Katie’s final summary on the Haiti experience

38,000 feet in the air, and I’m determined to finish this last field report before landing…knowing that I am likely to be swept up into new york city and its routine without having the chance to pause on two feet first.  It’s an appropriate sense of limbo I think—caught between two so very different places.

Our last day of work was meaningful—the site is well on its way to completion, and the homeowners continue to join us each day searching for and uncovering the objects of their former life.  The morning brought hordes of children out to help—making it oftentimes difficult to move around, and watching out for the backswing of a sledgehammer or shovel.  At times it was frustrating, negotiating this difficult and now painful work while trying to maneuver through their eager and earnest efforts.  It’s been hard having them on this site, as it’s particularly dangerous too—with a sloping roof and piles of rubble and glass—but they are boundlessly determined, with hands and feet so calloused and firm and a strength that belies their short stature and slight frame.  We try and stop them out of a sensibility of protection—but they are relentless, and prove that sometimes hard work and perseverance mean the most.

During the afternoon we lost a great deal of the crew to an afternoon playtime with the kids in the IDP camp in our front yard.  But our remaining die-hard rubble-breakers made it back to the site and found that infamous second wind.  I decided to harness some of the kids’ energy and took on the role of wheelbarrow pusher for the first half of the afternoon, running the barrows up and over the canal and into the dump site….with streams of kids running behind (I mean, who wouldn’t want to follow a sweaty white girl running with a wheelbarrow full of rubble?).  They convinced me to let them hop in the wheelbarrow for the return run to the site, ok it was more like they just hopped into the belly of the cart and I was forced to push them.  It’s profoundly difficult to be frustrated, or tired, or sore when kids are squealing their heads off as you push them downhill.  I did institute one safety rule and would only push 3 at a time (thank god I can count to 10 in French), as nearly 8 of them tried to jump in the first time.

After a few hours of cardio (hey, I’m trying to keep up with Lukas for our Robie Creek half-marathon next month) I switched over to rubble removal—feeling in the mood to use the sledgehammer just one more time.  Laura (my fellow compatriot from the Midwest) and I double-teamed a particular pile of concrete—inciting all sorts of catcalls from the goofy guys on our team, and drawing a crowd of Haitian men who were all so confused.  Kev, a HODR volunteer from Boston who coaches high school girls’ lacrosse, took video (I will try to get it) to show his team whenever they start to complain about their workouts.

At the close of the day, we finally maneuvered a particularly long (25 feet or so) of twisted rebar that had been our nemesis from the start.  It was definitely a final team effort, and took nearly all of us to lift it out of the tangle of other bent and mangled rebar.  All day long I watched Philip fly from task to task and manage the team—and the children—which I imagine was as exhausting as the physical labor itself.  I know he would like to have been able to sweep up the very last bits of rubble himself, but perhaps having unfinished business here is good…this is a place that will need help for years to come.

After our nightly meal and meeting, we went on a pub crawl of Leogane—walking around the streets and stopping at the local vendors selling Prestige out of overturned refrigerators used as coolers.  Many of the merchants have recognized the influx of HODR volunteers and have set up stands—like the Egg Sandwich Lady—near our camp to capitalize on their captive audience.  Part of the intent of the evening was to see more of Leogane, say our goodbyes, but also spread our commerce to other areas of town.

Philip and I joined Adler and Nancy (both Haitian-American and Creole speakers) on the roof, along with another couple, to round out the night.  Both Adler and Nancy commented that their main inspiration for coming to Leogane was a sense of obligation, since they are Haitian—and were thankful, and surprised, to see so many people come to an unknown place, in an earthquake zone no less, with heat and mosquitoes and disease…to help people they’ve never met.  They told us about their experiences with the country, with other NGOs and spoke candidly about the problems that will arise when rainy season and hurricanes arrive and so many displaced people will still be without any shelter to protect them against mudslides, disease and sanitation issues.  At the end of the night Philip and (later) Kev summed it up best.  Philip said that part of his motivation for coming was that he hoped in a similar situation, someone would be there to help him out too.  And Kev relayed something from a retirement speech he once heard in which the speaker said, “Oftentimes the person you will help most in life, you will never meet.”

This morning, Philip and I joined Nancy on a morning coffee run—of course, we finally get the java hookup on the last day here.  She took us to a woman who brews coffee in one pot, strains it back and forth 6 or more times, then keeps it at a low simmer above a fire flame mixing in raw cane sugar.  In a separate pot, she boils cream until it slightly congeals and rises to the top.  When you order, she puts them both in a tin cup (or in the case of lactose-intolerant folks like me—just gives you the coffee).  There is also a huge bin of hot-dog-bun-type bread, that you break from and dip into your coffee.  Fans of deep, muddy, espresso-like brew would drool over this.

On our way back, we went to see the new water-purification pump that had been installed two days prior.  Leogane actually has a few naturally-occurring artesian wells in town, and spigots come out of the ground to release (fairly) fresh water.  In one particular area, the spring runs into a creek-like formation and this is where the community comes to bathe, get drinking water, and—according to Nancy—is a lovely scene of singing, enjoyment and laughter.  As you can imagine in such a hot climate, a bubbling spring would be a delight.  Of course, this is the spot that the folks from Restoration’s Purse decided to install a huge, and LOUD, pumping system.  I couldn’t help but see how perfectly this encapsulated the precarious nature of NGOs, and even grass-roots organizations like HODR…  Yes, there will now be clean, pure water to drink—a huge commodity in a country that is perpetually in a state of water crisis—but also a giant (literally) monstrosity in the community, droning out their sounds of vitality with a machine’s whirr.  There is no solution, and even answers in a place like Haiti—which is so lacking of very fundamental human, basic needs like water—are even trickier to navigate.  When does helping out becoming hurting—and when should hands on become hands off?

A long trip back to Port-au-Prince, passing again the crumbled National Palais, negotiating the rough-hewn streets and motorists, and staring wide-eyed at the gorgeous mountains in the background carrying on their cliffs homes in desperate need of protection against the coming rains.  The plane on this trip is full of mostly Haitians returning to the states, or perhaps arriving for the first time.  I can spot the beleaguered aid workers, and see many cataloguing the tomes of photographs on their laptops.  I am nearly certain the young man and his wife/girlfriend next to me are arriving in the US for the first time.  He speaks no English and we’ve had to gesture back and forth as I try and demonstrate how to plug in his earphones to the seat receptor.  He then tried to clear my lunch tray for me, not knowing that the flight attendant would also clear my side of the row as well.   The gesture was so simple and kind—and also sad.  When have you ever been on plane and had someone offer to clear your dishes for you?  I wonder what he will think of America and its people, but more, I pray that the churn of our life there does not break the sweetness he just demonstrated.

I’ve spent every hour of the past 12 days with at least 40 other people—and for someone used to her independence and solitude, that has been taxing.  I, however, could not have done it without the contribution of support from you.  Simply knowing I had people to write to gave me comfort and purpose.  I am, and will remain, immensely grateful to you.  I’ve been reminded that we can’t do everything on our own, and some things—like rebar, and Top Ten lists, and tearing down walls—you just have to rely on help for. And most times, you’re all the better for it.

In the meantime, I made the mistake of looking in the airport mirror—for the first time in 12 days.  I think my screams could be heard across the plane.  Tomorrow I’ll take a hot shower in the morning, put on clean clothes that are not sweaty and rubble-stained.  I’ll stand in front of a mirror and paint on makeup to head out into the streets of new york city, masking the effects of these weeks under a smooth patina.  I don’t know how to process all that I’ve experienced.  The gravity of it comes in waves, much like the pain in my hands and back—and I know that part of rising each morning to the roosters and goats (no, I will not be missing them) meant bottling up some of the harsh realities of this trip.  Like an earthquake, I wonder how this experience will shake me, and where the pieces will settle.

Au revoir,



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