What do you do when you’re in an earthquake-ravaged country and plans are cancelled due to a citywide fuel shortage? Rent a truck and go in search of papayas…
(When life gives you lemons, there’s usually a way to make lemonade…)
On January 12, 2010 the island country of Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake. I had a ticket to fly into Port au Prince two weeks later, hoping to join in the 25th anniversary celebration for the St. Joseph’s Family, an amazing organization helping Haiti’s street children. Unfortunately, their building collapsed in the earthquake and the celebration was postponed. All commercial flights were also postponed for nearly 3 months.
Finally, in mid-April, I returned to a country I had become very attached to during my previous visit. I had seen the devastation on TV and was glued to CNN in the days following the disaster, but the reality of the situation was much more grim. On final approach into Port au Prince, blue tarps and tent camps were visible for miles and miles. The tarmac was still packed with relief supplies that hadn’t yet made it to the people in need. Reality really bites.
I passed through immigration after answering the trick question on the customs form: Address while in Haiti? “The blue tent next to the crumbled building?” Soon, the smiling face of Michael Geilenfed greeted me from within the chaos surrounding airport arrivals. The founder of The St. Joseph’s Family, Michael had spent 25 years creating St. Joseph’s Home and Guest House, a beautiful 7-story masterpiece, and watched as it crumbled in the devastating earthquake.
The building was devastated but, fortunately, the kids were alright and relocated to the house just across the small courtyard. We spent the next few days cleaning the remains of earthquake dust and rubble, trying to make the new house into a temporary home for the kids and for the many volunteers expected in the following weeks and months. It was very primitive, but a huge improvement over the tent cities and even had occasional electricity and limited water which we used for our “bucket showers.”
A few days later, a trio of volunteers arrived – three characters from Minnesota. Joe and John each had a 25-year history with Haiti and had friends scattered throughout Port au Prince. They’d come to check on them. With no contact since the earthquake, they were unsure what they’d find. The third member of this trio, Chad, was on his first eye-opening Haitian experience.
The following day, my plan to meet a Haitian friend was aborted when the entire city of Port au Prince ran out of gas. My friend was stuck and the city was at a standstill, except for the tap-taps and trucks running on diesel fuel.
So we decided to make some lemonade. The Minnesotans rented a truck and took a road trip…
John had connections in a very remote Haitian village and had been involved in a community agricultural project for about 10 years. So we jumped into the back of the truck and got out of town, on a mission to check on the progress of this decade-long project, praying for a little bit of hope amidst all the earthquake devastation.
As we left the chaos of the city, the small, remote villages began to resemble a National Geographic magazine, places where few foreigners explored. Our truck waded through a river and navigated mud-clogged roads, dodging cows and goats while we waved at half-naked children playing outside their mud-hut homes. It was an amazing adventure!
Finally…we arrive at the “agriculture project”, something John and his friends have been working on for 10 long years. Hopeful that we’ll find something positive, something to give the villagers hope, and this is what we find…
… a half dozen papayas and a few withered stalks of corn. On a positive note, they were perfect papayas!
After crop inspection was complete, we made the long trek from the papaya field back to our Port au Prince urban campground where we spent the last evening touring the back alleys and hidden passageways of the city searching for Joe’s friends.
We found them in their tiny one-room house, one small room for an entire family and, thankfully, it was still standing. They were some of the luckier ones who were not forced to move into a tent city. It’s small, it’s home and they’re alive, and despite the lemons Mother Nature had handed them, they were busy trying to get back to “normal” – making some Haitian lemonade.
On that last night in Port au Prince, another Minnesotan, Kevin, joined our gang. We met up with him on a dark side street near a large tent camp in the city. While the others scoured dark and possibly dangerous tent camps searching for more missing friends, I jumped on the back of Kevin’s motorcycle and we spent a few hours at a local bar frequented by expats and aid workers, like Kevin. His humanitarian mission: he had shipped a water truck to the island for his grassroots clean water project.
It would’ve been impossible for the Haitians to make their lemonade without it.