I’m definitely still having a hard time readjusting to “normal” life back home in NCW. But immersing myself in great friends, great weather, and great projects keeps me inspired and motivated to keep doing work that’s worthwhile. I’m brainstorming about some exciting big projects, but in the meantime check out my latest writing endeavors. You’ll find tips on green spring cleaning here and information about the best little writing conference in Washington here.
I think I’ve finally conquered the technical challenges that have prevented me from uploading photos from our recent trip. Go here to bring these stories to life in pictures. It’s been great to hear feedback from folks around town that have been following my blog and the newspaper column. I hope my perspective has helped. It’s been fun to renew my blog and I’m planning on continuing it and peppering it with travel essays and commentary on other events. If you have comments or ideas, please keep them coming!
I think I underestimated how difficult reverse culture shock would be. This is not the first time I’ve traveled internationally. This is not the first time I’ve seen such dire conditions. Yet somehow this time seems different. I have glimpsed such enormous needs before and have ached at not being able to help at all or enough. And then time marches on and the need gets ignored somewhat, gets addressed somewhat, but it never goes away completely.
I’m home now and this town feels different. Winter has leaped ahead into spring, the birds are chirping, the wildflowers are in full bloom, time marches on in this sweet little town. It’s great to see friends, it’s nice to talk to family, it’s easy to be home in so many ways. Even the crummiest parts of town look well-kempt and secure. The grocery store and stores in general are overwhelming places to be, with too many choices. It’s hard to relate to legitimate (though first-world) problems people are facing here when I’ve just returned from a place where people may barely eat a meal a day if they’re lucky.
My thoughts are drifting between here and there–images of the hopeful, happy, proud people I met and interacted with keep lingering in my mind–Cesar, Father Tijwa, Sister Ann, Serge, the family across the street, Jenn and Amy of Second Mile Ministries, Treasa at CRUDEM, Julia, Julie, Manuela… How can I help? What more can I do?
I miss the team from Wenatchee, too, and I think I’m not alone in battling this re-entry phase. My inbox is peppered with quick photo swaps and check ins from Rotarians and medical crew alike, just checking in to say hi and to see how things are going. It’s great to have those shared memories and such an intense shared experience. I hope we stay connected, and I hope we can find ways to help together and individually.
This trip has been intense on every level and I will continue to process it. I promise to find a way to share photos at some point soon. There are so many more stories to tell! And so many ways to help! Just being there, caring about people, and listening to their ideas showed me how important that first step is. It’s remarkable how far a simple human connection can go despite language, cultural, class, religious, and racial differences.
I’m still figuring my own best actions out, and I’m already plotting my return trip. In the mean time, here are some links to places with more information and more ways to help if you are so inclined. I saw firsthand the work each of these organizations is doing and I wholly support these groups:
www.secondmilehaiti.com (These two young women are incredible visionaries and it is inspiring to listen to them. Be sure to check out their latest blog entry about a teenager with Type One Diabetes. One of our medical team members treated her and was instrumental in getting aid for her. Along with several women from our team, I enjoyed a very worthwhile shopping trip through town gathering clothes, food, and toiletries for this young woman.)
www.crudem.org (This remarkable organization has made Hopital Sacre Coeur in Milot the top medical facility in Haiti over the past 25 years. The immense generosity and teamwork displayed by visiting and local medical, support, and Catholic personnel is incredible.)
www.childrenofthepromise.org (This children’s home is run by two practically youngsters themselves! Nick and Nicki are young twenty-somethings from Washington who have sacrificed a lot to live in Haiti for the long haul. They have a clear vision and thanks to a lot of support have been able to achieve a lot.)
My remaining days in Haiti were blurred with hikes to historic fortresses and jungle hillsides; conducting casual interviews with locals to cram my head full of perspectives on government corruption, post-earthquake Haiti, business ideas, religion, and the future; tutoring in English and German; and gophering around the hospital.
By the end of the second week, most of the team seemed ready to head home. It’s no surprise, since the work had been chaotic and exhausting, with the medical team handling 71 cases in nine days. They received accolades from the CRUDEM staff and should be immensely proud of the work they provided to a very appreciative patient group. Many patients would have never received necessary healthcare without the generosity of these physicians and support staff. For some, their presence was a life and death matter.
While my work in Haiti wasn’t nearly as important or concrete, it proved a successful introduction expedition. The massive hurdles Haiti faces are overwhelming, but focusing one’s time and money on one single project can make an enormous difference. Mike Poirier from the Rotary group is passionate about Father Tijwa’s community programs. Wenatchee’s Laura Monda chooses to focus her energies on sharing her loving ways with the kids at Children of the Promise. I haven’t quite found my focus yet, but I have had a crash course overview of Milot’s endless needs.
I come home full of ideas, confusion, frustration, sadness, and more questions than answers. But I am also filled with wonder and appreciation of how Haiti somehow “makes it work.” I’ve learned that Haiti is full of stark, sturdy, stoic, happy people; gorgeous, tropical landscape and delicious (but scarce) food.
On our last group hike in Milot, Dr. Jeff Monda asked me why I came to Haiti. I came to see what there was to see, to bite into a slice of another culture. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I guessed I would see global inequality, and I wanted to learn how I could help in the moment and from home. I am not religious, but I do feel a call to serve wherever I am because I believe it is right, natural, and to everyone’s benefit to help the collective community.
Jeff’s niece, Mallory Monda, described visiting Haiti as coming “to feed the soul.” I think that’s an added benefit, sure, but it wasn’t a prime motivation or expectation. Rosedanie Cadet, the Haitian-American who visited the Rotary group prior to our departure for Haiti, said, “Feed their bellies, feed their minds.” I tried to feed some Haitian bellies, and I hope I gave a few people some food for thought, too. But my own soul is filled with respect, awe, and hope for Haiti.
I’m home now but stuck in a bleary-eyed, netherworld somewhere between Haiti and Washington. I’m exhausted and congested but am healthy, safe, and used up in a good way. It’s a lot to soak in, and I’m still processing it. How can we best live and serve and address our unfair advantages when we’ve stared such poverty in the face? I hope that together we can continue building a nourishing and more connected, egalitarian, healthy world, one person at a time. My actions can speak louder now than my words.
**A combination of busy days and technical challenges have prevented me from posting pictures recently. I will post more when I can, but in the mean time make sure you’re watching the fabulous short videos Jeff and Oly have made. You can watch them at: wenatcheeworld.com or north40productions.com**
APRIL 11, 2012
Today was a full day for sure. Mike Poirier, Laura Monda, and I went out to Likere, the village where Patrick lives and where the Rotary is placing their main water filter and building. We took a pickup truck out, which was a fun way to explore the countryside in slow motion. Laura and I gave hair ties, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soccer balls to the local school, which is the same one where people came out in droves for us the other day. The villagers there are so friendly. I visited with Patrick’s wife. She wanted me to adopt a child here.
In the afternoon we went on a walk to the market and near the palace. The market was a fascinating place full of raw meat, smoked fish, grains, popcorn, oats, pasta and beans. I was surprised to see so much produce: cilantro, onions, garlic, grapefruit, yams, beets, tomatoes, bananas, oranges, plantains… The selection was wide and I was told that all of the food is very local. Some women hike in for miles with their wares on their head. When Mike gave a dollar for bananas, they wanted to give him bunches and bunches.
The food here is quite tasty, I find. The onions are the spiciest I’ve encountered, I don’t normally like grapefruit but the ones here are delicious. The bananas are small and sweet like in Hawaii, and we’ve tried juicy, sweet pineapple here, too. Our meals usually consist of spicy rice and beans, some form of meat, and a salad. We’ve had french toast, oatmeal, and eggs for breakfast. Some of the flavor combinations are unexpected and delicious, like spicy onion salad dressing, spiced peanut butter, and anise-coconut oatmeal.
As with most things here, the plan is often evolving and appointments shift frequently. We continued our walk up to the palace, but it got quite rainy when we arrived, and we decided to take shelter at Father Tijwa’s house. Of course he took our group (Mike and Libbie Poirier, Laura and Alisa Monda, Kayla Fix, and Kelly DeWolf) in and we wound up having an impromptu wonderful business meeting. Libbie set up her own microfinance program through Father Tijwa and met Marjorie, a 22 year old woman who wants to start her own business. Libbie was inspired to help out and had saved money from teaching piano to do so. That night she presented her program to the medical team. She was so inspiring that by the evening’s end she had gathered over $1000 of support.
APRIL 12, 2012
It was another full day. The Rotarians and I met with Father Tijwa again to visit his church’s school, and the medical group walked through Michel’s garden in the afternoon. The garden was more like a spot in the jungle with a bunch of sweet potatoes, bananas, mangoes and avocados intermixed. Michel knew where everything was, though, and his cousin Joseph harvested several sweet potatoes for us to have for a meal later. We had a very cultural evening. First Jeff Ostensen hired a band to play at the soccer field. Then the Rotary treated us to a cultural night at Lakou Lakay Cultural Center here in Milot. The band element was completely surreal. We traipsed out to the far edge of the local soccer field where a band called Leya was playing. The band consisted of 15 or so hot pink t-shirt clad young men with mostly homemade instruments (galvanized metal trumpets, PVC-pipe horns, drums and shakers). Next to the band stood a large group of local young men staring seriously. (I dubbed one suave looking fellow a Haitian will.i.am from Black Eyed Peas). Downfield a cow grazed and the whole while we were there a soccer match was occurring.
Donni, Libbie and I went over to the Haitian young men and tried to get them to dance but they were shy. Eventually one guy stepped out and showed us some extravagant moves. We joined in for a bit but when his moves turned a little complicated, we backed away. Libbie approached the guys again at the end of the set with no luck, but finally a woman danced with her. It was quite a show.
The cultural show that the Rotarians arranged was surreal in its own right but was also very nice. We learned a little about komba and vou dou dancing, heard call and response singing and drumming, and ate tasty regional specialties. It was very professionally done. The surreal part was when a large group of locals stood behind us while we were eating our fancy meal. It made most of us quite uncomfortable and reminded me completely of OXFAM’s Hunger Banquet, which is a program that reflects the global inequities of food distribution. We were much happier when the locals stayed for the entertainment. They obviously enjoyed the singing and dancing, and they went absolutely bonkers when Father Tijwa was pulled up on stage to strut his stuff.
APRIL 13, 2012
Friday the 13th lived up to its name. After an exciting day at the hospital yesterday (in which an OR bed caught on fire), we thought we’d used up our bad luck on the 12th. But there was plenty of good luck, too.
I accompanied the Rotarians to Limbe, Rosedanie Cadet’s hometown. Rosedanie is the Haitian woman who met with us before we left the US. She now lives on Orcas Island and has started an organization, Helping Hands Noramise, in her hometown. We visited the organization’s community house, gardens, and school. The 1 1/2 hour drive from Milot to Limbe was very insightful. We saw the hustle and bustle of grimy Cap Haitien; the quaint, simple, primitive huts among rice paddies, pasture land, hillside terraces; burned out old factories; and we even caught a glimpse of Labadee, the Royal Caribbean International Cruise Line’s private faux island port. Labadee is a curious-sounding place. Apparently the cruise line was outed in the ’90s for not telling passengers they were going to Haiti. They only called the port Labadee, Hispaniola. (Hispaniola is the island that encompasses Haiti and the Dominican Republic.) More recently Royal Caribbean has received flak for sending ships to Labadee directly after the 2010 earthquake. It was difficult to grasp how people could possibly be snorkeling, kayaking, and enjoying fancy cocktails just a few miles away from the town after town of flooded, dilapidated shacks receiving US AID that we passed between Cap Haitien and Limbe.
The real adventure happened on our way home. As we approached Cap Haitien we noticed a police blockade. There were several policemen in full SWAT uniforms, carrying semi-automatic weapons. They were checking car registration papers. Unfortunately, ours were not in order. This meant the police seized our vehicle and we were left stranded for a while on the side of the road. We had no idea how long we’d be waiting. Despite a long, uncertain wait, everyone in our group was reasonably calm throughout the event. I really wished that I could know the other group members’ inner monologues at the time, though. I personally went into survivalist mode a little in my head, glad I’d paid enough attention to where I was that I could’ve found my way to an English speaking institution not too far away if I had to, happy that I had hours of daylight left if I needed to walk all the way to Milot if I needed to do so. Fortunately, though, CRUDEM sent another vehicle and we wound up waiting for only a couple of hours.
The rest of the day was far less eventful. John and I ran the vendor gauntlet between the hospital and our housing area. We purchased a few items. The vendors here are incredibly aggressive. Everyone says they want to be your friend, you are their son or daughter, or that Jeff Monda is their “chief”. John says he’s impressed by how much English people speak for not having any formal training. In the evening, most of us stayed up late visiting, playing dice, and enjoying 3-star rum and coke.
APRIL 14, 2012
This morning the Rotarians left and many of us did another “moving” (workout) session. To finish, John, nurse Jennifer Gehringer, and I went for a run around the village. We joked that people pay a lot of money for mud runs like we had on the side of the muddy dirt road, dodging motor bikes and tap taps. But the joke was really on us, as the few villagers who spotted us seemed to react to our running with varying degrees of wonderment. We definitely provided some morning entertainment for the town, though, as we attracted triple the number of observers on our way back to the compound. It almost looked like they were cheering us on in a race. But their faces seemed to reflect bewilderment.
After lunch we headed into Cap Haitien in a local tap tap. That was an experience in itself. We packed 17 people into this converted pick up truck with bench seats, abuzz with loud music and flashy colors. It was the perfect way to see Cap.
Cap Haitien makes Milot look like a quaint upscale mountain village. This bustling city is the second largest in Haiti. It is filthy, crowded, and full of traffic patterns that look like absolute mayhem (a woven pattern of tap taps, “moto” bikes, trucks, and whatever else can squeeze in) but somehow work. In fact, Haiti in general seems to be like that in many ways. The situation may be challenging–with trash piles everywhere and streets and shops in disarray–but somehow people here make it work.
In Cap we first made a stop at a tourist market, which was a series of 75 weathered stalls that had obviously been built a long time ago for cruise ships that never come anymore. The artwork and jewelry the vendors were selling was worth seeing, but what was really stirring was the view. The shops were oceanfront, and the salty air, sea breeze, and palm trees almost looked like any other seaside town. But as we walked out a little further we could see that instead of pristine white sand there was a beach full of garbage, mounds and mounds of it. Trash was strewn literally all throughout the beach and it was floating in the waves for almost as far as we could see. Eventually we could see blue water way out on the horizon, but it was a stretch to see. Standing in that spot viewing the trash beach, hearing vendors begging us to spend a dollar on their necklaces, and eying the tattered homes up and down the hillside I was overcome by sadness. This place could be a beautiful seaside city. This country should be touted for its natural scenery, its friendly faces, its gorgeous people. Instead, it seems in so many ways like we’re visiting another planet. Things here, though functional, are so tough to see. People seem very happy, but I’m still conflicted about what the solution is for Haiti.
We rounded out our visit to the big city with the complete antithesis to the trashy beach. We visited the Hotel du Roi Christophe, a high end hotel and restaurant that caters to foreigners and wealthy Haitians. It was the prettiest place I’ve seen in this country. It was a grand, colorful establishment with tree-filled grounds, a pool, and fancy artwork. We sat there and enjoyed the peaceful, relaxed ambience with rum punch. We visited for a long while, and when we left I spoke with an American electrical worker who complained about the rooms in this hotel. If he only knew…
Tomorrow we will hike to the Citadel, which is one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the area. The members of the group who have been here before have talked it up so much, I can’t wait to see what the day will bring.
APRIL 9, 2012
It seems like weeks of experiences have occurred, and yet I’ve only just had lunch! We had an incredible deluge all of yesterday afternoon and night. Sister Maureen even said the crackling thunder and lightning is unlike anything they have seen in quite a while. I was hoping night one’s good night sleep wasn’t a fluke, and it wasn’t. Unfortunately, though, John and a few other doctors were called upon during the night. The outcome was sad, especially knowing that the patient’s father had visited with John at length about his child just after we arrived. Apparently John handled the very stressful and emotional situation in a gentle, pure manner using his broken Spanish. I was proud to hear that.
I went with the Rotary group this morning to Patrick’s village, about 20 minutes from Milot. Patrick used to be a student associated with the hospital, and his village is where the Rotary is building a structure and water filter for an existing well. The children of the village were tentative at first but then came out in droves to pose for photos (they’re so excited to glimpse themselves in our digital finders) and eventually to sing, sing, sing. It never ceases to amaze me to see how happy and creative children can be with really a very simple existence.
Some of us left the well workers for an hour or more and went to Children of the Promise, which is a children’s home (kind of like an orphanage but the goal is to get the kids back living with their biological families) that Laura Monda’s cousin’s daughter randomly runs. The directors, Nicki Stolberg and her husband, Nick, are from Washington, are in their early 20s, and have been here for two years. They are pretty incredible. It was amazing to see the ambition they have to expand the complex—besides caring for children from infancy to age 4, they have a nutrition program, they’ve started enhancing their follow-up care, they basically function as an urgent care clinic, they’ve created their own medical records system, and in trying to enhance the psychological care of the kids, they are working on establishing adoptive foster-care type volunteers to create a pseudo-family environment. For Nicki and Nick, this is their calling and their experiences and abilities are well beyond their years.
We came back to CRUDEM for lunch and had some down time before going to visit with Father Joachim Roboam Anantua, the priest at Milot’s main Catholic church. Father Tijwa, as he’s known, is a local hero doing some great work to enhance the lives of women, students, and all of the people of Milot. It was incredibly inspirational to visit with him and to hear more about the microfinance program that Rotary started last year. I was impressed that Julie, one of the employees in a women’s art workshop, has been able to collect all of the initial loans of $50 that were given out to ten women last year. The group brainstormed about whether to increase their loans as an incentive to those women and how to reward Julie for her work. Julie had devised an organized system to collect and distribute money between the women in the workshop and she brought solid ideas forth for the improvement of the entire system.
It was impressive to see how much Father Tijwa is respected in the community, “more than the mayor,” according to Rotarian, Sue Long. He has the biggest home (which felt like going back in time inside, rather like historic homes on the East Coast feel, with wide planked wooden floors, brightly colored walls, iconographic artwork, substantial wooden carved furniture, and a distinctive Caribbean flair.)
After the official meeting, Rotarian Mike Poirer and I stayed for a bit to visit a little with Father Tijwa and discuss some project ideas. What a wonderful surprise to find that Father Tijwa speaks a little German! I happened to catch him say, “Ich bin sehr muede” and I responded in German to his surprise. I asked him a few more questions auf Deutsch and he looked a little embarrassed. I asked in English whether he spoke much German and he said that he started the lessons but lost the cassette in the middle of the first level. He said it was very unusual for him to meet someone here who speaks German. I have noticed. My Deutsch is not as handy for these Kriol, French, and Spanish speakers. John’s broken Spanish has already proved quite useful, and we are all impressed with the vendors’ abilities to pick up key business English phrases such as “I will make you a bracelet with your name on it,” “Jeff Monda is my friend,” and “I have very nice items for sale in my shop.” The most assertive vendors linger around the hospital and approach us in a very friendly (though aggressive) manner. Many of them seem to have adapted their names to English versions, such as Johnny and Charlie, My favorite interaction recently was with Mike’s daughter, Libbie, who is a sophomore at Wenatchee High School. One vendor approached her with a bracelet with the name “Jeff” on it. The vendor (Johnny, I think) told Libbie it was for her father. “Jeff’s not my father,” Libbie replied. “Well, you should buy it for Jeff anyway and I’ll make another for you,” Johnny cleverly suggested.
APRIL 10, 2012
The heat and rain and bugs were getting to me yesterday and I had a rather nasty headache for quite a while. I slept horribly, too, and am glad today (Tuesday) is so far a lighter day. I will go with the Rotary group to deliver coloring books to a local school in a little while, and I walked through town for a bit with Laura, Alisa, and Kayla earlier.
My head has been swirling with ideas—confusion and awe at the role the Rotarians have here, discomfort with certain vendors lobbying funds from me, not knowing how it’s best to help here, fearing I’m not doing enough here or at home…and the overwhelming experience yesterday of holding a sweet little girl at Children of the Promise who didn’t let me put her down. An employee had to yank her off of me. I didn’t expect to be so emotionally affected in such a short time.
We delivered soccer balls and cleats on behalf of the medical team (part of the Headers for Haiti program) as well as books and crayons that the Rotarians brought, to Madame Appelis’ school yesterday. It was fun to see school finally in session after the Easter holidays. The children everywhere light up with smiles and giggles, songs and clapping when we’re around, and their energy is infectious. But as Libbie, Mike and I wandered back to CRUDEM with empty suitcases (we had packed the soccer equipment in suitcases for transport and to avoid a mob scene—soccer is immensely popular here) it was hard to pass by the poorer children in the neighborhoods who were not attending school (all schools are privately run and families must pay to send kids to school) and realize that they wouldn’t receive such goodies as easily. Libbie impressed us with her sophisticated thoughts on the subject. She feels the students at the school are already receiving a lot and she wants to find a way to address the needs of kids who are not in school. We are working on a plan for that with Sister Ann’s help.
Sister Ann is incredible. This tough Dublin-raised nun shared some of her amazing life adventures with us last night. Since she was 7 or 8 she has always known she wanted to “help the sick people in Africa.” She has been committed to that goal ever since, even when her mother discouraged her at first and wouldn’t let her leave home when Sr. Ann said she was ready at age 15. Her mother made her wait until she was 21. Since becoming a nun, Sister Ann has spent her life helping people in several countries of Africa (including a stint working as a midwife in the forest for seven years); in Eastern Europe; and, since 2009, in Haiti.
Here in Haiti Sister Ann seeks out those who are most in need and helps them. Whether it’s serving as a midwife, teaching dental hygiene habits to stubborn kids or putting shoes on children’s feet, she makes it a point to give hope and skills to people in a most authentic way. When asked how she spends a typical day, Sister Ann told Laura Monda that she wanders the outskirts of town just looking for kids who are the neediest and finding ways to help them.
In the afternoon, Libbie and Mike Poirer and I visited the prosthetics lab, of which I’m thoroughly impressed. The lab was created by one of the other US doctors who routinely visits CRUDEM, Dr. John Lovejoy. He saw a need for prosthetics just after the earthquake and quickly realized that the need would be ongoing. He helped get funding together for the lab, tools, staff, a training program, and they will soon break ground on an adjoining physical therapy center.
The lab is managed by Oscar, a bright young El Salvadoran native who first came to Haiti to work in Port-au-Prince just after the 2010 earthquake. Oscar is charged with many duties in the lab. Besides creating and fitting patients with prosthetics and orthotics, he is training two local students in prosthetics. The students are taking part in the first certification program of its kind here in Haiti. Once they finish their combination distance learning and practical instruction they will have international certification, as well. The idea is for them to eventually take over the lab themselves and to continue teaching the skill to new students thereafter.
I will be spending more time in the hospital next week shadowing our team and observing cases when fewer visitors are around, but already I’m really enjoying the opportunity to have a closer look at the medical system. It’s quite a dance process they have going on, with local Haitian doctors and nurses mingling with the visiting specialist team. The general surgeon here is an engaging young physician, Dr. Sisi, from Guinea Bissau in western Africa. Like most medical personnel practicing in Haiti, Dr. Sisi trained in Cuba. When a visiting medical crew is here, his surgeries are set aside unless an emergency occurs. As a medical professional, I imagine that stop and go routine would become tedious, but Dr. Sisi insisted he likes the change of pace.
Yesterday a new angle on medical tourism and ethics popped up. Curiously, a patient had been obviously treated for his problem in the US. When questioned about it, the patient explained that he is Haitian-American and lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Since he does not currently have medical insurance, it was apparently cheaper for him to fly to Haiti, stay with family members, and pay for services at CRUDEM than to deal with the situation in Florida. I couldn’t help but think of what a sad comment that is on the state of health care in our country. I also couldn’t help but think of what a clever abuse of the system had just taken place.