Haiti Travelogue: Day One
Westword reporter went to Haiti for his recent feature story "The Social Conscience of a Missionary." Be sure to check back in for the next few days as he recounts his personal journey through the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
It was our first morning in Haiti and the do-gooders from Denver were ready to put in work.
We drove to the Church, the house and the orphanage where the mission was originally started by the father of Dan, our host. All the kids and teachers were happy to see Dan the prodigal son return. The van pulled up and they all came running in hordes.
Denver’s chapter of team ICOF (International Club of Friendship) was officially on duty, distributing candy outside and then school supplies inside the church, where a few ICOF members gave speeches.
Crayons, scissors, glue sticks, pens, and pencils go over about as well as video game systems would in the United States. These kids have nothing but the clothes on their backs. Even the ones who got just one #2 pencil were ecstatic.
Then we took off again, through Cite Soleil, known as the poorest and most dangerous neighborhood in Haiti (which is known as the poorest and most dangerous country in the western hemisphere) and, like most of the neighborhoods surrounding Port-Au-Prince, it looked like it had been construction when a bomb went off and then a natural disaster hit and then it sat vacant for 30 years before a tribe from Africa found it and settled in.
Half-finished (or half-demolished?) buildings were everywhere. Some of them have been in this state of disrepair for so long that it is tough to tell if they are unfinished or falling apart.
A canopy roof that was built as shelter for the gas pumps at a Texaco station giving shade to nothing. There were no pumps, no store. The builders abandoned the project in the midst of one of Haiti's many political overthrows. By the time Texaco finally came back to town, so much time had passed that the roof was no longer new enough for a new gas station, so the company just left it standing and moved the project a few blocks down the road. Now the vacant spot under the roof serves a local gathering place.
Turning off the country's lone highway, the countryside started to remind me of the no-man's land that is the Indian reservation on the Arizona-Mexico border. The roads were just short of impassible for our van. We bumped and bounced along the way until we came to some stagnant water where everyone got out to evaluate the situation. Those of us (including me) who thought we had two cents worth of advice to offer the driver did so, advising him to take the dry, bumpy road as opposed to gunning it through what looked like a little lake. The driver didn't listen and we didn't know what the fuck we were talking about...he made it no sweat and we all piled back in the van.
We started getting thirsty. It felt like we were in the desert, complete with even cacti, the oppressive heat and humidity kept us sweating way more than we had been drinking. The mosquitoes were buzzing, it was lunchtime and the only food we had was candy for the kids, so we munched some Starburst and pressed on.
We finally arrived at the desolate village that was our destination. Tt was a place of such dire poverty that it seemed like an ideal spot to plot a revolution, but no revolutionaries lived here, just common poor folk, peasants who are depressed and penniless like nothing anyone in the States can relate to.
There were kids everywhere. Hundreds of them just kept swarming around us. All of them were smiling, even the malnourished, even the kid without a thumb, even the little blind girl navigating her way around by holding on to a barbed wire fence.
An ICOF tripper named Traci raised some money independently of the group and brought some of her own funds to sponsor five kids, her "babies." She posed for pictures with them. And then she cried again.
We hung in the village for a while. I was surrounded by about 150 kids, aged four to fourteen, many of whom had never seen a white man before. They wanted to touch my hair, they wanted to hold our hands, they wanted us to pick them up and let them try on our sunglasses, but mostly, they wanted us to just keep making funny faces at them.
We walked toward the van and the kids followed, laughing all the way, with us or at us I am not totally sure. The only one who knew English kept saying "I am sorry for you."
We loaded up the van again, all of us dirty and sweaty, twice as tired and hungry as we were when we got here and with a thirst that would take hours worth of hydration to quench. But the kids weren't done with us. They still wanted to hold our hands, some didn’t get a turn to try on our sunglasses or have their picture taken, and they were waiting outside of our windows, asking for their turn.
Any one of them would have gotten in our van just to leave.
A sea of yellow school uniforms ran after us, some held on to the van, they just kept following, running and yelling and jumping.
Once, when the van came to a stop, several of them ran hard into the back of it.
Dinner is simple. Rice and beans, salad, a vegetable-fruit kinda thing we don’t have in the United States, and one chicken leg each.
Later that night, back at the compound, the group debriefs. It’s been a long, hot and emotional day and tensions are about as high as the voices, when another missionary from a different group drops in on the conversation.
Terrance has been stressing security so much, it’s a little too much for Merlie, who knows what it’s like to be in the third world. Terrance read all of the reports about how people who used to kidnap for political reasons were now doing it for profit. He kept stressing that he left a family and a non-profit back home and that it would be “selfish” for he or any one of us to leave the group and leave the compound to go out on the town, particularly to the Wyclef concert we were thinking about. That, Terrance said, would put both the kids who we were brought here to help and ICOF at risk of a serious loss if someone got kidnapped.
Merlie didn’t like being called selfish.
Terrance apologized and the group left it at agreeing to see things differently.
Everyone goes to bed. Most of our stomachs are growling.
-- Luke Turf