Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cite Soleil, Haiti: The arrival of a new participant and his first thoughts

Hello everyone and bonjour! For those of us who know French, the Francais of Haiti is scattered liberally with Creole. I arrived on Monday, quite tired. After a late afternoon arrival in Miami, then dinner and a long overnight before leaving for Port Au Prince at 7am on a vintage small jet, brimming with NGOs/volunteers wearing t-shirts sporting their particular mission, and Haitians returning home. Every conceivable space was filled with suitcases and the small seats made the trip seem longer than it actually was at about 2 hours duration.

When I arrived in Haiti, it was hot and we could only use a small portion of the airport, the arrival area, now used for both arrivals and departures because looking out of the arrivals deck, the adjoining buildings were riddled with cracks and broken windows. We descended down one of the only working escalators, greeted by lively drums, and singers wearing red T-shirts advertising Digicel, in bright white letters. A large, new transport bus arrived and we piled into the sliding doors, then were transported to the makeshift arrival area, which was a baggage handling area. Its roof must have held up under the earthquake. Immigration was very efficient and friendly, and both my bags were sitting on the concrete waiting for their next journey.

The taxi drivers descended, while I looked in vain for someone holding a sign, with "Cameron" on it. After being manhandled by an aggressive helper, wearing a plastic name tag, I started to believe that I needed to leave the hordes and go looking for my sign. Sure enough, a chap was holding up a file folder with "Cam Grant, DWC" roughly writing with a ballpoint pen. This individual was still not my driver but took me toward the waiting vehicles. He demanded a $20 US fee, which I paid, and was promptly escorted to the actual driver, who with a big grin said, "welcome to Haiti", meanwhile a new set of assistants arrived to help lift my bag into the van, while at the same time holding out their hands asking for a tip. The driver looked at me and said, "this is Haiti and you are a new arrival" then he grinned again and steered his van over streets of concrete rubble, broken uplifted pieces of pavement and between tin roof buildings, narrow lanes, more turns, deeper and deeper into a land that seemed so inhospitable to a weary traveler.

After putting all my trust into my driver, and many more turns in the intense heat, we arrived outside of a 10' high steel gate, set into a forbidding whitewashed concrete wall with razor wire riding along the top. The driver beeped his car's horn and a guard, dressed in a gray uniform and sporting a semi-automatic shotgun, pushed the steel aside to reveal a small oasis of palms, lawns and motel suites on either side of a gravel driveway.

Richard walked out to greet me, gave me a key and said, "great to see you Cam, unpack your sunglasses, water bottle and sunscreen, we're leaving for the project site as soon as you return." Feeling more than a little sorry for myself, and looking forward to a cool drink, I climbed the outer stairs to reveal a cozy motel room, two beds, one for Tony D, and myself. I began to feel better, grabbed my gear and jumped into the waiting van.

Narrow streets and long walled areas with steel gates quickly became the norm, then no longer had I got used to this landscape, the busy roads opened up to all kinds of commerce; people selling tiny bags of water, petrol in bottles, mangos, coconuts, used hydraulic jacks, used TVs and every other thing imaginable.

There were business people and street people, everywhere there were cellphones and small trucks converted to hold over the maximum number of passengers, with brightly illustrated slogans like "the Lord will save you", and "Corinthians", all with tin hands sticking out of the fenders and decorated bumpers, one with tennis rackets welded on the the bumper, ostensibly to protect the turn signals. People were going places, jogging over crushed concrete amidst a landscape that was obviously post-earthquake.

Very shortly, we arrived at the outskirts of Cite Soleil, 500,000 people compressed into 4 square kilometers, a sea of tin roofs and tents stretched as far as I could view, and large canals periodically loomed between the buildings that were filled with every imaginable plastic bag and container including plant matter. We turned into a small lane that quickly became a 5' wide lane between endless concrete constructed homes, some with wood doors, some with curtains, and still more with steel doors and gates. we made a sharp turn somewhere within the city, scraping against the outside of one building, while the family watched carefully from their iron cook grate with bubbling dinner of rice and beans, the staple diet of Haitians, augmented by fruit and occasional chicken.

We finally arrived at the mission, and Tammy came out to greet me and welcome me to Cite Soleil. Her many friends surrounded her and warmly greeted me, children came to question my single earring, my rings and my watch; I felt like some type of royalty who had arrived, though this effect wore off quickly. I said hello to the rest of the volunteers, grabbed a mason's trowel and began to set concrete blocks into one of two houses and fill the space between each with more concrete.We continued to work in the sweltering heat until 5pm, with may people watching our work, the owner helping, and a handful of paid workers. Before long I was gulping water from my water bottle, filled by a blue bulk water jug, identical to the jugs in Canada, except water here is 1.50 CDN for a jug, which does not seem like much until you compare it to Haitian currency, the cuzo at 44 per dollar.

After work, all of us sweaty and concrete-dusted volunteers, deposited our tools into a large duffel then hauled it to a nearby building, secured with a heavy steel gate, then a steel door, up a steep UN-uniform set of green-piled stairs into a bare room with windows that opened to catch the breezed and afford a panoramic view of a part of Cite Soleil, and acres of tin roofs, with narrow shoulder-width lanes joining each to each. Security of tools is a must, and at night even leftover, rocks and sand, old boards and rebar is removed by the many people who are trying to reconstruct their dwellings. Cite Soleil does not have any building over two stories, but it did not escape the earthquake either. There is rubble everywhere, people carrying water from paid potable water outlets and children scrambling for a better view as we walked between pieces of concrete, open sewers and through buildings that have lost walls, yet still with floors of shiny large tiles with numerous cracks and rubble filled gaps.

Reconstruction will take decades, meanwhile people must live here, and laugh and argue, and rap fists against each others fists (including ours) as a sign of greeting and friendship in a landscape of so many contrasts, including much hope. We hear stories of youth who are taking English to have a better life, and see many who are coming home wearing school uniforms. School here is free, but a family must provide a spotlessly clean uniform and buy all of the textbooks before their child can attend classes. You can imagine one of the many challenges, yet there is always laughter, and hope.

I can easily see why our Host Partner Tammy keeps turning her dream into reality here and keeps returning. The people here love and respect her very much, I hear her name drifting between the narrow alleyways and I know something very important is happening. Tomorrow I will see more firsthand.

Cam Grant

DWC Participant

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