Photos of children used with permission. All photos copyright Jeanette Arsenault © 2011
March 15, 2011
Up at 3:30, on the shuttle by 4:30, seated by the gate by 5:15, flight at 6:45 to JFK. So far so good.
Then the fun began. Supposed to arrive at JFK airport in NYC at 8:00. Arrived at 8:45. My connecting flight leaves at 9AM & we land at gate 34. My gate is #8. So the sprint began and I followed the arrows overhead but the numbers were going up, not down! Kept running, looking up, was going in the right direction according to the signs – was in a full run and made it by 8:55. Took a good 15 minutes to catch my breath. Time to take up running again!
Stirred up something at the bottom of my lungs because I could not stop coughing for those 15 minutes. The guy across the aisle I think was fed up so he offered me some gum! I told him it wasn’t a cold so not to worry. We got to talking & it turns out he is a Reuters photographer on his way to photograph the elections in Haiti. His name is Shannon Stapleton. He lives in NY but is away a lot on assignment.
My seat mate is Haitian but he lives in New York. He is on his way to Croix de Bouquets – WOW!!! Now that is a God-moment! That is exactly where the Gospel Crusade Canada mission team, with people from Picton, is building their school! Small small world.
Landed at Port au Prince about 1/2hour late. Huge airplane so took a while to unload. Greeted by steel band which was nice and a heat wave! Went to luggage area and have never seen anything like it – people everywhere climbing over suitcases to find theirs – they were strewn all over the floor , on the conveyor belt, guys were there (workers) to locate luggage but people were ignoring them & looking themselves. Chaos!
Long line up through immigration, finally through then we head outside & walk under a white covered canopy quite a distance to where people are waiting. Bombarded by offers to help with my luggage and for taxis. Keep plowing through and incredibly, get to the waiting area and a man approaches me & says “Jeanette?” – it’s Brutus. I had told him to look for a petite blonde with a red coat so I guess I wasn’t that hard to spot in the crowd! HAHAHA! I meet his wife (and I still don’t know her first name because I’m told to call her Mme St. Cyr). They drive me to their home and after some pleasantries, I have a siesta for about an hour because I am exhausted.
Wake up & they have supper ready – goat meat, rice, baked banana, carrots, green beans & some sort of tomato-based sauce. Lovely meal then we retire to the roof patio up some pretty scary metal staircase where we chat and eventually sing. They sang some Creole hymns which were simple enough so I was able to add a 3rd harmony so we all enjoyed that experience. I sang “Akiwowo”, “Malaika” and “Vishten” which they seem to enjoy.
There is no electricity at this point – they say it comes on & off sporadically. Eventually, I wake up at 2AM & it’s on so I charge up my computer & cell.
They are a lovely Christian family & their house is a gathering place for Christians in their neighbourhood. They meet every Wednesday eve 9-midnight, Thursdays 4-6 and Saturdays. They constantly have people coming through their house so you never know how many are sleeping in the house at any given time. The house is simple and clean. The washroom’s sink doesn’t work so I have to use the foot faucet in the shower to wash up. I use my bottled water to brush my teeth.
March 16, 2011
Woke up at 2AM & could not get back to sleep….roosters crowing, dogs yelping, cats fighting, horns honking, some guy yelling something about “Roger” so I lie there till about 6:30 then they tap on the door. They want to leave around 7. We have a bit of goat meat & a baked banana for breakfast & head out by 7:30.
The photos will best describe the sights that I saw. What they do not capture are the sound and also the smell. Port au Prince, from what I saw, is a city in chaos – the driving is atrocious – a mix of vehicles & people crisscrossing every which way. It completely befuddles me how no one gets hurt. Cars/trucks/buses/scooters/motorcycles all scurrying about, passing each other & honking, honking, honking to say get out of the way or I’m coming through or move over!
There is rubble everywhere, garbage, tent cities, people, people, people everywhere. We drive through it for at least an hour and it’s always the same scene. We drop off Mme St. Cyr at their “office” – a very dirty, overflowing cubbyhole filled to the brim with car parts. That’s the business they are in.
Left in the car are Brutus, his daughter Julie and also Rosena, a niece and me. The car is dilapidated and falling apart. They had to use a wrench to knock the battery to get it to start. It sputters up the mountain en route – thought we’d have to get out & push at one point!
So it takes us 5 hours to get to St. Georges. Along the way, it’s mostly the same kind of scenery – a lot, a lot, a lot of poverty & destruction & mess. The roads are not paved for the most part and the ones that are, have huge “shifts” in the road where the earthquake tore it up.
As we near St. Georges, it gets lush and green and we stop for photos at the beach – totally different scenery. Forgot to mention the stripped mountains that we saw along the way – it’s heart-wrenching to see the way the mountains have been deforested! That’s a whole story unto itself.
We finally make it to St. Georges which is a section of a town called St. Louis du Sud. We arrive at the house & settle in for a bit before the children come.
I was told there were 20 – but there are actually 36. When they arrive, it’s kind of formal, no one smiles much except for politely, including the family members all eyeing me not sure what to make of me I guess. They line up the children so I can take a photo and it’s nice – they are all clean & dressed in their best, well behaved, polite. They sing a welcoming song. I sing Akiwowo, Vishten, they clap along, smiling, warming up. Their smiles are spectacular! From the heart! So I start clowning around to get them to smile and start shooting photos of the group, of one at a time, then two then three, show them the photos & they love it. Even their families want their photos taken.
So 500 photos later…!!!! We had a ball! The difference in their smiles at the beginning & at the end of our time together is noticeable. I got hugs all round when they left and I was left feeling uplifted & blessed. They are wonderful, wonderful human beings. They seem happy, full of life, not stilted but joyous, spirited and I think it’s a tribute to those who are caring for them. The director opened up by the end and seemed to relax – I guess she felt a lot of pressure.
Had a bit of a snooze then we sat around & talked in the dark cuz there is no electricity. Am typing this by candlelight. They gave me a bucket to go to the washroom. There is no hot water. No supper offered so had a cookie that I had bought when we stopped for gas. Shared some with the girls, they made me tea and we all went to our rooms at 9PM. Tonight’s sounds include a yelping dog under my window, barking dogs in the distance, mosquitoes buzzing my head, honking traffic, crickets…those are the Sounds of Haiti tonight.
March 17, 2011
Woke up at 5AM roosters still crowing then some sort of bird fight – squawking, screeching, on & on….
Internet won’t work – have come to learn how much I rely on it! Then look around and realize that it’s pretty shallow to worry about no internet when the people here have no electricity, not much food, no hot water, they cook on a dilapidated makeshift barbecue with charcoal in a cement room just outside the house – it’s filthy and sparse.
There are coconut, banana & mango trees everywhere – in fact I think the whole village is set in a fruit grove as the houses are all built in and about the trees. This morning, a gentleman came into the yard & proceeded to climb up the tree, barefeet and shake down some coconuts & mangos. I took photos as it was quite an unusual sight – well, for me at least, not for anyone else watching him.
They served me breakfast which was cooked plantain and one boiled egg. I have started waiting until others are ready to join me to eat – I want to make sure there is enough for everyone. They are so polite that I think they would not eat in order for me to have something. I’m on to them now!!! So now, we all eat together.
Went for a visit through the village to see what conditions the children are living in. It’s a poor, poor, poor village. Small one room cement square houses – one had 9 people living there. Looks like a slum area, filthy-garbage-ridden yards but yet their clothes seem clean and they are clean.
I have a following! Of course I am the “stranger in these parts” so there is a group of children – up to teens – following us from house to house. I am being guided by the director of the children we are helping. She is very young – maybe early 20s at most but really pleasant & has a great way with the children – she looks like she loves her job and they love her.
I am quite appalled at the conditions I witness and with how many children there are because it means they are not in school. School costs money so a lot of families cannot afford it. The total cost per student per year is….$32.50 USD!! Imagine – $3,250 would send 100 of those children to school per year – a pittance!
We then head over to the school & I meet the director who takes me into each of the classrooms. They start at kindergarten & go all the way up to high school. It’s all very clean, the children are all in uniforms & they allow me to take photos of every class. It is part of a church complex (the Director is a pastor) so I take a photo of that too. They call me “le blanc – the white one!!”
We head back to the house & prepare to leave but Brutus’ car won’t start so people start to push. Problem is, he is backing up onto a very busy highway – there is no traffic limit in Haiti as far as I can tell. They go screaming by at top speed so this driveway is just around a bend and it’s a miracle they manage to back it across 2 lanes & out of the way.
It’s supposed to be a 4 hour drive home. But it turns into 7 hours on the road. A huge truck blocks both ways as it is stretched sideways across the road. Come to find out that the driver did it deliberately (and walked away with the keys) to protest not being paid. We wait 1.5 hours before we can get around it. And it was the most incredible chaotic situation I had ever seen in my life.
There were lots of people around, lots of police too but no one directing traffic so everybody was just gunning it, in both directions to get around the truck. And, to do so, the cars had to go on a slight angle. Some tried to drive down the ravine & back up but couldn’t make it because of everyone else in both directions up on the road trying to get by on the road.
We finally get back on our way and when we get to Port au Prince, traffic is at a standstill so it takes us 1.5 hours to get across the city. It’s mayhem in that city! People everywhere, drivers and people crisscrossing, barely getting by each other, noise, smells, rubble, garbage, lean-to’s, tent cities, dust, women with baskets on their heads, market sellers.
When we got back to the house, there was a Christian gathering going on – maybe 30 people out on the patio. It takes place every Thursday 4-6 . The singing was fabulous!
We had potato fries, fried banana & fish for supper. We were quite tired so we said goodnight around 8:00.
March 18, 2011
Slept till 5AM from 9:30! Woke up to the sounds of…guess…yup: roosters & dogs. Worked on my journal then had breakfast which was a cooked plantain, and a potato.
Took a “taxi” with Julie & Rosena to P au Prince market – LONG ride, traffic congestion as usual, found nothing then another taxi to another section & found some souvenirs. Then lonnnnnnnnng taxi ride home to meet with my driver to take me to BPW luncheon – took over an hour to get there so I basically spent most of my day in a vehicle!
Need to tell this quick story – as I was leaving my host’s house to get into the car to take me to the luncheon, the family stopped me. They called one of the BPW ladies and asked her to describe the driver & the vehicle before they would let me go. When I got to the luncheon, they called to make sure I had arrived. When I left, I had to call the family to say I was returning & when I got back to my host’s house, I had to call BPW to let them know I was safe & sound. Quite the security system.
Met the MOST extraordinary women from the Business & Professional Women – Haiti branch. They invited me to lunch at a beautiful restaurant atop a cliff called “la Reserve”. It was like being in a little haven far from the noise, dust, hustle/bustle of the city that never stops.
At the luncheon, we talked about the plight of Haiti, the overwhelming challenge of where to start to rebuild their country, they told me their personal stories during the earthquake of January 12, 2010. We spoke about the political situation & the upcoming election, the need for women to be in the higher echelons of government, the desperate situation of the poor, the young girls being violated, the need for education, honest government officials, how Haiti was ruined over the years by foreign governments.
These women are smart, compassionate, tireless, dauntless, courageous, fearless and need to be heard. We all agreed that Haiti needs women to help make the necessary changes but how that proves to be an uphill battle. Other women have been in positions of power and one in particular, turned 180 degrees and left these women baffled with the political choices she made – I gather it could be described as a “turncoat” though I did not get the full story of what she had done.
Interesting to note about the markets: the clothes and the shoes seem to be 2nd hand. Makes me wonder if they are items that have been donated from other countries which the Haitians, in turn, sell. Who can blame them – there are no jobs so they have to be creative and find any way they can to feed their families.
Did some more singing & dancing & bonding with the family & with some of the neighbours I met – Yolette & Maria Jules (teacher). Had a long conversation with Maria about Haiti & how the hope is in the children and how the women need to get to positions of power. I am going to connect her with BPW Haiti.
Met a young man named Stephenson – very talented musician. Speaks English well. Taught him to play spoons & stepdance! We had a good laugh. Wrote out the words for Akiwowo – they just love that song. We also sang a song in Creole which I recorded on my cell – the harmonies!!
7PM & sitting in the dark. Electricity is out again. But at least rooster is not crowing!!! However, baby is howling, people are boisterously chattering.
March 19, 2011
Woke up at 5 to the sounds of….you guessed it…cockadoodledoo!! All packed up, was served a rice dish for breakfast which was delicious – had vegetables & meat & a delicious sauce. Took some more photos of the family. Headed out to the airport around 9 – plane boarded at 11:15 and we were in the air by 11:45 which was 15 mins ahead of schedule. Never saw that happen before! As we flew over Haiti, tears welled up in my eyes as I said goodbye. They stole my heart! I fell in love with the hope-filled people of Haiti – wonderful, generous and joyful. They gave me an amazing parting gift of their friendship.