Blog post written by Dorene Palermo.
I am writing this today because we had no internet access in our hotel in Jacmel last night. Sort of like camping in the Adirondacks, but in a hotel room. We had a late start today, leaving Port au Prince around 9am. We checked out of our rooms and stored our luggage in one room at the hotel – only 17 bags now instead of the 27 we arrived with! We carried our overnight things in our backpacks. Neal stayed in Port au Prince and went safely back to RDU. The rest of us climbed into the van for a very challenging road trip.
We began with a brief drive through downtown Port au Prince. As we crept along in the chaotic traffic we observed enormous contrasts. There was a huge, new white columned building belonging to the Jordanian government, the ruins of a Cathedral destroyed in the earthquake, the ornate round stained glass windows standing empty against the sky; rubble of government buildings, a new modern museum, and one or two famous statues in parks in the city center.
Commerce is very alive in Haiti. Both sides of almost every street and road are completely populated with vendors of every sort. Small stalls with the wares exposed to the elements on weathered wooden tables, the vendors dressed in clothes of every color, boldly displaying the names of schools, companies, sports teams, etc., squatting barefoot next to their goods. Some stalls were shielded from the hot sun with colorful umbrellas with names of Haitian companies dancing around the edges of them.
We even saw two STOP signs, but of course no one ever stopped! Traffic flow is an art here. The drivers read the body language of approaching and encroaching cars, truck, and tap taps like world class basketball teams. There seem to be conventions about when to honk your horn, depending on whether you are behind someone, are careening headlong toward someone, or alongside. They generally don’t honk it loud and long as in New York, but perhaps with a message encoded in the number and pattern of the short honks delivered. In any case the communication is effective and life goes on.
By the time we were on the outskirts of the city we were realized that the air conditioning system really only pumped outside (i.e. very warm) air through the vents. At the same time the dust and car exhaust in the outside air increased because the pavement became more broken and sections of the road lies in the path of landslides. Residual dried mud covered parts of the street. Gradually the city street evolved into a rural highway, the amount of traffic on the road decreased, and the speeds increased. The highway was two lanes, and we even observed a painted center line in the beginning.
The highway from Port au Prince to Jacmel is a jagged road that climbs to the top of a mountain range and travels along the backbone of it. As the road winds you can see the ocean first on one side and then the other…and you are looking at coasts on opposite sides of the narrow country! The mountains run like the backbone on a starving donkey (of which we saw many) and the road is irregular and bumpy. The closer you get to Jacmel, the rougher the road becomes.
As you peer into the distance you see a beautiful vista of multiple mountains stretching before you. As you look the other way you see somewhat level land, green now from all the rain of the hurricane, with small trees scattered around. Further up the mountain, you can see small houses, even churches on hills stretching away from the road, so far away their homes look the size of the little houses in a Monopoly set. The only way to reach these houses may be a squiggly “driveway,” a rocky dirt pathway navigable only on foot or on donkeys with packsaddles, or maybe on a motorcycle. We only spotted three horses in the two days we were traveling. Cows and goats were tied here and there along the road, grazing, or scattered sparsely within the fields. I think they were also tethered so they would not wander off, as there are no fences or visible property lines.
The higher mountains have no forests like our beautiful Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. All of the trees have been cut down and made into charcoal to be sold to supermarkets. As a result erosion has washed much of the soil away and landslides have polished the sides of the mountains like a ski slope of mud. The hurricane in this area produced wind and rain that continued washing the mountain into the valley. Downed trees in this area have already been cut up and carried away to make furniture or firewood. You could just see some broken trunks and twisted palm trees as you peered into the valleys. The true disaster of the hurricane is in the region of Jeremy which is some distance from where we were.
After about two hours, as we neared the highest part we sighted a large, new, creamy yellow and white concrete block building on a small hill, down a narrow driveway to the right of the road. As we passed it we realized that was our first stop for the day. Our driver was unfamiliar with the area, and was reluctant to turn around to go back. (I secretly think he just wanted to get to down off that mountain as quickly as possible.) Finally he turned the van around and we made our way onto the campus of Carmella Voltaire Woman’s Health Center (commonly referred to as the ‘birthing center’), a new facility belonging to Family Health Ministry, a non-profit organization based in Durham. We were welcomed to the facility and the nurse there, a really delightful person, showed us each area, explained that they did education to the community, and provided a clinic for women. The doctor is there two days a week, and the nurse five. She lives about 30 minutes from there and has to take a tap tap back and forth every day to work.
The interior of the clinic is immaculate and there are five little bassinets lined up with a little shirt and knitted cap awaiting the first newborns — but they have had none yet. The clinic has been open only six months. There is one pregnant woman in the community and the nurse is clearly looking forward to their first “real customer.” As with the clinic in Cite Soliel, this clinic is financially challenged. They were presented with this excellent facility, but it is of little use unless they can afford staff, medicine, and supplies. It is a lesson to us all that a large gift like a clinic becomes a burden unless there is a plan to sustain the effort through time.
While we were at the birthing center, the cool breeze on the mountain kept the clinic at a delightful temperature and sadly we had to return to the van. We realized that as long as we were at these high altitudes we could open the windows in the front of the van and allow some desperately needed air circulation to the whole group, but to the back rows especially. However, as we descended toward Jacmel, the dust and dirt picked back up and we had to close the windows. Never had a group of 11 appreciated air conditioning as much as we did as we continued on our trip.
About this time we tried to reconfirm our next destination with the driver, and when we said “Wings of Hope,” he said he did not know it! There ensured nearly an hour of chaos, as we tried to get directions. Cell phones didn’t work for a while; when they worked, no one answered; queries to people on the street turned up nothing. The heat in the van was building and the frustration was evident among everyone. Suddenly our driver, who used to work in the Baptist Mission in Jacmel, saw one of the phone numbers we were trying to reach and recognized it. Locally it is known as La Trinite, the name of the organization who used the facilities previously and which is still a school and bakery adjacent to Wings of Hope.
Our hope took wings at that and we proceeded through a part of Jacmel that looked like an earthquake had just gone through, not a hurricane. The narrow rubble filled streets twisting uphill, around obstacles and downhill formed a totally incomprehensible maze that the van had to take at about 5 mph. We did not believe he knew where he was going until we actually arrived at a very new, simple concrete block structure of bedrooms, classrooms, and meeting spaces around a concrete courtyard. This structure, completed only a year ago is the home of 32 severely disabled children, both boys and girls. This incredible mission is part of Hearts with Haiti, begun by St. Joseph’s House. Jacky, who runs the home, and his mother arrived homeless in Port au Prince when he was very young. His father abandoned his mother as soon as he discovered she was pregnant with Jacky. A Christian woman took them in. Subsequently, Jacky’s mother had three more children. Her fifth baby died in infancy, and she also died shortly after, leaving Jacky and his two brothers and sister with no one.
Another Christian woman put Jacky’s sister in a home, and Jacky and his brothers ended up with Michael in St. Joseph’s home for boys in Port au Prince. Jacky grew up there and has even been to Westminster. He was the choreographer of the amazing dance team that performed for us years ago!
Sometime ago, Michael of St. Joseph’s Home was asked to take a handicapped child into his Home, because an orphanage for handicapped children could not keep going. Once the boys of St. Joseph’s home saw the little child, they voted to bring them ALL to St. Joseph’s to give them the same chance they had received. Michael was not prepared for that, but proceeded with God’s help, and both St. Joseph’s and Wings of Hope continue.
These children began life being rejected, despised, and ignored. Some of them have very severe disabilities, both mental and physical. People who talk to them, hold their hand, smile and interact with them give them a very precious gift, the gift of validation to them of their own worth. Words cannot describe the experience with them. It is hard to know what to do when we meet these children. We gave them cookies, we held their hands, and with one young boy in a wheel chair and little control over his body, we shared the “I LOVE YOU” we had shared with the schoolchildren at Terre Noir the day before. The smile on his face was of God as he returned the gestures in his own way, and said in his own speech “I LOVE YOU.” Truly we were receiving his blessing on us.
After a tortuous journey back out to the main road, we at last arrived at the Hotel Cyvadier Plage. It took a while to get checked in, but within 10 minutes of receiving a room key folks were onto the little beach and into the water. Others obtained their cold beverage of choice and sat on the patio overlooking the bay letting the sea breeze restore their spirits and recover us from the heat of the van.
We were exhausted from the effects of the heat, and the constant bumping and twisting on the road, so after dinner and devotions we headed to our rooms. We once again realized how fortunate we are and continue to be amazed at how these people who have so little can love so much. We are seeing so much it will perhaps be weeks before we can begin to understand its effects upon us. We just have to keep remembering that when we have served the least of these, we are serving God. Thanks be to God.