Don’t Look at the Receipt

I’m back in Port au Prince on an aggressive regiment of antibiotics, anti-inflammatory eye drops, eye pressure reducing drops and dilating drops, prescribed to me by the President’s health adviser. So I’m just sitting here, making sure I administer the right medication on the right schedule.

This is giving me time to just think. Your welcome to come along into my introspection because the personal mental challenges I face are part of helping you understand Haiti.

Last I left you, I was on my way to jail. I’ll fill you in on my weekend mountain voyage in my next blog, but let’s skip forward to the present.

I wanted to come to Haiti for more than just a week or two because my experience traveling around the world has shown me that there is a cycle we go through as we adapt to new surroundings. It’s why a three week canoe trip is a completely different trip than a one week trip. At some point you stop becoming a tourist experiencing new things and start becoming part of the rhythm of your environment.

If you keep close track of your state of mind over the course of a few weeks you might notice that we tend to always be in flux. At home, we have lots of routines to keep this in balance, our friends, favorite TV shows, church, hobbies, Starbucks, exercise routines, or just the fact that we keep ourselves too busy to really pay attention to our state of mind.

Today I learned that the orphanage guest house has coffee. This immediately picked my spirits up. I knew spending this much time from my family would be tough, but there is a purpose, to find a way to contribute my skills toward the promotion and education of sustainable development. Haiti, has always been just one part of my plans, my return ticket is from the Dominican Republic. For the entire time I’ve been here, I’ve been wondering how much I really am willing to personally sacrifice. I’ve talked about the sacrifices of Haitians. Here are my sacrifices.

1) Language. I speak sort of OK French. French denotes a difference in class here. It’s the language of an educated elite, of business power. Even among the educated locals, personal affairs are discussed in creole. If I plan to work here in the future, creole would be absolutely necessary to know. But even then, people that have been here for twenty years tell me the subtle aspects of the culture are very complex and take many years to begin to understand. This makes me think about what parts of American culture are subtle and complex for outsiders to acquire. With the language issue, is it worth my time trying to become great at? Spanish is so much easier to practice in the United States. All you have to do is watch an hour of Univision or Telemundo a few times a week, or keep your ears open when you’re at your kid’s school events.

2) Port au Prince sucks. There is no way around this. I had started becoming accustomed to this city before my little sojourn to the country. I had become numb to all the observations I had made in my very first blog. But as I drove back into town (with my one good eye) it hit me again. “What a fucking rats nest this place is! Except instead of rats, it’s humans living in this mess.” As I drove into town riding over piles of garbage everywhere, dust everywhere, vehicles everywhere belching out thick black smoke, massive traffic jams and way too many people. If this were an actual rats nest it would be an infestation. Working here would be a sacrifice and I wouldn’t want my family to spend more than just a couple of weeks here.

3) I miss my family, and since I would never think about relocating them to Port au Prince, then long-term assignments aren’t attractive to me. It was my anniversary the other day, and I shared it with my wife over Skype. And I really wish I wouldn’t be missing so much of my son’s soccer season.

There is an American doctor that is now also staying at the orphanage. He has been coming to Haiti since 1981. He goes into Cite Soleil and volunteers at a health clinic all day. Later this week or next week, I will be going along with him. He comes for a week or two every couple of months. This is a much better family schedule. But for my first visit, there is so much for me to figure out that a long stay like this is necessary even though it can be hard at times.

4) Crime is high. This American doctor told me that the biggest changes he has seen since he first started coming are that there are much more people, there is AIDS, prices are a lot higher and violent crime has drastically increased. He thinks that most people over fifty years old will say that the quality of life was better with Duvalier as a dictator than it has been under a democracy.

I love visiting foreign cities. I enjoy going on day-long walks and finding neat shops in quaint neighborhoods.

5) It’s expensive here to live like a westerner. Wherever I go here, people always assume I have a driver. “Just have your driver call me for directions,” any receptionist will say. They act perplexed when I inform them I drive myself or take public transportation. A taxi car from Petionville to the orphanage costs $80 U.S. A motorcycle taxi is $10. The tap taps cost 50ยข. There is a Giant chain grocery store in Petionville. I went there to get my perception filled. I saw that the box of Entenmann’s doughnuts cost over $7 (I came close to getting it) A candy bar was over $4. If you want the lifestyle where you can shop at a grocery store just like one in the States, you can’t think about prices. Just get what you want, swipe the credit and don’t look at the receipt. There is a class of people here that live a separate life from the rest.

7) Corruption and special favors for people in that special class is significant. How do you think I was able to walk into a clinic with a full waiting room and when the doctor arrived I was his first patient for the day? A person at the orphanage took some papers into a government office to get them stamped so that an adoption of three kids can proceed. Officially, the fiscal year ends September 30th. When he went in on September 14th, he was told the fiscal year had just ended and he should come back when the new fiscal year starts the third week of October. Now, those children have to wait even longer to join their new family or the orphanage has to hire a local attorney to submit the papers, or pay a hefty bribe to operate under the same fiscal year as Haiti’s upper class operates under.

8) Safety is ignored. I’ve seen two traffic accidents happen since I’ve been here. One of them nearly hit several pedestrians. People ride on the back of buses traveling at high speeds, nobody wears seat belts. The holes in the roads!
So what overall analysis do all these thoughts lead me to. People who come here to help Haiti do so because it’s important. Not because its a vacation/sabbatical. The baby step outcomes of the work are the reward. Even though I describe the city as a rats nest, there are things that somehow work. Taking the tap tap up to Petionville today, I took account of all the stores operating in these shabby looking buildings. There are wedding dress stores, kindergartens, language schools, gas stations, grocery stores, churches, banquet halls, beauty salons, hotels and restaurants.

These and many more types of businesses use these indoor commercial spaces and their signs are hand painted on the exterior. People run the same type of errands that Americans run, it just takes all day to get one thing done and you don’t have the convenience of an air conditioned mall with a California Pizza Kitchen. All of the kiosks at the mall, they are just out on the sidewalk. Need a new pair of panties, they are all lined-up on that lady’s blanket over there. So, in many ways, just because so much is missing in this society, a lot of it is the same as ours, just in a different form. In a way, it’s a pro small entrepreneurs society as opposed to a large box store chain society.

In the end, I do see potential here for me but in moderation. I think I would get too frustrated making this my only source of work. My plans are to head to the Dominican Republic soon after October fifth, explore how things operate there and re-think every thing about Haiti from outside Haiti to make sure I truly understand my perspective. My wife and ten year old son will be joining me there the last two weeks of October as we volunteer at a community center for Haitians that are living in the Dominican Republic.

A story of army assault operations, my time in jail, what happened in the mountains that caused me to loose sight in one eye, and why I am bring treated by the Presidents health advisor are all coming soon to a blog near you.

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