a haitian epistle

disclaimer: so this post is going to have some top quality christian propaganda in it; in my opinion that makes it all the better, but you can feel as you will

over the christmas break, i had the opportunity to take a trip with a group of students from st. thomas aquinas at uconn to the country of haiti.  we spent from january 4th to january 14th doing this, that, and everything throughout the cities of port au prince and jeremie.  this is my account of what it was like.  it is in no way complete and can in no way fully explain what it was like to actually be there.  but here it is.  enjoy (and by the way, it’s kind of long.  i was thinking about doing a “part i”/”part ii” kind of thing, but didn’t.  so just keep reading).

well, before taking my trip to haiti i was under the assumption that it would be a life-changing event that i would never forget. to make a long story short, i was not disappointed. over the course of ten days, i experienced things i never would have expected in a million years, met many inspirational people, and had a wonderful time doing it. there is no possible way i could put into words everything that i felt, saw, and did while in haiti, but i’ll try my best.

our plane took off from jfk airport in new york city, and from that moment on, the adventures didn’t stop. no matter where we went or what we did, something crazy, exciting, or moving always seemed to be happening. even the plane ride from new york to port au prince had some animation, as the flight attendant got in a little verbal scuffle with a haitian man who wasn’t a big fan of what he got for breakfast. once we stepped off that plane, though, we truly were in a completely different world. there were no fancy terminals. no perfectly paved runways. not even a moving walkway for us to glide across to the other side of the airport. what we did find was a packed building with people struggling to get close to the baggage claim area. we found a mass of people speaking a different and foreign language and lots of “helpful” men trying to grab our bags for us in exchange for a little bit of money.

from the airport, where we were met by nick and colleen, the two incredible norwich mission house employees that led us around for most of the trip, we took a drive up to the mission house. sounds simple enough, but trust me when i say that nothing ever was. if you were to envision a pothole in the road and then copy and paste that image until it covered the entire road, you’d be pretty close. by the end of the trip, riding in the car across these roads certainly became as much of a game as a way of getting from place to place. in a way, it was kind of like riding the t in boston. when you’re on the t, you can always tell the visitors from the natives. the visitors are flailing and falling over and jerking around with every stop and start; those who live in the city, however, know how to hold themselves so that it looks like they’re taking a completely different and perfectly smooth ride. these roads were like that. after ten days of riding along them, you had a strategy for staying smooth and comfortable, but that first time with your eyes glued to the window trying to take in every person, building, and blade of grass you were seeing, you were flying around, bumping into everyone else over and over again.

it wasn’t just the ride that was jarring, however. you can read the stories and see the pictures. you can hear about the political unrest and watch the reports on tv. no matter what you “know” about the country of haiti, though, you don’t really know it. we so often hear the complaint by viewers that reality tv isn’t real. they say it’s scripted or led on or overly-produced to the point of being just reality-based fiction. in my opinion, if you took a haitian who had grown up poor and dirty and lived the life that your average haitian wakes up to each and every day and put that person into the united states, he might complain too. he’d say our life isn’t real life. it’s just reality-based fiction. when you or i need food or water, we go to the grocery store. when the electricity goes out, you go downstairs and replace the fuse. when we need to upgrade our computer, the tech guys from the electronics store drive over and have it setup in a jiffy. our lives are overly-produced. they’re scripted. but what happens when you don’t have the money to buy food… for your two-year old baby… for the fifth day in a row? what happens when the electricity goes out and you know it’s not going to come back on? what happens when it’s 100 degrees outside and you only have the option of drinking cool water that you know will make you sick or boiled water that won’t? that’s real life. that’s haiti.

and that’s what we started to see as we took that first drive along the road up to the norwich mission house. to me, it looked like a war zone. the streets were lined with concrete buildings that were half torn down. the houses seemed to be surrounded by any kind of wall that could be afforded, usually with barbed wire along the top. everything was dusty and dirty and drab. it really looked like an army had come through on a mission and just left the place in ruins. i suppose there is some truth to that, though with less of an army and more of a civil rebellion. i would come to learn, though, that the walls actually weren’t half torn down. they were half put up. apparently, a great deal of the time the excitement of obtaining a little bit of money through whatever fortunate circumstance that arises is a little too much for haitians to handle. they’re so excited and ready to start off a new, stronger life that they put their money into building this new, bigger home for their families to live in and things are great. things are great, that is, until the money runs out, and without finishing the home, they’re back to where it all began. we did get to pass a fancy car dealership. the couple of wealthy people around do have to get their cars somewhere. we also drove by the brand new u.s. embassy building. we’ll just say that the beautiful architecture and shiny stonework don’t exactly fit in with the surroundings. those two places could in theory have given a bit of a more homey feel to the experience, i suppose. we were much more akin to seeing those than to seeing dirty streets and broken buildings. really, though, they just added to jarring feeling of the ride. i had yet to really meet a haitian, but i already had a pit in my stomach for them. the amount of money that’s going into that embassy… i don’t want to know. all i can say is that there may be a couple of things in the country that need it a little more.

i’ll have to admit we were spoiled. the norwich mission house, where we stayed, is located more along the outskirts of port au prince in an area known as petionville. it was farther up into the mountains than the majority of the city, and not nearly as crazy as many other areas. the house has walls around the borders of the property, like most of the buildings around it, and there was always a guard on duty at the gate for the protection of the workers and visitors. the guard always had a really big gun in his hands, so with that in mind, we were in a pretty safe place. besides the safety, though, the house was just really nice in general. it had everything you might need and a lovely view from the roof down into the city. the boys slept in a big room downstairs, and the girls slept in a similar room upstairs. we were the lucky ones in that deal; the girls’ room did have a bathroom that had recently been fixed up, but they also didn’t have any screens on their windows. in a country with malarious mosquitoes, window screens can be pretty handy. thankfully, we were all taking our pink malaria pills throughout the trip, so none of us got malaria, even though we did end up with a bunch of mosquito bites.

in addition to the nice accommodations, we also had many home-cooked meals that were made by a haitian woman that worked at the house. as far as how a lot of haitians live each day, scratching by for food and living with their family in a tiny one-room home, we didn’t have to live that way while we were in the country. that made for an interesting psychological situation. we went around for ten days to visit people and places that were often times unimaginable, and we would truly feel for the people we met and saw. at the end of the day, though, we’d go back to our comfortable house and eat the food that was prepared for us. we were trying to understand what these people’s lives were like, but at the same time, it seemed like we were to a certain extent being hypocrites. it was tough.

the streets of the city were a crazy, crazy place to be. the lack of road lanes and, for the most part, stop signs or streetlights turn driving into somewhat of a free for all. those who could afford a car just stayed on their side of the road and passed in and out of traffic however they pleased. the goal wasn’t so much of retaining order but just more simply of getting from one place to the next. those who didn’t have a car and didn’t want to walk all the way across the city to where they had to get would use the public transportation. that’s the easiest way to describe it at least. the vehicles used for this were commonly referred to as “tap-taps”, and mostly, they were these brightly painted pickup trucks with makeshift roofs over the back end. people would stand on the side of the road and hail them, similar to tracking down a taxi, and just hop in the back (or if it was full, hang off the back). when you wanted to get off, you’d just give a little tap-tap (hence the name) on the side of the truck to let the driver know to stop, pay for your ride, and be on your way. the constant entrance and exit of the tap-taps onto and off of the street made the driving even more interesting. this of course was only added to more by the people walking through the streets, many not looking with particular focus on what cars were coming in each direction. that part, at least, made our group feel more at home; it was like being surrounded by the pedestrians on the uconn campus.

our travels took us many incredible places on our trip, and we were able to meet so many selfless people that live their lives completely for others. a perfect example of this occurred whenever we went to a place run by mother teresa’s missionaries of charity. we visited homes of sick and dying men and women of all ages, malnourished and diseased babies, and other sick or abandoned children. the sisters that were in charge of these facilities were incredible. day in and day out they take care of men, women, and children that no one else would dare to touch. their patients have scabies, tb, hiv, and others diseases, and many are thinner than the people in pictures that they show you in health class to scare out away from eating disorders. in visiting these places, we had the opportunity not only to see the hardships that they were going through but also to interact with people and hopefully share a little bit of love with them. we visited the home for the babies on the first full day in the country, and to say it was a shocking start would be quite an understatement. they stopped our car along the side of the road in front of a building guarded by a tall metal wall that looked just like all the other run-down buildings around it. this one, however, had a long line of women holding their babies sitting against the wall. we would come to find out that these women would sit there in hopes that the nuns would let them in and feed their children because they had no way to do it themselves. once inside you were immediately face to face with a large room filled with crib after crib after crib. when you turned the corner, you’d find a similar room, and through another door would be another. the first floor consisted only of several of these rooms, and each one was completely full. the baby boys and girls in the cribs all laid or stood there in their cloth diapers (some with shirts as well), and most were crying. you heart immediately poured out to these children. there was nothing you could do but walk right over and pick one up. for many, the moment they were picked up, they would stop crying. their cheeks and eyes glistened with the streaks of the fresh tears, but when they were picked up, everything was okay. these children needed only to be held to be happy. they just needed a moment of love, even from a stranger that they had never seen before, would probably never see again, and for the most part, had absolutely nothing in common with. the problem was, there were just so many. the very few sisters that ran the home were so busy changing dirty diapers and making sure they were all staying healthy that there was little time for such affection. that was our gift to them, as small as it was. you’d be holding one, though, and have to watch all of the other babies in the room crying. the simple fix would seem to be to put down the child being held and to pick up another; the problem with that was the moment you put many of them down, they would start bawling all over again. you felt terrible putting one down but knew that the others needed your embrace just as badly.

in addition to the babies, there was also a group of orphans that lived at the home. it was truly incredible seeing how open and loving all of these children were. with the upbringing that we are given, told to stay away from strangers and to be afraid of things and people that we do not know, it was mind-blowing to walk through a door and immediately have haitian kids grabbing and pulling you here, there, and everything. it didn’t matter who we were. we were people, and because of that alone, they liked us. we also had the chance to help feed the children at lunchtime. the food wasn’t exactly what people in the u.s. would consider up to gourmet standards. they were basically eating something similar to a thick gruel with a rice and beans base to it. it certainly wasn’t the most delicious looking thing in the world, but honestly it didn’t matter. the thing about food is that when you have nothing to eat besides what is put in front of you, you will gladly eat it. this point got reinforced later in the trip when we were hearing about haitians in the countryside making and eating mud cakes because they couldn’t afford anything else. as we sat there spoon-feeding babies, it didn’t matter what was on the spoon. their stomachs were empty and anything would be good enough to fill them.

this type of experience would be replicated many times in our travels around the country. we met with so many incredible people who, no matter their plight or situation, all shared a common need: love. we spent a few afternoons with children from an orphanage called “la maison l’arc-en-ciel,” or “the rainbow house.” these kids were all positive for hiv/aids and could not be supported be their families anymore. in a country where trying to find enough money for food, water, shelter, and clothes on a daily basis is nearly impossible for many, trying to then pay for the medicine of a sick child isn’t even an option. one afternoon we took a bunch of boys on a hike up a nearby mountain. the walk was fun, and the view at the top was breathtaking. the most impacting factor of the experience, however, was neither of those. it was the kids. the fact that they spoke creole and we spoke english made it so communication couldn’t really happen so effectively using our verbal skills. there are only so many “hi! how are you?”s that you can say to a 10-year-old in an afternoon before he realizes that’s all you know. the fantastic thing, though, was that the lack of talking didn’t stop communication. when a kid is dancing up and down the path and has a huge smile on his face, you can assume pretty well that he’s having a good time. when you’re grabbed by the arm and dragged over to a tree to see the fruit that a boy’s just climbed up and picked for you, it’s pretty easy to tell that he wants you to eat it. when it came down to it, and this fact would be pretty consistent throughout the trip, not being able to speak creole wasn’t really that big of a deal. it’s incredible what perseverance for understanding and a little attention to body language can do. being from the northeast where even the person having the best day in the world still walks down the street as quickly as he can with his head looking straight down, you don’t get that a lot. on this afternoon, though, these kids had a ball, and i don’t know that because they told me. i know that because i cared enough to look and see.

we went back to that same orphanage a few days later to play with all the kids, and it was a great time. our group was able to take the experience with a few boys on the mountain and multiply it ten times over. most of the children were still at school when we arrived, but when the truck bringing them back home stopped at the orphanage, they immediately came over and gave all of us welcoming handshakes and hugs. these kids acted as if we were family friends that they had grown up knowing. we were never strangers in their minds, just people, and it was people that they wanted. we spent the afternoon basking in the feeling of acceptance and love and hopefully were able to give it right back to them. being infected with their disease definitely didn’t make them the most popular kids around. we heard stories of other families wanted these children to be put into different schools and how families with hiv/aids positive kids are shunned by the community. it’s not all that unlike here, i guess, but in a world where all you have to rely on is the support and caring of those around you, it’s an awful situation to be in. for the short time we were there, though, you never in a million years would have known that these kids had lived through any problems. they smiled. they laughed. they played. they loved soccer and swinging and music and coloring and anything you wanted to do with them. as long as someone was there to spend time with them, they were happy as could be.

one bizarre thing to witness in haiti was the doings of a typical sunday. we’re all used to america, the freedom-based, most powerful country in the world. one of those freedoms has always been freedom of religion. while a great concept in the beginning, it kind of backfired. instead of allowing everyone to pick whatever religion they want to follow, it instead lets most people pick none. most people around, even if they go to church occasionally, could care less about religion and god and all that. we found out that haiti has that religious freedom thing too. there are plenty of catholics around, but you’ll bump into lots of protestants and those who practice vodou. the weird thing was that no matter their religion, on sunday most people were going to church. they weren’t sitting at home preparing for the football game that night or making sure their roof was fixed (though many could have used the time to do so). they got up on sunday morning and went to church, and they were all in their sunday best. for six days of the week, you saw people walking around in dirty, ripped t-shirts and pants, but on sunday, the suits and dresses came out. suits and dresses? i thought these people were all dirt poor. well yes, they are. that’s why for most, you would probably see the same suits and dresses week after week after week. they just wanted to do their best to praise god and show their respect to him by being clean and well dressed for church. imagine if people in our country cared enough about anything to do that.

there were far too many moments and experiences in those few days in port au prince to even think about writing about all of them here. we met with a pastor who helped translate the bible into creole, merchants whose chance of feeding their families that day depended on you buying a statue or painting from them, a woman who gave her life and money every single day toward feeding all the hungry children in her neighborhood, an american banker trying to bring hope to the island through this thing called micro credit, and students who have had to walk all the way to the hospital just to get somewhere with electricity so that they can do their homework. it was full of so many people, places, and things that i’ll never forget. it was an incredible, incredible experience, and then, we went to jeremie.

jeremie is the fourth biggest, i think, city in haiti. compared to port au prince, though, it’s not much of a city at all. it’s out in the countryside and is a much more rural atmosphere than the “big city” life we had gotten used to. we had to take a plane to jeremie because the road there is winding, unpredictable, and dangerous. one haitian man told us that if we were going to drive, it would take us somewhere between four hours and a few days to make the trip, depending on car, weather, and road conditions. seeing as we were only on the island for a week and a half, we took the plane instead. after getting off our tiny propeller plane, we were met on the dirt runway by bette gebrian, who is the primary health coordinator or the public health director (depending on which website you google to) of the haitian health foundation. we had only a moment to go to the bathroom in the one-room airport, and then we were off into the mountains. it was an interesting ride for sure. the roads in port au prince had been rough and bumpy, nothing like even the worst roads back home. the roads leading up through the mountains of the haitian countryside, however, were nothing like even the worst roads in port au prince. it wasn’t really a bad thing, just a little crazy. i’ve driven up mountain roads before, but never literally up the path of a mountain. it made for quite the ride. we would all come to embrace the motto of “be like gumby”, as if you tried to control yourself over the unexpected turns, bumps, holes, and rocks, you would inevitably hurt yourself more than just letting go and flopping around. if someone had been filming us, it probably would have made for quite a youtube video.

we were driving into the mountains to go and visit one of the villages that the haitian health foundation helps out. basically they go around to towns, villages, homes, and people throughout jeremie and the surrounding area and help promote good health. they focus on teaching things such as proper nutrition, good ratios of food, breastfeeding, and other concepts that will help the poor haitians stay healthy even when the least possible nourishment is available. at the village we visited, the hhf was running a monthly check for mothers and their children, checking things like weight and blood pressure. we also had the change to wash and clip fingernails to prevent diarrhea-inflicting diseases that cause dehydration. before we left, we were able to serve a meal of this stuff called “akamil” to the families that were there that day. akamil is an interesting dish to say the least. if you remember the gruel-like dish that i mentioned earlier, i’ll just say that the akamil made that food look rather appetizing. it was basically a gray mush. i tasted some, and honestly, it wasn’t too bad. apparently, they also have a sweeter version than the one we served that day with more sugars and sweet ingredients. ours, however, was basically made of two parts rice, one part beans, and a few various spices that they found around. the problem with a lot of these rural areas is that when families get a little money for food, they want to get the most food possible with it. the cheapest thing around is usually rice, so they get a lot of rice. even if they fill up on rice and aren’t starving, though, they aren’t getting the proper nutrition to survive. many children end up dying of kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency, because they are only taking in simple sugars and carbohydrates. the akamil that they are taught to make, and that we served while in the village, is a nutrition-based food that, while not all that delicious, provides sustaining nutrition for the haitians in jeremie.

one fantastic part of the haitian culture, in my slightly biased opinion at least, was the importance of music. music is important in the u.s. and is a huge economic force, but in haiti, it’s a huge part of life. not only is music used for enjoyment, it’s engrained in everything they do. when we got down from hiking the mountain with the boys from the orphanage, we ate lunch with them. before we ate, they sang grace for us. when we spent the afternoon at the orphanage, they sang a thank you song right before we left. when we were in jeremie, we heard songs about the signs of pneumonia and the positive effects of breastfeeding (or so we were told at least; they were all in creole). since many of the haitians were illiterate, the workers at the haitian health foundation found that song was the best means to teach, even if the tunes didn’t exactly have the lyrics of a top 40 hit. coming from a country that’s gradually trying to take music out of schools and out of the minds of children, seeing music embraced in this way was wonderful. i even had a few chances to play some authentic caribbean drums with a couple of kids that had so much natural talent and rhythm it was incredible. they tried teaching us their beats, but it was a struggle for sure. as i’m going to school to study music, it was tremendous to see so much music everywhere we went in the country.

before leaving jeremie we had the chance to drive around the city with sister maryann berard. she works for the haitian health foundation, and like many of those that we met along the trip, she was a truly incredible woman. to say she was tough would be quite the understatement. from what we hear in the united states, haiti is supposed to be this hardened, dangerous place that you should stay clear of, but for the vast majority of the trip, i personally didn’t feel in any danger. the welcoming, friendly people that we met along our journey made those ideas seem much more like rumors than the truth. i did, however, feel a bit scared twice. both of those times were under the watchful eye of sister maryann on that drive around the city. at one point, we got out and took a walk up into one of the poorest and most cramped sections of the city. before we got out, she told us that she was glad we were there because she wanted to go talk to the people but didn’t like to go up in there alone. for me, that wasn’t the most comforting thing she could have said, but we all went with her anyway. we found out what she meant as we walked along the tiny path between the tiny shacks. more and more people came out to get a look at us, and soon enough, we were surrounded by forlorn haitians needing money and food. we were never directly threatened, but being surrounded by a big group of desperate haitians yelling and holding machetes can make you nervous. or maybe it was just me. the second event on that car ride happened as we were riding through one of the busier parts of town. carnival was coming up, so every sunday they would have a kind of mini-carnival to get ready for the big celebration. we happened to be driving around on a sunday, and as such, the younger men were out having their fun. a lot of them were totally drunk and had put on masks and covered their bodies in some kind of black charcoal mixture. they looked pretty intimidating to begin with, but the thing that really got me was when one of the guys slammed on the back of our car and then almost immediately another jumped on the back and hung on. i had the luck of being seated right in the back next to the window, so he was probably about three inches away from me. thankfully, sister just kept on driving and eventually he jumped off and we got out of there before anything could happen. it was quite the experience, though. the funny thing was that while all of the young, adventurous college kids were really nervous going through those places, sister maryanne, who is 63 years old, seemed unfazed like it was all no big deal.

the group took a plane ride back to port au prince and basically started getting ready to go home, as we had to leave the next day. we were lucky enough to get to watch a “rara” pass by the mission house that night. it was pretty much a great pre-easter parade which tons of people and really neat music. i thought it was pretty cool. once again, we had a first hand look at the awesome musical culture. the next day, we got a ride to the airport and took our plane back to jfk and eventually back home. it was interesting to see the differences between the customs office at the airport in port au prince and the one in new york. none of us had any reason to be stopped in either one, but as you can probably expect, it took a lot longer getting through in the u.s. than in haiti. we did, however, finally get out and were safety back in the united states of america. it was a very, very strange feeling walking out of the airport to the hustle and bustle of new york life. there was streetlight after streetlight and car after car after car, and as you walked past all these people and all their stuff, you just had a feeling they took it all for granted. i know i had. before the trip i had heard of the starving children in china that forced me to eat the vegetables on my plate. i had heard of the poor children in africa that somehow got on my television screen but definitely needed a few dollars from me every month. i had read about the injustices in the world, and i can assure you that i believed that they were there. i had not, however, gone and seen it, and that made all the difference. the old adage is that you don’t know what you have until you lose it, and that was never truer than with this experience in haiti. the incredible part about it was that it worked both ways. being in haiti, i was able to realize how incredibly blessed i am just to have enough food, water, clothing, and shelter or how fortunate i am to be able to go to an expensive university to learn about the world and then get to go see it. i’ve taken so much for granted in my life, and going to haiti made me realize that fact and hope, for myself, that i can change that. coming home from haiti, however, i also realized what i had lost by leaving there. as i walked down the street, no stranger was willing to look me in the eye and say hello. unfamiliar people were not ready to give me a hug and spend an afternoon in my company. the friendliness and love that had shone from the haitian people was nowhere to be found around here, and while it was nice to get back to the luxuries and comfort of my normal life, that was something to be missed.

there is no possible way to put into words everything that i experienced, felt, saw, learned, and loved about my trip to haiti. reading back through what i’ve written, i’m realizing more and more all the things i’ve left out. that’s okay, though. i can just say that it was an unforgettable experience that, thankfully, will never leave me. if you’d made it all the way to the end of my wandering words, i applaud you. hopefully my stories weren’t too random for you to take out the importance that i saw in them. if you get anything, however, out of what i’ve tried to share, i hope it’s this: haiti is an amazing country. many claim it to be one of the poorest places in the world. i, however, experienced a haiti that was richer than i could have ever imagined. the haitian people shouldn’t be pitied, for they do not want to be pitied. they’re just like you and i. they just want to be remembered and to be loved, and after actually being there, i can promise you that it can truly make all the difference.


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