Thursday, January 13, 2011

Haiti - For the Health of It

Mirebalais, HAITI - West Bend octogenarian Heidi Thomas is in the midst of her 72nd tour of Haiti.

Thomas, and a contingent of eight, will be teaching 4-H skills to groups in several cities with a focus on sanitation and hygiene. Haiti is currently dealing with a devastating cholera epidemic that's killed thousands.

The overall Hatian experience is overwhelming as is the country itself. "You can't understand the culture if you don't experience it," said Thomas.

Stories below are a collection of observations and highlights.

- It took a full day of travel, 20 hours, to get to our destination of Haiti, located south of Florida. Departing from Chicago and landing in Port Au Prince we find the terminal closed, still heavily damaged from an earthquake that occurred a year ago to the day. We clear customs in a makeshift pole building and later learn only five-percent of the quake damage has been repaired across the country in the last year.

- "Complete devastation and rubble" accurately describe this third world country. Karen Neumann of Kewaskum is on her third tour; she said Haiti is "friendship."

"You see the rubble the first time - the junky cars and the poor roads - now I see so much improvement and look forward to the people I've met before," she said.

- We're staying at the rectory of the Episcopal church in Mirebalais located about 35-miles northeast of Port Au Prince. Five of the eight in the group are sleeping on mattresses out on the upstairs porch. A pair of white sheets and a pillow are all the covering needed since temperatures hover in the 70s overnight.

The first evening's sleep is marked by a memorable dog-barking contest that started when the rooster crowed at midnight. It feels like a night spent in the small animal barn at the Washington County Fair. We're all hoping Kewaskum veterinarian Greg Ogi, a member of the tour group, can work his dog-whispering powers the rest of the week.

- The youngest member of the tour is 22-year-old Jocelyn Ritger, a 2007 graduate of West Bend West High School. Ritger, her hair pulled back in a French braid, took pictures out of the airplane window; she highly anticipated this trip. Within an hour after landing, Ritger is overwhelmed. "It definitely blows you away,' she said. "Nobody could have ever thought it would be like this."

On the second day, the group of nine crammed into a Toyota Land Cruiser; it's a tight squeeze and we get creative to make work.

Ritger is 5'11 - the tallest and skinniest; she sits backward in the middle of the front seat with the driver on her right and Thomas on her left. At one point Ritger is reprimanded by the Haitian driver for multi-tasking - unbeknownst to her she shifted gears while trying to adjust to a more comfortable position.

- It's hard not to take photos at every turn:

  • Hatians riding donkeys piled high with long sticks of sugar cane
  • women carrying a basket of laundry or barrels of water on their head
  • skinny horses loaded down with bags of fruit from the market
  • a cow dead in the road
  • three people riding a motorcycle with one carrying a baby

- We can only assume there're no driver's ed class in Haiti - think Mario Kart channeling Evel Knievel. A gravel road for one-way traffic is a green light for three vehicles wide in Haiti, with small motorcycles passing on either side, in both directions.

- Men don't like their pictures taken - they believe it steals their souls.

- Children like to have their photo taken and some have surprisingly good English. "Give me a dollar," said Patricia after I snapped her picture outside church.

- There's optimism in Haiti; we visit a man named Eddie Charles who graduated high school in Boston and then returned to Haiti where he developed a sizable drug problem in Port Au Prince. Now, cleaning up his act, Charles invites us into a 10' x 10' square foot shack with the words American Dream written in white chalk above the door. Inside there is a collection of deflated soccer balls, a series of Hot Wheel cars, a plastic toy tiger, a stuffed purple elephant, a keychain with a zebra fob, a small American flag and a framed picture of President Obama. Charles said he hopes to turn his collection into a sports museum.

- Ray Lipman would be proud - We visit about 80 children at a local 4-H meeting. Two of the kids are wearing Homer's Club West Bend Savings shirts.

- The roads in Haiti are terrible - envision goat path... and I'm being nice. Rubble and garbage line both sides of primary and secondary roads, there are few street signs and our driver often stops and asks people along the road if we're headed in the right direction. There are no sidewalks, so motorists are quick on the horn as pedestrians walk two or three abreast - sometime with cows in tow, sometimes riding atop a donkey.

- Rotary International, including West Bend's Rotary, has helped fund 44 operating wells within a 150-mile radius of Port Au Prince.

- Electricity is turned off at our Episcopalian church/motel during the day as a way to conserve. Returning home from a nine-hour day the power is completly out in the entire neighborhood; there's a road project going on and there's no clue when power will be restored.

- A library at a hospital in the city of Cange is seldom open due to concerns about possible theft.

- We visit an orphanage about 25 minutes away; Shae Hellmann of Atlanta, Georgia permanently moved to the facility seven months ago. "I've been all around the world and I know this is where I want to be," said the 20-something. Hellmann is dressed in an orange bandana, she has stylish rectangular glasses and is carrying a very small baby. There are 33 children at the orphanage; 14 were sick with cholera and three went to the hospital. The children cannot sleep in the building on site, it's still deemed unsafe after last year's earthquake.

- We had our first flat tire and I helped our driver Peter with the change. It's sunny and there's a dense, furnace heat. Once finished, Peter said we should open a repair garage together.

- A photographer traveling with the Thomas tour often waves at Haitian children in an effort to spark some action. The stone-faced children seem to have a look of "that crazy white woman." Later that evening I learn the gesture is an insult and I'm told to stop. "What about miming the make-a-muscle-gesture?" Thomas said that's a swearing motion and I should cut that out, too.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Different views from None Tree Hill in Auckland

Gas in New Zealand is sold in liters and is currently at $1.97/L. Found a fifth grader to help me with the conversion math. Taking into account the gallons/liters and the exchange rate between US dollar and Kiwi dollar, the New Zealanders
are paying the equivalent of $8 a gallon.

One Tree Hill in Auckland.... now called None Tree Hill since some local got a bug up his butt and cut down the one tree because he felt offended.

Me and my bags. Missing for 23 days and I get them two days before I leave for home. Timely!
Huge lot of flowers outside Auckland

Ruth, in her backyard with her birds..

Coming out of Huntly and hit the bridge to take me back to Motorway 1.
My friend John - I had trouble understanding him... at least we could talk bike.

Me (left) and Queen Candyland

December 31, 2010: TUAKAU, New Zealand - NY EVE

Ruth in the backyard showing me the bird collection

Tuakau, New Zealand - Dec 31, 2010 - I've had a streak of good luck lately as New Zealander's have stepped up and adopted me for the night.

In Hamilton, Sue was bringing me coffee at the Garden Cafe in the Town Centre and we started chatting about the tour. Moments later her husband brought me a beautiful breakfast of scrambled eggs with chives, a side of buttered wheat toast and a couple wedges of tomato and avocado sprinkled with alfalfa sprouts. "You can stay at our home tonight," he said, setting the plate down in front of me.

In Huntly, while searching for a church I stopped a woman on the street; Shirley wracked her brain for the name of a local pastor and then invited me to her home so we could look up the number.

"If you're from Wisconsin, do you know of a city called Racine? I have a pen friend there, her name is Carol," she said. Shirley found her "pen friend" in a magazine and they had been corresponding for 40 years. Shirley turned me on to minister Dorreen and her husband John, and they took me in for the evening. John was a largely unrecognized authority on everything... too bad I had such a difficult time understanding him. Think Mush-mouth from Fat Albert and the Cosby kids and then throw in a New Zealand accent - and I'm being nice. I really concentrated hard when John spoke. I only caught myself daydreaming twice - once was about when Sizzler restaurants were popular and the other was when the Banana Splits were on TV.

John talked about his trip to Montana and his upcoming bicycle tour. He had a powerful memory, although highly inaccurate, according to his wife. John was so hospitable he even went so far as to grab his purple mountain bike and helmet and guide me out of town.

In Turakau I met Ruth outside the public library. We both complained a lot about the library being closed the next four days, then Ruth said I could stay the night at her place. Ruth's home was like an aviary; birds were in cages the size of a shed. Inside the garage there were several cages of Bourkes, canaries and an Indian Ringneck named Sweetie Pie. "I have geriatric chickens," said Ruth about the motley crew of aging birds. "I get a random egg here and there, but mostly they're living the Sabbath of their life in my backyard and loving it." Aside from the chickens there was an off-white budgie, a yellow Cockatiel and an Eastern Rosella, which looked like a bright red parrot.

There were fantail pigeons which opened the day with a morning-dove coo; and a pen full of white doves. "I let four of them go during my husband's funeral," said Ruth. "Three of them returned home the next day and the fourth didn't come back until my husband's ashes were turned over to me; that was four days after the service. "It was weird," said Ruth lowering her voice like she didn't want the gods to hear.


- Went to donate blood in New Zealand just to see how their system works. I never passed the iron test. It's nice to see both the US and Kiwi set-ups are broken. Also interesting, the New Zealand nurses didn't wear any gloves.

- Some trendy lingo in New Zealand includes: brilliant and lovely instead of nice, keen, heaps, cool (pronounced kuhl), the letter 'Z' is pronounced 'zed' , lollies are chocolates and a bicycle is referred to as a push bike.

- The other night while staying in at St. Andrew's Quality Inn and Suites I ate pineapple out of a can - mostly due to non-accompanied travel and impatience.

- Stopped at Candy Land on my way north out of Hamilton. The store was rather Hasbro but the staff was very Willy Wonka; they were all dressed in pink bib overalls. It was like putting a big farm girl in an Oompa Loompa. Queen Candyland: a bit scary with a full-on crown, pink painted cheeks and a decorative purple cape for picture taking. She was like something you'd see when you were high on mushrooms; at least that's what my friends said.

- Kiwis are quick to offer tea or coffee. Rare is "pressed coffee" offered; more often than not it's instant. The water is normally inferno hot.

- When you take a bus in New Zealand there's often a "comfort stop" because there's no bathroom on the bus. After three hours when everybody piles out I notice the attire is nothing but crop tops and low rise jeans. It is the holiday here in New Zealand but visually it's like a landscape of Joe the Plumber.

- Bicycled to the Waitakaruru Arboretum; it's New Zealand's largest outdoor sculpture gallery located on 42 acres in an old quarry. In 1991 John and Dorothy Wakeling started planting about 400 trees each year in an attempt to enhance the existing landscape. Dorothy, by the way, went to Beloit College in the 1970s.

- It's day 21 for Baby Jessica, the nickname I've given my lost luggage, and at the last public library/Internet stop I received word from Virgin Blue Airline that my luggage has arrived in Auckland. Although joyous, I'm highly skeptical. I will be in Auckland shortly and depart quickly after that. I told the airline to have a competent person sit on my luggage until I arrived to claim it in person. A friend of mine said my approach was as gentle as a punch in the face.

- Downtown Pukekohe and Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" is playing on the public speakers followed by R.E.M.'s "Night Swimming." There's a kiosk at the end of King Street with a bit of history detailed in black-and-white photos. Pukekohe's first motor car arrived in 1911 and belonged to Mr. Berridge. The vehicle used to scare all the horses in the county, as well as children. The Council was called upon to do something, so they passed a resolution that the car be restricted to speeds of 10 m.p.h. A member of the Council sprung to his feet and said the restriction was ridiculous as a donkey could travel faster. The mileage was fixed at 15 m.p.h. The car could be heard from a mile away, which gave pedestrians a chance to take cover and those already mounted on horseback to get into the side streets. "I can tell you the ride through town created quite a hubbub," said Mr. James Pollock, 86, whose memoirs were tape recorded in 1962.