I never thought the 39th country I would travel to would be the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Ayiti, Haiti in creole would also mark the first country I was to visit that I would not vacation in.
The sole purpose of my trip was to meet Cherie Abbanot, C.E.O. Haiti Projects, the NGO I am partnering up with for Travel With Purpose’s next mission. I found Haiti Projects on globalgiving.org after almost 8 months of researching and reaching out to different non-profits and getting no responses or no thank-you(s). I emailed Cherie on a Sunday evening and received a response the very next day, which is rare when dealing with NGOs. A week later between our travels and busy schedules we managed to get on a call. I instantly felt a connection to her. Not only did I already have respect for her being she is a lecturer at M.I.T., instinctually I knew she was genuine. Moreover, the work Haiti Projects is doing not only resonates with my NGO’s mission, it really resonates with me as a woman and entrepreneur. And so I let my instincts lead me and without doing a vast amount of research on her or Haiti Projects, I made a verbal commitment to enter into a partnership. And just like that, three weeks after our initial phone call, I jumped on a plane from Los Angeles to Ayiti.
I arrived in Port-au-Prince on a Monday afternoon in 90-degree weather with 90% humidity. Being from Miami, I figured I would be prepared for this heat but standing outside the airport in the blazing sun for an eternal 15 minutes, while we waited for the other two guests to arrive, generated a river of sweat from the back of my neck down to the soles of my feet and into my flats. But I knew what I was in for even before I arrived and I was okay with it. This is always the challenging part of volunteering in a 3rd world country, being outside your comfort zone in respect to weather, food, cleanliness, bugs, and bare accommodations and subsiding that inner dialogue of incessant complaining. But I was here, in Haiti, on a mission that would later impact me on so many levels.
We hopped in a 4×4 driven by Annius, a haitien that works with Haiti Projects as a driver, Jimmy the structural engineer and Tasnuva the young architect whom were both from Boston and working on the construction of the new library, Cherie and myself. It took us roughly an hour to get out of Port-au-Prince as Annius zigzagged through oncoming traffic and pedestrians. The sights were disheartening at best. There was garbage in every corner, dilapidated buildings, rivers of murky waters comprised of mud and filth flowing between every major street, goats, pigs, and chickens running loose, and smoke polluting the air from all the garbage being burned. And on top of it all, you could still see the remnants of a massive earthquake that occurred 5 years prior in every corner of this city.
Cherie had warned us the A/C didn’t cool much and by the time we reached Fond Des Blancs, nearly five hours later, my feet and hands were so swollen from the heat they looked like Vienna sausages. The last 15 miles of the trip were definitely the most challenging. We had to ascend an unpaved dirt road with moderate to large sized rocks and potholes; hence, the last 15 miles took us a bit over an hour to traverse. Taking pictures and filming seemed an impossible task and I nearly cracked my glasses after bumping my head on the window. The ride was seriously so bumpy my organs were playing musical chairs and I could feel it. But again, none of this fazed me as I had been in so many similar situations during my previous journeys abroad. Regardless of all that I have seen, Haiti is in a league of its own, as I had never seen poverty on such a mass-scale.
We arrived in Fond Des Blancs close to 7:30pm exhausted and hungry. There was still some light in the sky and tons of people out and about on the street on foot and motorbikes. The town center in Fond Des Blancs, a city located in the southwestern part of the island in rural Haiti, has one church, one restaurant/bar, one apartment style hotel of which half was under construction, a few lottery stands, a market that sprouts on Fridays, wooden shacks lined along the main road with different vendors, a moderate sized hospital, and an embroidery shop and library ran by Haiti Projects.
As soon as we arrived we dropped off our luggage at the hotel and crossed a cemetery in sheer darkness, led by the light of our LCD screens, to have dinner at Molly’s house, Haiti Projects’ country director. Upon arriving we were greeted by Molly and her very racist dog, specifically towards white-skinned people, that barked at us loudly, very loudly. I thought it was hilarious when she explained to us that her dog was racist towards white people. We ate a meal comprised of rice and beans, bonan, salad, and fish. It was amazing! Ronange the cook, a middle-aged plump woman with a sweet face, had had a restaurant in Port-au-Prince that was destroyed by the earthquake and later moved to Fond Des Blancs to look for work. Luckily, she ended up in good hands and so did we.
We all talked for quite a bit at dinner about ourselves and why we had all come to Haiti. It was really beautiful to meet people that had come to donate their time and expertise for the construction of the new library. Cherie, of course, was here to meet all of us and I was here to reassure myself that the decision I had already made to work with Haiti Projects was the right decision. We talked for a long while about our cultures and travel stories and after getting mauled by mosquitoes, which I swore would result with me contracting dengue or chikungunya, we headed back to the hotel. As soon as we stepped out of Molly’s house we entered pure darkness once again with the exception of a few lights here and there from phones or motorbikes passing by. You could hear all types of people talking across the street or as they passed us by and smell the wood being burned in the air. For a moment I lost track of where I was. This felt like Africa. It didn’t feel like the Caribbean I knew, the Caribbean in my blood. Lost in thought, I started looking up at the sky and discovered a constellation of stars. The view was majestic. It dawned on me, I’m in Haiti, this is Haiti.
Back at the hotel I started to unwind, as I was exhausted from not having slept for days and being jet-lagged. I jumped in the shower and the water that came out of the shower-head was half the girth of the faucet’s stream. Not surprisingly there was no hot water, not tonight and not for the rest of the days we would be here. But I needed that cold shower anyways and was grateful we even had water, given Haiti is currently enduring a major drought. I worked till late as I didn’t want to fall behind on the other 50 things I have going on and then finally laid my head to rest on a bed that could have easily been mistaken for a springboard and a pillow with the same stuffing as a cheap stuffed animal one could win in a county fair. And between the mosquitoes devouring me and the not-so-comfortable bed and pillow, I slept two hours at best.
We got up at the crack of dawn to start our very busy day and I was already so exhausted I could barely open my eyes but there was no time to feel sorry for myself, things needed to get done today. I jumped in the shower, got dressed, picked up my hair and was ready and out the door in 15 minutes. We were advised to dress accordingly so I wore a dress, as Haitians are very much about formality in every sense of the word from how they speak to what they wear to education being a top priority. We arrived at Molly’s house to have breakfast: coffee, bread, peanut butter and a banana. And we were off.
Cherie and I went to meet the staff and women at the Artesana Cooperative, which is set up between two buildings, one with offices and the other mostly for production. Upon arriving at the main headquarters I was introduced to the staff and the women that were working. I was introduced to the director of the Artesana Cooperative, Jean Rene, who would play tour guide for the next few hours. I was taken to every room in both buildings and given a thorough explanation on each department and/or the purpose of each room. In the main headquarters, there were several rooms for storage, one for production and the main room where all the sewing machines were.
Next, we headed to the other building where there were about 25 women working. When I asked if I could film and take pictures, Jean Rene got a bit of resistance from the women. At first they came across as standoffish but later I came to discover that Haitians in general could be quite shy with strangers and it’s more of a formality than anything else. For instance, most people wont smile at you or greet you but when you walk past them and say “bonjour” their faces instantly light up and reply “bonjour” in a sweet songlike way. Hence, the women resisted having their pictures taken because they weren’t dressed up or had make-up on. I laughed at the realization that all women are the same.
After the tour of the facilities I was invited to attend the staff meeting, which was half in creole and half in English. I understood a couple of words here and there but nothing to even get me by. So basically everything my Haitian college sweetheart taught me were words I could definitely not use in this situation unless I wanted to make people laugh hysterically or completely offend them. Cherie was nice enough to translate and give me an overall summary of what was being talked about. It was great because I got a glimpse into how the organization was ran and what every staff member’s role was. And then came my favorite part of the day, lunch!
Lunch is traditionally the most important meal in Haiti and that’s why I was so looking forward to it. We went back to Molly’s and feasted on goat, rice and beans, vegetables, salad and this natilla type of custard for dessert. There wasn’t any lambi (conch in a creole sauce) but there would always be tomorrow or the airport. I was hopeful. We went back to the hotel after lunch to get some rest before going on the tour to the library and clinic. The power was not on in the hotel; therefore, we couldn’t turn on the fans and had to either open the front door and enter into a war with mosquitoes or asphyxiate slowly. Plata o plomo. I opted to go to the restaurant/bar and do some work there even though a nap in 90-degree weather and humidity seemed like the better option.
6pm rolled around and we walked 2 minutes down the street to Haiti Projects’ library. It was a very small library with books on one end, a pop-up shop that sold random things in the middle and a computer room on the other end. There were a few timun with gorgeous faces in the library being taught how to read and use the computer. Currently, Haiti Projects is working on building a much bigger library, which will be open to all the residents of Fond Des Blans so they can all have access to computers and Wi-Fi. We walked another 5 minutes up the street to the hospital that Haiti Projects’ partner organization St. Boniface had built. The hospital is a moderate sized building that’s very well kept with its own maternity ward and a garden. We met some other ex-pats there that were living and working or volunteering at the hospital. They gave us an extensive tour of the hospital and all its wings.
When the group decided to climb up a not-so-sturdy looking ladder onto the roof I opted out because I’m afraid of heights and well, because I’m afraid of heights. I hung around the courtyard outside along with 30 other Haitians that were either waiting for someone in the hospital or possibly waiting to get treated. It was hard to say. Bachata and kompa were blaring interchangeably from the radio from someone’s motorbike providing some entertainment for those waiting. And there I was for an hour just observing the life of the average person from Fond Des Blancs on a Tuesday afternoon.
Restless as I am, I got up to walk around. I came across a two-year-old boy who smiled at me as I greeted him, “bonjour!”, he waved at me and uttered “bonjour!!” I turned around and approached him, asked him to give me 5. Intrigued, he gave me 5. His parents, who weren’t a day older than 22, laughed and the father, who spoke Spanish, instantly knew I was a Latina and spoke to me in Spanish. I started to tickle the baby boy and he was cracking up. I was in and I was in love! I asked his father if I could carry him and he said of course. I motioned him to jump on me and the boy didn’t hesitate, as he was thrilled to play with me. They started taking pictures of us and then I pulled my phone out. I recorded me talking to him in Spanish as he repeated everything I said perfectly. I swear this was probably THE cutest boy I have ever seen. I felt so much love for him it made my maternal instincts came to life. If he were an orphan my life would be heading in a different direction right about now, no lie. But I had to let him go as everyone was climbing back down from the roof. I hugged him and gave him a big kiss and put him down and waved goodbye. (I later watched this video about 47 times and still watch it like once a week!)
Back to Molly’s for dinner…hot chocolate, bread, jam, butter, and Laughing Cow cheese. After dinner, I stayed up until I nearly became blind from working on my new website. I showered and went to bed. Tonight I was so exhausted no mosquito, heat, hard bed or pillow would disrupt my sleep. And just like that, I was out in a profound slumber in the midst of my discomfort.
The next morning I woke up around 9am feeling like a new person. Cherie had her morning booked with meetings so I walked over to the hotel’s restaurant and had breakfast, which was pretty much the same exact thing I had for dinner last night but with a lot of coffee instead of hot chocolate. I worked until one of the staff, Fenol, showed up on his motorbike to pick me up. I had to sit sideways because I was wearing a dress and explained to him that I had to hold on to him even though this wasn’t normal behavior in Haiti. When people ride in the back of motorbikes they don’t hold on to the driver. But I’m Latina and I don’t play that, so I held on to him but I’m pretty sure he was thrilled about having this tifi blanc clutching onto him on the back of his bike.
He drove me to the main building where I was to meet with Molly and Cherie about the campaign we were going to launch for Haiti Projects. I went through their inventory of products to select the perks I would offer my donors, captured testimonials on video from a couple of the artisans and then worked some more alongside Tony, the new accountant’s intern. We talked music for a bit…Drake, Sweet Mickey (Haiti’s current president whose music is comparable to that of Uncle Luke from 2Live Crew), Kendrick Lamar, Top Vice, T-Vice and so forth. He showed me some type of Haitian reggae music, I was digging it. I told him reggae was my favorite music of all time, he was in shock. I laughed, he had no idea about this Miami girl.
And then, my favorite time of the day…lunch! No lambi for lunch but regardless it was amazing. I couldn’t bring myself to try the baked pasta with Spam but everything else was great. I told Cherie to please tell the cook she was incredible, she thanked us and smiled with confidence because she knew how good her food was. After lunch I headed back to the restaurant and worked for a few more hours until right about dinnertime. Fenol showed up to see if I was going to be too busy or if I was open to hanging out. I told him I couldn’t hang out this time around but when I come back we would go dance kompa or to the beach. He was stoked. I jumped in the shower and as usual, headed back to Molly’s to have my last dinner in Fond Des Blancs, hot chocolate, bread, butter, Laughing Cow cheese and jam. We called it an early night, as everyone was pretty beat. When we got back to the hotel, I worked and started putting the wheels in motion for this campaign. I was part spent part stoked and tired myself out so I would sleep soundly. And I did.
The next morning we had an early start because we needed to get on the road to Port-au-Prince by 7:30am. Breakfast at Molly’s, some goodbyes and off we were. Annius, our driver and Fenol’s older brother, arrived in his 4×4 to take us back to the capital. Everyone was pretty quiet at first as the rain came pouring down, which was a blessing given Haiti’s drought. I checked my emails and already had messages from people asking me how could they help or get involved. I couldn’t wait to get back and get started on my new campaign. We were incredibly excited just talking about the next steps. Then Cherie started talking to Annius in creole, something “Loren” something “bunda” and he started laughing. I knew she was telling him about the fact that mosquitoes had bitten me all over my butt last night. I told her to tell Annius that the mosquitoes were obviously haitien and new exactly what they were looking for in a woman. We all laughed really hard. See, this I knew how to use in a sentence…tifi blanc avec bunda guo to get a good rise out of a Haitian.
Along the way we picked up one of Annius’s friends, a shy girl in her mid-20s who needed a ride to the capital. I spent most of the ride filming b-roll for my campaign video and observing life in all the towns along the way to Port-au-Prince. The girl and I exchanged smiles but no words. I could sense she was hungry so half way through the trip I offered her one of our Kind bars and bottled water and she gladly accepted, as she didn’t bring anything to eat on this 4-hour journey. She thanked me and smiled and continued to chat on Watsapp and I continued to look out the window at life in Ayiti.
We finally made it to the airport. Annius told Cherie to tell me to please come back soon and that I was always welcome in Ayiti. I gave him a big hug and thanked him. From the moment I met him I liked his energy, he was a sweet and religious man who you can tell was a great person just by the way he smiled. The airport was my last attempt to eat lambi but no luck instead I had griot, my second favorite. I changed my flight to get on Cherie’s flight, which was an hour earlier and instead of working on the flight I spoke to this amazing older couple who made my day. He was French and she was a Jewish Haitian and together they had lived in Haiti but now resided in Miami. An affluent couple who showed me pictures of all their houses in Haiti, including the beautiful beach house they spent a week in with their entire family. The best part about them was not their energy but how deeply in love they still were and how they talked about each other. They asked me what I was doing in Haiti. My mission moved her and she said she needed to do something and that she wanted to get involved so she gave me her contact info.
And just like that I was back in the richest country in the world but this time I didn’t feel guilty about the life I live. I didn’t come back from Haiti heartbroken like I did when I came back from Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa. Instead, I felt inspired and empowered that I have so much to give and that I, together with my family, friends and colleagues and extensive network, can create some lifelong and powerful changes in the lives of women and children in one of the most devastated places on earth.