Haiti, Day 1: Beyond Thunderdome …

Well, many have been asking me about my trip to Haiti – and, WOW … SOOOO. MUCH. HAPPENED.

I figure instead of repeating myself a hundred times, it would be a good idea to document our unbelievable journey.  Nine of us headed down from the Washington, D.C., area and we didn’t quite know what to expect – I was all nerves, wondering if I’d step up to the challenge … or, shrivel up into a ball in the corner of the room the entire week.  Our fearless leader Doug, head of the org Mission Results, had prepped us a good deal on the current state of the country – and, mentioned how one volunteer arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport and was so disturbed by the conditions, asked “Is it better or worse outside?”  To which Doug replied, “Worse.”  She immediately got on a plane and headed right back stateside.

The Mission Results Volunteers
The Mission Results Volunteers (L to R: Rachel, Stefanie, Chris, Betty, Claire and behind the camera - Meredith, Greg and Fritzson)

The Mission Results team picked us up from the airport – total chaos but not too far off from your typical developing country airport standards.  Doug, head of the org; Fritzson, one of our Haitian guides and translators; and James, another one of our Haitian guides – they were there to fend off eager Haitians looking to help us with our luggage and transportation – it’s rather intense.  But for perspective, $1 = 40 gourde (pronounced, “guuud”) – $4 is maybe a half day’s pay for someone with a good job.  So, if one person assists with your luggage and you tip them $3 – well, that’s pretty amazing money by Haitian standards.

As Doug argued with angry Haitians looking to get paid for hauling our bags to the large truck, we piled into the covered flatbed with bench seats – Rachel, Stefanie, Chris, Claire, Meredith, Greg and Fritzson.  Stefanie is the Assistant Yoga Director at our studio, Stroga, where Claire, Rachel and I are enrolled in yoga teacher training.  Chris is a Stroga regular; Meredith found Mission Results via City Paper and Greg is an architect, agro-enthusiast and friend of Doug’s.  We made a great team!

We set off on the, um, bumpy roads – you definitely need a large 4WD drive vehicle in Haiti.  The roads are in bad, bad shape.  We had many, many transportation setbacks which is to be expected in this land of the lost.  The traffic was heavy and the roads, dusty and totally chaotic – cars cutting off each other, weaving in and out, motorcycles whizzing passed; a drive that would normally take 15 minutes took over 2 hours.  But, I didn’t mind so much as I had no clue how far and where we were going – and just absorbed the overwhelming sights and sounds.  The air was thick with dust and diesel.  The chaos around reminded me of the flick Mad Max. A theme that would stay with me the entire week – so it only seemed fitting to title my first post appropriately.

Leaving Port-au-Prince, the traffic is heavy
Leaving Port-au-Prince, the traffic is heavy
The nicest cars you'd see on the streets were usually these UN SUVs. *mustbenice*
The nicest cars you'd see on the streets were usually these UN SUVs. *mustbenice*

And, tap-taps, everywhere!  These are the taxis/buses of Haiti.

Brightly decorated tap-taps are hard to miss.
Brightly decorated tap-taps are hard to miss.

We made our first stop at what at first glance appeared to be a hippie commune.  But, no, it wasn’t all flower children and patchouli – this organization called Grass Roots United has set up shop outside of Port-au-Prince and is pioneering development of sustainable housing and agriculture, among many other projects. We toured their compound and checked out the many cool things they’re doing.

Grass Roots United - Like them on Facebook for the month of January and they get $1 donation!  http://www.facebook.com/Haiti.Communitere
Grass Roots United – Like them on Facebook for the month of January and they get $1 donation! http://www.facebook.com/Haiti.Communitere
This is some kind of plant-growing thing-a-ma-jig that recycles waste/water from fish in that black tank. OK worst explanation EVER but I was exhausted from many, many hours of travel.
This is some kind of plant-growing thing-a-ma-jig that recycles waste/water from fish in that black tank. OK worst explanation EVER but I was exhausted from many, many hours of travel and didn’t catch all the details.
A house made of straw - the plaster walls are filled with straw which is perfect for keeping it cool in the hot Haitian temps.
A house made of straw – the plaster walls are filled with straw which is perfect for keeping it cool in the hot Haitian temps.
James, one of our guides, poses in front of this house made from plastic bottles.
James, one of our guides, poses in front of this house made from plastic bottles.
The bottles are great for light as well as keeping it cool.
The bottles are great for light as well as keeping it cool.
This is the bathroom. Note the luxurious real toilet - hard to come by in Haiti!
This is the bathroom. Note the luxurious real toilet – hard to come by in Haiti!
And, the shower.
And, the shower.
Full view of the home from the outside.
Full view of the home from the outside.
Here's another home made from giant shipping containers.
Here’s another home made from giant shipping containers.
A view of the other half.
A view of the other half.
The full home.
The full home.
No idea what this originally was, but another style of house.
No idea what this originally was, but another style of house.

And, if our trip wasn’t totally weird and surreal enough, we ran into Patricia Arquette on their compound.  Denim overalls and all.

My stalker photo of Patricia Arquette
My stalker photo of Patricia Arquette
Our host Sam showed us a machine they've constructed to compress materials into building blocks.  Pretty cool.
Our host Sam showed us a machine they’ve constructed to compress materials into building blocks. Pretty cool.
Very Leonardo da Vinci-esque
Very Leonardo da Vinci-esque

After our visit, we hit the road and headed for the community center.  It was a very cool stop – but must admit, I was anxious to see our digs and get settled.  When we entered the compound, I was SO impressed – the place was gorgeous!  It looked more like a resort than a community center in the poor hoods of Haiti.  The former home owner had left Haiti after the earthquake and moved to the U.S. But the house was a gorgeous space – tiled floors, a patio that wrapped around the front and the Mission Results team had just completed and opened a pool.  The decor inside was pretty nice too – leather couches, computers – all VERY impressive.  The Mission Results team had done an incredible job restoring and renovating this home.

Here's a photo from later in our trip, when this man scurried up a palm tree for leaves and coconuts - to weave a fence. Anyway, just to give a sense of the outside of the place.
Here’s a photo from later in our trip, when this man scurried up a palm tree for leaves and coconuts – to weave a fence. Anyway, just to give a sense of the outside of the place.
The pool in front of the community center.  The crew did a great job and it was SO nice to have this open when we arrived - a great option in lieu of showering under a weak, dribble of cold water.
The pool in front of the community center. The crew did a great job and it was SO nice to have this open when we arrived – a great option in lieu of showering under a weak, dribble of cold water.
The volunteer team in the common room of the center.
The volunteer team in the common room of the center.
Corbin had been working on setting up internet for weeks ... maybe months.  It was beyond remarkable that he figured this out in the wilds of Haiti!
Corbin had been working on setting up internet for weeks … maybe months. It was beyond remarkable that he figured this out in the wilds of Haiti!
Sidwell Friends!  Well that was an unexpected sight.
Sidwell Friends! Well that was an unexpected sight.
The view from the roof of the community center.
The view from the roof of the community center.

Told to bring tents, we were originally supposed to camp out on the roof of the community center.  (Fortunately) Last minute, the rooms inside were completed so we were able to bring air mattresses and sleep indoors.  Considering the 52 mosquito bites I came home with, this was no doubt a blessing from above.  Thanks, God.  Greg in our group however did camp out on the roof – the view of the stars at night was amazing since there’s really no electricity in Haiti at night.  … We also were able to enjoy yoga every morning on the roof – a nice way to start each chaotic day.

Our first day ended with a trip to the orphanage to meet the children.  We made it right after sunset and although it was dark, the excited children came running out to greet us.  They were so amazing and such sweethearts.  Their love, happiness and joy were contagious and many of us overwhelmed.  I was a real novelty throughout the trip – many Haitians have never seen an Asian before.  I definitely got many staredowns, but found that if I smiled and waved, most did the same right back.  I also enjoyed riding in the truck, sticking my face out the cab – kind of like a dog.  Only because of all the stares – it felt like being a celebrity, smiling, waving; and the closest I’ll ever get, so I maximized the experience.

The kids at the orphanage were no exception – they especially loved my hair, ran their fingers through it and played with it … which was great.  I love having my hair played with.  So soothing. The kids also LOVED all our cameras – they were such hams for the camera and loved seeing themselves in the photos.  Here’s a super cute video of some of the boys singing and dancing:

Visiting the children
Visiting the children
Sweethearts!
Sweethearts! On a side note: see all the specks?  That’s how much dust is ALWAYS in the air.
Kids with goats
Kids with goats

We piled into the truck and headed to a local bar, the Bamboo Club, for drinks and food.  The local beer Prestige was refreshing … and the food, well, edible.  It was an exhausting first day with so much travel – but a success and a nice introduction to Haiti.  And, it couldn’t have been more appropriate to end the night with a ride back in the open (but covered) cab in a total downpour.  Just an omen of the unpredictable chaos that was to come.

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