Note: This is the third entry in a series of posts about my first visit to Haiti on Dec 30-Jan 2. You can read the first post here, and the second post here. The events in this post took place on January 1, 2011.
It was New Year’s Day in Haiti and we woke up bright and early for our last clinic day. This clinic day was special because it would take place at the hospital where we had been staying. Also, we were going to have a short day so we could have a luncheon to thank the Haitian medical students, doctors, and interpreters we worked with all week.
Note: This is the first post in series reviewing my first four days in Haiti, on my first trip to Haiti. I know I probably sound like a silly American in my posts, but please bear with me. Thanks!
I didn’t sleep the night before my flight to Port Au Prince, due to my nervousness about the whole travel ordeal. I didn’t want my flight to get canceled. I hoped the roads were clear so I wouldn’t have problems getting to the airport. I was paranoid about arriving in Port Au Prince and nobody being there to pick me up from the airport (I have good reason to feel this way, as this has happened to me in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language; it was scary).
One of my teammates who was traveling the same day as me came to my apartment bright and early and we rode to the airport together on a SuperShuttle. We parted ways at JFK because we were flying out of different terminals; I was on my own and would see him on the other side in Haiti. We’d recently acquired an ultra-sound for our efforts in Haiti, and it was our duty to bring it with us in our carry-on luggage. I let him worry about getting through TSA with our new equipment.
At the check-in kiosk, I encountered my first hurdle. The kiosk refused to give me a boarding pass because there was some error. I panicked slightly, as this has never happened to me in all my years of frequent travel. Clearing this up at a ticket counter smoothed my nerves a bit, though.
Once I got through security, I was bored. I was three hours early for my flight. I wanted to take a nap but I was scared I’d get robbed or I’d oversleep through boarding. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I live my life with some level of constant paranoia. I’m a woman, I’m Black–it comes with the territory. I walked around the entire terminal to pass the time. I pretended to be shopping. I had some breakfast. I was doing anything to not fall asleep.
Once boarding began, I noticed that 98% of the people flying were Haitian. Whether they were native Haitians, or Haitian-American would be anyone’s guess. I also noticed a lot of them were older, and there were a significant amount of elderly people on the plane. I was afraid to make nice with anyone on my flight though. I often toe the line between being nice to strangers, and not talking to strangers due to safety concerns. I do this everywhere: America, Brazil, Europe, etc. I often err on the side of not talking to strangers, since I was traveling alone and had no idea what things were going to be like once I arrived in Haiti.
I ended up sitting next to a young Haitian man who looked like a model. He was very well-dressed and he looked friendly, but I still eyed him suspiciously and refused to be cordial or welcoming. Yes, I’m crazy. Once we got closer to Haiti (and I stopped napping), I decided to make conversation. He lived in Brooklyn, but his family was in Haiti. He too was supposed to be on the flight I was supposed to be on the prior Sunday. Once we deplaned he smiled and waved goodbye to me. I guess I should have been friendlier earlier, as he was harmless.
You should know my team leaders sent us an email saying do not let anyone take your bags from you at the airport, as there would be people trying to run off with your bags. Being the paranoid person I am, this sounded like as soon as I walked off the plane, there would be herds of people trying to steal my bag. That was not the case. Deplaning was a situation where I was slightly fearful, but mostly due to the unknown. Getting off the plane turned into waiting like cattle in a long hallway. It didn’t seem like anyone was speaking English, so I felt even more isolated. What were we waiting for?
I heard some music, and this calmed me down a bit. I later saw a group of men playing live music, with smiles on their faces singing to their hearts content. They made me smile and it was then I realized everything would be okay. Just nod and smile, and try not to do anything to bring any attention to myself.
We rode a bus to Customs. I was surprised to see one man standing on the edge of the open bus door as we drove, seemingly unconcerned for his safety. I would later see this practice was normal in Haiti.
At Customs I ran into two of my teammates who had flown in on a Delta flight slightly earlier than me. It felt good to see familiar faces. Things were getting easier and easier. Or so I thought.
At the Customs counter, we were denied entry into Haiti. Apparently we didn’t have a street number on the address for the hospital we were going to, thus we were not allowed into the country. The crazy thing is, our location does not have a street number, just a street name. We tried to explain this to the Customs agent, but she wasn’t trying to hear us. It was a ridiculous claim, as we could have easily made up a number on the spot or prior to arrival if it meant something that significant. I felt like the woman at the counter was on some power trip. She waved us off in some general direction, and we had no idea what to do or where to go next.
We were shuffled around for a while, and ended up at a Customs office, but nobody seemed concerned about why we were there. Officers were walking in and out the office, not caring about the three foreigners who looked lost and confused.
I wanted to call our team leaders on their cell phone to ask them what to do, but my phone was not connecting to the local network for some reason. Although I’d set my iPhone up to work in Haiti, it didn’t seem to be working. I felt a little helpless. OMG I came all this way and they’re holding me up for a technicality? Do they want us to pay them some money? I’ve clearly watched Brokedown Palace too many times. I went to the bathroom to get my mind right. By the time I came back, it seemed my teammates had made some progress, and one of the supervisors was going to stamp and sign our passports. That’s exactly what he did, and we were on our merry way.
No sooner than we exited Customs, I saw a familiar Asian face in the crowd. It was one of our team leaders who was there to pick us up. I gave him a big hug and began to relax again. We stood still for a minute to organize our belongings. He warned us one more time that once we exited the terminal, there would be men out there aggressively trying to take our bags. He said to just keep a stone face and say, “No thank you.” It was then I realized the people ‘stealing’ bags were porters who were a bit on the aggressive side, not actual thieves. Oh. The idea was that we didn’t want to have to pay these men, as walking around with your money out was not a good idea in general. Anyway, true to form, there were dozens of men in plaid shirts and red hats who tried to take people’s bags so they could carry them to wherever it was they were going. One of them literally tried to take the bag out of my hand. They weren’t that scary or anything though. Most of them looked like men in their 40s or older, who were just trying to make some money.
We made our way to a big waiting area outside, where another team leader was waiting for us. On our way there, I couldn’t help but notice a man on the other side of a chain link fence was trying to get my attention. And when I say he was trying to get my attention, I mean he was yelling “MADAME!” at me, at the top of his lungs. Again, I was nervous. What could he possibly want? I was afraid to make eye contact, as I thought it would encourage him to continue. It is important to note, this has happened to me in the States before, and I have similar reactions. I know I’m weird.
Anyway, dude would not let it go. He kept walking with us along the chain link fence, yelling MADAME!over and over again. I tried to ignore it and hoped my teammates didn’t notice him. Was he trying to offer me a taxi ride? Was he crazy? Was he homeless? Was he trying to hit on me? I had no way of knowing because I don’t speak Creole, which is why I didn’t attempt to find out more information. I decided to keep my stealth ignoring game on. He eventually went away. I felt bad, but I had also no idea what else to do.
We waited for what seems like two hours. Our ride was not there, and so I spent that time getting to know the third team leader whom I’d never met before. He was a Haitian-American medical student who was pretty much the rock of the whole operation. I still didn’t know many of the people on our trip, and the ones I did know I had only met a few times. I people watched for a while, which was some of the best people watching I’ve done in a while.
Part of the airport looked fairly inoperable. There was a section that looked like it at one point was a large entrance to the airport but was now deserted. I imagine it was this way due to the earthquake damage and the airport’s inability to rebuild.
Eventually a gray pick up truck stopped abruptly in front of us. As the dust settled, our team leaders put our luggage in the back of the truck, and told us to get in. Behind the wheel was a Haitian man who was somehow affiliated with one of the churches we were working with in Port au Prince. It didn’t seem like he spoke much English, so I said my hello to him and climbed in the back seat. Then we were off to Merger, a suburb of Port Au Prince, an hour away from the airport.
The ride was bumpy, to say the least. We were sitting three in the back seat and three in the front seat, so there was hardly any room, but we made it work. Shortly after leaving the airport, paved roads were rare. So were stoplights and traffic signs. It essentially seemed like a free for all in the traffic safety scheme of things.
So far, Haiti looked a lot like it did on TV. Lots of rubble was everywhere. The architecture was different; it seemed like buildings simply consisted of cinder blocks cemented together. I suppose there were lots of impoverished people walking around. To be honest, it was difficult to tell, as I don’t know what’s considered normal in Haiti versus abnormal. I’m not from there, so I did my best not to pass judgment. Ironic, because I’d had made several judgments before I even arrived. Still, I was smart enough to know I didn’t know everything.
I was struck by how colorful everything was. The colors were beautiful: the tap taps, storefront signs, clothing. Haitians love them some color. There was also a lot of political graffiti: several instance of , “Vote [insert candidate’s name here]” were spray painted on buildings and any surface that could hold spray paint.
The ride was heartbreaking in some ways. I saw people washing their hands in the street puddles that cars were passing over. The palace where the President lived was still demolished. It’s been a year and it looks like it did on CNN the day after the earthquake? What was going on? There were piles of trash on many street corners, and not in the New York City sense: instead of a pile of trashbags, there were just piles of trash. This can’t be sanitary, I thought. I’d later learn the pile of trash would be burned, as this was their method of getting rid of trash. I was used to this method, as we burned our trash in New Mexico; living on a farm meant there was no weekly trash collection–you either hauled your trash to the landfill or you burned it. It was just bizarre to see trash burning happening in a city.
At some point, some young boys began to run along side our truck. Since there was a high level of traffic it was easy for them to keep up. Barefoot, they ran with their hands resting on our windows, begging for money. It was uncomfortable. What do you do in this situation? Give them money and keep them dependent on begging? Or give because one gives to the poor? As a foreigner, I opted to ignore them, because that’s what I do (have you read this entry?). After some time, we rolled down the window and gave a few of them some coins.
We got stuck in a huge traffic jam in what looked like a long alleyway. Horns beeped constantly, huge trucks and buses got too close for comfort. I was still very nervous. I was convinced Haitians have to be the best drivers on the planet, because they can drive on any surface, and squeeze between any small crevice.
I was getting comfortable…and then we got stopped by the police. And when I say “stopped by the police,” I really mean a policeman walked up to our driver’s window and knocked on it. He appeared out of nowhere. Apparently our driver was fraudulent for not staying in the right lane. If you had seen the road and traffic, you would know this was a ridiculous claim: THERE WAS NO LANE! There are no lines on the streets in Port Au Prince, because there are no streets for lines to be drawn on. We were in what amounted to a dirt road alley. Sure, my driver had attempted to go around the traffic in front of us, but to claim we were in the wrong lane was crazy talk.
The policeman took our driver’s license and walked off. It seemed as though he was taking everybody’s number, as he had a hand full of drivers’ licenses, and he was going to start writing tickets. A crowd of men soon gathered around him. People were angry, yelling in Creole. I wasn’t nervous, just confused. Our driver looked like he could handle his. The bizarre thing about being pulled over was that we didn’t actually pull over. No, we just kept moving with the crawling traffic while yelling out the window at the policeman. He kept walking with the traffic. Eventually he let us go with no ticket, and handed our driver his license. Our driver was a former policeman, so we were in the clear. Score.
I’d seen several tent cities by this time. They were just like you see on TV, no surprise here. The only surprise was that they were everywhere.
One more little boy began running with our truck and he just wouldn’t stop. I assume we looked like foreigners, seeing as three out of the six of us were Asian. As we sped up due to traffic thinning out, he stopped running with us but decided he’d punch our truck really hard, out of frustration. I felt uncomfortable and bad about the situation. Sigh.
We arrived in Merger and it started to feel like we were in off-road terrain. Not only was the road more uneven, but we were now climbing a hill. Slowly. It didn’t look like many vehicles traveled this road, I gathered, because the locals seemed startled by our presence. They also stared at us. I would later learn that we would be stared at everywhere we went.
At some point we turned into the hospital driveway, and parked. We had arrived at Hopital De Miracia, an arm of the Institute of Grace. This hospital was more like a hospital under construction. From what I gather, it was under construction before the earthquake, then the earthquake hit and caused some damage, and it’s been trying to rebuild and build since then. However, it had been a slow process and they’ve faced many difficulties trying to get the hospital up and running to it’s full potential.
We met our host Jean, who was a very welcoming and friendly man. We were given a tour of the grounds. We were staying on the second floor of dorms. Our counterparts were still out at the clinic site of the day, so we just sat around and were given a rundown of how everything worked.
There was no running water in the hospital because the water pump broke a few days prior. Instead, there were 50 gallon barrels of water in each bathroom that were being filled daily by hospital staff. We were to use this water for taking showers (I use the term “shower” loosely) and for flushing toilets. We were to use bottled water to brush our teeth, though. There was no constant electricity source. A large part of our dorm area had yet to be wired with electricity. The areas that were wired were only powered by a generator from the hours of 6-9 pm. So, that was that. Despite these issues, the hospital was still very nice and clean and orderly. The bathrooms themselves are nicer and newer than my bathroom in New York. The rooms were plain with concrete walls and twin beds, and they were clean and orderly. I wasn’t too shocked about much by this point. It reminded me a lot of rural life in New Mexico: normal, but with more dirt and dust than most Americans are used to.
Our team arrived from the clinic site just before dusk. I gave people hugs and tried to get to know the team members I’d never met before. We had dinner in the dining hall. They prepared some sort of chicken with sauce over black beans and rice. It was delish. I’d heard they ate goat the previous day. And not just any goat, they had a goat that they’d previously seen tied to the building earlier in the week. Poor thing.
Dinner was yummy. The generator turned on so I made sure to charge up my iPhone. We spent some time singing some Jesus songs together, reflecting on the day’s patients and experiences, and then we were free to go after a few announcements. One of the reflections for the day from a teammate was that patients were so happy for you to pray for them, and welcomed it. I guess this stuck out to me because I’m very much a person who feels really uncomfortable praying for others, and I don’t like praying in public. I think it’s because I feel put on the spot, and my personal prayer style is very informal. It was encouraging to know that people really wanted prayer, though.
We were free to go after dinner, and I tried to get familiar with the bathroom system. What made it difficult was that there was no electricity, so you had to maneuver going to the bathroom (and washing your hands) with no running water in the dark (or by candlelight/flashlight). This goes for taking a shower as well. I was advised that the best strategy for taking a shower was to suds yourself down, so your body gets used to the cold water, then use the drinking cup to pour water on your body to rinse the soap off.
The first time I bathed, I was frustrated by the whole process. I think the darkness was what was doing me in. The bathroom also didn’t have a door on it, just a sheer curtain hanging across the door shaft. However, no matter how difficult this was for me, I had to be mindful that many people in Haiti didn’t have bathrooms as nice as this one. Furthermore, I was not the one who was responsible for hauling water from whatever magical source it came from. Earlier in the day I’d seen staff hauling 5 gallon buckets into the building to fill the 50 gallon barrels in all of our bathrooms. At the end of the day, I had nothing to complain about. I needed to suck it up and be thankful for the luxury I had. I’d heard the team’s clinic site for the day had a latrine that was fairly disgusting, with feces all over the floor and toilet seat. Yep, I was thankful for this bathroom! I also made a mental note to stop complaining about how my red shower curtain doesn’t match my blue bathmat at home.
I unpacked my things and got situated. My bed was a hospital bed, so it had a really thick mattress. A mosquito net had already been installed over my bed. I played some card games with the team members who were still awake, while others organized meds (in the dark) for the next day. I went to bed fairly easily, as I was so tired. I needed to get my rest, as Day 2 would be my first Clinic Day.
Haiti was interesting, but so far not as bad as Western media would have you think. I didn’t see any rioting or mass civil unrest. Haiti was actually quite beautiful. I told myself I’d do my best to be less fearful and less close minded.