Its been five days since I landed back in the US. I haven’t written until now, becasue I’ve been processing A LOT about this trip. It’s only now that I find my thoughts (somewhat) coherent enough to share with all of you. I apologize in advance for any rambling and for raw feelings that are still coming out. I invite you to be part of my processing…
As I stepped off the plane in Port Au Prince (PAP) I could immediately smell trash. Rotten trash, burning trash. I’ve smelled this before when I did work in South Africa, but only in certain townships. I wasn’t greeted with stench as soon as I stepped off the plane. In the PAP airport, going through customs, I could tell that our group of 12 Americans were not warmly received. Cold stares from many, no eye contact from others. The customs officials held many of us up while they claimed we did not have the correct address on our customs form. This treatment would continue throughout much of my time in Haiti. Haitians would flip us off as we drove by, and they would shout “No Americans” or “Go Home Americans”! The first few times I heard this I just chuckled. But later that day I realized why so many Haitians may have a bad taste in their mouths (more later)…
Our group leaves the airport among a sea of Haitians looking for handouts or work. We’re instructed to ignore them and keep walking as we follow our guide to our 10 passenger van. Only problem, at this point, there are 18 of us (some of our group members arrived a day early). We load up ‘Clown Car’ style. Exhaust is heavy in the van and sticking your head out the window isn’t much better. PAP is polluted. My eyes burn. I’m sweating. Relief comes…our guide decides to take us to the orphanage where we will be staying and pick up another vehicle. Woo Hoo!!
We arrive at our home, Gertrude’s orphanage. Unload bags, fill water bottles, and load back up into the van and now a pick-up truck too. I opt to sit in the back of the pick-up. This affords me an excellent view of the city and countryside as
we take an hour long drive up into the mountains. Our first destination today – Wings of Hope, an orphanage for disabled children.
Along the way up the mountain our van begins to emit heavy black smoke. The driver doesn’t seemed concerned. (thank God I’m in the pick-up). About half-way through the drive the van breaks down. It needs water in the radiator. We are now stopped along a busy intersection and EVERYONE swarms us. Do we want to buy a pop, do we want to exchange our currency, do we want to buy fresh baked pastry (WHAT??), do we want to give money/food to the mamas who come up to us and show us their babies – even the babies hold out their hands. I haven’t exchanged any US dollars yet and I’m afraid that if I show my cash it will be snatched (don’t judge me). The men in our group are braver than I. They buy snacks, pop and water not only for our group, but for the mamas. They are angels on this trip in many ways. Water’s in the radiator now. Time to go. I wave goodbye to the sweet, sweet babies. I wish I could take them home.
20 mins later, the van is no longer behind us. We turn down the mountain and find it stranded on the side of the road. Here’s where I begin to understand the Haitians disdain with Americans. Our guide flags down a bus packed full with Haitians. The conversation is in Creole, but I gather that the Haitians are kicked out of their van so that the Americans can get in. White privilege. I’m PO’d, embarrassed. The Haitians jump onto other vans and buses as they pass by. They have their rides and we have ours. What just happened?
We make it up the mountain and the rain comes in. The dirt roads turn to mudslides, but we arrive safely at Wings of Hope. Renee (an American) has been running WOH for 9 years. She is a lovely soul. Doing the very best she can with limited resources. WOH cares for severely disabled children. In Haiti, if a child is born with a disability they are often left for dead. Renee does her best to make sure this doesn’t happen. She gives these children the most fulfilling lives possible. Renee’s original facility was destroyed in the 2010 Earthquake. She’s renting now and the facility is makeshift. Steeeeep wheelchair ramps connect a seemingly never-ending collection of buildings. The smell of urine is high. Many children lay in heaps on their beds waiting for someone to give them attention. Its obvious Renee needs more staff, but that requires more money. For now, its volunteers like us that can help to lighten her load. We touch the children and their faces light up, we hold suckers while they lick and their bodies seem to soften, we give back rubs, smile and talk to them. It may seem trivial, but for the few hours we were there these kids seemed to turn on. I hope we did some good. One of our volunteers who traveled to Haiti earlier this year notices one of the little girls, Belinda, is gone. Renee tells us that Belinda was ill so they tried taking her to 4 hospitals in PAP. All the hospitals turned her away becasue she was disabled. Belinda died in the parking lot. I want to leave now.
The rain is heavier, but it’s time to go. Luckily, we can all fit into the new van. We go to a Baptist Mission for lunch. I don’t have much of an appetite. But the french fries look good. We’re told all the food is safe to eat. A couple more English speaking groups arrive. I begin to trust that the food really is OK to eat. I order a sandwich.
After lunch we’re off to the Apparent Project. An organization dedicated to empowering the poor through trade skills such as jewelry making, seamstressing, book binding etc… There are beautiful items to purchase at this facility and I do! Donna Karen (the fashion designer) was in Haiti recently and came across The Apparent Project. She is now adding some of their jewelry to her fashion line!!! The Apparent Project employs nearly 130 Haitians. This work has allowed many of them to send their kids to school and even to buy homes. Two very rare privileges in Haiti.
We leave the Apparent Project and decide it’s time for Prestige (Haitian beer) and wine. This is my kind of volunteer group!
I don’t know how anyone can learn their way around PAP. There are no road signs, crowds of people line the streets, cars travel in all directions, and addresses are not clearly marked anywhere. BUT, our drivers get us to a grocery store. There are hoards of people outside and the doors are guarded by UN Military Police. We make it inside and its like a sanctuary. Not becasue its gorgeous and serene, but becasue its quite, clean and isn’t packed wall to wall with people. I opt for bottled water and pringles.
We arrive back at Gertrude’s for dinner and a night cap. We go around the circle and share our experiences from the day. I share that I am grateful to be working with such a loving group of people. We’re already a family.
The next day takes us to The Sisters of Charity. A hospital/orphanage started by Mother Theresa. Her sisterhood of nuns continue to provide care for the children. We arrive to find a food line, probably a half mile long. Some members of our group are asked to hand out rice and other grains. The rest of us go inside to work with the children. We are greeted with a large sign that reads “Absolutely No Pictures!” I begin to cry as soon as I walk into the building. All the kids in this facility are really, really sick. The top level is for the ‘healthier’ kids. These kids, have a chance at survival. The bottom level is for the kids who are not so lucky. I walk in, see big eyes, and out stretched arms. I grab the first two boys that come to me. I immediately love them. I hold them like I hold my son. One is without a diaper. I set them both down in order to put a diaper on him. They begin to cry. They just want to be loved. I quickly make the diaper change and scoop them back up. I snuggle them, kiss their heads, sing to them. They melt deeper and deeper into my arms. I don’t know what they are battling health-wise, but I pray and pray that they survive. I give them all the love I can. I literally start to feel drained. A few of the men from our group walk in and one of the boys in my arms yells, “papa”. He jumps down and runs to Tom. Tom and I both start to cry.
I know I have to do it. I’ll regret it if I don’t. I get a coloring page and a crayon for the boys on my lap. They are distracted now. I head downstairs.
Downstairs is unbelievably hot and full of crying. Some of the children are with their parents, who hold onto them tightly and look at us with eyes that seem to say, “why?” The other children are in their cribs. Looking with eyes that seem to say, “help.” These children have AIDS, Tuberculosis, severe malnutrition, and God only knows what else. The women in our group are doing an excellent job of keeping it together. The majority of us are mothers. This is a really hard sight to see.
I’m downstairs for the remainder of our time at Sisters of Charity. Holding babies, singing to them (‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ is the only song I can think of), feeding them, and alerting the nurses when I hold a child that is blistering hot from fever. A few hours later, we leave. We’re all hesitant to go. We walk back to the bus in silence. I am depressed. Big questions run through my mind. What the F, God!! Why?? Why children?? (I type this and I picture all their little faces.) I cry. A lot. It seems to help. Questions don’t always lead to answers. Trust and faith keep me going.
The rest of the day comes and goes. I can’t stop thinking of Sisters of Charity. We eat lunch, we travel to an orphanage named El Shadi, where the kids have got it made! Mama Marie spent lots of time in the US, made connections, and came back to Haiti with a dream. This compound holds a house, I’d say 2000SF, the rooms are clean, the air is fresh, there is a school out back and a chapel. I would live here. The kids wear smiles, have lots of energy and want us to play with them. We do. Thank God for the light that is El Shadi, I couldn’t have handled much more today.
Day is done. We arrive back at Gertrude’s. Our group leader, Kim, has organized a private concert for us tonight. Dream,
a Haitian reggae band, sets us all at ease with their talent. We sing, we dance, we drink Prestige. Kim must have known that we would need this tonight. She is excellent.
The next day, I leave. Its bittersweet. I am eager to get home, hold my son, and kiss my husband, but I feel like I have more to give. Instead, I must go. I barely catch my flight. If not for an American at the PAP airport who spoke Creole I would have. Paul, wherever you are THANK YOU!
_ _ _ _ _
So that’s my Haitian experience. Now, here’s the lesson I’m beginning to form….
A lot of what I saw, heard and experienced in Haiti left me confused and at times pissed me off. There were times when I felt angry with God, with Haitian people, and with myself. Here I was, thinking that I had something to give Haiti that they don’t already have themselves. Here I was, thinking that in some way I was better than them and could turn their lives around by showing up. While these are honorable intentions, they are based in judgement. A judgement that comes disguised a service. Hope for Haiti lies in Haiti. Just as there are plenty of Americans, Europeans, South Americans – you name it – who lose trust in themselves and end up in a life of despair, anger or hatred; so there are Haitians doing the same. Haiti is not unlike anywhere else in the world. It just seems that for some long line of unknowns, there is a high concentration of ‘bad’. But not all is lost. Becasue as I came to understand (and am still processing) God is Haiti, God is me, and God is you. We are all capable of working, living and being of a divine nature. There will always be struggle and conflict. The best we can do is not be swayed by this. What we can do is walk in our own divinity. As Ghandi said, ‘my life is my message,’ if we can carry ourselves in love there is always hope. It may not be global domination type hope oozing out of every living person, but it’s there. It’s always there. In me and in you.
And there’s this – I have a deeper sense of gratitude for my life than ever before. I am a grateful person, a stop and smell the roses type person, but now I am that x 1000! It’s only by chance that my soul landed in this body in this country. With my experience in Haiti I have an even stronger appreciation for what it means to be American, to live a life surrounded by opportunity, and to get to live big! I have nothing holding me back and neither do you! Get out there, dream a dream and do it! Seriously, there is no excuse not to.
Other random thoughts:
1. PAP seems to be a giant garbage dump, the mountains are picturesque.
2. Haitian people are gorgeous. Bone structure, body type. The European fashion scene could find it’s muses in Haiti.
3. Big change happens one person at a time. The NGOs and other non-profits on the ground in Haiti are doing just that. I encourage you to learn more about Wings of Hope/Hearts with Haiti, Apparent Project and Rays of Hope.
4.Some children in Haiti will grow up to make a difference, some will grow up otherwise. This is no different than anywhere else.
5. I stopped taking pictures after a while. It didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t want the subjects to feel like zoo animals. This could have been another reason we were flipped the bird so many times.
6. As one of my students put it, “Haiti is certainly no worse off becasue you were there.” A nice perspective to sit with when feeling like I didn’t contribute very much. (Thanks, Meghan)
*My time in Haiti was cut short due to missed flights and delays. I was only able to spend 2 full days in the country. Also, given the health conditions and abilities of the children I spent time with, Yoga (asana) was not an option. Instead, I loved. Just loved the best I could. My group stayed in Haiti longer than I was able to. I hope to share some of their photos as they are made available to me.*