Haitian dinner

A typical Haitian meal of fried plantains, bread, beans and rice with meat. Much of the food served to Habitat volunteers was brought over from the Dominican Republic for the week. (Photo by Matt Miller)

One of the best things about international travel is sampling the food.

But we don’t get to here at an Irish-run camp where the head chef wanted to take no chances.

So this has been a crushing disappointment — until last night.

That’s when Matt and I scored an invite to a Haitian dinner!

It meant we could leave our guarded camp and walk – like free people – up the street in the pitch dark to a colorful dorm-like building with beautiful ironwork, vaulted ceiling and cool people – volunteers, etc. Plus what we were treated to next is the first pop I’ve had – Coke sweetened with sugarcane syrup.

I’m not sure what tasted better. Was it the spicy rice and brown beans with the to-die-for beef stew? The soft, chewy, wonderful bread? The fried plantains? Or… freedom?

I can report the feeling is not reciprocal about food. Just now at our worksite, I witnessed a Haitian woman unwrap what we’ve been eating for lunch all week: a hoagie bun filled with a meat or cheese salad.

She took a bite, about gagged, made a face and wrapped the foil back around it. Her friends howled with laughter.

And while I can enjoy a good tunafish (and it’s been good), let’s face it: the Haitian meal we had is tough to beat.

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Veterans Day

Rosalynn Carter consoles Mary Margaret Hornbaker after a joint Canadian and American ceremony for Remembrance Day and Veterans Day on November 11. Hornbaker, from Petoskey, Mich., was emotional during the ceremony because she remembered her late father, who earned the Purple Heart during the Korean War and a close family friend was was killed in Afghanistan earlier this fall. (Photo by Matt Miller)

LEOGANE — A Michigan woman thought first of her late father, whom she’d call on this day in honor of his Korean War service, for which he earned the Purple Heart.

Then she thought of her son, whose best friend from their town in Petoskey, Mich., was on the fated U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter that was shot down in Afghanistan Aug. 6.

During the most silent period at this busy Habitat for Humanity home-building site — in the frenzy of its final day — the clatter of power tools, hammers and voices stopped to honor the fallen in two countries: Canada and the U.S.

Volunteers tacked both countries’ flags onto long two-by-fours planted in six-foot-tall mountain of dirt. A Canadian volunteer passed around red velveteen poppies, which everyone pinned onto their blue work T-shirts. Then the workers streamed from the 100 houses under construction to the flags and gathered in a circle as a volunteer read King George V’s pronouncement that all work must stop at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in honor those who fought in World War I.

The poem “In Flanders Field” was read and then a woman raised her voice first to “O Canada” and then to “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Mary Margaret Hornbaker of Petoskey was standing 10 yards from former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, and walked right up to him to say thank you.

Carter saw her red, tear-streaked face and said: “Give me a love.” He motioned for her to hug him and she did. Then she hugged Mrs. Carter.

She said it was a fitting ceremony on the final day of this build, that will help put 500 quake-displaced Haitians in permanent homes.

The sacrifice of military members enable Americans to enjoy basic rights that go unrecognized, she said.

Carter on Thursday night said he considered basic human rights to include the right to shelter, the right for food and health care.

“We don’t think anything about going for a loaf of bread,” she said.

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Life in Haiti

Several people have asked for my impressions of Haiti. I tend to process things like this pretty slowly, but I thought I’d go ahead and share a few details of our lives in the Habitat for Humanity camp.

When we pulled in after a long day of travel, there was a fantastic surprise. We have flushing toilets! We also have showers, which are cold but quite refreshing in this climate. Plus, it washes the dirt and Deet just the same as hot water.

Due to security concerns, none of the volunteers have been able to meet any Haitian people, other than the future homeowner who is working the site with each team.    And because the native language is creole, insightful conversations haven’t happened too much. That has been one of the major frustrations. Our only glimpse of the culture here is through the bus windows or through the chain link fence (with razor wire on the top) surrounding our work and camp sites.   From a photographer’s standpoint, it’s extremely challenging. Every day on the 30-minute bus ride to and from the work site, I see many wonderful photographs that I’m unable to stop and take. I’m seeing a visual feast, but I’m left hungry. We are on an island. And with all the armed guards, sometimes it feels a little like we are in prison.

A positive experience: meeting people from all over the world who are giving an honest week’s work to help someone they don’t really know. Although I have no complaints about our living conditions, it’s important to note that we are not staying in a four-star hotel. We sleep on cots and share tents with four to 18 people in a very taxing climate. Most people are awake by 5:30 a.m., and after a quick breakfast, we head to the buses. Although the air usually feels comfortable when we load up, by the time we get to the work site, it feels much warmer and only gets hotter. We work until about 4:30 p.m., then head back to the camp where the showers are open from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. We eat dinner and try to relax. Then lights go out at 9:30 p.m. 

Related Content
Photo showcase: The group departs the United States and arrives in Haiti
Photo showcase: The work begins
Photo showcase: Progress is made
Video: All the poverty in Haiti

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The camp

Say what you will about showers in the dark in plywood stalls with only cold water.

At least it’s not a ravine.

The camp for volunteers is rustic with creature comforts like flush toilets (albeit in plywood stalls).

When I saw those toilets on Sunday, I was so shocked — figuring we’d have hot-box portapotties — that after I used one, I went to wash my hands and stood at a line of outdoor sinks waiting for the water to automatically turn on.

Really, I did that, even though the sinks were empty basins tied into plywood walls outdoors with PVC pipe running throughout and big turn-off valves.


And yet. That first day I did what I do at work in Omaha where the toilet automatically flushes, the sinks automatically turn on, the papertowels automatically (well, they’re supposed to) spit out.

Man we’re spoiled.

We’ve got it pretty good here with the cots, the tents, the Irish meals, the 5,000 bottles of water we’re consuming daily here.

Let alone back home.

And it’s not like the Haitians I’ve seen aren’t getting on with it. Kids are going to school in pristine — PRISTINE — pressed uniforms. Young guys are playing soccer. Moms are cooking meals in pots on wood fires outside. People laugh, shop, live.

It’s not like things were out of whack after the earthquake.

But why now are we really taking a look at a country that has struggled more than it should have to for 200 years?

Automatic sinks.


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The World-Herald in Haiti: Roundup of coverage

Nov. 10
VIDEO: Omaha Don Browers talks about his Haiti experience
Haitian-Americans pitch in
Romanian volunteer seeks to repay kindness

Nov. 9
PHOTO SHOWCASE: Wednesday’s work
World-Herald editorial: Volunteer force did not forget
No time to waste in Haiti
Volunteers will see satisfaction of completion

Nov. 8
VIDEO: Jimmy Carter speaks in Haiti
Haiti: Horrific beyond expectations
A land where to waste is to sin
Carter meets with Haitian leader

Nov. 7
Carter: Haiti needs help

Nov. 6
Omahans hands-on in Haiti

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Tough talker with a big heart

Alan McKenna with the World-Herald’s Erin Grace. (Matt Miller photo)

Alan McKenna, a fromer Irish Defense Forces sergeant and head chef here at the Habitat camp, would like me to tell you about his cousins the Boyles, who are brothers and Pennsylvania Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“They’ll be the next Kennedys,” he says Wednesday night in the outdoor bar that is part of this massive volunteer tent camp.

But here’s what you should really know.

He’s a tough talker with a big heart.

He told Habitat no bar was a kind of deal-breaker and that he had to have it for his Irish staff.

“But we insisted that no Irish volunteers would come unless there was a bar,” he said. “And they let us have a bar.”

He’s set some rules here, starting with no Haitian food (can’t risk it; it’s all imported from the Dominican Republic), handwashing and sanitation, long hours for the kitchen and “front-of-house” crew who dish up porridge in the morning and Beef and Guiness Pie at night.

If this blog stopped you at the word “bar” – many here were surprised to find a tree ringed with Christmas lights and a plywood bar top at a Habitat for Humanity build.

Yet the spot has become a gathering place after dinner where weary volunteers can wind down, enjoy music, buy Haitian crafts and listen to the camp’s famous volunteers, former President Jimmy Carter, Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood. The latter two gave a brief impromptu performance the other night.

But let’s get back to McKenna.

He’s been in Haiti doing home-building with Haven since 2009. He was discharged from the Army, after a 23-year career that took him to global hotspots as a U.N. Peacekeeper.

Because he was a cook in the Army, he was tapped for service here.

Each day Haven prepares over 500 breakfasts, 700 or so lunches and 500 or more dinners.

They work from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. (and later) and others in the organization have served in crucial logistical roles: toilets, sinks and plywood showers, waste management, all the food prep.

A build-site VIP lunch for 50 donors, President Carter and Haitian President Michele Martelly wound up feeding 200 people. He broke his own rule in serving Haitian-Americans volunteering here a special Haitian meal.

Haven staff separately shuttle 5,000 water bottles a day to the work site.

Most Haven workers are unpaid volunteers. Some two dozen work in the kitchen.

McKenna asked for Habitat volunteer helpers and said they’ve translated the menu.

“We speak the same language and we don’t,” he said. “Creamed potato became mashed potato. Jelly became jello.”

He said he’s glad to be of service here and sees it as “a thank you from my ancestors.”

“Two hundred years ago, Americans took us in,” McKenna said. “So now I’m here cooking.”

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Progress, in photos

Here’s Matt Miller’s most recent photo showcase from Leogane. The Habitat group has made plenty of progress on the homes they’re building.

Click here to see the showcase (16 photos)

Adina Sinea, from Luxemborg, helps Haitian Beatrice Marc attach panels to the outside of her future home on November 9. (Photo by Matt Miller)

Unfortunately for the volunteers the clouds have stayed over the mountains, and the sun beats down on the Santo work site. (Photo by Matt Miller)

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On the way to the men’s room last night, Kenny Ward, a Houston-area attorney originally from Lincoln, Neb., had a little competition on the path.

“I thought it was cool,” he said of the furry eight-legged friend about the size of an adult hand.

Now his experience was complete.

He got out his iPhone and snapped a photo.

Then, the paparazzi came: other volunteers with their cameras.

Suffice it to say, the love of All Gods Creatures was not shared by the rest of the group, including some of Ward’s tentmates who decided now was a good time to use their mosquito nets.

For the record – and knock on wood – nary a mosquito has been spotted.

“They are now tarantula nets,” Ward said.

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Carter meets with Haitian leader

Haiti’s President Michel Martelly, right, talks with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn inside one of the homes constructed through the Habitat for Humanity project in Leogane on Tuesday. (Associated Press photo)

LÉOGÂNE, Haiti — Haitian President Michele Martelly’s controversial decision to restart the Haitian Army is a “distant” project, former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday.

Carter, who is in Léogâne to lead a weeklong house-building blitz, met with Martelly on Tuesday at the Habitat for Humanity building site. Martelly, a huge draw for the Haitians working and volunteering here, toured the project and shook hands with another famous pair of volunteers: country singer Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood.

Then he, Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, went inside the sole air-conditioned house on-site and spoke privately.

Martelly then addressed a throng of Haitian journalists, telling them in Creole that he was grateful for the houses. He joined Carter in a tent for a VIP lunch with several dozen people, including Omahan John Bunch. More than 500 people, including 400 U.S. and Canadian volunteers, are at the build site.

Bunch is a TD Ameritrade executive who is raising money for Habitat.

Carter, at a press conference later Tuesday, said he “expressed concern” to Martelly about the Haitian president’s plans to start up an army.

“He told me that was in the distant future,” Carter said.

Carter said Martelly envisioned an army that would help rebuild the country “like the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers.”

“He doesn’t want the rest of the world to believe that one of his early priorities is to build an army,” Carter said.

Carter said he would also remind the world’s major governments and former President Bill Clinton, who is serving a dual role as U.N.’s Special Envoy to Haiti and heading up a commission to green-light reconstruction projects, that donors need to make good on their promises to Haiti.

VIDEO: Jimmy Carter speaks in Haiti

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“We don’t let him get on the roof”

What’s it like to work alongside your folks, who are in their 80s, when much younger volunteers are getting dehyrdated at the worksite in Haiti?

“They’ll run you to death,” said Jeff Carter, who counts this as his 16th Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

His parents launched the annual weeklong blitz 28 years ago.

Jeff and brother Chip are sweating it out under the close Haitian sun (which we’re told feels cool; this is fall afterall). Their parents appear to be no shrinking violets. The former president, now 87, and first lady, now 84, are holding ladders, lugging two-by-fours and helping … on the ground.

Country singer Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood spent the past two days working on the same house as the Carters.

They appear friendly but aren’t breaking from the labor.

Jeff Carter, who works at the Altanta-based conflict resolution center his father founded, said of his parents: “They came to work.”

The only rule?

“We don’t let him get on the roof,” he said of his dad. “It’s just too hot… Not that he wouldn’t do it. And nobody could stop him.”

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