First Impressions of Haiti

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Arriving in Milot

EN ROUTE—April 6, 2012

Two weeks ago I was worried that as the only non-medical team member in Haiti for two weeks I’d be in the way. Now I’m worried I overscheduled myself in a foreign country, in a place where no help is ever enough.

It’s exciting and daunting and everything in between. As a seasoned traveler, I’m always up for a new locale, eager to explore my world. As an anthropologist and teacher, I’m curious to notice cultural changes and shifts, both among the Haitians and among the medical and Rotary compatriots with me. Already some silly questions and “concerns” have arisen—in casual conversation and in my own head. I’m pretty sure that in a couple weeks’ time lack of hairspray, flips flops in the shower and whether we brought enough granola bars to sustain us in between meals will feel paltry compared to the realities of seeing first-hand the most impoverished nation in the western Hemisphere. Ours are truly first world problems.

Hopital Sacre Coeur

The cash we brought, tucked away in careful denominations of 1s and 5s and 10s exceeds what most Haitians live on nearly 30 times. I think we’ll manage. We’ll certainly manage in our sheltered medical compound—secure, well-fed,  with clean water and soap and Cipro if we need it, requisite malaria shots and mosquito repellent, cameras, money, and the ability to leave in two weeks’ time, instead of a permanent dire forecast.

The humanitarian and concerned citizen of the planet in me just aches already for what’s to come. Not enough time. Not enough skills. Not enough money or support or knowledge to help. But an inspirational Haitian woman who spoke to the Rotary group last week, Rosedanie Cadet, said it’s important to remind ourselves that anything we do is enough. Each day, each way we help is something.

I know that at least I have enough love to share, caring to spill over to those with whom I interact in orphanages, the clinic and on the streets. This is actually a good lesson to keep in mind anywhere in the world. The need to help our fellow human beings is everywhere. Just like the director for Wenatchee’s Lighthouse said on KOHO last week, you can serve a mission right down the street, you don’t need to go all the way to Africa (or Haiti) to serve.

Downtown Milot

Downtown Milot

Though this trip is rooted in religion, through Sacre Coeur Hopital in Milot, I feel it’s also important to stress that plenty of good work and service can and should be performed outside of church ties and religious beliefs. It is important to get to know our fellow neighbors on the planet, it makes sense to help those in need, and it can be unexpectedly and immensely rewarding to volunteer. Everyone has skills they can share.

That brings me back to the work I will be doing in Haiti. I have no idea what I will be doing. I’m a teacher, a writer, and I’m fairly strong, so things could go any direction. I’m hoping to spend time in schools, a nearby orphanage, maybe visit Limbe with the Rotary, see the Citadel and San Souci, and help at the clinic. But I will gladly go where needed. And a creative bent could be unanticipated fun, and useful, too—writing and maybe helping with a few media projects to bring back home to NCW.

Things on my mind:  How will it be to work alongside my husband for the first time and see him in a medical capacity? What will the group be like—both personally and as travelers? How can I teach things or reinforce simple public health and sanitation lessons without sounding pretentious and know-it-allish/big brotherish? How can I really connect with people there despite language and cultural barriers—is it even possible? What can I learn from and about the Haitian culture and ways?

How will I react to the devastation, trash, inevitable deaths that I will no doubt witness while there? How will I be able to support my husband in this stressful, new professional and personal challenge? What will I learn? What questions will remain? What will I do when I’m home to keep the hope and help alive?

DAY ONE IMPRESSIONS—SATURDAY, APRIL  7, 2012

We are here and I am already in love with Haiti! It was actually quite less of an ordeal to get here than I imagined. The flight from Fort Lauderdale to Cap Haitien was not too turbulent, and after two preceding tavel days and half nights of sleep, bleary surreality was cemented already. The charcoal/azure watercolor-spilled Florida night sky transformed into a peach/rose painted morning. A quick 2 hours and 40 minutes later we started descending into this gorgeous tropical nation. I was glad that Jeff Monda pointed out the imposing Citadel to me high atop the mountaintop as we descended. In the absence of much city development, the imposing structure was commanding in the wash of lush, green jungle and a few lone roads.

When we touched down, we immediately saw several dilapidated airplanes sitting on the tarmac, their only service being provision for shade. Hank Vejvoda said that he could see people playing on the runway just feet away as we landed.

After a fairly seamless customs process, we waited for our shuttle service. We then packed in sideways for the not-as-long-as-expected ride from Cap Haitien to Milot, maybe 35 or 40 minutes away. The town, I have to say, did not strike me as the worst place I’ve ever seen. It was right on par with Cusco, Peru or Vanuatu, or parts of China and Tibet—definitely abject poverty, but with a vibrant color and life and style all its own. A hodge podge of quickie banks and ramshackle shops and streetside cellars of ubiquitous cheap treats—Coca Cola, ice cream, chips abound.

The colorful “tap taps” here remind me of tuk tuks in Thailand and the caravans I’ve seen in Turkey and heard about in India. They are funky psychdedlic neon flashy group ride vans, with random English words like “Imagination” or “Fantasy,” or adorned with bible verse numbers or odes to Jesus Christ. And there are suicidal motorbikes here, just like everywhere, with the necessary constant honking when speeding up and passing.

Tip taps

Tap taps

As we left Cap Haitien the surprisingly good road turned dirt and pot-hole filled and the area just got increasingly gorgeous. I really didn’t expect how lush and beautiful it would be here—banana trees, coconut/palm trees, mangoes, breadfruit…cocoa! Coffee! The gorgeous mountains here are sheer vertical. They remind me a little of China and Indonesia and Thailand. In fact, several newbies from our group commented right away about being blown away by the physical beauty of the nation. Since heartache, disease, violence, and suffering are the focus of media portrayals of Haiti, I didn’t anticipate how striking the place and the people really are. Haitians are gorgeous people with sometimes severe features and expressions which often transform into wide, animated smiles, “Bon Swa” greetings, and waves.

It took a little time to orientate ourselves at CRUDEM. I imagine I’ll be trying to squeeze in a little with Rotary here and the medical staff there, but day one has been successful. I joined Donni for a tour of the hospital, and then later the hospital director spoke to the Rotary group and gave us a thorough tour of the grounds and hospital. We saw where the earthquake victims had been housed here, viewed the brand new maternity ward (it’s amazing how far a $50,000 donation can be stretched), saw the hundreds of patients already waiting for the orthopedic and urology teams upon arrival. 90% of the patients are estimated to travel from outside the area when they hear the surgical team is here.

Patients waiting for the orthopedic and urology team

Patients waiting for the orthopedic and urology team

We saw preemie babies in incubators, family members with no housing napping on benches, and many of us have already been approached by people lobbying for their family members as patients. It is going to be eye opening here in endless ways. It’s been fascinating to hear how things have changed over the past several years Jeff Monda and Fred Schuenemann have been coming.

It will be hard to continue to see so much need and to not be able to ever broach providing enough to meet the need. But it’s good to channel Rosedanie and remember that any kind of help is enough for that day. I guess I will toggle between helper and anthropologist. This week while the Rotary is here I will try to tag onto their trips. This afternoon I toured Milot with them, with our local guides, Michel and Joseph. What a beautiful town—with hugely varying degrees of streets, housing, people. Some kids were bathing in tubs in the street, garbage and pigs collaborated in the river, I noticed the improvement of the road leading up to the church and San Souci Palace. We walked into the church—a powder blue and white 75 foot dome with water damage and an original alter from 1812. Some kids greeted me with a Bon Jou and smile response, one little guy pinched me, several waved, one blew an air kiss, and loads wanted their photo taken and then shown to them on our digital cameras.

Friendly Haitian Children

Friendly Haitian Children

There’s a festival for Easter going on here this weekend, so we ran into a marching band, saw colorful costumes at the cultural center, and some of us even went to a cockfight! (This is something that is not at all ethically sanctioned by me, but it was a cultural experience for sure. I can’t believe it is that compelling to people!)

I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

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About mkresk

M.K. is a free-spirited freelance writer, teacher, editor, and performer. She produces intelligent, crisp copy in a timely, cooperative manner. Her skill and experience ranges from creative to educational writing with some marketing and feature writing thrown in for good measure. She's focusing now on writing for children but is game to work on most anything!

4 responses »

  1. Wonderful to hear from you and about your first impressions! Thank you for sharing your experience with us and your heart and hands with Haiti. Missed you on the slopes yesterday. xoxo Molly

  2. Thanks for reading, Molly. It’s hard to imagine skiing at MR surrounded by all of this humidity, but I’m sure the snow is still spectacular. Miss you, too!

  3. HI Mary,
    Sounds like great stuff. Everyone at ICG says “hi”. Keep up the good work and I am enjoying all the sights and sounds!
    Pat

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