Monday, March 23, 2009

Communicating in Haiti

The biggest thing I would do differently about my trip to Haiti is I would spend more time learning some of the language. At a minimum I would have invested in a French-Creole-English dictionary. While there were people in our group that spoke French or Creole or both and translated for us, it is very isolating to not know any of the language.

We were made aware of our lack of know ledge right from the beginneing when Rhonny, the drivere, picked us up from the airport. He had been given a sign to hold so that we could find him. After we were seated in the truck he asked, "Francois?" "No", we answered, "English?" "No." he replied.

Well, I thought,this was going to be a long ride. So I dug way back into my brain to search for the French I had learned in that one quarter of French in eigthth grade, during repeated veiwings of Beauty and the Beast and a lifetime of Pepe lePew cartoons, and I came up with, "Bonjour." Rhonny laughed and answered, "Good Day." I was then able to continue with, "Merci, Sil vous plait, and un deux trois." Then I was finished. I chose not to dazzle him with, "the colors of the French flag are blue, white and red." which was the only sentence I could remember. We laughed and fell silent.

Later we had to wait on the side of the road for some of the group. Now I am by nature a chatterer (big surprise) and sitting and not being able to ask questions about everything around me was killing me. So I kept trying, I pointed to the trucks carrying loads of people, "Tut tut?" I asked. "Oui, Taptap" he answered. And he showed us how much money it cost to ride on one - these are the most common modes of transportation. This picture is of one of the nicer TapTaps, some are big open bed trucks with people piled on, some are vans with all the doors wide open. He also pointed out many of the motorcycles were also taxis and you would jump on the back.

Pause here and I will tell you the only Haitian joke I learned.

Q:"How many people can you fit on a TapTap?

A: "One more"

Now I was on a roll, I looked around for something else to talk about. The walls on the streets of Haiti are covered with colorful and detailed paintings advertising the business and other products. As we sat and waited in the truck, I became intrigued by the sign on the wall near us.

I interpreted the words as "Panther" and something about security. I thought maybe it was some sort of private security company. So I asked, "What's that for?" Rhonny replied but I could not make out any words. I shrugged, not understanding. So he answered, "Condom", with the appropriate gesture. Hmmm, well I did ask.

One last story of the language.

Katy was a med student that was visiting the same time we were. She spoke fluent French and acted as our interpreter many times throughout the week. One afeternoon after she had acted as intrepreter while we learned all the processing steps at the plant. She decided to go back to the house while we worked writing all of the processes into specifications. (She did not enjoy the engineering as much as we did.)

Later the workers wanted to demonstrate the cleaning process at the end of the day, we had specifically asked them to let us know when the processing was finished for the day. The workers asked, "Katy?" "No, she's at ....., hmmm, House?" No recognition. "She's home." "Oh oui, home." Great, so when anyone asked we said, "Katy home." and they would shake their heads in understanding.

Later that week I told Katy how happy we were to find out that home meant the same in French as in English. She shook her head and said, "No it doesn't." So we told her of our conversations and how everyone seemed to understand what we meant. And she told us that home in French means man (hommes). It seemed that all week we had been telling everyone that she was with a man. She was not as amused by this as I was.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What did I eat in Haiti?

If you have been reading my blog for any time at all, you will know that I am all about the food. Also you know that I am a big dork that takes pictures of food.

We were told before we left for Haiti that where we should bring at least some of our own food, preferably dehydrated food like that sold for backpackers. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the house had a real kitchen that we would all gather for at dinner time.

Here is a picture of our first dinner in Haiti. The tennis racket looking thing is an electric mosquito zapper, it was lots of fun to zap bugs with.

Our dinner that night and for several nights that week was cooked by Nancy, a woman that lived on the property with her husband. The two of them help take care of the house. We had Rice and Beans and Some kind of stewed vegetables. Jamie brought with her some homemade brownies that were to die for.

For every meal you have to choice to drink, water or beer. Water is bought from these small places along the street that make clean water by using reverse osmosis. The water is really clean and good, and the beer is not bad either.

On Friday night, we went to a Haiti Barbecue. We drove through a police roadblock up a street to a large gate. A man opened the gate and as we drove up there was a small outdoor restaurant.

You walked by the grill and ordered your meal, two choices- beef or chicken -- then you went to your table and a waitress brought you soda or beer to drink.

The meat was served with fried plantains, some other fried starchy vegetable and of course, rice and beans.

If we were at the plant during lunch time a woman would bring us each a plate of food. It was generally (can you guess) rice and beans sometimes topped with a bit of fish or one time with pasta and sauce.

If we were at the house during lunch, which we were for several days while the solar dryer was being built, we made our own lunch. One day we decided to eat the Army servings that Cory, one of my fellow travelers brought with him. I mixed the Mexican corn with the Chili, but it looked a bit gray, so I added some chili powder that I found in the pantry. Note to self: check spiciness of unknown chili powder before adding large amounts. Oh my it was so hot, we almost cried (but we ate all of it.)
The only meal I did not enjoy was unfortunately one meal that Nancy made to be special for us. This is what we found on the table one night at dinner time. It was not my favorite.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Solar Peanut Dryer

I have so much to share about my week in Haiti, but I have to jump right back into my regular life this week. I have so much to talk about and show all of you, and I will really, really soon.

Until then, here is the final picture we have of our Solar Peanut Dryer. You can see it is almost finished, it just needs a roof and some screening. (We were SO close to seeing it finished, we snapped this picture right before we jumped in the truck to go to the airport.)

The air flows through the solar collector on the front of the cabinet. The hot dry air then rises through the peanuts which are on shelves in the cabinet and out of a vent at the top.

If all went well, there should be peanuts in there today. I wish I could be there!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

There will be fire!

(Did you enjoy the Pi song? I scheduled it before I left because I was not sure if I would be able to update my blog.)

We were able to make some charcoal briquettes today! Do you know what is French for Briquette --- Briquette! Yea, I learned another French word.

We had to enlarge the nail holes that I had made to get some air into the can. We found that you have to start with a small amount of peanut shell and then slowly add shells until you get a really hot fire. Even then you cannot add the shells too fast or the fire will be smothered. Our third batch is in now the kiln. We have made about four briquettes. We want to burn them tomorrow to see how cleanly they burn. Unfortunately I smell like burned peanuts (with a hint of DEET). Ewww.

The Solar collector on the Dryer was finished this morning and we were able to get some temperature and humidity readings when it was placed in the sun. It got up to 120 F and 10% Relative Humidity, compared to outdoor temps of 80 F and 60 RH. I hope we get the doors on the cabinet so we can get more data tomorrow. Several of the shelves are finished.

Well just a quick update, I must make Charcoal while the sun shines.

Happy Pi Day!!

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Solar Peanut Dryer

We have all the material for the solar peanut dryer and the cabinet and solar collector are almost finished. Tomorrow we hope to take some temperature measurements and make the drawers. Everyone is so excited, especially Eddie who is the Boss construction guy and also lives on the property. His wife has cooked supper for us all week and keeps up the laundry. I met their two children today, a boy and a girl. I showed them pictures on my camera of my sons, then I took a picture of them so they could see themselves. They really enjoyed looking at the pictures of Six Flags Fright Fest.

The dryer was built using drawings, two people translating for us at various times in French and Creole and using what we have termed as Engineering Charades. There were times I had some doubts, but voila, it looks bon. Merci, Eddie.

Before I had left home, the Middle Geek had found a stuffed animal (a mini beanie baby rhino) for me to bring and a pack of Fruit Snack that he wrote his name on. He wanted to send more but I told him I was at my weigh limit. (I was exactly 50 pounds at the StL airport and 51 pounds at Ft. Lauderdale.) I gave the toy to the little girl and the Fruit Snacks to the boy. He was very polite and shared them with his sister. I know Middle Geek will be happy I found someone to give them to.

I know some of you are wondering, "What about the Charcoal Briquettes?" Do not worry, we are on it. The basket concept that we discussed with the Boss from the Trade School is exciting BUT unfortunely will not be finished until Monday - the day we leave! I am determined to make briquettes here in Haiti! We went looking for nesting cans like the ones Mr. Geek and I used at home. Many people buy powdered milk in about a gallon can, so we began to ask the workers at the factory if they had an empty milk can. One man said, Oui, so he left to get it. I decide I should shell his peanuts while he was gone (they were seed peanuts and had to be shelled by hand so they would not be damaged). So now I have my nesting can, I hammered many holes into the smaller one with a nail. Tomorrow there will be fire!! Wish me luck.

Tonight is Friday so we are going to a Barbeque! I have been told it is delicious. I can not wait! I have eaten too many energy bars and fish!!

Thursday, March 12, 2009


I still can't uplaod picture but I wish I could show you how our peanut dryer is coming along. I hope we can get some drawers made and the solar collector done tomorrow. The plexiglas was found, but it was very expensive. We also found out that even the English speakers did not know the word Plexiglass, instead we found plastic glass works better. At least I hope so, we haven't seen the material yet.

Today we went to a Trade School. We went to delivery some equipment parts to be repaired by their metal shop. The teacher there was very happy to learn someone in our group was a Mechanical Engineer (Jaime). He gave her a copy of the text book he has written, it was the first book in the series and is an introduction to drafting. I gave him all of the safety glasses that I had with me at the time, about five pairs. While we were talking, I had watched several students using the metal lathe without safety glasses, all leaning in to be able to really watch. Of course as we entered the building we passed a guy welding with no eye protection at all.

The trade school is part of a larger education complex. It was very strange to step around garbage, past the man welding and into a very clean metal shop classroom, full of all the tools I remember from shop class and work, lathes, drill presses, etc. It was only after talking to the Boss (a term of respect) that I realized it was like walking back in time to when I WAS in high school. For example there were not computers or computerized equipment anywhere. In the textbook, they were teaching drafting by hand for example, how to draw a pentagon using a compass. The teacher (boss) explained that some of his student had gone on to become engineers and some were tradesmen working in the oil industry.

While we were there we discussed fabricating a burn barrel that we can use to make peanut shells, like we did in Mr. Geek's and mine experiment . I am so excited that we have been able try so much. I know that may not sound like much, but we were completely unsure what this week could bring. I only hope that the second part of the trip we can finish what we have started.

Well today was not as long as yesterday, but we try to fit in as much as possible and I have been sleeping really good at night. Apparently last night I slept through a large feral dog fight not too far from our window, so I will quit for tonight.

(Also I can't get spell check to work- it took me forever to get Google not in French -- so so if there are any typos.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More from Haiti

I am trying to post pictures but the internet is slow. I am really happy to have the internet though because it is our only communication with the outside world. I have not seen any newpapers or television since we have arrived. The radio stations are all Creole or French (they sound very similar).

There are no phone lines here, so people use cell phones only. At the airport, there are people who will let you use their phone for a fee. (I am not sure how much it would cost.)

The roads are so chaotic that it hard to even describe how wild the car rides are. The main roads are mostly large holes, each car, truck, bike or motorcycle tries to pick the smoothest path- no matter what side of the road it is on!! Who ever gets there first wins and the others wait honking or drive into the hole and up the other side. Motorcyles weave in and out and pedestrians have to jump out of the way - even small children. If there is no room to park, cars pull up on the sidewalk. The public transportation consist of lots of van and truck and buses that people pay a fee and jump on. It is not uncommen to see people hanging from open doors on vans and from the back of trucks. On our first car ride we had at one time eight people, all our luggage, nine large water bottle, cameras and equipment etc all in one truck. Whew!

We have been very busy since we have arrived. Today we were up at 5:00am to take some of the people from the house (a film crew making a video for Meds and Food) back to the airport. In Haiti there is much hurry up and wait. We sat in the truck at the airport for several hours waiting to bring another traveler back to the house. Then we began shopping for the material to make our solar peanut dryer. We went to four stores which took several hours and still do not have all of the needed material. One of the materials we were not able to get on this shopping trip was caulk - just plain caulk. Plexiglass is also hard to find, although we are assured it can be found eventually. I hope someone can find it tomorrow.

I am going to post before any of this is lost, hopefully I can add pictures later.

You can read more about the trip at Jaime's Blog.

Monday, March 9, 2009

First Day in Haiti

My view on the plane! The plane was tiny.

And my view out the window!

My view out of the truck.

We went Grocery shopping!

Home Sweet Home (for a week)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Traveling to Haiti

The Little Geeks woke up to tell me Goodbye!

This is what fifty pounds of luggage looks like.
We will be here until 4:00 am.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Morning Questions (contiunued) and a Funny Story

The question from Middle Geek yesterday, "What is pornography?"

I assume after reading my post yesterday you all realize that I have no idea how to answer deep thoughtful questions, but I looked around and I was the only adult in the room. I figured it was up to me. I decided to go with the basics.

Pornography is when you take picture of men and women naked and sometimes pictures of them having sex. (Oh my I just realized that my blog is going to be found when people search for you know what. Well, Hello fellas.)

Luckily that was all the Middle Geek could handle. "Yuck!", he said. Then he thought, "On TV they were talking about children pornography."

"What is wrong with some people." I thought.

"Well that is the worst thing ever," I told him, "To do something so inappropriate with a child is horrible and to take pictures...." Okay I had no words for that.

There, surely you all will be able to come up with something better when the questions arise.

Now for a funny story (yea! that last subject was depressing)

The Littlest Geek and I were in the car and he was enjoying some gum that I had just bought him. He was reading the label (yes everyone in my family reads labels) and he said:

LG:"Yuck, this gum has beeswax in it!"

AbFab:"Oh really, I like beeswax."

LG:"I didn't even know that bees had ears."

That kid cracks be up!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Morning News

Every morning the Middle Geek turns on the morning news while he takes a shower. (He likes having company while he showers, don't ask.) After his shower, he will watch some of the broadcast before coming down for breakfast. Lately this has led to some interesting morning discussions.

Yesterday he came down and said, "Mom get ready to say, 'What is wrong with people?'"

Apparently that is the only response I can come up with when I hear of the awful things that people will do to each other. I am not sure if there is a better response, okay I am sure there has got to be a better response, but truly some actions just leave me speechless.

He told me the story, "This mom tried to drown her baby in a toilet."

So yes I responded, "That is awful, what is wrong with people?" It makes no sense to me, how can I explain this to an almost teenager.

The best I came up with was this. "Terrible things happen in this world. Mean people do horrible things. That is why it is very very important to do be good and kind. It is why we should always try our best to bring goodness to the part of the world that we touch. We have to decide everyday to be kind to people, show love and try to offset the bad in the world. "

It was so inadaquate.

Today's question, "Mom, what is pornography?"

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Three Stages of Accepting a Snake

Denial - There is NO WAY he is going to put that snake on me!
Anger - I am outta here!

Acceptance - Please tell me when it is over.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

How to make Charcoal Briquettes

Seriously this post is how to make charcoal briquettes, and no charcoal briquettes is not euphemism for anything else. (At least I don't think so, wink wink, you know what I mean.)

In Haiti, there is an excess of peanut shells. There is also a shortage of fuel for cooking. Therefore several people have been working to be able to turn peanut shells into clean burning charcoal for cooking. After a bit of research with my good friend google, I found recipes and video describing the process.
I also found this amazing (and horrific) statistic.

More children die from poor indoor air caused from smoky fires than from malnutrition.

Can you believe that?

Before I go to Haiti and help train people, I wanted to be sure I understood how it was done. So Mr. Geek and I made charcoal this weekend. Oh yes we did!! I know you wish you were us.

So go ahead and ask: AbFab, how do you make charcoal briquettes from peanut shells? We have to know!!

Sit down kids! I will explain all!

First you need some peanut shells.

Mr. Geek and I decided we should have lunch at one of those restaurants that serve buckets of peanuts. Then we could take home our peanut shells (and those of the surrounding tables) as well as have a nice lunch out. Oh the will the sacrifices we make ever end?

But (gasp) the restaurant was closed!

So we ate at Chevy's, I had a quesedilla and a Sante Fe Salad, thanks for asking. It was very nice and oh where was I? The peanuts! Oh the peanuts. No success!

So I went to the grocery store and bought two bags of peanuts. However now I did not have tables of people to help me crack the peanuts out of the shell. So I took the peanuts with me to band practice. After practice, I made the group circle around and shell both bags of peanuts. Thanks everyone! You are the best!

Then we gathered our high tech equipment. In Haiti we will use 50 gallon drums, so for the Geek trial we will use empty cans. Mr. Geek used a nail to make several hole in the can to allow for air flow.

We put the peanut shells in the can and lit them on fire. (Okay can I be honest here, I mean we are all friends right? The first try was not successful. We tried chopping up the shells first before burning. The chopped peanut shells were too closely packed to catch on fire, even though we used ten to twenty matches... in the cold wind...brrr) The trick was to use whole peanut shells and they burned much more easily.

The peanuts burn until they are very hot and the smoke begins to die down. At this point, air is restricted. Our high tech equipment was a spaghetti sauce can and dirt.

It worked great.

After the peanut shells carbonize and the cans cooled, we gathered the resulting carbon fines and crunched them into small uniform pieces using our hands and a plastic ziplock bag. (The Geek household is all about high tech.)

Now to make the final briquette. A binder was made with tapioca flour and water. (The Geek household happens to have these supplies in the pantry.) When the mixture is cooked it makes a delightfully slimey gooey substance. I mixed the goo with the carbon and voila it formed a beautiful briquette! I dried it in the food dehydrator.
All that is left is the burning to see how successful we were!