Traveling back from Pignon

February 28th, 2017 No comments

The road between Pignon and Port-au-Prince is paved on the half that is closest to Port-au-Prince. The night before we left, our host informed us that there were protestors blocking the road because they didn’t like the new Haitien president. Ironic. As part of their protests, they had blocked the dirt road heading back to Port-au-Prince. We had to take an alternative route. He warned us that the road was bad and that we would need to get out of the van and walk in places. I was kinda looking forward to this experience. :). Yeah I know, Jill.

Because of the unknowns, we had to be ready to leave at 6AM.  Ugh, the cold shower at 5 was a real wake up call. I must be getting used to cold showers again because it wasn’t bad.

Surprising most of us, the van defied Haitien Time and was present at 6. The loading of our bags onto the roof racks was a much easier process because they were much lighter. Most of came heavily loaded with school supplies, building equipment and clothes, most of which had been donated.

So we headed on roads that were rutted, bumpy and dusty. Considering that the folks in Seattle are dealing with snow, the temperature here is in the mid-eighties with a humidity level that was slightly unpleasant. The air conditioning in the van was laboring away.  The vents in the front of the van didn’t work and as such the folks in the front seat were not nearly as comfortable as we were. When they opened the window to get some air, the folks in the back of the van got a nice dusting of floating dirt road. The road was bumpy enough to fool the Fitbit into counting the bumps as steps. The four plus hours of bumps were worth 14,000 steps.

As we walked down a hill and the van got stuck in a rut with the rear right wheel about a foot into the air. It was high enough that we were concerned that the van would topple over. The people from a tap-tap coming in the opposite direction and folks from the local village all came to our assistance and we had at least twenty folks helping us hang on the ropes while some of them demonstrated their hanging off the back of an unstable Hi Ace to ensure that it didn’t topple over.

We overcame this obstacle and headed down the road again. Jeff, who had been scouting ahead returned and informed us that the road was worse ahead, with a river crossing….. we strolled down the hill to be greeted by a gently flowing river about a foot deep in places. It was pretty easy to walk through. And pleasantly cool. With a deceptively steep and slippery exit from the river.

Yep, the van slid back into the river and after numerous attempt with people pushing from the back and other teams pulling on the ropes on the front, each attempt requiring the van to be dug out, we managed to get the van up the hill.

By now another taxi had caught up with us and their passengers had to walk too. This allowed me to get a closeup of the chicken tied to the roof  yes, this chicken it on the roof of the Hi Ace. Apparently a lot of the chickens were imported from Spain and they are pretty good looking birds. There are also some straggly ones too…

The rest of the drive was pretty boring after the river crossing and we headed into Port-au-Prince for our last night together as a group before we went our separate ways

it is Carnaval weekend and we found out that this is one of the few times that the museums are closed. I found out later that the art galleries close too, much to the delight of my budget.

Walking around the gardens of the hotel I noticed quite a few orchids growing against the tree trunks. To finish off this post, here is a post of one them. Life is Good!

 

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Last day of the build

February 27th, 2017 No comments

So onto the last day of the build…..a sad day because it means that we

will soon be saying goodbye to the wonderful people that I’ve been surrounded by for the last week. The photo to the right is of our fearless leader posing by one of the walls. Thanks Mike and Conner.

The floors that we poured on Thursday are cured enough for us to walk on them. Wood is very expensive and so we need to reuse the wooden boards used for forms to pour the concrete window and door support beams. This means that it was not possible to finish all of them in a single pour. So we pull the backing boards off the cured pours from the previous day and reuse them for some of the remaining sills. With each pour, we were able to complete a quarter of the overhead sills. This meant that the volunteers would never see the house shell complete because the sills will only be finished the following week. The professionals hired by Fuller will finish up the house over the next month.  Ah well..
Our last day is spent putting stucco on the walls. Some of us are ferrying buckets of sloppy mortar that the artisans will load up onto a float and then using a trowel flick it onto the wall. When they did it, 98% of the mortar stuck to the walls. They then smooth and level the surface of the stucco using a straight edge piece of wood. Pretty simple concept.

So, Jeff and I decide that we’re going to give it a try… I load up the mortar onto the float, I transfer about a cup to my trowel and flick it onto the wall. Splat. And seventy five percent is on the floor. Ugh.  Ok, try again with more of a sweeping motion, which results in a higher retention on the wall. About fifty percent now. But the cupful is slammed on the wall as a lump. Great, I just managed to give the wall a pimple. Third try, more flick with the same sweeping motion. Ah, much better spread this time but almost no retention on the wall. This is a lot more difficult than I thought. I load up the float again and continue with my attempts. By now, all of the artisans have stopped their progress and are watching my attmpts with much amusement. After about five floats of mortar, mostly of which landed up on the floor, I decided that I was just wasting mortar and Jeff took over. He was much better and was able to consistently achieve a sixty-plus percent retention. After a couple of minutes, we both decided to leave this to the professionals because we were wasting mortar. We can’t do that to our teammates that are mixing the mortar for us.

The rest of the team is busy loading up the building rubble so that it can be carted away. It is a slow day because of the limited supply of wood and the skills needed to stucco the house. As such, we have the afternoon off which we use to walk around the town and to enjoy our cold water showers in the heat of the day. The showers feel great but you’re just as sweaty within ten minutes of the shower.

Here is the house as we left it

And the fantastic team of volunteers that I had the privilege to work with and get to know. The lady sitting next to me is Marie, the new house owner

In the afternoon, we did a walk around town and played with some of the kids. Here is a video of the windmill that I can’t remember how many times I did over the week.

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We’re making progress 

February 23rd, 2017 No comments

Sorry for the sporadic updates, Internet connectivity is a challenge.

Over the last couple of days we’ve managed to get a ton of work done. This is mainly due to the house being very small, approx. 390 square feet and the team working really well together. Everyone on the team is here to work and this results in someone stepping up and getting the tasks done. For the tasks that require specific skills or strength, someone will will backfill the person that was pulled into the new role.  The photo on the right is from the 2nd day where the concrete foundation has been poured and the foundation concrete blocks have been laid. The vertical rebar stuctires are embedded into the concrete foundation. That is Alan in the photo, this house is for his family and he is currently studying finance at college up north in a town just outside Cap Haitien.

As volunteers we are the manual labor that enables the professionals that we work with to get some of the more specilized tasks done, such as brick laying. When the foundation trenches were dug, the dirt was piled up in the middle of the three rooms.  Ounce the concrete foundation was poured and the foundation blocks laid, it was time to fill in the gap between the foundation and the sides of the trenches.  After that, it was a simple effort to remove the soil, interspersed with a the remaining foundation from the old house. Then the floor was leveled and the remaining soil piled on the side of the road where it could be used to fill in the pot holes just outside town.  We load up the trike with the dirt and go and dump it.

The house is being built with concrete blocks that are manufactured in the town. We need to fetch them from the block factory by loading and unloading the trike motorcycle that is used as transport.  The blocks are then piled around within in easy reach for the bricklayer to lay. We found that the quickest and most effective way to move the blocks is by human conveyer belt where the blocks are  passed from person to person.  

The mortar for the brick layers is transported using the ubiquitous five gallon bucket from the mixing pile on the side of the round to where it is needed.

The bags of cement was collected from a storage facility and the sand mix is delivered by truck. The sand mix is ready to be used for concrete. However, the large stones in the mix need to be removed for mortar and so a group of volunteers are pretty much constantly sieving the mix to separate the stone.

Other teammates are working on the rebar, which is either for the vertical supports or for the foundation.  The rebar work consisted of taking pieces of wire and use them to wrap the joints using a special technique and then tightening the knot by twisting with pliers. Twist too much and the wire breaks, too little and you have a loose joint.

 

Finally, here are two photos showing our progress on the house with the walls getting up there .

 

 

We are are all staying in guesthouse and here is a photo of the front of the house .

 

I finally managed to upload the photos at 6AM and so I will try the morning upload routine tomorrow again and hopefully give you another update.

Life is Great

 

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Today was a little different

February 23rd, 2017 No comments

Today, a lot of street vendors hawking a variety of goods set up their stalls in front of our guesthouse. They were selling anything from hand embroidered table cloths and clothing, various hand made goods such as carvings from wood and stone, paintings, metal art, jewelry, and even machetes. Here is a collection of some of the wares that found new homes. I felt really sorry for them because they spent so long setting up and some of them didn’t sell anything. Others did and so I guess this is capitalism at work.

A yellow school bus arrived to take us to a local school and we all piled on. Some of the volunteers are either active teachers or retired and so they were very excited about this trip.  Gerald, our local sponsor is the assistant principal, teaches Math and Economics, and was part of the first graduation class.

Even though this is a private school that operates within the guidelines set by the Haitien government; they do strive to be exceptional. They partner with the other schools in the area and do not believe in competeting with the other schools because they are focused on their educational goals. There are also more than enough kids to go around and the enemy is poverty and ignorance. Last year, they had a 100% of their graduation class pass the final exams that need to be taken in Port-au-Prince. They are very proud of this metric.

The school has 1100 kids and 75 teachers, 40 of which are full-time; the rest work on an hourly basis and are shared with other schools. The majority of the high school classes work this way. The school will be celebrating its 25th anniversary next year and as graduates have returned home from their studies, they wanted a better environment for their children and hence the people-school.

The school system is controlled by the state and was adopted from the French system. The kids graduate when they complete the 13th grade which enables them to easily further their education at higher learning institutions. They are able to communicate in four languages when they graduate from the school – Creole, French, English and Spanish.

The kids are all wearing school uniforms and the dress code is strictly enforced. If a kid shows up at school ungroomed or with dirty, damaged or incorrect uniforms, they will be sent home. We did notice that some of the children were wearing sneakers and the staff shared that it was because that was all their parents could not afford multiple pairs of shoes.  Classes are from 6AM to noon and the kids we spoke with were very proud that they have the opportunity to attend school.

We Encountered a 22-year old boy that was in 7th grade. He was being sponsored which enabled him to finally attend school. The school administrator shared with us that some of the adults who had jobs in town, such as town, had come back to school in order to complete their high schooling. They understand how key education is to ending poverty and th most notable returnees were two town mayors.

The classrooms were basic with a green chalk board in the front. The two classes we visited had 36 and 47 squeezed in but some of the classses can be as large as a 100 students. The school teachers in the group were all commenting on the neatness of the children’s writing. The kids attending pre-school and elementary school also get lunch that mostly consists of rice and beans. They also benefit from a bus that collects them in the town center and returns them back after school.

The school was started by a Caleb Lucien and his wife.  Caleb is from the region and so he knows what the people need and after he completed his Masters of Education, he returned back to the region to start a high school because the closest one was an hour away by car, Most of the people couldn’t afford this and so they just didn’t attend high school.  Or the kids would be sent away to complete their schooling. When they started, they bought motorbikes and hired drivers which would then fetch the teachers from neighboring schools, have them teach for the day before returning them home afterwards.

Approximately 50% of of the kids are ‘sponsored’ via a organization called Hosean International Ministries which was started by Caleb too. They are a 501c3 in the USA and a recognized NGO in Haiti. The organization uses volunteers in the US and so all of the money come straight to Haiti. The biggest cost is the teacher salaries and the annual sponsorship of a child enables the school to make a commitment to  child and the teachers.

After the school visit, we poured the concrete floors for the house. The well practiced human conveyer belt stepped up the task with the last person in line pouring the concrete where the mason could then smooth it up with the float. The last person was also the one that got splattered but I must admit, it was better than yesterday when I had to lift the buckets of concrete up to the mason who was balanced on top of a 45 gallon drum with six concrete block in order to give him the height needed to pour the buckets of concrete for the vertical columns. My good old hat took the majority of the splatter except for the one time that I looked up to collect a dollop in the face. Much the amusement of the human conveyer belt. After we completed the floor pouring, some of the team headed out to tour the new market while the rest of us got down to manufacturing the rebar structures needed for the concrete support beams above the doorways and window openings.

Jill, one of my fellow volunteers is also blogging. If you are interested in her perspective as a third grade teacher with a sick sense of humor please visit:  http://takach108.blogspot.com

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The Pignon volunteers come together 

February 21st, 2017 1 comment

After a day of travel, the team finally assembled in a cheap hotel in Port-au-Prince before starting the long road trip up North to a little town called Pignon. We were fortunate enough to be able to all fit into the the Toyota HiAce with our luggage piled high on the roof. The initial portion of the road trip consists of a twin road pass to get over the mountain that cuddles the back of Port au Prince. The second half consisted of a horrendous dirt road with a river crossing and all. Some of the volunteers suffer from motion sickness; the dirtroad must have been a really rough trip for them.
Our arrival in Pignon was pretty easy to determine, there were concrete roads.  This is also the cleanest town I’ve seen since arriving in Haiti. The even have garbage cans on the street.

We are all staying in a guest house on the Main Street where the volunteer group of four guys and seven women all get to share the three bathrooms. Have I mentioned before how much I dislike cold showers…..although the benefit is they do wake you up in the morning.

The locals had already removed the previous house and had almost finished digging the foundation trenches for new house when we arrived on site. All that remained for us was to finish up a small portion of the trenches. Other team members started to manufacture the rebar structures that would serve as the primary vertical supports while others operated the sieves that would remove the stones from the soil mix that form the base for the concrete and mortar mixtures. As the various work trains all converged on the mixing of the concrete for the foundation and the installation of the  vertical rebar structures. The concrete was mixed, loaded into 5 gallon buckets and carried to where the foundation was being poured. While this was going on, some of the team headed off to fetch the cinder blocks and pile them up next to the building site so that they would be ready for use.
After we broke for lunch, we started the effort of completing the rest of the foundation using large cinder blocks. Fortunately for us, there were three very experienced bricklayers that performced this task and our roles were simple manual labor carrying buckets of mortar and cinder blocks.

We have managed to socialize a bit with the local inhabitants. The people are very friendly and the whole town knows that the Fuller Housing volunteers are in town. As such, we have the expected people wanting handouts but a lot more people that are just trying to talk and engage with us.

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Unexpected reminder 

February 17th, 2017 1 comment

I have spent the last couple of days reading and reflecting in paradise. I have been able to workout twice a day, on the beach which has been great! Spending time in a jewel of a place such as this, changes you and definitely brings forward a new perspective on life. This is privilege and I’m greatful to the Tier 3 folks that made this a reality. 

My gym with natural box jumps


Some young boys joined me for my afternoon workout. They had a blast doing box jumps, on the beach where the waves had eroded the sand; with them demonstrating much better technique than me. Even though they had just learned how to do them. I guess they were and I guess that they were between ten and twelve and they didn’t know and didn’t seem to care. Their English was significantly better than my French; in combination with an enormous amount of gestulatimg we were able to communicate. 

I normally finish my afternoon workout with a swim and they shared that they couldn’t swim. I offered to teach them. One of them took me up on my offer and we started off by teaching him to float. When he learned this, his self confidence visibly increased. Sooooo awesome to witness. He demonstrated enormous trust and a hunger for growth & knowledge as I helped him learn swimming basics. He caught on quickly and was able to do a breast stroke / crawl combo in less than an hour. His friend watched us from the shore with interest but was adamant that he was not coming into the water. By now the sun was starting to set and so we got out of the water

I asked them about school and was floored with one of the boy’s response. One of the boys shared that the church bought him shoes, so now he can go to school. The other boy shared, with immense pride, that his mother bought him two pairs of shoes and even gives him extra money for good behavior at school. 

Wow, massive reminder about the self confidence that empowerment provides. I hope he stokes and grows that fire. What they said also really saddened me. Parents were not able to afford to give him basic clothing that would provide him with the groundwork to grow further. That had to be tough on the parents. Lot’s to think about. 

I have mentioned in previous posts how the islanders work together and help each other. I am a passionate person and as people know, I  wear my emotions on my sleeve. At dinner and breakfast this morning, I was asked by the majority of staff members a simple question “you ok?”. Wow, these people have enormous amounts of empathy that extends to tourists too.

This has weighed heavily on my mind and I started a determined search of an NPO that focuses on the island. I found an organization called Friends of Ile a Vache Haiti and have reached out to them to learn more. The folks on this island seem to be forgotten and need some help. I showed the Friends of Ile a Vache website and Facebook pages to some of the locals and they all said they know the locals in the photos and that they were good honest guys. Sounds like these guys are the real thing. 

And for the two folks that txt’d me asking how they can help and anyone else who has the same question, here is the link to my Fuller Housing fundraising page. Please put in the comments to earmark your donation for Haiti. Or support the Friends of Ile a Vache please.  Thanks for making a difference. 

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Paradise has pain and suffering too

February 15th, 2017 No comments

I am writing this blog post sitting on a deck overhanging the calm warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. It is such a privilege to being able to visit this jewel and meet the people who live here. Abaka Bay was voted the 57th most beautiful beaches in the world and walking on the talcum powder like soft sand, I wonder why it’s only the 57th on the CNN ranking.

Ile-a-Vache is approximately twenty square miles off the southern coast of Haiti. It is mostly know for its two tourist resorts, Port Morgan and Abaka Bay, both located on gorgeous beaches and not without their own conflict. For those interested, just google “Abaka Bay ownership”. Seems greed is everywhere and the poor are the ones that suffer the most.

I was extremely fortunate to be exposed to the portion of the island hidden away from most tourisst. I understand that this might be the piece that most tourists don’t want to see; considering that that I am in Haiti to volunteer and leave the country better off after my visit, I ventured off the resort grounds to experience the real world. Everyone I encountered was very friendly. They were reserved and even if

Rutted trail

they didn’t ask what I was doing, the majority of people always greeted me with a smile and a “bonjour”. It is not uncommon to see children and relatives constantly greeting their family members and friends with big smiles and welcoming hugs. Walking around with one of the locals was truly an honor and would like to thank Jean for his trust in me to show me this other side of the resort world.

We took a motorcycle ride up and over the hill that is behind the resort. It is a simple single track that the majority of Abaka Bayemployees walk every day. They make the journey, get changed at work into work attire, work a full day before getting changed again and returning home. About four miles along the trail I recognized one of the wait staff from the hotel, sitting next to a palm-leaf / grass hut. He waved as we went by. The trail is deeply rutted and totally washed out in numerous places where we had to dismount and manouver the bike around or over the obstacles.

There are only a few 4×4’s on the island for official purposes such as law enforcement and emergency services. The very fortunate few have motorcycles, some have horses or donkeys but the majority folks, walk. Of the folks walking on the trails, a large percentage of them were barefooted, ouch!  The trails are littered with sharp rocks, especially were the water has eroded the trail.

About two miles into the ride, I worked out what was bothering me. One hundred percent of the houses that we had passed had boarded up windows. This trend continued; other than the resort, I’ve not seen a house with a window. The closest I’ve seen are air bricks or steel reinforcing mesh. When I retuned to the resort, I took a closer look at the windows in my room and all of them had been replaced.

As we manouvered further into the island, the evidence that some massive force of nature had thrown a temper tantrum on the island

Monster uprooted tree

what clearly visible. All of the large trees in that area had all been blown over. Even the normally wind resistant trees like palm trees had been uprooted and been moved two or three feet from their original locations. The trail in this area was now just a collection water forged ruts that in many place had exposed the bedrock under the fertile land.

We passed many hand tilled fields and one family was burning the brush back in order to prepare the soil for the coming growing season. The crop is most commonly beans and corn, mainly because that is the only seeds that they can get hold of. They measure the quantities of seeds by the handful.  The one person said that he only managed to get 300 seeds (one handful) for the coming growing season that he needed to plant. It seems that every thing is in short supply on the island.

We passed a number of the island inhabitants carrying buckets using whatever transport they had

Down Palm tree

available to them. This meant that the majority of people were carrying the buckets by hand.  There are only 22 boreholes on the island and when I asked the question, the nearest one was over two kilometers away. This meant that the two young kids, I think they were maybe ten, had carried their buckets 2 klicks. Wow, that’s tough! I doubt I could do it with the smile that they had. The family would then either use the water for bathing, which is basically a wipe on, wipe off type of procedure with many family members needing to get clean with ththe contents of the water bucket. Some of the water is used for cooking too.  A lot of the kitchens are still separate from the sleeping quarters and often very primitive. They are basically a wooden frame, with palm tree leaves for a roof. The oven resembles a big pizza oven with a single food prep area. As the families are able to upgrade and build new ones with the old kitchen converted into wood working shop as is the one in the photo.

It has now been three months since the hurricane wreaked havoc on the island community, there is not a single house that does not bear the scars. I would say in 25% of the cases, the temporary repairs are still in play. Some of the houses are really badly damaged with walls and roofs missing. The lucky ones that have the option to stay elsewhere, they have done so and many relatives now share accommodation. I counted more than ten houses where the people were occupying the significantly damaged structure. Walls were down and plastic sheeting being used as a make shift roofing. Jean explained to me, for these folks, it is all they have an some are not willing to move. Others just have nowhere else to go. The reason for the lack of repairs is mainly finances where the people are barely scraping by and the cost of building supplies are just beyond their means.

Rocks and course sand & crushed shell mixture is collected from the beaches using the ubiquitous 5 gallon bucket. The laborer will take the bucket out into the water until they are between waist and neck deep, bend down underwater and collect the sand/broken shell mixture up from the ocean floor. They will then pile the mixture up on the back of the beach out of reach of the high tide waves where they will leave it to stand. They will also recover rocks fro the depths and pile them up too. The material will then delivered to the client when purchased. More modern building supplies such as cement, beams and corrugated steel for roofing need to be brought in from Les Cayes by boat. This means that building supplies on the island are in short supply and expensive. Jean was telling me that engines are one of the most expensive item an islander can procure. That’s assuming that they can be found and when buying one, the availability and costs of spare parts is a major consideration. For the hard to find parts, a trip to the Dominican Republic may be required.

The majority of the families support each other and as the parents age, the kids support them. In a few of the cases, the older people who don’t have children now rely on the church, community or support

Trail washed away

from outside NPO organizations. On the topic of the NPO’s there much reticence from the folks in need. In the States we see some of the large NPO advertise how many people they’ve helped but the people who really need the help saw minimal benefit from organizations. To such a point that there were riots across the country from the people calling BS on these organizations. As the $ makes it’s way from the generous donors, across the globe, to those in need, it seems that each person that it passes through takes their cut leaving a pitence for the people whom the contributions originally made. I have heard a similar message from a number of NPO’s and numerous of the Haitians that trusted me enough to speak their minds. A lot of the Haitians don’t trust the NPO’s because they’ve been disappointed so many times and the help never seams to come.

This has gotten me thinking. How do those of us that are fortunate positions in life, help those in need without it being a handout, respect these people’s dignity but also empowerthem to help themselves. Maybe it is my strong views of empowering people, but I do believe that programs that provide education and then the means are key in situations such as this. The old adage is so true in my mind: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime

I support an organization called the Boma Project, that helps women in Kenya form partnerships with other women in their community and then enables the women through micro loans to start and run businesses.  Their approach of education and support has been very successful and is now starting to influence other organizations to follow suite. I wonder if Kathleen Colson might be interested in expanding her program to an island in Haiti or sharing her techniques with them?  I believe that this approach will do wanders for the grass roots movement. What about the next step up the economic ladder. What options are there for the people who want to start businesses or expand their businesses? Are there any international / finance geniuses ready my blog who have some wisdom to share? If memory serves me correctly there was a crowdfunding campaign directly after the hurricane specifically aimed at helping people on Ile-a-Vache the that raised in excess of £3,000.

 

 

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Heading South

February 12th, 2017 No comments

Today was a day of travel and I had to be at the wharf in Les Ceyes to meet the water taxi for the trip to Ile-a-Vache. Basically, from the north of the country to the south. The airport runways in Les Ceyes were destroyed by the earthquake and so the only option is by road.  OK,, for those with heavily lined pockets, there are helicopters. I was originally planning on taking a bus from Port-au-Prince but the majority of them leave earlier than my flight lands or later in the afternoon. So my options were to spend a night in Port-au-Prince or take the transport that the hotel arranged. An option that I didn’t think of was to spend a night in Les Ceyes and in retrospect, this would have been a good one because the town looks very colorful and Caribbean.

So, an early morning rise to head to the airport. My AirBnB room was approximately 35 minutes from the airport but just over 15 minutes without traffic. The town looks a lot different without so many people around.I was fortunate enough to encounter a phenomenal taxi driver when I arrived and he was there to pick me up at 6:30 AM. So he picked my up right in the middle of his church service which started at 6. Super nice of him. For those looking for a great driver in Cap Haitien, here are his details: Jean Charles +509 3443 6249.

We arrived at the airport terminal early and I had to wait for them to open. Again the airport guide took me straight through for a $ tip. I was the only person in the terminal at one stage because of his help.
The airport layout is more along the lines of what I’m used to with with the checkin counters up front and then the security check. This terminal supports both domestic and international flights. I set the metal detector off because I had forgotten to take my Fitbit off but the staff were super friendly and just had me go through again.
There is a single waiting area and again it was clean with a couple of mosquitoes that paid the ultimate price in their search for protein. They should’ve stayed vegetarian like their males counterparts.

I was chatting with a lady from Cuba and she knew one of the pilots and they had a conversation in Spanish and I assume they are from Cuba too. It seems this is the primary airline  between Haiti and Cuba. On this flight, I was not assigned a seat but it is pretty easy to see when they’re going to board and everyone is friendly, with one loud exception, yes he was American. The Cuban lady had some great choice words in Spanish, when he pushed in, called him a donkey preceded with some rather non-complementary, yet descriptive terms. We both started started chuckling when she realized that I had heard what she had mumbled.

This time when I boarded, the ground crew said I can put my backpack in the luggage area at the back of the plane. The funny piece is that should I have done that, it would have been on top of my duffel bag. The flight from Cap Haitien to Port-au-Prince was 32 minutes and for the majority of the flight we were flying over clouds which cleared up when we came in on approach to Port-au-Prince.
I almost forgot to share that you need to present the baggage checkin slip you received when you you checkin your bag. They will keep both tags it and give you your bag. I had this happen on both legs of the domestic flight but not the international leg and so I assume it is to prevent bag theft.

I used the hotel transport from the airport in Port-au-Prince to the the wharf in Les Ceyes. The driver, Fritz, is very proud that he can make the drive in three hours instead of the normal four. I am typing up this blog post as the little Suzuki Grand Vitara

Tap-tap @80hm/h

hurtles down the road at over 140 km/h. Then he’s hard on the brakes to avoid pot holes, water ditches, pedestrians, oncoming traffic  or tap-taps.

It’ll be taking the bus back to Port-au-Prince!

The further we get out from the bigger cities, the tap-taps change. They are less colorful and almost exclusively motorcycle or pickup based. Some of the pickups also don’t have canopies on them, just a metal railing system to help support the folks standing in the back. As we whipped past one I managed to count 12 people and I think I was only through half done counting.

I was met by one of the hotel staff at the wharf and we jumped into the water taxi. I was pretty excited by this because I had seen these boats being used by the fisherman in Cap Haitien. The Caribbean is beautiful. The irony for me is that the water color is very similar to water runoff from the Alps, just with an approximate 30 degree Celcius temperature difference. When I read the reviews for the hotel, there were many complaints about the boat and I can see that it can be a challenge for those with injuries, physical handicaps or the elderly. I enjoyed the experience, even as the guy behind me bailing water out of the boat because at times the water was a little choppy and so there Spray coming over the gunwales.

The resort is sooooooo worth it!!! I looked at quite a few places to stay on the island and contacted them. It helps that I got a good deal because it was a quiet period, which made it affordable. Ketura responded to all of my questions with the patience of Mother Theresa. She was very diligent and followed up with me numerous times to ensure that I was still on schedule and arranged all my transport to the hotel. She was waiting for me on the wharf and the staff call her “The Boss”, even in front her. I really didn’t know what to expect. I had seen the photos on the website but I’ve learned never to believe travel photos. As the water taxi rounded the horn, there was a gorgeous bay and then they started heading into the bay, I realized it was the resort. Wow!! Picturesque.

Jean met us at the boat jetty of the hotel, welcomed me and then gave me tour around before taking me to my room. There is a swamp at the back of the hotel and so the

Lunch

mosquitoes are around when there isn’t a breeze to control them. I’m glad that I brought a monster supply a anti-bug stuff. He was initially very surprised when I switched off the air conditioner and opened the doors and windows with bug screens so that I could hear the waves.

They had prepared a late lunch that was awesome!! And then there was the view from the table on the beach. I decided to come to Ile-a-Vache based on all of the recommendations from my Haitien friends and I’m glad that I did!

 

 

Categories: Haiti Tags:

The Citadel

February 12th, 2017 1 comment

I travelled up north to see this colossal castle and it did not disappoint. Other than taking a tour, there two options to get there, the first is to use the variety of public transport options or take a taxi. Public transport is made up of an army of motorcycles, pickup trucks, minivans (yes my South African friends they are Hi Aces) and old US school busses. Some of the busses are still yellow but some of them have been painted in a mirad of colors. They are called tap-taps because that is how you get them to stop. Someone taps the side, or the roof, or pretty much anywhere that makes a sound that the driver can hear.  If you’re standing next to the road, you just flag one down by raising your arm and leaning it in the direction you’re going. If the driver doesn’t see you it is common for a passenger to tap for you, assuming that not fully loaded. The pickup versions basically have a canopy that is raised off the bed side walls by approximately a foot. Then there are seats along the sides of the pickup bed for folks to sit on. The majority of them have the seats extending out past the backend of the canopy to provide more seating space.  It is common to see people standing on the bumper ledge and holding onto the canopy if the seats under the canopy are taken. Believe it or not but they generally have 8 to 10 folks loaded up. I counted 14 including the standing folks in one. You pay when you get off and it is very cost effective with a short distance ride a couple of gourdes and the longer distance rides a couple of US $. They have a defined route but pretty much stop whenever their customers want them to. If they were more luxurious, I would say they are the perfect customer-driven transport. The video below shows some of the different vechiles going through an intersection in Port-au-Prince.

The motorcycles behave in a similar manner and I have seen three passengers behind the rider, passengers with baby goats and chickens while the rider had a crate of 1L Cokes balanced on his gas tank. And they cut in and out of traffic. Speaking with one driver, he said there is at least one accident a day. I created quite a bit of consternation using a tap-tap because the driver had never had a “Blan” in his tap-tap. They call folks with light skin “Blan” and i had become used to this nickname, especially from the kids. He did want US $ and the ride cost me $2 which is a ripoff compared to the local non-tourist price. Considering he relegated the passenger in the front seat to the back and gave me that seat, I wasn’t going to complain. His English was superb and had spent some time in the US but had to come back to help his mother when she got sick.

So, clearly the tap-taps made an impression… onto the Citadel. You can use whatever transport to get to a town called Milot. The Palace ruins are located just outside the town and you buy a ticket to visit both sites from a kiosk there. I made use of a guide again to leverage local knowledge again and to support the local enconomy but it is not needed. The road is pretty easy to follow and there are plenty of guides on the Internet. From the palace, you follow a cobblestone road 6 km to a plateau which now serves as a parking area with hourdes of hawkers. This is where the tour companies and taxis stop thereby saving you the serious effort of the long uphill hike to the plateau from the town. The last km is seriously uphill with parts at what felt like 45 degrees.  It was also raining intermittentantly, so the road was slipperer than snot too. As some of of you are aware, I have just finished up months of recovery from the last time I slipped and fell off something. So maybe I was a little over sensitive but I had no plans to repeat because I’m finally getting my fitness back.  Besides getting hurt would defeat the purpose of my trip, volunteering.

Heading up the path, you are constantly plagued by horse/donkey vendors trying to get you to take a ride. There are some motorcycle tap-taps that are parked next to the side of the road too.  I was polite in the beginning but after the twentieth I just shook my head. Besides this was a monster workout and we had a fast pace going. According to Antonio,

Citadel wall looking up from slippery path

my guide, it takes 25 minutes by horse and 45 minutes on foot.  We were up in just less than 30 and I don’t think we were missing anything because we were talking most of the way up. Ok, my guide was talking but you get my drift. Antonio was like a mountain goat and he knew his way around warning me where the path was super slippery as he zip-zagged his way up and later down. He is one of 54 guides and he has been doing this for 15 years and so he knows his way around. They basically do it until they can’t do it anymore or die.

The Citadel was built between 1805 and 1820 and is now a UNESCO site and as such they’ve done a lot restoration. Identifying their work is easy because they are using

cement instead of the ground down coral mixture that was originally used. The

Piles of cannon balls Inside the citadel wall

bricks they are using are also thinner and of course the wood because most of the original wood has long ago rotted. The exceptions are some of the solid mahogany cannon cradles. I really liked that could take a look at the original canon balls that they had stacked around the fort. The anti-personnel one was the first time I’d seen the real thing.

Due to safety concerns the dungeon and rooftops are blocked off for repairs. UNESCO is building a museum up there in which to store some restored pieces of art for the public

viewing. We were literally in the clouds and as such visibility was nil. The whole time I was up there, we were walking in a light drizzle and as such a lot of the surfaces were slippery, especially the restored ones. The original bricks were not nearly as bad as the new rock & cement combo. There was one ramp where we clung to the outside wall because it was dry because the wet area was like ice. There was a group guys behind us and they slid down the ramp on their haunches.

On the way down, we encountered a group of doctors from Canada who had just finished volunteering. Speaking with one of

Looking down at the cannon balls

the nurses, who took a horse. She was trying to work out which was more terrifying: the horse ride or slipping on the paving. Further down, some of the horse vendors were following a group of mostly ladies in the hope that they would get tired and make use of their services. Considering the state of most of the horses, I don’t have it in my heart to put my fat ass on them. That’s assuming that I didn’t want the workout and hike. I had been preparing for this hike ever since planning the visit and being able to workout again. The first steep piece of the downhill was challenging in the wet but the second piece was just long and quite boring. We hitched a ride with one of the groups for part of the long path was thankful for that because it was a grind.

At the end of the road, just outside the town is the

palace which was mostly destroyed in the earthquake that happened in 1842. While some restoration has been done, after the Citadel, it is underwhelming even though it must have been a pristine building too. There is just too much damage to really visualize the building in all of its glory. There are still pieces of the slate roofing that caused so much

Looking up at the Palace entrance

damage to the building coming down during the earthquake.

for those interested in more information, here are the Wikipedia links: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sans-Souci_Palace  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citadelle_Laferrière

 

 

 

 

Categories: Haiti Tags:

Heading North

February 11th, 2017 1 comment

While I was in Port-au-Prince, I stayed at the Best Western in Paiton-Ville (suburb of Port-au-Prince). The hotel was recommended to me by a number of folks who have friends and/or family in Port-au-Prince; so I booked there online using the BestWestern website. Checkin and checkout were a breeze despite the warnings that checkout can be delayed at peak times. The staff are very friendly and yes they do have hot water. It is basically a hotel in a busy city and the majority of the staff in the lobby speak English, there are even some ex-pats working there. The hotel has a shuttle and I highly recommend it.

I spent hours online researching my trip and I never realized that there are two terminals at the PAP airport. There is the Port-au-Prince Toussaint Louverture International Airport and the Guy Malary Airport which is the domestic terminal that is a good five plus minute taxi ride away from the international terminal. It is the same code for international and domestic flights.

Fortunately, I left my hotel at 9 for a noon flight and so I had plenty of time because I didn’t tell the shuttle driver that I was fliying to Cap Haitien, so he dropped me off at the international terminal. For those who are budget conscious, there is a bus service too but I was not up for 8 hour drive and would rather do the 35 minute flight, even if it does cost four times the price. Quite a few of the online articles said they had issues buying the tickets online in advance with a credit card. At the checkin counter, I gave them my record locator and they had no issues finding my reservation. I also had the receipt printed in backpack but didn’t need it.

The international terminal at the airport is pretty hectic and there are folks that will attempt to help you. Some of them don’t ask permission, they will either just take your bag when the taxi or shuttle stops or attempt to take it from your hands. I found the the airport guides to be well worth it and that they will not only will they guide you to the correct checkin counter but they will also by-pass some of the lines, which are looooonnnnggg. For me, getting past some of the lines was worth the $10. Yeah, they ain’t cheap but last time I checked, specialist knowledge never was. Think of it as supporting the local economy. The guides are easy to spot because they all wear similar colored shirts and during my visit a yellow shirt was taxi and blue shirts were the airport guides.

Navigating the Guy Malary  airport, used for flights to Cap Haitien, is much quieter the Sunrise checkin counters are on the left past the the single security check, which you will have to go through because it is just inside the door as you walk in. They will x-ray your bags and you will have to go through a metal detector. I was traveling with a Leatherman and pocket knife and a number of full water bottles that were packed in my backpack and bags; there were no issues. You are allowed one carry-on bag and they will tag it.

When I booked my flight on the Sunrise air website, there were two classes: economy and super economy and I was not able to find out what the differences were. For those that are asking the same question, here is as much as I have been able to garner. There is a private waiting room dedicated to the super-economy class with seats and power receptacles. The airport waiting area was clean with good airflow through the open windows and doors, although I’m sure it could get crowded at busy periods. I believe that super-economy also gets preferred seating but I was one of the first to checkin for a flight and so I don’t know. I was assigned a seat but some of the folks that boarded later on were told to just take an open seat because someone else had taken their seat. There were no separate lines and everyone just lines up to head out to the plane. The Sunrise website says that you are allowed a small carry-on and they do list the dimensions on their website, really small. I checked my duffel and chose to carry on my backpack, which meant I had to keep it on my lap for the 25 minute flight. The plane is super small and it wouldn’t fit under the seat. The plane is a small little turbo prop and when seated my knees barely missed the seat in front of me by a cm. Oh, yes it is hot in the plane when you board and so expect to sweat a bit.

I used AirBnB for a place to stay in Cap. My plan is to visit the Citadel before heading down south again and so I just wanted something that was clean, relatively secure and had hot water. The budget approach definitely worked out for me and the room is outside in the garden.  Everything worked out. 

The biggest surprise for me in Cap Haitien was the traffic. The roads are single dual roads with a liberal supply of potholes, speed bumps and the water drainage ditches. The town had traffic lights, two of them and neither one was operational.

I managed to get a photo of one those water gullies. This one was next to the side of the road and looks similar to lsome of the ones in the road. This photo was taken on the Route Nationale #1, Cap Haitien, Haiti. The gutters next to the road often continue through an intersection and some of these are monsters. I managed to get a closer look at one of the monsters. It was deeper than the length of my shoe (I wear a size 12) and at least two shoe lengths wide with sides that slopped at around a 45 degree angle. They are totally unpredictable and I was not able to predict when they would appear. I saw these monsters at four-way intersections, Y and T junctions. To me, they were designed while they were being built. I have asked the taxi and shuttle drivers and they just laughed.

Categories: Haiti Tags:

Touchdown in Haiti

February 9th, 2017 No comments

Greetings from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
My trip started in rainy Seattle, and I do mean rainy. Considering that two days before my trip, my neighbors and I were shoveling slushy-snow (I know some folks call it snow but to me, it is far closer in consistency to a 7-11 Slushy). When the driveways were clear enough to drive on we moved onto the fallen trees and then back to the driveway to clear th fresh snow before seasoning it with liberal doses of salt to reduce the ice.

Getting back on topic, I loaded my suitcase with carpentry tools, wiremans pliers, box cutters and blades, mosquito nets, pencils for the classrooms, and of course the mandatory Leatherman, which is always a popular device on trips like this. Even if it is just used for the bottle opener.

On a whim I decided to check the weight of my checkin bag. Oops, 63 Lbs…..even with frequent flier status that ain’t going to work. Pretty easy to solve, take out the duffel bag that was inside the suitcase and distribute the weight across the two bags. My visit to the checkin counter was quick & uneventful. I didn’t get the expected request to present my credit card, which was a pleasant surprise because I thought all airlines charged for checked bags now……not complaining.  It might have been my Alaska frequent flier status but the trip is off to a good start.

The redeye flight to Miami was as good as a redeye gets for with a bumpy landing in a very foggy airport.  Breakfast in Miami airport was cheap and quick, equals not great. I could only find one espresso vendor and it was quite evident because there was a long line but no lines anywhere else. Would have been nice with no sleep but anyway.

Quite a few folks barely made the out-going flight because of the fog. Apparently there were some pretty significant traffic jams. Incoming flights were also delayed and the lady sitting next me had her incoming flight circling the airport for a 40 minutes. The flight to Port-au-Prince was scheduled for 5 minutes less than 2 hours.

We had some drama while we were taxi-ing out to the runway where an elderly lady was a little confused and got up to walk about. After refusing to sit down, the emergency procedures were triggered and we ground to an abrupt halt on the taxiway. The crew were presented with the option to returning to the gate to deboard her but one of the flight attendants did something fantastic. He sat down next to her and calmed her down. Very quickly he had control of the situation, which allowed us to continue on and take off. His name is Di-Stephano, I must recognize him on his courage, personable diplomacy and sense of humanity to do the right thing for the lady. A number of the other passengers felt the same way and commended him on his actions. This experience rates as one of the best flight attendant experiences I’ve ever had in twenty five plus years of frequent flying.

The flight revealed the most phenomenal sea colors. If you look at the photo above very carefully, there is a small plane in front of the engine at a much lower altitude

The lady I was sitting next to was heading home to her 200 children (she runs an orphanage) after visiting her son who is being treated in the VA facility in Houston. He was diagnosed with lymphoma in November 2015 and they just received the news that it had spread to his brain, hence her visit

Clearing immigration and customs was a breeze and I found the officials to be friendly and welcoming. They all switched to English so as not to endure my pathetic French.

The taxi ride from the airport to my hotel definitely drove the message home that I was no longer in Seattle. The driver leant on the horn at least six times just getting out of the airport, he didn’t stop the whole drive with other vechiles demonstrating similar behaviors. Then there are the motorcycles that come speeding up from behind and cut through the gaps. The trip was a string of close calls and mostly on dual direction roads with a couple of one ways and dirt roads thrown in for good measure . Oh yeah, the water gutters are SERIOUS and are very effective speed bumps because they are dips at intersections.

At the hotel,  I spent a ton of time getting connected to the Internet and grabbing lunch. Then repack all of the volunteer stuff into the right case so that I can get it stored for a few days so that I can do some tourist stuff and see the sites. Many thanks to Charles for arranging the storage with his aunt  Now I’m back to traveling light.

This left me with a bit of time to walk around the city before it got dark. Walking around a city that I don’t know, alone at night is something I’m not going to do.

I must say that the city reminds me a lot of some African cities I’ve visited.  I haven’t seen this much barbed/razor wire on top of high walls/fences and burglar bars on the windows since I left South Africa. Don’t mis it!

The pigs chowing down in a garbage heap which is located in what looks like a flood canal, to me, was a surprise.

 

Categories: Haiti Tags:

Volunteering in Haiti

February 6th, 2017 No comments

Thank you for the all of the interest in this trip. As requested, here is some more information on how I made the decision on where to go, what I was going to do to and finally the timing of the trip.

I have been wanting to give back for a number of years and so it was a frequent topic of discussion with friends and business acquaintances. Many of them had either done something similar or knew people who had. So these conversations were wonderful opportunities for me to learn from their experiences and perspectives. The majority of folks, who had firsthand experience of taking a volunteer trip, felt that they had the most impact in communities that really needed help. Getting to the locations was often very challenging, especially in the rainy season or soon after a disaster. Initially, I was thinking of heading back down to New Orleans (they have still not recovered from Katrina) but hearing about the experiences of others who had volunteered outside the US, I decided that I would like to do the same. I just had to decided where…..

I have a number of good friends from Haiti and they have shared a lot about their country of birth and growing up there. Perhaps, the biggest surprise for me was that Haiti is much poorer than Cuba, yet they don’t get the outside support that Cuba gets. Haiti has survived much political turmoil which meant that they don’t have the infrastructure in place to handle the many natural disasters that have plagued them. Of all of the countries in the Caribbean, it has the weakest infrastructure. The majority of the country still doesn’t have have clean drinking water. The country does has a strong relationship with Cuba, even though they share the island with the DR. As I did my research to learn more, I was surprised to discover just how much hardship the country has been through. So, the decision was pretty easy, the where was now decided – Haiti.

 

On to the What to do…..

Now this is where it got interesting. I don’t have the medical skills that are always in demand and so I started off with a google search for “Haiti NPO” (Non Profit Organization). Wow! More than 300,000 results. I randomly clicked on a number of the links and some of them looked pretty sketchy. There are a number of articles stating that Haiti has the highest count of NGO’s per capita. As this article explains (http://nacla.org/news/ngos-and-business-poverty-haiti), it is little misleading because the government does fund quite a few of the NGO’s. However with so many NGO’s, there is the issue of the lack of accountability and there are a lot of rumors and stories about misappropriation of funds where the benefits are simply not getting to the people who are in need. Great….this is going to be a lot more difficult than I thought….After days of searching and asking friends that are active in the Seattle NPO communities, I finally had a list of potential organizations.

Time to add more criteria to help narrow the selection down.  I did not want an organization affiliated to a particular church, I wanted to support my principle of “freedom of religion”. To me, it feels rather unfair to bundle a particular religion with the desperately needed help. Please don’t get me wrong, a lot of the church organizations have some phenomenal programs and are doing some great work. I just wanted the people that needed the help, to have freedom of choice of religion. This was when I first encountered an organization called Fuller Housing. Like most NPO’s they do have strong christian roots but are totally focussed on the pursuit of building homes in regions that really need help. Many churches use them for there volunteer efforts.

The next criteria was “skin in the game”, I wanted the people that I would help, to be actively involved with what we were doing. This narrowed down the selection drastically and after a couple more days in front of the computer, I had my short list. I then reached out to the NPO’s. The NPO’s that did not respond, or responded with requests for $, were immediately eliminated. The organization that I selected is: The Fuller Center for Housing for a number of reasons; they are active across the globe, non-denominational, they provide interest-free loans for the recipients of the houses, and very important to me, they are transparent. (you can find their financial reports on their website.)

So now, all that remained was to signup for one of the scheduled trips, complete the screening process and make the financial commit.   I will be joining a volunteer team that will be building houses in Pignon, a town in Northern Haiti.

Travel is pretty simple, a red-eye from Seattle to Miami and then a direct flight to the capital off Haiti, Port-au-Prince, see the yellow star in the middle of Haiti. The second yellow star in the northern part of the island is Pignon, where we will be volunteering.

Many of you have asked how you can help? I have created a fundraising page to help raise the $5,500 that a single home costs. Please help those less fortunate than us and mark your donation for Haiti because The Fuller Center has efforts across the globe.

 

Categories: Haiti Tags:

Preparing for my Haiti Trip

January 29th, 2017 No comments

As most of you are aware, I am planning on volunteering in Haiti and so I’ve embarked on a data gathering journey to learn about the country. Based on the many conversations and messages, I am not alone in wanting to learn more this country that seems to be constantly ravaged by disasters. For those not familiar with the country, here is a map that I have been using to orientate myself:  http://geology.com/world/haiti-satellite-image.shtml

Flying into Haiti, the main airport is located about half an hour outside the capital of Port au Prince. Buses and taxis are the primary tourist transport and cash rules with very few being able to take a credit card. By all report, Port au Prince is another city, commercialized and a hub of energy. The hotels are more expensive here than the rest of the country but they all seem to offer Internet access, either in business centers, common areas or rooms. 

Like most tropical countries, there is the risk of mosquito-born diseases and so protective steps will need to be taken. It seems that Haiti also doesn’t have the economic means to have reliable and clean water. As such, I will be traveling with a water filter that can also filter viruses such Hep B and cholera. 

The Citadel and San-Souci palace ruins are UNESCO heritage sites. Both of these are located up on the northern side of the country and I have a choice of taking a 35 minute flight or a 8.5 hour bus ride….I think I will be flying. Booking a flight on Sunrise is very interesting because they have 5 economy classes and two super-economy classes. I have emailed them and tried their online chat interface to determine what the differences are with no luck. So I booked and we will find out.

Here are some of the articles that I found that provide some great pictures and information. 

https://msu.edu/~williss2/carpentier/part1/citadel.html

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/180

Jacumel is one of the most popular beach destinations in Haiti and boasts a wonderful protected beach. There are quite a few vacation homes here and some are available for rent at pretty good prices. The downside is that some of the locations are littered due the waste collection & processing infrastructure lacking.

As I continued my research, some the best beaches in the Caribbean are on an island called Ile a Vache. The island is off the southern point and based on all accounts, it is quite an effort to get to the island. There used to be an airport on the mainland of Haiti but the runways were damaged by the earthquake. So the primary transport mechanism is by bus with 4.5 hour bone shaking ride followed by a water taxi to the island. I think I’m going to try this  

Here are some photos of the beaches on the island and a little bit of explanation.

http://misslucieinhaiti.tumblr.com/post/68081712148/welcome-to-ile-a-vache-a-hidden-treasure-in

And another post….https://thenerdynomad.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/ile-a-vache_guide/

The next post will be more focused on the volunteering side.  🙂 

Categories: Haiti Tags:

The best leaders are open

June 21st, 2016 No comments

According Robin Sharma’s book Leadership Wisdom from The Monk who sold his Ferrari the best leaders are open. Here is an excerpt from the book.

To truly win people’s support and deep commitment to your future vision, you must communicate as much key information as possible to them.  The more they know know about what you are doing, the more they’ll invest in where you are going. Just as with aggressive listening, being open and sharing ideas with people is a mark of respect.  Having the decency to quickly and accurately inform them of the things that will affect them will shows them that they are important.  It shows them you value them.  And when you constantly keep lines of communication open, your employees will begin to value you as a leader, so much so that they will not want to let you down.  That’s when the magic starts.

Providing clarity in an open and transparent manner consistently is Leadership. 

Categories: Leadership, Quotes Tags:

Leadership and Management Quotes

November 12th, 2015 No comments

I started reading a book titled: Leadership: Elevate Yourself and Those Around You – Influence, Business Skills, Coaching & Communication (Leader, Effective Teams, How to be a Leader, Teamwork, Public Speaking, Team Management) by Ross Elkins and bass on the first couple of chapters have led to this blog post.

Here are some quotes regarding Leadership:

A leader makes decisions and sets up goals, then he or she will lead his or her team members toward those goals. A leader has a group of followers. With collaboration, communication and trust, they stand united and face every challenge together to achieve their desired goals

Leadership can be defined as the process of influencing the behavior of one’s subordinates, without making them feel like they are working under a dictatorship

And some quotes regarding Management:

manager is someone who wants their employees to work for them. Managers have subordinates or employee

Managers have a position of authority vested in them by the company, and their employees work for them and largely do as they are told

 

I am still reading the rest of the book but wanted to share the quotes above.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Behavior, Leadership, Management, People, Quotes Tags:

Crisis: Chaos to Resolution

October 14th, 2015 No comments

SparkPilot_Chaos_OrderCrisis situations tend to be great breeding grounds for confusion and chaos. The good news is that it is fairly easy to stop this natural state. A Leader and a sound and tested crisis management plan.

In this post, I share a simple high-level methodology to handle a number of crisis situations. The model is pretty simple and consists of breaking the situation up into phases with distinct goals for each phase. In the real world, it is pretty common to have to go back to phases that were already completed as more information is found or especially when there are multiple issues. For each phase, there are two themes. Issue(s) and communication.

1. Identify

This is the first phase and marks the start of the crisis management effort. The first step is to do a quick triage and to determine what additional skills are needed. This initial scoping will enable the Incident Commander to determine who needs to be engaged to help isolate the issue further.

Now because the issue has been identified, it is easy to notify customers that there is a known issue and that the team is engaged.

2. Isolate

Based on experience, this is the step that requires the highest level of discipline because of the common behavior for folks to try and solve the issue(s) instead of trying to isolate the issue. It is important to isolate the issue to lay the groundwork in order to stop this issue from occurring in the future.

In this phase, the team needs to isolate the issue(s) down to the granular component(s) that is/are causing the issue(s). As more information is gathered, it enables the Incident Commander to engage or release the appropriate Subject Matter Experts (SME) on the team.

When it comes to customer communication, I prefer to communicate the actual current state until the issue(s) are isolated, even if it is not possible to provide an estimate on when the situation will be resolved. Therefore, when entering into the Isolate phase, I like to notify the customers that the team is engaged and starting to isolate the issue(s). As progress is made, provide progress updates to customers. However when progress is slow, switch to timed update methodology and provide customers with updates on a predetermined interval. There are pros & cons to each of these approaches and therefore you will need to select the mechanism that suits your business needs the best.

3. Restore

Now comes the steps to mitigate or restore the situation to “normal”. The million $ questions is what is normal? The definition of “normal” is best defined before the crisis and I prefer a checklist that can be used to determine if the situation has returned back to a fully functioning state.

Back to the customer communication, with the checklist, you can communicate to the customers that you are on step 3 of 9 or whatever the counts are. To get the durations of each step, this information should be collected during the test runs or other similar crisis situations.

4. Repair

This step is where the issue is repaired should the root cause not be addressed in the Restore step. This step also covers the elimination of any mitigations performed and returning the state to the fully operational state.

Remember that some customers would like to know when this step has been completed.

5. Eliminate

The Best Customer Impacting Incident is the One that didn’t happen!! Therefore, in order to make this statement come true, it means that the team needs to learn as much as possible from all crisis situations and apply these lessons learned to any possible future states. So, it is important to analyze the situation and to define action items with clear owners for each action item. This step will eventually ensure that the situation is eliminated. I prefer to use a formal retrospective review of the crisis situation. This process is very similar to the typical ITIL post mortem but is more collaborative and integrates much better in an agile or continuous operational state.  I will be publishing a blog post on a very effective retrospective technique within the next month or so.

Ideally the information gleaned from the retrospective can be used to formulate a customer communication. Unfortunately, this is not always possible; provide customers with some type of report so that they do not have to speculate and operate in the dark. Then continue to perform the due diligence in the background. This enables a data-driven followup with customers, should it be needed.

Crisis Leadership

October 11th, 2015 No comments

SparkPilot_CrisisLeadership always matters and in a crisis situation, leadership matters even more! When running a service, one of the most critical times is when the service fails and someone will need to step up and take the lead. Without someone taking the reigns, I have seen a mariad of situations arise and as such I am sharing a very high-level definition of the key focus areas for crisis leadership role often called an Incident Commander or Crisis Manager.

Assemble the team

The very first responsibility of this role, is to assemble the team with the skills needed to restore the service ASAP. Then if the problem shifts or there are multiple issues, it might be necessary to adjust the composition of the team to ensure that the skills needed are available. Sometimes in a long running situation it might also be necessary to perform shift changes including the Incident Commander.

Communicate, communicate, Communicate

A service without customers will not last for long and as such it is imperative that the situation be communicated in a clear and concise manner on a regular and predictable rhythm. My preferred communication rhythm is either 15 minutes or 30 minutes and needs to be defined as part of the Standard Operational Procedure (SOP).

Maintain Focus

Ensure that the team maintains the necessary focus needed to restore the service. It is my experience that engineers who don’t know what to do after 5 minutes of thought time will still not know what to do after 25 minutes of thought. Bring in another engineer who is able to operate more effectively under pressure. As such, I would suggest that the Incident Commander operate according to a predefined process to handle the situation where slow or no progress is being made. This enables the Incident Commander to engage other engineers to help expedite things as part of the SOP and not making it personal. This is one of the most difficult tasks an employee can be asked to perform because most folks do not want to wake up others in the middle of the night.

Quality

Do a job right or don’t bother! This is really easy to say yet extremely difficult to adhere to in a crisis situation. It boils down to Leadership and someone flying this flag. In most cases people will follow the lead.

Urgency

The best idea tomorrow really doesn’t help us solve today’s crisis situation. I am big fan of using countdown timers to create the stimuli needed to engage additional team members or escalate to executives.

 

 

 

 

Online Brainstorming Technique

September 17th, 2015 No comments

A couple of years ago I did a blog post on a Simple brainstorming technique. This blog post is an updated version that leverages tooling while still maintaining all of the benefits of the old manual technique; now enables simple and easy access for remote folks and simple record keeping.
SparkPilot.com_Brainstorm_Lightbulb

If you are anything like me, you will have attended many brainstorming sessions that have gone horribly wrong where:

  • the person with the most senior title rules
  • people position themselves before the brainstorming in an effort to establish some credibility ( in my experience the largest time consumer)
  • someone has dominated the session with their diatribe(s)
  • people who won’t stop talking about their ideas
  • it has deteriorated into a session of I am right and you are wrong and it turned out that they were saying the same thing, just a little differently
  • people were so intimidated that they did not contribute
  • people belittle the ideas thrown up
  • it becomes more about who’s idea it is rather than what the suggestion is
  • remote employees are not able to participate fully
  • the documentation is always after the fact and late….

The purpose of a Brainstorming session is to capture as many ideas as possible. The term, think outside the box is often used when it comes to brainstorming. It is very common to have a totally unrealistic statement stimulate an idea with someone else that was just brilliant. In an effort to get ideas out quickly and without most of the preamble, here is a mechanism that is quick, fair, enables remote participants, and is personality sensitive.

 

Pre requisites

  • Online agile planning tool, I will use Trello for this blog post. I am currently biased towards Trello because I have successfully used  for audiences in excess of 100 people.
  • Create a board on your tool of choice so that people can capture their ideas
  • Depending on the tool that you use, you might need to adjust the visibility of the board. If you are using Trello and not have Business Class, you will need to create the Team first and then create the board under the Team.
  • Depending on your tool, you might need to create a group and invite people to board that you created
  • Enable the ability to vote on the cards
  • If you are doing this session with remote folks, I do suggest some form of screen sharing mechanism so that everyone can be focused on the same screen.
  • Using the board, create some existing groups/lists such as the following to streamline the brainstorming session.
    • Issues
    • Suggestions
    • Do Not Do
    • Vent
    • Duplicates
    • Parking List
    • Collect Input
    • Action Items

SparkPilot_Brainstorm_sample

 

Participant Guidelines

  1. one idea per card (ideally 8 or less words) You can use the card description for more data or explanation.
  2. do not discuss what you write down
  3. have fun
  4. respect all ideas
  5. do not judge (especially your own ideas), just put them on a card
  6. think outside the box
  7. ideas can be added at any time time during the session (especially during the discussion)

Instructions for the Brainstorming session

  1. Ensure that everyone understands the participant guidelines. How do you know this? Ask.
  2. Everyone needs to capture their issues as a card in the Issues list. One idea per card and if your idea needs data or explanation, you can include that in the card description.
  3. Prioritize the issues by moving the higher priority cards to the top of the list. Feel free to add more to the list as people understand other cards. Merge duplicate cards and move the old cards to the Duplicates list.
  4. Brainstorm – review the cards in the Issues list and add ideas on how put ideas on cards. One idea per card and if your idea needs data or explanation, you can include that in the card description.
  5. Read what others have put up remembering it is about the idea and not who created the card
  6. Put more ideas up, especially if they were stimulated by what you read.
  7. Now group the similar themed suggestions together. It sometimes helps to create additional list/groups in order to collate the similar themed ideas together. I have also color coded ideas with similar themes.
  8. Move the the duplicate cards to the Duplicates List, leaving one card on the list. It might be necessary to change the title.
  9. Have everyone vote on their top five items.
  10. Arrange the cards with the highest number of votes to be at the top of the lists.
  11. Variations
    1. Option 1: Now discuss all of the ideas; as an active participant, it is your responsibility not to belittle any idea or person. I put this step in as a transitionary step. As people get more comfortable with this approach, this step should be eliminated because it favors the talkers and over shadows the introverts. That being said, it also enables the talkers to think and do as a team, you will need to time box this step or it will never end. Create cards with Action Items for the next steps or actions to bring the ideas to fruition.
    2. Option 2: This is the more effective method. Have the team create create cards with Action Items for the next steps or actions to bring the ideas to fruition.
  12. Some suggestions will require additional input to be collected and they can be moved to the Collect Input list.
  13. To help with the flow from idea to Action Item, word tag the idea or color code it

SparkPilot_Brainstorm_complete

 

Helpful Hints

  • To help the folks in the group that need time to think and process, it is advisable to include the brainstorming topic in the meeting invitations.
  • Provide a link to the topic and these instructions as part of the advanced notification.
  • Do not shoot the messenger!  Brainstorming is all about getting the most hair brained ideas out.  Remember that your crazy idea can stimulate someone else’s thinking that results in that killer idea.
  • Do not be afraid to screwup. Please refer to the point above.
  • The ideas can now be evaluated on the merits of the idea and not who’s idea it is.
  • If you have written it down, you do not need to talk about it too. It might make you feel better but it is also taking up time. This is especially difficult for first-timers.
  • For the discussion phase: Some folks need to talk in order to think. It helps to have these folks remote as they can mute themselves while they talk.  don’t worry, because you’re on a conference call it comes naturally. I would also suggest time boxing the discussion; you will see there is a rhythm and when folks start to repeat themselves, it is time to cut it off and move on.
  • It is pretty common to have similar ideas, so just merge them and move the duplicates to the Duplicates list.
  • Some folks will not be able to move off their points and will attempt to convince others that they are right. remind them that they are not respecting the ideas of others and are assuming that they are right. All ideas need to be able to stand. If explanation is needed, then add the collateral to the card.
  • For folks that are used to discussions, they might feel that this method is impersonal or that their voice is not being heard. For these folks, explain to them the purpose of this technique is to capture everyones input as efficiently as possible and they should not focus on the busy exercise of them being able to talk.

Variations

When time is a factor, I have had the participants complete steps 1 to 3 before the meeting. Alternatively, I have also split into two meetings by completing steps 1 to 4 at one meeting, sorted the ideas out off line and then conducted the discussion at a followup meeting.

 

 

What is important to you?

September 10th, 2015 No comments

“Gavin, these guys are late again!  I am really tired of them not delivering as they said they would!  I really want to give them a piece of my mind and explain to them the concept of accountability.” Joe said explosively.

I am sure that we have all found ourselves in a similar situation where we would like to blow off some steam, send a flame mail, and/or even give the person a piece of our mind.

For those of us that are aggressive results driven people, we tend to find this lack of accountability painful and frustrating.  Here is a suggestion that was shared with me years back and I am sharing on a technique to handle this type of situation:

What is more important?

We need to be conscious about what is more important to us.  The results that we are trying to achieve or being able to vent at them?  By asking this question, it forces me to think about the situation, what the business needs and what what the costs are of an emotional outburst are from me.  Sometimes I am more successful and other times not so much…..

September 9th, 2015 No comments

 

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

–Mahatma Gandi —

 

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