Sunday, August 09, 2009

Final Haiti Update: A Comedy of Errors aka The Long Road Home

We made it! That's the good news. The hairy details of how we made it home from Pignon, Haiti to Fresno, California are worth recording just for the laughability of it all.

Saturday morning I rose to the crow of the rooster, which pretty much means I was up in the middle of the night. I slipped off to the orphanage to finish painting the final phrases of the blessing prayer on the wall of the boys' room. (Always one more job to finish!) When I returned to the house I found myself in a wild frenzy of multitasking: trying to get breakfast on the table for the team, saying good mornings and then goodbyes, passing out extra clothes and cosmetics to our Haitian friends, trying to dress my girls and pack their carry-ons with the neccesities for travel, scrubbing my own teeth and throwing on a hat and finally whisking the first half of our team out the door.

We were in the second group to ride to the airport, which afforded us a few extra minutes to pray over the orphanage and grab a few more things from the house that we had forgotten. Dozens of friends showed up at the house to say goodbye, pray and sing to send us off. My one regret was that I couldn't possibly say a personal goodbye to everyone. We gave quick hugs and piled into the truck.

Then we were off for one last bumpy truck ride to the small airport in Pignon where we would "hurry up and wait" for our plane to arrive. We were to take Tropical Air from Pignon to Port Au Prince at 8 a.m. to catch a flight leaving Port Au Prince for the U.S. at 10:20 a.m. The little plane did not arrive in Pignon at 8:30 a.m.

When we finally arrived in Port Au Prince, we gathered up our bags, met up with Peter and then drove to the International airport a few miles down the road. We got into the airport through security and then in line for American Airlines. When our family came to the front of the line, an American Airlines employee stopped me and said I was not allowed to continue. Apparently, my passport was expired. I looked at Ericlee and the girls dumbfounded. I had checked everyone's passport in the family but didn't even think about checking my own. I had used my passport the March before for our last trip to Haiti. Little did I know that it expired in June.

Yes, this was the same passport I used to get Giada's new passport. And yes, this was the same passport I used to get into Haiti. No one along with way noticed. This American Airlines woman was bound and determined to keep me in Haiti. She said I would have to cancel my reservation and go to the American Embassy on Monday and get it fixed. This was Saturday. She said I should reschedule a flight for Wednesday or Thursday.

Wednesday or Thursday? Was this some kind of joke? How could I possibly stay in Haiti in Port Au Prince another 3-4 days with my husband and two kids? Meanwhile, someone from our group ran back to us and informed us that the whole group was late for the flight and our seats were already gone. We had arrived 55 minutes before the flight was to leave and the rule is that you need to arrive one hour ahead for international flights. Ah, let the adventure begin!

Ericlee and I called Peter and asked him to come back to the airport while Nathan Freeland and Bryan Gudgel began to work on the situation with the whole group's tickets. We were all to be on standby. Of course, standby wasn't looking very promising with dozens of people already on the list, including many other missionary teams.

After several hours of waiting in line, we saw Nathan and Peter *behind* the American Airlines desk with the head honcho in charge of American Airlines. She was "working something out" for our group. Peter told me to proceed and not to mention anything else about the passport. Some of our group was to leave on the next flight and the others would be on standby for the following flights. We all passed through the security lines to the gate.

Somehow none of the customs people noticed my expired passport. This was a miracle. Unfortunately, the woman who was determined to make me stay earlier had now been reassigned to a new post inside security at the American Airlines door. Of course, she was really ticked that I had made it through that far and had not followed her orders to stay in the country until Monday.

"What are you trying to do here, Ma'am," she asked me. I didn't know what to say. I bit my tongue and tried not to think about any sarcastic comebacks. After all, it was my fault for not renewing my passport. I just really wanted to go home. After some negotiating she finally decided to let the U.S. deal with me. I passed through.

Then the waiting continued. We waved goodbye to Brandy and Tiana Freeland and Beverly Damm who made it on the first flight. Anne and Paul Brant were then called off the standby list. The rest of the group remained. We waited another couple of hours for another flight. This time Gail and Ernie Partida were called to board the plane. This left Nathan Freeland, Stacie and Bryan Gudgel and the Gilmore family. Mind you by this point we had been waiting more than six hours. A certain 3-year-old had already skipped her nap and was running circles around the rows of waiting passengers. And a certain teething 5-month-old was ferociously gnawing on her fist.

We were all antsy.

We watched one last flight take off without us. There were no more flights to the U.S. that night and we had to stay the night in Port Au Prince. Peter came to pick us up and take us to his apartment in the city. We jokingly called ourselves Haiti Team 4 because now the 5 of us plus our 2 kids were a new little team.

We continued to Peter's spacious apartment and met his wife's cousins who are renters there. Peter said he was taking us out for a special treat - Domino's Pizza. Yes, we ate pizza in Haiti. Talk about a culture clash. Admittedly, Meilani and I were pretty excited. This seemed one step closer to home. We laughed and joked with our little team and Peter. He took us on a whirlwind trip of Port Au Prince.

This little jaunt through Port Au Prince was culture shock in itself for me. How different the big city seemed compared to our mountain town of Pignon. What was most striking was the contrast of the expensive large palace where the president lived and the extravagant hotels right next to streets filled with faces of poverty. This reminded me so much more of my time in Latin American countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala. It was eye-opening to see Haiti in this new light.

Unfortunately, we had a rough night. Ericlee struggled with a migraine that left him unable to really move without throwing up. Giada started a round of diarrhea - her first sickness of the trip. We stayed in a bedroom that was pretty hot and oppressively dark and none of the four of us really slept. The morning light could not come soon enough.

Sunday morning we woke early, filled our tummies with coffee, bread and hard-boiled eggs and carted off to the airport once again. I had to go through customs and security again with my expired passport - praying all the way that they would let me through. By now, the agents knew me and waved us on by. What a miracle!

Soon we were back to our familiar waiting seats inside the American Airlines terminal. Thank goodness for wireless internet so we could communicate a bit with friends and family back home through Facebook and Twitter. In a strange way I felt like I was living a Mission Trip Reality TV show or something. We could receive messages from friends all around the world who were following our updates and praying for us.

The morning flight was full but Nathan and the Gudgels ended up making it on the second flight out. We waved goodbye to the rest of our team. This was probably the only time I really felt like breaking down. We all really wanted to go home by this point. As a little gift, Meilani fell asleep in the stroller and was able to take a nap and Giada soon followed.

We made it out on the 3 p.m. flight to Port Au Prince. What an amazing relief! We arrived in Miami and the adventures continued as we faced customs with my expired passport. As we were waiting in line, Meilani sreeched that she had to go potty. We dashed to the restroom but couldn't make it to the front of the long line (with only two bathroom stalls!) in time. She soaked her dirty travel clothes right there in line.

We ran back to Daddy and Giada and changed into Meilani's alternate dirty travel clothes. We were whisked into a special customs line for people with children or disabilities. While waiting in line, we had the fun blessing of hearing a customs guard explain to another man and his wife/girlfriend that he would probably have to spend the night in jail if his country did not contact the customs agent. I shuddered to think of what they would do with me.

I prayed a silent prayer as we stepped up in line. Immediately, the customs agent started smiling and talking to Giada who cooed her hellos to him. He went through the whole family's passport and then came to mine. He looked at me with a furrowed brow, "When were you planning to renew this?"

"Immediately," I said. "I didn't realize it was expired until we were already in Haiti."

He nodded solemnly and told me I better get it renewed right away and then let us pass. Sweet Relief. Again.

We entered the Miami airport and somehow felt like we were home free. Of course the adventure wasn't really over. It took us an additional 3 hours in lines to get boarding passes for a morning flight to Fresno and vouchers for the hotel and meals. We finally got to the hotel at 9:30 p.m. We stuck our key in the door and, lo and behold, the key didn't work. Ericlee had to run downstairs to have it reprogrammed.

Meanwhile, Meilani realized she had to go to the bathroom really badly - this time #2. We were on the fifth floor so we had to just sit tight and wait for Daddy. Needless to say, Meilani pooped in her pants. Could I blame her? I just had to laugh so I didn't cry! We gave Meilani a good scrub in the warm bath (something she had been longing for in Haiti), ordered room service (a fat hamburger and a deluxe salmon cobb salad) with our voucher and finally collapsed in bed.

We caught our plane from Miami to Dallas and then to Fresno without incident. Yes, I was holding my breath the entire way. We arrived in Fresno the next afternoon and were happily greeted by the grandparents. Home Sweet Home!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Haiti update #13: Team adds final touches to orphanage, says goodbye to Haiti

Ericlee's highlight of week 3 in Haiti was teaching a leadership conference for the men in the Pignon Church. Approximately, 12 men attended this three-day conference. Ericlee used notes from two books, How to be a Person of Influence and The Servant. He has used this material in the past but it was for the younger generation. This was the first time that he met with the older men in the church and they absolutely loved it. "I could see light bulbs coming on for every man there so I knew it was making a difference," says Ericlee. The top question of the three-day conference was, "How do we change Haiti?" The hard answer to that question is one person at a time. Leadership is influence and thus leaders must inspire others to follow rather than make others follow by using force.

Our last full workday in Haiti was Friday and our team worked on adding the final touches to the orphanage. A group of us finished off the girls' bedroom by painting the walls with a whimsical garden full of flowers and butterflies. Brandy and I also painted prayers translated in Kreyol to bless each bedroom.
Meilani was delighted to be included in the painting of the girls' room. Daddy took her up to the orphanage and helped her paint this giant "papyon" or butterfly. She was very careful to make it nice.
The boys' room had Jeremy Pusey's mural as the centerpiece and the prayers I had added. Stacie Gudgel had the idea to create these prayers and have them translated.
Meanwhile, Nathan Freeland and Ernie Partida and crew finished off the shelving in the storage rooms. All the door frames were put in, fixtures and switches added, rooms painted and most of the cement work finished on the second floor where the children will live. The ladies also finished organizing the storage closet in the house and the kitchen and pantry.
In the afternoon, we hosted our final Story Time for the kids. We started out with singing. One of the Haitian girls, Witza, helped us lead a few songs in Kreyol. When about 50 kids had gathered, I read a Haitian picture book called Painted Dreams by Karen Lynn Williams. Partway through the story, the rain began to beat down on the little church building so loudly the children could barely hear. We persevered and continued with the plans to read the story and then put together "salvation bracelets." At the end, Stacie shared her testimony using a canvas and paints. She prayed with the children and one little boy in particular, Jon, came to the front to accept Christ. We could all visibly see the change on his face knowing he had a Savior.
After the testimony time, we passed out animal crackers and lemonade. Soon the rain passed and the kids joined us in the church yard for games. They love jumping rope, playing ball and our team brought out Legos and nail polish for painting the little girls nails.
After Story Time, our team took one last walk through town. The air was considerably cooler after the rain. We had quite the entourage with our team, a group of the kids, some of our translators and others marching down the street with us. Brandy and I took this picture at the "broken well," one of the key landmarks used when giving out directions in Haiti. (We almost got attacked by a guy who thought we were there to take his picture. Good times!)

We spent a lot of time Friday night and Saturday morning giving things away to people - our clothes, extra flashlights, food and water bottles. Meilani joined in the giving spirit and decided to give away her favorite Dora doll. This little girl was so pleased.

Saying goodbye is always the hardest part about leaving Haiti. Meilani had to say goodbye to her good friends Taisha and Melissa, Peter's daughters. They had become good playmates after three weeks of hanging out every day. Giada will miss their loving arms too.

We will also miss Luinoise who helped care for Giada in addition to doing our team's laundry and helping with the meals. She gave Giada a little pair of Haitian shoes for our journey home. So generous.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Haiti Update #12: Who Will Speak Up For The Little Ones?

Today, was quite possibly our hardest day in Haiti. I suspect it will be stamped in my memory for a long time to come. It was not difficult because of the heat or the language barrier or the testing of my patience as some might expect. Our task for today was meeting with the 16 orphans who are to live in The Bridge Christian Children’s Home when it is complete.

Admittedly, I’ve been really excited about this day for a long time. The children of Haiti are the reason I keep coming back to this broken country. I continue to remember their smiles, their piercing eyes. I am idealistic enough to believe that we have a small chance to give them a glimpse of hope. Meeting the orphans was a whole new level of heartbreak for me.

The children arrived starting at 6:30 a.m. when our team was still eating breakfast. They waited patiently in the yard until all 16 arrived and we started our time together. We fed them a little snack of organic animal crackers and lemonade – just a little something to fill their little tummies. Most of them were quiet, cautiously watching these strangers.

Stacie Gudgel, one of our team members and also Meilani’s preschool Bible teacher from our church, took the role of organizing a play time for the kids. She brought a variety of toys, games and crafts we could share. While the team members invited the kids to play Memory, Trouble and Candyland, Brandy Freeland and I started the job of interviewing the kids. Our goal was to ask some basic questions to get to know them so we can write profiles about each child and help find sponsors for them once they are in the orphanage.

I have done countless interviews in my career as a journalist but these were probably the hardest. We worked with our friends Gerby and Walquis who interpreted for us. We asked each child how old they were, whether they were in school and attended church, what chores they helped with at home. We also asked them to share a bit about their family situation.

As I typed the answers on the computer, the tears began to stream down my face. “I’m not cut out for this job,” I heard myself whisper to Brandy under my breath. Despite my years of experience as a journalist I did not know how to choke back the emotion. She looked at me sympathetically. We continued to listen to story after story about mothers and fathers who had died of “fever” (a generic word used in Haiti for all kinds of sickness). Some of the kids were living with an aunt or grandparent. The kids gave one-word answers; they did not know how to really elaborate on the stories of their broken homes and haunted pasts.

The youngest of these children were a few 6-year-olds and the oldest was 11. Of course, these would not be the typical kids that Americans or other foreigners would want to adopt. Most adoptive parents prefer infants with a good medical history. I certainly can understand why – the transition would be easier and crossing the cultural barriers would not seem quite so daunting. Peter Constantin, the director of Christian Friendship Ministries, had conceived of this orphanage to provide a loving home for older children like these. What a joy to think that our church, The Bridge, has such a hand in raising money, building the orphanage and perhaps sponsoring these children in the future.

After a few hours of click-clacking away on the computer, we had finished. We went back into the main room of the mission house to find a different mood. The kids there were giggling and laughing. They were make shapes out of pipe cleaners. Some of the girls had on pipe cleaner earrings and necklaces. I saw one boy with a pair of bright blue pipe cleaner glasses he had fashioned. Another little boy thrust some pipe cleaners into my hands and asked me to make him a butterfly.

Outside a group of young boys were playing soccer with a few of the guys from our team. We later heard from Bryan and Ernie how blessed they were to play with these little guys. The boys had quickly abandoned their too-tight shoes and got down to business with the “futbol.”

Our morning with the group ended around 11:30 a.m. We sent each child home with a bag of animal crackers, a kite and a new outfit. Brandy and I took on the job of trying to size the kids with the new clothes the team had brought. Unfortunately, we did not have enough pairs of flip flops/sandals to hand out and a lot of the clothes were way too big for these petite children who had been malnourished for so many years.

I fell in love with one little girl Serline. Although she was six years old she was smaller than our 3-year-old Meilani. She lived in Savanette, a good hour walk from the mission so we invited her to eat lunch with us and then we would drive her home. I have seen Serline several times at the Savanette church. She was always so shy, her mouth a thin line and her toes stuffed in shoes two sizes too small. But today I saw her break a smile. I handed her a jump rope and took her outside. She could barely jump the rope and did not know how to count to 10 in Kreyol but oh did she smile.

The tears really came as I fed her lunch. I tried to give her small portions at a time so she wouldn’t get sick. Her eyes grew wide as I served up pieces of goat meat, cracked wheat with beans and a tropical fruit salad we were having for our team that day. She gobbled these down and ate 3 more servings and a glass of cold water before she was satisfied. I started to wonder when was the last time little Serline had even eaten meat.

After lunch we climbed in the truck and drove Serline and another little girl home to Savanette. Our team had some bins of clothes and toys to give out in the community there so it worked out well. When we arrived, Serline’s grandma met me at the truck. They actually live right across the street from the Savanette church. The grandma explained to me that she was caring for seven children. The mother had died and the father had abandoned them to go to the Dominican Republic for a new life.

I walked Serline home with her grandma and met her siblings and cousins. They lived in a tiny hut-like house made of sticks and mud. Three small rooms housed the eight or more family members. The floors were dirt and the place smelled of excrement. I pressed a five dollar bill into the grandma’s hand and begged her to buy some food for the family. I could hardly bear to lift my heavy body back into the truck and leave little Serline in this situation. I vowed right there that I would do all I could to help get the orphanage open and sponsors for these children as soon as possible.