Visitors, Viewpoints, and Traveling Tree

Jenn’s at the land today with this week’s special visitor. For those of you who have been following along we have been graced with Jason Gigure’s presence twice in the last 4 months and today marks the start of his third visit. Jason made his first trip to Second Mile Haiti because Jenn, while sitting on the Gigure’s couch, casually tried to turn the conversation to septic tanks. I imagine she asked Jason what he knew about drainage fields and I imagine that Jason responded in a nonchalant manner, “I know a few things about septic systems.” To which I imagine his wife Karen, quickly intervening. “Excuse me” she’d say ruining Jason’s attempted humility, “but you built our backyard septic system!” (I wasn’t actually there but that’s how the scenario plays out in my imagination.) Anyway...somehow or another the idea of a trip to Haiti was put on the table and the rest is history. 

Plumbing and septic projects in September


Jason fostered some great relationships with some of the workers on that first trip and returned just two months later to help us with a second plumbing project, the wash-area for the women. That project was funded in collaboration with Delicate Fortress Creations, an online shop where every purchase has poverty-fighting, sex-trafficking stopping, education-giving power. Founder Karyn Puller gets major creativity and generosity points by allowing projects like ours to benefit from a portion of their sales. That was in November. 

bath house project
 looks totally different now. but we're lacking the 'after' shot

This week he will be working with his Haitian buddies to place tile in the staff apartment. 

Look we already have pictures from Day 1 of tiling and Day 8 of the Education Center.

less than two weeks ago this building was funded. awesome.

Last week, we had the privilege of hosting yet another set of visitors. These two influential guys represented a company who gives generously to Christian and mission organizations around the world. Having included Second Mile Haiti in their giving last year these two trail blazers decided it might be a good time to visit Haiti and see the organizations they support in action.

There’s something about showing Haiti to someone who has never set foot on the island. 

Haiti can be overwhelming on a full night’s sleep. And guaranteed those of you traveling to Haiti for the first time didn’t get much of that. No matter how you try to swing it, flights to Haiti leave first thing in the morning. Unless, you fly in from New York, which I think is cheating, there's no getting around an awkward night spent somewhere in Florida. You can choose a late arrival into Ft Lauderdale or Miami and find yourself a nice piece of carpet. We all know that airport seats are good for nothing. You then spend the next several hours curled up in front of the check-in terminal where the automatic doors have a mind of their own and where TSA uses their monopoly of the intercom to remind you, most unrelentingly, not to accept packages from strangers. No sleep. Or you camp out near baggage claim, an area which seems to require thorough vaccuming between the hours of 1 and 4 am. Or if you’re brave enough to actually close your eyes at all you can check into a hotel for an entire 4 hours before you’re required back at the airport for 4 am check-in. Let’s just say that if you’re super attached to the idea of a “full-night’s rest” you might want to skip Haiti and choose a country with a flight time greater than 2 hours so you can get your beauty sleep on the plane. 

Anyway, the newbies always arrive tired. 

The first exchange with the tired newbie is usually the one where we promise that even though your bags didn’t arrive on the plane with you, they will get here, just later. Then you get in the car and you ask why it’s running and we tell you about the beauty of diesel and the beauty of living on a hill and roll starts and not being able to turn of truck off... and we promise that despite those minor issues it still runs extremely well and you won’t die. And it is here, pulling away from the airport that I try to recall my experience of visiting a foreign country for the first time, one where I didn’t stay long enough to grow accustomed to the sights and sounds. I think about what you, the visitor, might be seeing, things I may have stopped seeing forever ago. In this way I almost re-experience Haiti and re-fall in love with the country as I see it afresh through the eye's of a newbie. 

When orienting a newbie to the city I am no shortage of TMI. I seem to have lost that filter. Jenn says I’m a good tour guide but maybe it’s just her excuse to give her own vocal cords a rest. She’ll inevitably have to answer a million project related questions soon enough. So I take my job seriously and I tell you why that police building is blue and why that clinic building is green and where that person bought her shoes and where you can get the best fried plantains. If you’re lucky I might even tell you when, exactly, each segment of Cap Haitian’s main thoroughfare was paved, year AND month. Either my details fascinate you or you’re all just too polite to stop me. 

Last week’s visit was good for me. I got out of my “office” where I have been researching things like banana leaf killing fungus and iodine deficiency (which is all relevant, I promise) and spent almost an entire 48 hours driving to and from the city and our apartment and the villages where we work. 

All that tour-giving and time traveling in the truck and looking out the window at beautiful Haiti reminded me that I’m not finished learning about this place where I live. And in that vain I’ve found myself falling asleep to the words of “Haiti, The Aftershocks of History” a book which chronicles Haiti’s past. My desire to have Haiti’s complex history unpacked and laid bare before me is like...urgent. Although apparently, sleep trumps urgent. And in Kindle-speak I get through only about 1% of my incredibly fascinating history book in the time between my head hits the pillow and my eyes close. Still, in the 10% of the book that I have read, Haiti has succeeded as the first slave nation to gain independence and is establishing a democratic system to replace colonial rule. And there’s 90% more! Haiti is still going, still conquering, still rising. Do I know enough about those triumphs? Do I have all the juicy details about the grass-roots groups and community leaders that are making a difference today, where they live?

Honestly, sometimes Haiti surprises me. I see something working and I’m shocked. I see an individual or a group enjoying success and I am taken off-guard. And it’s wrong. To be surprised by what a nation, all be it a developing, “4th world” nation can do is paternal and wrong. 

When Jenn and I dropped our visitors off at the hotel on the first day of their stay we encountered a little bit of a blokis on our way home, actually this was a gwo traffic jam. Half-way to town on the main drag there is a monument that sits above a park. It’s called Vertiere and commemorates the battle of Independence. School kids visit the monument in the days leading up to Independence Day and take pictures there. On this particular night there were more people than usual out even though it was close to 7 pm. People were running in the direction of the monument as if there was something to see. We had to ask. “Is there a riot?” The number of people that were lining the hill and surrounding the monument  resembled stadium seating for the arrival of someone important. I though maybe the president was coming. But realized that he probably wouldn’t attract as many people. I finally got my answer when someone passing by told us that a tree had been carried from the other towns and was on it’s way to Ouanaminthe and was going to be sleeping here tonight. (Literal translation). "Don’t worry they’re not killing anyone” the guy said. First relieved, than confused. In Kreyol there are a lot of words that share multiple meanings. I was racking my brain for a better explanation. Anything that would make more sense than a tree...carried through Haiti...sleeping here... and heading to the Dominican border city. But sure enough, in a demonstration of what Haiti can do when the people unite, a tree, or rather a piece of art painted with national pride, was carried throughout the country. People from 45 different regions carried the tree, a distance of 700 kilometers on foot, and set it to rest in each major city so that people could celebrate. It’s an idea just so crazy it might work. And work it did. Our car was surrounded as thousands of people engulfed the tree and danced it into the city center to sleep for the night. Unity. Success.

ceremonial lifting of the tree by police staff, Port au Prince

If you're super curious about "Kita Naga"click here.

photo by Jenn taken the next day..while driving.

I want to be well-versed in Haiti’s successes and accomplishments so that those are the impressions I pass on to the newbies. I want visitors to leave with real and genuine respect for the men, women, and children of this country. They should leave with stories about nurses and hospital staff who are working together to combat HIV. They should look past the trash (that is sitting on the road, not because Haitians are avid litterers, but because it’s trash day and that’s how the canal system works here) and see the teachers that are shaping the future of Haiti. They should understand that the aging mothers perched on top of those wildly painted school busses are actually witty business-women who make long daily journeys to sell fruit and produce. Their weathered faces speak of years spent in the fields and the sacrifices they are still making to keep their teenagers and twenty-somethings in school. They should know that Haitian children living with their mothers actually don’t have runny noses because this is a culture that prides itself on hygiene and appearance. In the same way you might grab a water bottle or a granola bar as you run out door, a Haitian caregiver of a young child doesn’t leave home without a washcloth or mouchwa to keep runny noses at bay. They should recognize that young people who enter the field of nursing for example do it for the very same reasons that I chose this profession: compassion and the desire to do something tangible to help those that are hurting. They should know that moms and dads and uncles and neighbors pass along their skills and trades to the young people around them. Cooks and tailors and mechanics and masons prepare the next generation for a life of hard work. Haitians aren’t helpless or lazy or undeserving or evil or any of the other awful descriptors that I’ve heard attributed to this beautiful country. 

I know why I am in Haiti and it’s not because it’s the poorest place on some list. I’m not in Haiti because it has some grave need that my skills can fill. I’m not in Haiti to do anything different than what I might do in a rural clinic for immigrant workers in Georgia or in a safe house for battered women in New York. I’m not doing anything that anyone else couldn’t do, Haitian or otherwise. I am in Haiti because one day, freshly graduated and finally processing a semester’s experience of nursing in rural AIDS clinics in South Africa, I asked God to please let me be close to people like that. I wanted to be close to people who were sick and needed someone to care for them. I’ve realized that there are people like that everywhere and He could have sent me anywhere. I was open. I’m so glad my anywhere turned out to be Haiti. I think God set Haiti in front of me as an option because he knew I would love it here. And He knows me pretty well.