Ubuntu Blox Making Its Way Through Haiti
Here is a trip report from Harvey and his latest findings in Haiti. His note is long and passionate. He feels that there is hope for Ubuntu-Blox housing if the people of Haiti get a chance to be a part of the process. Looks like he is getting there. Peace and light to all.
November 2012 trip to Haiti
The flight from DFW to Ft Lauderdale and the flight from there to Port Au Prince I was blessed with aisle seats. Not because of the generosity of AA’s ticketing program but happenstance. I was ticketed to sit in the middle of a group of women flying together but one of them had a much better seat elsewhere, we swapped. The flight to Haiti there was only two of us sitting in our row so I sat by the aisle again.
One of the nightmares of visiting Haiti is going through customs, the airport in general. You stand in line to have your passport stamped. Then you have to collect your luggage. After you go through customs which is usually just a cursory question and answer thing you fight the gauntlet of men grabbing your luggage and to walk with you to the parking lot. The men are very good at either bullying you into grabbing a bag or convincing you that they are the ones your group has sent to help you. Once you are in the parking lot the haggling begins for the service they have provided. I was told the first visit to Haiti to pay them two dollars. They begin by asking for twenty. It isn’t any fun.
This time when we came down the ramp there was a nice young man with a paper with my name on it. He had a friend and they asked for my passport and declarations. I didn’t stand in any line. I waited outside and office. It was just a couple of minutes when they returned and we went get the luggage. We went unmolested through the baggage handlers and straight to a small pickup. Marlene and the driver were waiting for me.
We went from the airport to Haiti Communitere to deliver the medical supplies we had brought for Dr. Coffee. I only knew two of the volunteers there. But the Haitians working security and who knew me from before seemed to be ecstatic to see me. It was very heartwarming to see them again. We arranged to borrow an Ubuntublox machine the next morning. I believe Marlene was impressed with the Ubuntublox house. I know I was.
It started off running late. The driver was helping another member of the organization who had car trouble and then he got stuck in traffic. We didn’t leave to go to Haiti Communitere until after ten instead of the planned 7:30. We were supposed to leave for Cavaillon at ten. We left the apartment at twelve. Less than ten minutes later we were caught up in the fringe of a public demonstration. I don’t know what the reason was but we went from crawling along in Port Au Prince traffic to backing up in a crowd of people scrambling to get away from the activity. It was very tense for about twenty minutes as we searched for alternate routes around the area of the demonstration.
We drove for the next four hours without any stops to get out. The scenery was fantastic. The roads for the most part were very good. But when they were bad they were very bad. The scenery was beyond compare. We got to see the ocean on both sides of the Island. Four different times we came upon breakdowns of vehicles. They used tree limbs standing in a pot to warn oncoming traffic of the situation. Green traffic cones, figuratively and literally.
Our first stop in Cavaillon was at the Catholic Church to drop off Marlene because she was staying with the Nuns. Then we followed two old guys in a black SUV down one of the roughest roads I’ve ever been on. There were a few big holes but most of it was just softball sized rocks perfectly spaced to jar the truck at any speed. About two miles of that and we pulled up to a walled compound. Inside was what I would consider a mansion just about anywhere in the world. My apartment was the main house.
Yeah. I know. No one has been harder on those who come to Haiti and live like an elite running up an overhead that consumes all of the funding. The service and company I get to keep here is way above anything I could ever deserve. It is humbling and so much appreciated. It is the part time house of a community leader here in Cavaillon.
It is interesting how it worked. Some of the leaders of the Custine community went to Haiti Communitere for a demonstration about Ubuntublox. Their enthusiasm lit the fire of the leadership of the parent community, Cavaillon. It seems we have the whole community in this area behind the project.
Haitians do the meal thing different than we do in Texas. Breakfast was egg omelet with toast, cheese, and coffee. Lunch is the big meal. We had broiled goat, rice with beans, salad, and potato for lunch. Then for supper we had cinnamon spiced oatmeal in a cup, sip it like coffee, toast with peanut butter, and coffee, they think I drink way too much coffee, proves they’re not perfect in every way.
We went to Custine after we met with the welder to have him look at the Ubuntublox machine so he can give us an estimate on what he would charge to make the machines for us. I gave him some lenses but am going to squeeze in a couple of hours tomorrow or Thursday to go over making the hoods out of cardboard. He knew what the lenses were for but he never thought about making his own hood. We stopped by his shop the last thing this evening and he had four guys there working with sunglasses instead of welding hoods. Sometimes leading them to water involves a lead rope and a switch.
The road from the main highway to Custine has to be experienced to be believed. I filmed it and will try to get it up on youtube. It’s that unbelievable. But once we got there I was blown away by the local’s enthusiasm. The leaders from Cavaillon couldn’t have come up with a question they couldn’t handle. We are going back tomorrow to meet with the ladies and it should be even better.
It’s two kilometers, about one and one quarter miles of pure rocky road heck between where I’m staying and town of Cavaillon. This morning shortly after six I was out in front for the house amazed at the traffic. The kids were on their way to school. There might be four 7-8 year olds cuter than bugs in a rug on a moto-taxi, that’s a motorcycle taxi, one or two in front of the driver and two or three hanging on for dear life on the back. I saw couples, probably siblings walking along hand in hand. What warmed my heart was the kids being walked to school by their fathers. It says they are good fathers, contrary to popular misconceptions, and it says they support the education of their daughters. Yeah, I saw as many cute little girls in pigtails as I saw cute little boys looking so grown up, uniforms do that, make the girls cuter and boys more handsome, who woulda thought?
Today is market day. I had noticed a lot of horses, ponies really and wondered if they were a food crop. They definitely are not. They are beasts of burden and I bet that if you took a poll you would find they hate Wednesdays and Saturdays more than anything else. There are also a lot of donkeys. Their donkeys are smaller than ours and their horses are about the same size as our donkeys. All of the food crop animals, goats, sheep, cows, and of course chickens didn’t look as unhappy as the equines.
One particular couple caught my attention. He was wearing a halter but no lead rope. Behind him was a fifty something woman of about 160 in fit pounds. She had him doing almost a trot to keep ahead of her power walk pace and five foot switch. She taught me something besides that I really do need to respect healthy women. If you want an ass to stay in his place hit his shins and not his butt with the switch. Did I mention it looked like he was packing at least his body weight?
I walked down to the river that parallels the road. It was a tight little path that was very steep, about a thirty foot or so elevation drop from the road to the water’s edge. The sound of a water fall is what attracted me. As I turned to go back up to the road I met a man, a woman, and five kids from shin high to chest high on a regular person. They were going down as a family to bathe. It looks to me that a rural Haitian had better know how to swim by the time they are eighteen months.
We had spaghetti again for breakfast. This time there was little chunks of what looked like sliced ham lunch meat in it instead of weenies. Most Haitians like catsup with their spaghetti. Some even put the catsup in first. I’m not too keen on that, but it worked today.
I love strong coffee, but most of the time when you get it good and strong it’s bitter. The cook here makes coffee that looks like diesel oil that’s went ten thousand miles past the recommended oil change. It looks like a paste but pours like water. All of the Haitians here comment about how I drink it without sugar and drink more of it than anyone they’ve ever seen. All I can say is I’m trying to figure out how to break it to my wife that I would like to bring another woman into the house, at least long enough in the morning to make coffee.
Today I was witness to a real dressing down of a young man who had been kicked out of school. He’s eighteen and the Nuns have had enough of his stuff. As I watched him take the butt chewing I had to go back almost fifty years. Good looks and talent can only take you so far in life, sometimes to places you really don’t want to go. I was asked what I thought and I told them when I come back I want him to work with me. There are those who have who will testify it isn’t easy, working with me.
We visited the elementary school in Custine today. We will be talking to them Friday. I was blown away today. I imagine Friday I will experience emotions I didn’t think I was capable of at this stage in my life.
I also toured two homes that the community believes would be great candidates for replacement with Ubuntublox houses. I agree. The bigger my world gets the smaller big people become.
We visited Les Cayes yesterday afternoon. It is almost as bad as Port Au Prince with one huge difference, four wheeled vehicles. Motorcycles and bicycles out number cars and trucks at least forty to one, maybe a hundred to one. There are enough cars, SUVs really, to make parking on the narrow streets awkward. But on the road they are the traffic.
Cavaillon is such a clean place and that magnifies how dirty, nasty really, that Les Cayes and Port Au Prince are. Of course one has to consider the filth of the city is a phase of progress. Construction is everywhere and the population is huge. There is the chaos of projects in progress without much credit. So a project is started and when the funding is gone it sits idle until more funding is found. The rule applies to both homes and businesses. An unfinished house even after two or three years of inactivity is evidence of progress and appreciated for what it is.
It is wide awake daylight at six a.m. here. So I went out for a morning walk. Walking the rocky road between our house and Cavaillon is as treacherous as it is in or on a vehicle. I wanted to get some photos of the biggest tree I’ve ever seen besides the giant redwoods in California.
The river that parallels the road is also a water source for the poor, it is also a bathtub. I saw different groups and individuals taking baths in the river this morning. Modesty is either an acquired trait or maybe it is considered optional here for the men and children.
We are going back to Les Cayes this morning. My hosts here seem to be the real powers that be. I told them last night that I believed we could find enough material, foam dinner trays, in Les Cayes to do the project. We know there isn’t enough in the immediate Cavaillon area. Take out is a luxury of the middle class. So we are going back to Les Cayes with important people. I assume to meet other important people.
I am overwhelmed by the hospitality. Last night I sat under the stars with some old guys, in their sixties and early seventies, old guys, and we discussed Haiti, the US, and people. They have all lived and worked in the US, one of them an east coast university of some renown professor. They all share a love for Haiti and a hope for a better Haiti. Their relationship is to be envied. I have friends like this but activities and distance prevent regular evening chats with Haitian music in the background. It was the best of the old and new, great conversation with music from a docked IPod in the background.
I am concerned that they think I am someone much more important than I am. I worry that they see me as having more power than I have to make a change for the good in the place dearest to their hearts. What alleviates the fear a little bit is appreciating that the journey so far has been powered by the faith of others in me. Their confidence I believe is another recharge in the battery that fuels progress.
The keyboard of my laptop is alive with spiders not much bigger than pencil points. Insects are a reality in Haiti. The sight of the spiders makes me think of my mother. She suffered from the terror of spiders.
My young escorts are two young ladies. I assumed they were late teens or early twenties. The younger one is thirty two and the mature one is twenty eight. They are assigned to me for interpreter purposes and also to insure I don’t get into too much trouble on my own. The relationship is complicated. I’m the old kid and they are the in charge daughters. Then there is my driver, he stays in as much trouble as I do and not of his own making.
Vetiver. Remember the name even if I haven’t spelled it right. It’s a plant cultivated here around Cavaillon and Les Cayes. The roots have an oil used in the perfume industry. The roots are boiled down to extract the oil. It’s a two boil process. Then the roots are burned because they have no use to anyone.
I was talking to the Haitian old guy assigned to shadow me, yeah, I have four shadows, the two young ladies, the driver, and Hans. That is Hans as in hands, not Hans as in German. He made that absolutely clear the first conversation. He’s sixty five, old guy.
There are basic problems with doing Ubuntublox in rural Haiti. The biggest one is foam trash availability. Foam trash isn’t here in the quantities we need locally.
Since I’ve been here I have been working on plan B. What if getting the plastic trash is too difficult to procure? What then?
I started thinking about the vegetation trash they burn around here. If we could start a drying and bailing process we could maybe go that way. Hans told me about vetiver. It’s an environmental disaster and there is almost an unlimited amount available.
We stopped at a small operation and he let me sample it. Then we went to a large operation in Les Cayes and they gave us two large bags full of it.
The roots are a mass of fine roots all entwined together with a lot of strength. It’ not the kind of thing you would want to dig out of your yard by a long shot. And it is dense, very dense. I made a block and what it looks like is a straw bale made in an Ubuntublox block press out of some of the nastiest grass on the planet.
It’s already dried out and sanitized if you think boiling twice as a sanitizing process. The block is lightweight and cheaper than cheap to make. An industry can be created around the production of the blocks.
There is a house in town where I can call my wife using Magic Jack and it cost no one anything. But it only works if she is answering her home or cell phone. Today it didn’t work. I went online and facebook and discovered I’m not in fashion at this moment. Everyone but the spammers must think I’m not available online.
The keyboard on the computer there has the p and apostrophe out of commission. It’s easy to write without an apostrophe, just a couple more letters and the message is clear. P? Now that is another story. There has to be a line that can fit in there about the important of Ps.
I sent an email to Owen Geiger telling him about the discovery today. If anyone knows if this is as good as I think it is it will be him. The old men think it is a wonderful idea.
Tomorrow we put on the demonstration. Then tomorrow night we will have a party. The agreement is they can have alcohol and no one will say anything about my drinking the coffee. One of the first comments about me when they talk about me is my love for their coffee, and without sugar. At night they say a cup will keep them up all night. Keep in mind they are talking about a tiny cup that I drain in one sip. I told the cook that I was taking her home with me just to make my morning coffee. She said her husband would have to come along too. I don’t need another husband around the house, got that handled just fine thank you. Hopefully she will share the secret if I’m nice.
I did a power walk to town this afternoon. It was tough getting through the handlers but it happened. A lot of people just stared. I guess the sight of an old blan wearing jeans and a red t shirt picking them up and putting them down isn’t that common around here. The little kids would first stare and then turn shy when I waved or said “how are you?” I believe they are taught “how are you?” and love to use it on a blan when given the chance.
I met a walking companion. I would guess she was close to my age and was working with purpose. I do believe she could stay with me but only because I’m not going to let a girl out walk me, not even an old one. We both broke into that smile comrades in arms share when I said, “bonsua madame”. “Bonsua mssr was her reply.
It was a wonderful walk except the road is a mess with the rocks. You can’t look away for an instant or you will turn an ankle or trip and tear up something else. When someone tells me they had to walk two miles to school I will think of the little kids who walk that over one of the meanest roads I’ve ever known, and smile.
There was one mosquito in the house last night. She prefers Texas red.
The mosquitos I’ve met in Haiti are about the size of Texas gnats. But their ferocity matches that of the Wisconsin mosquitos that I’ve heard stories about.
I’m a morning person. The Haitians who work at the house, there are six permanent employees, are all morning people too. It makes the morning the best part of the day, it is cool and there is lots of laughter. Their English is better than my kreyole but three words are always better than two. Three of the young ladies have told me this morning that I am beautiful and look sexy. That tells me two things. It tells me Haitians like blue collared golf shirts more than they do red pocket T shirts on an old white man. It also tells me more than I want to know about the white men who have visited here before.
My gawd that tastes good!!!! Haitians put sugar, their brown sugar, on everything. They rattle on something fierce every time I decline it. They can’t imagine coffee without it, evening porridge either. So when I saw we were having corn meal mush for breakfast I thought they would be pleased when they saw me put on a very light dusting of sugar on it. First thing is the ladies think I don’t eat enough. So they don’t allow me to fix my own plate anymore. I asked what the brown sauce was she was putting over the too much on my plate corn meal mush. “Fish sauce”, she said. “Oh boy”, I thought, “this is one day I can’t get sick.”
“My gawd that tastes good” is all I can say. The avocados slices on the side taste good too.
My young escorts tried to get me to go swimming, actually it’s a bath, in the river yesterday afternoon. I declined because even if it is a sizable body of water and it is moving swiftly, it is downstream from somewhere. Cholera is a concern. This morning they have put out thirty yards of hose and a pump and are filling the cistern for the house water out of the river, oh well.
This visit to Cavaillon I am experiencing service and luxury that most Haitians will only have heard about. I do feel guilty. But it has allowed me to see an aspect of the Haitian culture I would never have expected. They are a charitable people top to bottom.
In the States I see an attitude by the haves that have nots get what they deserve because of the way they are. Here the rich describe the poor as “less fortunates”. That expresses an appreciation of blessing and an understanding of others. Admitting that most of your advantages are unearned is beyond the American psyche I believe.
We had a great day today. Actually it was better than that. And it is about 6:30 and there is supposed to be a party tonight. Around here Friday nights are for music and a little alcohol consumption. They are bringing music and the alcohol. We’ve agreed that I can have my coffee and they can do the Haitian thing. It ought to be different.
We had red snapper, salad, potatoes, and white rice with green peas. They put lots of the sauce from the fish over my rice, not bad at all. We have had a light sprinkle since about five. This has brought out the mosquitos like I haven’t seen them this trip. I left the mosquito repellant in the bag back at PAP of course.
I took photos and videos when I could today. The Haitians didn’t do well with the cameras for the most part. I got a lot of video and pictures but not near the quality or as much as I wanted. But we got some really great stuff in spite of ourselves.
I had one of those wonderful experiences most of us miss because we’re too busy experiencing to do any appreciating. We had done one block and were preparing the block for the second bag. We secure one end with a string and then fill from the other end. What I try to do once they are doing that part correctly is introduce turning the bag inside out after the knot is done. This makes for a cleaner appearing block and is usually easier to work with. But I consider that an advanced lesson.
We tied the knot in the end as usual and then a young man of ten to twelve years asked to hold it for us. I handed the bag to him and he automatically turned it inside out. This made me do a double take and look at him much closer. The most obvious thing was he didn’t have a school uniform shirt on which at that time of day screams out he doesn’t attend school. That hit me hard.
You see my whole life has been about the faith of others making me much more than I really am. When I saw the kid that was so sharp and with that kind of analytical mind it just broke mine to see him not getting the chance to get an education. I broke away from the group and got my camera. I came back and focused on him and asked for his name. Then I walked away and spoke into the camera about how this kid was the kind that would make a difference and someone needed to step up and help out. I planned on putting it on Youtube and see if something couldn’t be done.
I told the power group tonight about the kid. They asked for his name. I got out the laptop and played the video I had made. The consensus was that he was a less fortunate and too poor to go to school. I was assured it was handled. They would take care of his education. That was huge for me personally.
Yeah, I had supper and drinks with the power group. Let’s just say I won’t be pulled over by a cop in this town and if I am he will be in more trouble than me. Today was day five and we are family. All they ask is for me to come back and bring my wife. They want to meet her and explain that I’m not good enough for a queen like her. Oh, and I have to bring some of her trail mix too. I don’t leave for Haiti without it.
The kids were great. There was a nice paper banner made welcoming me and thanking the Memnosyne Foundation. Everyone in attendance signed it. Those who couldn’t sign their names had their names written by those who could read and write. I’m taking the banner back to Dallas and I hope the Memnosyne Institute has a place for it.
Tying knots is a bear for me because of the missing pad on my right thumb. It’s a blessing though in these training sessions because the ladies can do knots so well. They almost have to sit on their hands to keep from shoving me out of the way to get it done right. They have their own knot and it is every bit as good as mine. I love it.
There’s so much more but we are off early to Port Au Prince. It is a four hour drive and I’m supposed to be at Haiti Communitere tomorrow evening. I’m too old to need beauty sleep but I do need my rest.