Monday, July 28, 2014

Haiti 2014 in Pictures

My most recent trip to Haiti was a success in almost every way.  In May I led a team of engineering students to assist in the development efforts of Mission Waco / Mission World in Ferrier, Haiti. Our primary project was to expand a solar electricity system and provide electricity to a local school.  But our primary purpose was to love people and build relationships, and so, to express the love of God.

This post is an overview of our trip in pictures. There is much more I could tell. I will write some of the best ones as time allows. 

[This is one of my favorite pictures. These boys attend the CAF school where we installed electricity. I love their smiles!]

[Four of the students were electrical engineering students. They led out in the electrical design and installation. Here we are reviewing the details of the design.]

[We went to visit a small village near Ferrier to discuss future projects. Someone climbed a coconut tree and cut us fresh coconuts. They cut the tops off with a machete and we drank the milk. Then we used a spoon to scoop out the meat. Delicioso!]

[This is my co-leader, Bill Jordan, feeding the monkeys at a reserve in the Dominican Republic. We fed the students the same way, one banana at a time.]

[The mechanical engineering students constructed the frames to hold the solar panels. In an effort to align them facing south, we used a compass to identify a distant mountain peak that was due south. Then the students aligned the frame by sighting along the frame to the mountain in the distance. If they thought it was aligned correctly, they gave the touchdown sign.  Score one for science.]

[This year, perhaps more than any previous trip I have led, the students built relationships with the locals. We always say these trips are about people, not projects, but it's hard to not get overly focused on the design and construction. But this year we went deeper with relationship-building than ever. We also spent a lot of time learning Haitian Creole and helping interested Haitians improve their English.]

[We worked with Amigo, the head of the water well business in Ferrier, to put in a reducer on the pump outputs to minimize spillage. Pooled water from spills breeds mosquitoes which spread Malaria, Dengue Fever and Chikunguna.  This part of the project had several problems and we may not yet have found the best solution yet. Perhaps something for next year.] 

[A couple of the students presented business lessons to a women's microcredit organization. I hope to expand on this work next year.]

[Translation: Guardian Water, Protect your family against cholera, typhoid, and diarrhea: use clean water at all times."]

[We expanded the solar array from last year from 1.5 kW to 3.0 kW. The panels are mounted on the roof of the Mission Waco Guest House/Training Center.]

[We upgraded the inverter and put in a larger battery bank. The old battery bank was put to good use at another site.]

[The electricity delivered to the school can power computers, fans, printers, and lights. We set up the computer lab for them before we left. The administrators of the school were very pleased and excited!]

Monday, July 21, 2014

Coffee with an Angel

Taking teams of engineering students abroad means I deal with sick students.  Gratefully, this is not difficult for me; I have been to the ER or held a barf bag for a few over the years. I don't mind.  It forms a special bond between us.

During my last trip to Haiti with 12 other engineers, three of my students got a virus. Two of them got better relatively quickly, but one girl, Elle, (rhymes with jelly) went a little crazy before she bounced back.  For a few days she had headaches, a sore throat, and dizziness, like the others. We treated her symptoms and tried to keep her hydrated in the Haitian heat. But after a few days Elle started showing signs of brain malfunction. 

Elle is very bright, but Saturday night she started being unable to answer questions like "when did you take your last dose of ibuprofen?" or "how much did you take?" or "where did you leave the kittens?" so I got concerned.  My online medical degree had prepared me for this, however, and I suspected that between the Haitian heat and her fever she was dehydrated.  On Sunday morning I was awakened by someone poking me in the back saying "the girls tell me Elle just vomited" which, of course, only made dehydration worse.

"Well then," says I, "we're going to the hospital."

One of our Haitian friends, Jon Doudou, drove us to the nearby border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic at Dajabon. Incidentally - this was near one of the worst massacres in the history of Haiti.  Also incidentally, Elle's boyfriend, Jerry, (rhymes with berry) who is fluent in Spanish was on the trip came along to help communicate.  When we got to the border we had to leave the truck on the Haitian side because it didn't have the proper papers to cross back and forth.

[Jon Doudou and I often get mistaken for each other on account of our dressing alike.]

With no truck, that means we needed to take a cab to the clinic.  What I had failed to understand until that moment, however, was that all "cabs" in Dajabon are motorcycles.  So Jon Doudou gets a couple motorcycle taxis and the six of us, including the drivers, ride to the clinic.  Three people on a motorcycle is really nothing by Dominican standards, but I'm pretty sure that between Jon Doudou, myself, and our driver, there was over 650 pounds of manliness on our bike.  That's a lot of manliness, I tell ya.

Well, I could tell you about how Elle was back to her smart self in about 2 hours after they started the IV, and I could tell you about how they wanted to keep her for a while and observe for signs of Chikungunya which she did not have, or I could tell you about how Dr. Nirla tried to come over from Haiti to relieve me around 5:00 PM but that she was unable to because someone decided to close the border an hour early.  And I could go on to explain about how Dr. Nirla had Elle's contacts case which she had to pass to "some guy" under the bridge for him to hand-carry it across the river border, but instead, I'm going to tell you about my time with Angel Gabriel Marte Tejada, the nurse on duty.

Angel was the only person at the clinic and Elle was the only patient. So he spent a lot of time sitting with us in her room just chatting. Jerry helped us translate between Spanish and English. We talked about our families and lives and how I liked coffee and what his plans for the future were.  About 10:00 PM on Sunday night, I mentioned that I was getting a headache.  

At this point Angel brings me up to the front of the clinic by myself. No translator. He patiently tells me in Spanish until I understand that he wants me to sit at the front of the clinic in case any patients come while he goes somewhere. So yes, he is leaving me in charge of the clinic. Sorta.  I agree because I know that if an emergency patient comes by I can go get Jerry.  Between Jerry and my online medical degree I was brimming with confidence, despite my headache.

So I sit down in the front of the clinic which is open to the street while Angel gets on his motorcycle and rides away.  Fortunately, no patients arrived while he was gone.  Ten minutes later Angel returns with a plastic water bottle full of delicious Dominican coffee!  He correctly assumed that my headache was caffeine withdrawal. Then he and I sat together on the front porch of the clinic drinking coffee out of little plastic cups used for taking pills. The cups were so thin the coffee burned your fingers, but I kinda like that anyway.

[Angel and I drinking coffee and talking about life.]

Keep in mind our conversation was very slow because of my inability to speak Spanish very well. But we weren't in any hurry - in fact we had nothing else to do. I reminded myself that relationships are of cosmic importance.

If you have ever heard me try to speak Spanish, you won't believe the rest of this story. But it's true. We talked about complex things such as the Dominican problem of illegal Haitian immigration, and Angel noted that it was similar to the problems we're having in the US.  He told me about a motorcycle accident he had when five Haitian men on a single motorcycle ran into him. He pointed out a prostitute and pimp that walked by in front of the clinic and we discussed how the sex trade was bad for everyone.

I told him about my experience when my son David was born Cesarean section. I explained how I sat with Martha behind a curtain that separated her head from the rest of her body.  I was busy telling her how good she was doing when the doctor said, "Hey Brian, do you want to see her uterus?"  The doctor had taken her uterus out of the incision because of some complications and she wanted to know if I would like to take a gander at it before she put it back in.  "Sure" I say, because how many times do you get an opportunity like that?

So I stood up and peered over the curtain.  Then something happened that has never happened before or since.  My knees actually wobbled.  Before me lay something that looked like a cross between my wife's body and a butcher shop.  Freaky.  I sat back down before I fell down.  Good times.

Perhaps because of Angel's medical training, or perhaps because of my online medical degree, or perhaps because we had all the time in the world, I was able to communicate this complex story in Spanish.  We had a good laugh together. It was one of my favorite experiences of the trip.

Relationships are of cosmic importance.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

My Recent Time Travel

The memorial service for my Aunt Francine was held at the First Baptist Church of Childress, Texas recently. She was my father's only sibling. Because of his Parkinson's disease, he was unable to travel the nearly 500 miles from Houston.  I went on his behalf and had a moving and profound experience as I visited iconic places of my childhood and tried to come to grips with my own mortality.  

Aunt Francine and Uncle Bill have lived on and operated a large cattle ranch outside Childress my entire life. It is remote, enormous, and beautifully rugged.  As a kid, I used to visit my cousins on the ranch - this was like visiting another planet in a time machine for a boy growing up in Houston.

[Cousins Amber and Ty both have families of their own now. I'm so proud of the people they have become.  I would like to write about them sometime, but that's for another day.]

At the memorial service, Ty read a passage from Aunt Francine's Bible, noting the words she had underlined and personal notes she had written in the margins. Seeing a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines be emotional and vulnerable in front of the crowd was powerful and moving; it left everyone wiping their eyes.

After the service we drove back out to the ranch - for me it was like driving back in time. Very little has changed since I was last there 18 years ago at Amber's wedding.  In fact, very little has changed since I was a kid 40 years ago. Then and now, it's like it was when I was a child; you can still see the open land for miles in all directions.  There's a neighbor a mile or so to the east, another a mile or so to the west. It's rugged, expansive, beautiful, and almost timeless.  Almost.

[One of the views from their backyard]

[I remember being there in a thunderstorm in 1981 when this bell was hit by lightning.]

In the evening after the memorial service, we sat on the stone patio Aunt Francine made and enjoyed the view, the shade, the breeze, and mostly the family. I really enjoyed visiting with my cousins and their spouses and kids, and Uncle Bill, of course. It was hard, however, to speculate about the future with them. As our parents age, how do we respond?  How do we want our own children to respond as we, ourselves, age?

These are questions I have been wrestling with for the last few years in the back of my mind, but this weekend in the Texas panhandle brought them to the forefront with new poignancy.

I would have liked to spend another day with them, but I had to leave early the next morning. I decided to drive the additional 100 miles to visit Ralls, Texas where my father grew up and grandparents lived.

About halfway between the ranch and Ralls is a scenic overlook where the ultra flatness of the Caprock gives way to the rolling terrain to its east.  This is a special place for me; it's the place I proposed to Martha in the summer of 1992.  Again, hardly anything has changed there. The land stands in contrast to our lives; it moves at glacial speeds in comparison. Forty years ago this place looked exactly the same, except for some new wind turbines that peeked up over the horizon.

One of my imagined alternate lives would be to live there, owning and operating a wind farm. In fact, I even toyed with writing a novel set here.  I wrote a few chapters about an introverted engineer living here, but instead of ranching cattle like my Uncle Bill, he harvested the wind.  

On the subject of harvesting, when my grandfather died, my grandmother planted an oak tree in his honor at the little church he attended.  I had not seen the tree in a long time and I wanted to see how large it had grown to be.  As you can see, it's doing well!  I even took a handful of acorns to plant myself.

Before I left town for the long drive home, I visited the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. I felt compelled to do something that I have never done before. I stood at their grave and talked to them. I'm not sure why I felt I had to do this, but the feeling was strong, and the act was cathartic. I told them that their beloved daughter had died.  I know they already knew this because they are in heaven now, but I felt like I needed to give them the bad news somehow. I left a flower from her memorial service on their tombstone.

When I visited their grave, a wave of sadness overwhelmed me. I grieved for my aunt, my grandparents, my father's struggles with Parkinson's disease, and even the loss of my own childhood. My sense of adulthood, my sense of mortality, and the fact that even the seemingly unchangeable does, indeed, change and move on - these were overwhelming to me.  Standing in the cemetery with my camera in hand, I wept like a baby.

The Ralls cemetery has a new chapel and, just behind it, five large wind turbines: symbols that change really does happen, and also that it isn't all bad. There can be hope in change; things can really get better, they need not always decay.  This helps me accept my own aging and mortality. This helps me grieve the losses that inevitably come to us in life.

"You will be secure, because there is hope..." - Job 11:18