Haiti. The poorest country in the western hemisphere. Ravaged by an enormous earthquake in 2010 and struggling with cholera outbreaks more recently. I had read a fair amount about Haiti over the past several years and when the opportunity to go there with my roommate Anst (who is from Haiti) arose I jumped at the chance. The purpose of our trip was not medical in nature but rather an opportunity for me to see where my roommate had come from, meet his family, and explore the mountains where he was born. To see if the Haiti I had read about would match my reality of it. I expected to see a great many people scrapping out a living amidst refuse and dust, and this I did encounter, but what I did not necessarily think to expect was the beauty of the mountains or the incredibly kind welcome I was given by Anst's family.
Below I have shared a number of select stories and photos from my week in Haiti during March 2011.
1. Border Crossing
2. Running From?
4. The Citadel and…
5. The Mountains of Anst’s Birth
6. Community Mental Health in Haiti
(A coastal view on the way to visit a clinic Anst has worked at in Borge.)
1. Border Crossing
Anst's family lives in a town close to Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic (DR). Thus, to expedite our arrival we decided to fly into a city in the DR and cross over from there. We planned our flights to make sure we would be in plenty of time to get to the border before it closed at 6pm. At least, we had enough time until our flights got horribly delayed, we slept the night in the JFK airport on the floor, and arrived quite a bit later than planned. The race was on and we caught a taxi to the bus station and then got the first bus available to the border crossing. In the DR I actually got to feel useful as my Spanish was understood and I could make out the fast/slurred DR Spanish well enough.
Exiting our bus in the small border town I could see the sun setting in the west where we needed to head. We didn't have much time. Anst signaled a man on a motorcycle over and after we failed to get both of us on the back with all our bags he called over a second man and we took off through the streets, the rays from the lowered sun blinding me as we headed out. I was doing a fair amount of praying at this point that (A) I wouldn't fall off, (B) we wouldn't get blind-sided by a truck as we blazed through intersections and (C) this man actually knew where we needed to go and had understood our request for said destination. Fortunately, A,B, and C came to pass and we jumped off and paid the men at the start of a large bridge which I reckoned would take us into Haiti. We started running toward the gate and hit a crowd as we neared it. All of a sudden a man in camo was jabbing a large gun in our faces and demanding our papers. I showed him my passport but Anst didn't understand the man who was speaking in Spanish and it took him a second longer. The man shouted louder and I told Anst what he wanted which got the gun lowered (it seems to be a universal communication strategy that when someone doesn't speak your language if you just say it louder then they will get it). After perusing our passports for 30 seconds he deemed us "worthy" and let us cross even though I was now pretty sure the border was closed. Anst would later tell me they do this for white people which is why they can be useful traveling companions for border crossings.
As soon as we made it onto the Haitian side of the bridge we were enveloped by an even larger crowd, now all black, with people cleaning up from market, motorcycles revving and people shouting at us. I was a bit taken aback and tried to focus on making sure I had my bags tight on me. Anst looked upset and as I couldn't understand a word of Haitian Creole this made me pretty worried. Eventually we both got onto a motorcycle with a man named Judah who took us to get our passports stamped. Unfortunately the office was closed as we had crossed too late. We would return a few days later to straighten things out but I can now say I have illegally crossed a border.
(A typical view of road traffic. In two words (at least to me) absolute mayhem.)
(Kids coming back from school. In Haiti uniforms are the rule.)
(UN tank. The closer we got to Port au Prince the more we saw. Anst was not happy about the UN's presence.)
2. Running From?
On our second day in Haiti Anst took me the country’s second largest city, Cap Haitian, or just "Cap" to the locals, to meet his mom and cousins. Once in the the city we headed out from one cousins apartment to go visit another cousin that Anst wanted to check in on (Anst has an insane number of cousins!). It was market day and the already narrow streets had become walking room only with various stalls made of old sun-baked wood or even simpler setups comprising black plastic laid out with wares upon it. Shoes and various pieces of unidentifiable metal are two vendors I recall.
All of a sudden there were people running toward us and screaming. Anst turned and told me to run and keep my head low. We surged along in the mob, my heart racing, finally taking a side street and escaping the stampede. "what was that?" Anst said he didnt know and that he thought he heard rocks were being thrown. My mind turned to the UN force here and I wondered if people had been attacking them in anger. It had recently been discovered that the strain of cholera infecting Haiti came from Nepal and there were several units of Nepalese in the UN force. Some Haitians had accused the UN of infecting Haitians on purpose and Anst had told me before arriving that things were tense in some areas.
We decided to head a different direction. Within 2 minutes, wham, another screaming crowd surged towards us and this time Anst grabbed my wrist pulling me along at a crouched sprint, stepping through people's wares, half jumping as they scrambled to get out of the way, once again my eyes wide and breath racing. As before, we didn't see what had caused the mob and Anst decided he would see that particular cousin another day.
I had never been in a mass mob running from some unknown fear and it was an experience unlike any other I have had to date. Suffice to say I don't feel the need to do it again. I can only imagine what it might be like to live in a place where of the sort of fear I experienced in those brief moments is a daily occurrence.
(A stream close to where Anst mom lives. I don't think I saw a single garbage can the entire trip. Everything got thrown wherever. One memory that sticks with me in this regard is the ground around the "bus station" (gas station designated as a ride transfer point). There were so many squashed plastic bottles on the ground it felt like I was walking through fallen leaves in the fall time.)
One of the things I kept thinking about after returning to the states was how much space we live in! It's insane! By Haiti standards I should be housing at least 15 ppl in my apartment. Gosh...
My previous two stories might give the impression that my time in Haiti had me constantly fearing for my life but this was not the case. Being with Anst, in areas he knew, made me feel quite comfortable and everyone I interacted with on a more involved level was kind to me. Anst’s family in particular was most welcoming and I tried my best to learn a few phrases such as "manje bon apil! - very good food!" and "bonswa, komon ou ye? - good afternoon, how are you?") to express my gratitude for their housing me and treating me well. I got to the point where I could fire off a few introductory phrases and people thought I spoke some creole but then when the follow-up questions came it was immediately obvious that I had reached my limit:) Anst's family seemed huge to me and every other second there was a new cousin or uncle to meet. Anst's cousins who we spent the most time with seemed to take the view that because Anst had deemed me worthy of bringing to Haiti I must be ok and thus they accepted me. This was much different from my time in Ecuador where it took much longer for me to come to know the people around me (as I was an outsider). I did my best to fit in, eating whatever was presented (which was really quite easy as the food was all delicious), sleeping wherever I was told to, pulling water up from the well and taking bucket showers like everyone else, using pit toilets, etc. To be honest it felt somewhat like I was doing urban camping at times! After the trip I received feedback from Anst that his family had liked having me around quite a bit but that I wasn't quite what they expected from an American as I had for example, climbed trees with Anst and gone on mountain trail runs... and I really seemed to enjoy it!
(This small entryway into the two room bottom floor "apartment" owned by Anst's family in Cap has to be the most versatile space I have ever seen. Besides being an entryway, it also served as a spot to bathe (bucket showers baby!), to urinate, and to wash and hang clothes.)
Being immersed in a language I did not know was an experience I had not had in some time as my more recent travels prior to Haiti had been to Spanish speaking countries where I was just fine language wise. It re-invigorated my desire to learn an additional language and at this point I'm debating between French (useful in France and many African Nations) or Portuguese (quickly becoming the family second language as mom grew up with it and my other two brother are learning it/traveling to brazil). Regarding language utility my English was for the most part useless but as Haiti shares a border with the DR there were a fair number of people who spoke at least some Spanish and this proved a lifeline for initiating conversation of more than two exchanges. Some of my favorite memories are from sitting outside the family apartment in Cap Haitian in the evening with a few of Anst's cousins and friends, watching the light fade and talking about whatever, in a mix of haitian, english, and spanish often with random people from the street who would come over at the sight an unknown pale stranger. Until reaching Port au Prince (the capital) at the end of our trip I saw perhaps 5 other non-very dark skinned people in all our travels. The feeling of being different from everyone else with eyes constantly on me was stronger in Haiti than in any other country I have been to.
The strangest encounter I had due to my whiteness came during a late night visit to a sandwich shop. A quick preface to this that you must know is that during my trip to Haiti my facial hair was the longest it has ever been. While waiting around for our food a party of three came in to order. One of them glanced at me, did a double take and excitedly started whispering to her friend. The group of them all started laughing (always great to make fun of the person who can’t understand right) before Anst asked them something in creole and then he and our group started laughing as well. Now I really wanted to know what was up and finally got Anst to tell me. He said the girl thought I looked like Jesus. It was true I was white and had a beard but that was about it. I tried to imagine how this could be and reckoned that if the only black person I had ever seen was pictures of Michael Jordan and then one day I saw a tall black man with a shaved head, well, I would probably think he looked like MJ!
Since returning to the states Anst has informed that his family often inquires how I am doing and to say hi. I hope to visit them again at some point in the future.
4. The Citadel and…
Ever since Anst and I started planning our trip he had been telling me about an epic super steep/long hike up to an old fortress that we had to do. We completed the hike with a cousin and friend of Anst (both of whom had to get a truck ride part way up as they could not keep up with Asnt and me☺) but it was someone I met along the way that makes the day stick in my mind. First though a few pics:
(A view from the Citadel)
(Anst and me on top of the Citadel)
The hike up was indeed very steep and took us over an hour to reach the top. As the pics show it was an impressive structure and provided a panoramic view of the surrounding area. About ¾ of the way up a young man came out to try and sell us (me) something touristy. I wasn’t interested and tried to politely decline but he was rather persistent. We hadn’t really stopped to talk and he had followed a half-mile or so when I finally tried a new tactic and invited him along to come to the top with us. He was game and we upped our pace. In talking with the young man, Jimmy was his name, I came to find out he was 18 years old and already spoke 5 languages to a relatively high level (Creole, French, English, Spanish and one more I cannot recall). He had completed all the schooling available to him and despite his clear intelligence and love of learning the only employment available to him was selling trinkets on the roadside. His sense of entrapment and frustration was palpable. Jimmy put a face to the hoards of young men I had seen every day just standing around the streets of Haiti with nothing to do. Being a trash worker? The service doesn’t exist. Join the army? There is none (the UN patrols Haiti currently). Become a nurse or doctor? Requires advanced school not available to most (and many institutions were crushed in the quake). In medical school I am certainly busy and stressed at times but talking with Jimmy reminded me of the great privilege it is to be able to continue one’s studies, especially in an area I am passionate about. I’ve talked briefly with Jimmy since returning to the states but at this point don’t really know what I can do to help him with his predicament. I’ve tried to find if there are any scholarships he might be able to receive but so far no luck. I plan to stay in touch and hope I can help him reach his goals in the future. Let me know if you have an idea or know someone who might.
5. The Mountains of Anst’s Birth
Another venture I had discussed with Anst before traveling to Haiti was taking a trip by motorcycle to visit the site where he was born in the mountains and to check in on relatives along the way. From previous readings about the mountains of Haiti I expected most of the trees to be cut down and the rivers to be polluted. This may be the state of things in certain parts of the country but it was most certainly not the case in the areas we visited. Beautiful clear rivers that we swam in, massive wooded valleys, peaks with panoramic vistas and a patchwork of trails and communities connecting it all with some communities accessible only by foot! I was not expecting the beauty we encountered and now understand much better what Anst had meant when he would tell me back in Wisconsin that this was his place to come rest and feel at peace.
Beyond the natural beauty I encountered was the kindness and hospitality of his extended family. Anst has relatives all over the mountains and each one we visited prepared us incredible food and spent time with us joking and catching up. One family’s baby crawled over to me and wanted me to pick him up which after receiving the OK I did. This was a bit shocking to me as I was a complete stranger to them but once again it seemed that if Anst trusted me enough to bring me here I was good enough to hold the baby!
(On the road!)
(A brief rest stop on the motorcycle journey)
(A fairly representative section of the road we traveled on. Let’s just say being on the back of a motorcycle that is too small traveling over extremely rough roads equals very sore legs + butt.)
(Anst standing on the land where he was born. The small house no longer stands but he knows exactly where it was. It was a powerful experience to watch him point and say, “I was born here.” He feels a connection to his birthplace and the lands around it in a way I will never feel about the large urban hospital where I was born.)
(There is nothing like coconut milk/water when you are thirsty. So good!)
(Anst getting said coconuts. The man can climb! In one of the communities we visited in the mountains there is a young man who is mute but known by all because he is the best climber and will scale 50 ft trees with no problem!)
(A view overlooking the land where Anst was born and where his family still owns land. In fact, the day we headed out Anst's uncle was overseeing the construction of a new small home made from branches and adobe they could use in the future.)
(Anst and two of his cousins, Romy and Woodsy, who remind me more of brothers to Anst than cousins. I saw much in their relationship that I see in the connection I have with my brothers.)
6. Community Mental Health in Haiti
This last section stems mainly from our time in one of the remote communities in the mountains.
Pulling up in the late afternoon on our motorcycle an immediate crowd started to gather. Most kept their distance but one lady came right up to me and said hello. I knew that much and answered back, “I am well, how are you?” From there she started talking fast and getting excited. I also thought she seemed to be getting a bit frustrated with me. I asked Romy (who speaks some English) what she was saying and he told me to ignore her, that she was just a crazy lady. She kept talking to me and I finally got Romy to translate a bit of what she was saying and it indeed was more or less nonsensical. I saw the same woman several times over the next few days and she was often talking out loud with no one around. After my second year of medical school I would guess she had a condition such as schizophrenia but at the time I only knew she was not at all like the other people around her. The really interesting part for me however, was to see how the rest of the community treated her. She was clothed appropriately and seemed well nourished. Someone had to be caring for her. The other people in the village didn’t ignore nor did they overly engage her. She would wander around town and people wouldn’t stare or shy away. Everyone just seemed to accept her as she was. She may have been “crazy” but she was a member of this village and everyone was fine with it; they didn’t lock her away or make fun of her… they just let her be… It was a far different model than the one I have grown up with here in the states to say the least where having a mental health disorder is hugely stigmatizing and many of those with more severe illness end up on the street scraping out an existence from handouts and living under bridges. I think we could learn an important lesson from the Haitian community I visited about how to care for and interact with people who have a mental illness.
Well, that is all. If you read to the end, wow, thank you for taking the time to connect with me in this way. Warm regards, Michael.