Haiti. Part one.

Posted: August 23, 2010 in Haiti Mission Trip

Recently I went on a mission trip to Haiti. It was the first “real” mission trip I had been on in a long time. Let me define “real”. I knew this mission trip was going to be hard. From the moment I heard where we were going I knew that this was going to be no cakewalk. It was going to be much different then the local mission trips we had been attending the past couple of years. Sure, there was hard work involved with those. We dug ditches, cleaned houses, built porches, and the like. But every time I went I always felt like we were going there more for us than for them.

I went to Ukraine about three years ago. Man, it seems so much longer than that… Anyways, THAT was fun. And it involved more work and effort than the retreat mimicking mission trips we had taken after. But I was almost disappointed in that it had many luxuries that i was expecting to live without. I was disappointed because on a mission trip, I want it to feel like just that. A mission trip. I want to sweat, I want to work hard without knowing when we’ll quit, I want to be scared, I want to live on the edge, and just for a few days live the life that most other unfortunate people in the world live every day. All their lives. To feel their pain. To just get a taste of their sorrow so we can understand what it is to live with nothing. Ukraine, to my disappointment, did not do this. This is not to say I did not have a blast there. In fact, because it was more laid back then I thought it would be it opened up many an opportunity to get closer to friends that were just acquaintances before. In fact, I give some of the credit to were my relationships are today to that mission trip. But I’m getting off the subject.

Not wanting to be disappointed again, I almost lowered my expectations for this trip before I went. I didn’t want to get there and be let down by the amount of luxuries we had. I knew there was going to be terrible devastation and places where there was just nothing left. But I didn’t know exactly where we were going, and I didn’t know what we were doing while we there, other than the dramas and skits that we planned for. But even then, I didn’t know when. And looking back now I don’t think anybody did. I got on the plane to Port-au-Prince excited for the unknown but prepared to be received with more than what I wanted.

Before I dive into the actual mission trip story I also wanted to say that my expectations for any trips that I take with my youth group are not limited to unwanted luxuries. No, the other half of my concern is usually relational expectations. My friends mean a lot to me. So when I go on a long trip and don’t get to see or talk to my friends that I was hoping to get closer to through the experience it really bums me out. But I walked into this trip without any unwanted baggage or relational issues clouding my mind and resolved to be happy and to make the best of whatever was put in front of me on this trip. This was something I knew I had to clear before I went. I did, and it made the adventure so much better.

The first thing I noticed was the helicopters. The abrupt stop on the short runway had every looking out the windows of the plane, and for the emergency exits. UN tents had been erected next to a temporary military base right in the middle of the runway and the terminal. I guess you call it a terminal. The plane docked and we all grabbed our carry on and walked into the long algae-green hallway of Haiti’s international airport. The box air conditioning units lining the walls were struggling to churn out cool air and keep up with the brutal heat of a Haitian summer. As we started walking down the terminal aisle towards customs, I started to notice the massive cracks in the concrete walls and shattered glass. The cracks in the concrete from the earthquake no doubt. The glass? Who knows? It would be the last glass window I would see up close in about nine days.

In our assigned groups the guys mixed with the girls to ward off the every watchful luggage handlers who would snatch up unexpecting luggage pieces but then charge a handsome fee. Like ducklings we all followed one another into a tram that escorted us to the customs…erm… warehouse. Fans were everywhere. Blowing hot air all around the building. They were the circulating ones. Never pointed at you long enough to stay comfortable but enough to keep you grateful. Grateful we were. They checked and stamped our passports and we took about five long strides to where our luggage was being brought out. We had it everywhere. By the time the fiasco with the luggage ended, we had to count off all of our numbers to make sure we were all indeed in Haiti. This proved to be most frustration and was endured for the rest of the trip. Why can’t people pay attention?

My patience was already ebbing and I sweating buckets by the time we stepped out of those airport doors onto the streets of Port-au-Prince. Beggars lined the banister covered walkway for the first 30 feet out of the airport as we all creeped forward with our meagerly stretched luggage carts piled high with suitcases towards the bus a quarter of a mile away. I remember the long walk as we tripped, scooted, slipped, skid, slid, and tumbled down the broken cobblestones that made the Haitian sidewalk with our carts. I laughed out loud. So far, this trip was amazing. If everything took as long and as difficult as just picking up our luggage and walking to our bus did, this might just turn out to be a fine trip after all.

When we finally got to the bus I was impressed at the state of the bus’ condition. The way Bruce had described it before we left made it sound like we may have had to hold it together. It didn’t look much worse than my elementary school bus i took way back in the day. It even had a custom paint job. Cool. What I was even more impressed with, and a little skeptical of, was how we were going to fit all of this luggage and 46 people inside one bus that was missing seats in the back. The answer, I found out soon enough. Is that you really don’t. Many of us had to stand and sit atop of luggage in the back and along the aisle between the bus seats. It was three to a seat, or four if you wanted to get really cozy and the ride was full of more potholes than the surface of the moon. This made me laugh again, here I was, in Haiti for no more than a half an hour and I had already soaked my shirt in perspiration sitting next to some unfortunate person wondering why the had to fortune to sit next to the amazing melting man who was also probably getting them very damp in the process. However, my laughter stopped in my throat when I looked out the window.

The devastation was horrible. It was everywhere. But it wasn’t just the toppled buildings and piles of trash that lined the city streets that took your breath away. It was the people. They filled every empty spot along the side of the street selling their wares and trinkets. They built makeshift shacks that served as protection against the elements for their shops. They hug up tarps for roofs. They used rusty sheet metal for walls. Then they would look at the bus, and smile. Horns blared and flared but tempers remained cool. They painted and used colors to decorate the old, dilapidated trucks they used as taxi services. They were making the very best from what they had. It was next to nothing, but it was at least something to them, and they found joy in it.

The place we stayed at came up suddenly and unexpectedly. All the streets seem to look the same. All the same concrete walls with smashed glass facing  sharp side up on top of the wall embedded inside an extra layer of concrete to keep intruders out. All the same piles of garbage lining the streets next to vendors and stagnant water turning to mud inside the gutters lining the sidewalks. I guess I was expected to recognize the building we were going to be calling our home for the next week and a half by some distinguishable feature. There was none. We turned into a large steel gate that was rolled back by someone of the orphanage and disappeared into one of the many walls of Haiti.

Stepping off the bus for the first time was a lot to take in. There were children running around everywhere of all ages. There was the orphanage building, which compared to some of the things we saw coming in looked pretty nice. There was also the house. This too, didn’t look too bad. Let me define house. There was no AC, anywhere. But we knew this ahead of time. So the house provided no respite for the heat. But the orphanage and house combined both provided a large enough space for forty-six extra people to sleep comfortably, which is a lot to ask for, no matter where you go. The Pastor and his wife were extremely hospitable, and gracious.

I can’t remember a whole lot about the rest of that evening other than that it was full of getting ready for the week, unpacking, dragging suitcases, filling up mattresses, praying, reading, and resting. My mind seemed to short-circuit every time I thought about the heat and how sweaty I was and then realizing that I could go nowhere to escape from it. But I would take hope from the fact that after this trip was over, not that I was looking forward to it already, I could say I did it. And that I conquered it. It was easier said than done though. That night was one of the most hilarious, but worst nights of my life.

We went to bed at God knows when. It gets dark in Haiti much earlier than in the U.S. so we could have been going to bed at 8:00 for all we knew because time was something that didn’t seem to matter much. I wasn’t tired. And as one of my friends from the trip would later say, “It was one of the nights when your head hit the pillow, you knew that you were going to be up for a while.” But looking back now, I was glad I hadn’t fallen asleep. Because about twenty minutes into my daze that would really last the rest of the night, my friend prodded me in the side with his finger and said the most horrifying thing I could ever hear. “Carl, spider.” He pointed up at the ceiling directly over my bed and I froze. It’s very easy to dramatize the situation when someone is this scared. But I kid you not, this was the biggest spider I had ever seen outside a cage in a pet shop. And even then I don’t get close to those things.

I don’t do spiders. Sorry. End of story. I don’t. If you have a spider on your back bigger than a quarter you’re on your own. I will not tell you, I will let it eat you so I can put more distance on it. Call me a jerk, but I am convinced that in Genesis the devil should have manifested himself as a spider to Eve. Because I can think of nothing more sinister than an eight legged, eight-eyed, fanged creature that dissolves its prey’s internal organs than sucks them out with a straw. It sounds like something off a disturbing sci-fi movie. Anyways, the stupid thing was right above my bed, drawing out plans of how to disembowel me no doubt. But I had other plans, consisting of clapping my hands over my mouth and leaping out of my bed with the speed of something extremely fast. I would say light, but that’s too slow.

When I had gotten to a fearful but not frantic distance away from the creature, I turned around to make sure it had not gotten one of my friends. Not that I could do anything if it did. But perhaps I could catch some last words for their loved ones. Rest assured though, all my friends were there. But you know what wasn’t there, the spider. It had disappeared. I was amazed at how something that big could move that fast. It seemed like I would have felt the earth shake or something. By this time, some of my friends were up and had gotten their flashlights out to hunt for the beast. One of them found it, eyes literally gleaming in the flashlight beam, right next to my sleeping brother’s foot. Well, it darted again, up the wall this time, again next to my bed but thankfully with a lack of me in it. My friend grabbed a sandal and started to wack it. It tool several cracks with the sandal to finally kill it. When it died, it fell right into my shoes beside my bed. Thanks guys. I barely slept a wink that night.

The next day was work day. All around the orphanage property we each were assigned jobs and tasks to carry out. I was part of the tiling crew to tile both of the kitchens. The one in the cafeteria, which was really just an annexed stone building attached to the orphanage, and the one inside the house. It was fun as I got put into groups that I was comfortable working with. Mr. Payne is always a pleasure to be around as his vast amount of knowledge on any subject provides potential for just about any conversation. And we just happened to be inside the shade with a little bit of a breeze blowing in through the doorway every now and then. It was a pleasant experience. The fumes from whatever type of paint they were using to paint the kitchen in the latter part of our tiling experience were less than desirable however. My abhorrence to painting coupled with the smell that seemed to stick in your nose kept reminding me of how fortunate I was not to have been chosen for that job. Before we knew it, the day was over. It was getting dark at what seemed like an absurdly early hour and we all were getting tired. I was very tired especially because of the lack of sleep I had gotten the night before.

That night went by quickly and wonderfully. And so did the rest of the nights there in Haiti. Usually by the end of the days there we were so exhausted that we couldn’t wait to crash into our air mattresses. I didn’t even have a pillow, but I slept like a baby for the rest of the trip.

Sunday morning we woke up bright and early to the sound of the obnoxious rooster crowing. There was actually two roosters, but one was scraggly and unkept while the other looked like the poster child for Kellogg. The unkept rooster was the outrageous one. It would crow at every available opportunity, whenever it felt like. Whether it was two o’clock in the morning or in the afternoon, it really didn’t care. But after about the third day we became used to it and weren’t annoyed anymore. It was something that you just had to accept or go crazy.

Anyways, off to church we went Sunday morning. The place was packed. And very hot. People dress in their Sunday best over there and that was better than most of us Americans cared to dress in a building with AC over here, let alone a crowded church with only a couple of fans to circulate the stagnant air. A few of us gave our testimonies that Pastor Tom had randomly selected. I introduced a drama that I was going to be the main character in and how it related to our lives before and after Christ redeemed us. I was completely drenched in sweat, I had it dripping from my chin, nose, and arms. I wouldn’t have been more wet had I jumped inside a pool. I gave my testimony like this, my shirt a shade darker because of the perspiration, I must have looked ridiculous. But, this was supposed to be a stretching mission trip after all right?

The second church service we went to was a little bit more full and intense. There was no room for dramas, but there was time for a few testimonies, songs, and prayer. Pray we did. There was one lady who was freed from some serious bondage. It was a time of rejoicing, encouragement, and hope.

If I remember correctly, the rest of that day passed by pretty uneventfully. We stayed at the orphanage and discussed what we were going to be doing for the next few days. We had gotten back from the second church service much later than a normal one here in America. It was dark in a few hours.

Between all of this happening was the normal dialogue and talk between our team members that would be impossible to document and remember all of it. Which is a shame because it is those conversations and jokes that are made that make the small moments so much fun. We laughed so much and talked within each other about many things that will forever be remembered by our subconscious only. It’s the small moments that really matter sometime.

There was also the things that aren’t always mentioned like the need to shower, go to bathroom, brush your teeth, etc. Without going into too much detail, I will tell you that there was NO running water. All the toilets. I say all. THE toilet needed water to be poured into it to flush, and even then it was risky. Showers consisted of well water put into those portable camping showers that were hung over the roof of the orphanage and house to give enough height for one to kneel down and wash their hair and body. Some nights it rained and then you were lucky, but then some nights we got back so late that the first thing on your mind was bed and it was so dark out that the fiasco of filling up the water bag that was your shower and lugging over to the place where you would have to stumble around in the dark just to be clean for fifteen minutes before you started to sweat again wasn’t worth it. Dirt was your friend on this trip.

Monday morning we all ate breakfast together. Breakfast was usually powdered milk mixed with a little bit of powdered cream I think and with whatever cereal you brought in your suitcase. That’s when we had milk. If we didn’t then it was granola bars and water. That was the day we went to the village far outside of Port-au-Prince. To be honest I’m not sure how far it was. It’s possible it was much closer than it seemed because it took a while but time is so warped over there. especially when you are standing in the back of a hot school bus going about thirty miles per hour the entire way over massive bumps and holes in the dirt road. Builds character, not always amusement.

The only way to the village was by boat across a lake. The trip by boat was a generous eighth of a mile long and we had about 1500 pounds of rice, spaghetti and oil to float over there as well. There was about five or six boats I believe, and they made several trips across, each of them being rowed by one man and one navigating. I was on the first boat across and what I saw somewhat shocked me. It was surreal. Like I had somehow fallen into one of the national geographic magazines sitting on our dresser at home. Mud huts, straw roofs, rags for clothes if clothes at all. And trash. Everywhere. It blew my mind how people this remote got their hands on so much plastic, metals, and other pieces of garbage that won’t decay for who knows how long and then just threw it on the riverbank where most of it had accumulated. It was everywhere. And they did not care.

One by one the boats rolled in and the guys all helped make an assembly line to get the rice from the boat to one central location where we could keep an eye on it. As soon as all the boats were unloaded we were on the move again, this time another long walk to where the rice was going to be distributed. Under a tarp that had been attached to about eight poles sticking out of the ground to provide a small shady area. The trip was harder than I expected it to be. I had left with two bags of rice thinking that this place would be just around the corner but about half way there had to be relieved of one of them because the weight was too much for me to carry using my sorry “one-in-each-arm-technique”. The person who lessened my load flippantly flipped the bag of rice upon their head and shoulders and darted up the path. Realizing this was probably the way to do it, I quickly adopted the easier Haitian tradition of carrying just about anything on top of your head.

We got to the tent thing and unloaded our food and stuff we were carrying and took a moment to breathe. It would be the last chance we got. Because as soon as we opened the bag of rice and popped the lid off the oil, people started to get agitated. It was the “me-first” attitude of the people in the village that will make this day stick in my mind probably for the rest of my life. Some of the leaders and translators brought all of the people into a line to walk through an organized row where they would all receive an equal amount of food and oil. Our team would be taking turns distributing the goods. It took a while for them to get the line organized, but once we did, it went somewhat smoothly for a little while. We would get the occasional person coming back for more or sending their child through for them but we had to turn them away. All in all though, it was going well.

That somewhat fell apart. As time went on and people were growing impatient, more and more children frequented the line, and they became less of a disappointment to send them away and more of an aggravation. They wouldn’t leave. And this blocked the line which in turn caused more and more people to become frustrated. A few tempers flared but nothing too serious. Then we opened the clothes to give away.

It seemed like these people had their priorities a little out of focus. The food they cooperated with, even if it was a little rough, but that was to be forgiven as we couldn’t exactly communicate too well for the language barrier. But when we opened the suitcases that contained the hygiene items, stuffed animals, and clothes. The people went crazy. They instantly dove into the suitcases, grabbing and fighting over what they wanted. The leaders of our group, wanting them to distributed fairly, quickly closed in and blocked them from reaching into the bags. But these people would not take a hint. They kept fighting and snatching and grabbing. By this time the food line was almost in complete disarray because of the noise and confusion happening over the clothes.

I was inside the food line at the time trying to keep what was going moving but was promptly called out to help guard the suitcases. When i arrived I found that my team members had all linked arms around a few people in the middle throwing clothes and handing them out as evenly as they could as people from all angles around this circular human wall tried to find some weakness they could grab something through. One of our armed body guards had a firearm on her person, and later I found out she was pretty close to using it.

After the clothes ran out we all quickly closed shop as the crowd dispersed and headed back down towards the water to go home. The orignal plan was perhaps to do a drama or two. But it took to long, and to be quite frank, after seeing what I just saw, I didn’t feel like doing another thing for these people. When we first arrived in the village they welcomed us and played fun games. But as we were walking back, I had an ominous feeling we weren’t exactly the favored ones around that place. One of our team members was very sick with heat exhaustion, we had to carry her back to the water. Piling back into the boats but with a significantly less amount of weight, we rowed back to where our bus was waiting on the side of the road. Tired, dirty, and worn out, the bus ride back was a welcome one. There was much thinking and talk about what just happened and the reason we came. To do just that. To some, it was scary, to others an adventure, and to some it was sad. Would those people ever find a way out of their mindset? Are they even capable of helping themselves and overcoming their situation even if it was only a little. I don’t know? What I do wonder is what that village looked like fifty years ago? Was it any worse? It probably looked better. I couldn’t help thinking that these people were on a slippery slope down to somewhere. But maybe through our example, by not just letting them take greedily for themselves, it didn’t enable them to become more destructive to themselves by the way they lived.

We went to bed that night with a lot on our minds. The three days we had been in Haiti had been extremely eventful. Monday being the most intense of all. Was that the future of Haiti? We hoped not. But that’s why we were here. To help. Sleep came peacefully.

Tuesday morning we woke up much more refreshed. VBS was due this morning for the neighborhood kids. Preparations were made after a meager breakfast and the last of my snacks I had packed in my carry-on. We prayed for the day and looked over the scripts for the puppets. We got out the suitcases full of candy to hand out to the kids at the end. The crafts we had prepared ahead of time were also unpacked. The chairs were arranged in order and cinderblocks were placed side-by-side to make a pathway through the mud that made nice sized puddles throughout the VBS area. A line was hung with torn strips of cloth hanging in even intervals along the string to serve as a makeshift volleyball net. And then the doors to the church were open.

People straggled in one by one. A few of us went out into the streets with a translator to invite some more people over. When we got back there were adults in the church building sitting in the shade while their kids went outside to play with the rest of the team. Some were playing hand games that are pretty universal wherever you go, and some joined the volleyball game. Others sat with team members and smiled as each other tried to communicate as best as they could. A little english was usually known for simple things like names and countries.

To say things were at times chaotic would be an understatement. The lack of adequate translators and confusion made getting anything done in an orderly fashion somewhat impossible. Everything took much longer than it was intended, and there were awkward gaps inside the VBS service because we either were trying to decide what to do, or the person who was up next wasn’t there. So we’d just play another one of our three songs that we had pre-recorded and act out our silly hand motions to allow the people in charge time to get their act together.

Funny thing was though, people didn’t care. At least, they didn’t seem to mind. Time in Haiti isn’t valued as much as it is here. If something doesn’t get done or is taking a long time it’s “no problem”. The lackadaisical attitude of the country astounded me. Probably more than anything else. It not only shocked me, it frustrated me. It annoyed me to no end. Anyways…

The puppets were brought out on hands that had no puppet experience whatsoever. The script was being read from for the first time as our handheld cloth people voiced the words. I had been on a legit puppet team a long time ago, but I had forgotten much of the technique, and how much it hurts to hold your arm up for that long. If my old puppet teacher would have seen how we were treating those puppets, there would have been some major issues.

  1. Nadine says:

    WOW!! Thank you for sharing your experience in Haiti!! Reading your blog really inspired me to type up my experience. Thank you.

  2. Dan King says:

    It’s really cool to get some insight into what you were thinking and feeling at different times throughout the trip. I can relate to many of the things that you were feeling.

    I do think I have a slightly different perspective on the people from that remote village that we visited, and I’m working on a post about that right now for my blog. I don’t think that it was probably much different 50 years ago there. There doesn’t seem to be much money, transportation, or any other resources out there. Just the limited transportation (and money to pay for it) would mean that finding work that could make them more money would be really difficult… and that’s probably not something that has likely changes in the last several decades. I couldn’t imagine living in a village like that and trying to provide for my family… I’d get a little unruly too.

    Great post dude!

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