06 May 2010

My Week in Haiti: Intro

Haiti 9 Comments

During the last week of April 2010, I was in Haiti in the city of Leogane, the epicenter of the earthquake. (Note that some bloggers, if I recall correctly, stated that Port au Prince was the epicenter of the quake, but it was actually much closer to Leogane, which is 18 miles west of PAP.)

Over the next few months I will be blogging about various aspects of my experience. In this introductory post, I just want to lay out the basics and give some of the pictures of the base camp.

In order to make sense of my stories, you need to know that I felt a religious conviction that I was supposed to go to Haiti. I am not trying to make this a spiritual set of posts so I won’t elaborate, but it’s not that I thought going was a “rational” thing to do. (You need to understand this in order to make sense of some of my complaints/worries later on in this series.)

I originally tried to go to Haiti with a religious group, but couldn’t find a good fit. I ended up registering with Hands On Disaster Response (HODR); they describe their Project Leogane here.

At the outset, let me say this: THESE GUYS ARE THE REAL DEAL. During my visit, there were about 85 or so volunteers sleeping in our base camp at any given time. (Every day there would be a turnover of 2-3 people.) I can attest that I have never seen such a concentrated group of hard workers in my life.

On any given day, I would say at least 20 people spent 7 hours in truly hard labor, using sledgehammers, pickaxes, wheelbarrows, and shovels to break up large concrete rubble and remove it from people’s land. Many of the Leogane residents lost their homes in the quake, and they were living adjacent to their former houses in tents sent up by relief organizations. They couldn’t even think of rebuilding their houses, because a huge pile of rubble sat on their land and they didn’t have the tools to tackle it.

As I say, on any given day at least 20 HODR people would work from 7:30 – 11:30, and then from 1:30 – 4:30, at these sites. (I know the times quite well because when you are on such a project, you are intimately aware of how long you have to keep yourself alive before lunchtime and then dinner time.) During my week, I think it broke 100 degrees on at least 3 of the days. One guy had to go to the Port au Prince hospital because of dehydration, and another guy collapsed at the site.

The other volunteers performed serious work too, but not as challenging as the rubble work. (We actually used rubble as a verb; e.g. “Did you rubble this morning? You look like crap.”) One day I spent at “ShelterQuest” and glued a bunch of PVC piping and joints together. Some guys from upstate New York had figured out a way to use PVC and the sheets you would wrap around your boat, in order to make very cheap shelters (for schools and living).

Also, the base itself was quite Spartan. It was a ruined hospital that was open air. A bunch of us slept in bunk beds that was under a roof, but the roof in the middle of the building had collapsed. So if it rained, the middle of the base got wet, but our actual bunks were shielded.

The base had electricity from 6pm – 10pm. The toilets didn’t have running water; we used the “yellow/mellow brown/flush-it-down” rule. There were buckets under the sinks, to collect the water from the taps. When you had to flush, you would use one of the buckets and dump used sink water in the toilet. Naturally, if you were paranoid like me you didn’t brush your teeth with the sink water, to try to avoid diarrhea.

To take a shower you filled up a bucket and took that in the stall with you. Then you had a smaller bucket to scoop out the water and dump it on yourself.

For meals a Haitian woman made us lots of rice, beans, and spicy vegetables. There was often chicken, but you could only have one piece per meal. (And I’m not talking a huge chicken breast, it was more like the size of a small KFC piece of chicken.) At breakfast if you wanted cereal, you had to use the powdered milk and mix it with water. (At one breakfast I asked a guy, “Hey, is that cottage cheese on your cornflakes?” because I wanted to get some. He said, “Huh? That’s the milk.”)

What’s my point? We were not staying at the Four Seasons. THIS WAS NOT A VACATION. So if that’s what has been holding you back from making a donation, then let me alleviate your fears. Of course I don’t know if the big-wigs at HODR Headquarters are skimming off the top, but I know for sure that the people in the field aren’t squandering donations. (Also, in case this clown made you think that Haiti has all the money it can handle…trust me, they don’t.)

In summary for this introductory post, here are some pictures taken with my inadequate Blackberry:

My bunk, complete with mosquito netting.

Our row

On top of the base, looking down toward our bunks.

No need to worry about running out of hot water in these showers...

9 Responses to “My Week in Haiti: Intro”

  1. Ash Navabi says:

    Was this your first trip to the third world? What kind of topics will the rest of your posts be covering?

  2. Lequita says:

    Did you get in good shape down there? Maybe you can go from being the best economist in the world who can also sing to the best economist in the world who can also sing and is really handsome.

    • bobmurphy says:

      I think I lost about 8 pounds.

      • English Bob says:

        You should have brushed your teeth with the sink water. You might have lost 20.

  3. Dan says:

    Prof. Murphy,

    Valuable insight and inspiring efforts. My girlfriend is headed down there on a medical mission end of May and I am concerned about her safety. What is your take on general security? I realize this question is probably overly broad.



    • bobmurphy says:

      I felt completely safe in Leogane (after a few days) but Port au Prince was still intimidating. However, plenty of the young women at the HODR base had no reservations about traveling in Haiti. So if your girlfriend is a confident international traveler, I think she will likely be fine.

      • Dan says:

        Mesi. I am sure she will be fine. I won’t be, though.
        I look forward to reading more on your adventure.

  4. Former HODR Volunteer says:

    This is not a hospital that had its roof collapse. It’s a disco/a bar. Why would a hospital have basketball hoops installed and a stage?