January 15, 2010

I have a post I’ve been crafting for a couple of days. All about my fun trip to New York and all the delicious spot, the silly fun with great friends, and so on.

But then, there was an earthquake in Haiti. And all that seemed so, well, inconsequential.

In 1972, I was a teenager, high school rising senior, with a complicated relationship with divorced parents. A guidance counselor at my boarding school recommended a summer program called Operation Crossroads Africa. It was an organization sending college kids to Africa and high school kids to the West Indies to do Peace Corps style works.

And that’s how I ended up in Haiti. I spoke French, sort of close to the Creole spoken there. A handful of us, all between 15 and 18 years old, flew into the Port au Prince of President “Baby Doc” Duvalier. We rode around the city speechless, a group of priveleged, spoiled, sassy teens buffetted by scenes of abject poverty and a terrifying dictatorial government. Goose-stepping soldiers marched daily on the soccer field in town.

My camera was seized after I snapped a photo of the President’s Palace. There was a tank in the front yard. Today, that Palace is rubble.

And that’s why today I just can’t get to writing about a frivolous, fabulous weekend in New York. I remember how poor and desperate that country was long before this earthquake. And I can’t imagine, can’t bear to think, of how desperate it must be now.

Our adult supervisor checked out the house we were supposed to stay in – a house that purportedly had water and electricity, though never both at the same time, and mostly neither – and she left. Really left. Went out for bread and milk and never came back. Day three or four. We were there for ten weeks. Many centuries before cellphones.

Eight teens left to our own devices. Our local contact was in Port au Prince, several kilometers and two TapTap rides away, so we organized ourselves, Lord of the Flies style. Everyone took on a role. Yes, even then, I was the cook.

We were there to build a nutrition center and connected with the work gang that walked five kilometers up a mountain every morning to start work. Yes, we Built – as in – dug a foundation with shovels, *made* concrete blocks (Martha, are you hearing this? Have you ever made your own concrete blocks?), mixed cement and built and entire building. This center was to be a distribution point for the mountain towns that surrounded our town of Kenskoff. Those mountain towns that have been reduced to rubble piles studded with bodies.

Every day two of us stayed back in the house, cleaned up, shopped for food (no refrigeration), made lunch and carried it up the mountain to the others. The women in town taught us to carry flat baskets with food, or jugs of water, on our heads. We would return to the house and make dinner and wash laundry by hand if the water in the house was running, and there were no rats. Or spiders.

I learned how to snap a chicken’s neck. And stood shoulder to shoulder at 5:30 every Wednesday morning watching as a pig, or a sheep, or a goat, was killed and prepared for roasting, a treat every market day (and the only meat we really ate.)

We subsisted on oatmeal, peanut butter, avocados, mangos, and flatbread. Rice and peas for dinner. After awhile we got bored boiling all our water, so most of us had disentary for 8 of the 10 weeks.

Imagine what it’s like for the Haitian population – when you grow up with the worst nutrition and then add to that disentary, parasites and E-coli. And now, imagine there isn’t even dirty water available. I can see Kenskoff, the Haitians I knew, the experiences I had in my mind, but it reality, it’s all gone.

When the rain was off in the distance, there was a man who would line up bottle caps on a wall in the town square. He would wait until the rain started and then drink from each cap as it filled. He would drink and drink and drink and drink. And then he would smile.

All those people. Gone.

I was such a narrow human being before I spent time in Haiti. I arrived there a private schooled, country club, dancing classes, horseback riding, self-involved child and suddenly my heart was opened.

I arrived home and my mother, taking my backpack from me, said “Where are all your things?” I told her I left them all with families in Kenskoff. I knew there were more in my closets and all that abundance seemed so wasteful.

It seems that way today, too. Reach into your heart and please, help the people of Haiti.

12 Responses to “The Real World Intercedes”

  1. Amy

    Very well said. I am finding it very difficult to have any complaints with my life thinking of the poor Haitians- how terribly tragic it all is.

  2. MrsWheelbarrow

    There are so many people with better ideas about where to make donations. It's a crowded field.
    For my part, I gave to Doctors Without Borders. And I'll be looking for other opportunities going forward.

  3. Kathi D

    That was a great experience for you, wasn't it? A young cousin of mine spent a semester in Africa a few years ago and had here eyes opened to how other people live. There's no better teacher than first-hand experience, especially for learning compassion for others.

  4. Lizthe chef and Dr. Larry

    Doctors Without Borders was our site that we chose. We live in San Diego and these folks are a constant flow of aid to Mexico and Central America…I was on hold for 3 minutes to be able to donate (as the web site had suggested the toll-free number to avoid fraud). It is heartening to have to wait to donate – crank it up, America.

  5. Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing your Haiti experience. My husband and I lived in Haiti from 2003-2005 and have many friends who are lost or who have lost so much from this tragedy. Haiti is a place that stays in your heart. For Kathi who comments about Africa, I just returned from two years in Liberia and have some food info about that experience on my website: http://www.cuisinivity.com. Another good NGO in Haiti is Samaritan's Purse.

  6. Pati J

    What a lovely post! Thank you for sharing all of your experiences in and out of your kitchen. It was a pleasure meeting you and can't wait 'til next time we meet (!). I am sure it will be eating something yummy.


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