Monday, September 07, 2009

Final Reflections - Part II

Cuba was nothing of what I expected it to be. I expected Haiti to change my perspective and Havana to be a fun time hanging with some Cuban folks. Haiti did change my perspective, but Havana blew it out of the water. All I’ve shared so far of Cuba was mostly just the activities that filled our days; these activities, though memorable in their own right, are not what made Cuba so amazing. What left me shattered were the people that I have come to love deeper then I thought possible given the amount of time we spent together.

For you to understand the significance of what I experienced, I need to establish a bit of context. I don’t think many people realize exactly how bad it is in Cuba or what it means to live in a Communist country. To put it briefly, the government owns and controls everything. The people don’t own the houses they live in (if they have a house; most live in dilapidated buildings and are forced to live among growing families as kids grow and get married and begin having kids of their own. You can not just go out and buy a place of your own.), or the cars they drive (if they have a car). They are forced to work whatever job is given to them for the equivalent of about $40.00 Canadian per month. They are generally very educated because education is free, but unless they have connections or the means to bribe someone in the government, most of the education goes to waste; engineers are working as doormen and local pizza shop cashiers. Because of this, the current generation is no longer motivated to obtain the education so that particular and rare freedom is slowly being lost. When I asked Will how it is that people even manage to live, he didn’t even have a concrete response. Much is bought and traded in the black market from food to homes and any opportunity to steal from the government in any way is not an opportunity wasted. It is a society under extreme oppression and without any foreseen hope. I have credible reason to believe, as well, that it will get much worse before there is any positive change.

Although this hopelessness was evident on some of the faces I saw within the city, there was so much life and joy among the people in general and I would so frequently forget the reality they live in. Where I did see hope, though, was within the community of believers that I have come to know and love, but it is this reality that made the welcome we received so significant. We were welcomed like honored guests; by the community in general and by the Herrera family more specifically.

Before I explain the tangible way this was shown, I just want to explain what made each of the Herrera’s so special to me:

From the moment I met Will, it felt as though I’d known him my whole life. He is a young man of incredible faith and conviction. He is unabashedly in love with Jesus and puts more effort and intentionality into his relationship with Christ then anyone I’ve ever known. He lives and breathes it. He is someone that I could speak to freely about my thoughts and questions and any challenges I might be facing and I could expect compassion, understanding and wisdom. Besides that, he’s just a whole lot of fun and kept us laughing non stop every moment we shared together. I have come to love him like a brother and I miss him deeply.

As Will was the only one in his family that spoke English, you’d think that it would be nearly impossible to establish a meaningful relationship with the rest of his family in such a short time, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The youngest of the brothers, 5 year old Wanner, would often be running around playing during the time we spent at the house. We would play together quite easily and communicate through body language and although he was very shy the first day I met him, by the 3rd or 4th day he would frequently come up unexpectedly to place a quick sweaty kiss on my cheek. I will be forever blessed by his joyful spirit.

Waldy and Wilber, the second and third oldest brothers, joined us on a number of outings and hung around during our time at the house. It is through Will and his brothers that I have come to know what being a gentleman really looks like. Bonnie and I joked about how we’d been ruined for North American men. Never have I been treated with such gallantry and respect. We were always greeted with a hug and a kiss on the cheek and they were always one step ahead with a hand out as we’d get off the bus or down a particularly awkward step. Although it may seem as though my reaction to this is simply the blather of someone who was charmed by the Cuban culture, it meant more to me as a reflection of what it means to be a valued member of their community; to be loved and honored and respected….to be care for.

Will’s father, Braulio, is a man that I have deep respect for. He hears from the Lord and he doesn’t hesitate for a second to share what he knows and hears. As pastor of the church, he has been known to go into a sermon not knowing what he’s meant to share until the very moment he goes to the pulpit to preach…that, to me, is true faith. When we left, he prayed for us and although we had no idea what he said, we were incredibly blessed.

And finally, Will’s mom, Odelys. Although we could not communicate directly, we developed a very special relationship; she referred to Bonnie and I as her “Cuban daughters”. I don’t think I’ve ever hugged somebody so many times before actually saying the final goodbye and walking away. The simple fact that after such a short time, she would shed tears for me the way I did for her is extremely touching and humbling. I can’t even really explain why we grew to care for eachother the way we did, all I know is that she is an incredibly kind hearted women and I miss her enough to want to drop everything and fly back to Cuba to spend more time with her.

This brings me to why this family was so incredible as a whole; especially within the context that I previously outlined. Throughout the whole 5 days we spent with them, all they did was give and give and give some more. From their willingness to take us in as family and their interest in us and our lives back home to the fact that they spent money to feed us and bestow us with gifts and mementos to remember them by; as if forgetting them was even a remote possibility. I often returned to the hotel room feeling quite devastated that I could not offer them anything in return that I felt honored what they had given me. The last day we spent with them, Will’s mom cooked us a special meal. Special because of the presence of meat; something they don’t eat commonly because of how difficult it is to find. The day before, Will had scoured a number of stores to try and locate some chicken and the day of, Odelys was gone for a few hours in the afternoon to find what she needed for dinner as well as purchase the gifts that were given to us. After searching 4 or 5 different places, she eventually resorted to an under the table, back door deal behind a restaurant with a woman who took compassion upon her as, because all the restaurants and establishments are government owned, they are not in short supply of anything. And to top it off, Will’s mom expressed numerous times that she was sorry she couldn’t have given us more. I sit here now, still feeling as unworthy of their kindness as I ever did and that so much of what I do here at home means nothing to anybody. I miss them so much that it aches.

Apart from the Herreras, I left with a note from Dilliam and a gift from her and her husband, Albert, in the form of a souvenir from the fort where we watched the cannon firing together. Even one of the ladies from the church, Elizabeth, left us with a gift before leaving the church on Sunday; a shell craft her sons had made each of us with a verse written in Spanish along the inside. Mine read, “The Lord will keep you from all harm, he will watch over your life”, Psalm 121:7. Given the spiritual richness of the community, I did not take the choice of verse lightly and it meant a lot to me given the fact that I wasn’t well and getting very sick in a foreign country is a particular fear of mine.

But the generosity of the people was only part of why this experience was so meaningful. It was the faith and the life of the church body that raised goose bumps on my arms and left me feeling that the church here at home is so devoid of any passion or enthusiasm. I can’t help but feel that our lack of dependency has left us in such a state. They depend on God for their well-being and their livelihood and it’s through their faith and their love of God that they live lives of hope and lives filled with a joy that doesn’t come from earthly things. They couldn’t possibly know such a joy if it was based purely on materialistic things. I also can’t help but feel that without knowing the life they know and living with the kind of surrender and dependency they know, we can not possibly know the faith they share and the subsequent joy and gratefulness that they express. It’s a frightening thought.

I could not have guessed how my experiences would affect me once returning home, but I have been faced with a number of interesting emotions. First, when wandering through the mall while waiting for a couple new tires to be installed on my car, I found myself feeling compelled to buy everything in sight. Not because I wanted to own it but because I wanted to drain my bank account. I found this rather odd at the time but I now believe it had something to do with resenting how these things widen the gap between Him and I in the sense that we lack the dependency that seems to facilitate such a rich relationship with Him. But I also realize at the same time that this is foolish and completely illogical. To resent the blessings in my life would be a flat out sin, I know that. It would be completely dishonoring to the one who has ultimately cared for me and would be very much the same as taking the gifts the Herrera’s gave us and throwing them at their feet, as though ungrateful and angry at the gesture; which of course would have been devastating and would have severed the relationship right then and there. So this analogy has actually become two fold in that on the one hand, it made me realize how foolish I was being and on the other, it has caused me to take what I felt for the Herrera’s in receiving those gifts - humbled, blessed, love and affection - and reflecting them on how I feel towards God for those same blessings that I momentarily resented.

The second emotion that has struck me to the core is the realization of how shallow we are. We spend so much time on things that are irrelevant and meaningless; so much time. I got a taste of what it means to live with fervent passion for God and thought naively that it would be easy to take that home with me but it took no more then a day before I felt myself getting sucked back into normality. It’s like a gravitational pull towards a state of complacency and nothingness. I already began feeling it as we descended onto Toronto. Staring down at the city littered with parking lots full of cars; the sunlight reflecting off the windshields drawing my attention and reminding me of the scales of stinky, slimy fish; I got a sickening feeling in my stomach even then. I see things in pictures and right now when I picture Cuba, I see everyone very rounded and full and happy, bathed in a warm soft light; everything in hues of red, beige and coral. When I picture home, I see everyone as paper thin, wandering around, hopeless and soulless; everything in colors of grey and blue. I’ve been alternating between appreciating being home and absolutely and utterly hating this place; preferring to either go back to Cuba or live out my life in a cabin in the woods. I know I wouldn’t be any good to anyone to live in a fog, feeling continually discouraged and degrading myself for not living a life that’s meaningful on a global scale, but I’m terrified of losing this perspective. I will have to just trust that there has been a purpose for these experiences beyond simply being grateful for what I’ve been given, even though it has never been so clear to me how unbelievably wealthy we are, because that is no longer enough. I believe I have been changed and never again do I want to be satisfied with complacency.

So, what can I do? I can pray for Cuba, for the Herreras, for the church and for the community as a whole. I can put every effort into not taking one single blessing for granted; from eating chicken and brushing my teeth with water from the tap to having a home, owning my own vehicle and having the means to see the world beyond my backyard. I need to take the lessons I’ve learned in trust and continue to face every hurdle in life with the attitude that God is in control and that He has my best interest at heart. I need to take the lessons I’ve learned in surrender and continue to ask that God show me the things in my life that I’m holding onto as a way to appease my rebellious spirit and maintain the sense of control that threatens to control me. I need to take the lessons I’ve learned in dependency and not waste a single moment worrying about my life and the wants that I have perverted into needs. I need to take the lessons I’ve learned in humility and love and see that they are reflected onto every aspect of my relational life.

In the last couple days, I’ve felt so discouraged about putting time and effort into things that in the past I’ve been encouraged to foster, like song writing and certain aspects of my involvement in young adults, as they began to feel so meaningless and pointless. But what I’ve been coming to terms with, even through writing this all down, is that I have the opportunity to directly effect what I’ve previously stated as a major concern within the church and that is the complete lack of passion and fire and how inadequately we love eachother. I just have to be open and willing to be used through the gifts He’s given me.

So if nothing else, nothing else at all, I am determined to at least be a servant to my brothers and sisters in Christ, to give freely where needs arise, to pray fervently and to show grace and mercy to every person I come into contact with. In short, I am determined to love better. I can only pray that God has not given up on me due to my ever-nagging tendencies towards selfishness, judgment, jealousy, vindictiveness, injustice, pride and stubbornness. I have a long way to go, but to quote a section from one of my previous posts, “It's such a blessing to know that this is where God wanted me; and I do know this, without a doubt…I feel at peace and safe in the faithful hands of my Father.”

I can’t say that I’m feeling that peace I spoke of before but I’m getting there. But more importantly, my Father is faithful; that I know for sure.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Final Reflections - Part I

This trip was for me a lesson in trust, a lesson in surrender, a lesson in dependency and humility and a lesson in what it means to love and be loved.

First, Haiti:

Haiti started badly, there’s no doubt about that. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. If everything had gone according to plan, would I have started the trip with my arms in the air saying “I’m in your hands, God. I trust you because I know your perfect and wonderful plan for my life is good, as you are, and I believe that this is all part of that plan.”? Absolutely not; I know myself and I know that when things go according to my plan I lose awareness of my dependency, and dependency is something that I have come to see as gift beyond measure. I literally remember leaning against the toilet seat, sick as a dog, repeating over and over in my head, “I trust you, I trust you…”

My babies, how I miss my babies; especially my little Finder. Never have I known children who are quite so extraordinary. They’d get knocked over or get their fingers stepped on or fall quite badly on the hard tiled flooring of the balcony and we’d all wait for the waterworks, but more often then not, nothing. They are so incredibly tough. In fact, the only time I ever really saw any of my kids cry was when I’d put them back in the nursery, which always broke my heart. We’d come to them as strangers and you’d expect them to eye you suspiciously or hide behind the nanny's legs or turn away when we’d put our arms out to lift them, but that wasn’t the case. If you knelt down and put your arms out to any child, they would nearly knock you over as they threw themselves into your arms. They would hold onto you as though you were that person in their lives that they lived for; the one they would come to if they were hurt or sick or scared. It took only days before most of my kids would greet me with a look of recognition and hope. I have been humbled because they loved me and because they allowed me to love them. And in their own way, they have taught me a bit about how to love better.

I tend towards being judgmental. I see and mentally criticize faults in others that I justify in myself. This became abundantly and especially clear to me while I was away. Maybe it was because so much of my life there was relational and I was less distracted or because the atmosphere caused a certain softness of heart, but my hypocrisy was too obvious to ignore. I am learning that I am epically flawed and I will never know transformation if I try to fight my flaws by my own strength. Though this concept is not new to me, I have come to see how directly it affects my ability to love those around me and that isn’t something to be flippant about because, in the end, it all comes down to love.

I have learned what it means to surrender your life to the Father by the example that was set by those who have left their homes and families to take up long-term residence in Haiti. I heard from more then one person how a short-term trip left them changed forever and after hearing clear direction from God, picked up and left all they knew to come back just weeks after returning home. Two of these people were Molly and Joyce who have now lived in Haiti for 7 and 5 years. I thought I knew surrender; I thought I knew what it meant to trust God with my life…I know nothing. I am blessed to call them friends and it is an honor to have been invited into their family.

Haiti is a rough place, but it is now a place I can call home.

As I sat in the living room of the main house after saying my final goodbyes to my kids, in the company of a couple other volunteers and Kaylie, the 9 year old daughter of two of the long-term missionaries that work at GLA, I was very emotional. I don’t remember much of our conversation but I do remember very clearly the moment when Kaylie told me very nonchalantly, “You’ll be back”. I have always believed in the idea that kids, being essentially more pure and innocent and having not gained any of the cynicism and loss of imagination that comes with life are more in touch with all things spiritual. This comment, given square faced and without pretense, left me momentarily without breath. I did not take this comment lightly and it has left me with the hope that I will one day call Haiti home once again.

To be continued...

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Haiti - Pictures, pictures, pictures

The big hike:

A couple sunsets from the play balcony

Out for a walk

The entrance to the mainhouse; my first sight when I arrived at the orphanage (The balcony is adjacent to the large nursery)

A really big, quite nasty moth that lived in our house for a few days

A street market

Artwork in the street market

More artwork

Some of the kids at the toddler house (The house in the back of the photo was where we lived)

Marie-Josee, one of the kitchen staff

Anika, Laura and Naomi (my fellow volunteers) and a few of their babies

The shack where the nanny's baby was born (not sure which one it was)

A couple sunsets from the toddler house

The old man and his rock pile

Part of the walk down to the mainhouse

This really needs no explanation

A tour of the Mainhouse

A tour of the Toddler House where we lived (part II below)

Driving into Port-Au-Prince with James, the driver, and the armed security guard in the front seat (Part II below)

Monday, August 31, 2009


It's true, I will be flying back home tomorrow, but if you have been following this trip all along, I ask that you please check back within the week that I'm home. Due to limited time and the reluctance to really delve into things and strain myself emotionally on my vacation, I have neglected to express just how this trip has impacted me.

So, please come back...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Havana - Part II (I don't have time for witty titles)

Sunday morning, we took a cab to the church and enjoyed warm greetings before taking our seats prepared for another our of amazing worship and a sermon by Will's dad (the senior pastor), translated by Will (who took a break half way through to change and take a shower...we fired him as our translator). That morning was all very hazy for me as I was still quite sick but what I do remember was being called up to greet the church; something Bonnie had warned me might happen. So Braulio (Will's dad), wearing his Canadian flag tag in honor of our presence, called us up after making the introductions and we each took a turn with the mic to greet and thank the congregation; translated into Spanish, of course, by Will. We spent the rest of the afternoon with the Herreras and Dilliam and her husband, Albert, eating lunch, chatting with Will's parents (through Will), playing Dominoes and generally enjoying the time we had together before heading back to the hotel for the night. We hadn't eaten so we made our way to a romantic restaurant across the street from our hotel where we sat side by side in a dimly lit room and enjoyed a wonderful candlelit dinner of steak and lobster while listening to a Cuban man play piano nearby. I am amazed at how cheap things are in Cuba.

We had originally planned on doing a tour of Partagas cigar factory on Saturday but because I had to cut that outing short, we decided to go on Monday morning before heading back to the church to spend our final afternoon with Will and his family. The tour was very cool and vary informative, taking us through every stage of the cigar and allowing us to see the progression by visiting the rooms where the work was being done in a building that was built near the end of the 1800's. We ended the tour with a visit to the shop and purchased a few mementos which we then stuffed in our bag to avoid getting hassled by the young gentleman outside who had offered to sell us the product out back at a cheaper price...clearly, we declined.

For lunch, we stopped at a very nice restaurant in the middle of Old Havana that Andres recommended, saying "Since you're staying at the Nationale (hotel), than it's a very nice place you can go to." (insinuation: you can afford it). The restaurant was very beautiful and "high-class", the service impeccable and the food was amazing, costing us hardly a third of what it would have been at home. After lunch we took a Co-Co cab to the church (an oval shaped shell over a 3 wheeled dirk bike with two seats behind the driver), which I loved. It was much cooler than regular cabs given the fact that it was open; this perk was pointed out when the driver pressed an imaginary button within the shell and said air-conditioning"with a playful smirk on his face. We spent the rest of the afternoon with Dillam and the Herreras just hanging out and having dinner together. Dilliam left and Andres joined us to spend our last evening out on the town with Waldee and Wilbur (another brother). As we would be heading directly to the hotel after, this is when we had to say goodbye to Wanner (Will's 5 year old brother) and his parents. This was extremely hard and quite prolonged as gifts were given and words and prayers were shared between us. I must have hugged them all 5 or six times before heading out the door, at which time I could no longer hold back the tears. I have truly come to love this family, but I'll share more about that later.

The six of us hopped on a bus and headed towards the water, grabbed a bunch of small tubs of ice cream from a hole-in-the-wall shop and sat on some grass near the hotel to spend our last bits of time together. When we parted ways, from Will, Waldee and Wilbur we got a hug and a kiss as the two brothers hardly spoke a word of English and we were expecting to see Will at the hotel the next morning. But from Andres, we got one of the best compliments I've ever received: "You behave like Cubans", he said; and, for the record, he did mean it as a good thing. He also expressed that he'd grown to love and care for us like sisters, would truly miss us and that once they left, he would not look back for fear of weeping.

As it happened, our transfer to Varadero left much earlier then we expected and we didn't find out in time to make other arrangements with Will so we had to say our final goodbyes over the phone. Again, I was left in tears.

That morning, I woke up very early and nauseous for unexplained reasons. I never did get physically sick but took a Gravol before boarding the bus just in case. Side note: since leaving home, I have become a certifiable pill popper. In Haiti, that first week it was Gravol and Immodium and this last couple weeks, almost everyday, it's been antibiotics and/or daytime cold medication, night-time cold medication and Ibuprofen for my throat. Luckily, now, I'm down to just the antibiotics. I am usually very anti-medications but I've had no choice in order to be as comfortable as possible and to keep up the pace we held in Havana, which didn't help either of us get better.

On the way to Varadero, we made a pit stop at a cafe where a live band was playing and a woman sat at a table outside the bathrooms selling toilet paper. Luckily, due to our ever-running noses, Bonnie and I had a decent supply in our purses. We made a couple quick purchases and headed back to the bus as I was having trouble walking straight and not falling over due to the Gravol I'd taken. I never did fully recover so our arrival at the resort is a little hazy but I do remember both of our jaws dragging along the floor as we toured the grounds before gaining access to our room. This place is absolutely beautiful. i have said to Bonnie that I think I'm ruined for anything less then a 5 star resort as everything is impeccable. Our room is beautiful, the food is ever plentiful and amazing, everything is clean and the resort itself is so incredible. This was my first time seeing the clear blue waters of the tropical Caribbean ocean i person and I was left a little bit speechless. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon sleeping off the Gravol on the beach and the first night, we caught the "Latin Show"in the theatre which was quite horrible and involved a number of Cuban men in unnecessarily tight spandex.

The first day we arrived here, I do admit to thinking to myself, "Ok, now what?" I was concerned I'd have trouble adjusting to the incredibly slow pace of the day and get bored, but my fears were premature. Lounging in the pool with a fruity drink from the pool bar is absolutely heaven and reading a book on the beach under the shade of a thatch umbrella or just floating around in the incredibly warm, turquoise waters of the ocean is equally amazing. I am definitely not having any trouble adjusting.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Thursday morning, we spent some time walking around the city before taking a cab to the church to see Will and meet his family (they live above the church). Introductions were short and sweet as Will is the only one in his family that speaks English but I was introduced to and have come to love their form of greeting. A quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. Whether your young or old, male or female, this is the tender greeting we received by all. We decided to grab some lunch in the city so we hopped on a bus near the church; something we have been strongly discouraged from doing on our own. We had a quick lunch of pizza and soda before deciding that we would let Will show us some of his favorite places. So we boarded the bus again. This time it was especially packed and I may have grazed the rear end of a young gentleman in front of me a number of times before I realized what I'd done; something I was teased about for days. We got off in the middle of the Havana suburbs and made our way over to a hotel called the Malia Cohiba to have a pee break. When we met back in the lobby, Bonnie and I asked "So when are you going to show us your favorite place?" "This is it", he replied. The hotel lobby. One thing you have to understand about Will is that he loves Canada, thinks of himself more as Canadian than Cuban and as such, hates the heat. The hotel lobby is cool and quiet and according to him, a great place to get away and think. Apparently as long as he looks as though he's waiting for someone, nobody gives him a hard time.

From there we walked down to the Malacon (the boardwalk) to relax and enjoy the sound of the ocean before heading back to the hotel for a much needed swim in the pool. As this is hottest and most humid time of the year in Cuba, this was our first taste of how we wold be feeling for the rest of the trip. Any time outside an air-conditioned building leaves you hot and sticky and is usually accompanied by immense amounts of sweat steadily beading from every pore on your body. As uncomfortable as it was at times, I can't say that I hated it.

Will returned home and we made plans to meet up later for a night out. Besides Will, we were joined by his brother Waldee, friend Juan and another friend, Dilliam (the only other one that spoke English), all of whom Bonnie was already acquainted with. The six of us walked up into the city to a very common Cuban hangout to get ice cream. After waiting in a couple different lineups and switching lineups at one point to get to the desired area of the building (something that cost Will a few coins after doing some wheeling and dealing with one of the employees), we got our table and Will ordered us all a bowl. It was vanilla all around; not by choice, because you get whatever they have. If we'd gone to a tourist ice cream shop, we could have gotten whatever flavour we wanted, but it would have been in CUC's (a currency that the Cuban people don't deal in and that is worth a lot more then the currency they do) and it would have been much more expensive. It took very little time for Will and Dilliam to feel like old friends so our time together was very comfortable, very relaxed and a lot of fun. After ice cream, we walked down to the Malacon which had now come alive with crowds of people as it does every night and just spent time together. Dilliam and I spent a good amount of time getting to know each other and after a bit of prodding, she shared with me a poem she had written for her niece (first in Spanish, then translated) as we discovered a mutual love of writing. It was such a fabulous day and we went to bed exhausted.

Friday morning we took a cab to the Capital building ion Old Havana to meet Will, Dilliam and Andres (another friend and member of the church) to explore a bit of the old town. This wasn't simply a matter of a few Cuban locals showing us around, the addition of Andres made it particularly spectacular for a few reasons. First, he works as a tour guide in the city so we essentially got a private tour from a professional. Second, we nicknamed him the "Greek god" because he looks like a European Calvin Klein model. But the kicker was that because his clients are exclusively British, he now speaks perfect English with a beautiful British accent. He showed us some of his favorite buildings, all incredibly ornate and detailed. Havana has some of the most beautiful architecture I've ever been fortunate enough to lay my eyes on. Unfortunately, most of the buildings are in a state of neglect and have literally begun to crumble where they stand.

We wandered the the streets with a beautifully melodic running commentary and the company of wonderful people and stopped at a chocolateir for a plate of goodies and chocolate milk made of milk, Cuban cocoa and honey. We slowly made our way back to the Capital building where we parted ways from Andres and grabbed a taxi back to the hotel for another swim in the pool. Up until last year, Cuban people were not even allowed to set foot in the hotels. As Will has come to enjoy hanging out in hotel lobbies, this wasn't so amazing for him, but Dilliam had not only never been inside the hotel, she'd never seen the inside of a hotel room or swam in a pool of any kind. She was overwhelmed nearly to the point of tears by it all. Let's just say, Cubans are seriously oppressed, but I won't get into that now. It was incredible to see and experience all of this through her eyes.

We thoroughly enjoyed a couple hours lounging in the pool before Dilliam and Will headed home for dinner and to get ready for church where we would be meeting them later. When we arrived we were immediately ushered to the back room where Will was and the worship team all meet to pray before the service. This was my first taste of the passionate way that the Cubans pray and worship. This was only made more apparent by the actual congregational worship. I couldn't help but think that the North American church is quite dead by comparison. Even the prayers were passionate and the church always responded emphatically and even as prayer was being led, they would clap and cheer and raise up their own prayers out loud without any consciousness of self. So we stood for about an hour listening to the incredible band and the people sing with a steady stream of sweat streaming down our chests and backs as despite the many fans, it was stifling. Of course, everything was in Spanish but there were a couple familiar songs that we sang in our own language and Will translated most of the sermon for us. There were a number of times over that few hours that I got chills like a wave over my body and just took it all in, amazed and feeling blessed to be able to experience the fire in that community. By the end of the service, I was left speechless, overwhelmed, humbled and encouraged. We hung around for a while after and met a bunch more people always with a sweaty cheek to cheek kiss.

There was a moment Friday night when we got out of the cab in our summer dresses and heels at the door of the hotel, having the door opened by a hotel employee, that I truly felt like a princess. Taking in and appreciating the luxuries that we've provided for ourselves has been very strange given the fact that spending time with the Cubans has made it so apparent that we have so much and they have so little.

This was also the day that my head cold took a turn for the worse. The pain in my throat caused me to worry momentarily that I'd picked up strep throat, but the absence of any white spots eliminated that so I was left to conclude that I;'d developed some sort of a throat/sinus infection and decided to begin taking Ceftin, a broad-spectrum antibiotic that GLA requested that I bring.

The next morning I felt pretty awful but we had made plans to go to a market in Old Havana and I figured that after an Advil cold and flu and just getting outside, I would feel better. I couldn't have been more wrong. We had been at the market for no more then 20 minutes before heading back to the hotel where I collapsed onto my bed with a very cloudy head, in a certain degree of pain, feeling very weak, very discouraged and honestly a little scared that I would need to be taken to a Cuban hospital. But thankfully, after a good nap, an afternoon of rest and, I believe, the antibiotics, I began to feel better. So that evening, we went ahead with our plans to meet up with friends to watch the sunset from the fort and then watch the procession of soldiers and the nightly 9:00 shooting of the cannon. It's a tourist attraction, but also a hangout for the Cubans; the tourists just pay a lot more to get in. Not long before the procession started, it began to pour and we all got quite wet running from building to building but managed to duck under the cover of a doorway to wait it out. We huddled together chatting and laughing and it gave Bonnie and I a chance to to eat the apple/bananas that Will had given us. I kid you not, it's a short, fat banana that actually tastes like a combination of the two fruits. When the show started, we began heading to where the action was under the cover of a blanket held up at the four corners while the crowds of people still huddling in doorways watched us with a mixture of amusement and envy. But the rain stopped in time for the show and we took our spots on top of the fort overlooking the cannon. It was a great evening, but I was exhausted by the end of it. Whether from me or Will, we are not completely certain, but Bonnie did pick up a head cold as well. This is unfortunate for her, but the upside is that it kept us going at about the same pace. It's probably because of that pace though, that I've been slow to recover, but I am feeling better. Although, I stopped taking Ceftin yesterday morning but the soreness that returned in my throat yesterday evening has caused me to begin taking it again.

And that's all I've got time for...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

My Last Week

This is a summary of my last week in Haiti:

On Tuesday, we had a rainstorm. This wasn't so unusual as although rainy season has passed and we are into hurricane season, we had rain, thunder and lightning almost every night which is uncommon for this time of year. This particular night was my non-shower night and both Annika and I were sitting in the livingroom, reading, feeling very hot and very sticky. So when we heard the rain, we both had the same idea. At first we thought, well ok, let's see if it lasts but shortly there after, the rain became a terrential downpour. We ran down the stairs laughing and headed out the door to enjoy the warmth and the cool water that instantly saturated our clothing. It was incredibly refreshing and the spot we found most pleasing was where all the rain that was collecting on the roof of the toddler house came pouring off the corner of the building and fell like a waterfall, drenching us thouroughly and completely. It was the perfect way to end the day.

On Wednesday, I did something that has always terrified me. Something that I've never felt competent and confident enough to do, but was given the opportunity and knew instantly, without question, that God was saying "It's time, just trust me." and I had no choice but to conceed. We had a Bible study every Wednesday evening that began and ended with a few songs of worship. Leading worship is something that I am very comfortable with; accompanying myself on the piano is something that I am not. Anyone who knows me well will appreciate the significance of this particular act of obedience.

On Wednesday and Thursday mornings, we were asked to help Melanie (one of the GLA staff) fetch and prepare all 100 or so kids from the mainhouse for their monthly update photos. This was very exhausting and time consuming but a certain opportunity on Thursday morning made it all worth it. I had grabbed a random name from the pile and went down to the NICU to retreive the child, but when I asked the nanny which child it was, I was momentarily confused when she pointed to a very small premature infant that lay sleeping in a crib, as premies under 8lbs are not to be removed from the NICU by any of the volunteers. So I pointed to the baby and raised my eyebrows as if to say "Are you sure?" and she reiterated leaving me to conclude that this must be the exception. So I gently lifted the smallest baby I will probably ever hold and carefully carried him to the play balcony. I wiped his face and changed his little diaper and kept him in my arms longer then was necessary because he was a little gift from heaven and I had every intention of savoring such a moment.

Thursday afternoon, there was a commotion in the mainhouse, and for good reason: one of the nannies had given birth to a little baby girl. What makes this significant, though, was the circumstances of the birth. The nanny was complaining of stomach pains and requested permission to leave the mainhouse early. This was of course granted, but what she failed to mention was that she was in labour and she also neglected to call herself a car choosing instead to head home on foot. As this was her 5th child and things progressed rather quickly, it wasn't more than 15 minutes up the steep and rocky road that she began to give birth. People nearby came to her aid and Susan, the head nurse at GLA, accompanied by one of the Haitian nurses as well as a volunteer who was a nurse, were notified and ran from the house to help her. The baby was born in a very small, somewhat enclosed, tin shelter on the side of the road in the presence of a group of locals who had gathered nearby. Unfortunately, I didn't ever see the baby; the closest I got was when Susan walked by us briskly upon returning to the mainhouse and hurriedly when up the stairs to the NICU with a blanketed bundle in her arms. Haiti is a crazy place.

On Sunday afternoon, Molly and Melissa returned from the grocery store and informed us that we would be having dinner together; a feast of bacon, eggs, hasbrowns and pancakes. Nearly everyone pitched in to help in the kitchen. I was on bacon duty and in the absence of an overhead light, made use of my headlamp to ensure a batch of perfectly cooked and crisp bacon...much to the amusement of everyone else in the room. It was wonderful to cook and eat together like a family and I am proud to say that my bacon was deamed by all as...perfect.

I was not looking forward to saying godbye on Wednesday. I spent the morning with each of my kids, taking about a half hour with each of them but leaving time for my final goodbyes. I kept it together until my final baby, Finder. Up until that point, my emotional defense mechanism had kept me feeling quite numb but I made the mistake of dropping my guard, letting myself feel, and had to leave the balcony to compose myself during my time with him. Then came the final goodbyes. I ended with the big nursery and took a moment to cuddle and kiss each of my babies and tell them that I love them. This was incredibly hard and broke my heart and it took sometime afterwards before I could speak to anyone without breaking down. I had a quick lunch, gave a hug and a kiss to all the Haitian kitchen staff and gave hugs to all the volunteers and staff members that I've come to love, before jumping in the SUV with James and heading to the airport. The Port-Au-Prince airport was very hot and very chaotic and I had to walk across the tarmac barely 30 feet from a taxiing airliner to get to my plane. This was very loud and slightly intimidating and the wind coming from the taxiing plane's engines caused me to hold on to my passport and plane ticket a little tighter then necessary, but I quite enjoyed it. My planes both departed and arrived at their scheduled times but the actual flights weren't exactly what I'd call pleasant. The first flight was frigid nearly to the point of shivering and the nasty Haitian head cold that I got from my babies and have been suffering from since Tuesday made the descent quite painful as my ears refused to equalize. My one ear was left completely plugged and I spent my time in the Panama City airport half deaf and in a bubble. My second flight, I was warm enough but the damage I'd done to my right eardrum caused it to ache painfully throughout the whole flight and the second descent was even worse. I was literally gripping the arm rests, face scrunched up, praying for reprieve until I thought to try the plugging your nose and pushing the air out method. This did work to keep my head from exploding but the descent was still painful and I remained half deaf until my ear finally cleared Thursday morning. Bonnie and Will (the son of the pastor of the church community that Bonnie knows) were there for my late arrival and I remember that night as being overwhelming as I was having trouble coming to terms with where I'd been and where I now was.

I hope to write about this more in the future, but for now...Cuba...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Babies

I know this is way overdue, but here they are. I fly to Cuba this Wednesday and my heart is already breaking...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Weekend Fun

What a wonderful weekend it was. Saturday morning, as always, began with a few moments to sweep, clean and tidy up our living area. The morning was quiet and relaxing and during that time, Molly gathered us together to invite us to join her, Joyce (see note) and 13 of the oldest kids from the toddler house on a hike to a well known waterfall. Obviously, we all jumped at the opportunity. So we made our way down to the mainhouse at about noon for lunch and about an hour or so later, gathered together in the driveway to head out. The kids all sat in a line waiting, very excitedly, as it was the first time to the waterfall for most of them; each with their own pair of florescent sunglasses. It was quite adorable.

The hike started along on mostly level rock roads, but soon we came upon a rather steep and skinny path that would lead us down to the dried up river bed, and ultimately across and up to the waterfall. As the paths were often littered with loose, jagged rocks and some of the kids were only 6 or 7, all of the adults had to space out along the trail and pass each child off one by one to avoid a domino effect of tumbling children. The paths eventually leveled out into a huge open valley of smoothed out large pale beige stones, instead of the flowing river it used to be and I believe still is at certain times of the year. Spread out across the riverbed were patches of colorful clothing and linens that had been washed in the small stream of water that still comes down from the mountain and laid out to dry in the scorching sun. As we neared the opening to what would have been one of the rivers largest feeders, the small stream of water started to become more established and it became very apparent that this was a very common area for the people in the community to come to wash and collect water for their homes. Even this was a sobering realization as the hike is not an easy one and it is done often to carry back water using various containers and large 5 gallon buckets that are then carried back atop the carriers head.

The rocky climb up the mountain to the waterfall was made all the more interesting by the congestion of people we encountered; small pods of naked women and children that had gathered along the edge of the stream to wash and cool off. The children would often stop their splashing around to watch us, but the women didn't pay us much heed unless we took the opportunity to greet them. But, because many of them were older, quite large and mostly nude, we were doing our best to look the other way, thus eliminating any chance of a conversation. Again, clothes and linens had been laid out to dry and we chose our route based mostly on where the path was most clear.

After about an hour we did reach the waterfall, which was rather unimpressive as far as waterfalls go, but it was pretty enough and a pool nearby gave the kids an ideal place to splash around. The kids were rowdy, but generally well-behaved (except when Joyce had to tell the girls a few times not to stare at the half naked young men who chose to bathe at the base of the waterfall) and we set off back down the mountain cooled and satisfied. The hike down was much quicker and easier but still involved spacing out and helping the kids down from large boulders and across wider areas of the stream. I wasn't much help there because as I was one of the few in proper footwear and didn't want to get my shoes wet, there were a couple situations where I needed more assistance then the kids did. The first time happened to be right in the middle of a small gathering of locals. I was standing there looking obviously perplexed, trying to decipher the best place to cross when a young boy came to my rescue. Seeing my dilemma, he went ahead and placed a couple small boulders across the stream and proceeded to grab my arm and lead me across. I reached the other side touched and amused and he relinquished my hand clearly happy and proud of what he'd done. In fact, his whole family seemed quite amused at the situation and with a smile and a "mesi" to the little boy, I carried on. The second time I came to a difficult crossing, Timothy, Molly's brother, happened to be standing nearby to help the kids across. There was an available rock in the middle to jump to but as it was a bit below where I was standing and I was worried about slipping, I requested his hand. This crossing was much less graceful and left us both laughing once both my feet were planted firmly on the other side. The rest of the way back was more of a meander as the kids were growing tired and thirsty and afforded some incredible views of the valley once we'd made our way back up the mountain. We arrived back at the mainhouse about 3 hours after we'd first left and just in time for dinner.

In the evening, back at the toddler house, we watched old episodes of Friends and generally lazed about until bed; not a bad way to end an amazing day.

Sunday morning was much the same before heading back to Joel and Yvonne's for church. We sang a few songs and Joel spoke about suffering. There were only about 17 of us this time but it was no less memorable. After lunch I spent some time with one of the volunteers named Laura, who I adore and have become quite close to. She's my go-to here, my best buddy, and we rarely stop laughing when we're together. She had been sick for about a week with a common parasite called Giardia and had been moved to the mainhouse on Saturday so Susan, the nurse, could put her on an IV to remedy her dehydration and keep an eye on her. At that time she had already spent a good deal of time alone in the room she was staying in and was quite miserable so I was happy to keep her company for the short time that I had before heading back to the toddler house. She has since moved back with us and is recovering and I'm very happy about that.

I spent a good few hours that afternoon on the balcony listening to Brooke Fraser from the two crappy little external speakers I bought for my iPod, writing and reading.

I knew I would have to get used to a slower pace of life here but I feel like I'm adjusting better then I thought I would. Where as at home, I'm often content only by doing two things at once, here, I can spend an hour on the balcony alternately writing and spending time just staring out over the houses at the mountains and watching the activity below. I'm learning to relax, to be quiet and listen...something I've always had trouble with. We'll just have to see what happens when I get home...

(note: Molly and Joyce run the toddler house and live with us there. They are about my age and have been working at GLA for 5 and 7 years. They are wonderful, a lot of fun and I love them)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

A Typical Day

I awake between 6:30 & 6:45am each morning to the sun shining in through my dorm room window, filtered by the partially turned plastic shutters, and the breeze coming through carrying the sounds of children playing and the sporadic crow of a rooster. I get dressed and make my way downstairs to prepare breakfast; usually toast or Cream-of-Wheat with apples. Mornings are usually slow and easy with time to read and/or sit out on the balcony while I eat my breakfast and listen to town wake up. It is never still here; never quiet. There are constant sounds of children shouting and playing, hammering, cars and motorcycles, honking horns, the shrill mating calls of an unusual bug that I have yet to see and the occasional "moo" from the neighbour's cow.

Sitting on the balcony has become one of my favorite things to do here, taking in the view and breathing in the cool air that besides the odd wafts from the septic system and the smell of burning trash piles, usually smells warm and sweet. When breakfast is done and dishes are cleaned, dipped in the bleach water and set to dry, I brush my teeth (water bottle in one hand, tooth brush in the other, as using the water would pretty much ensure another round of what is commonly referred to as "Haitian Happiness" or "Haitian Sensation") and in the absence of a mirror, watch the little bugs climb single file up and down the grout between the blue/grey bathroom wall tiles. Bugs are everywhere; little ones wandering along every surface and getting into everything, flies whizzing around freely and the occasional rather large cockroach skittering through the kitchen cupboards or along the counter or the kitchen floor. Though, I'm not terribly bothered by any of this, I do actually quite enjoy the gecko's that pop out randomly from beneath the furniture, along the walls or in the cupboards. I'm told we also have a mouse living behind the stove, but I have yet to see it.

Even using the bathroom has established some habits that I had not previously been accustomed to. As we go by the expression "If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down" to preserve water, I either have to walk away or flush with one hand on the plunger as lacking water pressure has led to it's use on a number of occasions. That is if the water is running because due to the generator not being on or broken or the water pump acting up, we are occasionally without running water which means flushing the toilet manually with a bucket of water.

Once we're all ready, at about 7:40, we gather our backpacks and make the 15/20 minute trek down to the mainhouse along steep roads with surfaces that range from fine gravel to sheer rock which gets quite slippery in the heat. I have yet to slip but a couple far from graceful "almosts" have led to the laughter and amusement of the locals that were lucky enough to be around to witness it. Although these roads have also made me rather aware of a certain muscle in my upper rear-end that I was not previously aware of, I very much enjoy this part of my day; especially the stray goats and chickens that meet us along the way. The locals are all very friendly and we always greet each one with a friendly "Bonjou" which is always reciprocated. We do make a point, though, of not being too friendly with the the young men in the neighbourhood as it's easy to give the wrong impression and even without any instigation, they often call out things in Creole that I should probably be glad I don't understand. My favorites are the old man who sits, unfailingly, each morning atop his rock pile, smashing each rock into fine gravel to be used to make bricks and the little kids that live in a shack near the mainhouse who often run out to greet us and walk along with us until we reach the gate. Once we've rung the bell, been let in by Abraham, the keeper of the keys, we head to the balcony, drop our bags and after a few moments to settle and grab a homemade cinnamon bun from the kitchen, we brave the nursery to grab our first child of the day. The big nursery is always a bit overwhelming and always smells very strongly of baby powder and the lingering stink of the latest blowout and my strategy is just to grab whichever of my kids finds me first. As the child's diaper is usually always full of something, it has become habit for all of us to check before lifting and, if needed, alert the nearest nanny that our child is "sal" (dirty) so they can be changed before being brought up to the balcony.

Mornings are cool and laidback and conversations are easy. Creole is spoken almost as much as English as we have all gotten very used to speaking to the kids in their native language. As Creole is very similar to French, my grade 8 French has proved somewhat useful and I've picked up even more then I expected to. There is also a small stereo and a selection of burnt mix CD's that ensure there is always a melody to enjoy and it helps to drown out the dull hum of the generator below the balcony.

At 12:00 we make our way down to the main living area and relax, mingle and check email until the meal bell is rung and we gather around the table for lunch. Anyone heard of Pavlov's Dog? I swear, every time I hear a bell now, I start salivating. Meals are always pleasant and homey and the mainhouse is constantly filled with the usually unpleasant sounds of screaming children, but it has just become apart of the building and does nothing to hinder the relaxed atmosphere below.

From 1:00-5:00, we return to the balcony for the second shift with our kids. We spend most of the time with our kids on the balcony, but we do occasionally spend some time downstairs or changing our kids out of their nursery clothes, adding some shoes and a hat and going for a walk in the neighbourhood. Typically, going outside means making our way a short distance down the road to a small "shop" consisting of a small hole cut into the wall of a house and filled in with bars. The same woman is always there, selling a variety of drinks and snacks and other typical corner store merchandise but all we ever get is a drink called Tampico (costing 15 Goudes), a Sunny D like fruit punch that I typically dilute I find it much too thick and sweet on it's own. A little before 5:00, we tidy up then grab our bags and head downstairs tired and filthy. I have gotten quite used to feeling sweaty and dirty as our army-style showers are only allowed every other day and not only are the kids dirty, any time of cuddling usually leaves both child and volunteer covered in a layer of sweat.

Downstairs, dinner is a little more formal and each person chips in to help set the table with napkins, cups with ice, utensils and a few old-fashioned glass bottles of Coke and Sprite. I don't often drink pop at home, especially Coke, but I admit that a cold glass of Coke at the end of the day has become a luxury that I look forward to each and every day. Once again, we rest and mingle until the bell at which time we come together in a circle, pray together, then sit down to eat. It feels much like a family and I love that.

When meals are finished, we are each responsible for scraping our own dishes and setting them on the counter for the kitchen staff. Most of the kitchen staff have come to know my name and it's a joy to meet their smiling faces each day with "Bonjou" or "Bonswa" (depending on the time of day) and have them repeat it back with my name tagged onto the end of it. One of the matriarchs, Marie-Josee, has come to enjoy bringing me in for a hug every so often and even though one of my biggest frustrations here is the language barrier with the Haitian staff, we usually manage to communicate just fine. I am learning as much and as best that I can. Last week, after a typical greeting, I felt the obligation to continue the conversation so after a moment of silence, I stupidly babbled out the question "How was your day?", to which they responded with silence and expressions that combined confusion with amusement. So I took another second to dig through my memory before trying again with a tentative "Ca va?". My second try immediately brought on smiles and the ease of understanding and they each responded with encouraging nods and the reciprocal "Ca va." that is commonly expressed as a polite answer to what I believe is equivalent to "How are you?".

After dinner, we hang back until about 7:00pm before making the bumpy drive up to the toddler house. This time is spent catching up with blogs and email before and after watching the sunset from the play balcony; usually with a baby in each of our arms. Back at the toddler house, evenings are slow and easy as the mornings and spent reading, hanging out or watching a movie in the livingroom together. I'm usually the last to go to bed and my last waking moments are spent alone in the livingroom reading a book before climbing into bed and falling asleep to the steady hum of the ceiling fan, the shrill of the crickets and the distand, but incessant barking of the neighbourhood dogs.

This is a typical day in Haiti.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Worth Noting...

This last week has afforded a few things worth writing about:

A couple nights ago on the drive back to the toddler house, Kristin and I were sitting in the back of the SUV facing behind us. Barely a minute after leaving the mainhouse, we began to notice a significant increase in the amount of people wandering the streets and as the murmurs of "Wow" and "What's going on?" grew more apparent, I turned around to see a wall of people only made more shocking by the headlights that illuminated them. They parted slowly and without much concern for us and we rolled ahead cautiously while a few members of the crowd took the opportunity to punch and hit the exterior of our vehicle. They were lively and excited and music played from the steady line of vehicles that rode the wave down the steep street that we ascended; music that blasted through the open windows of our vehicle. After the crowd cleared, Molly explained that what we'd driven through was a Voodoo March; a time where people gather to roam the streets blessing and cursing the houses, depending on who resided there. Creepy stuff.

The second interesting thing was that Thursday morning, me and 2 other volunteers joined Stephanie (one of the GLA staff) and James (the driver) to bring 5 kids to their psych assessments down in Port-Au-Prince; a requirement before the adopting process can begin. How did we get them down there in one vehicle, you ask? One in each of our laps and one (the oldest) sitting between us in the back seat. It took a little over an hour because of traffic down the steep roads into town. As I was sitting in the middle, I had no door to lean against and since my one arm held a 2 month old infant and the other was around a sleeping toddler who spent most of the hour with her head against me, drooling on my stomach, I was constantly being thrown from one way to the other. One of the most amazing parts of this trip is that none of the 5 kids made a single sound during that whole drive down. We arrived at the Dr.'s and spent the next hour and a half sitting in a small, hot, dimly lit office while Stephanie took in each child, one after the other, in to see the psychologist. We were all very happy to see sunlight and breath in the fresh air once the appointments were finished. Again, amazingly, the kids (2 months to 3 years) didn't make a single complaint for the whole of that time. The ride home was much quicker, but still plenty entertaining.

Lastly, on Thursday night, a bunch of us were sitting around in the lounge hanging out. In the middle of our conversation, a bat flew in through the open door and proceeded to do 6 or 7 laps around the room above our heads while a number of the girls screamed and ducked their heads before it flew back out the way it came; at which point, we all burst out laughing and continue to do so whenever the event is brought up...but you probably had to be there...:-)

A Little Reflection

What a trip this has been so far. I am thankful for everything, the good and the bad; probably more thankful then I've ever been. My first week was definitely rough, what with delayed flights, lost luggage and getting violently sick (did I mention I lost 5 pounds in two days...and I only weighed 80 lbs to begin with?), but it all has just made this last week even more incredible. I do not take my health for granted, that's for sure.

Luckily, I did feel up to the outing on Saturday and joined the group down in Petionville for the afternoon. We first parked on a side road and spent an hour or so wandering the main street where the vendors had set up their wares. There were tables of wood, stone and metal curios - statues, figurines and novelties like a wooden guy in a removable barrel with a certain appendage that springs out when the barrel is lifted - and the stone walls along the way were covered top to bottom with an overwhelming array of colourful Haitian artwork. Most of the paintings portrayed various aspects of village life and made use of colour in a way that no one would call subtle. It was a daunting task to choose from those paintings but I came away with 2 that I love and a bag full of treasures from a man who playfully referred to himself as Mr.Cheap and made amusing claims of that day being a day of "liquidation". "Right", I said, with a smirk and in the same playful tone that he'd established. Could I have gotten it cheaper? Probably. Do I care? Not really. It was hot in the city, more muggy then in the mountains, and the thickness of the air was only accentuated by the continuous wafts of car exhaust. You never cross the road without caution in Haiti, as cars and trucks whizz by frequently and without much care for pedestrians.
Once we were all satisfied with our purchases, we made a quick stop at a lovely souvenir shop before heading to El Rancho, a Texan inspired, high-end hotel in the city. Walking through the doors was a pretty shocking contrast. We each paid our $7 US and continued through the foyer out to where the pool and restaurant were located. It was paradise. We ordered lunch, suited up and spent the next few hours swimming, lounging and getting to know eachother. We left the hotel alive and refreshed and headed back up the mountain.
On the way home, we stopped at a small grocery store to pick up some personal food items. I don't think I'll ever get used to the armed guards that stand outside these sorts of stores with their semi-automatic shotguns and belts of ammunition. It's also strange to see familiar brands on the shelves and having to divide whatever's written on the price tag by 8 to work out the price in American dollars. At the checkout, I had to tell the cashier that I was paying in US and all she did was took the total amount that came up, divided it on a calculator before simple turning it around to show me. The change is then x's by 8 and given back in Haitian currency; very formal. We had parked behind the store and as we stood around waiting for the last couple people to finish their shopping, I became very aware of a young man that stood nearby. He was dressed in a simple, generic, button up gray collared shirt and wore khaki pants held up by a rag that had been inserted through the his belt loops and tied in a rough knot at the front. There was something simple about this man as he held his hands near his face and stared out into nothing and his swollen belly (something I'm more used to seeing on a child) peeked out through his shirt as only the top half of the buttons had been done up. He didn't beg, he just stared and we neglected to acknowledge him. The only time I did notice him paying us any heed was just as we were leaving, his eyes glued to a girl in the front seat as she raised a bottle of fruit juice to her lips. I arrived at the grocery store content and relaxed, I left with my heart broken. I suppose with everything that had gone on before that point, all the distractions and sensory overload, I'd failed to really take in the misery of this place; and this being one of the most affluent, wealthy parts of the country. Even those who are lucky enough to have "houses" often live like squatters, bare and minimalistic, in their filthy cement enclosures. I thought that my time in Africa might have prepared me for what I'd see here, but it didn't. A malnutritioned child in dirty clothes, in a village of tidy huts with thatch roofs, though unforgettable, just isn't quite as nauseating as a malnutritioned child in dirty clothes sitting amidst garbage and rubble on a hot, dusty curbside. Needless to say, on Saturday night, I was sad. I'd also started feeling nauseous again and the fear of another night as the one I'd experienced before left me sad, fearful and discouraged. A phone call home, of course, only made it worse, but an early night led to a bright and sunny Sunday morning and I thanked the Lord that I felt renewed in body and spirit.

Sunday morning was slow and lazy and after a couple hours of cat-like, placid behaviour, we piled into the vehicles (11 in an SUV that comfortably fits 8) and headed to the home of a local missionary couple for church. There were about 27 of us squeezed into their small living room and we were joined by about 5 Haitian people from the community. This was one church service that I will never forget. We opened with a few songs led by keyboard and guitar and then Joel, one of the missionaries, spent the next 30 minutes preaching on the faithfulness of God. The worship was powerful in such a small space, the message was touching and the spirit of God was thick in that room. Before we left, JB (a young Haitian man and friend of the missionaries) shared with us a song that was meaningful to him accompanied by himself on the guitar and vocally by another one of the Haitian men that had joined us. That song was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard and I left that home feeling emotional, but incredibly encouraged. The rest of the day was spent split between the mainhouse for lunch and the toddler house for the rest of the afternoon and evening where we played and laughed together; it was a time that I feel really solidified the bond I've come to appreciate with the girls here. It was an incredible weekend and now, having the last 5 days to really bond with my kids, I truly feel at home here.

It's such a blessing to know that this is where God wanted me; and I do know this, without a doubt and it's as evident and tangible as the collection of itchy bug bites that have become very familiar on my lower legs and ankles. Because of this, I feel like I'm more receptive then I have been in the past. I think the difference lies in the feeling that I'm taking things in as oppose to just acknowledging the lesson. My heart feels softer and more malleable and my spirit feels humbled and less prone to my typical pride and stubbornness. I feel at peace and safe in the faithful hands of my Father.

Monday, August 03, 2009

More pictures...

Relaxing on the balcony after dinner (I have a baby, you just can't see him)
Martha and Lori, two ladies I've come to adore.
The end of street near the orphanage on a wee afternoon stroll. She wouldn't let me put her down; thank goodness she's light.

Just an average day...

Part II - Arrival

We arrived at an old house and first passing beneath a balcony with half a dozen adorable, immensely excited, dirty little faces peering through the bars, entered through an open foyer with wood and wicker furniture lining the walls, into the main house. Directly after a quick offered and accepted chance to email home, I was taken on a tour of the house.

The first floor contains the living room, offices, dining area and kitchen which was bustling with activity in preparation for lunch. The second floor houses the 100 or so kids from infant up to about 3 years old (after that, they're transferred to the toddler house, where we live, where there are currently about 70 more kids). There are three rooms that house the kids, one crazier then the next. First, there's the NICU where the preemies and sick babies stay with a few Haitian nannies and a full time nurse (Susan, from Scotland). Our NICU is actually probably better equipped then any nearby hospital. Second is Urge B, housing more nannies and a bundle of not-yet, to just- crawling babies. And lastly, the incredibly overwhelming Urge A; home to another group of nannies and about 60 needy, adorable, insatiable children who latch onto your legs in swarms. Although, it's not necessarily in the sad, pathetic, heart breaking way I would have expected. It is heart breaking in its own right but they contain this incredible joy and look at you as though they intend to love you as much as they hope that you'll love them. Either that, or they're just doing whatever they can to charm you into choosing them to take out to the balcony for some reprieve. Escaping that room consists of tiptoeing out the door as though each little finger and toe were a potential landmine. Although, these kids are so tough, it probably wouldn't even phase them. Finally, the third floor houses a few living areas and the access to the play balcony where we spend most of our time with our kids. This balcony also affords one of the most spectacular views I will ever see. Rolling hills and valleys as far as the eye can see. In a word, majestic.

No soon after the tour ended, I was given my list of 8 children (1 per hour, once a day for the duration of my stay, minus weekends); "Stacy's Little Angels", as the paper calls them. As it was just rolling up to 11:00am, I was given the chance to grab one child for the hour before lunch. So, by random choosing, I went searching for little Mike who after being pointed out to me in Urge A, entered my arms eagerly and held on like I was nothing further from a stranger. I took him up to the balcony to join the other volunteers, sat down on one of the wicker couches and held him against me; his arms held tight around my torso and my arms cradling his head and back with equal affection and rocked him gently willing myself not to cry in front of a group of strangers who had just barely learned my name. It was a blessed moment.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Just a few pictures...

The view from the play balcony (see last picture). It was a cloudy day, but the view is incredible.
The toddler house, across from our house.

From our balcony...



The play balcony where we spend most of the time with our kids.