Dedicated to Barbara
We missed you and thank you for the card!
Does the average everyday person, if you’re not from or ever been there, ever think of Haiti? Probably not. Let’s be real about one thing before we go any further, people don’t like to think about third world countries unless they are in the news for some dramatic event and then, we are all about that one country until the news of their plight fades away allowing us to return to our everyday normal lives. Haiti isn’t a serious vacation destination although there are hotel/resorts on the island, surrounded by giant cement walls to keep the tourists, the ones who are just out for sun and fun, from seeing the everyday lives of the ten million plus (and growing) residents and the mostly uninhabitable conditions with which they live. After the 2010 earthquake Haiti, more specifically the Port-Au-Prince and its surrounding area which is where the earthquake was centered, became the epicenter of world aid; everyone from the UN to the local scout troops were fundraising, traveling to provide medical aid, helping with search and rescue, sending supplies and prying for the people.
It has been almost eight years since the earthquake that took the lives of some three hundred thousand Haitian residents and yet Port-Au-Prince and its surrounding area is still in a serious disarray. There are several factors for this one of which is the government corruption however, that is not what I am here to discuss. What I am here to talk about is probably the biggest reason that people would think about Haiti; service/mission work. Last year (2016) I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Haiti with a not for profit organization out of Ipswich, MA by the name of Partners In Development (PID). Along with several other people from the surrounding New England area we spent eight days building a storm shelter, prepping the ground for two other storm shelters and helping to prep the foundation for permanent homes in two different areas surrounding Port-Au-Prince. While the construction team was busy outside of the facility located in Blanchard, the Christmas party team was busy inside the facility, presenting about six hundred children in the PID sponsorship program with gifts, an ornament making station, a hot meal and helping them to write a card which would be mailed, with their picture on it, to their sponsor family. It doesn’t sound like much however, to the families and children in the sponsorship program, this little bit that we do during the eight days that we are there, is everything.
This year, after months of soliciting my friends, family and dental providers for donated supplies; toothbrushes, toothpaste, condoms, soap, etc.. T and I boarded a plane with twenty-three other people (the same ones from last year) and headed to Haiti with hope, excitement, optimism and high spirits. The following is a detailed account of my eight days in Haiti.
After waking up at 1:30am, driving to Boston, arriving three and a half hours before our departure time, enduring the most unorganized boarding ever, flying north to Montreal, then south to Port-Au-Prince (PAP), surviving the pushes and shoves of the natives who want off of the plane before it is even stopped at the jetway, we finally made it to Haiti. Now we have to run the gauntlet or more commonly known as the baggage claim area in PAP. Ahead of our arrival, I had prepared T for the chaos that is the PAP baggage claim area by telling her to stay alert, keep her head up and don’t let anyone help you otherwise they want you to pay them. Clearly I spoke to soon because after expediently getting two of the coveted baggage carts, T and I headed to the carousel that we were to claim our checked bags from… first, let me just say this… there were an estimated two checked bags and two carry on’s for each of the twenty-five of us, that’s roughly about one hundred pieces of luggage… it was virtually empty. Ok, so they hadn’t started off loading yet and there was really no-one around the carousel. Where did they all go? Who cares!!! This is great! At this point, I remember saying to Paula that this baggage claim process was way smoother than last year to which she said “you just jinxed us.” Yes. Yes I did. Apparently we were at the wrong baggage carousel and the one we were supposed to be at was like a hornets nest and, we were about to walk right into it.
Watching grown adults fight over a spot at the baggage claim carousel will never get old. While it is funny to an extent, it is truly very sad. Patience and manners go by the way side and it becomes survival of the fittest. There is no more understanding that we all want to get our bags and we all want to exit the airport so if we just do it in the most efficient manner possible, we will all get to where we want to be faster. Then I remember that we are in Haiti and words like efficient do not exist, for the most part. Now having made it through the gauntlet and out to the parking lot with all people and bags in tow, the process of loading everything and everyone onto the PID bus (which has seen better days) and Pouchon’s truck begins.
Riding in the bus with a majority of the luggage, our carry on’s and about half of our group, exposed skin stuck to T’s exposed skin, the familiar smell of diesel exhaust, burning trash, dirt and sweat waft through the open windows and swirl around making me wonder why I look forward to this trip so much and then Peter says “Welcome home” and I’m reminded that while Haiti is everything my home is not, it is my home away from home because of the wonderful people who I have the opportunity to travel with, the people I will see again/new people I will meet who live in Haiti and because of the amazing work that will be done, experiences that will be gained, and the mark that we will all leave on each other.
Looking over to the open bus door I’m drawn from my thoughts by an internal giggle at the sight of Brad holding onto the handles and standing in the open doorway, his hair flapping in the wind reminding me of Jasper when he sticks his head out of the car window when I take him for rides. So it with this rejuvenated excitement that I am able to get through the next several hours of unloading and sorting bags, picking bunks, unpacking, welcomes, introductions, getting T up to speed and onto dinner. Dinner is a family style affair where Centillia putts the food out on the counter, we serve ourselves and everyone sits at one long table to feast our first of many hot and fresh Haitian dishes after which Sandra runs down the list of Do’s & Dont’s. Don’t flush unless it’s a number two, don’t put toilet paper (even if it’s got brown on it) in the toilet (it goes in the trash can), do drink the water and use it to brush your teeth (they got a new filtration system), do use lots of sunscreen and bug spray, don’t let the water run while in the shower (get wet, water off, suds up, water on, rinse, water off), don’t use the lights during the day, if power goes out shut lights and fans off to prevent a surge when power comes back on and lastly, do remember to take your malaria meds and have fun!
Starts at 6am, just like every other day will until we head home. Breakfast is at 7:30am and consists of oatmeal like no-one other than Centillia can make. It is perfectly spiced with cinnamon and whatever else that gives it the warm wintry taste and the best mango you will ever have this side of anywhere! After breakfast we all break to go about getting ready for our individual days; construction or party prep and this year we have three nurses who will be in the clinic.
Today, T and I have decided to go join the construction team which is building permanent homes in the next town over. Once the team, currently numbering eleven, arrives at the sight, we quickly asses the best (most shaded) spot to leave our gear and proceed to wait for the Haitian construction crew boss to arrive. Funny enough, he is the only one wearing a hard hat although, it’s not like we are building sky scrapers or anything.
While the rest of the morning consists of line perfection; the water bucket line, the concrete bucket line, the cinder block line (a whole trucks worth), the gravel bucket line and then there is the most arduous Haitian practice of having the American’s move buckets of gravel from one spot to another. Busy work. After noon brings lunch and those little PB&J finger sandwiches which no-one has ever said they love. These things are made in the morning before we leave, put into a plastic bag and then sit out in the heat until we are so exhausted and hungry that we don’t exactly care, much, what we are stuffing in our faces. These little gems will never be on my list of things I miss about Haiti. Ever. After lunch there is more of the same bucket lines, cinder block lines (a second truck full) and now we add trench digging, which mind you, is when the tarantulas like to make an appearance. This is also when the “Haitian Complication” comes into play; no one really knows what they are doing or the best way to do it but, once we combine our systems and get going, it is like watching a well oiled machine mid flow.
Having been lucky enough to escape any tarantula sightings, all eleven of us load our stinky, dirty “Haitian tanned” selves back onto the bus and head for the PID complex and cold showers! To explain the “Haitian Tan“, it is when you are so dirty from working construction in Haiti, that when you take your shoes and socks off to put your flip-flops on, you have a dark dirt (sock) line. Back at the complex some of us choose to shower right away while others will play with the kids who are hanging around or some will choose to help with party prep since the party will go for the next four days (fri-mon).
Dinner time proves to me that Centillia is a psychic. While munching on PB&J’s at lunch we were all talking about how delicious her spaghetti is and lo and behold, what did we have for dinner? Spaghetti! It was like heaven after a long hot day in the sun and dirt. It also helped us to prepare for the packing and counting of the one hundred and seventy backpacks, out of six hundred, that were lost somewhere between the manufacturer and the PID complex in Haiti. There was bound to be a glitch and if this is the worst one, then bring it on.
Brings day one of the Christmas party and its “Baby Day 1“. Baby day is when all of the little babies and toddlers that are in the sponsorship program come through to do the party circuit; picture, card, ornament, gift and food. T and I chose to stay at the complex today so that she could see how the party works and hold the babies, which I suppose should freak me out because she likes babies however, the more wet diaper-less bums she holds on her arm the better to ward off that ticking clock. Baby day is also when you get to see how much the little nuggets from last year have grown as a benefit of their sponsorship. For me, I was looking forward to seeing the little girl twins who were sick last year and one of whom pee’d on me. They were just as adorable this year as they were last year and just like last year, one of them pee’d on me. Maybe that’s a good sign that they like me.
In any case, I always like staying for the party once or twice because it solidifies for me that what we do makes a difference in the lives of those in the program and I get to teach them how to do something at the craft table. Even if it is with the help of an interpreter it shows how important the power of observation and learning through that observation is when an interpreter is not available. Being at the craft table this year also allowed me a glimpse into the inner workings of the clinic.
At home it would take a matter of one or two minutes to clean and cover a scrape on the forehead. In Haiti it took me thirty minutes rummaging around an exam room in the clinic to find the proper supplies; alcohol (which turned out to be hand sanitizer), Neosporin and a band-aid. Thankfully my “patient” and her mom were understanding (not that they understood my mumbled swears).
To round out my day there was more hand sanitizer on my own scrapes, assembly line prep for the next day’s party, swollen feet and the teens (five of them) bonded over making brownies and popcorn. Of course, the power also went out which is a common and frequent issue which also means no fans…. you can see the dilemma here.
Brought more construction for me, T and six others. As you can see, the construction crew numbers dwindle over the days. Tarantula sightings, baby goats and T having to use a Haitian toilet (cement circle you step up onto, squat over and do your business) because she had a mild case of diarrhea. It was hotter than hell and went very slow given the fact that four of us had mild stomach issues.
Started with me, T and Maddie sleeping in because we were up with the poops all night. About mid day T and I were feeling better and thankfully so since the power was out yet again and the fans in the bunk house shut off. After an emergency exit from dinner I ended up having to take my cippro/probiotic cocktail which by morning had me feeling tip-top.
We all woke up feeling better and it is the last day of the Christmas party. Earring on the side of caution, T and I decided to stay on the compound. Close to the toilets. Due to a shooting and terrible traffic as a result, the construction crew stayed in the compound and dispersed to help with the party and to help the on site construction guys build/paint benches.
This is also one of the saddest days because once the party is over we say “bye for now” to the translators who have been by our sides since party day 1. We all know we will see each other again next year, most likely, but it still makes for a somber mood. That is until we head out for group dinner night at Vol, a local Syrian owned PAP restaurant that overlooks the airport runway. This outing is always fun as we get to gorge on pizza, salad, subs, weird desserts and Prestige; the Haitian version of Budweiser. Visiting the grocery store next-door yields a haul of real, cold bottled water which is amazing after drinking warm and often times hot water all week.
With the bus packed we head back to the PID complex where upon arrival we find there is no power, no water and no fans… no surprise. Despite this, it doesn’t stop some of the teens from pursuing a prank war in and around the ladies portion of the bunk house. It would be perfectly appropriate to say that good times are always had no matter the situation.
Cultural excursion day. This is what Sandra and the other PID brass like to call our day off mostly because there is no party or construction and we do visit two or three Haitian sites to absorb some history and, culture before we leave tomorrow for the states.
First on our list is the Iron Village which is always awesome and yields loads of Christmas shopping goodies on the cheap. Merchants create amazing and varied iron works of art out of discarded oil drums and sell them to tourists and locals for a price that you can negotiate/barter. This year T found herself a few things and I found a mirror, serving tray and a few other items of highly classified identity while only spending roughly sixty dollars. After heading back to the complex for a hot lunch of rice and bean sauce, we head to the National Pantheon Museum.
Haiti’s National Pantheon Museum is air-conditioned. This was the selling point for me and it is underground. Seriously though, I’m a sucker for a good museum but this one, made me angry. I’m all about preserving a country’s history and culture but when you have starving people in need of clean water and reliable homes, it makes me sick to see a huge water feature at the ground lever filled to the brim with clean water. Marble lining every inch of wall and floor space, brick patterns adorning the ceiling and art work worth millions hanging on the walls for anyone to walk up to and touch. In addition to all of this it would seem practical to sell off some of the lesser fantastic trinkets and maybe a work of art or five to other museums in order to bring some revenue into the country. Im not nigh eve enough to think that this would solve the countries problem however, it would be a start as well as consolidating the countries museums into one or two to cut expenses. Realistically, who need AC when you have been sweating your ass off all week anyways?!
Despite the Museum having set my mood off I was able to salvage it with the happy planning of the Christmas tree and gifts that we are leaving for Emily, the PID intern who traveled down with us but will remaining for roughly three months to assist Sandra before and after she has her baby. T and I left her a gift of vanilla Oreo’s.
Worst night of sleep so far. Up all night sick. Definitely ready to go home.
As we wake early and say goodbye (until next year) to our Haitian friends it is with heavy hearts that we pile onto the bus and into Pouchon’s air-conditioned truck (I scored the front seat) headed for the PAP airport once again. I find it interesting that the PAP airports departures terminal is the most organized process in the entire country, to my knowledge.
While we wait for our flight to board some observations that I make include understanding that adult women can be just as bad as teenage girls, I slept like shit every night but it was worth it, just like any other group there is gossip and cliques, this year was way hotter and mugier than last year, the power went out a lot more this year than last year and got old quick, the Miami airport makes for some interesting people watching and they have more luxury shopping than most malls.
One of the biggest observations I made from this return trip home was the actual return home. My plan is to elaborate on this more in another post but I wanted to talk about the homecoming I observed at the arrivals gate in Boston.
A few of our fellow group members were greeted by their families at the gate, one of them was greeted by her husband and being witness to their happy reunion evoked emotions in me that I thought I had firmly under control. Don’t get me wrong, in no way do I begrudge them their happy reunion but it made me realize that I miss having that. For awhile now I have been content to say that I was happy doing me and I wasn’t going to go out looking for love but let it just happen when it is meant to. Feeling the way I did and choking back those tears has made me decide to take matters into my own hands and in January I will embark on the journey of online dating. Again…
There are so many experiences that I bring home with me every time I return from Haiti, some good, some bad and this year I was fortunate enough to share those experiences with my daughter whom also has her own experiences. Grateful and blessed are just two of the words that I can use to describe my time here in the states and in Haiti. It isn’t everyday or everyone who can say they get to have the experience of going into a third world environment and making/seeing/effecting change. I’m just over the moon in love with the fact that I can even though I never thought this would be my thing. I think it was Chip Gains who once wrote that every ounce of energy you put into pursuing your place in this world will help you to grow towards gods plan for you even if you end up somewhere you never counted on. I guess this is gods plan for me.
Until next time…