Gone to Haiti: Days 8-18

Day…what was it again?

Okay. It’s been a hot minute since I last posted. I’m aware. The thing about Haiti is that, while the days seem to have twice as many hours in them, and you’ll look back at 3pm and wonder how on earth it’s only been three hours since you ate lunch, you still manage to lose track of time. I think it’s the exhaustion. Your body is trying to push through each excruciatingly long day whilst dealing with a hotter sun, little water, and a diet consisting mostly of carbs. So when 8pm rolls around and it feels like you’ve lived through an entire week in the last twelve hours, you welcome sleep. And then you welcome sleep again the next day. And the next day. And the next day. And before you know it, you’ve gone over a week without writing a blog post, and you’ve entirely forgotten everything that has happened in the last year—I mean, eight days—since you last wrote.

 

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Our group at Jacmel! Including our two amazing drivers and a couple of our awesome surveyors.

I guess it’s apparent that Haiti is not a walk in the park—something that most people could probably guess, but have no real quantification of until they’ve been here. Honestly, the seven other study abroad girls and myself are getting pampered in comparison to what real life in Haiti looks like, and being in the field has taught me that. Here at Christianville, I can drink water straight from the tap just like in America. I’m fed meals (maybe not the best meals) three times a day. I have toilets that flush, which is a big deal. And I don’t have to bathe out of a bucket, which means you will never hear me complaining about the lack of hot water. Meanwhile, some of the Haitians we’re surveying have to bathe in their yards; use latrines in their yards; travel to get (untreated) water from the community well; and have to cook meals for their large family every day with what water they bring back from said wells. Did I mention these are the same people who grin and say a friendly, “Bonswa,” every time my privileged butt walks by? These are the same people who happily grab chairs for myself and my Haitian partner to sit in while they stand as we interview them for an hour. Or they wash their clothes, or cook their meals, or sell water outside their house—all the while sharing information about their lives with us. Anything that might lead to a better water situation for their community.

 

 

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A quick snapshot as we zoomed through the mountains on the way to Jacmel captured this local man among the forestry. I wish I could have captured the views, but it’s impossible.

I really want to write about everything I’ve seen and learned. I want to tell you all about going to a Haitian church, and how hearing a room full of voices rising up to praise the Lord in Kreyòl was profound. I want to tell you about going to the roof of the Fish House at Christianville and singing songs with the other study abroad girls while the sun went down behind the mountains. I want to tell you about our parties at Claude’s house, where we continuously blew out the car battery that was fueling our late-night Backstreet Boys karaoke and Whitney Houston dance marathons. I want to tell you about Jacmel and the two-hour drive up the mountains, how the Haitian proverb deye mon, gen mon—behind mountains, there are mountains—came to life before our eyes. I want to tell you how beautiful Haiti is, how incredibly kind the people are, how they make me laugh and smile in the most genuine of ways.

 

img_20180520_191955Honestly, I am just exhausted by how much I’m learning. Every day it’s new information, new things I’ve never seen before, and it’s not just about digesting it. It’s about figuring out what to do with it. What to think. How to feel. Meanwhile trying to remember my own name, my life back in America, which is increasingly hidden behind the wild brush of Haiti. I want to understand everything, I want to explain everything, I want to fix everything, but all I have right now is this: piti piti zwazo fè niche li.

Little by little, the bird builds its nest.

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Gone to Haiti: Days 3-7

Day Three. 

If you’re ever in Haiti (yes, I’m saying you should go to Haiti) make sure you take the time to go to their national history museum, Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien (also called MUPANAH for sure) in Port-au-Prince. You won’t be able to take pictures, and it’ll break your heart to not record your incredibly knowledgeable guide, but you might as well not come to Haiti at all unless you’re willing to learn the history taught at this museum.

Before the Europeans entered the scene, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were one island inhabited by three different people groups. The Taíno were the main group, and it is their word for the western half of the island, Hay-iti, that the freed slaves of 1804 chose to use for the name of their country. When the Europeans came, the French on the west and the Spanish to the east, the Taíno and every other native group were wiped out almost in their entirety. Our guide showed us a painting of the Spanish landing on Haitian shore with crosses, swords and dogs—the crosses they seemed to have forgotten the meaning of, as they used their swords to cut off the noses of the natives and their dogs to attack and maul them. To this day, Haitians have a general dislike for dogs and their word for the animals, chen, is used as a slur.

 

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A sculpture outside the museum.

Slaves were carted 800 at a time from Africa to the island, 70% of them dying on the journey over. Girls who were princesses in their home country were starved and beaten, forced to work on sugarcane plantations and raped by their owners. At one point, while there were roughly 40,000 Europeans on the island, there were 400,000 slaves. We were shown the chains used to punish any slaves who tried to run. Their hands were hung up with shackles on either side, with their feet shackled to a 50-pound weight, crucifying them. The 50-pound weights had a dual purpose, though, as the owners would also put them on the heads of any slave woman who had an abortion. While about four white people lived in their large plantation home, they kept 15 slaves per hut. Given these conditions, it isn’t surprising that the tour guide postured that Hispañola had the worst treatment of slaves of any colony.

 

It also explains why the slaves were willing to fight the French not once but twice for their freedom. After beating back their French colonists, a few years later they went to battle against Napoleon and his 40,000 troops, proclaiming, “Libérté ou la mort!” They were the first country of black slaves to win their independence on January 1st, 1804. In case you were wondering, the newly founded country of America, who had just fought for their own freedom, refused to acknowledge Haiti as a country…because they couldn’t have a country of black slaves succeeding while they kept their own working the plantations, right?

I could really go on for a while about the little bit of Haitian history I have learned. What is important to understand is that the Haitian people are survivors. They have fought tirelessly for their freedom, faced natural disaster after natural disaster, are constantly being controlled and influenced by outside countries, and in the face of poverty choose to work and sell and barter every day to provide for their families, with no complaints. When France demanded 150 million gold francs from Haiti as “independence debt” to make up for the money France “lost,” when it lost control of its colony, Haiti came up with the money. When corrupt presidents took over the country, or the U.S. stepped in an appointed their own, Haitians fought back endlessly against the crooked politics.

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This is our group at the museum! Left to right: Dr. Liz Wood, Jude, Celeste, Caitlyn, Alina, Nicole, Marina, Mockelaux, Geneve, Me, Kelly Chapman, and Bernier.

And when the earthquake destroyed millions of homes in 2010, burying an innumerable amount of people beneath rubble, it was the Haitians who rescued the majority of their people—not the relief groups from outside countries. The poverty that has developed in this country has occurred over hundreds of years through stigma, military intervention, and economic gutting by outside countries who flood Haiti with their own food and resources, robbing the Haitians of the opportunity to sell their own goods. And yet, they persevere. And yet, they live. And yet, they laugh. They are kind. They grin when any foreigner attempts to ask how they’re doing in their native tongue. They teach ignorant, 20-something blan girls Kreyòl with patience. And I remain astounded.

 

Day Four.

Our first day of class began today. As this isn’t your typical study abroad trip, we had to learn all about the research project that we’ll be conducting while in the country. Briefly, we’re asking Haitian women about their water use. Where does their water come from, and how often do they have access? How do they use it? What do their hygiene practices look like? Is the water treated? And then, we’re asking them about their beliefs surrounding water.

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Me and Marina at the top of the mountain, the sea off in the distance.

What kind of illnesses do they believe the water transmits? What water practices cause different illnesses? How do they treat these illnesses? We’re mainly looking to understand beliefs surrounding water’s relationship to women’s health, so a lot of the questions are fairly sensitive. The plan is to conduct surveys, about an hour long each, for a week or so. After that, we’ll be returning to the most “knowledgeable” participants, the ones who kind of hold the keys to the community’s beliefs, and doing ethnographies with them. An ethnography is an anthropological method where you just essentially embed yourself into the community and become a trustworthy enough individual that they will share their knowledge and practices with you. It’s participant observation: watching as you participate in the community. For our purposes we’ll be doing a much shorter version of this, instead just doing extensive interviews with these individuals where we hope they will trust us and share more details than in the original survey. It’s a conversation, more than anything, where we try to learn as much as they have to share.

 

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Another photo from the hike.

So, to prep us for this huge task, Dr. Wood and Kelly Chapman (the PhD student who conducted the first half of the research project from February-April) began teaching us the basics of research methods. It took most of the day, between our plethora of questions and learning all the details of the project. Personally, I am invigorated by the research process. I want to know why we phrased each question the way we did, how we know it’s asking what we want it to, how the data can deliver us one cohesive answer in the end. Everything. But at the same time, it’s clear that the research is dependent entirely on the community in which your conducting it. I have to understand the life of my participants; I have to be willing to learn from them. I have to learn their customs, what is appropriate and inappropriate. Maybe most of all, I have to step outside of my nervous self-consciousness and be willing to look like a fool, look like an outsider. I have to be okay with the fact that I am the one who needs help here, who needs someone to teach me. It is all about humility.

 

 

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The group split up a bit on the walk, so this is me, Marina, Geneve, Alina and Kelly bringing up the rear.

With this on our minds, we took two hours after class to hike up a mountain (some might call it a hill, but I’m a Floridian) to visit a local Haitian church known as Odin’s church. Dr. Wood took us up a steep, narrow path where we passed goats, cows, and children who screamed enthusiastically, “How are you?!” eager to practice their English. In Haiti, it is polite to greet anyone you pass. So our walk was littered with, “Bonswa,” and, “Salud,” with most Haitians flashing us large grins as they replied. Their smiles are so wide they take you aback a bit, especially when you’ve grown accustomed to the American grimace we pass off as a smile. The views were breathtaking. To the north, past the glowing blue sea, you can see the clouded silhouette of the northern part of the island wrapping around the water. To the south, the lower part of Haiti whips around the same way. When we got to the top of the mountain, we could see everything. Christianville off in the distance, small part of Port-au-Prince, everything. The wind was so powerful that a bird trying to fly forward was being pushed backward, and my hat kept flying off my head and rolling away. It may have been my favorite place we’d been so far. I probably could have stayed up there for hours.

 

Instead of having pizza for dinner, we opted to go to a local restaurant called Ben Haiti. It took a total of three hours to walk there, wait for our food, eat, and walk back. But the food was entirely worth it. I had Haitian flavored beef with pico de gallo on top, fried plantains, and a side dish called piklis. It looks like coleslaw, but is actually shredded vegetables with spices and vinegar. Very flavorful, very spicy. Very good. After waiting two hours for the food, the table was virtually silent as we all scarfed it down. It was our first authentic Haitian meal, and we all left sleepy and satisfied.

 

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My dinner from Ben Haiti. Piklis is in the bottom right corner, obviously.

I’ll be honest, the walk back was a little tumultuous. At least for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the tarantulas. In Haiti there are no street lamps to light the way, so when night falls your flashlight is your only guiding light. Between the anxiety of whether the next step would introduce a huge spider onto my path and the constant need to get out of the way of trucks passing, it got a little overwhelming. Luckily, the girls that I am here with are kind and understanding, and while one walked in front of me to brave any possible spiders, another linked arms with me and distracted my thoughts. We got home in piece—no tarantula sightings—and I went right to bed.

 

Days Five through Seven.

Over the last few days we’ve had a lot of trouble with the Wi-Fi and power around Christianville, so the chances to post any blog writings have been sparse. We also spent Thursday and Friday in class most of the day, and by the end of the night I was too mentally exhausted to write. Most of the group hit a rough patch the last two days of the week. Stomach issues, family turmoil, homesickness and exhaustion caught up with us and group morale fell a lot. Though we’re all excited to start collecting the surveys and actually get our hands onto the data, the preparations for it got a little overwhelming. Most of us will be on our own with one enumerator (a fancy word for the person conducting the survey), and while they ask the participant the questions in Kreyòl, we’ll be following along on a tablet. When the participant tells a story about their experience with water, the enumerator will translate it for us and it’ll be our responsibility to transcribe it in English and ask any follow-up questions. It doesn’t seem like much, but we all feel the weight of responsibility going into the field. The work we’re doing is so important, and none of us want to mess it up by not asking the right questions, or not making the participant feel comfortable, or anything else we might not do right.

 

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The girls on the way to the beach (minnus me and Geneve).

So after all of our training, we were ready to cut loose a bit. While reminiscing over how great it would be to jump into a pool (and even seriously considering putting on our bathing suits just to sit around in the cold showers), we suddenly found ourselves asking Dr. Wood if we could go to a nearby beach. Our friend Claude, one of the enumerators, helped us out with, “Can we, Mom? Can we, can we, can we?” And since he had a truck that could fit us all, Liz gave the green light. In less than 15 minutes we were all outside in our bathing suits, ready for some much-needed relaxation. We opted for a private beach, where we all paid 200 gourdes (roughly three bucks) and found ourselves on a small strip of sand with maybe a handful of other people there with us. The water was warm in some parts, cold in others, but we didn’t really care either way. The whole group of us were neck deep in water within two minutes. We only got to spend about two hours there before it was time to go back for dinner, but being off campus and out in nature was definitely what we all needed. We came back tired, but way less wound up.

 

 

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Like out of a brochure, right?

The ironic thing about our random beach trip is that we had one a full day beach trip planned for the next day, too. I certainly wasn’t complaining about the chance to go twice, though. And this time, we drove about an hour out to Léogâne to a beach called Grand-Goâve. Guys…this beach is one of the many reasons I’m going to keep telling you: go to Haiti. Pictures will not do it justice, even though I’m gonna post some. It was breathtaking. We walked down a path with high grass on either side that led out onto the sand, and were greeted by the glimmering, clear ocean before us. Behind us towered a mountain—if you’ve ever seen Moana, it felt a little like living on her island. The water had multiple shades of striking blue, with the closest water a crystalline color and the deep waters a radiant sapphire. As you swam around the cool, salty water you’d randomly run into a small coral reef (I cut my foot on one—no regrets).

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Dr. Liz mid-loss to Caitlyn.

There were rocks galore, and you could see literally everything under the water. At one point I found a rock with a hole in it where a little fish lived. He’d swim into the rock and back out in repetitive circles, and I named him Piklis after my favorite Haitian food. He was very consistent; he was still in the same place when I went to say goodbye at the end of the day. Our large group spent most of their time in the water, splashing and competing (Caitlyn is better at chicken than Liz, and Kelly is better at floating than Maha, if you’re wondering), learning Kreyòl and how to skip rocks. We had fresh fish, caught straight from the ocean, for lunch—it was delicious, and even had some piklis on the side for good measure. I could’ve stayed on that beach forever, I’ll be honest with you.

 

 

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Marina shared who hula-hoops with some of the kids on the beach.

The one difficult thing about the beach is the vendors. Haitian artisans lay out large tarps and present all of their work on them: there was beautiful painted wood work, unique jewelry, paintings on wood and canvas, carved bowls and cups. Beyond the overwhelming amount of options, you have each vendor coming up to try and get you to look at their work. They’re not oppressive or pushy in any way, but it’s the guilt that makes it hard. I’m so aware of the fact that in America, I’ll throw away $8 on a chick-fil-a meal that I don’t even finish. And here is someone whose livelihood depends on this business—I want to give them all the money in my wallet, but I know I can’t. We’re told to haggle, and that we can get the same items in other places. But the desire to buy it all is still there. The hard part about Haiti isn’t what people tell you it’ll be—it doesn’t feel unsafe, people aren’t rude, it isn’t smelly or something like that. It’s the fact that you want to fix all of its problems, and you can’t. Frankly, it isn’t your job. It’s hard to have compassion while also being practical about the issues, and it’s hard to not feel ashamed and guilty for being American. But why should I feel guilty for being an American? Because that feeling is really stemming from this idea that I should feel bad for being “better,” or having more than Haitians. But I’m not better than any Haitian. I’m not above anyone in this country. And even if I have more in my wallet, I can tell you that the people here have more faith and tenacity and joy than I’ve ever seen. So you have to stop at the end of the day and check your pride at the door.

 

Because we’re all poor in something.

 

A Reminder of Goodness

Jesus, you are the feeling of lying on a boat under the sun on Memorial Day, a fresh Capri-Sun in your hand and the taste of oranges on your lips.

You are climbing into bed after the most exhausting of days, the way the blanket welcomes you in like a mother with a gentle hug, how sleep cradles you into rest, how dreams tickle you hello.

Jesus, you’re the freedom of dancing in circles, knowing when you fall the grass will catch you and the clouds will spin along with you.

You’re sitting across the table from someone you love so much your stomach hurts, and that feeling in your chest as you watch them eat and wonder how slurping spaghetti could look so perfect.

You’re my mom’s arm stretching out in front of me every time we slam on the brakes, that strength that keeps me safe in the face of possible calamity.

Jesus, you’re the warmth of my cat curling up beside me like I’m the only person in the world she wants to sit with.

You’re a fresh cup of coffee that wakes my brain up and dries the foggy corners of my mind, how morning can feel like a fresh start, the way a coffee shop can feel like a separate universe where you’re allowed to slow down and breathe for a moment.

Jesus, you’re everything good that ever was or ever will be. You’re creation itself, you’re the sun in all its splendor and the moon in all its beauty and the wind in all its might.

You are everything good that ever was or ever will be. Help me remember that creation is in you, goodness is in you. It is all you.

Smash the Mirror

I picture Jesus cupping my face so often. My cheeks rest in his hands and he makes me face him, our eyes aligned. He speaks truth to me there, says things with emphasis to try and make me believe them. It feels a bit like how a Grandma looks at you, like you’re precious and she needs you to understand it, like she’d give you anything you asked for because this face in her hands, this face, lights up her entire day. I think that maybe Jesus feels that way about me. I think maybe he looks at me and mourns a bit because I look in the mirror and wonder why I didn’t try harder today, I look in the mirror and think that I failed again. So he tries again, he pulls my face away from that mirror and makes me stare at him, tells me again how much I matter. He tells me that he made me to matter, he made me with purpose, and nothing I do or don’t do can change that. I usually believe him for a moment, get teary-eyed and nod and we hold each other, but the next time I’m in front of that mirror I forget. I can’t possibly matter, I didn’t do any cleaning today, I didn’t read enough for school, I didn’t show enough love, I got angry at my customers, I watched too much TV, I didn’t pray enough. How can someone with so many flaws matter? How can someone that needs medication to think straight matter, really? I only matter when I’m properly medicated and I’ve had enough sleep and my mind is thinking straight, because that’s when I can actually contribute to the world.

And he comes and cups my face again. He stares into my eyes, an intensity in his own. He says, “I died for you. I died for you when you watched too much Netflix. I died for you when you yelled at your sister. I died for you when you cursed at a passing driver. I died for you when you slept all day. I died for you when you contemplated suicide. I died for you when you lusted. I died for you when you hated others. I died for you with your bitterness, your brokenness, your pride, your shame, your flaws and imperfections. I didn’t die for a perfect person—there would have been no point. I died for you because you need me. Look at me.

Help me look a little longer, Jesus. Keep holding my face so I can’t turn away. Can we smash the mirror? Let’s smash the mirror. I just want to look at you.

#Write31Days – Days 14-16

1/14/18 – “Aware”

On an average day I’m so aware
of my hips and how they fold
gently over the top of my jeans,
or my eyes and the way they’re
disproportionate to my face
if I don’t wear the right makeup.
My head goes through all the reasons
I’ve been a bad friend this month,
chastises me for my impatient driving,
and how I don’t give people grace enough.
I’m constantly criticizing
the amount of time I spend on netflix,
the hours I wasted when I could have been
cleaning
exercising
calling my mom
writing more
reading all the books I spend my money on.
I think, I’m a terrible sister,
I didn’t ask them how their days were,
or my husband must be sick of me
leaving dishes in the sink and
always seeking validation.
I’m so aware of
all my mistakes,
the ways I could have done better,
where I fell short of perfect.

But on the days I seek Jesus
I’m so aware of His love for me
that I forget everything
except the cross.

1/15/18 – “Move”

He said,
you can move mountains.
but what about
the pebble in front of me.
can we just start there?

1/16/18 – “Little”

“Tell me about when you were little,” he said, half his voice muffled by the pillow. She groaned. “No, come on,” he pestered, laughing, like somehow even her defiance was funny.

“What’s there to tell?” She turned, meeting his eyes. Something in them said he’d take any story she gave him, like his desire for her didn’t end with her body. It scared her, but still she started talking.

“When I was little my mom took me out a lot – she hated being at home. We’d go to the farmer’s market and she’d feed me fresh peaches to keep me entertained while she’d flirt with the vendors. We’d drive 3 hours just to go to an art festival, even though we never bought anything. I was always bored after 15 minutes, so my mom made up stories to go along with the weird paintings. There was a reoccurring character – Ricardo the horse – why do so many people paint horses? – and I loved him so much she bought me a stuffed animal of him. At night we’d visit the pond by our house, sit on park benches and eat the bread that was meant for the ducks while we looked at the stars. She didn’t know any of the constellations but told me names for them anyway. I think she had whole galaxies made up in her mind, and she’d visit them whenever we had to stay inside.”

She blinked, looked back into his eyes.

He looked away.

#Write31Days – Day 13

1/13/18 – “Sky”

When you’re a kid you look to the sky, dream of things you can do in the world. You hear parents say, “You could be president. You can be anything you want to be.

Reach for the sky.”

I reached and reached and reached, but all I feel is falling.
And this earth hits my back hard
each time I miss the mark.

I don’t succeed at the American dream. If I don’t have a picket fence, a baby at 25, who am I? What do I have to offer? No 401k or salary paycheck.

When Mom said, “Reach for the sky,”
bet she didn’t think I’d be a barista.

I have a dream but it isn’t
babies and BMWs and suburban neighborhoods.

I want to get my hands dirty. Taste the earth as it cradles me. I want to create art that makes people feel alive for a while. I want to plant flowers, appreciate their soil.

Mama, I’m sorry.

I reached and reached and reached
but I fell in love with the fall.

#Write31Days – Day 12

1/12/18 – Five Minute Friday Free Write

I wish my brain would stop
talking for a minute
so I could get a word in

Maybe I’d say something like,
It’s okay if you made a mistake today,
you’re only human,
or,
You’re enough even if you aren’t perfect
or,
Please don’t worry about tomorrow
today has fresh air and flowers and sunlight and
they’re all trying to smile on you
if you’d only stop to notice

I’d say such sweet things to myself
if my brain would let me