By Tia Landrum
This might not turn out to be more than just a random stream of consciousness, but that’s probably notable in itself. We’ve used a lot of jargon over the past couple of weeks concerning our ability to mentally and emotionally digest our Haiti experiences. The words “processing” and “debriefing” were most common. For example, this “blog” will serve as my overall debrief (where I will relay my acquired information to concerned parties) in order to more functionally process an overwhelming encounter.
Our first day in Haiti was frightening in a sense but more alarming than intimidating. My first instinct wasn’t to be afraid, but rather to be aware and highly alert. We traveled via luxury shuttle (air conditioning, properly closing windows and doors, and cushioned seats were all present) through the streets of Port au Prince, witnessing some of the most incredible and disturbing sights of my life. However, rarely would a person be seen doing nothing. Boredom is not a concept in Haiti. Even in absolute squalor and resource deprivation, individuals perform necessary tasks with determination. One or two dump trucks can be seen traveling to and from Port au Prince in constant effort to rid the city of earthquake debris that can be used elsewhere as building material. Infants and pregnant women are oddly missing from view.
Traveling south into rural areas, phenomenal landscape is visible from all sides. A lack of agricultural development is a troubling indicator of a hungry nation, but lush greenery in some areas is exquisite. Banana, mango, and palm trees with other exotic plants are often the only exceptions to an otherwise unobstructed view of rolling hills and magnificent mountains that meet the clouds. Livestock rest peacefully or graze, all tethered to the ground somehow by relatively thin ropes that are loosely tied around the neck or face. Fences are seemingly obsolete, though hedges made of dense cacti grow around many homes. Precocial birds and livestock offspring roam freely, none of which are terribly concerned by humans, though vehicles startle them much more than farm animals in the States.
Our guesthouse was a remarkable building made of stone and cement with pillars and marble floors. Sheltered porch area was also marble, and the porches were elevated as much as six feet from the ground in some areas. This element, as well as the solid rooftop we frequented, provided intense opportunities for unobstructed view of the astounding valley below on one side, the distant ocean on the other.
At night, our oasis on the hill felt like a beacon of privilege. The surrounding communities radiated no lights as our small mansion in comparison was brightly lit. When we had power blackouts I could sleep more soundly without the guilty hum of electricity and rattling air conditioner.
Amazing women maintained our day-to-day needs without much notice by us. Katie was most aware and spoke plenty of French to forge substantial relationships with several of them. The day we left, it was hardest to say goodbye to Rose. She is an intimidating woman of fearsome wit who seemed cynical and taunting initially but clung to me with apparent emotion when we left for the bus. I can only imagine how wonderful it will be to return to Haiti and happily hug Rose in reunion. For a fierce woman, her genuine affection for several of us was not hidden. I’m shocked by the intensity of bonding that we achieved with many Haitians despite the clear language barrier. Messages of love and admiration were clearly conveyed and reciprocated in a way I have never experienced in the States.
I miss the children. The orphanages were better than I expected but worse than one can rationalize. Parents send their children there to exponentially improve their quality of life. That is saying something. These children are more skilled and impressive than I will ever be in so many ways, and yet they will have limitations and health concerns that will prevent them from ever attaining their maximum potential. If they survive childhood, even these lucky children will be scarred and restricted by their experiences and status without exception in their lives. There will never be a Daddy Warbucks to save the clever and precocious child or a Prince Charming to save the teenage girl who is coming into adulthood. Dr. Kress and I spoke with a man in the Port au Prince airport who is Haitian but currently lives in Miami. While discussing sexuality and personal relationship dynamics in Haitian culture, the man commented on Haitian marriages needing to remain open in some circumstances to allow for financial opportunities. He was very clear that marriages had no issues of jealousy if a spouse could generate income with an additional, wealthier sexual partner. It was also clear that teenage girls would be expected to do the same if they could financially contribute to their family’s survival. This is not an issue of morality or of sexually deviant behavior. This is a socioeconomic reality that has been imposed on a culture that is forced to make these difficult adaptations for literal survival. Options are nonexistent. One option is considered good fortune, and that opportunity must be used to its fullest.
The hope, the faith, the energy and goodness of Haiti pull me there still. Not the slightest part of me wanted to come “home”. What is “home”? I’m returning to a world in which elaborate and strictly-enforced traffic laws still result in more accidents and road rage than I witnessed in the bustling, densely packed, lawless roadways of Haiti. A world in which we defecate into drinking water and flush five gallons of it so even our toilets are pristine. A world where thirty words are needed for the same concept because the spirit of things can no longer be conveyed between two individuals with simple words due to the numerous distractions preventing genuine interaction of minds. On a Frank Sinatra/big band radio station on the flight from Port au Prince, “Stranger in my own hometown” came over my headphones the moment I plugged them in. I couldn’t have said it better myself.