Once it was finally settled that I was going to Haiti, things moved very quickly. Now that I am a parent, I can much better imagine some of the trepidation my parents must have felt. I was 16, traveling alone, to a very unstable country who had recently had a coup. But, they never showed any fear or worry, and joined in my excitement.
Port-au-Prince was hot. Very hot. It was crowded, bustling and dusty, and I was glad to meet up with the missionaries. The ride to St. Marc was bumpy and warm, but I was so busy taking in the sights, sounds and smells that it just added to the adventure. Arriving at the missionary base, I was given a lovely welcome basket, with a card and delicious canepas.
There were three families on the base, several children, two single women and a man. I think that people who are called into leadership tend to have strong personalities, and especially those who are called to other countries. It requires a definite level of independence and ability to stand alone in one's convictions, as well as a spirit of adventure, curiosity and adaptability. And, most of the time, I think that those who last also have a sense of humor! Naturally, when you get a group of people who like to go their own way together, conflicts can arise, but I wasn't aware of any discord during my trip.
Very soon, I began to find shared interests and things that I enjoyed and admired about the group--one who shared my taste in books (and graciously shared the ones there), another who loved thunderstorms as much as I do, one who became a friend just by virtue of her beautiful, loving personality that drew in everyone around her.
I've been on organized missions trips that were a whirlwind of activity--dramas to present, meetings and services multiple times a day, and they were great. As an adult leading a group of teens later, I fully appreciated the need to keep everyone busy. But I savored every moment of the "real-life" sense of this trip.
The missionaries' quarters were nice and adequate, but not extravagant. There was no AC, we used an outhouse, and all water was caught in a cistern up on top the roof and flowed by gravity to the kitchen and bathroom. Naturally, when it didn't rain a lot, water was carefully rationed. Showers meant lathering up dry and only turning on the water for a few seconds to rinse off. Water for dishes and drinking was purified with a bit of bleach and/or boiled. This trip was where I developed a taste for the very, very strong Haitian coffee! With strong coffee and a little Haitian vanilla added, it masked any other flavors in the water.
One morning we walked to the market to get the items for the day's meals. On the way, we saw many people from the area. All smiled warmly and greeted us, the women walking with perfect posture as they balanced baskets on their heads. When we arrived at the meat market, it was getting close to noon. Like any open air market, it was...smelly. The waves of heat shimmered in the air, and the meat was thickly clustered with flies. As we approached one of the vendors, he grinned broadly. "Ah! It is the American lady! I saved the special meat for you!" We followed him through what I can only imagine was the actual slaughterhouse. It was a concrete floor, covered with heads, hooves, and other cow parts, with congealing blood in puddles all over the floor. He reached into a closed 5 gallon bucket and drew out several chunks of the "special" meat. It wasn't covered with flies, either, which was definitely a plus.
You know that I love food. Haitian cuisine was delicious! The warm, crusty fresh bread was amazing. The sweet and sticky homemade candies sold by the street vendors, and once some type of spicy goat that I tried were scrumptious. The fresh passion fruit and guayaba juices were nectar from heaven. But one of my favorite food memories was provided by Noel, one of the young boys who used to hang around the mission. One day, he went and got fresh breadfruit. Then, using his machete, he sliced it up and fried it in boiling oil. It surpassed any French fries I've ever tasted!
Many of the days there were filled with ordinary things--cooking, cleaning, reading, visiting the people around us. A sister to one of the missionaries arrived from the US, and it was fun getting to know her. Even though I didn't understand the language, I enjoyed the people. One day, after church, we witnessed a baptism in the ocean. The exuberant joy of the people coming out of the water transcended any language, and is a memory I will always have. We also took some trips out of St. Marc.
One day we left early with one of the Haitians for a trip up into the mountains. He was working to establish a hospital in a village that was over six hours away from the nearest medical facility. Two of us were in the back of the station wagon that he drove, which was enclosed only with a kind of metal cage. We traveled to villages where it was still such a novelty to see people with our complexions that the people kept pointing to us and shouting, "Blanc! Blanc!". It was kind of a weird feeling, especially while in the back of the cage-like contraption, as if we were creatures in a zoo. The car got stuck in axel-deep mud several times, but when we arrived it was more than worth it. Up in the mountains, the air was blissfully cool, the people were friendly, and as we walked through the area where the hospital was to be built, our Haitian friend cut fresh sugar cane for us to suck on. The sweetness lasted long after we chewed and sucked on the fibrous stalks.
Another day we went to the Citadel in Cap Haitien. Because it was far away, and given the road conditions (which were often merely a swath about 12 feet wide clear of major debris or shrubbery), we left before 4AM. Around 11:00, we passed through yet another military checkpoint, but this one was different. The soldier in charge was drunk. We could sense unease everywhere--both from the missionaries and the other soldiers. Soon he began loudly demanding that we pay him money in order to pass.
Now, while I fully appreciate integrity and disdain for bribery, I've lived in places where it was just a fact of life. Our Haitian friend, who was driving, refused to bend to such wickedness, however. I admired his ethics, but inwardly winced as the officer grew more and more irate. Even his fellow soldiers were trying to persuade him to just let us go on, but whether it was drunkenness or just stubbornness, he refused. He demanded to see all of our papers. We all handed them over, except for the American sister. She had left her passport back several hours away in St. Marc. Once he realized this, the soldier demanded that we all follow him to the military compound.
In the general scheme of things, it was fairly unlikely that a young American girl would try to illegally enter Haiti, I would think. But, of course, we knew that that was just an excuse, anyway. We were held there several hours. Each time a new group of soldiers arrived, others would point in our direction and full them in on the story, which generally elicited a lot of laughs. A couple of soldiers would come and look us over, with expressions as if they wanted to see how intimidated we would get. Looking back, we were being held by a drunken military officer in the period shortly after a coup. No one knew where we were, and we were completely at their mercy. It is probably just as well my parents didn't hear about it until after I got home. At the time, though, it seemed more like part of the adventure than anything else.
After several hours, the adventure was beginning to pall just a bit. I was hungry, for one thing. ;) Suddenly, everyone around us straightened up and snapped to attention. Apparently, the CO had arrived. Soon he strode over to where we were and briskly asked for an explanation. Our Haitian friend began to tell him, but was abruptly cut off. The officer then gestured to another one of our group to continue. Once again, before even a sentence was completed, he barked at him to stop. It seemed that the officer was a tad impatient. He brusquely told us to come up to his office, and gestured for us to sit. The bench where he had pointed had puddles of something (hopefully water) on it, but we weren't about to hesitate. When this guy spoke, you obeyed!
Much to my surprise, while we sat there, he opened his desk, pulled out a Bible and began reading it silently. He continued for several minutes--apparently his impatience did not extend to God's Word. I have always wondered what passage he read. After he stopped, he looked over at me and asked if I had my passport. I did. He nodded briskly and said that the other girl was also free to go on my passport. We looked at each other in amazement and gratefulness, thanked him briefly and sincerely, and stood not upon the order of our going.
The rest of the trip to the Citadel was uneventful, but I suppose we had had a good amount of excitement, anyway. As we pulled in, the gates began to close and the caretaker informed us that we were too late to see it. Nobody argued, but he must have been a very tenderhearted man. Taking a second look at our tired and disappointed faces, he changes his mind. Instead, he gave us a personal tour, including several areas that normally were closed to tourists! It is one of the most impressive places I've ever been.
A few moments stand out in my memory: the smell of passion fruit that had fallen along the trail, the feel of the breeze from the top of the Citadel, looking down hundreds and hundreds of feet to the ground below. And one that still makes me chuckle: when we visited the restrooms, we walked into a very modern, typical commercial restroom. The stalls were perfectly ordinary. However, when you lifted to lid of the toilet, there was nothing but empty space for hundreds of feet! I'm sure it saved water since there was no flushing, but I hoped that no poor soul happened to be walking below in the wrong place at the wrong time!
My last couple of days in Haiti were spent back in Port-au-Prince, as the missionaries went on a retreat for a few days. We were in a lovely lodge there, with a great library, a lovely garden, and even richer fellowship. We talked together, played games and laughed together, and prayed and sought God's heart with each other.
If the lesson from the first part of the trip was about faith and trusting God, what I took away from the latter part was lessons on joy, gathered during our times of seeking God, and an appreciation for the incredible graciousness and hospitality of the missionaries who made me feel so included. I want to share that kind of love and hospitality with someone far from home one day.
I checked their website yesterday. One of the same families is still there. Their children, so very young when I visited, are now adults helping with the work there. They have been hit hard, just as everyone else in Haiti by the disaster. They are low on food, water and gas, trying to share what they do have with the people in their community. Last I heard, they were working desperately to open the port in hopes of being able to get supplies. As people are evacuating Port-au-Prince, the situation in outlying areas is becoming even more perilous. Please give--of prayers, money, blood, whatever you can to help. Some believe that Haiti is cursed. Yet when I was there, I saw a land full of promise, and people of strength, dignity and joy. Please help to keep that promise, strength, and joy alive.