Monday, January 10, 2011

Muey Fatigue Ampiel (I am very tired)

Following up on Mike's post below, I'll try and keep mine short. But that'll probably not end up being the case.

I just took a hot shower and the water supply didn't come from a bucket. America.

Eric and I left the All Hands base in Leogane early on Sunday morning to a hugs and well-wishes from a few unfortunate souls who occupied bunks nearby. I gave Chris a trademark "Scissor Handshake," wished him luck and told him to "do good shit down here." He will.

Walking in the dark to the bus station with Eric, we talked about our experience and what we'll take away from it. He expressed a little shock that he'd come to Haiti in the first place, confidence in the "All Hands" integrated method of community involvement in projects and a desire to return to the project sometime in the future. I agreed. All Hands is an organization that becomes part of the community and affects change from within. It not only rebuilds the infrastructure and with direct aid in response to disasters, but also provides a platform for volunteers of all stripes and abilities to be useful in whatever capacity they may be able.

Our last night at base coincided with the Local Volunteer Graduation Ceremony, in which the first round of local volunteers were celebrated for their work and commitment to the organization, projects and community. They were people we had worked beside or eaten with during our month of volunteering. Their families came and they received certificates of completion in recognition of their dedication to All Hands, many rounds of applause, hugs and pats on the back.

They don't ask for it, but they deserve much more recognition than that. The local volunteer program is integral to All Hands' work and, I'm sure, will insure that members of the community remain engaged and invested in progress after the organization leaves Leogane in a year or so.

It's funny. Our group, and many of our friends and colleagues, talk a lot amongst ourselves about the concept of service, reinvesting in one's own community and the motivations to get involved. I didn't realize how universal that concept could be, particularly in places where it may otherwise appear to be absent. The message was evident, though, in the speeches of some of the local volunteers at the ceremony.

The local volunteers weren't just proud for having helped their community or of the completion of their commitment to the program. They weren't just clearing rubble or building schools or making Bio-Sand Water Filters. They were a part of something much, much bigger and, ultimately, just as valuable for the community...if not more. Young people with exposure to the international community, significant experience with an international NGO, training, skills and a real desire to affect change in their community and country.

Speeches commenced and a sea of people, including families, other local volunteers, "Blanc" volunteers from all over the world, staff and the Executive Director of the organization listened. Whether it was for the realization that the impact of service on the individual is universal or for savoring one of my final bottles of Prestige in Haiti, I found myself blinking out a few tears as Vlad translated his speech into English, a language he presumably hadn't known prior to working with All Hands.

What I'll ultimately take away from our trip was a little more simplistic. It was easy. Don't get me wrong - the work was hard and there were logistical aspects of everything that were certainly not easy. Rare was a day that we didn't return tired, filthy and beat, but we were always ready for more. Relative to the greater task at hand, it was easy to coordinate and easy to be there. Easy to make friends and easy to get involved. The support of our friends and families made made it even easier to go and if we haven't thanked you enough already, I'd like to take this opportunity to do so again. So, Thanks. Really.

Simultaneously the easiest and trickiest part is to decide to go and when, to want to do something and doing it. The learning and experiences come after that. And everything after that is still kind of easy. So, go. If not to Haiti, then maybe somewhere else. It's universal and it makes you feel good. You meet great people and you learn new things. So that's something, too.

Eric and I took a bus from Leogane to Port au Prince, where we hired our last motorcycles to drive us to the airport. In Florida, we took a taxi to the beach in Fort Lauderdale and were a little disoriented by the orderly fashion in which cars drove down the street one-by-one and without honking their horns. The clean air and streets. The "plastic" scenery, the cleanliness and facility of our surroundings.

I slept on the floor of the Fort Lauderdale airport for a while, waking up to find that Atlanta was snowed in and caught a standby seat in business class to Baltimore, where I slept on the floor again, and finally made it to New Orleans after a little over 36 hours of travel. For me, classes begin again tomorrow and being a 26-year-old non-traditional student in Freshman English promises to be even more interesting on the heels of this past month.

Thanks again to everyone. Thanks for your support. Thanks to Brendan, Mike, Chris and Eric for going on this magic carpet ride.

Muey fatigue ampiel. I am very tired.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Back home

Well, I'm back home, and I wanted to make a brief conclusive post. The travel day was long but uneventful, and I got back in to Portland at 11:00 Tuesday night. I believe Brendan got back Wednesday, and Eric and Aaron return home tomorrow.

I was back at work at nine on Wednesday morning like nothing had changed. I won't lie--I'd been greatly looking forward to a burger and a hot shower, but the stress of playing catch-up after two and a half weeks away made me miss Leogane, and the simplicity of my life there. Eat, work, sleep. I see why people come to volunteer at All Hands, or any similar organization, and end up staying on indefinitely. It's hard and dirty work, but it's also straightforward, and solid. Clean, the way Lawrence of Arabia called the desert clean--vast and simple and clear.

Seeing Eric's recent post on the progress of the cemetery project made me wish I could have been more a part of it, and proud that I was a part of All Hands at all. Chris is staying in Leogane indefinitely, and I'm excited to have him as a continued conduit to the project--I'll work on convincing him to keep this blog updated. I want to again extend thanks to all of our generous donors for making this all possible, and I wish the best for everyone in 2011.

All my love,


I have driven along many miles of road throughout the U.S. Consistently there are road side memorials posted along highways. A cross adorned with a flower wreath, candles or a picture. A marker for the untimely loss of a child in an accident. On top of the site of a mass grave outside of Leogane cemetery, resting place to 2,500 residence, sits a similar hallmark. It is a five foot tall cross made of three inch by one inch iron. There is a single wreath made of wilted leaves and pink ribbons hung at the cross section. At the foot of the cross a second ten inch tall one, stumpy and thick, protrudes from the four by five foot concrete slab.

The grave site was messy. There was concrete and ruble. Piles of rock. Garbage strewn about covered in dust and sand. I had a cold so I spat. Before it hit the ground I cringed. I had a hard time remembering what was underfoot. The one year anniversary of the earthquake was coming on the twelfth and All Hands was tasked with creating a memorial on the site.

Our crew had finished the framing for School 7 on Monday so we moved on to the cemetery project. Brendan and Chris had stayed on base working with the All Hands architect Nate, architect Thom (U.K), and architect Thom (U.S.). They hashed out ideas with Brendan and Chris offering input into the various issues that might arrive in construction. The result is something that you would expect from a bunch of architects with free reign.

The design is a picket fence. It's posts skewed forward and backward along a vertical plane. The pickets follow the twists of the connecting two by four chords moving the them in a wave. First the tops lean back into the memorial while the bottoms kicks out then transition to plumb before shooting there points out at the street. The fence leads to three crescendos where the pickets edge forward before completing a double helix climb into a horizontal trellis. Under two of the trellis are benches incorporated into the frame and the third is the entrance to the memorial. Inside the memorial are two rock gardens defined by stones around the perimeter and larger rocks dispersed through out. In the center, between the two gardens, stands the cross.

When I arrived on site Tuesday I was tasked with figuring out the cuts to connect the two by four chords to the misaligned posts. Chris helped a bit in the morning but moved ahead to set posts. Motos and Tap-taps flew by, kicking up dust and blaring their horns as the they attempted to pass one another. Community members gathered around and attempted conversations. When they realized I couldn;t understand what they were saying they reduced to "bon travay." With out Chris to help me with the chords I worked with local volunteers. We had a communication gap. I was alone in my understanding of how to cut one compound miter on one end and what that resulted in the other. I would instruct the local to hold at this point while I scribed at that point. Take out my speed square, utilize it as a protractor, determine the angle, adjust the bevel on the saw, cut along my mark. Switch. Repeat. Make my cut. Come up short and gap the distance with a screw. Move to the top. The angle is more drastic. An eight footer won't work so I have to use a twelve. There are only a few twelves so if this one doesn't come out right then I just wasted a board. I make my marks. adjust the bevel and cut along the scribe line. Switch, Repeat. Make my cut. and come up long, After that I am warry to cut too much off for fear of coming up short. I remove the bard and make a cut . Put it place. Long. Cut. Place. Long. Drop the board and move to the next. Leopold follows and ask about the last board.

"It frustrated me so I moved on"


I explained to him that theses boards were tricky and that trying to figure out these angles was something that I could do better alone. He nodded in agreement. I moved on to another on the far side of the site. as a set the clamps up to hold my board in place he came and began to hold the board. I scribed my line and cut. The battery died half way through and the tap-tap had arrived.

Aaron joined me on Thursday. We began the morning adjusting and fixing my cuts from Wednesfday. Before long we were moving down the fence line. The communication was simple but precise. Each bevel sat in its niche. By days end we had completed the majority of the fence. We trouble-shot with Thom UK on the corner posts and how to implement them. Jiella and the fencing crew nailed in the fencing. Nate's vision was emerging.

Friday came and we moved. Complicated cuts fell into place. Chris and his post crew finished. Aaron and I set all but four of the fence chords. The picketers traced our steps and set their pieces . The fence ran along the front of Leogane cemetery. At the end of the day when the sun was low the undulating picket wave was captured again in it's shadow. The main trellis cast lines of shadow and light on people who pass underneath. My cold still bothered me. I walked to the street and spat.


PBS will air a piece on Leogane, including the cemetery project, on Wednesday the 12th.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


School 7 has been our main project since we arrived; I built the trusses and cut studs and components, Mike, Chris, Aaron, and Brendan poured the foundation, framed the walls,and built furniture. We all got the chance to work at the school together last week. When we arrived on Tuesday we worked on straightening walls and installing blocking. We had Ramselee and two young kids volunteer with us from the community. They were sharp. Despite the language gap they were quick to understand and eager to work. Ramselee, an older man, and Aaron were able to communicate in Spanish. With these three volunteers and carpenter Mike we had assembled a crew.

By mid afternoon as Chris wrote we had finished for the day. The logistics in this nation is one of the harder parts of rebuilding. Wednesday morning we were still coordinating with the Koreans from the UN to deliver the trusses from Base to site. We went to work; Brendan, Mike , and myself hanging three doors and two murals at School 6. Aaron Chris and the community volunteers tied up loose ends for the first half of the day. As lunch was beginning we saw the white UN flat-bed truck round the corner.

With the help of Gabby and the crew that loaded the trusses on base we off-loaded the truck. We ate quickly and positioned ourselves to load the trusses on top of the wall. As the school is different from the homes we've built, Carpenter Mike took the lead. The five of us, Carpenter Mike, and the community volunteers were all operating in the first room with the trusses spanning the front half of that room. Aaron and Carpenter Mike were on top of one wall Chris and I on the other. Brendan and Mike were on the ground lifting the trusses one by one with Ramselee. I do not know what happened to the two kids.

The sun was high and cast few shadows. The trusses stood and were shuffled back and forth. Brendan and Mike had begun to work on securing the front truss. Chris began on the rat runs securing the base in place. I jumped down and began throwing up trusses with Ramselee. Carpenter Mike and Aaron took the lead on cactching and standing them. Simon, the younger of the kids had returned. The sound of hammer hits beat like drums. At some point Carpenter Mike and I had switched where he was on the ground and Aaron and I were communicating up top.

"How you look?"

"Half inch toward me," a brief pause," okay."

"I'm setting."

Brendan and Mike were climbing the trusses setting the pearlings and braces. Chris and Simon set the rat runs. Aaron and I caught trusses while Carpenter Mike and Ramselee threw them up.

We stood the final truss and everyone worked on the bracing. When the tap-tap arrived we stopped and loaded up. As we drove away the 84 ft long frame of School 7 stood tall. It's wood skeleton cast long shadows in the low orange light.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Men Anpil, Chay Pa Lou

"Carpenter Mike" keeps warning us that we'll run out of work if we keep our pace up, to which I typically reply that "we only have two speeds." In a couple of cases, though, he's been right.

On our first day framing School 7, the lads and I smoked out (completed with great alacrity) all of the walls in the morning and had to call it a day. No matter, Brendan and I were able to spend the second half of the day helping Eric finish the forms at La Sous, whilst Aaron and Mike sat atop a rubble pile twittling their thumbs. Thanks to our efforts, there won't be any peeping-tommery at the public bath (see Eric's post, "La Sous").

I spent the half-day Friday cutting louvers for School 7 and assembling tables for the littluns, before the holiday revelry began (see Mike's post, Christmas in Haiti). On Monday, rested and ready, Mike and I built 20 benches for the pre-schoolers soon to occupy School 7. I was approached by several people who thought our work looked "really cute."

Today we continued the finishing early theme, completing all of the wall plumbing, bracing, and blocking on School 7 just after lunch, and had to return back to basecamp to busy ourselves until dinner. All in all, though, being ahead of schedule is a good problem to have. Tomorrow, all five of us, together on one site for the first time, join Carpenter Mike in raising and setting the trusses on School 7. It promises to be one of the best opportunities yet for us to smoke some shit out.

Although comparisons can be odious, I think each of us have been struck to one degree or another at just how similar an All Hands site can feel to a Habitat site. Sure, we have to draw our water from a well, and there are barefoot Haitian children climbing the walls and goats climbing the adjacent rubble, but engaging smiling, eager volunteers in work that they care deeply about feels much the same wherever you go.

Whatever trepidation we had about explaining carpentry techniques through a language barrier was quickly allayed with gestures and gesticulations of all manner. It was no more challenging explaining how to crown lumber to a Haitian child than to a CPA from Yuma, and the children didn't complain. While I for one am hesitant to try to guess how far we can get on this school, I think we're all excited to bust our asses finding out.

Our local cash for work crew has a motto - "men anpil, chay pa lou" - which translates to "many hands make a lighter load." Despite our motivation and fancy tools, I think we're finding that to be the case with the community volunteers, children included.

Peace and love,


Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas in Haiti

A few days have passed, including Christmas. Quite a few things to go over.

Christmas Eve was a half day. Brendan and I spent the morning sifting sand
for biosand water filters, which involves dumping a shovelful of regular sand into wire mesh and rubbing it around until it filters through. One shovelful of regular sand yields approximately one tablespoon of fine sand. We spent a good amount of time rubbing regular sand into wire mesh.

To mitigate the massive tedium, we brainstormed ridiculous business ideas. I'd reveal them here, except they're really good ideas, and you would steal them.

The day was called, we had lunch, and the holiday weekend began. A couple of staff members had cobbled together palm fronds into an impressive Christmas tree, which the volunteers adorned with homemade ornaments of construction paper and magazine clipping and glitter and glue. By and large, the final product was terrifically ugly and undeniably festive, and coupled with the red and green streamers and cut-out snowflakes, it felt quite homey.

Dusk settled, and the boys and I went out to investigate Leogane's nightlife scene. Most bars take the name of their proprietor (Jackson's, Marisel's, Joe's) and a few well-heeled entrepreneurs venture out into a new brand entirely (Club L'Extase, and some other dusty shed blasting Beyonce and selling a kind of local whiskey called Something Special). The night ended with nearly the entire volunteer army crowded at a few rough-hewn benches in Jackson's playing dominos under a single fluorescent bulb and casting out loud voices into the night, a heady mix of Creole and English. Brendan and I sat on the rubble pile across the street and talked about life before stumbling home among the filthy puddles and rubbish and feral dogs howling in the heavy night. Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day kicked off with a flurry of activity in the kitchen as the designated Christmas dinner crew set about their elaborate preparations. I scrubbed my disgusting laundry with a washboard and set it out to dry on the roof. We went out to see about buying some straw hats (didn't find any), and to check out what Christmas is like on the streets of a Haitian city.
It was right out of Charles Dickens, except instead of snow and top-hatted carolers and impish boys sent off to buy the largest turkey in the window, it was full of women carrying baskets of sugarcane on their heads and men on cacophonous motorcycles and little kids with no pants shouting "How are you?" and playing in the dirt and gigantic piles of rubble lining every street and every building cracked and fading and falling into the earth, cavernous puddles in the streets, old mamas selling egg sandwiches and fried chicken, bric-a-brac vendors hocking watches and belts and radios, cheap stereos blasting American pop music, and the occasional truck loaded up with a huge PA belting out some political or religious screed (or so I assume--at any rate, they seemed very heartfelt). It all gets a bit overwhelming.

We returned home to find every folding table in the compound stretched out into one long dinner table adorned with candles and fake snow. The dinner crew had spent all day cooking, many of the dishes representative of their respective cook's place of origin. Sauerkraut with sausage, minced brandy pies, molé and some sort of Mexican salad, and then the more familiar ham and potatoes. We even got a small glass of eggnog and some damn good Chilean wine. It was a hell of a feast. Toasts, revelry, the whole bit.

Afterwards was Secret Santa gift-giving around the Christmas palm tree. The boys and I took our shirts off and did the dishes, and I retired early.

Sunday we went to Jacksonville Beach, about thirty minutes by moto outside of the city. We commissioned three motos and rode two abreast, out of the town and into the farmland beyond. The beach was a bit rocky but nonetheless a Caribbean beach, crystal blue water and all that, and it felt glorious to get in the water. Some locals came down after church to swim and stare at the glaringly pale blancs splashing around like idiots.

All in all, a beautiful weekend. The community of volunteers here feels very much like a family, and everyone pulled together into a cozy and warm holiday celebration. Even Aaron, despite his constant reminders to all of us that he's Jewish and doesn't know what this Christmas business is all about.

Today--back to work. Eric and I cleared rubble, and it was the dirty, sweaty, pickax-and-shovel kind of manual labor we relished. The amount of rubble that needs to be cleared is unimaginable. All Hands focuses on private residences whose homeowners have limited resources, and they clear off the concrete foundation so homeowners can rebuild. A monumental task when I consider the countless rubble piles that litter the ground absolutely everywhere we go--but like in New Orleans, one has to focus on one task at a time. One property cleared is something. Next week we'll clear another, and so on.


Friday, December 24, 2010

La Sous

While the rest of the crew has been out in the community for the first days of work I have been on base fabricating various components for school 7. Today I got to venture out into the community with a project at La Sous.

La Sous is the communal bathing area. Through an alley and down concrete steps there is a trough of running water from a spring. In the morning it is clear with minnows swimming against the current. As the day carries on adults and children come to bathe in the spring. Women sing songs while they wash laundry against the stone banks. Kids splash around and play games and men brush their teeth.

We walked through Leogane to get there, pushing wheel barrows full of tools and wood. In the morning the streets are busy with Trucks and motos occasionally stopping in the road to converse. Calls of "hey you," the standard greeting for internationals, come from the street side. We don't generally draw too much attention from the locals as they are used to the various NGO's that are present in there town.

At La Sous the people were interested in our activity. We were putting up form boards to repair a cinder block wall surrounding the spring. Locals helped with mixing concrete and fetching water. I went outside to nail up forms.

Behind the walls were chickens and a pig mulling around and clotheslines with lundry out to dry. I met two children back there. A girl with her hair in braids, wearing a green dress and a shirtless boy with a cone shaped protrusion at his naval.

"Hey you," the girl said.

"Komen ou e?'" I replied.

"Pas mal"

They started pointing at my nail bags and speaking creole until one grabbed my carpenters pencil and declared, " crayon."

"Oui, crayon."

I drew pictures on the form boards for them and they called out the names. First an eye, "je." Then a nose, "nen." Then lips, "bouch." The girl grabbed my pencil and drew a man with a frowning face and pointed at me. I motioned "why do I have a frown," and she motioned under her nose the shape of a moustache and said "bab." Beard.

By now the crowd of children had grown and my creole had reached it's limit. I turned around to continue to work but the "hey you's" continued. I used the only word I knew in creole to express what I needed to do, "travay." Work. I must have said it too melodically because the children began to sing in chorus "travay".For the rest of the day I had a group of children following me around singing "hey you, travay".

One boy in particular, Jameson, who was no more than 10 was helpful . Whenever nails would fall he would collect them . If I needed a tool he would get it. I nicknamed him Bon Travay. He is never far behind and always eager. At the end of the day he carried a wheel barrow back to base. Unlike the other children who asked "hey you man, give me a dollar," Bon Travay never asked for money so I rewarded him at the end of the day with a Twix and a Propel drink mix.

At the end of the day we walked back through town carrying our tools. I heard a familiar "yip" and turned to se a tap-tap carrying the school 7 crew and the rest of the group covered in concrete dust. They offered me a ride but ahead was funeral procession of Haitians wearing clean suits and fedoras, well dressed woman crowded behind a hurse, led down the road by brass band. I decided to walk.