Thursday, June 15, 2006

Haiti Mission Trip Part II

Day One: February 21

Our flights to reach Haiti are like decompression from civilization as we know it. The first leg of our journey involved interstates, large terminals and jet engines. We fly from Dayton to Atlanta and have to kill some time during a brief layover. I score some coffee and a magazine to pass the time. It seems a small thing to have coffee, flavored if you like, or the ability to select from nine kinds of tea. It’s something that I will later learn to appreciate a whole lot more.

The second leg brought us from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale where things began to look a little different. No, Florida hasn’t changed, but as we walk toward the flights that service Haiti, we see the airlines are smaller. One of the nurses remarks that she sees "Bob’s Discount Air" and "We-Be Flyin" off in the distance. I’m not entirely sure if she is joking.

The plane that took us to Haiti was tiny. It barely fit our team of 12, one other passenger and another pilot. He sat in the back and I took comfort knowing that our plane has a spare pilot. One other observation about the flight: You never appreciate the safety instructions that they give before you take off until you cannot understand them. The only thing I understood was something about a water landing and that most sharks are not man-eaters. I think.

After two and half hours, we are approaching our destination. As we came in over the mountains I was taken by the beauty of the land from afar: lush, rolling mountains in multiple shades of green surrounded by an inviting blue ocean. As we draw closer to Cap Haitian, we see areas of deforestation. Depending on which way you look, you either see ecological devastation or a Caribbean paradise. It was sobering to see smoke near the runway as we came in for landing.

We are greeted by the Haitian heat. I think of the moment in the Tom Hanks film "Volunteers" when he walks out of his jungle hut and proclaims that they must be about a mile from the sun. We are a source of some interest to the locals, though I soon gather that we aren’t a novelty. The check-in station–a tall plywood box cobbled together by a distracted carpenter–proclaims "Missionary Flights International." Really.

Our experience at immigration and customs was the first confirmation that we are in a different world. Fortunately, we have a contact in Cap Haitian, a man named Wilbert (pronounced- Will-bear) Merzilius. Wilbert runs the Living Hope Mission, a non-denominational group, that helps the people of Cap Haitian and surrounding areas. Wilbert meets us at customs and thank goodness he does.

Four of us–Wilbert, our lead doctor, myself and a dour-looking Haitian who I assume was in charge of customs, all file into an office. As we did, the customs officials outside tear into our six carefully packed boxes of medications. These boxes are tightly packed, and I cannot help but wonder how we are going to repackage our supplies.

Back inside the office, the customs agent offers a rapid-fire speech in Creole and starts punching numbers into an old adding machine. After arriving at the right number, guided by “strict” tariff fees, he shares the figure with our host and guide. Wilbert then leans over the man’s desk, clears the machine and starts inputting his own numbers. This goes on for some time until a deal is made. All told, it cost us two hundred American dollars and a bottle of our hand sanitizer, with moisturizer, to clear customs.

I will not be able to forget the first time I left the terminal. Americans have a much different definition of poverty. A homeless person living in the United States has access to more resources than most of the people we will encounter. In America, you can visit a mission for food and clothing, or an emergency shelter when it gets too cold for a steam grate. What Haitians define as "normal," I would soon learn, is far below the concept of poverty in America.

No one, for example, has access to our version of a bathroom in the areas we visited because there is no sewer system. There are two kinds of outdoor bathrooms–a hole in the ground without walls or a pile of garbage. Public electricity, when it works, is available a few times a week. The roads resemble a motocross track designed by a sadist. The list goes on.

I also find myself bewildered by the Haitians themselves. Haiti is a land of desperate poverty and absolute want, but it is populated by people filled with an illogical and beautiful sort of grace. I do not claim to understand Haiti completely, partially, or even at all, but I believe there is something to be gained by sharing this experience.

We spend the night getting to know our new hosts, Wilbert and his wife, Meg, a native of Ohio who has lived in Haiti for 14 years. We begin preparing our pharmacy. We spend a long time placing de-worming medicines and Flintstones chewable vitamins in plastic baggies. I wonder if we are making too many bags. By the end of the week, I would have increased he number tenfold.

We are acquainted with the voodoo drums and, soon thereafter, the "rooster brigade," the latter of which does not understand that 3 a.m. is not the optimal time to start crowing. We soon get acquainted with the Haitian uber-mosquitoes for which DEET is not so much of a repellent as it is an appetizer before their meal of American red blood cells.


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