Friday, July 30, 2010

Getting Ready, Getting There

I am finally in Haiti! Here is the promised pre-departure post, along with one on my first impressions.

Prep Work

As I get ready to leave for Haiti, I have been collecting words of advice from friends and family. Sometimes their contributions are solicited, but often not. Either way, I am touched by the concern people have shown me for this trip.

Almost everyone has cautioned me to “be careful,” oftentimes lowering their tone and making unsmiling, direct eye contact so I am sure to understand the import of their words. The this-is-no-joke face paired with the verging-on-ominous message freaked me out at first, but I’m used to it now. To spice up this recurring encounter, I have begun a mini research project to discover what exactly people mean when they say, “be careful.” I have heard some typical responses: don’t flash your money around; avoid being alone at night; “go with who you know.” One of my best friends had a creative answer: “Sybill. I don’t want to tell you not to be yourself. [Long pause.] But… Don’t be yourself!” (Translation: don’t be too friendly.)

I also got some unexpected advice: “Don’t wear your seatbelt – you’ll look like an American.”[Note from the future: I have been wearing my seatbelt in Haiti. I think my public health professors would be proud.]

People have also been sharing their excitement. Public health colleagues see this as a great work opportunity. Among my friends who are first- and second-generation immigrants, there is much joy about the Homecoming. I even made a new friendship a couple weeks ago with an awesome Filipino-American woman, I think thanks to the idea of the return home. One of my Haitian-American friends said, “You are going home. It’s your country!”

The best thing I've heard yet: “Bring a lot of underwear.” Of course this was from my Ma.

I am a little nervous, a little excited, anticipating that I will discover a complex mixture of experiences and feelings in Haiti. Though I'm not quite sure what I will encounter, I expect it will be meaningful and life-changing and, aside from bringing a lot of underwear, I think there is little I can do to prepare.

I look forward to taking you on this journey with me.


I flew to Port-au-Prince on a Thursday afternoon. On the flight from MIA to PAP, I was happily squeezed between a middle-aged woman and an elderly man, both Haitian and lovely. I settled into my seat, enjoying the rhythms of Creole speech all around, feeling as if I was already on the island.

I leaned my head back, ready to relax and hopefully get some much-needed sleep. The sounds of an all-too-familiar conversation commenced: two men in the row behind us shared their thoughts on the misery in Haiti, how intractable the myriad problems were. The woman next to me perked up as the conversation continued and once a natural pause presented itself, she interjected, “Pardon me, but I have to say something!” She reminded the men behind us (and many of us nearby) that we could all do our part to help Haiti – her underlying message was that change is possible. She noted that many of the problems in Haiti were created by outside forces: she recalled the role that other countries and international organizations have played in limiting Haiti’s independence, adding, "France needs to pay reparations!" But, ultimately, she returned to her main point: the solutions to Haitian problems lie in the hands of Haitians. After her monologue, our elderly row-mate regarded her with wide-eyed approval and clapped. Though I didn't join him in applause, I was impressed by her oratory skills and loved her hopeful attitude about Haiti’s future. She and I struck up a great conversation about Haitian politics and history – she knew a lot about Haiti’s early years and it turns out that she had recently published a palm-sized book that featured the entries from Toussaint Louverture’s journal. She kindly offered me a copy of said book, signing it and reminding me how important it was to remember our roots: We can't know where we're going if we don't know where we came from. We are the children of the only successful slave rebellion. We have always fought for what's just. Let's keep up that fight.

She offered the perfect, intense prelude to my homecoming to Haiti. I couldn't have scripted it better.

As we made our descent onto the island, I eagerly examined the scenery below, snapping photos in front of my elderly neighbor's face (of course saying "Eskize m" profusely before, during and after). He was amused by my excitement, pointed out neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince as the tiny structures beneath us grew larger and larger.

After a long (and painfully humid) wait on the imigrasyon line, I was welcomed to the country by a family friend and then made my way to my new home-office about 1 1/2 hours from the city. The road we took did not pass by much of the destruction of January 12th, but I did see a little tent city. I learned that 6 months after the earthquake, little progress has been made on housing: some stronger, $1000 tents have been built.

My work will be in rural Haiti, so I do not expect to see much of the internally displaced person (IDP) camps or the life of post-earthquake Port-au-Prince. Most of what I've seen is beautiful mountains, blue skies and the greenery that grows lush with the rainy season. There are a lot of large farm animals – I see them eating grass and transporting people and things. The sounds I hear most are roosters (whom I’ve just discovered crow at any time of the day, not only at alarm clock worthy hours), motorcycles, cows, crickets and, occasionally, music: rara or kompa. While I cannot say this is a rural paradise – of course there is poverty here – I have not witnessed the scenes of Haitian misery that have been displayed in the US media for years.

One image of the natural beauty here:

It feels really good to be in Haiti. I look forward to getting started on my work.