It took me a few days to begin to process what I saw and how I felt during my first trip to Haiti. After only four days on an island just 600 miles from the U.S. coast, my mental and physical exhaustion levels felt more on par with traveling 3,000 miles to spend a week with my fire-on-all-cylinders-at-all-times family (see y’all soon!).
The truth is, as much as I’d love to paint a verbal picture of how it was, I know even my most sincere effort will fail to capture the truly idiomatic essence of Haiti.
With no reference to distinguish before and after the January 2010 earthquake, my colleagues’ counsel as to what I could expect to experience went mostly in one ear and out the other. Yes, I knew that even before the devastating quake Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere … but what did that mean? (Literally, it meant the majority of Haitians were living on about USD $2 per day)
Immediately after the earthquake, Americans were flooded with images of seemingly insurmountable destruction. Broken homes, broken families, broken bodies. Stories of survival and the sudden influx of relief and resources sprinkled parcels of hope here and there for Haitians, and my heart went out to them. But with an ocean between us, I had a hard time relating to exactly what they were going through.
What this trip showed me is that I will most likely never know what the people of Haiti have endured. Not just from the earthquake, but in general. Haiti is a country of contrasts. Economically, geographically, culturally and linguistically; it is at once beautiful and tragic, resourceful and devastated.
It wasn’t until my third day in the country that I saw first-hand one of those iconic post-quake images that I had passively glimpsed on the TV from the comfort of my cozy winter-proofed apartment. We were on our way back to the office from a day of program site visits when our driver took a side route. Up until that point, we’d traveled mostly on main roads, littered with treacherous pot holes, burning garbage, sidewalk markets and the occasional mound of rubble and rocks. But none of that compared to this: A bi-level home, preserved in its original form and structure on top – but the top was the bottom. It was like someone came along and tried that trick where you yank the tablecloth out from under all the settings without them falling over…except they did fall over. Well, not over, just down.
The house was gone as soon as it had appeared, but the image lingered in my mind for a while. I remember saying “Wow!” and involuntarily gasping as my first thought was “how could anyone possibly escape that?” Most likely, they didn’t.
Now, as I prepare to return to Haiti in January, it’s at least somewhat comforting to realize that such an image is not as common as it was almost two years ago. I’m proud to work with an organization that is playing a significant role in sustainable recovery efforts, and I’m thankful for the personal and emotional challenges that brings. I’m also really glad to be surrounded by people on both sides of the ocean whose hope and positive focus on the future is a daily inspiration for the present.