It is still November 5 and the first wave of fresh volunteers arrived at the airport in Port-au-Prince. It may seem strange telling a story of a weeklong trip and in the second installment still in the airport, but this adventure began early for me and went non-stop.
So once we got past all the red shirts hawking baggage service, not particularly unusual, even in developing and some developed countries, we were off for a two-hour bus ride to Leogane. In what would not be an indication of how things would go for the week, the bus company sent a 20-person bus instead of the 50-person bus that Habitat ordered for us. The logistics were nearly flawless; a remarkable feat, especially in Haiti.
Instead of whining about it the folks sent to pick us up quickly determined that between the bus and the security vehicle and the other two SUV’s on hand, they could accommodate us all. It was fine, no sitting on laps or hanging out windows. But the luggage proved a challenge. As much as would fit in the bus and back of the SUV’s went there and the rest went into the back of the one pickup. Piled five-feet above the bed. No bungees or rope, our handlers hired a fellow from the side of the road to ride atop the luggage for its safety and security. Not sure about this, but the luggage (and the man-bungee) arrived just fine.
On the way we were treated to a view of life on the streets of Port. There were many tap taps, the gaily painted share taxis, none of which was loaded to anything short of over capacity. They came in all sizes but were all painted brightly and the bodies were fashioned into works of art. I do not know if it was a ‘chain’ but the Merci Jesus moniker was very popular. Not sure they had steering wheels but they all had horns. Signs and street lights were sparse but the drivers and their horns (including our bus) seemed to work things out.
The other views included goats and cows grazing on the side of the road. Not unusual in the country but this was in the city. Much of the ride was along a road adjacent to the beach but most of the beachfront was developed only with tent cities, buildings that we would call shacks, and the occasional hotel sign (but I never detected exactly which structure was the hotel). There was not much clear evidence of the destruction from the earthquake as most of the rubble has apparently been removed to be recycled.
We were scarcely 10 minutes from the airport when we came upon a very busy street corner where thousands were gathered, mostly hawking dry goods and bottled water. There, on the sidewalk in this busy intersection was a young woman wearing only hot pink panties taking a bath in a galvanized garden tub. The busload of American men took notice but the throngs of people on the streets did not seem to be amused, entertained, or otherwise concerned. Public bathing is not for amusement; it is the only option for many. The entire time there I did see others bathing, mostly children, but did not see anything that even looked like clean water.
But the Haitian people are clean. They are well dressed. I could not help but notice that most of the women on the streets wore dresses. There was an assortment of odd outfits and some looked like they had been working (hard) in their clothes all day, but most were, in a word, beautiful.
The contrast these beautiful people appeared up against were streets made mostly of what seemed like rubble lined with buildings that looked like they were built with rubble (or tent cities) and trash everywhere. In a place where there is no sanitary sewer system or potable water they drink a lot of the bottled stuff. And the bottles are everywhere. I kept thinking, “If we could just pay these people to bring the bottles and other plastic trash in and make something of it, they could create jobs and a cleaner environment all at once.” I am not the plastics engineer in the family so I only imagine that if this were viable someone would have already dreamed it up and started it going.
Not unlike many large cities in the world, the graffiti is everywhere. But it is in their native Creole so it made no sense to me. I imagined the kind of messages they told but have discovered quickly that the more I read and studied these people and this country, the less I knew. But I knew quickly that I was falling for them and was anxious to get my hands dirty. We all were very anxious to get on with it.
The next day, Sunday, we had our chance. But first, let me tell you about the place where we were to live for the next week. I slept in a tent with 13 other men on a cot. The tent was donated by the Danish Red Cross and erected by the people (mainly volunteers like us) from the Irish NGO, Haven Partnership. Haven provided all the housing, meals and sanitary services. They did a stellar job.
So on Sunday, as the bulk of the volunteers on the project were winging their way to Haiti on a pair of Delta jets, the house builders were treated to the first look at the site. The Haven group had their build here the week prior and erected the first 55 houses. That experience helped us immensely and the design changed somewhat along the way. We spent the day erecting scaffolding around the basic masonry bases from which we started construction of the 100 houses we were to complete.
The ‘bases’ included a robust concrete foundation to support a structure designed to resist the forces of an earthquake. Leogane was at the epicenter of the January 2010 quake and 90 percent of the buildings in the region were severely damaged or destroyed. The concrete floors were around 2’ above grade to make them resistant to floods. The build site, consisting of around 54 acres of former cane field, is located a few short miles from the Caribbean and the topography is mostly ‘flat’. So we started construction with a good foundation and masonry walls up to the first 4’.
Our job was to raise the prefabricated walls, build the roof system, cover the roof, install two walls forming the one separate room, and install windows and doors. I will tell you more about the construction next time; and I promise full details on the roofing system.