Day One in Haiti.
It started on the plane. The seat next to me was empty, but across the aisle sat a man who kindly smiled at me every time we made eye contact. We talked briefly while waiting for the restroom, and while waiting to depart the plane he asked me if I was visiting or returning home. I informed him I was visiting, and he told me he was going home. Only later did he tell me that he had been in Orlando for 17 years—by returning home he meant visiting his home country. He told me he was sure I would have a wonderful time in Haiti. I silently hoped that all Haitians would be this friendly.
The airport was an adventure. The customs agents barely looked at my passport and trying to get a Haitian sim card was a bit of a failure. Upon walking out into the hot Haitian air my first thought was that there were so many people. The rails were lined with Haitians holding signs, waiting to pick someone up. We piled into one of our cars (air conditioned, to my relief) and waited for further instructions.
Though many might have been alarmed by the driving in Port-au-Prince, all I could do was laugh. It felt like being in the middle of one of those Youtube videos where the cars just drive into the intersection and plow through a bunch of other vehicles. Except luckily, our driver knew when to stop, when to dodge, and when to gun it. We drove for about an hour, passing by endless street vendors, piles of plastic garbage, and a surprising number of goats. At one point when we were slowed at an intersection, two young boys came to my window and started calling to me, yelling hi and blowing kisses. I waved as they hugged the window while our driver slowly moved along. Haitians looked out from their homes at us as we rode by; others combed their hair while sitting on their balcony. A child played peek-a-boo with their sibling. Besides the striking beauty of the people, the sparkling blue of the ocean peeking out between trees caught my attention most. It stretched out, a glistening, clean vision in stark contrast to the city streets.
In Christianville, I found our home to be much more spacious than I’d anticipated. The eight of us are split into two rooms, with two bunk beds in each and our own individual bathrooms. The compound is gorgeous, with well-built houses and tropical forest covering on each side. Of course, it wasn’t after we got settled that we were informed about the tarantulas that can come out at night.
No matter how beautiful Haiti may be, this did make me want to hop back on the plane a bit. (So far none have been spotted. Let’s hope it stays that way.) It was fairly rainy our whole first day. Apparently it is rainy season, but I’m not complaining. The muddy ground is worth the cool air that the rain provides. We ate dinner—rice, mashed potatoes, chicken gravy, papaya and some vegetable vinegar mix that looked oddly like coleslaw—and immediately afterward I fell into a zombie-like trance. Between the early morning, plane ride, heat, and drive to Christianville, exhaustion had set in. Despite the fact that I think we all were feeling this way, we returned to our house to unpack and get settled.
My first impressions of Haiti were not what I expected them to be. I’m astounded by the survivability of the people, after seeing those in Port-au-Prince living side by side on its streets. It’s also not nearly as hot as I’d imagined. The goats and pigs are an exciting change from Florida’s cows. And honestly, it’s much easier to see the beauty in this place than people made it seem. I can’t wait to see how much more there is to discover.
Today was a rest and recuperate day. I was woken up by my roommates at 7:30, letting me know breakfast was ready for us. Our first breakfast here was oatmeal (I mixed mine with bananas), boiled eggs and toast. Nothing to complain about, that is for certain. After breakfast, Dr. Liz Wood, the Public Health professor leading our study, took our group on a walk around the neighborhoods surrounding Christianville. We saw the sprawling hills in the distance, speckled with houses that defy physics in their ability to stay upright. As we walked, a local dog ran out in front of us and began herding us.
He followed us our entire walk, keeping us safe from guard dogs and ensuring that we made it back home without getting lost. Houses were hidden in brush, separated by small fields or miniature forests of plantain trees. We passed by small children who stared with wide, nervous eyes, muttering an unsure, “Bonjou,” in response to ours. It proved difficult not to get run over or sunken in mud, as the roads were wet from the weekend rains and motorbikes continued to peep at us as they zigzagged over the wet ground. In Haiti, honking is more a sign of respect and used for communication, unlike its angry connotation in the U.S. Haitians honk to let their neighbor know they are trying to merge, or that they are coming up and passing by them. We learned that a light honk after you’ve passed some pedestrians is actually a quick “thanks!” for having gotten out of the way. Though our walk was short, it was nice to be outside of Christianville and among the Haitians of Gressier, experiencing what life is really like for them. Christianville can feel a little bit like another world, separate from the actual country of Haiti, and leaving its gates gives the sense of stripping off a bit of privilege that I did nothing to earn.
A tour of Christianville reveals its many layers. Originally, the land was given to a wealthy white woman by the dictator known as Papa Doc, in the 70s. She opened an orphanage on the land, which still exists today. Since then, they have built many houses for missionaries who will come for a week or two at a time to do work in the community, or volunteer with the orphanage. At some point universities, such as UF, came and built houses and labs on the land as well. My study abroad group is staying in the UF house that was built by the College of Public Health, and is now used by UF students and missionaries. Next door is the UF labs, which are used to study cholera and tuberculosis in Haiti. There was at one time an entire nursing school; its opening gate was the only part left standing after the 2010 earthquake. In the back area of the property there are two farms, one for goats and one for tilapia. Both are used to provide protein for the children of the orphanage. Haitians are employed throughout all of Christianville, and will kindly smile and ask, “Komo ye?” when you say bonjou.
We learned all of this our first two days, as we explored the compound and rested from our travels. I napped for two and a half hours after a difficult night of sleep. In the evening, myself and three other girls from our group joined the Christianville staff and two missionary groups on campus for a devotional, where we heard the testimony of Pastor Raymond, the director of Christianville, and sang songs to the Lord. It made me eager to visit the Haitian church up the hill known as Odin’s church, to learn songs in Kreyòl.