I hope you noticed I was off for about 7 days in June. Yeah, I was on vacation alright. My wife and I along with 3 other adults, took 7 teenagers to HAITI.
It was the culmination of 9 months of work at my church, St. Vincent de Paul in southeast Newport News. My wife and I, along with Dr. Mamie Locke, had a class of 16 kids preparing for a pretty significant event in their lives and in the church. And we brainstormed and came up with the idea of a mission trip to visit kids at an orphanage in Hinge, Haiti. Here’s the first installment of the story.
We hit the ground in Port au Prince, on time, ’round 415p, Sunday June 21st. Cleared customs. 2 kids apparently did not fill out their green VISA cards correctly and were directed to meet with an officer for clarification. Uh-oh. I had stepped out of the reception area of the terminal where the kids were being questioned. And when I tried to go back in, a 6-foot-4 inching guy in a police type uniform told me I couldn’t. When I tried to tell him I didn’t speak Creole, he seemed perturbed and used his hands, including his middle finger, to describe to me what I could not do. That gesture, plus the visible gun on his hip, translated very well. I waited in the lobby. 10 minutes later the kids were free and we were on to the next challenge.
As we stepped outside the terminal, the weather was nice, about 85 degrees with a few clouds – not bad during this “rainy season.” So much for looking up. Straight ahead of us were about a hundred people crowded behind a barricade – apparently waiting for someone or something. They didn’t seem to care who we were, so we turned right and headed for the bus, which we could not see. A handful of escorts- uniformed and ”regular” folks – (porters) followed us along the 50 yard walk to the bus. Since we could not see the bus, there was that uneasy feeling of- “why were these guys following us and where’s our transportation?” I forgot brother Cos’ (Cosmas Rubencamp, out guide) first rule of exiting an airport in Haiti- “Don’t give up your bag.” Some guy- not in a uniform- hit me with a bit of a sob story in Creole, and grabbed for my bag – and yeah, I let him have it, trying to be friendly. He took off for the bus and a few other guys followed him, trying to get their hand on the bag- and then a piece of the TIP.
When we got to the bus- I was trying to get everyone on quickly. They were moving slowly- probably because of the growing crowd of people asking for money around the door, and the sad sight of what we were about to board. As you raised your foot almost 3 feet to reach the first step of the bus, your eyes were then drawn to the seating arrangement. Those wanting to sit in the back had to negotiate around the first seat, a kitchen chair welded to the floor -and no seatbelt. I had this vision of hitting a bump and being ejected out of the half-door, strapped to my kitchen chair. How embarrassing.
I finally got onboard last. My “porter” tried to follow on with his hand out for a tip. I looked at Cos and he said it was cool to tip the “head” porter – $20- and the guy would share it with the crowd. Cha ching! Buh bye.
Frightening. It looked like a Volvo panel truck/cab with a school bus body welded onto its bed. It could have fit in any circus parade with its rainbow colored paint job. The engine seemed to beg for more horses – even to go 25 miles an hour- and I was thinking- “what will this baby do on the highway?” Little did I know we would never travel much faster than that. The ride was noisy and very bouncy- we took bumps hard through PaP, the ‘burbs, and the approaching hillside.
Incredible. One continuous slum with every house or business fronted with custom-protective iron gates, windows and doors, and the expanse of each property- whether a compound or a shack- walled off in creatively molded cement or custom metal fencing topped with menacing barbed wire. Were the property owners trying to keep people out- or in? There were people all over – going somewhere, hanging out, trying to sell something from a vendor cart, or just livin’ life. It seemed like every other house or building was under construction- but the contractor wasn’t finished with the room addition -or the roof. Cars and trucks- and those carnival looking pickups with a bunch of people hanging out the back (Tap Taps?) all fought with us for space and speed on the streets.
As we reached the outskirts of the city, the dark mountain range came into view- and shockingly, few if any trees. And there were those gloomy looking clouds. This was the rainy season. It also occurred to me that that dark mountain range under those gloomy clouds was where we’re heading. The road was paved, the music was crankin’ out of a portable radio taped to the luggage rack, and our bus was holding together- so it seemed we were on our way.
Along the way, our driver would occasionally stop and pick up an additional rider. That was strange to me. For a fee of $1,000 to secure the bus and driver for a week, I thought the bus was dedicated to us. Plus I felt uneasy about the unknown quantity being added to the mix. Safety first. ‘Cos would later say it was customary for drivers to pick up additional riders- part “hustle”, part “weight”- (to get us through the sure-to-come muddy roads). Cool.
Two hours into the ride (and we were still thinking we’d be at Maison Fortune Orphanage in Hinche by 9-ish) the paved road ended and the crushed-stone and dirty stretch began. Slow down, right? Well, the driver must not have gotten the memo. He hit a couple of potholes, (heck, TUB-HOLES) hard and the impacts finally took their toll. The rear axle broke. We were dead in the “water.” It was starting to get dark and those of us who got off the bus to stretch and look around, felt a few rain drops. I mumbled a few words that did not translate into prayers.
The driver and back-up guy got off the bus to the inspect the damage. They also made a call- apparently to M-F director Jean Louis who told them to get to the next town and pick up another bus. “Whoa- nelly!” How long was that going to take? Why not just call Triple A? Yeah, right. The back up driver finally flagged down a vehicle, hopped on board and he was off. Those of us who didn’t know at the time what he was doing were wondering -WHAT IS HE DOING?
About an hour later, and after darkness had overtaken us, he showed up with the second bus.
During the wait, I was out on the road taking pictures of our broke-down bus when another vehicle was headed in our direction and needing to get by us. Big, military type truck with a bunch of guys hanging out of the back. That driver honked his horn and never slowed down. I was in his path- and would have become part of the path- had I not jumped out of the way at the last second. The driver never slowed down! (Did I say that already?). When I collected myself and turned around to see where the “fire truck” was racing off to, I saw one guy on the rear of the truck with his hands on his gun. Hmmm – maybe I better not my raise my hand in a “salute.” Yeah, it was a U-N truck. We would see more of them than local police. And I was told the U-N guys don’t stop for nobody.
After about an hour the second bus arrived and we were on our way. It was around 9 pm and it started to rain.
Don: “Are we there yet?” ‘Cos: “No, not half way yet.” Say what?! The rain continued to fall and we could not see anything except the road ahead illuminated by our bus’ lights. We could HEAR the driver splashing his way through the frequent mud puddles. Got stuck a couple of times and we groaned along with the engine. But, to our driver’s credit, he just stopped, backed up and plowed on through a slightly different part of the road.
When we reached one creepy looking town we slowed down. The driver seemed to be looking for someone or thing. Bad time to have a big mac attack. And then he found it- a gas station. Filler up! Well, as much as 10 gallons would do. The meter on the pump read $10 and I’m thinking “not bad!” Then the back-up driver told Cos $50 dollars! But the pump read $10!? $50! – Who’s going to pay? They looked at me. I dug out two twenties and collected the other ten from the group – “au revoir!” Yeah, I got your au re voir right here!!!! !@#$%&*
Cruising, Cruising, Raining, Raining. Splashing, splashing, Tick tock- the minutes were slowly passing by along with the miles. And after we topped a little hill and start cruising along the downside, we came to another stop. Our driver pulled us over to the right – behind a big ‘ol dump truck looking’ vehicle. Our guy got out to see what was what. Meanwhile, we noticed the sound of rushing water to our right. The loud sound of rushing water. Our driver came back to tell Coz the road ahead was flooded. “And?” He said all we could do was wait it out.
It must have been ’round midnight. We were tired, funky, hungry and some still scared the “ton-ton le fools” would come get us -like America’s infamous boogey man. We still couldn’t believe what we were hearing – “wait until the water recedes…” And how long would that take? As long as it takes. One of our teens, Zach Russell (tall kid) and I got out to see what we could see. We walked about 50 yards down the hill and around a curve and- there it was – mini rapids- fast moving water flowing left to right, about 8-10 feet deep- cutting right through our road. We passed about three stopped vehicles down our side of the hill but on the other side there seemed to be a caravan – lights on- and just waiting. What we didn’t see was WHERE the water was going. It was falling down to a HUGE river and lake. We were a safe distance, but still near the edge of a cliff above a big river that emptied into a lake!
Back to our bus. Might as well catch some ‘Z’s.
The sound of a straining diesel truck engine woke us up around 3am. The guy made it through! Hip Hip — . Wait a minute; it’ll soon be our turn – Can We? Our driver put it in gear – VRRRROOOM! Down the hill, slowly, steadily, no stopping now – Splash! We were in the stream. No water through the door. Our driver didn’t stop. He made it to the other side! But then there was another challenge – the mud. He eased on the gas- we started sliding – first to the right, then to the left…. then some more to the left! Yeah, we thought we were going to hit something and overturn!!! The driver kept gunnin’ the engine, kept those wheels turning, the bus kept slidin’ until- finally – the wheels gripped some solid ground. Traction! Yay! We are outta there!
Down the home stretch now. We arrived at Maison Fortune approximately 4:30am – 12 hours after we first hit the road. We were here and we are safe! Thank you Lord for bringing us through. The driver, back up driver and teenager from the orphanage who rode along with us were like – “What’s the big deal? This is what we have to endure everyday in Haiti.
Now what? “COCK A DOODLE DO!” Aw, go back to sleep. Sunrise right around the corner. Breakfast anyone? How about Dinner! Maison’s cook had prepared a fine meal of – what else? – Goat, rice and beans and salad – YUM-MY!!! I was hungry. Couldn’t wait to exhale – I mean- INHALE every bite. Everyone else was dead – tired and ready for the sack.
DAY ONE- MISSION HAITI is over.
Stay tuned for more on the rest of the trip. And check this space for pictures and video – also on WAVY NEWS TEN soon!