I was going to write, “subjective reflections” but that would be redundant. Nevertheless, keep in mind, these reflections are seen through my eyes after only a week in Haiti.
In January I spent a week in Haiti visiting St. Paul’s Parrish, the Colorado Haiti Project’s (CHP) mission in Petit Trou de Nippes, a small coastal village, located along the southern peninsula of Haiti, about 90 mi from Port-au-Prince.
There were 16 of us from Colorado, joined by 3 women from Old Dominican University. Several in the group had been to St. Pauls many times over the 25 years CHP has been in Haiti. CHP’s mission in Haiti is to work with the rural Haitian community to help lift Haitians “out of extreme poverty by increasing access to and capacity for foundational educational opportunities, clean water, community and public health, job training and economic self-sufficiency.” Over the 25 years, CHP has built a church and rectory, school, dormitory, cafeteria, playground (in process now), and a sewing/vocational school. There are other vocational opportunities for students who wish to study plumbing, engineering, building clean water wells, and becoming an electrician. Plans are underway to farm a nearby field (agronomy) and build an on-site medical clinic, employing Haitian doctors and nurses.
Episcopal churches throughout the Colorado Diocese raise funds each year to support CHP’s effort in Haiti and to support each child at Ecole St. Paul (K-10th grade). The cost for each child is $300/year. CHP has successfully done that for 25 years. CHP’s intention is to not build and leave but to build a continuous, long-lasting relationship with the Haitian community at Petit Trou. And as a first-time visitor, I could see how the reciprocal bonds of respect, friendship and love are strong and growing with each visit.
This particular trip to Haiti was to represent our respective Parrish and to build relationship and further strengthen those bonds. We were also there to represent CHP at the hugely prepared for and celebrated 25th Anniversary of CHP, as well as the annual Feast of St. Paul’s at the church. The Episcopal Bishop of Haiti attended both celebrations as did other Haitian dignitaries, choirs and a comedy troupe from Port au Prince, and many locals from Petit Trou.
Landing in Port-au-Prince
Arriving from Miami, we landed at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, completely rebuilt after the earthquake in 2010. What I remember most is stepping outside, finally in Haiti, and immediately saying, “what’s burning?” There was smoke in the air and living in Colorado, when you smell smoke, you immediately think “what’s on fire?” Someone said, it’s wood smoke from charcoal fires. Ah, of course. The climate felt a little like Houston to me, hot and humid, even in January.
And there our adventure began.
We loaded ourselves and our luggage into 3 4-wheel drive SUVs with our luggage mostly on top of the vehicles. Our drivers began the arduous task of driving through PaP on a labyrinthinian route along narrow streets with no names and finally onto a “highway” – the road we would take to Petit Trou – that runs down the coast. Haitians drive with their horns – not in an aggressive, mean way – it’s just the law of the land. It’s what you do to get around. You have to be artfully skilled to drive in Haiti. We, Americans, are mostly a timid and polite bunch who don’t like using our horns. We think it’s like yelling at a stranger. It’s not.
Port-au-Prince is a hilly, chaotic mess, bordering on anarchy. Haitians are smart and have learned to survive via the black market, where if you can sell something, anything (minutes for cell phones, anyone?), electronics, clean water, clothes, shoes, food, whatever is needed for daily survival can be found on the streets. When I asked Teresa why we couldn’t change our money in a bank, she chuckled and said, no, we don’t go into Haitian banks and told me I’d see what she meant. I did. I’m not sure there were any banks, at least not how we envision what a bank is. Just a dark door in a wall that indicated money changing.
It appeared there was no zoning, urban planning and the structures mostly DIY without codes or reinforcement. There was a lot of rubble as one might expect 4 years after a 7.0 earthquake. But I heard that it looks much the same as it looked before the quake. I kept thinking of the “stone age”, looking at the structures and seeing a man with a pick ax breaking up large stones. I was also reminded of movies, photos and stories I’d seen and read of the shanty-towns in South Africa and refugee camps in Sudan. We only saw remnants of the blue tarp tent cities that sprung up after the earthquake and a few UN trucks and soldiers. The UN is no longer welcome in Haiti because apparently they are doing little to help with anything. They are just a presence, driving around in UN vehicles wearing UN uniforms.
It seemed like the only way to re-build Port-au-Prince, as in Bill Clinton’s words, “building back better”, would be to raze it and start over. Given the population of almost a million (minus the 230K who died in the Earthquake), that would be impossible. There are lots of ideas floating around among some of the brightest international minds and entrepreneurs, but clearly no easy answer.
Mountains Beyond Mountains
When we finally made it out of the City and driving along the highway (mostly a rocky 4-wheel drive road), I looked up and saw what Paul Farmer called “mountains beyond mountains” (from a Haitian proverb). Haiti is truly beautiful, with mountains flowing into mountains as far as the eye can see, surrounded by the beautiful azure blue Caribbean. The contrast is stunning. There were towns and villages and people all along the route with a few fishing villages. People lived in fragile dwellings along the beach. I kept wondering where they go during hurricanes and storms. Surely their homes get flooded/destroyed. Maybe that’s why the structures look so temporary. They are built to collapse so they can easily rebuild? Where do the animals go? What do I know?
You could see the jungles up in the hills with wood smoke coming from dwellings and small settlements. We didn’t make it up very far into the hills but the time we did take a walk to see a CHP-built water well up in the hills, it was lovely, with thick tropical vegetation. Very few birds, however. I was told that tropical birds have mostly left Haiti because of the deforestation. Although the mountains still looked green you could see large swatches of barren, brown once-forested land. Sort of looked like what we see in the Rockies from swatches of beetle-kill.
Haitians speak Creole (Kreyol), an interesting mix of French, African, and something else I couldn’t make out. If you have a base in French, it is a bit easier (but not a lot!). Some Haitians do speak French and all children are learning French in school. We were fortunate to have an expert translator, Nadia, traveling with us.
Photo: Nadia (left) and Monette (right)
Nadia helped tremendously, not only interpreting for us, but also explaining Haitian culture and answering our never-ending questions. We had a 2-hour Creole crash course one afternoon, taught by Nadia and another excellent teacher and they must’ve thought we were the thickest people on earth as far as learning Creole! It was a lot of fun – jokes and laughter – some more serious than others, but all of us pretty much hopeless. I found that my main problem with learning and speaking Creole was my confidence (or lack thereof) – I was so afraid to mispronounce or say something stupid, I just kind of froze when spoken to. I’d love to learn more Creole and return to Haiti with a better command of the language, to deepen my experience with and knowledge of the Haitian people.
The Haitian people are simply beautiful. I don’t want to overly generalize or romanticize them or their lives, however I truly wasn’t prepared with how gentle, kind, strong and physically and spiritually beautiful Haitians are. You can fall into their eyes and never return. I was constantly thinking that these are a people who have seen too much for too long.
Haitians were the first to successfully fight for their freedom from slavery and ironically and tragically have been paying the price since – struggling to survive, generation after generation, against incredible odds and international trade sanctions, embargos and political obstruction. They’ve survived the most brutal dictators (Baby Doc anyone?), catastrophic hurricanes, floods, droughts, and the cataclysmic earthquake in January 2010. Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere and though the current government isn’t as corrupt and cruel as in the past, it seems mostly ineffectual and dysfunctional. I was talking to Ed Morgan (one of the founders of CHP) one day and mentioned this was my first visit to a 3rd world country. Ed said, no, Carol, Haiti isn’t 3rd world, it’s 4th world. I got what he meant immediately. It’s beyond 3rd world. I’m not even sure Haiti could be called “developing”.
Haitians, including children, work hard every day to survive. Their day begins early, feeding their animals, going to the well for water, and then the children get dressed in clean uniforms to go to school. Haitians mostly live outdoors – cooking, washing, doing laundry, playing, chatting to friends, family – because their dwellings are dark (no electricity, plumping, water) and small. At night they gather around any light and stay up late to socialize: listen to music, talk, make speeches, play soccer (if there’s a generator for light). A cacophony of sound just when we were trying to go to sleep!
There is very little infrastructure, roads are mostly what we would call 4-wheel, no postal delivery (at least not to most of the population), asthma inducing air pollution, very few and nonexistent traffic lights and road signs, potable water, plumbing and electricity mostly non-existent, and sanitation issues, especially in the rural communities. The Haitians are vigilant with sewage contamination of water sources and there had been no cholera epidemics in Haiti in recorded history. Until (again ironically) in October 2010 when UN peacekeepers from Nepal set up camp in the hills above Port au Prince, contaminated a stream, and started a cholera epidemic. Almost 9,000 Haitians died from cholera in a little over 2 years (2010-2013).
Our Daily Routine at St Paul’s
We awoke each day at 6-6:30 to a cacophony of sounds: roosters crowing, dogs barking, goats bleating, people chatting while they worked on the grounds, in the kitchen. One-by-one, after going into the kitchen to get a cup of Haitian coffee, we would gather on the porch to find out who slept well, who didn’t, who slept through the dog fight during the night, who didn’t.
Every night there would be a serious dog fight. Apparently St. Pauls’ dogs were defending their territory against neighboring packs of Haitian dogs trying to get a pawhold on the St. Pauls territory. The dogs were inbred and all looked alike. They weren’t wild but they weren’t exactly tame. Suffice to say, they were not “pets”. I’m sure the Haitians thought we were crazy for taking photos of all the animals. Look! A chicken with chicks, take a picture! Look! A goat! Where’s my camera? Kind of silly. Are Americans (or just us) so bereft of animals and nature in our daily lives we were moved to take pictures whenever we saw an animal?
After a breakfast of porridge (corn or another grain), bread with Mamba (Haitian spicy peanut butter), sliced papayas, fried plantains, sliced mango, and juice, Teresa would let us know what our “Fantasy Plan” was for the Day. “Fantasy” because in Haiti, plans often change quickly depending what was going on. And there’s always “Haitian time” to factor in.
Options included walking down the road to market in Petit Trou (about a 45-min walk depending on who Teresa or Marti stopped to talk to!), visiting other nearby markets, going for a hike in the hills to see CHP water wells, going to the beach (not to swim), Creole lessons, visiting the medical clinic in Petit Trou (in partnership with Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health), visiting the beach-front cemetery. Our intention was to mix with the community and to communicate as best we could with anyone who wanted to interact with us. We interacted various ways with the Haitian community, stopped to chat with villagers along the way, visited a school in the hills, purchased stuff at the markets, met so many precious children and women and men in the villages and hills. The women were shyer than the men. The children were endlessly curious about us. I kept wondering what we must look like to them – Martians? Most of the kids liked having their picture taken and then looking at the photos on our phones.
After we got our marching orders for the day, we would convene on the dorm porch for a meeting where Bruce or Becky would lead us in a Gospel reading and meditation and where we would take a moment to reflect on our thoughts and feelings about what we were experiencing in Haiti. An example of one of our daily spiritual reflections was the story of the Monkey and the Fish.
How the Monkeys Saved the Fish
The rainy season that year had been the strongest ever and the river had broken its banks. There were floods everywhere and the animals were all running up into the hills. The floods came so fast that many drowned except the lucky monkeys who used their proverbial agility to climb up into the treetops. They looked down on the surface of the water where the fish were swimming and gracefully jumping out of the water as if they were the only ones enjoying the devastating flood.
One of the monkeys saw the fish and shouted to his companion: “Look down, my friend, look at those poor creatures. They are going to drown. Do you see how they struggle in the water?” “Yes,” said the other monkey. “What a pity! Probably they were late in escaping to the hills because they seem to have no legs. How can we save them?” “I think we must do something. Let’s go close to the edge of the flood where the water is not deep enough to cover us, and we can help them to get out.”
So the monkeys did just that. They started catching the fish, but not without difficulty. One by one, they brought them out of the water and put them carefully on the dry land. After a short time there was a pile of fish lying on the grass motionless. One of the monkeys said, “Do you see? They were tired, but now they are just sleeping and resting. Had it not been for us, my friend, all these poor people without legs would have drowned.”
The other monkey said: “They were trying to escape from us because they could not understand our good intentions. But when they wake up they will be very grateful because we have brought them salvation.” (Traditional Tanzanian Folktale)
So what were we there for? It was clear we weren’t there as missionaries, i.e., to convert Haitians or to “save Haiti” or “heal Haiti”. We weren’t there to pick them up and take them up in the trees with us, to save them from themselves. We were there for an intangible and unmeasurable reason: to invest time into building relationships and getting to know the people in a naturalistic, unforced, authentic way – as much as we could in a week’s time.
To be present, to listen and learn. What are Haitians telling us with regard to their lives, do they want to be invested in St. Pauls and how do they want to be invested? How do they want us to be invested in their lives? Do they want us in their lives? What do they want and need most? And all that, of course, takes time, sensitivity, intuition, and presence of mind. Gentleness. Love. God’s grace. Our mission on this trip, to “build and strengthen relationship”, was difficult for those who have been coming to St. Paul’s/Petit Trou over the years with a specific job “to do”. Something tangible. It was difficult to just “be” rather than “do”. I think those of us who were there for the first time (Amy, Janet, Sharon, myself) had an easier time of just “being there” without doing, than those who have always had a specific role at St. Paul’s. Especially Marti and Pam, who’ve been coming on medical missions over the years.
One afternoon (some of us) went over to where 2 men had just killed 2 goats and we watched them prepare the goats (luckily we got there right after the slaughter). It was fascinating to watch the ancient and respectful process of preparing the goats after slaughter. It was an art, a dance, and an honorable and beautiful skill. It was life. It was our dinner that evening.
Holy Moly. These women are beautiful.
The stature of the girls and women in Haiti was one of the first things I noticed when riding through the streets of Port au Prince. They are regal with pride in their posture and the way they walk. I want to learn to walk that way! I realized though that it’s too late for me, for us, to learn how to do that. The only way they learn this is to grow up learning to balance heavier and heavier (and heavier) loads on their heads – baskets and plastic containers full of everything from fruit, water, grains, beans, coffee, drinks to charcoal, wood, bamboo, and sugar cane – and walk short and great distances balancing those loads. Starting from a young age and throughout their lives. Amazing. And why not? They only have two arms (why haven’t we evolved with 4 arms, I wonder?) and no transportation. Of course one would use one’s head to go from point A to point B with a load to carry. It’s mostly the women, but some men also carry loads this way. It seemed the men mostly used donkeys and horses to carry their loads.
At St. Paul’s, the women in the kitchen cooked 3 meals a day for 20-25 people, so when they weren’t cooking, they were cleaning, when they weren’t cleaning they were preparing food, an endless loop from early morning to late night. They worked effortlessly cooking outside over charcoal or in the kitchen with a gas stove. There was limited refrigeration (intermittent generator for electricity) so our meals were truly farm-to-table, not the elitist, expensive farm-to-table restaurants you find in Boulder, but the kind that 90% of the world’s poorest cook. If they killed a goat, we had goat that day, if they killed a chicken, we had chicken.
The women spent hours preparing vegetables, cooking legumes and grains. We ate mostly carbs, fruit and a little protein (fresh fish, chicken, goat). We were served Cuban beans and rice (du riz a legim), legim (thick vegetable & bean soup), an eggplant dish (yummy and spicy), yams, hominy stew, grits (breakfast), pikliz (pickled cabbage, carrot, onion, peppers), kasav (bread made out of cassava), pumpkin soup, and bread with Mamba. Yum. Haitian hot sauce was always on the table, a tasty addition to most of the dishes. The food was delicious, meals beautifully prepared and presented. The only dish I passed on was boiled and fried goat blood (looked like fried ground beef to me). Yeah, just couldn’t make myself try that one.
It seemed I always left the table a little hungry because the portions had to be smaller than what we (Americans) are used to. There were a lot of people to feed, and we were all sensitive to taking small portions so everyone could have something. This was very different for me – to always be aware that there wasn’t enough food for everyone to dish up all they wanted to eat. Not a big deal at all, just noted.
I actually felt ashamed of myself when I, at the very first meal, took more than my share (accidentally) and then felt like I wanted more. Make friends with your hunger (a daily mantra).
After dinner we would bring chairs from inside to put outside under the stars, drink a Prestige (Haitian beer) or 3 fingers of really tasty Haitian rum to talk about what we had seen and felt during that day’s adventures. The night sky was a carpet of black velvet, dotted with diamonds – the Milky Way a silvery necklace adorning the sky. Breathtaking. I couldn’t get enough of craning my neck upwards. What a gift to us who rarely see the Milky Way or the beautiful India inky blackness of the night sky without light pollution dulling and hiding the stars. The sky was one of the many unexpected gifts of Haiti.
25th Anniversary Celebration of CHP
Friday morning we woke up to a beehive of activity. People were busy with last minute preparations for evening’s celebration and the Feast on Saturday. Sewing, cooking, sweeping, cleaning, decorating the grounds (with paper flowers, ribbons, fantastic and beautiful tortoise shells on trees) and church. Kids were running around helping where they could, playing with each other, dogs were barking, chickens clucking, goats bleating. We helped where we could and got out of the way otherwise.
We celebrated on Friday evening, with a slide show presentation of the history of CHP, looking back on 25 years. The Bishop and Fr. Abiade (St. Paul’s wonderful priest) spoke as well as members of the CHP community from Colorado. There was a big turn-out from Petit Trou – you could tell the event was a Big Deal to everyone. At intermission wine was uncorked and snacks were served to all. Music was played and chattering began. Lots of love and bonding. After the ceremony we gathered at the church for a night of singing and a comedy from a troup who came from Port au Prince. Apparently it was really funny because everyone was rolling with laughter! A fun night of delightful music, singing, comedy.
The Feast of St. Paul’s
Saturday morning after breakfast we got dressed up and went to the church. There was a long and grand procession starting outside with visiting choirs, children who were being confirmed, Deacons, Priests (Haiti and Colorado), and the Bishop. People from the village were arriving by foot, donkeys, scooters, horses and a wheelchair (Joel). The Haitians were spectacularly dressed and beautiful. We couldn’t even compete in the fashion show – don’t even try, pale-faces! The children were dressed in formal wear – girls in dresses, boys in suits. Blindingly beautiful.
Once we were all in the sanctuary, the service began. After the first hour, I felt like I was in a trance. The heat, the people singing, the voices, the service spoken in Creole, watching the people, watching the people watch us, and finally at the end of the 2-hour service, a procession of singing and slowly dancing young people, bringing in the bounties of their lives to be blessed at the altar. I was moved to tears as they slowly processed in with fruits, vegetables, plants, a rooster, two goats – all in a remarkably beautiful display of Thanksgiving for the gifts in their lives. I’ve never witnessed such a beautiful ceremony and I am honored and grateful to have been given the opportunity to be there.
During the service I was sitting next to two boys who I gradually became friends with. They were very shy but clearly interested in who I was. And then eventually a little girl from a row up made her way over to stare at me and then sit in my lap. She was adorable and I think we fell a little bit in love. These memories I cherish.
Fr. Abiade, his wife, and mother-in-law (who took care of their sweet daughter, Abji) did an amazing job, working hard to manage and coordinate all the myriad of details for the celebration and feast. They had been working and planning for months leading up to this week employing many from Petit Trou and surrounding district. Hats off!
Fahter Abiade and Abji (left)
I’ve spoken a lot about the beauty of Haiti – the people, the landscape, geography, Caribbean, vegetation, the simple but difficult life. The part that is the hardest for me to talk about is the poverty and drought. It’s heartbreaking to see how skinny the animals are, how dry many of the rivers are, the cracked earth dying of thirst, and how many adults and children are hungry and malnourished. It’s hard to talk about because it’s hard to process the reality in Haiti and know the solution. January is the driest month, right before the Monsoon rains come in March, but this year has been particularly dry – no measurable rain for 3 months in many large areas of Haiti (the mountains do get rain occasionally, in January). In the week we were there it sprinkled one stormy day (the storm passed us by) and really wasn’t that humid. On the positive side, that meant few mosquitos and it wasn’t as hot and humid as anticipated. On the negative side, it meant a bleak reality for an already food insecure nation. Haiti needs rain – for the crops, the animals, the people. Pray for rain in Haiti.
The week was short and I really wasn’t ready to leave. I wanted just a few more days, at least. I can see how many of the CHP volunteers keep returning to Haiti. It gets under your skin. Marti, one of our traveling companions who has been coming to Haiti for 25 years, wants to retire in Haiti and even has a house picked out in Petit Trou. Most everyone knows Marti and she knows everyone. They love her as much as she loves them. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
We did the reverse trip to Port-au-Prince as we had the week earlier. The adventure of bouncing along the coastal highway with our luggage on top and horn blaring was again an adventure. Bruce did an outstanding job driving and our Haitian guides (through PaP) were needed and got us to the airport unscathed. It was a whirlwind day. We stayed Sunday night at the Palm Hotel in Port au Prince. Our vehicles entered a compound through a locked gate and we were prisoners in paradise for one night. There was a pool, hot running water for showers, comfortable beds, a restaurant, poolside bar. It felt strange and a bit uncomfortable, but we managed to succumb to the luxury, knowing we were only there for a short while.
The next morning we had a lazy, delicious (omelet bar) breakfast by the pool before heading to the airport. After we checked luggage and made it through security, we had time to buy some duty-free souvenirs at the airport: Mamba, 5-star Barbancourt Rhum, vanilla, hot sauce, and Haitian art. We made it to Miami, through customs and security (twice – or was it three times?), and barely made our flight. We had a short layover and it took a long time to get through all the bureaucracy of a major international airport. What a trip that was. We didn’t have time to eat so we drank our dinner on the plane (courtesy of our nice AA flight attendant!). We arrived in Denver late that night, mentally and physically unprepared for the frigid -0 degrees and snow. I had not taken any warm clothes, so Amy’s husband, John, brought me some sweats and a jacket to wear home. Bless him!
Returning to the land of too many choices
We had talked about re-entering our lives from a week in Haiti. From those who had done the re-entry process before, they warned us first-timers that it doesn’t get easier. They warned us about a feeling of “dis-location” rather than one of disconnectedness (ala jetlag). More like a cultural dis-location.
After getting in late Monday night, I awoke on Tuesday morning to a stillness and quietness that was unsettling. The snow and cold had muffled the world and I immediately missed the sound of “life” – the sounds of the roosters, dogs, goats, people. I felt empty – dislocated. The sky was white/gray (clouds), not a sunny blue. The world, my life, seemed colorless, drab, and empty. I cried.
Later, I gently got myself together and realized I needed to go to the store for a few staples. Without much thought I went to King Soopers. As soon as I entered the large double doors I was hit with the enormous abundance in my life. I stopped and stood there – feeling a panic attack coming on. I made myself grab a small basket and put imaginary blinders on to grab bananas, milk, bread, honey. I was fighting back tears and was noticeably upset. I noticed people looking at me but made it out of the store before breaking down.
How does one re-enter after spending 4 months in India, I wondered. Or one who comes here from Haiti, Africa – other 3rd and 4th world countries? There must be a million “coming to America” immigrant stories. I want to hear them.
From our perspective the Haitians have so little, yet so much. They are rich in what we lack. And we are rich in what they lack. It’s an ironic dichotomy. They are connected to nature in a way we aren’t. They live predominantly outdoors, we live mostly indoors. I envy them this. They have a strong community while many Americans are isolated from community. They don’t have the distractions of the electronic world that isolates us. They have extended family, where most of us live alone without an extended family. They have the sounds of nature. I know I am drawing vastly large generalities to make a point. ALL Americans aren’t disconnected and isolated, just as all Haitians aren’t living in paradise. Haitians live with malnourishment, generation after generation, which leads to many health problems, disease, an early death.
How can WE have so damn much food, so many choices – TOO many choices – while others starve just a few hundred miles from the US border? How can that BE? I don’t understand and never will, how there can be such disparity between those who have nothing and those who have too much. Just by being born in America, we are the recipient of this abundance. It’s so unfair. It made me angry and still does.
These are the questions that plagued me when I returned from Haiti and I still think about.
Returning also meant that our friends wanted to hear about our experience in Haiti. Words failed and a feeble description became inadequate while the listener’s eyes glazed over and they lost interest. Unlike other travel adventures, going to Haiti affects you on so many levels (emotional, mental, spiritual), that the experience and details are difficult to convey in words.
When we said goodbye to Fr. Abiade, he told us in his characteristically wise, sweet and calm way that “we have to leave so we can return.”
Indeed we do.