I would like to share a rather long post with you about my and my son’s recent service work in Haiti. Please grab a cup of coffee and settle into a comfortable chair. This will be broken into three posts, of which this is the first.
With cooperative support, my nearly eleven year old son and I were able to travel through Santo Domingo to the border Haitian town of Anse a Pitre last month. This was my first time taking my son on an international service trip with me. My friend Sarah, a University of Houston Psychology alum and child educator, traveled with us. Once there, we engaged in reforestation with a permanent community, Sadhana Forest.
It was quite the adventure getting there. The Spanish that I learned waiting tables for 5 years as a teen paid off in navigating through Dominican Republic. The first little road bump was when our taxi did not show up at the airport. I was able to secure a taxi and negotiate the price. We made it safely to our hostel in Zona Colonial where we slept the first night. You see, the Haitian border is only open during certain hours of the day, so if you do not arrive in Santo Domingo before 6:00 am or so, you have to wait until the following day to make the journey to la frontera (the border).
We rose around 4:30 am, which was too early to get the complimentary breakfast, but I was prepared. I had so many Cliff bars in my bag, lol. Our taxi arrived around 5:00 am to take us to the bus station. As we drove along, he pointed out Chinatown, beautiful governmental buildings, and the Presidential Palace. The Palace is constructed much like the United States capitol building, but with what appeared to be Christmas lights illuminating it through the morning darkness.
We arrived at the bus station, which was well lit and bustling with people, nothing like what was described in our communication with Sadhana. Sarah was the first to realize that we were at the wrong bus station. There was no way to be sure, but she had a feeling. I communicated with the taxi driver again that we wanted to go to the border town of Pedernales. He insisted that we didn’t - that to get to Haiti, we should take the air conditioned tour bus to Port au Prince. He thought that we were confused about our destination. We insisted, no, we want to go to Pedernales. Finally, he resigned with a frown to take us to the bus station to Pedernales.
The sky was still dark as he drove us down a narrow alley filled with discarded clothes and cans. My heart was almost jumping out of my chest. No, let’s go back to the tourist bus, I wanted to say. As we pulled into an even narrower, darker alley, he pointed to a guagua, or minibus, and said, “There.” The sun started to rise, bolstering my confidence as we moved our luggage to the guagua. Shortly, women began to set up cooking stations along the street to sell sausages and bread to workers.
The bus began to fill with mainly Haitians, trying to return to the border. Then, with chickens and small farm animals. The bus driver moved us to the front because we were, “Las Americanas”. I was a twinge guilty, but also thankful, for the privilege of a US passport. The ride would be 7 hours long and I did not have to worry about the noise and smell of chickens bombarding me for the entire trip.
Once we arrived in Pedernales, our group that was scheduled to meet us was not there at the bus station. I was so nervous just standing there with luggage and a young Caucasian woman, both of which identified me as not from there. Pedernales is actually a very safe town, but at the time, I didn’t know that yet. Moto conchos (motorcyle taxis) crowded around us to offer rides to la frontera. Sarah was nervous about riding a moto concho, but our bags were too heavy and conspicuous to drag for a long walk. I realized that we should we packed only backpacks. I turned to Sarah and said, “we’re going to have to ride the motos.”. She reluctantly agreed.
I had seen 4 or 5 people at a time riding moto conchos during my 2013 Human Rights trip to Dominican Republic, so I wasn’t nervous about riding. I knew that the drivers were very skilled. I placed my son in the middle so that he was sandwiched between me and the driver. Another moto took our big “checked” bags, while we carried our backpacks. We held on tight for a bumpy and gorgeously green ride to the border. Once we arrived, I realized that Sarah had placed her leg on the hot part of the moto and burned it. She knew not to do this, but in her nervousness, accidentally did it anyway. The locals began prescribing remedies. ”Toothpaste,” they said. Sarah pulled out her toothpaste and swathed it across her leg and foot shaking off the pain like a soldier accustomed to adversity.
The border was so calm that we should have realized that something was not right. A verbal stir went about of “pasaportes” and “las Americanas”, before we were swept into the Dominican immigration office. Our passports were stamped and we were allowed across the bridge. It was not until we crossed into Haiti that we were informed that both offices were closed for the day due to an earlier protest. They let us through because of our nationality.
In Anse a Pitre, a young Haitian man from Sadhana was waiting for us – Roosevelt. He informed us that someone was at the bus station now looking for us, but had been a little mixed up on the time. There is an hour difference between the DR and Haiti. I was so happy to have confirmation that my journey would soon reach a destination, I wanted to go right away. We hopped on moto conchos again to reach the forest community. The area was clearly a desert as far as climate – there was so much dust and many rocks and cacti. Yet, as we neared Sadhana, mango and avocado trees replaced cacti, with mountains swooping overhead in a breathtaking horizon.
Since we arrived on a Friday afternoon, our volunteer requirement would begin on Monday. We were able to take a tour of the facilities and visit the local beach.
Our first work day was Monday. We rose at 5:30 am for stretching and activity assignments, and began daily by 6:00 am. Our volunteer work was titled sevas, which I believe is Sanskrit for service or a love offering. It’s funny how when I thought of reforestation, I just thought of planting trees. I did not get to plant a tree until maybe the third day there.
I carried heavy buckets of water around the grounds to water trees, cut weeds with a machete to mulch trees, reached nervously (for fear of spiders or scorpions) into piles of fallen bamboo leaves to mulch trees, cleared the canal of clothes and trash to allow water to flow through to irrigate trees, carried saplings in buckets for 2 mile stretches to reach yards in need – not to mention what needed to be done to maintain the facilities and volunteers.
See more about our journey in the next post! Meet you there!