Since traveling to Haiti, I’ve had several people mention to me how they hope to someday go on a similar trip. It’s exciting to see how contagious mission work and travel can be. My friend David planted a seed with me, and now I hope to plant similar seeds with others.
And as David gave me the low down on what to expect before we left, I feel it’s only appropriate to fertilize the seeds I’m planting with a little sage advice, keeping in mind that I am still very wet behind the ears in the mission-trip travel department. But every little bit helps, so if you to want to go out and do good works in Haiti too, here are some practical tips to pave the way.
Part II – The Details
Pack light and prepare to sweat – My teenage son likes to whisper “hoarder” in my ear whenever I try to repurpose anything so, as you can imagine, packing light is an ordeal for me. During my recent trip to Italy, I left a wake of herniated airport employees behind me. But I managed to dig down deep and pack only essentials for Haiti and – guess what? For once in my life, I actually packed too light.
I took a tiny bottle of liquid Tide with me so I could sponge things out every evening and wear some things twice. I SHOULD have taken some string to use as a clothesline too, so learn from my mistake. Also, what I hadn’t counted on was the reality of the work at hand. Our project consisted of cleaning out and refitting a barn for a future tractor delivery, and, by cleaning out, I mean we CLEANED IT OUT. Rats, big ass spiders, years of accumulated dirt, bird poop and oil, and coconut shells by the hundreds left us all grimy, gritty and gross. Additionally, we did it in 90 degree heat – which, by the way, is the cool season in Haiti. Come summer, it’s actually hotter.
So at the end of the day, I pretty much smelled like a camel, and my work clothes could stand up by themselves. All the sponging in the world couldn’t put a dent in the funk growing in my shoes by mid week and I actually lived in fear of running out of soap and shampoo. Come to think of it, my companions actually lived in fear of me running out of soap and shampoo too.
Don’t pack for vacation, pack for work and if it has sentimental meaning, leave it at home – As I knew I would be working on that barn before leaving, I packed work clothes, including my favorite old navy blue polo shirt. It’s not a great shirt nor is a good looking shirt, but as shirts go, it’s a favorite because it’s broken in and very comfortable. I’ve spent a lot of hours telecommuting in that shirt.
But what I hadn’t counted on in Haiti was looking into the faces of so many people with so little. It made me seriously regret the state of my walk-in closet back home, so I let them pick me clean like a buzzard on road kill – and I would do it again in a heart beat. When workmen pointed to my gloves, I let them have the gloves, because they were working harder than me. When a little boy kept admiring his reflection in my aviator sunglasses, I let him have them, and he strutted around worthy of his new nickname, Rico Suave. When another young man came back with us to the guesthouse at the end of one day and asked if we had any clothes to spare, I gave him that polo shirt because it was the only thing I had not yet been worn or sweated in. By the end of the week I was also down a baseball cap, safety glasses, several magazines, a pen and a water bottle too. And I wish I had had more to give. Much as I loved that shirt, there’s plenty more in my closet where that came from.
So, in short, DO pack heavy and plan to share. Great things to take and share include work gloves, water bottles, t-shirts, soccer balls – which are practically a currency in Haiti, not to mention an instant party – hand pumps for those soccer balls, Crocs, flip flops, you name it. David brought with him a few old Army duffels jam packed with stuff, and it’s impossible not to feel moved when handing these things out. So cram those backpacks and share the wealth! It feels good.
Take change – Sometimes I pride myself on not being a total moron. More often, however, I’m kicking myself for being a complete idiot, and nothing was more idiotic than waiting until the last minute to hit the money mover prior to my trip. The end result was that I took mostly $20s.
How dumb could I be? In Haiti, people don’t make change, because they don’t HAVE change. Haitian workers will move mountains for $8 a day – we paid them $10 – so that puts those $20s in perspective. Plus, it’s not a shopping Mecca. Talented crafts people will come to you with really neat trinkets for sale, but they’re not expensive items, so you end up buying armloads of this stuff because you have a $20, not a $10 or a $5 or a $1 and – I repeat – they can’t make change. But it’s ok – the way I look at it, I stimulated the local economy.
In short, break those freaking $20s and take dollars, dollars, dollars. Who cares if you look like a stripper on payday? You won’t have them – or shouldn’t have them – when you get home anyway. Oh, and leave the credit cards and debit cards at home. You won’t need them either.
If it’s yellow, let it mellow… – and I think you know the rest of that little gem. Ok, here’s the reality of Haiti – few people have running water in their homes. While fresh water does seem to be plentiful – it pours out of the mountains – getting it some place useful, like in homes, seems to be a real problem. Even well-kept places like the Methodist guesthouse where we stayed in Jeremie which do have running water, still have issues. Water pumps in Haiti are few and far between, thus the majority of faucets and toilets are gravity-based.
What does this mean for you? It means don’t waste water and forget about water pressure. And as for hot water, don’t even think about it. Besides, it’s a hot country and you already smell like old cabbage so do you really need it? Nope! But do take sanitary wipes or antibacterial gel. It comes in pretty darn handy. And if you’re a germ-a-phobe, well, let’s just say you may have a few issues with Haiti. But if you’re a dirt-eating, nose-picking, wipe-your-hands-on-your shirt farm girl like me, you’re good to go.
With that said, keep these water-related ground rules in mind. When showering, get wet, turn off the water, then shampoo and soap up. Then rinse off and do it quick. I also found that if I sponged out a few things in the sink quickly before showering, I could let them soak in the sink while I showered and drain while I dried off and got dressed. Again, bring a clothesline too as you’ll need somewhere to hang your stuff overnight to dry.
Also, if you’re there for a week and you eat the same kind of diet we ate – goat, rice, beans, fish, and lots of fresh fruit – be prepared to poop. Why do I bring that up? Reminder – gravity-based water flow! If you must take a dump, do it downstairs if you’re in a two-story building. You’ll need the extra *umph* to get it down the pipes. Trust me, one such episode in the upstairs restroom took a rest stop somewhere along the way down and the end result wasn’t pretty. I’m just saying, you know. So snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper, and poop downstairs. One more thing – never put toilet paper in the actual toilet, no matter WHAT is on it. Toilet paper goes in the trash can beside the toilet – again, gravity-based water flow. It’s self-explanatory, really.
Don’t panic if the lights go out – When you’re in a strange country, and it’s a developing one at that, you may be slightly on edge when odd things happen, say, for instance, the power goes out at night. Don’t panic. Sure, in the States, power outages are fairly uncommon. But in Jeremie, that turned out to be an almost nightly occurrence. Once at dinner, we were all plunged into darkness, but what fun it was when everyone whipped out their cell phones and lit up the night!
I don’t know what caused the outages or if they really do just shut off the power to the city after hours, but by morning it was always back on. Plus, as a country hovering just over the equator, the sun is up by 6:00 a.m. and down by 6:00 p.m. so you’re going to keep odd hours anyway. Nine in the evening seems almost like midnight, so you’ll probably already be in bed when it happens. Also, it’s much more quiet at night than at 5:00 in the morning anyway so sleep when the sleeping’s good. Dogs, birds, chickens, motorbikes, they all seem to start up early and often. You’ll appreciate hitting the sack early, trust me.
Be prepared to be petted - If you’re a glow-in-the-dark white gal like me and have bushy fake blonde hair bordering on cocker spaniel, prepare to be petted, especially if there are any young Haitian girls anywhere in your immediate vicinity. We had the good fortune to spend some time with some adorable young people at the Gebeau orphanage and, as I quickly found out, long blonde hair is a Haitian orphan magnet. Plus, these sweet children will want to hold your hand, sit on your lap, hug you and walk with you and they will follow you like puppies. It melts your heart. So let them. Hug them, hold them, play with them, sing with them, walk with them. I did draw the line at having the mole on my arm twisted, but you’re free to set your own limits.
Eat what you can, when you can - Maybe goat’s not your thing or maybe you don’t like bones in your fish, but, regardless, when you get the chance to eat, eat. Why? Because you just don’t know when you’ll eat again. Sure, we packed lunches every day, but when you’re working with guys who are carrying five-pound buckets of rocks on their heads for a quarter-of a mile for hours and they have no lunch, you’ll give them yours. And you’ll give them your water or Pepsi or whatever else you have too. Otherwise, you’re a heartless creature so what the hell are you doing in Haiti anyway?
So when breakfast is placed before you, pig out. And when dinner lands in front of you, pig out again. Besides, the food is fabulous, the fruit is amazing, though I have to warn you – my new friend, Janet, may have another opinion when it comes to goat.
Be prepared to expand your comfort zone – When I first arrived in Jeremie, I didn’t know what to expect. We landed on a hardpan runaway in a small commuter plane, there was an armed guard waiting at the cinderblock airport, he had us get in the covered porch with barred windows and he shut us and our luggage in while we waited for our ride. Several men came and stared at us through the windows, watching us. I kept an eye on my bag. And at the time, I felt like a caged animal.
On the ride to the guesthouse, we passed what appeared to me at the time to be squalor and debris. The road was gutted and pitted and in places broken pipes gushed water which further eroded the roads. People carried buckets on their heads and bananas and various other things. Thin cattle and goats were tied to the sides of the road. It was overwhelming and I was, at first, wondering what to expect. I felt small and somewhat vulnerable even within the safety of the truck cab hauling us to our destination. Hey, cut me some slack. It was my first visit to a developing country, ok.
But what a difference a week makes! As we drove through downtown Jeremie one day, it reminded me how in Venice, Italy, laws actually exist to PREVENT people from upgrading the exterior of their buildings. Thus, in Venice, moldering cracked walls are “fashionable.” In Jeremie, I first looked upon very similar walls as ugly. Why? Clearly I needed a new mindset. So, as the week progressed, what had first looked like rubble and squalor became reality. Jeremie is beautiful in her own colorful way.
And, as for the guard at the airport? Well, when we left, he was there again, but this time we stood outside with him, laughing and chatting. He asked me if this was my first trip to Haiti and so we talked about how I liked it and what I thought. He smiled and joked with me and let me take his picture. I forgot about my bag – if they wanted my camel smelling clothes, so be it – and I was happy and content and enjoying life. I hated to leave. And this time, I knew quite a few of those men and we joked and shook hands and hugged. By now, I knew them and I knew too that I would miss them.
Thus, by the time I left, I was at peace with Jeremie, and with Haiti. What a beautiful country and what an even more beautiful people. After a week of walking and working and swimming and taking motor-taxies and sitting at the Amberge Inn, visiting with new friends, etc., I felt my comfort level grow, expand and enlarge with each passing hour. And with it, my comfort level with Haiti and with the world at large expanded too – which, again, is just one of many reasons why I travel.
So, when you take your first mission trip – and you know you will – expect at first to be unsettled, but keep an open mind. Plan and prepare, but be flexible. Open your heart. Smile. Relax. Work hard. Wash often. Eat hearty. Reset your benchmarks for life. And enjoy. If you get the opportunity to go to Jeremie, Haiti, you should. You’ll never be the same.
- Robin Winzenread Fritz