Mirebalais, HAITI – West Bend octogenarian Heidi Thomas is in the midst of her 72nd tour of Haiti.
Thomas, and a contingent of eight, will be teaching 4-H skills to groups in several cities with a focus on sanitation and hygiene. Haiti is currently dealing with a devastating cholera epidemic that’s killed thousands.
The overall Hatian experience is overwhelming as is the country itself. “You can’t understand the culture if you don’t experience it,” said Thomas.
Stories below are a collection of observations and highlights.
– It took a full day of travel, 20 hours, to get to our destination of Haiti, located south of Florida. Departing from Chicago and landing in Port Au Prince we find the terminal closed, still heavily damaged from an earthquake that occurred a year ago to the day. We clear customs in a makeshift pole building and later learn only five-percent of the quake damage has been repaired across the country in the last year.
– “Complete devastation and rubble” accurately describe this third world country. Karen Neumann of Kewaskum is on her third tour; she said Haiti is “friendship.”
“You see the rubble the first time – the junky cars and the poor roads – now I see so much improvement and look forward to the people I’ve met before,” she said.
– We’re staying at the rectory of the Episcopal church in Mirebalais located about 35-miles northeast of Port Au Prince. Five of the eight in the group are sleeping on mattresses out on the upstairs porch. A pair of white sheets and a pillow are all the covering needed since temperatures hover in the 70s overnight.
The first evening’s sleep is marked by a memorable dog-barking contest that started when the rooster crowed at midnight. It feels like a night spent in the small animal barn at the Washington County Fair. We’re all hoping Kewaskum veterinarian Greg Ogi, a member of the tour group, can work his dog-whispering powers the rest of the week.
– The youngest member of the tour is 22-year-old Jocelyn Ritger, a 2007 graduate of West Bend West High School. Ritger, her hair pulled back in a French braid, took pictures out of the airplane window; she highly anticipated this trip. Within an hour after landing, Ritger is overwhelmed. “It definitely blows you away,’ she said. “Nobody could have ever thought it would be like this.”
On the second day, the group of nine crammed into a Toyota Land Cruiser; it’s a tight squeeze and we get creative to make work.
Ritger is 5’11 – the tallest and skinniest; she sits backward in the middle of the front seat with the driver on her right and Thomas on her left. At one point Ritger is reprimanded by the Haitian driver for multi-tasking – unbeknownst to her she shifted gears while trying to adjust to a more comfortable position.
– It’s hard not to take photos at every turn:
- Hatians riding donkeys piled high with long sticks of sugar cane
- women carrying a basket of laundry or barrels of water on their head
- skinny horses loaded down with bags of fruit from the market
- a cow dead in the road
- three people riding a motorcycle with one carrying a baby
– We can only assume there’re no driver’s ed class in Haiti – think Mario Kart channeling Evel Knievel. A gravel road for one-way traffic is a green light for three vehicles wide in Haiti, with small motorcycles passing on either side, in both directions.
– Men don’t like their pictures taken – they believe it steals their souls.
– Children like to have their photo taken and some have surprisingly good English. “Give me a dollar,” said Patricia after I snapped her picture outside church.
– There’s optimism in Haiti; we visit a man named Eddie Charles who graduated high school in Boston and then returned to Haiti where he developed a sizable drug problem in Port Au Prince. Now, cleaning up his act, Charles invites us into a 10′ x 10′ square foot shack with the words American Dream written in white chalk above the door. Inside there is a collection of deflated soccer balls, a series of Hot Wheel cars, a plastic toy tiger, a stuffed purple elephant, a keychain with a zebra fob, a small American flag and a framed picture of President Obama. Charles said he hopes to turn his collection into a sports museum.
– Ray Lipman would be proud – We visit about 80 children at a local 4-H meeting. Two of the kids are wearing Homer’s Club West Bend Savings shirts.
– The roads in Haiti are terrible – envision goat path… and I’m being nice. Rubble and garbage line both sides of primary and secondary roads, there are few street signs and our driver often stops and asks people along the road if we’re headed in the right direction. There are no sidewalks, so motorists are quick on the horn as pedestrians walk two or three abreast – sometime with cows in tow, sometimes riding atop a donkey.
– Rotary International, including West Bend’s Rotary, has helped fund 44 operating wells within a 150-mile radius of Port Au Prince.
– Electricity is turned off at our Episcopalian church/motel during the day as a way to conserve. Returning home from a nine-hour day the power is completly out in the entire neighborhood; there’s a road project going on and there’s no clue when power will be restored.
– A library at a hospital in the city of Cange is seldom open due to concerns about possible theft.
– We visit an orphanage about 25 minutes away; Shae Hellmann of Atlanta, Georgia permanently moved to the facility seven months ago. “I’ve been all around the world and I know this is where I want to be,” said the 20-something. Hellmann is dressed in an orange bandana, she has stylish rectangular glasses and is carrying a very small baby. There are 33 children at the orphanage; 14 were sick with cholera and three went to the hospital. The children cannot sleep in the building on site, it’s still deemed unsafe after last year’s earthquake.
– We had our first flat tire and I helped our driver Peter with the change. It’s sunny and there’s a dense, furnace heat. Once finished, Peter said we should open a repair garage together.
– A photographer traveling with the Thomas tour often waves at Haitian children in an effort to spark some action. The stone-faced children seem to have a look of “that crazy white woman.” Later that evening I learn the gesture is an insult and I’m told to stop. “What about miming the make-a-muscle-gesture?” Thomas said that’s a swearing motion and I should cut that out, too.