving asked me (of all questions) if the UN would intervene to stop the type of aggression we were witnessing outside our car window. Well, as luck would have it, some UN soldiers happened to walk up at just this moment. Meanwhile, the haggard man ran up and was trying to pull a piece of sugarcane from the back of the truck while dodging the angry man who was swinging a sugarcane stick towards his head as hard as he could, missing, but splitting his cane in half for his efforts. The haggard man yanked out a piece and went on his merry way, seemingly happy. The UN soldiers watched, doing nothing, so I told our guest, “Apparently not.”

While no one knows what the UN does, I learned one thing the Hatian police do. Arrest people for taking out their trash! Yep, one of our Haitian workers (Pierre) was arrested yesterday while putting trash in a dumpster. Apparently you can only do that at night between 6pm and 6am. They tried making him pay a fine to the tune of $600 US, but after a gangster acquantince of his came in to help bail him from this sticky situation, they accepted $12 US and let him free.

On a lighter note, one day I was out in the yard and Ryan was getting ready to take our blue car someplace, but first needed to add water to the radiator because it leaks.  Ryan opened the hood and a rat jumped out!  It had been making a nest under there.  Our yardman chased it with a stick, and with all of us cheering him on, dispatched it promptly, impressing me with his skills.

Killing a Rat

Speaking of cars having issues, they always do.  Yesterday I had a large team to pickup at the airport and was cutting time close.  Was planning on taking our big truck, but when I jumped in it wouldn’t start.  Surprise, surprise.  So I took the van and Barry came with the 4Runner for carrying luggage. 

The 4Runner is still running fairly well.  Only thing is I have to put a bottle of power steering fluid in it once a week.  Each bottle is $2.50.  They want $3.00, but will negotiate down to $2.50 when you’re friendly.  That’s only $10/month, which isn’t bad.  I suggested we put a small bowl underneath the leak to capture and re-use fluid so we don’t have to keep buying more.  Maybe I’ll do that.

When driving around town it’s super common to see people working on vehicles on the side of the road (or in the middle of the road) and it finally hit me why I never see cars in this bad of shape back in the States: cars this bad of shape are in junkyards back in the States.

The other day I was stuck in the middle of several projects, none of them going so well, when our yardman (the guy who killed the rat) walked by muttering, “problems on problems.”  Guess that’s a Haitian saying.  I was like, “You can say that again.”

Case in point: I call my co-worker Ryan to see what he is doing.

Me: “Where are you?”
Ryan: “Over at Haitian Creations.”
Me: “Oh, you working on the website?”
Ryan: “Well, I was.  Then the power went off and the generator won’t start so now I’m working on the generator.”

This reminds me of a scary project we’ve been working on: The shower in one of the guesthouse bathrooms has a leaky knob that won’t turn off correctly.  In fact, sometimes it stays on fully no matter how you spin the knob and water gushes out everywhere.  When I visited the guesthouse a year and a half ago I remember this particular knob not working right…  Finally, this past week it was decided we would fix it and now I understand why the project has been put off so long.

First, the water handles and plumbing were encased in the wall in solid cement.  So there was a day and a half of chipping concrete just to access the problem.  All in all it has taken four people working on the project (part-time) SEVEN days to complete (we started Monday and should finish tomorrow).  Good grief.  Next time I’m going to see if there is some way to repair the handle first.

Chipping ConcreteChippingNew HandlesNew handles - New concrete - New tiles

Then there are the usual frustrations.  Like trying to buy some computer cabling at a department store and it taking an hour and a half to purchase that one item.  I was given the royal runaround and by the time I left was at the point of feeling a need to punch something or someone.

Shopping can be a trial.  For instance, we needed tile so I went to a materials store.  They had a display rack of various colord tile so  I pointed to one that was about the color I needed and asked if they had any in stock.  No.  I pointed to another.  No.  Then I pointed to every one on the display rack and the answer was No for every one!  So I asked what they did have?  They took me around to a backroom and pointed in a dark, musty corner.  After climbing around boxes and such I found they had one size of tile, of one color, all piled up in boxes.  Whattadeal.  I bought a few.

Today I helped a Haitian lady setup some batteries in her home.  Batteries are necessary so when power goes off you can still run things.  The only electricity she had was one lightbulb and two wires dangling in through her kitchen ceiling.  I added a power outlet to the back of her armoire and plugged an inverter into that.  Then ran an extension cord to her other room to a newly installed light fixture that is hanging on a nail.  It’s all pretty degaje. 

Haiti Electric

Recently I’ve been tired.  Not just tired, but fatigued.  Sometimes I can sleep and sleep and sleep and still feel tired.  And I’m not sick or anything, it’s sorta weird, but I think it must have something to do with trying to adjust to a new culture.  Time should iron it out.

Everyone here at Heartline is great though in being kind and encouraging and forcing me to take a day of rest sometimes.  Perhaps the best was when Melissa (Ryan’s wife) said, “I know you’ve been a little low recently so we’re having pizza tonight in your honor!”  That was pretty great, she makes the best pizza ever.

Working as a driver and handyman I’m experiencing the frustrations of the mechanical side of Haiti.  But as my creole improves, I’m hoping to work more with the Haitian people.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if that will be more taxing yet!

Daily Excitement and Daily Poverty

In Haiti, roads chew up cars. 

Granted, the primary inter-city roads aren’t too bad, but in Port-au Prince the best streets are heavily pot-holed and the worst all but impassable.

Today I was behind the wheel perhaps four hours running errands.  With no A/C I had the windows down, enjoying the heavy smell of aromatic diesel smog.  Nearly got in several wrecks, but as is usual, all were just near misses.

There is usually always some type of excitement here in Haiti on a daily basis.  Maybe as little as a freezing cold shower to jar my nerve endings awake in the morning.  Or maybe as interesting as a random stranger opening the backdoor of your car and start pulling out grocery bags, then running off with them.  This just happened to a friend of mine.

I’m thinking what the routine excitement for today was.  Was it that time I got stopped by the police and they weren’t happy with my insurance paperwork?  This caused drama, but worked itself out (though somewhat underhandedly).  Was it that other time I was stopped in traffic on an uphill and accidentally rolled my vehicle back into a Land Cruiser?  Oops.  But no, he just laughed and waved me on.  Or how about the leather factory I visited that had the antique equipment, musty odors, and unique products exported worldwide?  Nah.  Maybe it was searching the bottom of our kitchen oven with a flashlight for the rats nest our workers are pretty sure is hiding under there? 

All these were interesting, but when I think back on today the most surreal moments are when I was interacting with the needy.  Beggars coming up to my window asking for money.  A man in the factory performing repetitive tasks for hours on end: tedious labor in exchange for a living no American would envy.

Perhaps most poignant was a young street boy wiping down cars in between bumper to bumper traffic with his little rag.  Could he have been older than seven years?  I let him clean the dust off our vehicle while we inched along.  At times he would run to keep up.  In order to reach the front window he jumped up on our running boards, catching a free ride while he worked.  I gave him 25 GD for his labor and at the time felt especially charitable for 1) having given him my business (how many other kids did I turn away?) and 2) giving so generously as the going rate is only 10 GD for this service.  But when the equivalent of 25 GD is still only 50 cents, how could I have possibly felt charitable for that? 

Living on the streets in Port-au Prince is a difficult life.  One of the main motivations I’m here is to try helping just such kids.  It weighs heavy on my heart that as I get ready to go to sleep in a nice bed with a pleasant fan blowing, that same little boy who wiped down my window earlier is most likely curled up in some alleyway with a piece of cardboard over him.

Well, on that cheery thought, guess I’ll go to sleep now.

Tomorrow morning I’m planning to attend a seminar on the state of the national church in Haiti. I’m thinking they better have some good excuses ready.