Disclaimer: I will never claim to know everything about Haiti, but I wanted to share a short summary (it looks long but should be quick reading) of my personal experience of my short trip to Haiti. I’m trying to be patient and pray about going back – I wouldn’t hesitate to go again and again. Anyway, these are my thoughts, through my eyes.
May 20-29, 2011
My Haiti trip – hmmmm – where to begin. I could probably talk for at least a full day on everything, but it really was more than something I can relate to on paper or in person – it was more than things we saw or did. I know that when I landed in Florida on the way home, I had never been so happy to be back in my life. However, after taking a hot shower and getting some sleep, I immediately felt that I needed to return to Haiti – and soon. I don’t know when that will happen, but I feel a strong desire to go back. There is something about it all – all of my senses were overloaded. I wish I could have bottled the experience up and then opened the top in front of you so you could feel and sense everything.
Here is a brief summary:
Smell: Oh the smells – burning garbage, dust, exhaust, ourselves;).
Sight: The pictures will never do it justice. But somehow when I was there, I almost didn’t allow myself to be affected by the things I saw. It honestly reminded me of Mexico in the areas away from the tourist corridors, except the shanties in Mexico seemed much worse – here they have mainly concrete structures. Looking back, I was and am still trying to process everything. Such a beautiful country riddled with poverty and destruction. I also had a hard time distinguishing destruction from the earthquake vs. what was pure poverty. But looking at the pictures, it seems clearer to me that a lot of what we saw was actual damage from the quake. They have, however, done a lot of clean up and amazingly so considering we saw very few big pieces of equipment to help with moving rubble.
Sound: Very noisy! Horns honking, loud music in some areas, motos everywhere, roosters crowing, goats that cry like babies, kids laughing and singing. Supposedly some people have heard voodoo chants at night – I’m glad we didn’t. We did see a vehicle announcing something about selling medicine and we were told it is possible the medicine could be poisonous.
Taste: The fruit was amazing – I usually don’t like bananas, but they were so delicious! The food is also very good – we were so hungry though, I think we would have eaten anything (well, I kind of did – for the first couple of days I unknowingly ate bugs in my food – there were ants everywhere and the cook couldn’t help it).
Touch: To be crawled on and clung to by kids was a treat. These kids loved us for no reason other than we gave them attention. They were so sincere. In a lot of the orphanages we went to, most of the kids were ill, but you couldn’t tell – they smiled and just wanted to play. And it was HOT, but they didn’t care that we were sweaty. They must have felt the love we instantly had for them. I also felt the presence of God – I can’t describe it nor explain it other than more than ever do I know He is real and He is everywhere.
By God’s grace, I never really felt anxious or like I immediately wanted to go home. Well, I take that back. On our way to the airport in Port-au-Prince on the last day, I was getting a little anxious. The smells, noises, heat – all were a little much. But lots of kids clinging and touching me – most had some sort of illness or disease, no running water at the orphanage, no flushing of the toilets unless… (well, you figure it out), no putting toilet paper in the toilet, short cold showers – none of it really bothered me like it could have.
The heat. Oh boy. The heat. I remember it being like that when Lisa and I were on our Caribbean cruise at the end of May in 1998, but we had relief when we got back on the boat. We didn’t have relief per se until Friday in Port-au-Prince when the rain moved in but then it got hot again. Finally at the Port-au-Prince airport, it was decent and it felt almost cold when we boarded the airplane.
When we first had to ride in the back of the trucks, it was unnerving and just plain scary. There was nothing really to hang on to. Sore rear ends, sore backs, sore arms. By the end of the week though, I was becoming more used to it and less afraid. Things still hurt, but you somehow gain a sense of normalcy. We didn’t see any accidents (except one moto did tip over, but I didn’t see it) and there seems to be absolutely no rules except to honk which has many different meanings. Traffic was literally crazy. The roads are horrible (that’s an understatement). There are a few paved roads and those were fine, but if they weren’t paved, they were full of ruts and potholes. And we think we have bad potholes! I was thankful for a few times when I was able to ride in the cab of the vehicles. A few had A/C but just having a padded seat made the bumpy rides a little more tolerable! Next time I would bring a seat cushion. In Jacmel, there are tons of motos, zipping in and out of traffic, which people use to carry anyone and anything. Women carry large heavy things on their heads. They must be pretty skilled.
There seemed to always be a burning garbage smell at some point during each day. With no garbage services, people just burn whatever is discarded – tires, plastic, etc. Can’t say I will miss that smell. It’s also amazing that none of us truly smelled extremely bad! I think because you are profusely sweating all day and night, you are basically just rinsing yourself off.
The mosquitoes in Minnesota are much worse than the mosquitoes in Haiti, although they aren’t as deadly! I was kind of surprised that the house didn’t have screens and the mosquitoes were small and few. After it rained one night, there were a bunch of black bugs but they didn’t do any harm, just died quickly and made a mess. The ants at some of the places we went too were vicious! I think I maybe was bit once by a mosquito, but was definitely attacked by ants several times. At a few places there were a lot of large gnat looking things, but they too never bothered us. Someone was bit by a centipede and we saw a few geckos in the house. I was thankful not to have seen any snakes or very large fuzzy spiders!
We ate very well – so well in fact that I didn’t lose any weight at all. It’s hard to describe the food – it wasn’t overly spicy but some things had a very minor bite to it. Picklis is a spicy coleslaw, but it was addicting – I always wanted more. One night we had a beet salad that was really good. They must have had an overabundance of hot dog buns because for most dinners, they’d cut them up into small pieces and put butter and garlic on them, then crisp them in the oven. Those were very good also. At Ruuska Village, our dinner was an amazing pot roast. The only time I got sick was Saturday after drinking two bottles (bottles as in glass bottles – yum!) of Coke because there wasn’t any purified water. It didn’t last long.
My arm kept me up every night. It was still sore from the immunization shots I had. As soon as I’d lie down, it would flare up. But looking back, I should be thankful that I had 3 weeks of not sleeping well before the trip – my body was getting used to only a few hours of sleep and I wasn’t a zombie. I knew I would have a hard time sleeping there anyway, but I really wasn’t as tired as I thought I was going to be. Amazingly, my arm stopped hurting shortly after I started sleeping in my own bed. Just one of the many things the Lord used to show me that in all things, He is in control.
Because there were only 10 of us in our group and the house can hold up to 20 people, a team of 9 people (one person was sick the day they left) from Calvary Chapel Chattanooga joined us.
We went to a lot of schools and orphanages throughout the week. The lesson we tried to do with the kids was about patience. The craft was to glue flower parts to a piece of construction paper. At times, it was a little complicated to do in a short amount of time and would create mass chaos at a few places. But all in all, the kids enjoyed it and provided the glue continues to stick, they’ll have a good memory!
I was getting a little bummed that I hadn’t been able to do physical work until finally on Thursday, I had an opportunity. That day I went to the property CCHI is using and helped paint the men’s bathroom/shower house. We (Tyler, 2 Haitians and I) were able to get a first coat of the oil based paint on. It was extremely hard to accomplish. The wall seemed to be like a sweaty person – it would soak up the paint in some areas and in others, the paint would run. I spent quite a bit of time taping things off, first using medical tape and then duct tape (neither held well) – I will never take blue painter’s tape for granted again. There was quite a mess when we were done, but I had to remember it was just the first coat and we were in Haiti. It was a great feeling to do something like that as not only will future teams be able to use this building, but I believe they will let Haitians in to use it as well. I just wish I could have finished it for them.
One of the places that impacted me the most and literally broke my heart was Sisters of Charity in Jacmel. When I left that place I couldn’t talk about it or hear any of the other team members talk about it without crying. When we got there, I bypassed the older kids and went to the baby room. I don’t know why but somehow I felt that was where I needed to be. It was the most heartbreaking. There weren’t enough people to hold all the babies, so I was thankful I was in there to make sure each one was touched and talked to. I tried to hold a few of them, but my left arm was not cooperating and I felt better just leaving them in their cribs and making the rounds. The lifelessness of some of those babies was uncomprehendable. Some did cry when you’d put them down or walk away, but others just had a blank stare. I can’t tell which version broke my heart more. Someone mentioned that if they cry, that is a good sign.
One girl had a huge open sore on her back below her neck. There was ointment on it but it looked horrible. Her hands were wrapped up in clothes too. She looked so sad just sitting there. I touched her the best I could by rubbing her legs and trying to tickle her feet, but it just felt like I couldn’t do anything for her. I asked what the sore was from and was told she scratched herself. That would have been a lot of scratching to get an open sore like that.
A little boy who was quite chunky and really sad looking, was sitting in his crib with his hands turned upward. He had sores all over his hands. He too had ointment on his hands, but he looked like he was in pain. I just rubbed his back and head as he was sitting there staring into space. He would whimper when I’d stop or walk away.
I was trying to get a little boy to clap his hands and I almost had him doing it – I could feel at times he was trying even though I was guiding him. But at one point he held out his hands in a way like he was showing me something and then I saw he had a few sores too in the crevices where his palms and fingers met. I felt horrible for trying to have him do that when it probably hurt.
One little boy tried to kiss me when I reached over the crib. I wish I could have kissed him back, but I stopped short because I remembered these babies were sick and we didn’t know what they had. I air kissed him back and talked to him a little. This might have been the cute little boy with a somewhat lazy eye who had a blank but glazed over stare – I did try to hold him but he was too much for my arm to handle and when I put him down, he whimpered and cried. I spent a lot of time rubbing his back.
Another little boy (possibly the one I tried to make clap his hands) was playing with my hands. This was more movement and interaction than any of the other babies I was around.
A little tiny girl by one of the doors to the outside had ants all over her crib. I tried to brush them out but knew they’d be back. She was so little and she was a crier. She was the one I fed before I left – we all fed the babies before we left. It was some sort of broth and rice mixture (it might have had beans in it too) that actually smelled kind of good. I was trying to feed her and she would just clench the few teeth she had. She did drink a lot of water, but she didn’t really eat much. The worker acted like it was no big deal, but I worried she wasn’t getting enough food.
The diapers they wore weren’t anything more than a cloth poop catcher. They would fall down when the babies stood up or the little boys would be falling out of them (if you know what I mean). One little boy stood up in his crib and pee’d all over. It just poured out of the diaper and all over him, the crib and the floor. The worker who cleaned him up did, I would say, a pretty unsanitary and poor job. There was a pan with water and a rag under each crib, I had seen the rags being used to wipe some of the kids’ faces, she used this to wipe him off. I kept thinking she can’t possibly think she can use that again. I can’t judge them – they are probably doing the best they can with what they have. It was, at the time, awful – like there was no hope for these kids.
Toward the end of our time there – we were only there for an hour and a half, I had to see something different. I went outside and saw the other kids having fun. I believe all the kids that were able to move around were outside playing. A girl who was maybe 4 came up to me with her doll and I told her Jesus loves you and she would repeat it back to me and smile. She was kind of feisty because when another kid would come and try to take her doll, she’d get upset and they’d almost start fighting. I held her a little bit before it was time to go back to the baby room and feed them.
Part of me couldn’t wait to get out of there and part of me never wanted to leave. It deeply affected those of us who went. I wasn’t sure how I’d ever get over it. I kept thinking Jesus loves the little children and He would have loved on them like no one else could. I felt guilty for not holding them, I felt guilty for not doing more, saying more, touching them more. I just felt overwhelmed and didn’t understand why God allowed this place to exist. We ended up going to some really great orphanages where the kids played and were a family. I didn’t know why this one had to be this way.
I thought that was the end of my experience with Sisters of Charity, but I then heard we may be going back. I really didn’t want to. I thought that was my final decision. But, at some point before we were to go back, I had a feeling that the Lord wanted me to go back there. I felt I would be missing out on something He wanted me to experience. I can’t explain it other than I knew I had to go.
This time the atmosphere wasn’t as heavy and everything just felt better. When I say better, I don’t mean a lot better, this place still broke my heart, but somehow I knew there was hope. The two babies with the open sores were much better. Their sores had dried up nicely and the little girl’s hands were no longer wrapped up in cloths. The disabled boy that had been in a different room waddled into the baby room to say hi (even though I don’t think he could really talk) and just seemed so full of life to be out and about.
Again, I stayed with the little ones and made my rounds from crib to crib. The chunky boy with the sores on his hands was sleeping on his stomach, so I just rubbed his back. When he woke up a little later, he was whimpering, so I tried to lay him back down and get him to go back to sleep. This one little girl at the end of the first row of cribs, wouldn’t just let me leave her in the crib and she was small enough I was able to carry her around. From the time before, I knew she was one that cried when you put her down. I tried a few times but it was too much to bear. So I held her while I made sure all the other ones left in the room got some attention. I made the mistake of walking toward the outside door with her and she started crying when I turned back – I’m sure she wanted to go outside. There just wasn’t time to go outside and play at that point and part of me felt bad for walking away from the other babies. I had to turn around but I wish I could have had more time to take them all outside!
The little girl with the sore on her back was next to the one I was holding and she might have had something wrong with her legs. I picked her up and when I put her back down, her legs didn’t seem to bend. It would have been nice to have seen if they could all walk or crawl. I have no idea if they ever get potty trained, read to, get to go outside………. So many questions. I don’t know if any of them recognized me, I had a hat on this time but I did take it off a few times to see if that made a difference. I guess I’ll never know.
We fed the babies again and I fed the little girl I was holding. She was such a stinker to feed which sort of gave me some hope that she’ll make it out of that place ok. She had life in her, that’s for sure. I was clued in that the food was really hot, so I tried very hard to blow on it before I fed her. I can only imagine that these babies are fed hot food that could burn their mouths regularly because when I looked around, the workers were just putting large spoonfuls of food in the kids’ mouths. There were a few times when I’d feed it to her that she’d look at me with eyes like I was burning her. It was so sad. I just kept saying I’m sorry to her and tried harder to blow on the food. When she was done, she was done. She would sort of spit it back out and turn her head. I just felt like she hadn’t eaten enough food and who knew when she’d get supper. But like I said, it was more encouraging to see her like this than most of the other ones not have any emotion to any of it. She cried and cried and cried when we left.
I’m not usually oblivious to things, but thankfully I was to this. Toward the end of our visit, supposedly a mother was dropping off her little girl and boy. I did see the little girl get placed in a crib and she was crying. But others saw the whole thing happen and were very saddened by this. I can’t imagine how desperate you must be to leave your kids at a place like that. I have to be thankful though that there is a place that will take in the sick babies and try to care for them as best they can. They could easily be abandoned on the street or sold into worse conditions. It’s sad to think this is a good place for them, but it is the reality of this country – even though we did visit much better and more loving orphanages.
Orphans aren’t like what we would think – they can be in an orphanage but not be adoptable. Most of the orphans we saw weren’t and not all of them were abandoned or parentless. Some of the orphanages keep the children until they are old enough to decide if they want to stay or leave. They become sort of a large family. Some may not live long. The mortality rate for children in Haiti is high. Some may go back to families after they are healthier.
The kids just loved having their picture (foto) taken. After taking it, they’d grab at the camera to see the image. They’d smile and laugh at what they saw. How fun would it be to have a Polaroid camera so you could give them their pictures! You can see the hope and joy in their eyes and smiles, but somehow it seems that hope and joy gets lost as they get older.
Our last night in Haiti was at a place called Ruuska Village. Although I knew the Lord was with us at all times, that place really showed me His love for us. Here is a place in Port-au-Prince (a dark and dirty city) run by a 60-something year old woman, all women – no men, providing for about 25 kids. I never felt so safe in my life. God definitely is there. You feel at peace, you feel God’s work. It is an amazing place. I just wish we would have been able to meet Barbara Walker – the founder.
Haiti is actually a very beautiful country – if you can look past the garbage and poverty. I researched it a little and it seems that some groups are trying to bring tourism to Haiti. I personally think that this would be good for the people and economy. I would go back for a vacation and of course, another mission trip!
I am so very thankful to have had this opportunity, I can’t describe it. I don’t feel though that I am called to do this type of missionary work for long term. Some of the best experiences came when the kids would smile, latch on to us and when we’d share the love of Jesus with them – Jezi renmen ou! Their smiles light up the night and the unconditional way they loved us was truly amazing.
Now that I’ve been back for a while, I feel a very strong desire to go back and spend as much time as I can with those babies at Sisters of Charity. My heart aches for them. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but I so desperately never want to forget the faces of those precious children.
Am I a changed person? I believe so – I believe my heart has been broken by what I have seen and a new desire to help those in need has been planted. I can’t ever imagine ignoring the poverty of people who truly are unable to help themselves. I firmly believe – “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”.
What did I learn about myself? That I CAN do all things through Christ. This trip was completely out of my comfort zone. I ate bugs in my food, was dusty and grimy most of the day, sweated like a pig, touched diseased babies and kids, had to use a toilet I couldn’t flush or toss paper into, showered like I was camping – and with cold water, slept in a nasty sweat stained bed with a thin sheet over it, had a gecko crawling around by my bed, was told there were cockroaches the size of small cats……………….. I was, however, VERY thankful I brought some flip flops I was able to wear in the house for house shoes! And I would do it all again in a heartbeat! I can say without a doubt – not that I ever doubted this – God is real and God is great.
If you are interested in supporting a worthy cause or orphanage in Haiti, please let me know and I will get you some information. I also learned that I will never support any group other than those I was a part of – I know the aid and resources are being put to good use.