I’m home, just not at that home

A common sight outside my home in Port-au-Prince. It’s a mini-World Cup just about every afternoon.

One year ago today, I boarded a plane in Port-au-Prince headed to Miami. From there, I traveled to Virginia. This was no vacation. Neither was it traveling for work. I was evacuating Haiti, a phrase I’ve resisted using — in fact — it pains me to type those words.

And before you get the impression I am back in Haiti — I’m not. I’m still in Virginia, my first and other home.

Haiti, the place where I had lived for more than seven years, was hot, as my friends there say. “Ayiti cho!” Haiti is hot! Not just weather-wise. More than a year of turbulence of all kinds had culminated into “peyi lòk”, countrywide lockdown.

Yeah, always the trendsetter, Haiti was locked down long before the rest of the world so easily used that phrase.

Opposition parties had promised the lock down in early September 2019 as school was starting. They protested President Jovenel Moise’s corruption, though the politicians in Parliament faced just as many charges of corruption. The economy of Haiti was in shambles with the local currency weakening, inflation rising and unemployment skyrocketing.

Gangs and random criminals controlled the streets, with robberies and kidnappings, often fatal, on the rise.

So, no, Haiti was not the place to be. Even so, to leave the place I have come to love as my home, to hug my friends good-bye and head back to Virginia was extremely difficult.

After five months in the States, I was able to return to Haiti in early March, only to leave again after 18 days, this time because of the pandemic and its version of lockdown.

I’ve come to think of it as being out of Haiti for a year except for a short vacation back home.

Home. I named this blog The Long Way Home long before I would realize what that means. Switching careers, stepping into my calling as a mission co-worker and adapting to living in Port-au-Prince — all of this has changed me. And for the better.

I am blessed to spend time in Virginia with my sister and her family, enjoying four seasons in a place that has more than just summer and enjoying the comforts of the United States. I am able to work from here, keeping up with friends and colleagues in Haiti and around the U.S. and world.

Change, especially when its abrupt and significant, requires adjustment. After a year, it feels relatively normal wearing socks rather than flip flops and sweatshirts instead of short sleeves. Still, though, I’m eager to return to that other home, to the place where the hot sun beats down, where soccer players whoop and yell outside the front gate, where the kitchen table often is crowded and prayers always earnest.

For now, though, I take great pleasure in this wild and crazy life I live and look forward to what comes next.

As a mission co-worker with Presbyterian Mission Agency, I’ve been able to visit a number of other countries. I’ve learned a new language. I’ve come to love so many amazing people who at first blush seem so different.

I’ve lost loved ones. I’ve mourned and celebrated, been loved and taken some hard knocks. And after almost eight years, I find myself back where I started.

What a year it’s been. While here in the U.S. we still avoid crowds and the COVID, the people of Haiti are doing the same and still struggling with a perilous economy and political upheaval, dangerous criminal activity and the end of hurricane season.

What a life.

The beauty of it, always, is that home is not an address. It’s where you hang your hat.

And it’s where you leave a part of your heart.


Ke-nee deep in kenep season

Even as their lives are filled with often heartbreaking challenges, the people of Haiti seek out the sweetness of life. Often that sweetness grows on tress.

They just dangled there, tantalizing us with juicy sweet tartness. For weeks, so many weeks, we waited.

“Kenep pre?” I’d ask hopefully. Are they ready?

“Yo poko pare,” Garry would respond. They aren’t ripe yet.

A few times, I tried one, breaking the still supple green rind, pop the pulpy fruit on my tongue, and promptly spit it out.

The kenep is a tropical delight. It grows on a tall tree that provides lovely shade year-round. But by early August, its sweet fruit gets all our attention.

When ripe, the rind tightens so it is cracks open. The pulpy fruit covers a large round seed about the size of an ordinary marble. The flavor lasts a few minutes – something like the taste of SweetTarts candy.

To be fair, it’s not even our tree. It generously leans over the wall from the neighbors house. The low-hanging fruit goes first. Even the man who collects our trash lifts a hand up to pull down a bundle of kenep on his way out the gate.

In about a week after the kenep ripened, Nadia began using a long pole rigged with a Y-shaped branch to isolate and twist small branches and retrieve the bunches.

Small boys, and some not so small, gather at the gate asking if we can give them kenep. A glance up the street shows that another neighbor’s kenep tree has lured other boys onto the adjacent alow wall where they pick the fruit and collect them in plastic bags.

On a good day, the street is littered with the green rinds and crowded with happy-faced kids.

Even Bobby the half-grown pup gets into the action. He doesn’t stop to toss the rind. He just eats the whole thing.

As for the rest of us, we enjoy them one or two at a time, or gather a bunch to eat later.

Like the other best things in life, we know the season will draw to a close, leaving us waiting another 11 months.

Searching for home in Haiti

cindy first sunday
Pretty much how I spent my first year in Haiti, clutching a Creole Bible, camera bag, water bottle — and my heart. Here with Russell Cook and Tracey Herrera, who along with their group from Florida, invited me to church with them my first Sunday in Port-au-Prince. (Photo by Connie Cook)

This recovering journalist turned mission co-worker moved to Haiti to live and serve on May 25, 2013. To mark this extraordinary five year anniversary, here are some stories of the highlights and lowlights. To be sure, I am grateful beyond measure to all those who have made this journey possible. I only hope that Haiti, the people of Haiti and the rich joining of hands of sisters and brothers from both my lands make your lives a bit richer as well.

(This is an occasional series)

Home is a charged word to me since I came to live in Haiti. That was almost five years ago. Still hard to believe. So much has changed. I have changed so much. As the anniversary approaches, I find myself examining this journey, understanding the commonality of all our lives and lifestyles. We are sent as mission co-workers into poor lands, but it is not the poverty that connects us, but the spirit of generosity. 

I owe the joy and lessons of my life to tremendous generosity of many people in my life, both Haitian and North American.

My story in Haiti begins the afternoon of May 25, 2013.

So before making the trip here, loaded down with two bulging suitcases, a backpack and a carry-on, I listened to every word of “Home” by Phillip Phillips:

 Settle down, it’ll all be clear

Don’t pay no mind to the demons

They fill you with fear

The trouble — it might drag you down

If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone 

‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home.

 With due apologies to the songwriter Phillips, to me, it was if God himself was talking me through what would be this huge change in my life. And whether to the credit of Phillips or God or both, it worked.

Five years ago on May 25, I arrived in Port-au-Prince, found my taxi driver and settled into Trinity Lodge, a guesthouse that, too, has become one of my homes here.

By next morning, I was stepping up into a huge truck to go to church with a group also staying at Trinity Lodge.

And by early Monday morning, I was making the first of many (many!) mistakes. Like many foreigners I was unclear on the difference between the U.S. do dollar and the “Haitian dollar.” The “Haitian dollar” doesn’t exist. It’s a term used to mean 5 times five gourdes. Or 25 gourdes. Which at that time was about .50 cents, U.S. So when I approached the woman selling ice cold water by the bottle, I asked her how much. She said in Creole, “senk dola.” Five dollars. (I blame this next part on being tired and hot and obnoxiously overconfident) “Five dollars?” I exclaimed, outraged but thirsty. She nodded. “U.S.?” Again, she nodded. (I mean, what would you do, with a red-faced, obnoxiously overconfident foreigner standing in front of you?) I pulled out a five-dollar bill, took the water, shook my head in disgust and walked up the dusty street slurping cold water.

(This story still embarrasses me, but it is a good reminder of what I would quickly realize would be my new life: I am often wrong.)

 (Next up: Cindy goes to Cherident!)

Hope on the line

Heavy rains continue to fall in Haiti, slowing the recovery of people in hurricane-affected regions. But there is hope.


I’ve been back in Haiti less than a month, and already it’s been a whirlwind. With a lot of help from good friends, I moved into a new home, met Almand who is here to serve as “guardian,” someone whose primary job is to keep us safe and whose secondary mission is to become part of our family.

Paul Sinette continues to care for me — she has to be the best cook in Haiti, and she helps me navigate life. Her son Carlens is often here, playing Dominos with Almand.

They all teach me Creole, learn English from me and we take turns saying Grace.

It’s a good deal.

We welcomed a kitten to the house about a week ago. Kimberly, named by Paul Sinette, pretty much runs the place and brings much entertainment.

As you know, Hurricane Matthew did a number on several parts of Haiti, especially to the southern peninsula. The storm hit Oct. 4 and 5. The second weekend of November I was able to visit the South and Grand Anse departments that suffered catastrophic damage.

Fabienne Jean, coordinator of our network FONDAMA, and I traveled to Les Cayes and then onto Grand Anse to visit with partner organizations and also Luke Osikoye, international associate with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

Passing Grand Goave on National Route 2, we began to see the damage Matthew left behind. The bridge at Petit Goave was washed out, and a detour was in place while workers replaced it.

Torrential rains have continued in the region, so beyond the obvious hurricane damage — destroyed houses, roofless homes and trees devoid of leaves and branches — we passed flooded roadsides, yards and fields.

Farmers who had access to oxen used them to plow fields. People of all ages walked the roadways carrying water, food and construction materials.

We passed a number of funerals — people wearing black and white, walking slowing in small groups. On the national highway outside of Les Cayes a beat up pickup carried a casket and followed a five-person brass band while friends and family of the deceased followed on foot.

In Moron and Marfranc, World Food Programme and USAID were handing out bags of rice and tarps. In both villages, people lined up in the hot sun to wait. We saw dozens of people carrying their aid home — many of them waste-deep through overflowing rivers.

The further we went, though, and the closer we got to the village of Chambellan located near the southern peninsula’s tip, I saw the bits of hope.

Clothes and sheets and underwear, washed in whatever water was available and simply hanging in the breeze.

Red blouses, green slacks, blue jeans, multi-colored sheets — waving as if a grand sign that in spite of it all, life goes on.

In clean clothes.

I will have more to tell you soon, including ways you can help. FONDAMA is working on a proposal through PDA to help people in these communities with recovery.

Please know that you are appreciated — for caring, for reading and for continuing to pray for all the people of Haiti and those around the world.

God bless.

Photo by Jackson


Jackson photo of teacher
A professor at the CODEP school. Photo by Jackson.


“Li pa bon,” Inez told me quietly.

He’s not good.

Jackson already had found me as a willing compatriot. He was eating fried fish from a small pink and white striped bag commonly used by food vendors on the street. The shape of his eyes and ready affection let me know he was not a student at the school.
“Oh, he’s good, all right,” I smiled at Inez who still looked worried.
No, he doesn’t speak much. And yes, he is intellectually challenged.
But Jackson is good. Jackson is great.
Realizing that I understood Jackson’s situation, Inez smiled broadly as the 13-year-old and I communicated through a few words and lots of gestures. Inez understood that I cared, that I wouldn’t smile at the boy then shove him away.
If you know what it is to be seized with joy, then you know my heart in Haiti.
It’s hard here. No doubt. The struggles of the people in this tropical land are well publicized. Very often, an American’s first thought when the word Haiti is mentioned is of pity. How can so much hardship happen on people who deserve so much more?
Government corruption leads to hunger, lack of schools and adequate housing. Drought and land grabbing brings misery to those who once were able to eat from their own gardens. Deforestation means dramatic changes in weather patterns, hotter weather, less rain and fewer chances for shade from the scorching sun.
And in it all there are so many connections made between people — people helping people. And in witnessing that, I find my greatest source of joy.
I was with Frank Dimmock, a colleague from Presbyterian Church (USA) World Mission. Frank was in Haiti visiting schools as part of his understanding of education in the countries in which mission workers serve around the world.

We were visiting Institution Mixte de Duclo, a junior high school in the South of Haiti operated by CODEP, a community development project predominantly supported by Presbyterians. While the 42 students were busy in the classrooms, Jackson wandered around. He seemed very happy to greet us as visitors.

And having finished his meal, he asked me for money to buy something to eat.
“You just ate,” I teased him. He grinned and Inez grinned and Jackson’s attention quickly turned to something else.

Jackson taking a photo
Jackson taking a photo of Frank Dimmock and Marc Charles. With a little help from a friend.

My camera.
His first request, through gestures was for me to take a picture of him. But that wasn’t enough.
It was clear Jackson was ready to become the photographer.
With the strap of my Nikon around his neck and a few instructions, he was ready to go.

jackson frank shooting pic
Frank Dimmock taking a photo of Jackson taking his photo. Marc Charles, our friend and translator, in the striped shirt.

And he went, snapping photos of the students, then hurriedly stepping into the classrooms to show the girls the photos he had taken.
The students howled with laughter and encouragement. Jackson beamed.

Jackson photo of school
One of Jackson’s photos of Institution Mixte de Duclo, a CODEP school in the southeast of Haiti.

The leaders of CODEP who were with us grinned. And Inez laughed along with us.
That’s when it hit – as it so often does – the seizing of my heart with happiness.
In places like Haiti where surviving takes a lot of effort and thriving takes a lot of help, the Jacksons of the world are among the most vulnerable. Often they are pushed to the sides of the community, cared for, but not given the support we all need. The mentally disabled often are the “least of these” in poor communities.
But here in this small, very well built junior high school, a boy with challenges greater than many, is loved, cared for and a part of the community.
Let Jackson teach us again – the “least of these” is in no way connected to “lesser than.”

Jackson with Frank
Jackson and Frank.

Thank you, my friend, Jackson for sharing time with me on Friday.
And thank you, community of Institution Mixte de Duclo and CODEP for caring for our sweet friend.
P.S. While Jackson didn’t get any money for food that he was requesting from us, he found his way to the vehicle where he hit up our driver, Johnny. And he happily walked away with the cookies Johnny found for him. Photography is great, but cookies?
Well played, Jackson. Well played.

Priye a ap monte. Gras la ap desann!

Carlins, 9, hard at it. He spends a lot of time on homework, and his report card proves it!
Carlins, 9, hard at it. He spends a lot of time on homework, and his report card proves it!

WARNING: Big ol’ missionary confession coming.
The concept and practice of prayer simply confounds me.
Oh, I pray, don’t get me wrong. I often pray out loud. I pray in two languages now, adding Haitian Creole to my repertoire. And I pray each night before I sleep.
Mostly, though, it seems like talking to a friend. I mean, I pray for change: Please help the little baby in surgery today.
And I pray out of my own personal, sometimes ridiculous-seeming needs: Dear Lord, please help me get my work done tomorrow!
And I send out urgent requests: “Dear God, in the name of everything that is holy, please get that gigantic tap-tap heading right toward me back in its lane …. OK. Whew. Thank you, God. Amen.”
And sometimes what I’ve prayed for happens. And sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not like I go back and check. So, often, I’m surprised when things turn out well.
That’s the confession. Shouldn’t prayer and faith be more closely connected? If my faith is strong, should I ever be surprised?
Anyway, the other night, in the midst of several texts with a friend, I was surprised again. Enough to give me pause. My friend is a young guy. He’s a husband and has a 10-year-old daughter. He is starting a small tree nursery in his small yard. He works very hard, but his project takes a lot out of him. In Creole, he wrote that his nursery was doing well, but that it was a long way to the river and back, and he needed to fetch water for the small plants because it hadn’t rained in a while.
So, I, like a good missionary, wrote that I would pray for rain. But it’s not like I stopped right there and went through the motions and said the words. I just wrote that I would pray for rain for my friend’s region.
And in his next text, Givenson said that a gentle rain had started.
Right then. Just as I wrote those words. And you can call it is a big ol’ coincidence. Or you could call it God looking over our shoulders and reading the texts ….
Or, as I am doing, you could understand that rain very often is an answer to prayer.
Just like the ferocious looking tap-tap heading my way moving just in a nick of time, I felt great relief at Givenson’s news of rain showers.
It happened again this morning.
I had just posted on Facebook about 21 men and women who died when the boat they were fleeing Haiti in sank in stormy weather. More than dozen people still are missing. And this came a week after six people died in flooding in Port-au-Prince.
Where’s the hope? The people in the boat had lost hope in Haiti, so they set off in search of it somewhere else.
As expected, several of my friends on Facebook immediately responded, sharing the post, sending prayers. And, yet, my heart was sinking and searching for the hope.
That was when my friend and housekeeper Paul Sinette came in the door. As soon as we said “bonjou,” she pulled open an envelope and showed me what was inside. Her 9-year-old son’s report card.
Carlins has done well this session! His grades are improving! I shared her joy.
I share her pride.
And, so much more than that, I share Paul Sinette’s hope.
And like a prayer that went up, the answer came in the door in that little envelope, marked in little boxes and shining in the huge grin on this mother’s face.
And here’s the Good News!
Last weekend we yelled Hallelujah! Last Sunday, we sang, “Jesus Christ has risen!”
And today, and tomorrow and through eternity, He still is risen!
Such good news. Wrapped in hopes and sent in prayer, we find it every moment of the day.
As the Haitian proverb goes, “Priye a ap monte, gras la ap desann!”
The prayer is going up. The Grace is coming down!
The challenge, as always, is to recognize it!

Planting corn in Haiti, and the pebble in my sandal

ImageFour seeds, if you’re talking about corn. Two seeds if it’s congo beans. Those were my only instructions. The rest I figured out by watching Papa Luc as he planted one of his many gardens around Cherident.

Two men were working ahead, using pick axes to dig shallow holes about a foot apart. Our job, Papa Luc’s and mine, was to drop seeds in the holes and cover them. Papa Luc had a small stick to shove loose dirt back over the seeds.

I used my right foot.

I had a pebble in my sandal the rest of the day. I didn’t try to lose it. I wanted to remember that feeling — planting corn in Haiti.

I’ve been living and working in Haiti for 10 months now. It’s been a whirlwind. On my off days — when I’m in my comfortable apartment in Port-au-Prince — I remember and go through my many photos. And as I long to be back “out there”, out in the countryside with Haitian farmers not unlike Papa Luc.

But Papa Luc is special to me. I spent a month living with his family in Cherident, a small village along a ridge in the southern mountains, when I first moved here. My work is with FONDAMA, a Joining Hands network of grassroots farmer organizations. So before I began traveling the country to meet people from the 11 organizations, I needed time to live like a rural Haitian and study language and culture. And along the way, Luc Celestin and his grown children adopted me.

When I arrived for my month-long stay, it was early June. The cornfield beside the house was almost fully grown. We already were pulling ears of corn to eat – either dried and ground or roasted.

My first conversations with Papa Luc were slow-going. He doesn’t speak English, and I was becoming more comfortable with Kreyol. So we talked about a common subject — farming. I grew up on a farm in Augusta County. My father had what I was sure was the world’s largest garden. At least it felt that way when I was 8 and had to help plant peas, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, melons, carrots …. Early spring was for plowing the ground. Then Dad would level it out and begin hoeing the rows. I would help drop the seeds, carefully, and then cover them over with the hoe.

For corn, of course, Dad plowed, then dragged the fields smooth and attached the corn planter to the Massie Ferguson tractor. I would go with him to Eavers warehouse  to pick up the corn seed. It was in huge burlap sacks. When I was a preschooler, I remember Dad taking days off from his day job to plant corn, and I would go with him. While he worked with the tractor, I’d crawl up on those sacks of corn seed in the open trunk of the Ford Galaxy and doze while he worked.

I remember the sun and the breeze and the look of satisfaction Dad always carried that he was working his farm.

He loved that work.

And so does Papa Luc. A garden means food for your family — and if you have the land and resources for more seeds, it can help feed the community.

During my month stay, Papa Luc’s eight children each spent time with me. Many of them speak English, so while I was taking a break from Kreyol lessons, they taught me about the community. We went on long walks across the fields and hills around Cherident. Just about everywhere we walked, one would say: “That’s Papa Luc’s garden there.” Miles away on the other side of the ridge: “Papa Luc planted this field, too.”

And that is how I learned — talking and walking.

On evenings after supper, Papa Luc and I often would be the only ones still at the table. I would ask him about the crops he grew (corn, black beans, congo beans, white beans, pumpkin squash). I’d ask about growing seasons (two for corn, sometimes three for beans). And I would tell him about my father. I was learning language, culture AND getting a basic education about my work with FONDAMA.

After leaving Cherident, I began traveling the countryside to visit with the organizations. I met people in formal and informal meetings. I walked with them through their fields and visited their seed silos. But these were quick visits — usually only three or four days. The way I learn about how crops grow in Haiti is by visiting Cherident. I want to see entire growing seasons. At Cherident in June, the corn still was growing tall. By September and October, the stalks were brown. I missed the harvest season, but I know how it works — stalks are cut and gathered into bunches, then the bunches are raised far above the ground by a rope and pulley.

This past week, I had another opportunity to visit Cherident. A friend from Arkansas was there with a church group that partners with a nearby school. When I called Papa Luc to say I was coming back, he said he was planting corn. He graciously agreed to let me help the next morning. Though I was staying at the rectory and guesthouse, I was eager to work in the cornfield early Thursday morning. The group wasn’t going back to Port-au-Prince until about 9:30, so after breakfast, I set out to find him.

Lucson, Papa Luc’s oldest son, told me his Dad was working in the field beside Madame Pepe’s house. I took my camera with me, along with a water bottle.

The road through Cherident is wide and dusty. It didn’t take me long to find him. Papa Luc was down in a field with two workers. The workers walked ahead digging small, shallow holes in the rocky ground with pick axes, while Papa Luc dropped a few seeds into each hole and covered them back over.

I thought of the many fields he plants. Every seed. Every tiny seed. By hand.

It’s difficult not to remember my own father’s garden when I am in Haiti. So much is the same.

There is a joy in the backbreaking work of tilling land and nursing seeds to harvest.

“Four seeds,” Papa Luc said, using his thumb to separate four corn kernels from the handful he held. With a gentle flick, he dropped the yellow seeds into the hole, then used the stick he held in his right hand to cover them with dirt.

“Four seeds.”

He handed me half his handful, and I set to work on the unplanted holes, covering the seeds with my sandaled right foot.

In the upper part of the field, we planted congo beans along with the corn. I’d drop in two bean seeds; Papa Luc carried a handful of corn.

We worked steadily. The morning was cool. A slight breeze fanned us. The soil felt moist, but I know many people are concerned about drought this year. The northern part of Haiti had little rain throughout the winter. The government has had to bring in food for families there. The FONDAMA organization in the North have few seeds in their silos — the last season’s crop burned up from lack of rain.

No food. No seeds for the spring.

It’s a little better in the South, but not by much. We will wait and pray and see.

When 9:30 came, the vehicle taking us to Port-au-Prince stopped at the field so I could leave.

I kept the pebble in my shoe the rest of the day. I look forward to my next trip to the mountains to watch the corn and beans grow.

Please join with us in prayer for rain for all of Haiti. So much work is done — seed by seed — all by hand to feed this country. All we need now is rain.

The difference between grangou and gou

Paul SinetteI start this by acknowledging that you, Dear Reader, might not like me much by the time you finish this.

I need to go ahead and tell you that I am not suffering for Jesus like you might have thought.

I’m certainly not suffering like I thought I might.

When I first imagined living in Port-au-Prince, like full-time, every single day, I envisioned a small cinderblock home with Spartan furnishings, little and unpredictable at that electricity and maybe a small cookstove. I would be hot, uncomfortable and likely lose weight.

One of three ain’t bad. I’m hot. But when I’m in my home on Delmas 75, I’m very comfortable. And the big secret I’m about to let you in on — her name is Paul Sinette — is one of many Haitians apparently determined that I not lose any weight.

My first inkling that I would have someone cooking my meals came back in March. I was visiting Haiti to attend a conference and look for a place to live. The first property owner I spoke with told me I needed someone to cook and clean for me.

I resisted this idea. I am coming her to serve, not to be served.

Oh, I had so much to learn. It took many conversations, a lot of healthy mental gymnastics and education, but I settled on the idea of at least considering hiring someone.

My first full month here was spent in the mountains with the Celestin family. That’s when I learned that if I was going to trim down, I’d have to start running every day. Three meals a day. Three full meals a day. And Papa Luc Celestin left orders with the family that my work there was to:

Practice Creole.


And eat. Manje anpil. Eat a lot.

He quizzed me when he came home from work. He quizzed the people who were serving my meals. And when I didn’t put enough food on my plate when I was eating with him, he added more.

His son Herns helped explain the desire to feed people when it’s possible.

“Haitian people eat a lot when they can because they don’t always know if they’ll get to eat again soon,” he explained.

So I ate, or at least tried to convince Papa Luc I had “manje anpil.”

It became a running joke, but thankfully I was a bit glad to be in charge of my own meals. Which were starkly American. And not that good. The first few weeks I wouldn’t use my cookstove, so I depended on sandwiches and salads. My first Haitian guests got ham and cheese sandwiches. They were not impressed.

That’s when my landlady shared with me an idea about interviewing Paul Sinette. By this time, I knew the mutual benefits of hiring someone to help me. It provides an income for a family, it will help with my Creole (everyone tells me that if I eat Haitian food, I’ll speak more like a Haitian) and, the most startling reason of all — I can have all this for less than what I paid for my cable bill in the U.S.

Meet Paul Sinette.

She’s maybe 30 years old, has two children and goes to church at 6 a.m. on Sundays so she can spend the rest of the day helping me. She’s funny, loves to help me learn Creole and, oh yeah, she’s a fabulous cook.

While I’m writing this, I’m sipping on fresh squeezed orange juice. For lunch I had barbecued chicken, rice and beans with a tangy pepper and onion sauce, macaroni and cheese (yes, you read that correctly) and a huge fresh salad.

She buys most of the fresh fruits and vegetables, along with vinegar, oils, rice, pasta and sugar, at the street market. But she also goes through my pantry to find those old standards I’ve collected. Saturday’s lunch included a fresh salad with spaghetti served with a delicious tuna salad. I could tell she disapproved of the tuna fish, but I think she just wanted to use it up.

That was also the same day I reached for a Coke in the refrigerator and she calmly told me she was making fresh juice (that one was lemonade) and that I could have the Coke later ….

I’m still adjusting to the routine, but I can tell you that when I’m traveling one of the best parts about home that I miss is Paul Sinette. And not just for her cooking.

On Wednesday, she told me in Creole that she wouldn’t be here on Thursday because she needed to go the funeral for her mother’s brother. Without even realizing that I had seamlessly comprehended her Creole, I said, “Oh, I’m sorry your uncle died.”

Her reaction? She high-fived me and said, “Bravo!”

She wants me to succeed. She wants to learn her language. She wants me to appreciate the food and culture and life that is Haitian.

And she is grateful that I’m here, and, I believe, not just because she has a job.

I’m not sure how I feel about employing someone to work in my home. It still feels odd to me, off-kilter and strangely guilty. I, who came to serve am served, and I who eat so well, live very closely to people who might not eat much at all.

The dichotomy jostles me, and I hope it always does. Haiti is known as a place where hungry people live, yet the food here is some of the most delicious in the world. Strangely enough, the Creole word for hungry is grangou. And the word for delicious is gou.

But as recently as the 1970s, Haiti was able to feed itself, depending on the production of peasants in the countryside selling their goods. It was only after extended political corruption and greedy international trade agreements that the situation turned tragic.

My work is with agricultural organizations hoping to reverse that trend and provide more food for everyone here. It’s ambitious work, but I know that many good people are ready for this challenge.

This morning when Paul Sinette arrived with her trademark smile and “bonjou,” I asked if she’d already been to church.

Yes, she said. “Mwen te priye pou ou!”

“I prayed for you!”

Among the rest of her prayers, I’m pretty sure she asked God to make sure I chose juice over Coke and to help me with my Creole.

My prayer was simpler. I just thanked God for sending me her.

Don’t let the palm trees fool you

It’s disconcerting, being a salaried mission co-worker living in Port-au-Prince. I awaken each day to the sound of the air conditioning turning off. I’m well rested and safe. Young women scurry quietly around the lodge making breakfast, wiping down floors and railings. Outside the lodge balcony, I hear the sounds of a rooster here or there, a child cries, workers chant as they walk up and down the mostly paved roads looking for employment opportunities.

Breakfast is delicious. Sometimes it is scrambled eggs with onion and pepper and yummy local spices, lightly toasted bread with grapefruit preserves and freshly sliced mango and melon. Other times it’s perfectly fried pancakes or French toast. The coffee always is hot and ready to drink. You also have a choice of a cool juice and, of course, iced water, Culligan water, the bottled kind that weak-stomached foreigners can consume without digestive worries.

Because I do not have regular transportation, sometimes someone has arranged to pick me up to take me shopping, out on errands or to church. One friend who lives here picked me up and took me out to a coffee shop! Think of Starbucks without the Starbucks brand. Wireless, cute little tables, pastries and a variety of hot and cold drinks.

A wide balcony at the front of the lodge looks out over the upper middle class neighborhood, but the workers who travel through on foot or in beat-up vehicles aren’t so fortunate. There’s an air of frustration among them: the fruit sellers, the bored un- or under-employed. It’s not so safe in the streets, even here.

But it is on my walks and rides around the city that I feel the disconnect. Though there is construction ongoing — Delmas 75 where I am staying and where I will live — is being improved, which means travel by car is often delayed and the flagman we’re accustomed to in the States isn’t working. If you see someone there to direct you, it’s often a passerby or even the guy on the front-end loader moving equipment. It’s catch-as-catch-can around these parts.

But get too far off the main roads and travel is rocky and dusty. Narrow roads connect neighborhoods. Hills are everywhere, steep and difficult to traverse, even in well built, four-wheel-drive trucks. Passengers bounce around while the driver holds on tight to the steering wheels.

Many, many swift and silent prayers are said.

And when I’m not girding myself from being tossed like a ragdoll and can look out the windows, I see that other part of Port-au-Prince, the part you see on the nightly news. The tent camps that arose after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake are being reduced, but the residents haven’t moved up far. Many thousands now inhabit other camps in ragged homes, poorly built “stick” homes covered with rusted corrugated tin and old tarps.

The houses wear the tired look of overuse, and so do the people.

Dust is everywhere, but yet palm trees blow in the breeze. Point your gaze to the sky and you might be fooled into thinking you’re at the Caribbean resort we Americans are so much more familiar with.

It’s funny, the things I think of when I travel to different parts of this city. In 2002, I traveled to Antigua. As we often do, my friend Kay and I got out of the resort to see the countryside. We saw where most Antiguans live, peering at their small, cement homes located too close to the city streets. And inside, I could see the bright colors of the decorations. I determined then that I would have a Caribbean home — decorating with primary colors and beautiful, bright art. That never happened in the States, but now is my time.

In these camps I drove through on Sunday afternoon, there is a feeling of permanence, as if the residents are settled into this reality. Some of the canopies over the “homes” have been scalloped into a pretty design. Other designs have been cut through the tarps to serve as a window. There is a measure of style even in the deepest poverty.

This is where many of the people displaced in the 2010 earthquake still live.

Such poverty won’t be my reality, but it will never be far from me. The danger will be in how I attune my heart to what I can do to alleviate suffering, and what I will not be able to do. This will be a great challenge for me while I am here.

Taking the long way home. On foot

All traffic stopped on Delmas 75 so workers could load a pile of garbage on a trash truck. This is progress!
All traffic stopped on Delmas 75 so workers could load a pile of garbage on a trash truck. This is progress!

OK, so here goes. I’ve been in Port-au-Prince for a week now. I’ve been busy enough — finding my way around, going out with a real estate agent to look at homes (that’s a story in itself!), finding the almost perfect place concentrating on the old saw: location, location, location!, and being ferried around town by wonderful friends new and not-so new. Has it really been just a week since I got here?

So in my downtime, I’ve buzzed away at a couple of essays — working hard to encapsulate what I’ve seen and heard and felt — but that’s obviously not working. My other documents are sitting here on the desktop of the laptop, and they are not telling the story. So here I go ….

I arrived here on May 25, traveling from Virginia to begin a three-year term working with Haitian agricultural groups. My first task is to find a home, and once I do, I will travel to Grand Colline in the southern mountains to live with a family and work on my Creole. The house hunt is coming along, but everything works slowly here. More later on this.

It’s Sunday afternoon, the first Sunday in June. I’m sitting in the back courtyard of Trinity Lodge, a wonderful hotel/guesthouse in Delmas, a long winding neighborhood that roves from downtown PAP up to the ritzy Petionville. It’s been an experience being here and meeting the fellow guests. A group of young adults from a church group in Florida came in last Saturday, too, the same day as I did. They took me in like a stray puppy, inviting me to dine with them, pray with them and even took me to church last Sunday. They also — one by one — shared with me their own stories. They offered prayers for my beginning ministry. It all seemed lonely when they left on Saturday morning, but by then I was getting to know Margo, a Dutch water management expert.

I’ve learned much from all of them.

On Monday morning, I got brave. Literally got brave. I decided to venture out on my own, carefully carrying well concealed money, my expensive cell phone and a look of quasi bravado on my face. I’m not sure that look was working. I rather think the locals wondered why this foreigner who looked as if she feared she’d be robbed was walking past their fruit stands with barely a hello. Fortunately I realized the error of my ways about the same time I realized I’d gone completely the wrong way. I relaxed a bit, asked for directions back and covered in sweat, made it back to the lodge.

I rested, and then, doggone it, I started out again. I’d figured out the right way this time and began to take note of the people and places along the way. On this journey, just beyond the corner where the tap-taps (repurposed pickups and other vehicles used for cheap transportation) linger waiting to be loaded, all traffic was stopped. A trash truck — a real trash truck — was loading a pile of garbage with a front-end loader. Workers used shovels to put the remaining trash into the truck. Maybe not everyone gets excited by a trash truck, but it sure looked like progress to me. After the big diesel truck lumbered off in a cloud of smoke, I carefully traversed around the shiny mess left behind.

I reached the main street — Delmas — with an inward cheer and managed to make it to Epi D’Ors, a quality bakery that doubles as a sort of fast food joint. I was nearly put off by the idea of crossing the busy street as a pedestrian, when a small guardian angel showed up at my side. He was about 10, and he quickly jumped in to let the motorists know I needed to cross to the other side. I was quite appreciative of his efforts and skill, but wondered whether to offer him a few dollars. “Don’t give the kids money,” I hear regularly. “That’s not helpful.” So I didn’t, but in retrospect, I regret that. He wasn’t begging. He was helping. And to his greater credit, he didn’t ask for money. Learning. Learning, I am.

I walked into the chilly, air-conditioned restaurant and paused to get my bearings. I greeted the numerous armed guards, but with caution. That’s still an adjustment for me.

I managed to get gourdes out of the ATM, order my meal, sit and eat without passing out from the heat and sudden emergence into air conditioning.

Aha! Perhaps I CAN do this, after all!

After dining, I found the young man with the bright red Digicel (a popular cell phone company) and bought extra minutes for my phone. By this time I was nearly invincible, so I crossed Delmas again (I ran to catch up with two pre-teen school girls who were navigating traffic with ease) and walked into the Eagle supermarket like a pro. (yeah, right.)

After purchasing some Skinny Cow cheese, crackers and a Gatorade (seemed smart after my traffic-dodging workout), I headed home, quite, quite proud of myself!

And tired.

Every journey I’ve taken through Haiti has primarily been in an air conditioned vehicle. I arrive at the airport, toss my bags into a jeep of some brand and head out to the countryside. When I ride anywhere in the countryside, dozens of Haitians will jump into the back of the truck for a ride. Anywhere. Children as young as 5 and women who are maybe 60 or older, and every age in between. It’s always made me realize that the opportunity to ride is a treat, and comfortable seats in air conditioning is almost like royalty. But it wasn’t until my long (for me), hot and sweaty walk that I understood that walking is the reality of maybe 70 percent of Haitian people. In the city, in the countryside and everywhere in between. Walking. Dodging vehicles. Keeping an eye out for pesky rocks and large holes in the sidewalks, vast dips where asphalt has crumbled. Holding onto to small children.

It was a good experience for me to understand by literally walking in the footsteps of the people I’ve come to be with. I’ve taken that walk again and will again in the future. But mostly that Monday when I arrived back at Trinity Lodge with a weary smile and a look of achievement, I understood a great lesson of the world: Most other people have it so much harder. It really puts complaining in perspective.

In my next post, the great house hunt! And my plans for this next week!