Wow, what an adventure this has been thus far! We (Angie, Heather and myself) spent the night in Miami...it is really nice in Miami...at least what I could see for a night on the drive to the hotel. This morning we headed back to the airport...Haiti bound. Checking in luggage went without much fanfare. Despite my worries about having too many bags, it turned out I wasn't alone. I even had some room in mine to accommodate my colleague so we could be just under the 50lbs per bag limit. We each had at least two bags of supplies (mostly toys and art supplies, etc) for the children we hope to see at the hospital.
There was something refreshing hearing Creole spoken at the Miami airport. Something about it gave me a sense of comfort. We boarded a small plane with strict instructions not too carry-on too big a bag. Well, my duffle bag had become a carry-on a la military style, if you can picture it. In order words, it went on with me. But I worked it out so that it became two small bags. Hey, you gotta be resourceful, and you gotta protect at least the laptop from which I write you tonight.
So, sitting on the plane I met a lady Nicole, her and her husband are directors of a forestation program here in Leogane. She speaks fluent Creole. We talked about the earthquake. Why she and her family moved here (since Sept 2009) and how her work is helping to provide some education and support to the Haitian peasants. It was a wonderful conversation. And to prove how small the world really is, just two weeks ago this same woman met the previous two psychiatrists on our team...no coincidence! So, as Nicole and I talked, we hit a bit of turbulence on the plane going through clouds...why is that? The gentlemen to the right of Nicole, a Haitian man, just let out a yelp, yep, a yelp. Was he scared? Hmmm, you tell me. But instantly I knew he had experienced the January 12th earthquake. Something in his reaction. Sure enough, he confirmed it when we talked a little later...we both had done our best to calm his nerves. He wondered why we hadn't landed yet since the pilot said we were 20 minutes from the airport. I wondered too, but just thanked God and went with the flow. I mean what do you do when the plane you're flying on takes a dip, not just any dip, but a very quick gravity insides all turned upside down dip? Well, I guess by now, I've sort of learned to just say, aight God, thank you, whatever happens here goes. Seriously, I say that in my head.
Anyway, safe landings in Port-au-Prince...everyone clapped. Nicole tells me, most Haitians usually do clap with each landing, turbulence or not. It dawned on me that perhaps it's because we are keenly aware we don't control the skies. You know it's funny, when you realize that there's very little you have control over, you tend to be a little less stressed about major events. You kinda shrug your shoulders and go about your business...the life you have now. And I think that's perhaps what many of the people here have done...but this is only my cursory view from an airplane window.
We land in Port-au-Prince. We wait on a long line to clear customs I imagine, except, it's a line to go out of the airport and onto a shuttle bus to the Cargo station to pick up our luggage. We get there and oh, it's swelteringly hot! We go through customs, give our declaration forms and meet with chaos on the other end. Luggage is everywhere. People are everywhere. It is a colorful sea of people, Haitians, Americans and of course those who kindly offer their assistance to get your luggage, for a small fee. Except they don't tell you this up front. But tell you how beautiful you look and they are very serious about helping. I almost fell for it. This of course after I reminded my colleagues of our instructions to clearly say, "non merci." I had to chuckle at myself. So, a small airport, people everywhere, and it's hot. But we manage to get our luggage onto a cart and head outside to meet our driver. The scene is surreal. People behind a fence looking in. Security trying to have people with luggage move out from the cargo station and yelling at the would be drivers to clear the way. THAT was a gripping scene. My more than 25 years adopted western mentality and blend of many cultures wondered, "hmm, why does he have to be so mean, can't he just be nice." Hey, what can I say, I'm a sucker for niceness. Guess, security was never my calling, at least not that type anyway.
So, you're probably wondering how am I feeling about all this? I have not been in this country in 25 years! To be honest with you I think I am holding myself together. I don't know how to explain it. It is both familiar and foreign. Does that make sense? That's the only way I can describe it for now. I was really young when I left Haiti, but there is something familiar about it. Yet, as an adult now, it's a bit foreign, yet curious. I have this inquisitiveness about me that pushes me to observe, to wonder, even silently and to simply take it all in. What is most familiar is the language! I hear it and I smile, because I understand it. And there is something about one Haitian that recognizes another. I don't know how that is, but some recognized instantly that I was Haitian, even with braided extensions. Others, didn't know, and that's mainly the ones who were trying to hit on me. Needless to say I learned not to respond either in Creole or in English, smile, I am learning.
Our team is all together including a group of 12 or more from another Medical team, also part of the Notre Dame University Haiti Project. Our drivers take our luggage and we walk on gravel/dirt road to get to the bus (and that's clearly not a great description of what it really was) to load them and drive to Leogane. The street is filled with people, young people, lots of young man asking to help, for money. Our bags are safely loaded and we squeeze in a small jeep like car, 7 of us not including the driver and the one guy who sat in the passenger seat up front. I am in the back with Paul and Alexa, barely any room to fit. It is a tight fit for sure. But off we go. As we drive through the city, I take pictures as best as I could in my squeezed space. None of us are comfortably seated, but no one complains, we shift our behinds periodically, pull down the window, take pictures and shake our heads at the devastation. When people talk about tent cities, you really have to see it for yourself!
The city is mostly covered in tents, rubbles, trash is pretty much everywhere, little storefronts along the road. People carrying stuff on their heads; others on bike. It's definitely a sight not to behold. Some place we drive by, I wonder how people endure the stench!!?? And then I think that while my Haitian people are a resilient one and have endured so much, I still don't know, how you endure something like this. How do you rebuild a place that from all objective observation seems so broken. We drive pass the palace. I get a good look at the toppled over roof top of the Presidential Palace. I think that moment for me made my being in Haiti real. Wow, it is really destyroyed. I snap a picture as quickly and as best I can...I attached it. Wow, it is something else.
The drive is bumpy, sometimes dirt-filled, but safe. At no point did I feel unsafe. But you couldn't help to see toppled over homes, rubbles, yet people everywhere doing the best they can...selling, cooking, kids running around; women sitting talking; men on bicycles or motorcycles; young men walking around; some looking at us as we drive by; other cars on the road...nothing like cars here in the U.S. Another reminder of what we take for granted!
Well, we make it safely to our residence. Driving to get to it are more tent cities all along the sides of the residence. We see where the nursing director lives. It looks like a nice place. All in her front yard however are tents were her nursing students stay. The makeshift hospital, also tents. As we get off the "bus" curious kids run to come see who these new poeple are. They seem so happy. That's the amazing things about kids sometimes...no matter what horrific thing is going on in their lives, they are an enthusiastic curious demeanor about them. I greet them hello.
Later "Ali" takes us on a tour/jog around town. It's really our first outreach I think. As we walk, a bunch of kids literally come running up to us and ask curious questions about who Heather and I. They know Ally and call her "L." She introduces us and tells them that I am Haitian. Oh, boy, the questions start to roll. Were you born here or "over there [U.S.]" Here I tell them in Creole. They seem excited that I speak Creole. As we continue our walk more kids join us. You know, there is no certainty on how you will outreach or minister or help someone. You can have a set plan. This is how I will do this and that... and sometimes that doesn't pan out. On this walk, at least two of this kids who are with us begin to talk about their experience of the earthquake. Le tremblement terre rive tout bagay sekwe, mwen santi-m tap tombe nan yon tou. Nou kouri soti. Yon nan se-m te blese." "When the eartquake occurred, everything shook. I felt like I was falling in a deep hole. We ran outside. One of my sisters was injured," one of the little girls told me in Creole. As we continued on the walk towards the water, another tells me that both her parents died, but a month before the quake. And she goes on to say that her mother was coming after her to take her with her. I simply had to listen, otherwise I'd have to put on my clinical hat and go through the list of diagnosis. But in this culture where such beliefs are a norm, you simply listen. So it turns out that it was this little girls God-mother who saw in a vision the mother wishing to take her daughter with her to the grave. According to the little girl, the Godmother cursed the mom away. This little girl says this with confidence and a smile. She seems well adjusted and very, very smart. They cling to the three of us, these curious children. I don't know all their stories of lost or otherwise. But for this moment, this walk that we went on provided maybe an escape, perhaps company for them, and for us, an introduction/re-introduction to the culture. We see many tents along our walk; many huts too. That's the best way I can describe it. People look at us, at me with curiosity. Some say "Bonsoir" "Good evening or hello. I smile and respond. As I walk I hear some of them call me "Blanc," and this is not a literal translation for "white" either. Here, I think it simply means foreigner. And in many ways, perhaps I am a foreigner in my own land. I don't remember coming to Leogane as a child. The sugar canes look familiar. The mango trees make me smile. The banana trees bring a sense of awe. The gravel roads take me back to the roads I walked on as a small girl. All of it familiar, but today I am a "blanc." I don't know if that label will stick once we begin our work with the nursing students and the patients. But for now, I am content to be in a place where I completely understand the language spoken here.
I would write more...it's late...and time for bed. Actually, I don't even know what time it is. I don't have a sense of that. I am not wearing a watch. But mostly everyone here at the residence is asleep. We are safe. We have been well fed...beans and rice and ban-nan peze (fried plantains avec pic-clise), yum! Day one over and out. Good night.