I placed my hands cautiously on the shoulders of the Haitian man sitting in front of me on the moto, who carried my backpack on his front, while Lindsey squeezed behind me onto the seat. Our driver motioned to us where to place our feet and Roody, said something to him in Creole. I think he was telling our driver to go slow. My heart jumped as our fleet of beat up motos started off down the dirt road through the Haitian city towards our new home. We zipped around corners past countless roadside markets and dilapidated concrete houses which had been wrecked by the earthquake six years prior, but were never rebuilt. I relaxed my posture and couldn’t help but smile as the warm, dry air blew through me. Down every road we turned, new sights, sounds, and smells caught my attention, but dissolved within seconds in the cloud of dust that rose up behind us. The ride was over as quickly as it began, and the halt of the bike pulled me back to reality. We had parked next to a larger market made up of crudely constructed tables and tarps that read “USAID, From the American People.” Roody handed each driver a few waded up bills, and we followed him past the market and down a narrow ally way, our glaring porcelain skin eliciting stares and shouts from anyone who caught a glimpse. We were escorted through a maze of concrete, and eventually came to a red metal door, which was opened, and we entered the dimly lit, hazy house, which smelled strongly of charcoal smoke.
I’m not sure when it hit me that this would be my home for the next five weeks. My mind was struggling to take in everything that my new environment was throwing at me. All of a sudden, here I was. It was no longer a simple description on the mission organization’s website, or part of a plea for donations on my Facebook page. This moment, that at any point before now existed only in my imagination, aided by the stories of those who went before me, was nothing like my ignorant mind had dreamt it up to be.
I had read about trips to third world countries on tastefully designed blogs written by young aspiring social justice volunteers and missionaries, complete with pictures of themselves holding dirty, smiling, ebony skinned children. Reading those alluring entries made my heart ache for adventure, and caught up in the romanticism of the writing, I wanted to immediately sell all of my possessions and jump on a plane. I knew the experience would be uncomfortable, and the fact that I would be living with the locals rather than in an Americanized compound especially excited me, but it’s possible that if I had experienced this moment, four months earlier, I would have decided to stay safe at home. There are no words that can explain life as accurately as experience can, and nothing could have prepared me for this.
We timidly followed Roody through the large but sparsely furnished house. The kitchen where we entered consisted of a table and a simple charcoal grate for cooking, in the dining room sat a wooden dinner table and a china cabinet, and off to the side of the common area were two bedrooms separated by decorative curtains. A set of cement stairs with no railing led to the second floor, which was a living room complete with couches and a small, rabbit-eared TV, which was used only occasionally when the electricity was strong enough. Our bedroom was also located on the second floor, and it was obvious from the decorations, pictures, and personal belongings in the room, that our visit was displacing some member of the family.
Once we settled in to our new room we were told that dinner was ready and we should wash our hands. In the midst of this sensory overload, I had forgotten that all I’d eaten that day was a granola bar and a cup of yogurt on the plane. Roody guided us to the bathroom, handed us a mostly used up, pink bar of soap, and shuffled away. The bathroom, which accommodated 9 people, housed one toilet, a shower with a tile floor and no curtain, and a white, 5-gallon bucket half full of water. Once darkness fell, it also housed an army of giant cockroaches and the occasional tarantula. We stood for a few moments cradling the bar of soap, considering the best way to actually clean our hands without the convenience of running water. Later that night, we would go through the same process while brushing our teeth, debating whether to spit into the shower or the toilet.
We nervously sat down at the dining room table with Roody and helped ourselves to rice, fried chicken, beet salad, and fried plantains, along with a glass of overly sweet orange juice. We ate slowly and silently, considering what was or wasn’t acceptable conversation or behavior. Struggling to finish the heaping mound of rice on my plate, I wondered about the rest of my teammates. Were their houses far from ours? What were they eating for dinner? Were they finding it easier to make conversation with their translator and family members? When would I see them again? Another man in his early twenties, dressed in Corona swim trunks, a tee shirt, and rubber slides, came into the room. He spoke only a few words of English, but Roody told us that his name was Jacky and that he cooked the food for us. We thanked him generously and smiled, and he returned a boyish grin, saying something else to Roody in Creole. This exchange left me wondering what information I was being deprived of, because of my inability to comprehend the unfamiliar syllables.
Once we had eaten our fill and worn out the awkward dinner conversation, we ventured to the roof, which served as porch and common area for the houses inhabitants. Stepping outside, we saw a few plastic chairs and a coop full of about twenty cooing pigeons. At this point more family members began to show their faces, and we acquainted ourselves with our foreign housemates. Along with Roody, who would serve as our sometimes obnoxious but fun loving translator, and Jacky our compassionate host brother we affectionately referred to as “the king of food”, we shared the house with Ney Ney, a goofy and kindhearted 23-year-old who had taught himself a good amount of English and Jalene, a hardworking and sassy 7-year-old girl, whose favorite activities were ordering us to help her clean and dancing to the music that blasted over the radio. Our host dad, Boss Toto occasionally made an appearance, and we learned that Madame Toto was away on a business trip to Port Au Prince. It was insisted on that we sit down, so we occupied the fractured, yet functional chairs, and peered down into the street below.
Our house, which we would from then on refer to as “Kay Toto,” was located on a dirt side street in which each of the homes sold some product, whether clothes, produce, or meat, to make up one large street market. As I watched the neighbors below performing their daily duties, I wondered where I fit into all this. I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness, realizing how little I knew about the simple fundamentals of daily life in this foreign place. I had the realization that I was putting my complete trust in Roody and the other Haitians I was living with, all of whom I had only just met, to ensure my safety and well-being, and that thought made it difficult for me to breath.
After a few long minutes trying to make conversation with one of our new host brothers who spoke no English but only showed us pictures of himself taken on his phone, we were saved by a group of our team mates who showed up on the roof to see if we wanted to join them in a walk to the beach. Desperate to converse with other English speakers and reunite with our friends after only a few intense hours of separation, we convinced Roody show us the way to the nearby beach. Our group of six, unaccustomed “blans” and five, experienced Haitians made its way through the crowded market to the main road which was teeming with lurching motos, oversized trucks, and vendors at every corner. As we paraded down the city streets towards the coastline my shoulders tensed, and I avoided as much as possible making eye contact with the entire population of Petit-Goâve that stopped what they were doing to stare at our caravan of white people. I was suddenly thrust unwillingly on a stage in which I was completely unaware of my lines or the choreography, and my stage fright was almost paralyzing.
With the sun sinking lower in the sky, we finally witnessed the comforting sight of the waves crashing onto the beach and stood for a moment admiring the beauty that was before us. This beach was much unlike the commercialized, tourist-filled beaches I had visited on the east coast of the US. This beach would become known to us as “the trash beach,” but despite its unappealing name, it came to be my favorite of all the beaches I visited in the Caribbean that spring. Instead of soft white sand, garbage and large pieces of crushed shells and broken beer bottles lay under our feet. We were strongly advised not to swim in the water here, since this is where many of the locals dumped their trash, and taking a dip would be unwise for our health. Instead we sat on the shore, munching happily on a stick of sugar cane one of our new local friends had bought for us, and watching the setting sun catapult long beams of golden, orange light onto the backdrop of this stunning juxtaposition.