I have been dreaming about writing this ever since I returned from Haiti.
My mind has been a tangled, sticky web of emotions and facts and memories, so I have put off writing about it. I’m ready now; I want to share my experience. I will do the best I can to organize my thoughts (I apologize for tangents; I am famous for those…)
My personal connection with Haiti began April 1st, 2013. On this day, I am wanting inspiration, and I mindlessly troll Facebook. I come across the status of an old coworker, Kamila. She has just returned from volunteering in Haiti, and has written that the experience was life changing. I am intrigued. (At the time I don’t know much about Haiti. I know 2 things: that it is a third world country, and that in 2010 an earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital and largest city, killing over 200,000 people. I later will find out that that the Haitian government reported that the death toll topped 220,000, with 1.5 million people displaced. The numbers are not confirmed; there are still conflicting reports.)
I reach out to Kamila, and ask her about her experience. She tells me that I would be better informed by reaching out to Stephanie Price, the director/coordinator (she will likely dispute that title, but its accurate) of the English in Mind Institute (EIM), in Port-au-Prince. EIM is a free, adult English program in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It was started by an NGO (European Disaster Volunteers) in the aftermath of the earthquake, but it is now a Haitian-led, Haitian-taught and Haitian-administered operation. EIM offers bi-weekly classes to over 160 students at 5 different levels and follow a Cambridge University English syllabus complete with internationally-recognized exams. I quickly learn once I am at the school that EIM is like a close knit family, and Stephanie is the mother, embracing her children with warm and loving arms. (Every EIM student and staff member would 100% agree with that).
Steph and I connect over email. I let her know that I am a photographer, but that I would be willing to do whatever I can to help out, teach English, or shoot promotional images for the school. She tells me that she was organizing a 10 day trip for volunteers for June. I am ready to pay in full whatever the cost is, NOW. It is impulsive of me, but I don’t hesitate. I don’t know why. I feel like there is an invisible thread pulling me there. My flight is booked the following week with little additional information.
I know that I will want to document what I will see. The product of this documentation is largely undefined. It is a nebulous cloud of inspiration that hangs over my head, amorphous, yet glimmering with the hope of creating something powerful. [Ironically, since the death of my mother, I have become much, much better at allowing myself to have blind faith in the universe, believing that things will unfold as they are supposed to, and not continually looking for distinct answers and reasoning behind things.]
Life unfolds and time passes. It is June. In the previous months I have connected with another volunteer, Kyle, who is a producer, and he is planning to shoot a short documentary about Haiti. We have brainstormed with Steph about what we can produce on such a short trip that would be cohesive and meaningful. We ultimately decide that since we will be there for such a short time, it will be best to document the experience with an open mind, filming and shooting what inspires us, and then go back at a later date with a more defined plan.
Finally, mid June, the day has come to fly to Port-au-Prince. My flight home from India a few months earlier had hours of turbulence, and I now have an anxiety about flying that was never present before. I board the plane, my stomach sour with anxiety. Luckily, the flight is smooth and I touch down in Haiti without incident. The airport is actually more modern that I have expected. I wade through the crowd of people, wrestling with my overpacked suitcase, and spot Stephanie, waving her arms excitedly. She and I have met once before, for margaritas in Manhattan. Steph is bouncy, energetic and exudes warmth and enthusiasm. (She is also hilarious.) Her passion for Haiti is evident almost immediately upon meeting her (she even has a tattoo on her inner arm the says “I will never leave you” in Creole). I could write an entire post about Steph, but to find out her full story and connection to Haiti you will have to ask her yourself.
We arrive at Haiti Communitere (HC), the base that I will call home for the duration of the trip. [This is the manifesto, taken straight from the website, which can articulate HC's purpose far more efficiently than I: Haiti Communitere is a Haitian based organization that strives for Haitian and International groups to operate as a community, thus increasing capacity and streamlining logistical operations. HC partners operate in a shared overhead environment, thus allowing their focus of operations to remain project based. HC continues to respond to the observed needs not being addressed on the ground while coordinating a Sustainability Resource Center that fosters creativity and connectivity while inspiring the Haitian and International development effort. ]
After knocking, and a guard opening a little slot to see who we are (which I found reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz), the large iron gate is opened by a security guard, and we are allowed onto the compound. A few people sit at a picnic table under an an overhang at the main building. To the left of the building camping tents of various sizes are set up; around the rest of property are structures build of alternative/upcycled materials including Adobe, Ubuntu Blocks, even soda bottles. When I later explain the alternative housing structures to my cousin, she compares it to Bikini Bottom, the city that Spongebob Squarepants lives in. If you have never seen Spongebob, ignore this reference. If you have seen it, there actually is a legitimate parallel there- Spongebob lives in a pineapple, Sandy lives in a bubble, Patrick lives under a rock… they all live in alternative forms of housing. I enjoy this analogy.
Steph gives me a brief tour and then takes me to meet the other EIM volunteers. Along the way I meet some of HC’s longer-term residents (NGO workers, nurses, general aid/relief volunteers) whose stays at HC vary from a few months to a few years. I also meet Bonnie and Mel, a spirited mother-daughter duo volunteering with EIM. Momma Bonnie was in the peace corps, and daughter Melody is moving to South Sudan in a few weeks (she is currently there- MEL: if you have internet access and are reading this…what up girl?! Hope South Sudan is not hotter than Haiti was!). They wanted spend some time together before Mel moves to Africa. I meet Noelle, a ultra-marathon runner with a heart of gold who fell in love with Haiti on her Haiti Ultra run (70 miles across Haiti in THREE DAYS). I meet Kyle, the producer, soft spoken and sweet and gentle. I meet Sam, the founder and director of HC, in charge of running HC and coordinating numerous projects in the community. I find out about REBUILD Globally, a nonprofit organization whose primary goals are to increase employment in Haiti by providing living wage jobs to those in need, and reduce pollution in Haiti through the creative repurposing of trash and tires into beautiful, hand-crafted sandals and handbags. Later, I will also meet Franz, founder of Future for the Kids, and Kate, who is currently helping him for the summer. Future for the Kids is partnering with local orphanages to help them improve living conditions, as well as implementing recreational and educational programs to foster development. (I will also meet Julien and his mom Jessica, Peter, Caley, Corey, Adrian, Howard and Leo, among others, whom I will form specific individual bonds with). I will spend the next week going on daily trips to the English in Mind Institute, to REBUILD Globally, and to the orphanages, documenting them to provide promotional materials to their marketing teams, so that they can continue to fundraise and get support for their respective causes.
After a quick lunch, the other five EIM volunteers and I walk to the school to get a quick tour. Later that evening, we leave for Furcey, a town in the mountains, as the sun is setting over Port-au-prince. To get there we will squish into the back of a pickup truck, sharing stories from our past and passing around a bottle of Haitian rum. A few hours later, during a light rain, we arrive at our destination, a bed and breakfast named Rustik, perched on the side of a mountain. Our butts and backs are sore from bouncing around without cushions over miles of unpaved road, and we are tired from traveling, but we are giddy about the trip ahead of us. We unload our bags, and walk into a dimly lit wooden space, laden with couches and a veranda wrapping around the outside of what looks like living room, or a bar. It is both. It is pitch black out in the mountains, and I will not know just how breathtaking the view is until the next morning.
We are there for a party- it is the birthday of one of the owners. A DJ plays music and a Haitian guy plays the drums and we dance until late in the night. A storm rolls into the mountains and the lightning electrifies the skies, giving us previews of the view we will see during the day, and soon the rain pours down and soaks through our clothes. We wrap ourselves in blankets and drink the chill away. The party rages on as Noelle, Kyle and I retire to our bunk beds. We giggle and gossip like we are at summer camp. Everything in the bunk is mildly damp from the tropical storm that evening. I shiver in the cool mountain air, and wrap the damp blanket around me tightly. It is the last time I will shiver on the trip.
When we wake in the morning, we are awestruck by the view. (I will not verbally describe that in any more detail; you can see for yourself from the images below). We pay three Haitian kids to take us on a hike down the mountain. They lead us to a river in the valley and we take off our shoes and wade in to our ankles and revel in the feeling of the ice cold water slipping over our feet. I soak my bandana and wrap it around my head for the hike back up the mountain. We get back to Rustik in time for a quick lunch, before we need to travel back to Port-au-Prince for our first conversation class with the EIM students. We have arranged for a driver from HC to pick us up, but he is delayed. If we wait for him we will miss the class, so Steph asks if we would feel comfortable hiring some local guys to give us a ride down to Petionville on their motos (Haitian motorcycles). I am embarrassed to admit that I am probably the most fearful of the group, but we all agree that it is necessary (and probably will be fun) and in pairs, we hop on the back of 3 motos. My arms clutch Noelle as we wind our way down the bumpy mountain roads, occasionally playing chicken with an oncoming truck. I squeeze my eyes shut and chant the Hare Krishna mahamantra, a habit I picked up when riding on the back of a moto in the Himalayas with Lila.
We arrive at the school an hour late. We get teased by the students for being on Haitian Time (apparently everyone in Haiti is perpetually late… which I find comical because if that is the case us Winiker’s must secretly be Haitian- we are never on time). Stephanie supervises the first class and engages the students with an interactive exercise. The students are all adults, ranging in age from eighteen to mid forties, and personalities differ, some gregarious and loud and others shy about their English skills, and hesitant to speak. But they are all equally enthusiastic, excited, and fiercely dedicated to learning English. There is a buzz of energy within the room, and an outpouring of gratitude from the students. I can see why Steph has fallen in love with the school, with the country.
The trip is a bit of a blur from this point on. We settle into a routine. Wake up, eat breakfast, usually ripe mangoes and bread with spicy peanut butter. Go to morning meeting with the entire crew at HC, hear about current projects. Go to one of the orphanages or Rebuild or the market or help out with a different project on base. Come back for a quick lunch on base, then off to school to teach a class. Either tutor or conversation class after the formal class, or go back to the orphanages (or in my case, take head shots of the staff at EIM or shoot promo pics or film for one of the NGOs). At some point Willio takes us on a tour of Cite Soleil. Drink a Prestige or two, or maybe have a rum and coke from the Hole in the Wall. Eat some dinner, write lesson plans for the next day. Bond with the other HC residents over a game or a chat or a drink. Sweat. Sweat. Sweat. Take a cool military style shower under the stars. Go to bed under a mosquito net.
Over the course of the week I get used to having my hair turn to straw, a pasty mix of sweat and the dust that covers every surface. We get to know the students, and they ask us a million questions and tell us about their lives. We come to know their personalities. We are imminently impressed with their enthusiasm, and leave the school invigorated by their passion, instead of enervated from our deepening understanding at the poverty and struggles they also deal with on a daily basis. We form special bonds with certain kids at the orphanages, and our eyes well up with tears when it is time to leave them at the end of the day. They cling to our arms and bury their heads in our shoulders. We stuff 21 people into a tap tap that should only seat 9. We itch from mosquito bites. We laze around in hammocks under the mango tree, and talk and share stories and bond with the other volunteers living at HC. We get used to conferring while in the showers (there are three separate stalls, but since there is no running water, we take turns using the water that drips out of the pipe one shower at a time). We teach our students idioms like “stick out like a sore thumb” (which is fitting for us Blancs (meaning whites, a name we are hear often when walking in the streets) and the students use the expressions they have learned proudly as often as possible in conversation. We struggle to write lesson plans that will be effective AND fun. We walk through the streets of Port-au-Prince and become braver about venturing out on our own. We listen to sweet jams while cooking family dinner and play werewolf in the workshop at night. We learn (a tiny bit of) Creole [[fist bump - EKLATE!]] We jam and dance and spin and twirl and (swim) at the Hotel Oloffson. We sweat some more. We listen to the frustrations of the people trying to make change who have been there for far longer than us, and will be there long after we leave. We hear about corruption in the government, misappropriation of funds, lack of infrastructure. I see desperation, frustration, despair. But I also see the pride. And happiness. And appreciation. I develop my own pride for Haiti, and feel a yearning to do anything I can to facilitate change, even if its just for one person. My own sense of appreciation for first world amenities is dramatically heightened (coming back to NY is considered reverse culture shock). I see Americans and Haitians (and internationals from all over the world) working together on projects to create sustainable methods of water purification, building, working at clinics and medical facilities, recycling, upcycling, repurposing trash to use in ways that will be beneficial to the people AND the environment. And I get UNEQUIVOCALLY INSPIRED.
This experience was a taste. An appetizer. An introduction. I met NGO workers and ex-pats and loyal missionaries whose experiences blow mine out of the water. People who have devoted their lives to disaster relief efforts. And those people are truly my heroes. But my personal taste was enough to make me hungry for more.
Mark my words: I will be going back to shoot a documentary focusing on the current status of Haiti and following some of the NGOs doing AMAZING things there. The need to do it is all consuming, and it will take funding, and sponsors, and hopefully a grant and an inspired team of editors and production coordinators, but it WILL HAPPEN. Just wait and see. For now check out the still images…..
And. The documentation begins.
The view through a hole in the tap-tap.
we pay some Haitian kids to take us on a hike down the mountain, into the valley at Furcey.
there is some issue with transportation getting home from Furcey, and we have to figure out an alternate method….. Moto down a mountain it is.
Inside Cite Soleil. Burning garbage is one method of trash disposal.
Everything can be repurposed; below old flip flop sandals are used as floatation devices for fishing net.
Willio, our fearless leader. <3At EIM, Lyneda helps a student in class.
Teacher Schneider is given business cards for the first time and hugs Steph in appreciation.
Krazy Kyle with two dedicated students.
REBUILD Globally HQ.
below shots are from both Le Main Tendre (LMT) & Agape orphanages, in Port-au-PrinceA voodoo ceremony in the orphanage.back on base.
finger lickin good, eh Jules? … And Kate keeps it classy.
I didn’t take the below image… I’m actually in it =) rockin the green headband.
As I said in my last post: Haiti, you stole my heart with your soul. I plan on returning in the Spring to document the Haiti Ultra Marathon, and visit HC and some Haitian friends.
EIM students: you blew me away with your fiery spirit. Keep working as hard as you do. You are the future. You are my inspiration. You are UNFORGETTABLE.
Until next time Haiti…..
For up an up to date timeline of current events in Haiti visit the Haiti page of the New York Times online.
To volunteer with EIM (Stephanie has a Thanksgiving trip planned November 22-December 1, 2013!) click HERE for more information.