I’m writing this blog to you all the way from a hotel in the Domincan Republic. Because of this, I am typing it in Spanish. But since most of you do not speak Spanish, I will have it translated for you before you read it, so if you notice any typos, blame it on the translation software.
As many of you know, I spent this week traveling to Haiti to spend some time at Hope for Haiti, with founder, Danita Estrella. The place is amazing, the people are amazing, the stories are amazing, and of course, the kids are amazing. I will get to that, but this blog deserves two focuses, two parts, the Dominican and the Haitian. So here we go.
We arrived in the Dominican Republic on Monday evening, about 8:45 pm, Dominican time, whatever that is. All I know is it’s an hour later than Miami, Florida, two hours later than Miami, Oklahoma.
I had been warned about customs at the Santiago airport. Apparently, folks in this country see video equipment to be just as threatening as weapons of mass destruction, if not more. Thankfully, the people at the airport were pretty understanding, after they made us open our cases and show them the equipment. We both were having complete and separate conversations with each other, I in English, and he in Spanish. Neither one of us understood a word the other one said, until he said, “Ok”, and gestured to the exit. Works for me.
Danita had arranged a driver to pick us up, so Bucket List item #342, Have Driver Waiting For You At Airport With Your Name On A Sign, can be marked off.
The hotel was nice, much better than I had anticipated. It’s pretty much like a Doubletree, except all the movies are in Spanish, or have Spanish subtitles. As luck would have it, the movie 2012, starring John Cusack, was on the television. The only other time I saw this movie, was in Mexico, on my 15th Anniversary trip with my wife, when we were forced inside by Tropical Storm Alex. That time, it also had Spanish subtitles. It sucked both times. But we couldn’t turn it off. As a result, we didn’t get to sleep till close to 3am Dominican Time. Next, a 6:30 wakeup call.
Now, I’m not going to go step by step, minute by minute and give you a written slideshow of events. No, no, no. I’m going to focus this section on one thing. The thrill ride that is, the 3 hour drive from Santiago, Dominican Republic to Ouanaminthe, Haiti.
I don’t know much, but I know this, Dominican Republic cab drivers make Bostonians look like preschoolers. If you’ve ever had the displeasure of driving in Boston, you know what I mean. Lanes and Speed Limits are optional.
Being driven through the Dominican countryside taught me one thing, Americans have become sissified. We pay too much attention to things like, rules and regulations and seatbelts and car seats and safety and right of way and kindness and courtesy and common sense and wisdom and discretion. All of which, Dominican drivers, and pedestrians for that matter have none of.
First of all, much of the road for this 3 hours, had lines down the middle. Let me tell you this, they should have saved the money on that paint, and used it to fill the pot holes.
Secondly, this stretch of road, is pretty much non stop, once we got out of the main city portion of Santiago, I didn’t see another stop sign or traffic light the whole way. It’s pedal to the metal, balls to the wall, eyes rolled back in your head thrill ride, for about 133 consecutive minutes.
I get nervous when my 6 year old steps one toe out of my driveway in my cozy little neighborhood where the speed limit is 25, and there are 4 stop signs within 4 blocks of each other and nobody ever passes 15 miles per hour on our street, except that kid around the corner who drives the Toyota pickup and comes down our road sometimes at as much as, gasp, 25-30 mph. In the Dominican, there are people, EVERYWHERE on this stretch of road. You don’t go more than half a mile without seeing somebody just standing on the side of the road, including small children. There are shops and “homes” and stands and fields all up and down this road, and I’ve never seen so many people near cars that are flying at about 80 km/hr, whatever the heck that means. But when you’re blowing by pedestrians, no further than 6 inches from your side mirror, it feels like you’re going 100 mph.
But that’s not all, oh no, not even close. It’s every man for himself. If you can catch the car in front of you, DO IT. Go around him, don’t worry about the oncoming motorbike with the mom, dad and baby on it, they’ll get out of the way. Yes that’s right, there are motorbikes, lots of them. They are a cross between a Vespa and a dirt bike, and they are everywhere, driven by anybody. I saw one being driven by a lady, holding the handle bars with one hand, and her baby with the other. And she’s doing about 40 mph, getting passed by busses and semis doing about 60.
There’s even a rumor that if you accidentally hit a pedestrian, you best not stop your vehicle to check on them, because once you get out of that car, it’s Marshall Law, and everyone else standing around will beat you with whatever they have until you existeth no more.
This experience was so impacting on me, I had to use the Googles, here’s what I found. In 2006, the latest survey I could find, the Dominican Republic “reported” 1,602 deaths caused by traffic accidents that year. By comparison, the State of Oklahoma had about 600 traffic fatalities this past year. The US average is about 1 in every 10,000 people die in traffic related accidents. In the Dominican, it’s 1 in every 5,000.
Another survey said the #1 cause of death of Americans traveling out of the country, is not terrorism or plane crashes or bad lasagna, it’s traffic accidents, and the Dominican Republic made the list at #3. #3! Of all the places in the world that Americans travel, I would think the Dominican Republic would be WAY down the list of desired destinations, but it comes in at #3 in traffic deaths.
It’s bad, people.
If the driving was the exhilarating part, the sights were the fun part.
I saw cows, lots of them. In the road. There are goats that walk along the sides of the roads as if they’re tax paying citizens. At one traffic light in Santiago, we were approached by a guy wielding two butcher knives. He apparently makes his living selling knives, car door to car door, on these street corners. I was not aware this was a popular Dominican profession. I’ll take a clean pair of shorts and my little girl scream back, please.
I saw a pickup truck with three horses in the back, you know, like we see in America with hunting dogs. I saw one truck that had literally 18 Dominicans attached to it in some form or fashion. It was impressive, I kept waiting for them to get in a pyramid formation and jump a ramp. I would clap and take another bite of cotton candy.
I also took notice that American women are not up to par when it comes to the ability to carry things on their head. In the Dominican, then later in Haiti, women just walk around with mountains of items on their head. They don’t use their hands, I guess they need them free to keep their kids from being run over by the cab drivers. It is pretty amazing though. It kind of lowered the value of the American woman in my eyes, just a little bit. Except you mom. And, of course you, my precious bride.
Then there are the military check points. These exist for no other reason than to pull you over, so they can stick their head in your car and look around. I mean seriously, one minute, our driver is playing like Mario Andretti down neighborhood streets, with narry an officer of the law around to look after people’s safety, and the next minute, we’re curbside being stared at by men in camouflage, carrying AK-47’s. The funny part was, this dude with an AK, pokes his head into the car, sees all of our equipment, and backs up and gestures to his fellow “soldiers”. Again, remember, video equipment is VERY dangerous, we must protect the Dominican people from products created by the terrorists called Sony. So soldier boy calls over his compadres, and next thing I know, I’m having to show my passport to some tough guy in a FUBU shirt. I guess he must be their General. It’s 90 degrees out, everyone else is in full length soldier wear, and he has a Vneck soccer shirt on, checking my passport, which clearly reads “United States of America” and he’s talking to me as if I have any idea what he’s saying. I really considered asking him, “Where do I press “1” for English?”
This whole process really got me thinking, is this the life of a Dominican soldier? I mean, I know as Americans, we’re taught to revere the armed forces, these guys are our heroes. They fight wars. They defend our nation. They don’t check our passports in the middle of some random street in Anytown, USA. I’ve never heard of the Dominican’s going to war with anyone. I guess they’re too busy.
They share an island, but that’s about it. You might as well be on two different continents. The Dominican looks tropical. Lots of green, there are even mountainous regions on the drive that resemble a drive through Maui. But as you get to Haiti, that all goes away. It’s as if the Dominicans got there first, started in the East, moved their way west, and when they ran out of life giving land, they drew a line and said, we’ll let someone else have that, and then, the Haitians moved in. We’ve heard the phrase, “poorest country in the western hemisphere”, but this week, we really saw what that meant. I have never been to Africa, but some on our trip have, and they said this was a spitting image. The ground is hard and made of clay, and not good for producing vegetation, which means they can’t farm it, produce crops, and earn a living. The border crossing is organized chaos. You cross this bridge, by foot, and in the middle of the bridge is a gate to the land that time forgot. Once you get to the bridge, you can see the river down below, there are families bathing, washing their clothes, right along side malnutritioned cattle and goats who are in the water to escape the heat, or get a drink. The banks of the river is literally covered in garbage, literal garbage. You see, on Monday’s and Friday’s this area sets up a market, where farmers from the Dominican and anyone else who thinks they have something to sell, come set up. Thousands of Haitians come from all over the country to this little corner of Ouanaminthe to buy or sell just enough to last them until the next Monday or Friday. When they leave, all that remains is the garbage leftover from their existence. There are goats and cattle and children, rummaging through the trash, looking for scraps. Once you cross the bridge, you are bombarded with people, most of which are just hanging out, because it’s something to do. Others, are trying to get money from you by carrying your bags, or shining your shoes, or just because. We, of course, a few white people carrying large boxes of equipment, stand out like a sore thumb. They flock to us. Thankfully, we were with Danita, they know her. So it seemed they all knew to just not mess with us too much.
Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I go to another country, I always assume that the men of that country want to do two things and two things only, murder the men, and rape the women. Am I the only one that has this awful mindset? I know, of course, that is an absolutely ridiculous assessment, but yet, I see it whenever I hear these people speaking to me in a language I don’t understand.
Danita’s place, which you can learn all about at http://www.danitaschildren.org is a mere half a mile or so from the border, it’s an easy walk, unless you have 400 lbs of equipment, so she was kind enough to have her employees meet us with a shuttle. All the while, the Haitian men on the bridge are begging you to let them carry your bags. We did let a few of them push our heavy bags on a handmade wheelbarrow to the truck. Once we got everyone and everything loaded, they hung on the truck waiting to be paid, even ones who didn’t lift a finger. Danita has a relationship with these guys, they know, they will get paid fo their help. At least, the ones who did help.
You want to know something amazing, just as an aside here? This same urge to help that these Haitian men on the bridge had, which was more of an urge to get money from us, truth be told, if I would have paid them to not help us, they would have jumped at that. But anyway, that same, all up in your business, give me money attitude, can be found inside the walls of Danita’s compound, by her children. But here’s the thing, these kids, 10, 11, 12 years old, are dying to help you carry your bag, or show you around or just hang out with you, they aren’t doing it because they expect or demand a few pesos. These kids are doing it because they WANT to make you happy. They want to be a service to you, and they know they won’t make a dime, but they don’t care. That stood out to me more than anything. We walked through the market in Ouanaminthe, that is an experience I will never forget, but I saw the same things there. These people all want something from you, and they have a fervor to get it. They need the money. The Haitian boys and girls inside Hope for Haiti, have that same fervor, but it’s not for money, or to get something from you, it’s to be with you, and talk with you. THAT was the most awesome thing about this trip. If those kids were selling plantains or pineapples or shoestrings or bellybutton lint, I would line up day after day to buy it, because of their hearts.
Back to the market. If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire you kind of have a taste of what this is all about. I would say it’s probably equivalent to 1 square block here in America, probably about half the size of a Super Wal Mart, but it’s all outdoors, and it’s just people on top of people on top of people. They are selling anything and everything. Truth is, I’m not sure who they are selling it to. Also, God didn’t bless me with the gift of smell. My nose is really not all that powerful. I couldn’t tell you if I walked into a flower shop or a butcher shop, but I can tell you, I’ve never been more thankful for that, than I was in that market. Because there is a distinct smell, of dirt, and garbage and raw meat, even I could sense it.
The saddest thing about the market, and the town of Ouanaminthe, are the faces. You look around, and these people know they have it bad, they know they are desperate. They look at me walking around, carrying my $3000 camera, with my $15 haircut, and their eyes know, you’re not interested. You don’t even really have to say it. There are also children everywhere, pushing wheelbarrows full of “merchandise”, running errands for their parents, putting in 12 hour days of labor. These are the same streets a lot of Danita’s Children were rescued from.
You walk into Danita’s compound, and it’s shangri-la. These kids have it good. And you know what, kids DESERVE to have it good. What does “have it good” mean in Haiti? It means you have a table to eat at. You have hot food prepared for you, every day. You have playground equipment to play on, instruments to play, a comfy bed to lay your head at night.
There are over 100 kids who live full time at Danita’s place. But she doesn’t stop there, she also runs a school, where over 400 more children come from Ouanaminthe, and spend 8 hours a day at shangri-la. They aren’t orphaned like the kids who live there, but they get the same royal treatment during the day, going to school, and most importantly, they’re taught about Jesus. In a land known for voodoo, Jesus is being introduced to a lot of these kids, and as a result their families for the very first time. Because not only does Danita provide a place for orphans and a place for children to go to school, but they have church service there every week open to the families of these students.
Here’s the thing guys. We hear the term “changing lives” all the time. “Man, that movie changed my life”, “That man is really changing lives.” And a lot of times that can be true. A trip to Haiti can change lives. But here’s a woman, Danita Estrella, who isn’t changing lives, she’s saving lives. If Danita, had ignored her call, and not gone to Haiti, how many of those 100 or so kids, who call her Mami, and call that place home, how many of them would even be on this planet today? Not many. For most of them, Danita was their last chance, for some, their only chance.
When you hear the word “orphanage”, I know what a lot of you all picture in your head. It’s the visual from Annie or Oliver Twist. Kids sitting in a building, mostly interacting with each other, staring out the window and hoping that someday, a mommy and daddy will walk up those steps, and take them home.
That’s not true at Danita’s Children. Those kids aren’t looking for a home. Those kids aren’t looking for a mommy. They’re already there! There’s nowhere on earth they’d rather be. And here’s the best part, Danita looks at it the same way. She’s not on the phone all day calling all her rich friends in the states trying to pawn off these kids. She would never do that any more than you would with YOUR very own children. These are HER kids, her children, Danita’s Children. Her vision is not for these kids to grow up, move to America and get a 9-5 job, get married and have a normal life. That’s great and all, but that’s not what she believes for these kids. These kids are Haitians, and Haiti needs help, Haiti needs God, Haiti needs people who believe in God, believe in truth, believe in grace and mercy. Right now, those people, are behind her walls, eating, and sleeping and learning, and little by little, being raised up in the way they should go. And some day, these little kids, will become Haitian adults, with the same drive, same ideals, and same mentality as Mami Danita. What happens if each one of them, continues her work, and goes out, and disciples people, and then their disciples disciple people, before too long, Haiti won’t be known for voodoo anymore.
Before I finish, it should be noted that Danita does not do it alone, not by a LONG shot. She has several ladies there helping her out, day in and day out, some have been there almost as long as she has, others have just gotten there, but want to be there forever. Those ladies deserve the praise too, they’ve dropped everything in their lives, and have up and moved to Haiti.
Could you do that?
If you would like more information on how you can help Danita change and save lives, just go to the website I mentioned earlier, learn all about her and her organization. http://www.danitaschildren.org
She didn’t ask me to send people to her website, I just know that I have great friends, who believe in great things. I’m not asking you to send her a check or move to Haiti, just go to the website, look around, and see for yourself.
Here’s the thing guys, I’m someday going to write a movie about this lady and her organization, do you want to watch the special features, or do you want to know you were a part of the special features?