Chris looked around his concrete block room, locating a fan that he desperately needed to plug in. His suitcase was open on the floor. It contained all the belongings that he possessed. It was 4:30 p.m. and muggy in Jacmel, Haiti. 24 years old and single, this was his first day “alone” in that country. Reality was sinking in as he thought of the orphans he had moved there to help. Friends from the U.S. had been with him but had left the day before. Tired from the travel, he laid down on his bed and closed his eyes. As he dozed off to sleep, suddenly he was thrown from his bed and the house was shaking. Mortar and bricks fell around him as the earth heaved for the longest 30 seconds of his life.
When the ground stilled, cries of agony began echoing through the neighborhoods. Chris was in shock. Miraculously he had not been physically hurt. Walking into the street in front of his tiny house, he was surrounded by devastation. He made his way up the street towards the orphanage. A mother ran by, grief-stricken, holding the lifeless body of her child. Smoke billowed from a propane fire igniting the house next door. Screams of sorrow and pain were impossible to process. A man with a head injury approached Chris, asking him for help. Cell phone service was gone. Active powerlines crisscrossed the streets. He jogged towards the orphanage and once there he was horrified to see a pile of rubble where the building once stood. The staff and children were digging through the concrete, uncovering a crying child. Others were tending to the injuries. Miraculously, they had all survived.
In 30 seconds flat, Chris went from being a missionary to a survivor. He had come there to “help” but now he felt overwhelming helplessness. For the next ten days, he struggled to find a way to get back home. The road to Port-au-Prince was impassible. Chris ended up finding his way into the Dominican Republic where he caught the first flight back to Wisconsin.
It all happened just before 5 p.m. on January 12, 2010. A magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince and the surrounding region of Haiti. For the next twelve days, scores of severe aftershocks compounded the damage caused by the initial earthquake. 250,000 homes collapsed. Well over 200,000 people perished.
Nine months later, Heidi and I assembled a team of fifteen men and women to rebuild the orphanage that Chris had hoped to serve. Our goal was to help in a small but tangible way. We raised money and prepared for the trip. We expected to accomplish a great deal in the ten days that we would spend there.
If you are thinking about going to Haiti, the best advice is “Don’t do it.” The U.S. State Department issues the highest possible travel warning, stating: “Violent crime, such as armed robbery and carjacking, is common. Kidnapping is widespread. Kidnappers may use sophisticated planning or take advantage of unplanned opportunities. Victims have included U.S. citizens…Demonstrations, tire burning, and roadblocks are frequent, unpredictable, and can turn violent. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents. Emergency response, including ambulance service, is limited or non-existent…Travelers are sometimes followed and violently attacked and robbed shortly after leaving the Port-au-Prince international airport.”
Haiti is a nation of extreme contrasts. It is nestled in the Caribbean but is also the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It is mostly Christian, but voodoo is common practice. Beauty and suffering stand side by side on every street corner. Life and death. Light and darkness.
We dragged our large suitcases out of Toussaint Louverture International Airport into the crushing confusion of people waiting to transport travelers to their destinations. Cab drivers, business associates, family members, and friends created a wall that we walked through as Steve guided us towards a cargo truck that was waiting for us. Heidi and I have known Steve since college, and he had invited us to join him in Haiti where he been hosting mission teams for several years. He had “deployed” Chris to serve there as a missionary from his church in Madison, Wisconsin. We loaded our luggage and ourselves into the large cargo truck that was too small for our entire team. Noticing that some people were riding on the tops of trucks, I volunteered to ride on the roof. Steve eagerly joined me. It looked like a fun way to travel. It gave me great views of the city, tropical landscapes, and the devastation caused by the earthquake. I had not given thought to apply sunscreen and was soon regretting my decision. Forty-five minutes later my body began to ache with fatigue as I clung to the roof of the truck as we left the city and zig-zagged over mountain roads for four hours.
Coasting down a steep grade at a high speed, we exited a blind corner. I felt a moment of horror as I saw traffic stopped in front of us with little time to break. A construction crew was actively repairing a large fissure that bisected the highway. Our driver frantically slammed on the breaks, swerved, and slammed into the back bumper of a truck in front of us. Steve and I flew forward, grabbing onto the frame of the cab, barely managing to stay on the roof of the truck. The two drivers faced off in the street below, getting into a heated and prolonged shouting match while we all watched in dismay. They appeared ready to kill each other. Eventually, both drivers separated got back in their vehicles and drove on. Nobody was injured and the damage to the trucks was only superficial.
We descended out of the mountains and down to the Caribbean Sea. Jacmel looked much nicer than Port au Prince, and as we pulled into the driveway of our hotel, we were stunned to see that it overlooked a beautiful beach and was far nicer than we had expected. Getting our room assignments, we felt tired but eager to make a difference in the lives of the orphans whom we would meet the next day.
Two trucks rambled into the hotel driveway in the morning. We climbed in with our backpacks and water bottles, our bodies pressed together as we stood in the truck beds for the ride from the hotel to the remains of the orphanage. Arriving, we gasped at the piles of rubble, rebar, dirt, and concrete which were strewn about the property. A few large tents and tarps provided sad temporary shelter for the children and the staff.
After receiving a warm welcome, we implemented our plan of facilitating a day camp for the kids, while also rebuilding the orphanage. Some of us specialized in children’s ministry, while others did construction work.
On the fifth day, we were tasked with building walls as quickly as possible. With shovels, we mixed cement, water, rocks, and dirt. We hauled buckets of wet mortar along with bricks and rebar. We climbed ladders with the heavy buckets, creating solid walls. This is exceedingly difficult work, in any circumstances, but today the sun was scorching. Our weather station read 118.5 degrees Fahrenheit and 98% humidity.
It was brutal, and as a team leader, I knew that we should work a short day and get some rest. The team members were pushing themselves too hard, and heat exhaustion was a real threat.
I had been told that just outside of town there was a place called Bassin Blue, with a beautiful waterfall and swimming holes. I spoke to Steve, the co-leader of the trip, and he agreed that today would be the perfect day to go there.
We hired two drivers for the afternoon. I told the team we were going on a “field trip” at 1 p.m. and everyone applauded. We loaded into the back of the trucks and headed for the mountains. We drove across a riverbed and through small ramshackle villages, locking eyes with smiling children and sad adults. We entered the jungle and it reminded me of a scene from Indiana Jones. Coming to an extremely steep grade, the trucks stopped, and the drivers told us to get out and walk up the hill. They did not believe the trucks could successfully climb the hill with us in the trucks. Stepping from the truck beds, we made the sweltering and grueling hike to the top. Once at the summit, covered in sweat, we waited for the trucks to pick us up to continue. This is when Steve informed us that the drivers were not coming. They wanted us to hike the remaining distance to the falls. They said that they were going to get different trucks and would meet us at the trailhead later.
“But how far is it to the falls?” I asked.
“I think it is three more kilometers,” replied Steve.
Our team was not comprised of survivalists or fitness fanatics. Most of us had desk jobs. The hottest it ever gets in our hometown is 75 degrees. But Steve was undeterred. He was trying to get us to speed up. Obviously, he wanted to go swimming.
I looked at the slow-moving members of our team, some of whom did not look “well”.
“This was supposed to be easy and refreshing. Not some kind of death march,” I said out loud.
I stayed in the back with the slowest of our team members as they shuffled onward. I was concerned for their health and safety.
A group of Haitian children emerged from the jungle and began following us. They held out their hands expectantly. They grabbed at our backpacks, forcing us to aggressively ask them to back off. They continued to follow us, looking for an opportunity to snatch a bag or pick a pocket. Men with machetes gazed at us with blank faces as we passed by.
We came to another steep section of the empty dirt road. Cheryl and Debbie were faltering as heat exhaustion crept in. I gave them water and forced them to drink as much as possible. I had them soak their heads with water and let them rest for a while in some shade. A few of the men from our team stayed with me to try to help. Meanwhile, Steve was long gone. He had one goal on this day, and he was not going to be stopped. The team went from being happy and excited about the excursion to being irritable, angry, and fearful. I helplessly prodded them along.
An hour and a half into our hike, we crested another hill where we finally saw the trailhead parking lot. We were here at last!
Steve and the faster members of our team were impatiently sipping sodas in the shade when we came staggering in.
“We’re finally here!”, we all thought.
As we reassembled young Haitian men began to surround our team. They announced themselves as “official guides” who were willing to carry our bags the rest of the way to the falls, for a fee (in addition to the entrance fee).
“How far is it to the falls?” I asked. Debbie was laying down on a bench in the shade, trying to regain her strength. “It’s only another kilometer.”
The children continued to circle our group, begging for money. Desperate poverty creates desperate action. The entire citizenship of Haiti had just experienced a major disaster. Homes, schools, lives, and the infrastructure of the nation had been broken, and it was reflected in the aggressive behaviors that were being directed towards us. I was not going to trust anyone with my backpack. Refusing to hire a guide, I was met with angry scowls.
As we commenced the “final hike”, Debbie decided to throw in the towel. She remained in the parking lot under the guard of one of the men from our team. Undeterred, Steve led the charge down the trail into a canyon. The rest of us reluctantly followed. Arriving at an impassibly steep section of the trail, we carefully rappelled down a fixed rope. The “guides” grabbed for our bags, insisting it was necessary in order for us to get down to the water. It was there, at the bottom, that three of our team members stopped hiking and refused to go further. They had been pushed far enough. They were fed up with “Steve’s disregard for the safety of the team”. People were not only tired. They were also “hangry”.
Heidi and I continued another hundred feet and gasped when we witnessed the breathtaking sight of the first pool of turquoise water, surrounded by high cliffs and a cascading waterfall. Far above us, a small local boy flew through the air, performing a perfect backflip before jackknifing into the water in front of us.
Steve and several of our team members were climbing the wet rocks on the other side of the pool, making their way up to the natural diving platforms. Everyone was enjoying the cool and refreshing water. I dove in and felt tremendous relief as my body cooled for the first time that day.
The rocks had beautiful ferns growing out of their cracks. Local kids climbed higher and higher up the cliffs, frightening us with their theatrical dives. A few of our team members enjoyed jumping off a lower ledge.
Dusk was rapidly approaching. I felt my anxiety rising. “We have to leave in ten minutes!” I shouted to the team.
Fifteen minutes later we were making the hike back to the trailhead parking lot. I hoped that the trucks would be there when we arrived. We had not brought along food for dinner and my stomach was grumbling as I gripped the rope to ascend the steep section we had repelled down earlier. We arrived at the trailhead parking lot in utter darkness. There was no power, and there were no lights. Aside from a few cell phone flashlights, it was pitch black.
One of our two drivers was there with his truck. He informed me that he would take the women three kilometers down the road to where the other truck would be waiting. The rest of us would have to walk down, in the dark.
“Why don’t you have the other driver come up the hill and get us?” I asked.
“His truck can’t make it,” he replied.
“Well then, why don’t you drive the women down there and then turn around and get us?” I retorted.
“Just start walking,” he demanded as he went back to his truck. Was it a good idea for this man to drive off with all the women from our team?
Feeling helpless, the ladies piled into the truck (along with one of the men from our team), and they disappeared into the darkness.
I started hiking the three-kilometer through the dark with the guys. It felt familiar to me, having run and hiked countless miles in the darkness back home.
There were no streetlights, no house lights, no electricity. The only lights were the stars in the sky. The road was dirt and there were no cars. The only sounds were our own voices and the shrill sound of insects and animals in the jungle. The air was cool for the first time that day. We walked quickly and nervously. Coming into a clearing, we entered a village with no lights, except for a few candles. We were startled to realize people were approaching us from huts, lining the road. Their beautiful ebony skin rendered them almost invisible in the night. I felt vulnerable, seeing a glimpse of a machete in one of their hands. I said “Hello”, and smiled, trying to hide my fear as I gazed into the whites of their eyes. Onward we walked.
At 10 p.m. we came to the place where our first driver had stopped on the way up earlier in the afternoon. He was there, along with the truck full of our ladies who had driven down ahead of us.
Together the two drivers were trying to decide what to do with us now. The driver who had refused to come up the hill was now refusing to drive us to town. He claimed that the air in one of the tires was too low, in spite of the efforts that he made to inflate it with a bicycle tire pump. What did he expect us to do? Walk back to town?!
“No! You will not leave half our team up here in the dark!” It was Heidi who spoke up.
“I will not drive you,” was his terse reply. He yelled at someone on his cell phone as he walked away from the vehicle.
This man had never dealt with Heidi, or he would have known better.
“Fine. If you will not drive our team down, I will!” announced Heidi.
She proceeded to open the driver’s door to his truck. She jumped in the driver seat and found the keys. Cranking the ignition, she started the truck and shifted it into drive. “Everyone, load up the trucks. We are not staying up here any longer!” Heidi ordered as she commandeered the vehicle.
The Haitian driver looked wide-eyed, confused, angry, and uncertain. He had survived an earthquake, but he had never encountered the “mama bear” protective instincts of this American woman.
I stood in the darkness, watching, feeling completely out of control.
Reluctantly, the exasperated Haitian driver acquiesced to the demands of Heidi.
In retrospect, I have to admit that the ability of the first truck to have successfully made it up and down the mountain was questionable. But we had paid him to drive us and he had agreed to do so.
The engine whined and the truck vibrated as we meandered closer to the city of Jacmel. A foul smell began emitting from the engine. A grinding sound was coming from one of the wheels. I braced myself, fearing that the wheel might fall off at any moment. At 10:45 p.m., we limped into the driveway of our hotel. As we unloaded, the drivers gazed at me furiously, blaming me for the “damage” done to the truck.
We all were accounted for. We had made it back alive. What was supposed to have been a relaxing and restful afternoon had turned into a series of unfortunate events that revealed the weaknesses of every one of us. Having survived the heat, the danger, and the struggle, we dubbed our excursion “The Haitian Death March”. We smiled as we filed to our rooms, digging for late-night snacks from our luggage.
There is something about the trials and struggles of life that bonds people together, like nothing else. I felt the gracious hand of God had been working overtime to protect us, sustain us, and get us through that day. We had barely avoided many disasters, and now we were safe.
When you feel truly out of control, remember, there is a God who will take you through the dark.
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them.
• When have you felt completely out of control?
• In retrospect, how was God present at that moment?
• When has God placed you in a chaotic situation? What was the purpose of you being there?
Steve & Chris