The sun has set on my first mission trip to Jeremie, 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.
Haiti is not a place to be tread lightly. Wait, let me rephrase that. Haiti, more accurately, is not a place to be tread stupidly. It IS, however, a place that can be experienced with a relative degree of safety, if one takes certain precautions. 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.
1. Travel with someone who’s been there, preferably many, many times.
As Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, crime is a reality and the Haitian infrastructure – including law enforcement – can be described as challenged at best. When traveling through Port-au-Prince, I took comfort in the fact that we seemed to pass a United Nations vehicle every few minutes, but that comfort quickly evaporated when our driver muttered, “The UN, they are no good. When the shooting starts, they always disappear.”
2. Either learn very good French or hire an interpreter who speaks Haitian Creole.
Not New Orleans Creole which is an entirely different way of speaking which many people with some knowledge of English can understand. Haitian Creole, rather, is a combination of conversational French and African and, when spoken at traditional Haitian speed, sounds nearly indecipherable. We had three interpreters, thank goodness, and it made all the difference in the world.
Moreover, our experienced leader had arranged drivers for us whom he knows and has worked with in the past – a necessity to avoid being swarmed by crowds of strange 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. I wasn’t exactly prepared for the seething humanity of Haiti’s capital, as it was my first encounter with the realities of a developing nation. Step outside the airport and you enter another world.
3. 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. Plus, the roads are pitted, gravel and just plain bad, and even short trips take time. A five and a half mile trek up a mountain in far southwestern Haiti took us 45 minutes in a four-wheel drive diesel truck. 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 my traveling companions watching the mountains and Caribbean Sea unfold as we made our bumpity-bump-bump way up into the hills of the Grand Anse River valley. It was a beautiful ride.
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.
4. Be prepared to expand your comfort zone.
When I first arrived in the coastal city of Jeremie, Haiti – our final destination for the week – 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.
But what a difference a week makes. By the time I left, I was at peace with Jeremie, and with Haiti. Despite the poverty, it’s a beautiful country and with even more beautiful people. After a week of walking and working and swimming and taking motor-taxies and visiting with new friends, 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. And, last but not least, reset your benchmarks for life. You’ll never be the same.