A Reunion in Haiti – vol. 2

Standard

During the week, it was Alexa’s birthday.  She runs the childrens’ home and we all ran to a beautiful farm to celebrate the day.  The farm was organic and used ingenious methods to grow crops and other plants cheaply and efficiently.  It was so much cooler on the top of the mountain where the grasses grew green and winds whispered among the shouldering peaks.  The city of Port-au-Prince below was hot and dusty, a solid layer of beige hovering over it.  Flowers of varying colors scattered the farm as we toured the land.

It was a beautiful day that ended with a humble rooftop party filled with tasty homemade treats and dinner and lots of great people.  White lines of light swung on string around us in the wind as the sun set.  Through laughs and smiles we all enjoyed another successful day in Haiti.

We spent Thursday back at the childrens’ home doing some crafts with the kids and finishing the second coat of paint.  The room looked refreshed and we all spent time with the kids to round out the afternoon.  The following day was spent overseeing a classroom with some young kids taught by one of the people who had worked in the childrens’ home.  It was nice to see that lesson, but it was also an insight into the difficulties some of these kids, even the lucky ones who can go to school, must endure.

It was now Saturday.  The last full day in Haiti and also the last full day of my trip.  I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the people that I was just a number of hours away from seeing.  This day was spent on a trip to the beach with the entire group of kids.  It’s infrequent for the kids to get out of the house for safety reasons and so days like this are precious.  They ran straight for the water and had smiles as big as watermelons striped across their faces.

Jumping into the water myself, I found 2, 3, and sometimes even 5 kids all hanging on my arms and shoulders as I waded around in circles through the clear water.  For several hours, we just played in the water and stopped for lunch and played some more.  It was a beautiful sunny day and I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day to spend with those incredible kids and for my last day of a miraculous trip.

Emotions swirled around me.  Incredible memories filled my mind as I asked my dearest Sarah some more questions and spent as much time at the beach as possible.  It was a difficult goodbye but of course an inevitable one.  Sarah and the rest of the kids waved as their bus road off into the dust.  We all returned to our rooms and packed our bags, happy, exhausted, ready for home.

After a week spent with beautiful people in a uniquely beautiful place, we shipped ourselves to the airport.  Minutes were splashing past me and I was doing my best just to enjoy the final hours.  Finally, we boarded and rose up into the clouds.  I was on my way home.

A Reunion in Haiti – vol. 1

Standard

140 days past.  Countless memories.  Countless people.  Countless blessings.  It’s pretty incredible up to this point that I haven’t lost anything…or worse.  My mind is everywhere.  Riding a taxi to the airport after a nice final morning walking the streets of Santiago with a friend brought so many thoughts to the fold.  My final hours in this new world, now a very familiar world, were waning down and I was trying to suck up each moment, each sight, each person I met with the absorbency of a thick dry sponge.

Funny enough, that’s how I felt before long in the dusty hot weather of Haiti as I touched down in the airport of Port-au-Prince.  I was the first member of the team to arrive and so me and Alexa, the Haiti Connections Director of the Wings of Refuge childrens’ home.  We went to a brand new cafe that has become a central meeting place for volunteers since I last visited this poverty stricken country.

After running a few errands, we returned to the airport to pick up the rest of the team.  I knew our team leader through some limited meetings, but everyone else was new!  Nothing new for me as I’d been in a similar situation the last 4 1/2 months, but there were plenty of differences in this final week of the trip.

This place, as opposed to all the others I had seen on my trip, was home.   When I returned to the childrens home I felt a coziness that I hadn’t felt since I first embarked to Peru to kick off this adventure.  Walking into the home, a few things had changed but the feeling was the same.  I saw the kids and there were mumblings.  I had doubts.  I wondered if any of them would remember my name or who I was.  How could I doubt.

As we went around the room and all introduced ourselves, I readied myself for my turn to speak.  But as I was about to say my name, I heard it around the room followed by whispers and giggles.  They remembered!  As we all socialized with the kids, I ended up running and playing tag with some of the younger boys before talking with Sarah and nabbing a picture with this young sweetheart.

For those who don’t know, this was the girl who stole my heart by giving me a birthday card on my 22nd birthday during my first trip to Haiti.  It was the precursor to my return for a second trip and the inspiration for this 3rd trip after a 4 year hiatus.  Being surrounded by all the kids on the first day was a dream come true.

Over the course of the next few days, we settled into our new home for the week and also helped a friend living there to move into his own apartment!  It was a big moment for him and we were all so thrilled to be a part of it.  We painted a large room in the childrens’ home and spent more time with the kids.  Running around you in circles laughing and screaming, they make you forget about everyone and everything else.

As we drove around the city those first few days, I noticed less rubble.  Less garbage.  A few more paved roads.  Just a few.  For a country that has been among the most impoverished in the world for many years, progress comes slow.  But progress seemingly does still come, especially with organizations working together to bring benefit to the people.

We met many of these organizations as one of the biggest pushes the childrens’ home has made since I last visited is to partner with other charities to bring greater awareness to various causes.  We visited jewelers who would make beads out of cereal boxes, old glass bottles, and clay.  Ingenious reuse of otherwise indiscernible trash.  We even got to make our own bracelet with a hammer, brass fastener, and some leather.  Far flung from my days of calculating numbers on spreadsheets.

It was a memorable start to an endlessly thought filled ending of the grand adventure that began a short 5 months earlier.  Only a few days remain, but in my mind, it feels like an eternity until I can finally return home!  More on those days in the final post of the trip!

Also, check out this post I wrote for the Wings of Refuge website and some more insights into my trip back to this wonderful world!

Wild Galapagos part two

Standard

Beyond the vastly different lifestyle the Galapagos afforded me, I also saw so much great wildlife and incredible views. On weekends, all of the volunteers would share a taxi to the main city on the island, Puerto Baquerizo. You don’t need to go far to see plenty of moaning and groaning sea lions. It’s quite an orchestra really. They’re everywhere and they can take over beaches and boardwalks. Less frequent but still not difficult to spot are marine iguanas. These ones were really amazing to see for me because I had an iguana named Greeny when I was a kid!  Before you make fun of my lack of creativity in pet names, just recall that I’m an accountant. Though these guys are trying to change that perception.

Anyway, back to the wildlife. There is a small rocky bluff of an island just off the western coast of the island where I was staying. The name of this bluff is Kicker Rock, though it’s known as Leon Dormido (sleeping lion, which it resembles) to locals. But that’s not the special part of this rock. It’s the marine life just below and around it. I did a snorkeling trip there and swam 30 feet above hammer head and Galapagos sharks!  Also, there were sea turtles, more sea lions, marine iguanas, and many fish. But I think the best part of that excursion was the part we didn’t pay for. As we were beginning to leave the rock, a HUGE pod of dolphins started swimming past us. We followed them and they ended up jumping out of the water all around us. It was an amazing experience to be among those incredibly smart and gorgeous animals.

As my trip began to come to a close, I said goodbye to my fellow volunteers whom I’d been living so closely with for so long. To finish things up, I decided to take an overnight trip to the next island, Santa Cruz. But here’s the twist. My largest bag holding most of my clothes and a few other things was left in the first island right on the pier. I realized as I arrived in Santa Cruz that my bag wasn’t there and put it together. I began to freak out in my mind a bit, but then I thought about it. I had my passport, laptop, phone, and all other valuables. I would be seeing my girlfriend, Nessie, in just a few days and I could ask her to get me additional clothes for me before she left. The biggest issue would be getting a new bag, which would merely set my budget back a bit. Not life altering. So I made a decision. I was going to forget about this for 24 hours until I returned to the island and enjoy Santa Cruz as much as possible. So I did just that.

I saw the Charles Darwin research station where lots of exhibits of current projects were on display. The islands are working very hard to become totally self sustaining, not an easy task. I also saw lava tunnels, giant tortoises (a few of which were trying to show off baby-making skills), and a beautiful beach know as one of the nicest in all of Ecuador. It was a great time. Thankfully, when I returned to San Cristobal there was a police officer waiting for me. No no, not because I was caught breaking any laws. They had found my bag and searched it for security reasons and found out I was returning on the boat that morning, so they brought me to the station and gave me a bag. But not before taking a picture to memorialize the moment they got to interact with a real life gringo!

And so I made my way back to mainland Ecuador in Quito for a quick one night reunion with the wonderful family that housed me on my way into the islands. Ecuador was a beautiful place with kind people and incredible wildlife. I didn’t get to see very much of the mainland but I cannot complain about any of the experiences I had there. I could only bask in them and look forward to more great times in Colombia!  Stay tuned for the next post on what I consider my favorite stop on the trip!

Wild Galapagos

Standard

For a continent that enjoys moving at a leisurely pace, things sure have been moving quickly!  It’s been over 2 months since I ventured out of my north New Jerseyan hole and into the vastness of South America.  It’s been a great ride, but that’s expected when you stop working and don’t stop visiting new places and meeting new people for any length of time.  Unfortunately, the result of this is that I’ve been enjoying everything so much that I haven’t been posting very much about it!  So I’m catching up here with Ecuador and all of the amazing animals and people that I’ve met.

Ecuador started with some pangs of homesickness.  I had just recently surpassed my longest trek away from home of 2 weeks and was leaving the people that I had met in Peru for this new country.  But I had lots to look forward to!  And I would soon figure that out.  I arrived in Quito, the capital on a Sunday afternoon and was picked up by the kind women running the homestay for volunteers in the Galapagos.  I was given lunch and immediately invited to go out with their family as they were taking their grandmother to some shops.  It seemed like a normal enough thing to do with people I just met, so I tagged along.  I got a nice taste of the holidays that I was missing with some Christmas trees and plenty of holiday shoppers.

I couldn’t have asked for kinder hosts in my very short stay in Quito.  The next morning, in my comfort of their beds, I nearly overslept my flight!  I arrived at the airport not more than 1 1/2 hours before my flight would take off but thankfully it was a light day in the capital’s airport and I made it very easily.  Before I knew it, I was touching down in the Galapagos Islands.  This archipelago was previously named the Enchanted Isles and I find that name very fitting.  There is a surprising history behind these islands, including authoritarian communities that have repeatedly come and gone, pirates, and of course an inspiration to the magnificent Charles Darwin.  These all go without yet mentioning the incredible wildlife that calls these islands home, many of which are found nowhere else on earth.  But enough with the history lesson.

I arrived at the airport and was picked up by a kind islander man who drove me to the nature reserve where I would be volunteering for the next 3 weeks.  I was both excited as well as nervous.  I would be living, working, and spending free time with these people and had no idea who they were.  I had plenty of thoughts running through my head as the trees and people and sights raced past the window of the pickup truck that carried me.  Thankfully, I had no reason to be worried and the kindness of these people was quickly evident.  I wasted no time getting to work as I started pulling together old barbed wire to recycle and reuse later within the first hour of being there.

Life in this nature reserve included basic beds with mosquito nets (but private rooms!), simple bathrooms, and lots and lots of tuna.  Food was all included as part of the deal and many meals included tuna with pasta or rice and other delicious food.  Those meals were everything for me.  Working outdoors from 8-12 in the morning then 2-5 in the afternoon meant that food wasn’t just something to do 3 times a day, it was sustenance to make it through each leg of the day.  It might sound a bit silly, but it was enjoyable to really feel like I needed the food I was eating.  And it made the food taste even better to be so hungry.  Anyway, I’m getting a bit carried away with simple food talk so I’ll digress from this little  episode.

You might be curious as to what type of work I was doing for three weeks in the jungle of the Galapagos.  Most of the work was repeated at different points in my stay and included planting different vegetables in the organic garden, maintaining the trails surrounding the volunteer camp, building a new fence to keep pesky cows out of the property (and from eating the plants there), and most notoriously, cutting down blackberry bushes.  More affectionately known by the Spanish name, mora, cutting those blackberry bushes was no easy task.  This work usually meant getting plenty of mosquito bites, getting scratched by the thorny branches, and sweating…a lot.  But I loved it.  Mainly because I got to use a machete but also because I just loved the feeling of working outdoors.  It’s been a welcome change to being in cold offices for long hours the past 4 years.

Since this post is getting a bit long, I’m going to cut myself off but check in for the second half of the Galapagos in the next post.  There’s a twist there you don’t want to miss!