Sunday, February 28, 2010

When cultures collide

The first time I came to Haiti was with the Peace Corps. For 6 months I lived with Haitian families. My days were mostly spent interacting with Haitian people. But this time I’m staying in a nice guest house with all Americans. Most of my days are spent interacting with other Americans. It’s quite a different perspective.

The first time I was here it seemed that every day was a competition among my body parts as to which one was in more pain. My head ached from trying to understand Creole. My guts were always in a tangle trying to digest the food and I never stopped sweating. In contrast here at the guest house, the cooks have been trained to cook food for Americans and my Creole has barely been tested for any length of time. I came to Haiti this time prepared to battle many expected illnesses and have had little more than a skirmish.

You could say the perspective I got during my first trip to Haiti was from the inside looking out. But now the perspective is more like from the outside looking in.

The guest house has a few other volunteers working with Haiti Outreach staying here. But it also has others working in Haiti. The “others” so far have been a group of 4 from Minnesota funding the construction of a large youth home. Our latest visitor is another Minnesotan looking to start a pre-school. They usually don’t stay for more than a week or two. In contrast, the Haiti Outreach volunteers are one a Haitian-American, another who has lived among the Haitian community in Florida and married a Haitian woman and another who has been coming here for 15 years for months at a time.

Haitian culture is extremely complex. To me it seems to completely defy logic on a regular basis. Early on I figured the best way to get something done was to find a friend I could trust. I went through quite a few before I found one I was pretty sure was legit. His name was Lizer and he was an engineering student. I tried to take him with me whenever I could. We would survey a situation together, discuss solutions and he would interact with the community. Some Haitians can be masters of deception and Lizer could see through them when I didn’t have a clue.

Granted I’ve only been here a week but my first perception is that the 2 week visitors are like lambs being led off a cliff. Most Haitians are good hard-working people. But those who hang around the airports, dressed in nice clothes and often driving new Toyota pickups I would say are not of the hard-working variety. But these are the ones who often befriend the short-termers and lead them to their own ulterior motives.

Haiti holds a very special place in many of our hearts. We have all been touched in different ways. One moment that I will never forget was a visit to a malnutrition clinic. It had 30 beds and 40 children, most of whom would not see their 5th birthday. I hesitated to hold a baby who had scabies but I did it.

I recounted this story because I want you to know that I really do care when I make the next statement. I don’t think Haiti is poor. I think it lacks opportunity. Poor means the lack of money. We can give them money and then what do they have? But if we give them opportunity then they have a future.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Scramblin to make a deadline

Working in the States we have all become accustomed to meeting deadlines. But here on the island deadlines are a rare occurrence. So many things can go wrong and often do that people don't really even think in terms of schedules and deadlines here.

Take for instance the Pignon Water System, a project that has been limping along for years now. It first started in 1985 when the government engineers showed up with all the materials to build a complete system for this city of 7000 people. But before they could begin installing any of it there was another toppling of the government. So the people took the project in their own hands. Those with money and power had pipes installed to their homes. But without a plan or any quality controls the system was too costly to operate and soon fell into disrepair.

Over the past 3 years a group of engineering students from the Illinois Institute of Technology have been trying to get a new system installed. A number of donors have been recruited along the way and on Monday we got the call that the government would be paving half the town starting this weekend. So I had a deadline: complete a detailed design of a distribution system for about half the city of 7,000 people. I had to have a list of every material to buy in 48 hours so my boss, Neil could drive to the Dominican Republic and order it.

I only had a 4 inch square print of the city from google earth to work off of so I called for reinforcements. My boss in Minnesota let me use one of our AutoCAD drafters for a day (Thanks Bill!), about an $800 donation and within 24 hours I had plans of the City on 24 sheets of letter size paper in front of me. I drew out the design and compiled a list of all the materials necessary to build the system. I got them to the Neil via email just as he was arriving at the store in the DR, whew. Three 14 hour days in a row and I'm ready for a Friday.

This afternoon I built up a space for a water laboratory. It's under a stairway in the office, mostly because that was the closest space to the only sink there is, in the bathroom. Neil said I could use the bathroom but I opted not to ... for ... a number of reasons.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My first Monday

Ever had one of those days you thought should be over at about noon? Well that was today for me, I was so exausted at lunch I almost fell asleep. But what a productive day! I had a job description to hire some engineers written, translated and posted throughout the region by 9. We had the new gasket installed and the Pignon water system up and running by noon. (my only mode of transportation so far is walking so this required about 4 miles)

After lunch I was told that the Haitian government will be mobilizing to pave the streets of Pignon this Saturday. We need to get water pipe under the new streets before they do this. It would be a disaster to try and remove and relay the paver blocks to set water pipe after the road was constructed. I thought about this for a bit and decided we should assemble a set of plans we can work off of. I sent off a few emails and should have them done by Wednesday if all goes well.

Then at 4 pm I had a meeting with a young guy to go out and get some bamboo sticks for a surveying technique I'll teach the guys in the coming days. It was a beautiful walk with a couple of cool guys. I learned a bunch more Creole and made a few friends. Can't have enough of them.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Diggin in on day one

My first day in Haiti was Friday, the day after the funeral of one of the HO well drillers. He was driving a water truck down a narrow, winding road when he lost a tire off the edge. The truck went down and he died on impact. It was a somber atmosphere around the office. The Haitian staff was given the day off.

Friday started at a meeting with Neil, the Haiti Outreach (HO) country director. He hooked a projector to his computer and discussed a list of all the active, planned and dreamed projects of HO. The magnitude of the work is crazy. I think he could easily keep 5 more Haitian staff busy. In Neil's words, "the country is full of ideas and money to fund them, but there is a shortage of people on the ground capable of doing the work.", IOM, CCH, the Haitian government and many others have identified projects but have all turned to HO to carry them out.

I have been tasked with working to get the City of Pignon water system up and running in the next few days. I will also be the local contact for a project on LaGonave being designed by a company in Illinois. By Thursday next week I'll head into Port au Prince with Neil to get started working on a pile of projects he has going with the Haitian government. They have given HO the responsibility of all water systems for the communities nearest to the earthquake epicenter. He also has 3 GPS crews logging locations of all tent cities. When they have all been located maps will be generated and HO will be responsible to monitor or carry out the delivery of water and sanitation to them. These are only a couple of the 7 active projects with 10 more near the end of planning and ready to start. There are also 11 more projects in the potential phase. I had only one comment for Neil, do you have any capacity for or plans to hire any new staff? He said, great idea! You write up a job description for an engineer, we'll advertise for 3 weeks and hire 3 guys for the last 2 months you are here. You can train them and at the end of 2 months we'll give them a test and hire one full time.

All this in my first hour on the job. By 10 AM I was on the back of a motorcycle with Abdias, a HO worker in charge of monitoring the Pignon water system. We toured the water system from the 5 spring boxes, 2 collector tanks, 2 hydraulic ram pumps and a steel reservoir on the hill overlooking the City. Neither of the pumps was working properly so Abdias and I took one apart. I saw the problem right away. They had made a home made gasket out of an old pickup tire, which is fine and done all the time here. But they used the wrong part of the tire. One side of the gasket was a full half inch thicker than the other. I explained that we'll need a more uniform gasket that will seat better.

I have since made a new gasket and should have the system up and running on Monday. The City has had piped water only sporatically for years now. I'm crossing my fingers that the gasket will work.

Life back in Haiti has been a fine transition so far. My Creole is coming back really well and the house I'm staying at has amazing food, 3 meals a day. But Neil said not to get too comfortable as next week I'll be out on the road working.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Arrival in Santiago, DR

Arrived in Santiago this evening. I was picked up by a missionary, Teresa, and taken to their guest house. The house has been busy housing pilots and doctors doing relief work in Haiti. She said airplane fuel is $4000 to fly round trip from the States. But only $400 to fly round trip from Santiago. It makes more sense for relief agencies to buy supplies in Santiago and fly them to Haiti, saving significant cost on fuel.

The guest house has a Haitian cook. I had my first plate of beans and rice. So far it tastes great! Ask me again in 3 months :)

Tomorrow I'll catch a bus to Cap Haitien. There should be a ride waiting to take me to Pignon.