Yeah, so I know that Haiti is not currently considered a vacation destination, but I kind of went there by accident. I now truly understand what poverty is. And I will never be able to donate blood again. More below the fold.
In the spirit of my occasional "Notes on NOLA" diaries, here is something completely different. For the uninitiated, a group of friends and I compile field notes when we go someplace interesting. Here are my notes from my trip to Haiti last week.
First off, I went to Haiti kind of on accident. We were in the Dominican Republic doing our yearly beach vacation as per agreement with the much_nicer_and_better_looking grrl. We were doing all the things young dykes in love do on Caribbean vacations when we came upon an excursion folder in the lobby. We flipped through and found one that said "Visit Haitian Village". It said there would be a voodoo demonstration and a cock fight. Now, I under stand the monstrosity of cock fighting, but my curiosity was peaked. It isn't every day you get to see a voodoo demonstration in Haiti. So we signed up. Here are some observations (and a few facts I learned from our guide) in no particular order.
Haiti makes for strange bus fellows - It is a strange mix of folks that make the trip to Haiti. We were with a English/Dutch speaking group. Our guide, George, would say everything in English. Then he would say everything in Dutch. There was also a German group and a French group. The DR has mostly European tourists so it isn't surprising. We had a group of Canadians, a widower from New Zealand, a couple from rural West Virginia that kept spouting off about how Bush should be impeached, a very amorous Dutch couple, two Dutch teenagers and an African American couple from New Jersey. I tell you this mainly to put the experience in a bit more context. The couple from WV was older - the wife walked with a cane. The NJ couple mentioned grandkids.
Rainforests have deserts underneath them - The first thing you really notice as you get closer to the border is that the vegetation starts to disappear. It goes from the lush Dominican rain forests to drier grasses and finally to nothing. Once you cross the border, it disappears completely. There is nothing but dust and rocks. George told us that the Haitians have cut down all of the trees to make charcoal - one of the only remaining industries on the island. They cut down all of them except the fruit trees and the fruit trees have trouble surviving with all of the surrounding vegetation gone. We came across the border through the mountains. You could see a distinct line along the border through the mountain range. Green in the DR. Brown in Haiti. If the current rates of deforestion are not stopped, Haiti will be a desert in 50 years.
Borders are a relative concept - The border we crossed was basically a truck in the middle of the road and some guys with machine guns. If you fly into Haiti from the DR, your passport is stamped and they charge you $40 entry and exit fees (plus you have to pay the $10 DR entry and exit fees). If you take one of the local tours, they just let you drive across the border. On each side of the border are single room shacks used as military barracks. One thing common to both countries - the barracks look like tough living. The guards barely flinched when we crossed.
Haiti is not for the masses - I am still not exactly sure what we were thinking. I was honestly picturing a little hall where we would see some voodoo demonstrations dumbed down for tourist consumption and some local crafts. The flyer for the trip mentioned visiting a market. Now, we are not dingbat travellers. I spent a fair chunk of my youth with a backpack bouncing around Europe. I have been to the DR before and I grew up close enough to the Mexican border towns to have experienced some real poverty. We have been to Japan a couple of times and are planning a trip to China later this year. We are not travel newbies. But nothing could have ever prepared us for what we saw a couple of miles across the border. When we came over the hill and saw the village, my first words were "You have got to be fucking kidding".
Everyone comes for Market Day - The market was completely packed. Coming over the hill, you could see a mass of people and animals. Cows and goats. Women with baskets on their heads. Men standing in the background. We stopped in the middle of the mass of people. They drove us to the center of the crowd and opened the doors. George told us to stay close together. I stuck my hand in my pocket and gripped my money. We pushed forward through the crowd. It was dusty and it smelled like goats and unwashed masses. We were going to see what a traditional village house looked like. The village was tiny, but there were people everywhere. Everyone asking you for money. I noticed a truck handing out huge sacks of rice. George told me later that it was a USAid truck. They drop off rice once a month for all pregnant women and all children six and under. Everyone else is SOL.
No one wants your candy - As we broke through the crowd, we were immediately surrounded by children. All of them wanted to hold our hands. They were everywhere and they all looked younder than 10. I have no idea where the older kids were. Writing this I am trying to remember if I saw a single teenager. Some of the pregnant women looked like teenagers, but I didn't see any boys that age. We were told not to give the children anything because they would fight over it. The mnabl grrl had some peppermints she wanted to give them. I told her not too because there weren't enough for all of the children. In the DR, we solved that problem by giving them to an adult to hand out later. We went to a one room - I hesitate to even call it a shack. It was a hovel. A very old woman was inside. The mnabl grrl gave her the candy to give to the children. The woman snatched the bag and hid it quickly. She said "No" thrust out her hand and said "money". The mnablg grrl was shaken. There was no desire for candy here. They didn't need our candy. They were starving. I am going to assume that the woman sold the candy for food. I have managed to convince myself that it will be like that episode of MASH where Winchester gives the chocolates to the orphanage.
Aid is not for everyone - One thing we saw in the village was an orphanage. The group that gives the tours uses some of the money to fund the orphanage. But it isn't enough money to take in all of the orphans in the village. So half of the village orphans wear a clean shirt and get a bowl of rice every day. The other half of the orphans in the village starve in the village streets. I didn't ask how the lucky ones are chosen. The orphanage is not large enough for a dormitory so both sets of orphans are forced to sleep outside. While we were there, the orphans in the orphanage sang a song and hammed it up for the group. The unlucky ones stood outside the door and looked in longingly. There are things you see in life that you never forget. That would be one of them.
You really shouldn't give them candy - I went back to the bus to retreat for a while. The NJ and WV couples and Dutch teenagers were there, too. The guys that I assume were working a security detail for us had bags with clothes and hats in them. One of them opened the bus doors and tossed a couple of hats into the mass of children. They immediately started to fight over them. I don't know if the guys did it on purpose of if they had good intentions, but it got really bad really fast. They were fist fighting in the dirt over a hat. One of them broke away and the others gave chase. They caught him and they fought some more. Running, chasing and fighting until we couldn't see them in the dust. It was about this point that I took my trusty flask out of my backpack and started drinking. The mnabl grrl got on the bus soon after and joined me.
The volunteers are exhausted - We went into the village hospital. There is one room where people wait and there is one room where people are treated. There was no seating in the waiting room. There was only a sheet in the doorway to the examination room. There was no doctor. A Dominican nurse volunteered three days a week and she was exhausted. She was not getting any help. There was some kind of trouble with her husband and she had three kids to feed. It was insane. I looked at the "medine chest" and there was nothing more than some vitamins, cotton balls and alcohol. George told us that about 60% of the people in the village are HIV positive and rape and incest are rampant. Once you visit Haiti, you are stricken from the roles of folks eligible to give blood. Forever.
We saw a voodoo demonstration. We saw a cock fight. Not much to report.
That is what we saw. I will never forget it for as long as I live. Seriously. There was also a school. One room. One chalkboard. Not enough room for everyone. I kept wondering how on earth those people could be there. The ground could not be cultivated. There was no industry of any kind. They were just there. In mud shanties on the side of hill. No electricity. Before George started helping them, they had to walk 3 KM each way for water. Unimaginagle. I kept expecting Sally Struthers to pop out of a shanty. I though I was emtionally exhausted after Katrina. I really did. I didn't think that anything could impact me on such a raw emotional level after seeing the city I love destroyed. If anything, the trip made me aware that I have a bit left.
And the kicker is that we are partly responsible. We were the ones propping up one corrupt government after another. That place was the consequence of our inaction. I still believe - I have always believed that if everyone would do one small thing, we could make a huge impact in the world. Seeing people in that situation made me realize that perhaps we need to do a bit more than a little. A lot of neglect made that place and it is going to take a lot of work to make it even human. What do people do when you force them to live like animals? They live like animals. We had the same destructive policies all through Latin America. Now we are doing it in Iraq. I tell you, no photographs, no news stories, no Sally Struthers special can ever prepare you for seeing it. For smelling it. For being dead thick in the middle of the abject misery of it. I wish I had one of my usual wise ass closing comments but I don't. There is nothing more I can really say.