(Read Part I here)
Our little mission team of five sat clustered at our gate in Miami, waiting for the flight that would bring us back to Ohio. Touchdown in Columbus would get us one step closer in the journey home from Haiti, closer to our own beds, familiar food, and our families. We were tired, and more than a little anxious for a hot shower. But our minds still swirled with thoughts and memories of the previous eight days. The five-hour layover offered us time to talk about our experiences, and how they would carry over into our daily lives and the work of our church.
I think all five of us would agree that Haiti is wonderful. But Haiti is hard. I don’t know what it’s like in other seasons, but my winter experience was hot, sticky, and stinky. And when I say stinky, I’m talking about myself, not the air. The weather was no sweat – literally — for the Haitians, but it didn’t take long for me to start feeling quite … soupy. Over the course of nine days, I think I took four showers. I slept in the same long-sleeved shirt and yoga pants each night. Long sleeves and full pants seem crazy considering the heat, but nights in Haiti are actually pretty breezy, and the gentle wind also helps keep away mosquitoes.
Or so they claim. I awoke every morning with fresh bite welts on my hands, feet, legs, arms, and face, despite the breeze, clothing, and copious amounts of bug repellant. Pastor Steve woke up one morning with a mysteriously fat lip, which of course called for a duck joke or two. He got his revenge a few days later, however, when I woke up with a fat lip of my own and a largely swollen eyelid. We still don’t know what caused them.
I shaved my legs exactly once, and not well. I grew hair like it was my job, people, and will never leave home without tweezers ever again. My digestive system was out of whack (but not in the way you’d think.) I had a small breakout on my chest. I peed twice a day, if lucky, which really wasn’t such a bad thing after viewing the restroom facilities in some of the remote places we visited.
We had to get up and carry our beds down to the second-floor covered porch twice because of rain. One night, we slept on sheets on the dirt floor of a church we visited in the mountains. The day we hiked up to the church at Bethel was probably the most difficult for me. You can only access this community by following a narrow path (what we’d call a cow path), which was steep and covered with large rocks. I’m able-bodied but not in optimal shape, so that hour walk under a blazing sun was pretty hard. I had to take several breaks, and at one point thought I would vomit from the stress on my body. I’m a West Virginia mountain girl and have done my fair share of hiking, but at least we have the luxury of trees and shade in these hills. Thanks to the charcoal industry, there aren’t many trees in Haiti.
The church at John-Charles, where we slept and then shared in worship the next day.
The food in Haiti was different, but pretty good. We ate a lot of rice and beans, and the fresh juice was delicious. I’d say my favorite dish was probably the spaghetti noodles and peanut butter (yes, you read that correctly) that we had for breakfast a few days. Such a strange combination, but tasty. One evening Erin, Abbie and I were sitting under a tree in the front yard of the orphanage. All of a sudden Abbie says, “Whoops, dead goat. Dead goat.” A glance toward the outdoor kitchen told us all we needed to know. Claudette (the orphanage cook) and Gina (the wife of Bato, who runs the orphanage) had slit the throat of a goat and were holding it up by its legs to allow the blood to drain. Sure enough, that goat ended up on our plates the following evening. I would have tried it – really – but the piece I got still had some skin attached and I just couldn’t do it. I understand where meat comes from, and I’m very much a carnivore. But I didn’t grow up on a farm, I prefer to purchase my meat already dead and wrapped, and I make it a policy to never eat anything I’ve met.
I’m sort of embarrassed to talk about these things, because I knew the risks and certainly didn’t expect the trip to be anything like a tropical vacation. I don’t shy away from dirt or hard work. But when you’re accustomed to daily showers, neatly styled hair, and being able to drive to church in a car, such dramatic differences all at once can sort of come as a shock to the body and the spirit. Haiti is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It is impossible to look away from the poverty. It’s everywhere. As is the garbage. In nearly every yard, along every road, in every ditch, there’s trash. Sometimes it’s on fire.
The streets are crammed with vehicles and people. Lanes mean nothing, and there are few stop signs or traffic lights. Each side of the roads are lined with makeshift vendor booths where people sell produce, toiletries, auto parts and clothing. Livestock roams freely.
And my goodness, the noise. Honking horns, rumbling motorcycles, crowing roosters, bleating goats, machete hacking, crying babies, and a 4 a.m. performance of what I’m convinced must be the Haitian version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir somewhere in the neighborhood of the orphanage. This cacophony lasted all day and night.
Minutes in Haiti feel like hours. The people there do not hurry, and they do not adhere to schedules. I often felt as if I were moving in slow motion. I am so used to coming and going as I please that it was strange to not only have to depend on others for food, transportation, etc., but also to be completely at their mercy. We ate what was presented to us when it was presented. If we made plans to leave by 3 p.m. to visit another church? Well, we’d probably be on the road by 5 or 6.
With the exception of poverty (and the trash), none of these differences are bad. However, when you pile them on all at once, well, there’s a reason why it’s called culture shock. It was uncomfortable. Which, I’d guess, is exactly how God intended it to be.
Sometimes I could just fall on my face in thankfulness to God for the gift of grace. Without it, how could we ever look beyond the mess, beyond the hardship and pain and struggle this life is so apt to deliver? A few days into our stay I sat on the front porch of the orphanage and thought, “I don’t think I can come back here. This is too much, too different. Too chaotic. Too hard. Hot. Hopeless.”
That’s why, sitting at that gate in Miami, I was surprised by my answer to Pastor Steve’s question. “Would you come back?”
“Yes. Yes, I would.”