Haiti, December 2011

I wake up in the dark, something inside me knowing it’s 5:30 a.m. already. I want to roll over on my air mattress on the bottom bunk of “2nd Street” -aka the 2nd row of bunks–and try to sleep a bit longer, but I know I shouldn’t. I pop out my earplugs and listen for a moment to the usual early morning cacophony in the distance; packs of dogs barking, goats bleating, roosters crowing, hip-hop/Caribbean music, once in a while the drums of an all-night Vodou ceremony. This morning I hear a big group of men cheering enthusiastically, and I wonder how early they had to get up to watch the European soccer matches today.

I tiptoe out of the bunks with my yoga mat and bug spray to the cool slab of concrete where I start my days. Someone has already brewed coffee and heated water for tea, so I pour a cup of green tea and start my stretches. I’ve coated myself with a mist of 40% DEET, which keeps the little vampires somewhat at bay for a few minutes. That’s one thing I swear has changed since I was last here nine months ago. A coating of DEET used to be ample protection for a few hours. Now the mosquitoes seem to consider it gravy. But I wear it anyway, because even a partial deterrent is worthwhile. The mosquitoes that bite in the dawn and dusk carry malaria, the ones and midday bring dengue fever, and any of them could carry a host of other fun ailments.

I make it through a few minutes of yoga before heading back to the bathroom. I’ve got the runs. TMI, I know. But no description of life here would be complete without factoring in the stomach bugs. I’m lucky enough to have one of those digestive systems that can handle almost anything, and I usually travel the world without issues. But even my intestines are no match for Haiti. It’s going to be a rough day. Fatigue is already setting in, and I wonder how I’m going to stay hydrated pouring concrete in the tropical sun. But if everybody with diarrhea took the day off, this place would grind to a halt. I finish my yoga just in time to eat my daily oats and get my things together for the 7:30 a.m. start of the workday.

I’m on the BSF team today. That’s biosand filters, and it’s one of the All Hands projects that most excites me. Built of nothing more than a concrete box, gravel, sand, and a tube, biosand filters remove 95% to 99% of pathogens from drinking water, making it safe to drink . With proper setup and use, a natural biological layer forms on the sand which eats most of the pathogens that pass through. Three feet of sand and darkness filter out the rest. With a rate of one of every eight Haitian children dying of water-borne disease before the age of five, we can safely say that we are saving someone’s daughter or grandson or little sister every day we build BSFs.

Today my team is not actually building filters, though; we are building a settling tank to reuse the waste water from the washing of the sand for BSFs. River sand must be washed many times before it is suitable for use, and until now all that water has been wasted. But now a shallow, angled pool will catch heavier sediment, and a larger pool will allow finer particles to settle to the bottom. Then the clear water at the top can be used again and again. We spent several days digging holes and constructing forms for the structures, and today we pour concrete.

After building twenty schools in the Leogane area, All Hands has fine-tuned the process of pouring foundations to the point of beautiful efficiency. Sixteen volunteers work together, two shoveling gravel into buckets, two shoveling sand, a few moving buckets into place, two filling water, one pouring it all into the mixer then tossing buckets back to the “catcher,” others retrieving the mixed concrete into wheelbarrows and bringing it to the ones who smooth it into place. Everyone plays their part (I am a gravel shoveler, and later a water carrier), and the work becomes a dance in which everybody moves in time, finishing the floors of the pools faster than I could have imagined.

I finish the workday exhausted and dehydrated but happy, and drag myself to my shower, which is a bucket of refreshingly cool water and a ladle. I’m late to dinner, as usual, and all the plates and forks are gone, as usual. I wash a plate and pile it with the daily rice-with-a-few-beans-thrown-in, iceberg lettuce, two slices of tomato, MSG red sauce. The meat eaters have goat in their sauce today. I find a spot at a table next to my coworkers and eat, unenthusiastic about the food but appreciative of the good company.

I’m on time for the 5:30 meeting. Team leaders give reports of their workdays, new people introduce themselves, announcements are made, and the next day’s work is planned. We finish with goodbyes. There are a lot of goodbye speeches today. One by one, I watch people get up, several with tears in their eyes, and talk about how much this experience has meant to them, and how much they love and will miss everyone. Many plan to come back for the next project, whatever that may be. I think back to my own goodbye speech eight months ago, and how I couldn’t do it without crying either. The love that grows for this place, this work, and these people is hard to describe.

Today there are too many goodbye speeches though. Eight people are leaving, and that will continue almost daily for the next week. I leave the meeting feeling lonely. I’ve barely started making friends, and now some are already going. I’ll make more, I know, and I do have a couple friends here from last time, but there won’t be the time to form the types of friendships I did last time. The official ending date of the international volunteer program is December 23, and only a few of us will be staying beyond that. Project Leogane will continue its BSF and Livelihoods programs next year, but primarily with Haitian staff and volunteers. We have to be moved out of our base by December 23, and only a few more than a dozen of us will move into the new staff house, with the number shrinking over the holidays until the Project officially reopens in mid-January.

Usually this is my favorite time of the day. The meeting is over, the night air is the perfect temperature, and I can rest a bit before going out for a Prestige with my friends. But I won’t drink a beer until my digestion is back to normal, and no one will come by my bunk to see if I’m going out, like they did in the spring. Still, I put some gourdes (pronounced “gudes,” the Haitian currency) in my bag along with water and bug spray, and head over to Joe’s bar next door to sit with folks. It’s not like last time, but still, this place is filled with amazing people, each one with a story, and a heart filled with dedication and compassion, and I want to appreciate whatever time I have with them.

More to come…

Much love and happy holidays,