Story submitted by Patrick Sherwin from Athens, OH
Our arrival in Haiti is surprisingly smooth due to the help of our interpreters Marie, LaRaque, and Domond. Dinner is great, and the accommodations exceptional when considering the neighborhood weâ€™ve just driven through. The indications of poverty can only be detected by the worn clothing and rough architecture. The people are sturdy, carrying on with colorful style. They carry conviction, and contentment. Many carry large aluminum bowls balanced on their heads full of material necessity: bread, water, wash tubs, fruit, toilet paper, soap, as well as dignity, grace and strength.
In the morning, the smell of rich coffee tweaks my nose hairs. Iâ€™m greeted by a gleaming white smile and a hot cup of the dark juice. Finally Iâ€™ve found a nation that grows coffee and knows how to drink it. As Don points out, â€œitâ€™s so thick you could almost use a fork.â€ As the morning progresses the caffeine quickens my blood as I pace the floors of our stop-over house, Matthew 25, waiting for a lift to the unknown mountain town of Belle Riviere. Eight hours later, adrenal glands exhausted, our ride arrives in classic Caribbean style. Heâ€™s relaxed and stoic, looks us all in the eye and accepts our hasty handshake. Itâ€™s three oâ€™clock and we are in a hurry to get out of the city and up the mountain. If all goes well we will arrive before nightfall.
LaRaque, one of our interpreters, is upset. He feels like weâ€™ve been cheated out of a day. LaRaque is totally at ease in normal operational mode. Heâ€™s unemployed, as far as I can tell, but heâ€™s a good translator, and knows his way around Haiti with confidence. LaRaque works on his own schedule, but he likes to be â€œbossâ€ or â€œBishopâ€ any chance he gets. â€œWe are leaving those here!â€ LaRaque demands as I try to load up the two dead chickens and bundle of bananas which our driver bought to take home. LaRaqueâ€™s correct in his thinking here; the truck is already full- 8 passengers and 1,500 pounds of gear. And besides, LaRaque probably knows best because the chickens are â€œstinking.â€
Our drive through the bustling city of Port au Prince, hugging the bay, and up the mountain, is an experience that could be discussed in nothing less than a small book. Weâ€™re driving into oncoming traffic, dodging wicked potholes, and Iâ€™m gripping hard to the side of the bus. â€œHeâ€™s not a very aggressive driver,â€ Marie whispers to me. Her reaction is testament to her empowered yet sensitive style, but I thought we were going plenty fast. I keep thinking weâ€™re going to knock someoneâ€™s teeth out with the side mirror, our tires will crush an ankle, or weâ€™ll trap the vehicle in a perpetual wedge with a passing tap-tap- Haitian taxi pick-up trucks usually containing almost 20 passengers.
Finally getting through Carrefour, and thus leaving the city, we are greatly relieved to catch glimpses of the aquamarine waters in the Gulf of Gonave. We are in the countryside now, but the streets are still riddled with pedestrians, vendors, and traffic. It is a clear sign we will encounter throughout this trip; Haiti is severely populated. We can be motoring, or walking through the most remote, hard-to-get-to place, and see a steady stream of farmers walking cattle, children riding donkeys, and women carrying water.
The landscape is a patch work of over-farmed, over-cultivated tropical forest- much of which rises no higher than myself. Tiny foot paths create endless loops spinning through the countryside while â€œroads,â€ as we are forced to call them by Fred, tumble and twist over mountainous terrain. The final leg of the trip takes us up and down steep, rocky grades, across rivers, and through giant mud puddles. Itâ€™s the ultimate commercial opportunity for the 4-wheel-drive Toyota workhorse owned by the Belle Riviere Parish. But rather than a novelty excursion of five happy men on their way to the fishing hole, this is a necessity excursion of eight rather tired individuals on their way to work some â€œlight.â€
â€œOohsâ€ and â€œAhhsâ€ come frequently from Doris in the backseat. Fred and Hank seem too dumbfounded to speak. Donâ€™s wisdom puts him in the back of the truck bed so none of us can ask, â€œwhat the?.. where the?… and when will we be there?…â€ Nighttime is upon us and the headlights reveal another stream crossing. â€œBelle Riviere,â€ is announced by all those returning to this magical little nook.We are greeted like long lost friends by Father, Pare Lutian. After being showed to our rooms- which are very nice- it is time for a feast. Most of us were ready for bed, but we could not pass up the wonderfully prepared food- boiled red snapper, fried goat and chicken, beet salad, cole slaw, bread, dried pigâ€™s blood, banana soup, slick bean gravy on rice, spaghetti and spam, avocados, mangoes, etc..
The forces of nature are alive and well in Haiti. Iâ€™m especially drawn to the simplicity and responsibility carried by the brilliant, strong, and friendly people weâ€™ve met. Food, shelter, family, community, water, transportation, and God- if only my life could be that easy. But thatâ€™s not to say life is easy for anyone in Haiti; because itâ€™s not. Famine, thieves, hurricanes, drought, corruption; you can read about it all you want in National Geographic. The depth of the struggle and its competing strength of joy, faith, and friendship must be witnessed first hand. It is then, for example, you will see no one is exempt from the task of hauling water. This constant chore can involve 40 lbs, balanced on your head, hiking miles up and down difficult terrain without shoes. The children start carrying water as soon as they can easily walk.
â€œWhen we are hungry, we cannot hear anyone,â€ Lu Bere says with urgency and emotion. He is the father of four children and a pillar in the Belle Riviere community. Lu Bere is involved in all aspects of community development. As far as I can tell, he receives very little compensation for a full schedule of teaching, education administration, and church services. His meager statue is of a humble leader like Gandhi. Heâ€™s just returned from a six hour, unsuccessful motorcycle trip to take a teenage woman to the hospital for x-rays- the x-ray machines were broken. He answers that he has not eaten, and says, â€œMy stomach is full with God.â€ Lu Bere is a mighty man of positive energy. In his engagements, he is currently teaching three generations of the same family- child, mother and grandmother. Lu Bere has posted signs throughout the place we stay as well as the church, and school. They read, â€œWe love you.â€ â€œWe need you.â€ â€œAlone, we are weak. Together we are strong.â€ His presence is easy and warm. His smile and the example he sets are contagious. â€œThank you for coming. We are brothers,â€ Lu Bere tells me. Now that is spirituality that I can understand! The hard work and dedication of Lu Bere and all those associated with the Haiti Exchange is very evident in Belle Riviere. We are very appreciated and well-received by every community member. But I begin to find out that it is a difficult relationship which requires steady maintenance, a large dose of tolerance, and prayer. Our desires to help are quickly turned into fits of frustration when ideas turn to action. For example, I see a woman and I ask myself â€œWhoâ€™s going to help that women with three children who will wake up hungry, searching for food?â€ How do we help her? For me, God has given a gift, I can install solar energy systems, and it is just natural to want to share. I have never felt so needed, and so appreciated, in all of my lifeâ€™s labors. We get a chance to see where Lu Bereâ€™s sustenance is derived from when we come across his parents hovering around their mountainside home. They stop what they are doing and give a warm smile revealing the one tooth theyâ€™ve both managed to keep. Heâ€™s 89 and sheâ€™s 85- must be the equivalent of 115 in the U.S.. They stand in silence like spirits while white doves fly from their attic. These are two of the toughest, all-weathered, and memorable people I may ever meet. Grandfather Lexen reminds us that he wonâ€™t be around much longer, as he points to the freshly built grave for two. The grave site overlooks a sweeping valley where their spirit and souls fly into the mystic. I may not be a religious man but this is a great place to â€œrenew your faith.â€
In Haiti, once basic needs are met one has great freedom and presence in the moment- time stands still. Children are constantly playing games and teasing each other. Impromptu musical gatherings, pray sessions, and front porch discussions are a part of everyday. Sunday is special day for many who dedicate several hours to song and praise in church with family. However, for the poorest of the poor- much of Haiti- there is absolutely no break from the suffering. They may look clean and well dressed in church, but the children come storming down the isle when the free chunk of bread is passed out by Pare Lutian. Iâ€™m very thankful to be a part of the Haiti Exchange. Everyone involved works selflessly, guided by a higher purpose. Iâ€™m seriously impressed with the effective, and positive progress in Belle Riviere. I greatly look forward to helping in the future. In our final chat, Lu Bere made a metaphor that sums up the incredible amount of love and devotion that the Haiti Exchange has shared, â€œWe are like a truck, and you are the engine.â€ Thank you for helping in the creation of this experience. It has been the greatest adventure in my life.
In my next posting I will talk about how we put the solar panels that Don picked up in Columbus, Ohio from American Electric Power and the Foundation for Environmental Education on the roof of the school to provide light for these wonderful people. How funny that a man from Athens, Ohio is installing solar panels donated by American Electric Power, my electric company as I was growing up, on a school in Haiti. The world really can be a wonderful place.