Thursday, October 07, 2010

Stories from Haiti - Week 1

I got back from Haiti exactly one month ago. Curious at all as to how the trip went?

It was quite an eventful month, with two weeks in Nampa and two in Haiti. Lots of unexpected small pleasures; lots of huge blessings. Many unexpected tragedies, too; and many big challenges. It's hard not to speak in generalities, because there were so many things that impacted me on this trip. Haiti, and my relation to it, has always been one of the two biggest mysteries in my life - and certainly the most difficult to articulate. Finding words, images, and stories to try and communicate across the void that separates people's illusions about Haiti from the reality of living there has all but completely caused me to nearly give up on the whole matter. For many years I was able to tuck Haiti neatly away in my memory, like a problem I didn't want to deal with that I thought would go away. Much like we all tuck it away for long periods of time before the opportunity for sensationalist news coverage comes up, or the chance to use Haiti as supporting evidence for some absurd point we're trying to make. Haiti, though, keeps resurfacing, and as one friend mentioned to me... for some of us, things do not go back to normal, and Haiti is not forgotten.

(click here for more photos from the trip)


From the very beginning of the trip - gate E7 at Miami International Airport, I had one of the rarest feelings I've ever had: certainty. As I sat at gate E7 after a few short hours of rest on the floor at Gate E6, and heard the familiar flow of Haitian Creole rippling back and forth between passengers, punctuated by "oh oh"'s and "mezanmi!"'s, all the fear and tension that had been building up for months totally melted away. I had the rare conviction that everything was right. I was going home.

Upon landing and joining the medical team who'd arrived the day before from Costa Rica with 150 kgs of medicines in suitcases, I was promptly immersed in the feeling I am far more familiar with: chaos and sheer confusion. This continued for several hours until I gradually pieced together what was happening and what I was supposed to be doing. I arrived at 8 AM on Sunday morning, and was immediately whisked into a nearby church service in a Haitian congregation. Once I'd given up on figuring things out and submitted myself to going along with the worship, things seemed uncannily peaceful.


Over the course of the week with the medical team, we would see over 432 patients and the pastoral team shared the gospel in small groups of ten to about 150 people. We played soccer with a rough bunch from a nearby tent city as U.N. schnooks and American Airline flights screamed over our heads. They solidly beat us and won the soccer ball we promised them. The medical consultations and children's activities we did during the week went quite smoothly.

My first impression was that not much had changed. It still looked and felt like the Haiti I remembered, littered with a little more rubble and with the addition of the tent cities. The streets were still filled with familiar energy and shouts and smells and sounds, the bustle of marchans and the sing-song chorus of young guys selling papitas and bags of water. Life seemed to have returned to normalcy with surprising speed. The photo I took below is the image that sticks in my mind. As I talked with these three kids they casually hopped up to sit on the roof of a house that had been totally pancaked by the earthquake. The mangled buildings, the rubble, the ubiquitous tent cities... all this is now a part of the landscape. Life goes on. It's the "new normal."

But what about all that had been lost? I asked our translator this question, and with a flip of his hand he dismissed it all. "Vanity," he told me, "like the Bible says." None of this will stick around anyway. I heard a lot of things like that during the week that quite frankly, my faith is far too small to handle.

Thursday night, after I'd talked with the kids sitting on the rooftop now 3 feet off the ground, we returned from Leogane late in the day through Carrefour. On the way back we got into quite a fix. A torrential downpour opened up as we passed through Carrefour in the dark. The rain was coming in torrents; we couldn't see a thing, and the road had turned into a riverbed with a layer of floating trash swirling earily around our bus, lit by periodic blasts of lightning. Now, our bus had already broken down three times, and at this point the water level was nearly up to the floorboards. We were pretty much marooned in the center of a lake of reeking sewage, in one of the most dangerous parts of the city at night. The doctor was concerned about infections from all the pollution and sewage steadily rising, and the pastoral team decided we were under a spiritual attack, and started loudly claiming authority over the situation. I figured this was just a consequence of trying to drive through Carrefour too late at night in a downpour. Some people had the bright idea to sing, which had a much more calming effect on my nerves than the shouting. The driver turned back and found a higher road. Through the foggy windows I could barely make out the skeletal corpse of the national palace looming through the sheets of rain, lit ominously from below with a gaping hole in its center.

We made it back to the house safely, although much later because of the huge detour we'd taken. That was actually the only time all week that it rained. I have no doubt God was watching over us on that trip.


I learned something else on that trip to Leogane. Leogane is where the earthquake epicenter was, and the drive out there was one long stretch of total carnage. Rubble, gangly re-bar, dust, and a proliferation of tarps, for miles on end. During the day we did rural consultations and some leadership training with a church in that area. On our way out there, I quickly grew weary of photo after photo of carnage and destruction. At one point we crossed a large bridge and the pastor in front of me grabbed my arm and pointed at the riverbed below. "Look at all that pollution," he shook his head. "Get a picture of that." He started snapping photos.

I found something much more interesting going on in the seat next to me. The Haitian translator beside me and a pastor on the team who'd made it her goal to pray for each of our translators was praying along with him as he set some things right in his life. Had I been so focused on the polluted river and rubble flashing past the window, I might not have gotten to see this rather significant moment in Junior's life.


There are so many more stories from that first week - what it was like being a "minority" on a team of Costa Ricans, what it was like hearing about Haiti from their perspective, what it was like visiting a well-organized tent city and finding God there, sweltering in the heat of one of the tents. 60 pages worth of stories, in fact, which I later condensed to 20, then 7 for a formal trip report, and finally... to what you're reading now. I'll leave it at that, though, and write me if you want to know more. And on to part two...


Chelle said...

I'd love to hear more. Email me. It would be very interesting to hear your co-workers reaction to Haiti. When I took three of my American friends to Haiti 5 years ago it gave me the opportunity to try and see Haiti as an outsider. I still can't grasp that perspective because I just feel comfortable when I get back to Haiti and I have a hard time understanding how foreign it is to some people.

LMShunk said...

My favorite line: "I figured this was just a consequence of trying to drive through Carrefour too late at night in a downpour."

laughed outloud - takes quite the writer to make me do that. ;-)

also, echo-ing Michelle, I'd love to read more too! thanks for sharing your experience.

LMShunk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.