The first time I went to Haiti, I was 16 years old. The wanderlust bug hit me early in life, and instead of asking for a car for my birthday, I begged my parents for a ticket to Port-Au-Prince. I had a dear friend who grew up there and I wanted to visit her and see the country for myself. My father happened to have a speaking engagement in another part of the country, so my parents scratched their heads and complied with my request. My father and I flew out together – a quick 2-hour flight from the Miami airport.
I will never forget landing in Haiti – the drumming, the heat, the crowds, the beauty. . . all of it smacks you in the face as you step off the plane. I said goodbye to my dad and met up with my friend and her sister. They took me to a fancy restaurant in the “bourgeois” part of town. I can vividly remember that drive: first, coming face to face with extreme poverty as we drove past the shanty towns and makeshift villages. And then, the stark contrast as we drove past veritable mansions and ate at one of the nicest restaurants I’d ever been in. I think seeing this staggering contrast between poverty and privilege is something that has shaped my worldview ever since. I remember asking my friends, over and over, how there could be such wealth so close to such poverty. “Don’t they care?" I still don’t have the answer.
The next day, the three of us boarded a bus for the rural village of Port-de-Paix. Of course, stories like this always grow more interesting in the retelling, but this is what I remember: 1) it took upwards of 5 hours, 2) about half of the trip was spent speeding around the corners of mountain-hugging cliff roads and thinking I would die, 3) we were the only non-Haitians on the bus and attracting a lot of attention, 4) there were chickens running around the floor, and 5) there were men hopping on and off the back and roof at random. It was an adventure, to say the least. I spend several days with my friend and her family, fascinated by their life in Haiti. Then we rode the bus back to Port-Au-Prince where I was set to meet up with my dad and fly home.
We arrived to chaos in Port-Au-Prince. As it turns out, the last day of my trip just so happened to be the day that revolutionaries overthrew President Aristide. There was rioting and burning in the streets. Roads were closed. It was rumored that people were being killed. And we were three teenaged girls traveling without an adult.
I’m not sure how the message was relayed to us or how we got there, but somehow we ended up in the home of some American missionaries that lived near the airport. We stayed there, hiding out for a few days. We were told not to go outside or even look out the windows. I remember being more curious than scared. I remember they had gigantic rats, and that the thee of us acted like typical screaming girls every time we saw them. I don’t think I really understood the gravity of the situation. In retrospect I can’t imagine what my parents were thinking. But for us, we were just having a slumber party. With rats, and the smell of burning tires and gunfire.
My dad was in the country and we finally connected. All flights had been grounded but somehow my dad made friends with an ambassador who was able to pull some strings and get us out on a flight. Again, I didn’t really understand the seriousness of the situation. My dad knew someone important, and I had to get back to school – that was my thought process. We would forever joke about my having had the best excuse for missing school ever: I was stuck in Haiti during a political coup d'état. This was my first trip to Haiti, and it had been exciting and heartbreaking and confusing and thrilling.
Fast forward 20 years, to my last trip to Haiti. Again, I find myself stuck in the country in the midst of a national crisis, but this time it was an earthquake. Unlike my first trip, though, I was profoundly aware of the gravity of the situation. I was a mother, nursing a 9-month-old baby. I was worried sick that Kembe’s adoption was going to be halted. I was fearful that I would never see my other two kids or husband again. Most of all, I was scared to death that each new tremor of the earth would bury me in a building like so many people just outside the gate. Like the trip before, I was evacuated by way of being in a place of privilege. Unlike the trip before, this fact rattled me, and I battled with survivor guilty and PTSD for the better part of a year.
You might think that after these crazy experiences in Haiti, I’d be ready to wash my hands of the country and vow to never visit again. But I still feel an inexplicable bond to the country and the people there. Obviously, we have a son from Haiti that motivates us to maintain connected. But it’s more than that . . . and I’ve always know that I would return.
I’m happy to report that I will be visiting Haiti twice next month. First, for a blogger trip with Help One Now, headed up by Chris Marlow and Dan King. On this trip, we will be sharing the stories of the orphans they serve, the leaders who are making a difference, and the communities that are being transformed. We’ve got a train team going, including Jen Hatmaker, Jennie Allen, Sarah Bessey, Mary DeMuth, Deidra Riggs, Duane Scott, Scott Wade, Mollie Donovan Burpo and Kris Rutherford. (Any of you who happen to be reading this post and freaked out above the stories above, I promise I’ve had some drama-free trips to Haiti, too! Let’s hope this i s one of them!)
On this trip, we will also be partnering with Pure Charity. You can learn more about them here:
Later in October, we will be stopping in Haiti as a part of a family cruise we are taking with Fisher Price. This will be Kembe’s first trip back since his evacuation and adoption, and I think it will be a great way for him to visit as a brief and positive experience, since I’m betting it will bring up some big feelings for him. In the future, we will do a more extended trip but I think this will be a good way to help reintroduce him to his culture without totally overwhelming him.
I’m excited to be returning to Haiti but obviously there is a little anxiety there as well. I know things are still in bad shape since the earthquake and I know I will be both disappointed at the lack of progress and triggered with some of the stressful memories of the earthquake. At the same time, though, I’m excited. And I think those feelings of fear and longing sort of represent the feelings I’ve always held about this country. I know I will be staring down some demons to go on these trips. And I know it will be good.