One of my biggest fears about going to Haiti was getting through the Port-au-Prince airport. I knew it wasn’t exactly “legal” to bring 22 suitcases of medication into another country. But I was laughed at when I mentioned my fear of being in a Haitian prison, and assured once you slip customs the bribe money you pack with you, they wave you through and all is fine. That’s not exactly how it went down.
We arrived in Haiti around 7:00 p.m. on Saturday night. We were told to stick close together and to not let anyone touch our bags. We retrieved our luggage from baggage claim and made our way to customs. We each were carrying our personal bags and we had piled the checked luggage on carts to take through. It’s a very intimidating experience. Custom agents can be armed and the airport is much more primitive than airports in our country. Agents immediately stopped us and asked what was in the bags on the carts. I instantly pulled Catie closer. They then started opening and going through all the bags. One cart of bags were sent through and half of us stood with those bags hoping they would not come for those, while the rest of the group tried to reason with custom to allow us to keep our medication. After a lot of yelling (mainly on our side), and tensions that grew more heated as the agents started throwing away our medication, we were allowed to leave minus a couple of suitcases of meds. The saying goes that in those kinds of situations, you immediately feel the flight or fight instinct. My instinct was definitely flight. I was nervous and wanted to get as far away from the conflict as possible. I looked at Catie, worried she might be scared and said, “Are you ok?” She said, “No, I’m about to go in there and let someone have it! We are here to help THEIR children! I’m pissed!” She, on the other hand, had the fight instinct! (She gets that from her Aunt Amy!)
As you leave the airport you are immediately besieged by Haitians who try to grab your bags. If they get them, it is expected you pay them for “carrying” them for you or you will not get them back! Heads down and mouths shut, we pushed our way through the crowd and made it to our bus.
We arrived at our site and I got my first glimpse of my “home” for the next week. Men and women were separated. Our sleeping quarters were a room with six bunk beds and some shelves for our stuff. Catie and I grabbed top bunks and tried to organize our stuff. There were 11 of us in the room so it made the space seem quite tight. There was a bathroom with 3 toilets and a small sink and a shower room with 4 showers. Our group shared these spaces with the other mission group from South Carolina. There was no hot water on site so it was cold showers each day and although we could flush the toilets, you could not flush your toilet paper. The water there is contaminated so brushing our teeth required us to bring our own water to the bathroom. I began to realize quickly how many things I do at home on a daily basis I take for granted. Meals were prepared by very talented lady named Madame Sterling and served up on the roof of the building. Breakfast was generally fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs and one other choice (we even had pancakes one day!) We packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch each day, and dinner was rice and beans, a salad, and some kind of meat. There were some surprises thrown in there, homemade potato chips one night, pumpkins soup another, and the spiciest cole slaw you’ve ever had! There was clean water available for us and you could also buy a soft drink for $1.00. Choices were a coke or a lime type drink that was my favorite! Laundry was done twice a week for us, dried on a line, and laid out for us to retrieve. If you were donating your clothes, there was a place to put them. Up until this year, all laundry was hand washed. The mission site bought their first washing machine this year.
Religion is a fundamental part of Haitian culture. We awoke early Sunday morning, had breakfast, and headed to church. The communities put on their best clothes and pack the pews. Children (and even babies!) are so well behaved and quiet. Church in Haiti can last up to three hours as it is a primary social infrastructure for the community. Religion shapes the fabric of everyday life and from this faith comes hope, a sense of purpose, and resilience. Their faith gives them strength.