Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Haitian Adventure

**Note: Since this post was written, the Nikkels have regained their electricity and running water. You will enjoy this post from Jared...especially if you know him at all and can imagine him in these interactions! It's a great snapshot of part of life in Haiti. It is quite long but worth the read. Enjoy!

Our family has been here for about 9 ½ months now, man the time flies, but there are still things I see on a daily basis that I just can’t get used to. I still see things that make me chuckle or shake my head, like six people on a motorcycle, a telephone pole strapped to the roof of a little Toyota pickup and little, brown people running around buck naked. I still see some things that continue to make me sad. I can’t explain daily life here, but it’s hard for the average person. We experience just a small portion of that difficulty. For instance today is the second day we have gone without electricity. We ran out of water this evening so I just spent the last while filling buckets from a nearby house so that we can flush toilets and get cleaned up. I kept thinking, “What if I had to do this every day, what if I didn’t have a toilet to fill and what if I didn’t know that tomorrow we would get our electricity fixed? What if this was life every day?” I don’t think I could do it, I certainly don’t want to. And then there is the harder question, how do we make it better? I don’t know, and I live here. I know the Haitian people are as capable and resourceful as any people in the world. I am also starting to believe that some of the giving that feels so good is a major handicap to the Haitian culture. I can see a need and meet the need, but in a short time whatever it was that I gave is used up or broken, and we are right back where we started. What’s the balance between relief and development? That’s a hard question and even more so after our recent tragedy. How do we hold them up so they can succeed instead of creating a dependency on our well intended charity? Notice the questions but no answers. I do know one answer, maybe one of many and it’s crappy. The answer is having to say no. It doesn’t feel good and people don’t like it. They’ll call you names and call you cheap and selfish, they’ll talk so fast you can’t understand what they are saying, which is probably a blessing. Many won’t understand that I just want them to succeed with my help, but not with me or any missionary as a necessity. You see at some point I want to go home to my good old USA and eat meat and drive 80 mph and look back and see that something was accomplished.

Now, here again is a hard part. I can’t do it. Oh I’ll try, but I can’t, I know this. I’ve flopped around trying to do my own thing too many times before to think that I can accomplish anything on my own. God knows, he knows me oh so well and what a comfort that is. I also know that it is not by chance, and certainly not my will that we are here. I know that His plan is better than mine so I’ll try to stay in tune with what He wants, but it doesn’t keep me from asking questions, even if I don’t have answers.

I marvel at how he has used us, our church, our community and our family and friends to accomplish His goals. It’s truly the body of Christ, however cliché that sounds, at work. It’s a joy to have such great support and to know that we are working together as one body.
Speaking of support and daily life, I have to tell the story of the supplies that we have just received. This is so typically Haitian. So many of you in our church and community and family, even some crusty old cops from Jasper County, organized a supply drive shortly after the earthquake. Almost 4000 pounds of supplies were collected. Soap, towels, sheets, toothpaste, toothbrushes, blankets, food, medical supplies, tents, cots and clothing, lots of all these things. They were shipped from Pella to Missionary Flights International (MFI) in Ft. Pierce, Florida. This is our family’s home address for mail and cargo and a great bunch of people. It turns out that the week before the supplies were shipped that the friendly folks in the customs office (they might be reading this) decided that we were too much hassle in Pignon and they weren’t going to allow cargo to fly to Pignon anymore. That means a minimum 2 ½ hour drive (40 miles) to Cap Haitian for cargo, more when it’s muddy. We got word from MFI on Wednesday that our cargo was in the hangar and it weighed 3983 pounds. They emailed again on Thursday and said they could and wanted to bring the cargo to Cap Haitian on Saturday. I did some quick checking to make sure I could find a truck to haul it and gave them the go ahead for Saturday. Stacey wanted some groceries and she really wanted to try and find some meat so she and Will and Nat planned to go along to do some shopping and see what we could find. I know of one grocery store that has ham on a regular basis and even had real Johnsonville brats once, so I was hopeful. Our good friend and indispensible helper Gevy would go and Gyrlene, the hospital administrator wanted a ride too. The truck would be full with the six of us but not Haiti full. The first truck that we lined up was not able to go, so we got another driver that we know. He said that he just got his truck serviced in Port au Prince and it was on the way back to Pignon and Saturday would be no problem. He wouldn’t make a price prior to the trip but he said he wouldn’t charge us too much. Scary. He called Friday afternoon and said that his truck broke down on the way back from Port au Prince and he couldn’t do it. We called our friend Pastor Jean Jean and he said no problem he knew of several drivers who could do it. The first from Saint Raphael, a town on the way to Cap Haitian couldn’t do it because the motor on his truck was out, but he called a friend, Pastor Wille who lived in Cap Haitian who lined a truck up for us. We were all set. I should relate how hiring a truck usually goes. We have a driver named Odell that we use regularly, he’s reliable and reasonable and he doesn’t cheat me. Drivers only drive, they don’t load or unload but they hire guys that do the heavy lifting and ride with the truck. I know his guys and they are friendly and work like crazy. I usually help unload but I can always count on having help with loading and unloading. This was my expectation for any truck that we might hire as it is kind of the norm.

I got up at 6 am on Saturday ready to go, Stacey got up shortly after and wasn’t feeling well and decided that she and the kids would stay home. I knew the kids would be happy but Stacey likes to get out. So Gevy, Gyrlene and I took off at around 6:45 am. It had been raining a little around Cap Haitian but the river crossing at San Raphael was low so we drove through with no problem. It got muddier closer to Cap Haitian and driving over Mount Granjil was fairly muddy. I used the low side of 4 wheel drive to avoid slip sliding off the mountain and we made Cap Haitian in about 2 ½ hours, a good time. We hit the grocery stores. First Super Mart, which is rarely super. They didn’t have much but I did find a can opener for the cooks at the hospital and got some cereal and dish soap. It was at this time that I realized I hadn’t put any deodorant on before leaving home. In the US I would have been very concerned but I didn’t think my little body odor could compete with the smells of Cap Haitian so I wasn’t too worried. I decided to buy some deodorant anyway, but they didn’t have any at Super Mart. We hit the hardware store next. Stacey had a toaster and a bread knife on the list and I was able to find both. The $10 toaster was only $35. We went to the Kokiyaj Super Market next, which is my favorite. I hit the jackpot there. I was a little discouraged at first as the meat cooler just had some frozen Haitian chickens and a couple of Jennie-O turkeys. I grabbed a chicken and then found 3 bags of Tostitos chips. I took all three and went and found salsa and cheese dip too. It was then that I saw the Mt. Dew and I grabbed 13 of those. I went to the meat and cheese counter and found they had no cheese but had the ham. I bought 4 pounds of ham for $7.50 a pound. While I was waiting for the slicing I looked around and found a small freezer next to the meat counter was loaded with meat. They had Johnsonville brats again and I grabbed 5 packages. The freezer was also full of bags of chicken breasts, real regular chicken breasts. I dug down and found two bags that were still fairly frozen and grabbed them. I think I got about 13 or 14 pounds of chicken breast for a little over $5 a pound. Not a good deal but exciting for us.

I was feeling pretty good now, having found nearly everything on the list and loaded down with meat we headed to the bakery. I picked up two chicken sandwiches, two loaves of sliced bread and some hot dog buns. I knew the kids would be thrilled with the sliced bread, especially in the brand new toaster.

We headed to the airport to meet the plane at 11:45 am. The plane was there when we arrived and the pilot, Brent, was walking in as we were. He said it would be a while before it was unloaded and handed me the 10 page manifest listing all 3983 pounds by box and contents. I had the only cargo on the plane. They soon had the plane unloaded and pulled the carts up to the building. In Cap Haitian we are not allowed to leave the building on the runway side unless escorted or with a badge. We rely on workers to unload the plane and get the cargo into the building so we can move it to the customs area for inspection and a good mugging. On this day since I was the only one the workers said that they don’t unload the carts into the building and that MFI should do that. They asked how much I was going to pay them to do it. I said I would pay them nothing, that they already had a job that was paying them and that on any other day I didn’t have to pay someone to move my cargo inside. They said it was different today and that I should pay them $50 Haitian dollars each to do it. I laughed and said that’s more than workers get paid for a whole day in Pignon, and I still refused to pay. It was $12 American, but it was the principle of it, not so much the money. I said I would just do it myself. They replied that I couldn’t because I didn’t have a badge. I said no problem I’ll just stand here. My dander was up already, not a good sign. We asked the customs people and the airport people if they could just inspect it outside and allow our truck in to load the stuff up. They were insistent that all the boxes needed to be handed in, brought to customs and then carried out of the building to the street to our truck. One man, a taxi driver ,with helpers offered to put the boxes inside, and then out to the truck for $700 Haitian dollars, or about $87 US. I laughed again and said no. Eventually they allowed me to go out to the carts and unload the boxes and put them inside. I didn’t like the prospect of handling all 194 boxes by myself, but I had made my stand already. Gevy ran out to get our truck driver and his helpers. It turned out the driver didn’t have helpers so it was me and Gevy and 4000 pounds. I started handing boxes inside like a psycho and unloaded one of the carts and started on the second. A couple of the airport guys had mercy on me and started to help. The driver and his helpers that I had previously rejected started grabbing the boxes inside and carrying them to the customs area. I guess they decided to gamble on the fact that I would pay them. I was a little afraid of what I would find when I entered the airport again, but I had a pretty good idea. I walked in to see a massive pile, not a stack of boxes. It was a mound of boxes just thrown into the area. I was annoyed once again. The driver found me and said in broken English “Good job, yeah”. I couldn’t help it and I said “no, not a good job, look at the boxes you didn’t stack them at all, it’s just a big pile.” He left me alone for the moment but I knew he’d be back. We found the customs agent and said we were ready. They came and started cutting open boxes to inspect them. One of them opened a box of hand sanitizer, he asked me to give them one for their customs office. It felt like a bribe so I said no, the stuff wasn’t for me and it’s for earthquake victims. He said no problem, but his body language said different. I was right. It was supposed to be a bribe. He started tearing through boxes. I asked if they would go through all the boxes. He replied “Tout net!” I said OK, no problem, and he continued to tear through boxes. One of the security guards came over and asked for small gift; again I said no. He was followed by one of the Haitian National Police Officers that said to give her a sleeping bag; again I said no, nervously. She was followed by one of the best dressed Haitians I’ve ever seen who asked for a cot. He wore a nice button down shirt, dress pants, new shoes, two gold rings, a gold necklace and some nice designer glasses. He said he needed the cot for a boy from Port au Prince that he had taken in. I responded nicely that the stuff wasn’t for me and that I would give it to people I know in Pignon and Port au Prince. He left, but I knew he would be back too. The driver reappeared and again said, “Good job?” and I again said “no.” He asked how much I would give him. My stress level is hitting the upper levels at this point and my nicey nice is wearing thin. I said to him in Creole, “You said you would help for $700. I said no. Since you helped anyway, I say, 'Thank you.'” Well, he wasn’t happy, and the list of not happy people was getting longer.

I continued to stand and wait, very nervous about the customs bill. We had just read an article that the government was going to start charging more customs even on relief supplies to try and deter businessmen from taking advantage of the system. The last customs bill I had paid was about $1 per pound, I only had $3000 US so I was worried they would take all the money I had. The customs agent that had asked for the hand sanitizer was still acting mad so I asked him if he was mad at me. It took him a little by surprise and he said no. He said that he understood why I didn’t give it to him and it was no problem. He even slowed down a bit. It was about that time that the head lady, Gladys came out and grabbed the manifest. She told the hand sanitizer customs agent to leave the boxes and they would work off the manifest. I went into the office to start the haggling, prepared again for another battle. I stood in front of the customs agent’s desk and unknown to him I prayed. I prayed for mercy, to be honest, mostly mercy for me, but also for him and for the Holy Spirit to come and to bless us all. The customs agent wrote down his number, 50,000 gourdes. I breathed a giant sigh of relief. I had a goal of 40,000 gourdes, or about $1000 US. I knew at that point that at least they wouldn’t get all the money and that I would probably get my goal or lower. Gladys, the boss, struck up a conversation that was surprising too. She pointed out that next time, if I have a letter from the organization that donated the supplies and have it stamped and with the cargo that I wouldn’t have to pay for relief supplies. I said that would be great and proposed that she give me a receipt and that I take the stuff home with me and come back with the letter next week. She laughed, I knew she would, and said the letter needed to be with the airplane and the cargo when it arrived. Of course it did. This was the first time I had heard of this option. She explained that I would have to pay today. I smiled my best smile and said, so I can just pay a little bit today? She laughed again and said I could discuss with the customs agent handling my stuff. I went to him and without even asking he crossed off the first number of 50,000 and wrote 40,000. I smiled my best again and said, “What do you think, 25,000? He agreed to my surprise and I dug the cash out, got my receipt and headed out. I spoke with Gevy and he said the driver and his helpers would load the truck but we don’t trust any of them and we need to watch closely. I went outside to watch over the truck and was surprised to find that our truck was not large. It was a small dump truck with about 12 inch sides on it. I said to the driver that it wasn’t big enough and he said “I know”. They place old, battered sheets of plywood along the sides and stacked boxes against them and started to load. I kept watch outside while they loaded. The well dressed man came back and started in again. He continued to ask and not very nicely at that. He said he knew I wasn’t a bad man I was just trying to be bad and that I should try and be good and give him a cot. Finally I just said, “Why don’t you go sell your necklace and buy a cot?” This was me being smart, right or wrong, but I knew his story was bunk. He continued to try and talk and I just told him I was finished and I wasn’t giving him anything. He left and went inside, but I knew also that he would be back. A few minutes later my well-dressed harasser was back. He asked if I knew God. I said of course, God and I were very close. He said God had talked to him while he was inside. I said “Wow, what did He say?” He said “God told me that you weren’t a bad man, but that you were trying to be bad and that you should change your heart and give me a cot!” I chuckled a little but was not amused. I told him I wasn’t giving him a cot and that God knows who I am. He said “Why don’t you tell that to God” At that moment, I raised my arms, looked to the sky and said with all sincerity, “Lord, I’m not giving this guy a cot!” I looked at him and said “God knows.” He left me alone after that. People were starting to see that the truck wasn’t big enough and began to make offers to take the stuff to Pignon for me. One guy said that he would do it for $500 US. I laughed. Another guy offered his truck and the two of them began arguing over who would take my stuff. It was a moot argument since I knew neither would, but they weren’t bothering me so I let them argue.

I pulled my truck up and loaded it with cargo as full as I could, stuffed the back seat with boxes and threw the remaining boxes on the larger truck. I covered it and strapped it all down. I had two helpers that did a good job with the rope so I paid them. I gave rope to our driver who had started tying the load down with 1/8 inch nylon string. He didn’t have rope or a tarp, but they did the best they could. It did not look promising. I had planned to load the truck and head back before them and then we could just wait for them to arrive in Pignon, but we had to follow to watch for falling boxes. We stopped so Pastor Wille could grab a bag of clothes and an old tractor light, and we headed out of Cap Haitian with a swollen Daihatsu truck and loaded Toyota in tow at around 3 pm. I watched as the load swayed with each bump and pothole. Bumps and potholes here are like Abrahams children, we can’t count them. I predicted that boxes would start falling soon. As is often the case, I was wrong and it held all the way back over Mt. Granjil. The mountain had dried some during the day so it wasn’t too bad, and we made it over the top. We putted along, often not registering any speed on the speedometer. It began to rain a little after the mountain and I watched the bald tires on the truck slip as it drove in and out of large holes. We stopped twice in the first two hours to check the load and use bathroom. We stopped a third time when the trucks right front wheel started smoking. The brake was stuck and they said we would need to drive slowly. I wasn’t sure how we would drive slower, but they succeeded. We crossed the river and lost our first and only box. We quickly tied it back down and were on the way again. The load was shifting to the right and putting a lot of strain on the sheet of plywood on that side. I knew the plywood wouldn’t break--it was Haitian, but I thought the whole truck might tip that way at times. We drove slowly, I mean slowly, accent on -ly. That really didn’t keep the brake from smoking and it trailed a considerable plume of white smoke. It got dark and shockingly (insert sarcasm) the trucks headlights didn’t work. He drove in the dark for awhile, but when it got too dark, we stopped and they pulled out the old tractor light they had stopped to get. The driver stripped the wires with his teeth and hooked the wire to the battery and ran the wire along the side of the truck. He put the wire in the door and shut it in the door to keep it up and then attached the light to the front by wiring it to the push bar. He asked to borrow my knife, I thought to strip wire, but instead he scraped the push bumper vigorously with the blade cleaning the rust off so he could ground the other wire. I just chuckled a bit. The light worked and we were off like a shot...a shot put.

We made it to Savanette, a small town about a 15-20 minute normal drive from Pignon. The headlight on the big truck went out. I gathered there was no hope to fix it so instead I drove beside them the rest of the way so my headlight illuminated their way. It continued to rain lightly and the 20 minute drive took about 40 minutes. We arrived in Pignon, safely although tired, wet, and hungry after a 40 mile trip that took 4 ½ hours. We unloaded the trucks, found the guys some food and gave them a place to sleep. They were happy to find a meal, a shower and a bed, and I was too.

We have begun to work on distributing the supplies already. The items are safely stored and sorted again. We have contacted all the local missions we work with to share the supplies with people who need it most. We anticipate that some will go to Port au Prince and the rest will be used in Pignon and surrounding area to serve families that have been affected by the earthquake.

Even after that long trip and the hassles that went with it, we can’t say thank you enough for all of the generous giving that has taken place. The supplies are much needed and will be used well, and the financial gifts are out of this world. Thanks from the bottom of our hearts, and God bless you all as he has blessed us.

1 comment:

MaCaleb said...

You are on the right track, Jarrod! (in terms of your thoughts of giving and how to do it the right way). Glad you are here.