Missionary Style – An Idiot’s Guide to Doing Good Works in Haiti (Part I)

These young boys stole my heart in Haiti.

These young boys stole my heart in Haiti.

The sun has set on my first mission trip to Haiti, but I hope and pray it won’t be my last.  It was a soul-satisfying adventure that came with good people, great experiences and a unique learning curve.  As I hope my experience will encourage others to take a chance and do good works there too, let me share with you what I’ve learned…. so far.

 I’m tackling this task in two parts.  Part I which follows focuses on the big picture items.  Part II will tackle the more practical aspects of missionary work in Haiti, such as how to pack, what to bring and which toilet to poop in as – trust me, on this – it makes a difference.

 My hope is that, as 2012 draws to a close, you too will be inspired to go out into the world and make an attempt – any attempt, no matter how big or how small – to leave it better than you found it. 

But before I begin, a huge shout of THANKS goes out to everyone who made this trip possible – David Duba (our fearless leader), the United Methodist Church of Fishers, Indiana (our sponsor), the Gebeau compound in Jeremie, Haiti (site of our work projects), and the United Methodist guest house and Paster Chrisnel (our host for the week in Jeremie).

Jeremie, Haiti as viewed from our Cessna commuter plane

Jeremie, Haiti as viewed from our Cessna commuter plane

Part I – the Big Picture

Be open to being led – Prior to my trip, my well-traveled sister and brother-in-law regaled me with tales of how the people of the Dominican Republic told them not to set foot in Haiti.  They warned me about the poor infrastructure, general lawlessness and disease.  Were they wrong to do so?  No.  Haiti is not a place to be tread lightly or, perhaps I should say more accurately – it is not a place to be tread stupidly. 

BUT, if you chose your leader wisely, it IS a place that can be experienced with a relative degree of safety.  I say relative because, like all places – including elementary schools in Connecticut – safety is an elusive thing and is often very relative to how you conduct yourself or what precautions you take.

Dave and Martin plan the work, then work the plan

Dave and Martin plan the work, then work the plan

In our case, our fearless leader, David Duba, has traveled to Haiti many, many times.  As he is tall, lean, with great posture and carries a very well-worn Army knapsack as his luggage of choice, he comes across like a modern day Rambo with more intelligence.  In short, it pays to travel with someone who just looks like he knows what he’s doing, especially when he does.

Additionally, David had arranged for us not one but three interpreters whom he knows well and has worked with in the past.  Moreover, he arranged drivers for us during our two Port-au-Prince stopovers – a necessity to avoid being swarmed by crowds of strange Haitian men lingering outside of the airport looking to give you a ride.  If you’re thinking New York City yellow cab, think again.  DO NOT get into a car with a strange man in Port-au-Prince, even if it is at the airport.  Trust me.  Arrange a driver and, if you need one, let me know.  I’ll get Nader’s number for you.  I think Dave has him on speed dial.

Commuting in Port-au-Prince, Hait

Commuting in Port-au-Prince, Hait

Be smart, but have faith in your fellow man – I’ll admit it, Port-au-Prince was outside of my comfort zone.  While I was looking forward to our end destination of Jeremie on the far southwestern coast, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the seething humanity of Haiti’s capital.  Plus, it didn’t help that as we left the international airport for our one kilometer drive to the municipal airport, I encountered my first ever experience with the realities of a developing nation.  Step outside the airport and you enter another world.

As Nader ushered us out the door, we headed straight for a white van while Nader and Dave waved off the initial crush of strange men looking for a pay day.  While putting my backpack in the back of the van, Nader said to me, rather urgently, I might add, “Get in.  Close the door.”

As he repeated those two phrases with more urgency each time, I hopped in the van and climbed in the back row.  Young David Duba – Rambo Dave’s son who joined us on the trip – climbed in too and left the door open.  As Nader proceeded to shout, “Close the door!  Close the door!” another white van pulled up close beside us.  With my heart in my throat, I watched as a large man dark as night climbed out beside us.  Isn’t this how Port-au-Prince kidnappings start, I wondered?  And as my heart rate increased I watched as this large man approached our van and… closed the door for us.

Haiti is full of good people, including these two lovely young ladies who enjoyed playing with a matching game app on my cellphone

Haiti is full of good people, including these two lovely young ladies who enjoyed playing with a matching game app on my cellphone

Silly me.  No, in Haiti, it’s not wrong to have your guard up.  Self preservation is a natural instinct.  But time and time again when I travel, I’m reminded that I should have more faith in my fellow man.  Yes, there are bad people in this world, but there are so many more good ones too, and we tend to forget about that fact.  In Haiti – when it came to my fellow man – I encountered way more good than bad.

Case in point – and it’s an odd example, I’ll admit – was that of my cell phone charger which took a hike in Haiti.  The last time I saw it, it was in an outside pocket attached to my backpack strap with Velcro.  Someone at the airport in Haiti helped themselves to it, but, rather than keeping the detachable pocket it came in, they took it out and put that very same pocket back into my backpack.  In short, he or she only took what was needed.  As I have a spare charger at home and can also charge my phone from anyone of four computers and two laptops via a UBS port, I can hardly begrudge them a phone charger.  Do I blame them?  No.  BUT, take it from me, if you don’t want to “lose” something of value, put it inside your luggage.  It’s ok to trust your fellow man, but, at the same time, don’t tempt him.

Women carry heavy loads on their heads, including water and produce.  These birds are going to market.

Women carry heavy loads on their heads, including water and produce. These birds are going to market. Photo by David Duba

Be patient, you’re on Haitian time – In short, leave your American “time is money” mindset at home.  Life moves to a slower beat in Haiti, and slowness has value.  This is a country where few people have running water in their homes.  The mere act of getting water – walking up hill and down, balancing large buckets on your head, day in and day out – sets a pace that moves slower than most Americans are use to.  We turn on a faucet and it’s there.  For many Haitians, it’s a 30 or 40 minute uphill hike away from home.

Taking motocycles to the Gebeau compound in Jeremie, Haiti.  The roads can be a bit challenging.

Taking motocycles to the Gebeau compound in Jeremie, Haiti. The roads can be a bit challenging.  Photo by David Duba

Plus, the roads are pitted, gravel and just plain bad, and even short trips take time.  A five and a half mile trek up the mountain in a four-wheel drive diesel truck took us 45 minutes.  To some, that may sound like torture, but that ride remains one of the highlights of my trip.  I sat in the bed of that truck with young David and Martin, one of our interpreters, watching the mountains and Caribbean sea unfold as we made our bumpity-bump-bump way up into the hills. 

This slower pace is not a bad thing.  Haiti is an experience that needs to be savored.  It’s not a world of drive-thru windows and freezer meals.  So park the impatience at the airport, relax and enjoy.  Your blood pressure will thank you.

Remnants of Hurricane Sandy haunt the beautiful jungles of Haiti.

Remnants of Hurricane Sandy haunt the beautiful jungles of Haiti.  Photo by David Duba

Next time, I’ll tackle the more practical aspects of navigating a mission trip in Haiti.

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