Since returning from Haiti, I am having a hard time processing our amazing,
yet excruciatingly difficult week, as well as re-entering the cyber-sports-work-commitments-back-to-school-phone-calls-doctors-appointments-$300-grocery-trips excessive land I call home. Not to mention, I was proud of my strong stomach in Haiti, especially as 8 of my 20 teammates were sick there .... but, I spoke too soon, and upon my return, I have had to call the doctor, eat bland foods, and really rest.
Many of you followed my preparation for the Haiti Mission trip, sponsored by the St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Sterling, Virginia, through my Chick's Picks emails, the I am Modern article, or Facebook posts, and I want to give a HUGE thank you for your notes of encouragement, humorous messages, and the many, many prayers. I can truly tell you that I actually felt wrapped in love and support, and you gave me the strength to face my pre-trip anxieties ... right up to boarding the plane!
(Read I Am Modern pre-trip article)
Upon arriving in Port au Prince, we were immediately bombarded by the stifling humidity, the shoving, Creole-yelling Haitians in the hot warehouse they called the arrival gate. I accidentally separated from my group and ended up in a customs line surrounded by Haitians 30 deep in either direction pressing into me trying to cut the line and push their way through. As the perspiration started dripping down my back, I was not only scared for my safety, but I was already confused about how to handle my presence in Haiti -- they had been through so much, shouldn't I just smile, and let these poor people through, or should I stand tall, look determined and start inching forward. I took a deep breath and realized the experience of a lifetime was starting. And I was already way out of my comfort zone.
There was nothing that could have prepared us --- 20 Northern Virginia missionaries --- for the sites we saw driving through Port au Prince that first day. It was a never-ending video loop of hell. We were surrounded by wretchedness ... dirty, gray filth, extreme poverty, shanty shacks of tarps, cardboard and tin, massive trash piles everywhere, visible exhaust, rotting city smells, large black pigs and dogs trash picking, public urination, and often-barefoot, forlorn, poor, poor Haitians selling scraps of whatever. Internally, we were overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, helplessness and hopelessness ... not to mention our anxieties of how to manage the heat, our stomachs, the impending sleeping and bath conditions. One man got sick 10 minutes into the ride. We all wanted to. The sensory overload had begun.
The shocking part was what we were seeing had nothing to do with January's earthquake. The rubble, cracked palace, and tent cities were alarming, but the street filth and poverty has always been a backdrop for Haiti -- the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I met a nurse who spends her vacation weeks in a Haitian hospital treating, not earthquake injuries, but gunshot and machete wounds. The most telling was when on the plane, I sat amongst 10 nuns from Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity returning to serve the poorest of the poor in Haiti. These sisters had been serving in Haiti for 20 years.
Our lodging compound included a church, a 3-story school building (that stood empty because the children were scared to return to a large concrete structure) and a courtyard of UNICEF tents, used for school and bible classes. The surrounding, tall concrete wall, as well as our sleeping and bathing facilities made me think of a prison in an inner city. We slept on a concrete floor, with cement walls, bars on the window and a single dangling light bulb that we had to unscrew for "lights out." We had one sink and 2 toilets for the 70 missionaries that were being housed (2 other church groups). The showers, when water was available, were drippy and ice cold coming out of a single lead pipe. The electricity was equally sporadic, and would often go out in the middle of a shower. (I have to make a silly reference to the first Sex and the City movie .... remember when Charlotte accidentally opened her mouth while showering in Mexico... that's what I felt like ... momentarily forgetting and immediately spitting out the water .. YUK! But, I did get a little giggle!)
Sleeping was tough. We put on deodorant before bed since the night air was so hot and heavy. We should have been exhausted from our grueling days of construction, but the late night and very early city noises -- cats fighting, music, yelling, barking dogs, crying, roosters -- made sleep nearly impossible. We were usually awake by 4:30am. At night, we had torrential rainstorms, complete with lightning and the loudest thunder I ever heard. One bolt shook so hard, I sat up and thought it was an earthquake. That was so scary. Our room got flooded with rain water; my dear friend Beth awoke to a soaked bed roll, pillow, self. The only benefit was that we used the standing water in our "cell" to help drain the toilet that was not working. This was seriously hard living conditions. But no one complained. How could we, when our living hell was so far superior to Haitian street living? How did they handle the rain, the noise, their bodily functions, did they even have a bed sheet?
Our food, as is often the case on mission trips, was provided by the local church. Breakfasts of hard-boiled eggs, white hard rolls, PB and the sweetest grapefruit marmalade -- oh, and even spaghetti -- was fine. We were told: never eat fruit that was not peel-able, never to bite our nails and never drink the water (needed a sign in the shower!!) Lunch and dinner was the same, and included beans and rice and a local protein -- whole fish with heads still on, conch, GOAT, baby soft shell crabs, chicken legs. That's when people's stash of energy bars, cheezits and beef jerky came out. I tried everything because I wanted to experience the local flavors. I am a big believer of, "when in Rome ..." But I have no desire to ever eat goat again.
We traveled via these crazy, colorful buses that often broke down, got lost, stuck in potholes and had near misses with cars, bikes, pedestrians. We spent hours every day on these buses, or "tap taps," which had very loud horns, broken windows, low ceilings, exhaust fumes pouring in and hard seats (awful with a tailbone or back injury). We even traveled with a Haitian security man riding in the open door to avoid locals from jumping on. Although a young boy did hold onto the window, stood on the bumper and held onto our speeding bus for 10 minutes. He wanted a dollar. We were horrified. Once, on a rainy day, we drove so near a mountain cliff, that tears just started rolling down my cheeks as I envisioned us rolling off the cliff, down the mountain. We were going to die, in that bus, in Haiti, and just be a slight mention on the 6pm news back home. The man next to me held my hand the rest of the ride. I now truly understand faith, and letting go of all control.
Our days consisted of hard physical labor -- like the chain gangs (yes, another prison reference). We were helping to rebuild a school, and at a rural site, dig a level area out of a steep hill so the pastor could construct his home --- I guess he didn't own any flat land? The country site did not have a bathroom, and the school site had a "fancy" hole in the ground (thank goodness for those boot camp squats). We were inches away from tarantulas, black widows, bulls, roosters and goats on these sites. We also saw the most delicate, lovely yellow butterflies. They always seemed to appear right when I was feeling low. As we shoveled, pickaxed, made cement, bent re-bar, and wheelbarrowed thousands of pounds of rubble in the desperately hot sun, we were hoping we were helpful. One of the local church leaders told us that our presence was priceless -- that working side-by-side with the barefoot Haitian construction men meant more to them than we could imagine. Despite language barriers, intense humidity and our lack of construction know how, we became one big unified work team. The workers even sang for us -- imagine that in America? They actually helped US get through the day by teaching us, asking our names, relaying Creole to English words, and vice versa. I remember once shoveling for what seemed like hours, twice wringing out my sweaty neck bandanna, taking many breaks to drink water & replenish my electrolytes and looking at my watch ... it was only 8:37am. These men did this 6 days a week, 10 hours a day -- same smelly clothes, dribbles of water to drink, for just a few dollars a day. And they were the employed Haitians.
One truly bright spot was working alongside a 12 year old boy named Fiddler Cherie. He would literally run with the heavy wheelbarrow we filled with concrete debris, show us the best way to use a pickax, found us shovels, and laughed at our exaggerated "whews" when one job was "fin-e," or finished. I rarely saw him take a break, never saw him drink water, never saw him with a father, and really don't think he was being paid. We were motivated and forever touched by his huge, beautiful smile, his eyes, his industriousness. My friend Paige and I were especially fond of Fiddler Cherie as we had 12 year old sons at home. I have come to realize this is the way to help Haiti. By touching one life, by holding out one hand, by giving a piece of yourself so one person could have a better day and be hopeful of humanity. Our group talked a lot about Haiti's economy, the corruption, the poverty and how we could possibly make a difference? Now we knew.
Sunday was a day of mixed emotions. Sitting in a sweltering church made of tin for two and a half hours on a hard bench listening to the Creole prayer was trying. Watching the children sneak us smiles while they sat still in their Sunday best was heart-warming. Sharing communion with the Haitians was special. But the music was the true equalizer. You just could not sit still during their hymns. After the service, I took pictures of the children and they loved to gather around to see themselves on the digital screen. This was my favorite moment in Haiti.
We then traveled to an entirely different scene, one that will forever pull at our hearts. We visited an orphanage of 28 girls. Don't you picture a building when you hear "orphanage"? When the metal door was pulled away from the long cement wall, there stood 3 tents on a dusty plot of land. One for sleeping, one with a big table, and one with supplies. No blackboards, no toys, no dressers, no books, no kitchen, no toilets, no beds. They were bathing in a distant stream. I hoped it was not polluted like every other body of water we had seen. When they saw us they ran over. The little ones were laughing and trying to get dressed as they ran. We brought crafts, soccer balls, beanie babies. A Chick's Picks designer had given me earrings to share. I wondered, however, if they thought we were there to adopt. The local pastor's wife who cared for them said they need toothpaste, soap, hygiene supplies. (I got her address -- although I am not sure a package would really be delivered. Worth a try.) We played with the girls for hours -- drawing on dry erase boards, blowing bubbles, coloring, playing hand games and kicking balls. It was wonderful for those girls to be surrounded by the kind, thoughtful adult men in our group. The girls sang for us in their pillow case dresses that had been made for them by another church group. We were all thinking about our own children, and their never-ending comforts. What a contrast. What an injustice. Leaving those 28 girls was just heart breaking.
So as it turns out, the Haitians we met were patient, hard working, spiritual people. They looked deep into our eyes as they spoke. Their smiles were generous. They praised Jesus often. They did not appear bitter or hopeless. We met a beautiful family with 5 happy children. We saw newborns with knit booties. We saw a funeral procession with a crying widow. We hiked over lush pastures, and dipped our toes into their Caribbean turquoise water. Fiddler Cherie even wants to be a doctor. And they gave us what they had -- song and prayer. I know in any society there is evil, but they are people just like us, they live on the same earth, pray to the same god (at least the Haitians we met). Some will still risk their lives on a crowded boat to come to America. I wonder if I would?
Finally, there was an unexpected dimension of my Mission trip to Haiti. I had not considered our group dynamics. I had not thought through what would happen when 20 people were thrown into third world hell together -- working, living, talking, being scared and uncomfortable 24 hours a day. Picture yourself red-faced, dripping with sweat, truly at your worst, (ugliest), working so physically hard, sleep deprived and even getting sick. So many of life extremes happening simultaneously, with "strangers" to lean on. An unbelievable bond came over us. Not like college, not like a camping trip with friends, not even a big family adventure. More like solders in a platoon -- like a "band of brothers." Every single one of us mattered. Every single one of us contributed something that was vital -- motivation, profound thought, experience, prayer, energy, quiet resolve, a loving partner (2 married and 2 mom/adult child couples), leadership, compassion, and much, much humor. We shared something that only the 20 of us will ever understand.
Many debate whether a mission trip is categorized as "humanitarian outreach," or "personal spiritual growth." Anyone that has ever volunteered knows it is both. I know I experienced both. Also, I can finally put into words why traveling to Haiti was on my bucket list. I know I wanted to challenge myself. But mostly, I needed balance in my life. I am so blessed with my surroundings, health, wealth, happiness, freedoms, choice ..... I needed to see, touch, live the world's reality.
80% of the world's population lives below the poverty line --
living off less than $10 a day*. No wonder I feel off-balance!
Albeit a fleeting glance, visiting Haiti will change my life view forever. Now that I look back, we all mentioned at various times missing home. Now that we are here, we realize that we also left a piece of our hearts in Haiti ... and we want to go back someday.
Post-script stories ... I am sure you can imagine the details ...
what the children wore -- boys in women's sandals
toothpaste works as clearasil at night
12 of us huddled under a little shade tree ... positively goofy
the pastor walking through a huge cow paddy
to kill or not to kill the tarantula
girls, please don't come out of the showers in just your towels, it IS a mission trip
a love letter from a Haitian Construction worker
2am ... if we throw a battery down, think the door will stop barking?
"It takes a village to get to a village" -- how one 10 minute TapTap ride became a 2 hour journey
baby powder is your friend
giving away our shoes, clothes, gloves, watches -- and a pencil
having lower GI problems in a 3rd world country
HOT cabbage soup for breakfast?
our young team member having the courage to explain her tattoos
children's lottery for the soccer balls
yoga moves with the 6'6" construction worker who looked like a Haitian Tom Selleck
how close can a UN truck come without hitting us
the lovely notes from home we read each night
If my luggage falls out of the TapTap enroute to airport, do I really care?
(*source: World Bank Development Indicators 2008)
Thanks for staying with me during article ...
since Chick's Picks funded this trip, I felt I owed you the story !
Haiti Photo Album on Chick's Picks Facebook