Saturday, August 13, 2011

Project Hope in Haiti, Part I

Sister Swimmer and Gardening Mom, along with Sister's Girl Scout leader (of 10+ years!) and her daughter, went to Haiti last month on a humanitarian trip.  Sister Swimmer did the research and turned her dream of helping in Haiti into a reality.  The following is a recap of the trip in Gardening Mom's own words (only edited to remove names), as taken from the emails she sent to keep those of us State-side updated on what they were doing while there.  The photos were taken by all 4 of the ladies who made the long trek from LAX to Les Ceyes, Haiti.

The organization that they traveled with is REACH: Reconstruction Efforts Aiding Children without Homes, please visit their website if you would like to get information about volunteering.  The orphanage and compound where they stayed and volunteered is called Pwoje Espwa.  I will wrap up this small series of posts outlining their trip with a reflection from both Sister Swimmer, Gardening Mom, and myself on the inspiration I've gained from their trip.

To make the emails easier to read while maintaining the confidentiality I strive to maintain here at Stress Case, the following "code" will be used:
SS=Sister Swimmer
A=Sister Swimmer's friend, and the Girl Scout leader's daughter
K=Girl Scout leader (and lovely friend of the family!)


The Journey to Haiti
Getting here was a journey. The drive from home to LAX was completely uneventful. Having padded our 2 hour arrival by another hour we arrived checked in with almost 3 hours to kill and have dinner at Chiles, spend time in the bookstore and spend too much on snacks for the trip that we could have gotten at the grocery store for a quarter of the price. We each get varying amounts of sleep on the flight to Miami and find our connection to Port au Prince then have a fairly uneventful breakfast at the Miami airport waiting for the flight to board. 

Arriving in Port au Prince is not as crazy as I thought. Having been warned by several people that this can be an overwhelming part of the trip, we are forewarned and prepared to push our way through baggage check and customs and then valiantly defend our luggage from the legions of would be porters. Instead there is a more or less orderly progression from plane to a bus to the main terminal, through customs which was quite organized to bag check. Once past customs we are supposed to be met by the head of REACH who will know us by our REACH Tshirts and also probably by the fact that two American teenage girls accompanied by two American mothers is a bit more unique and recognizable arrival to Port au Prince Haiti than to, say, Hollywood. So we are walking through the crowd pushing forward waiting to be recognized and resisting our bags being taken by a zealous porter when I focus on a sign that says Reach for Children but in kind of scrawled letters and my name spelled wrong in the right corner and realize that I am almost passing this porter who is dressed like the other porters which I did not expect. I ask if he is the head of REACH, and he explains no that the gentlemen supposed to pick us up is unable to come, and he was sent to get us. That gives me a bit of pause and I am concerned for a minute that this is some set up to either abduct us to extract a tip for carrying our bags but decide that neither an abductor nor tip monger would be clever enough to have my name misspelled on a handwritten sign and go with the man who is not the head of REACH. 

He leads us through the outside of the airport to a group of van cabs and loads us into one to take us to the Tortug airport about 5 minutes away and waits for his tip and seems unhappy with the few singles I hand him so K adds to it so that he is probably tipped about $8 altogether between the two of us for meeting us and pushing one bag to the van, which later I think was more than enough although I think he was wanting $10. The cab ride to the Tortug airport is a bit windy but not far and when we arrive there there I hand the cabbie a tip as the cab ride itself is supposed to have been taken care of by Reach but the cabbie follows us into the airport and wants $10 each to have taken us the 5 minutes from the airport. 

So, the cabbie driver is still standing by wanting his money but he is friendly and smiling in a way like it seems like he thinks I don't understand what he is asking me for and he is still in his cell phone back and forth with someone so I decide to let it play out some more and go to the reservation desk to check on our tickets for the trip from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes. 

When I get to the front of the reservation line the reservation clerk, a guy confirms all of our names on the reservation list but says the flights still need to be paid for. At this point, I am wondering if all of Haiti is running a scam or maybe that REACH, the organization that organized the trip, dropped the ball. A Tortug Airline employee (I assume, since he is wearing a tshirt that says Tortug Air, but had I known then that every possible logo tshirt can be found on young Haitian men, maybe I would not have assumed as quickly). He speaks much better English than the reservation clerk, and explains to me what I already had figured out, that the airline did not have confirmation of our payment. I explain to him that all of the arrangements had been made and paid for in advance by the REACH organization, but in the back of my mind I am wondering if REACH had not prepaid and if I advanced the money whether I would ever be able to get it back from them. The cabbie, who has been standing by smiling pleasantly as if he were just waiting while I dug through purse to give him a tip, makes another call and then hands the phone to me. On the phone is one of the higher ups at REACH. He tells me that he is making calls configure things about about the cab and I tell him about the flight payments and he said he will look into that too and for me to just sit down and he will call me back. 

We still have over two hours before the flight is to depart and I decide that I will not consider just paying for the flights to get to Les Cayes until we are down to an hour. I sit down and start to relay the status of our situation to K (who had previously sat down with the girls), and realize that our row (but only our row) of seats is broken and they are all kind of tilting forward, not enough that you actually slide out when you sit but enough that you have to exert some muscle pressure to feel like you will stay in the seat. Kathy does not seem too stressed with my plan to hold out another hour and see what develops. We chill out, although that is a really poor expression in this case since Tortug Airport, which is quite small, is not air conditioned and I am getting quite warm in these clothes that I have been wearing since about 5 pm Saturday evening in California and it is now about 2 or 3 pm in Port au Prince Sunday afternoon. 

There are maybe about 75 seats in the airport and they are mostly full. I want to take my mind off things and K is reading and SS and A are doing something, so I start to read one of the books that I had down loaded on the trip on iPad. At one point the cabbie comes over to me that payment for the cab has been handles and that the flights were paid for but some one else there in is trying to block the knowledge of the payment probably to run a scam but not to worry, this happens all the time in Haiti and he is working on clearing it up. 

I continue to read and the Tortug employee checks in with me a couple of times and also says he is working on things. I read a bit more then the REACH head calls back and says he is still working on it and he asks is there a white couple in the airport. At first I think, well that's not very descriptive but look around and am startled to realize that the four of us OC girls are the only white people around until I spot a white couple in the row ahead and to the right of us and kind of marvel that I did not even notice them before. I confirm to the REACH head that yes there is a white couple and he says to let them know we are with REACH and Espwa and that they may be able to help us. 

K and I introduce ourselves the white couple, and just as we start talking, the Tortug employee comes back and says everything has been straightened out and they needed our passports, so I gather all four passports and go back the the reservation desk and K continues to talk to the white couple. Reservation clerk takes down some information and then the Tortug employee starts to walk off with my passports. I follow him and he says he has to make copies and I say that's fine but that I am not getting separated from our passports so I will follow him. He said well I just need to make copies and I say that's ok I will go with you. He gives me a look kind of like the cabbie did, like I am not understanding the situation but must decide that it is not worth arguing and he will humor me so ok, come on. Tortug employee starts to head out the door past the reservation desk and I am on his heels when a security guard stops me and will not let me out and I am still pleasantly insisting that I need to stay with the passports when a girl behind the desk right by the door pulls off her security tag that is clipped to her dress and hands it to me and I clip it on and then the security guard, who is right there observing it all, let's me out with the Tortug employee. I follow him across the tarmac and he says, you don't trust me, and I say, I trust you fine, but I just can't let these passports out of my sight, and he laughs. We reach another small building and inside is a couple of desks, a pilot on the phone and a table with a copy machine and I am really glad I came because the building is air-conditioned and I soak in the cool air while the employee makes the copies of the passports then we go back to the terminal. He says it will be a bit longer to get the tickets issued and I sit back down and he comes over and asks that I will take care of him which I immediately recognize as an ask for a tip so I tell him that when I have four tickets and boarding passes in my hands I will take care of him.

A bit more time passes and my iPad is losing power so I go over to another wall where a fan is plugged in and sit in the floor and plug my charger to the other receptacle in the outlet and read some more. After a bit, the Tortug employee brings the tickets and boarding passes to me and there are two with A's name and none with mine and it takes a few more minutes to get this corrected, after which I give the employee $20 which I later realize is quite a large tip. A few minutes later, he is back and tells me the reservation clerk worked very hard on this and I needed to take cars of him too, and I am thinking, the reservation clerk was just doing his job and not a very good one at that, but give him another $5 for the reservation clerk. 

At this point we have another 45 minutes until our flight, but suddenly a flight is called and the white couple and others are standing up and headed out and since I know that the white couple is going to Les Cayes, we gather our stuff quickly and follow them. 

Sister Swimmer excited to be nearly done with the day of travel.

As It turns out, the flight is overbooked and the plane is going to go there and come back for another trip but we get on that flight and off we go. It is a plane that holds about 20 or so passengers and I don't know what kind it is, which is not remarkable, but what is remarkable is that my husband M (hey hey Hat Dad!), who knows all planes on sight, does not know what kind it is when he sees the photo of it later. 

The flight is over beautiful been mountains, and later you can see the coast beyond the mountains, and rivers cut through the mountains from time to time, and the rivers look completely brown, like they are rivers of very muddy water. You can barely see dots of small houses.

We arrive in Les Cayes and the Tortug terminal there is like a beautiful cottage and it is nicely finished with wood paneling and painted walls and wood seats inside and beautiful ironwork on the windows that is painted different colors and has birds worked into the ironwork and it is air conditioned. We realize that we are early and no one is there to pick us up because we are earlier than expected. We are deciding what to do when one of the higherups from REACH approaches us - he is there to pick up the white couple. He calls Espwa and says someone is leaving to get us right now and they are about 20 minutes away and he and the white couple leave. Sure enough, Johnny, a young black man who is maybe 20 arrives shortly thereafter (I should mention that I later refer to the work crew as men/boys and it is not meant as anything diminishing because these are black men but that all of them are between their late teens and early 20s and to refer to them as men creates a different visual for me than the boys that they seem to be). We head to Espwa and go through the outskirts of downtown Les Cayes and the streets are busy and crowded and then down a road less congested, and I notice these metal shacks, about big enough for two people all along the road, in some places three or four one right after another, and they say Bank on them, with different names, like St. Joseph Bank, very colorfully painted, there must have neeb a hundred of them in the 10 or 15 miles to Espwa. I also notice the ironwork on houses we pass, on the windows and gates, many different patterns and colors. 

Their long day of travel ends up with them making their way to Espwa, where they will be staying.  

The room Sister Singer and Gardening Mom share during their trip.

Next time? Read about the first few days of their trip, and expect lots of photos!


Kate said...

This is so interesting! I can't wait to read the rest! I give your mom and sister props for being so brave to do this because I don't think this is anything I could do!- I'm too snobby. :)

Life With Lauren said...

Looking foward to hearing more!

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