Hello! It has certainly been a while. My deepest apologies for that. I’ve had nearly this entire blog post written since October 4th, but could never bring myself to actually post it. Usually when I write, I write in the tone of how I feel. A lot of my family has said I write how I talk and being such an open book to the people around me, I am an open book in my writing as well. I hesitated to post this because the day I was writing it I was not in the best of moods. It’s easy to get lost in the negativity and frustrations of life, of which there are certainly many in my life every day. That said, I also desire to portray my life and the people in it in the best positive light as possible while still being honest about my experiences and feelings. Living here in Haiti has been such a blessing to me, despite its challenges. It is not a glorified life. It is very difficult seeing how people are struggling every single day and not being able to help them or just smother them with love, wrap them in bubble wrap, and protect them from the harshness of the world. But it is a reality that people are suffering every day. It’s because of my privilege that I didn’t see nor had to address it every day before coming here.
Haitians are so much stronger than me. They are the ones who truly know how to live life, how to socialize with the people around them, spend time with them, and give of their whole selves. Mother Theresa once said,
“God does not create poverty; we do, because we do not share.”
I am still learning how to share. The best I am doing right now is the sharing of my time—and maybe a little bit of talent—which often feels inadequate. Nevertheless, we continue forward and do the best we can to improve. That is what we are called to do as Christians. We improve ourselves through loving others and perhaps one day, glimpse the amazing love of God.
So, in the spirit of sharing, let me share with you: Tips for living in Haiti as a non-Haitian (a slightly edited version).
As you can imagine, life is very different in Haiti compared to life in the United States. Whether it be running water and electricity to bathrooms and swollen marketplaces, there is a lot to get used to and a lot to learn in this culture. It takes a while to get to a point where you feel comfortable and confident in your environment. So without further ado, here are some tips for living in Haiti as a non-Haitian listed in no particular order.
At the airport, be confident
At the airport in Port-au-Prince, there are a few hurdles you have to cross. To get through immigration, follow the dots that apply to you on the floor. For me, the dots went to the left along the left wall when I entered (although I don’t remember the color… sorry!). Make sure to have a $10 bill to get in. When you collect your luggage, the workers there often remove the luggage from the baggage carousel and put it to the side in order to make space on the carousel. So if you find yourself wondering where in the world you luggage went, check the bags already on the ground and then check again. It took me quite a while to find my luggage. If you have more luggage than you can carry, there are carts. I had to pay someone a dollar and a tip for the person who fetched it for me. So carry small change with you, it can be hard to avoid those little micro-transactions. When you find everything, head out to where security points you and you’ll see some glass doors, probably already open, with just a ton of people there. Don’t hesitate or pause, just go. If anyone tries to help you push your cart, just say no no no very forcefully. It might seem to be the impolite thing to do as a guest in the country but if you could like to avoid another micro-transaction, that is what it takes.
Let’s hope that works at least, I’m not actually sure if it will. You see, I’m usually just a welcome mat that people trod all over so… yup.
Carry the money you need in a separate pocket
When I go out to buy food, I normally carry just the money I need with me. Otherwise, I pre-count the money I know I will need and stick it in a pocket rather than my purse. It’s interesting to see how money is treated here as Haitians just normally throw their money into their purses or pockets and rustle around to find what they need, usually in the form of a very crinkled piece of falling-apart paper. As a white person with privilege and of whom people know I have more money than them, I always find it easier to just not have anything extra on me. Because I’m such a welcome mat, it’s hard to say no when someone inevitably asks for money. This way, I can honestly say I don’t have anything. I did not come to Haiti to give handouts and I don’t want to support the culture of reliance created by people of privilege, people like me.
Also, if the money is in really really bad shape, ask for a better one. Some vendors don’t accept falling apart money. If they can’t exchange it, save it for a moto driver.
Don’t carry big bills
This is similar to my reasons above, but also that many Haitians selling their wares on the street cannot make change for a 1000 goud bill. It’s actually really difficult to get small change when you first get here. There is a strategy of paying just slightly more so you can accumulate smaller bills to use when you really need them and getting rid of larger bills in any way you can.
Blan is the word for white… but maybe it’s just a goat
If you are a foreigner, white or otherwise, you will be called “blan” eventually. It’s technically not an insult, but it does get tiring after a while. The phrase is overused, especially by children and guys who think that “blan” is an acceptable way to greet someone. The –an, doesn’t sound like the –an in “bran” or “can”. It’s more in the nose and you don’t close your mouth on the “n”. The result resembles, as I have discovered to my own personal amusement, like the bleating of a goat. Every so often, I’ll hear a chorus of “blan!” and think it’s a bunch of children. When I turn around, a moto might pass me with a bunch of goat passengers all going “blaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!”. Sometimes I think it’s a goat and it turns out it’s a child… and I don’t think many people realize this unfortunate similarity.
Don’t get sick
It’s not like you can prevent yourself from getting sick, but take care of yourself so you don’t have to go see a doctor. Don’t be too experimental in your food tour. In my experience, you wait for hours to see a doctor for 5 minutes who may or may not be able to give you something to actually help. When I had a bad stomachache, one doctor suggested it might be juice, and when I stopped drinking fresh juice for the next week, lo and behold I got better. Sweet! Thanks for the tip! Of course I was there for 6 or 7 hours before they released me from my IV. For my ear infection, I was prescribed an antibiotic eardrop that cannot easily be found in Port-au-Prince, let alone GwoMòn. I never did find it basically prescribed medicine for myself (with some advice from a nurse). To get a medical certificate for my permanent residence visa, one of the tests I took was a blood test. The guy took a large cotton wad, squirted a bunch of hand sanitizer in it, pinched a bit off and used that to disinfect my finger before he pricked it. The cotton he pinched off was dry and all he did was pass it once over my finger with a tickle touch… Yeah... everyone says hospital visits aren’t fun. Now I know why.
Don’t go to Port au Prince
Port-au-Prince is almost always on fire, so only go there when necessary. Sure, it has some nice places, but those places are blind to the average Haitian lifestyle and lives of poverty. Recently, while talking with some co-workers, they said that they were scared to go to Port. One said that if there was money waiting for him there he still wouldn’t go. We didn’t discuss the amount of money though so that might be easily changed.
Listen to what your neighbors say
They know best and what’s going on. If you see a road block, look at what everyone else is doing and check to see if it’s safe. I haven’t really encountered much of that here in GwoMòn but there are times when the bridges in and out of town are blocked. Pedestrians can usually just walk past them safely but it’s important to look at your surroundings and do what the Haitians do or don’t do. And don’t be afraid to ask. Haitians are very hospitable and will do their best to help. If the person you ask doesn’t know, it’s okay to ask someone else.
Walk on the side of the sidewalk farthest from the road
This isn’t a worry about being run over—I think I’ve mentioned I often walk in the road—but more if you’re not paying attention to your feet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve greeted someone and then stumbled down a dip in the sidewalk. In those cases, just laugh at yourself. Otherwise, walk on the non-street side, the dip is less prominent and your chances of stumbling decrease drastically.
Watch your feet
Again, just watch where you step. It’s not smooth pavement you’re walking on all the time. In direct opposition to what I advised you to do two tips ago, DON’T DO WHAT THE HAITIANS DO. They are skilled in the art of ledge and slope walking. Trust me, if it were a game of shoots and ladders, we’d be hitting the shoots every time. Take it slow. Try not to fall. Don’t get hit by a moto. Or a car. Or a truck… that would be bad and mean you would have to go to the hospital. Which as we all know you do not want.
When in doubt, say “Bonjou”
When you pass someone and they say something, and you don’t know what they said, just say “bonjou”. It’s a very versatile word. You can use a bunch of different tones for it based on their own tone to convey a variety of emotions. Or just say “bonjou” first.
Don’t pet the dogs
They’re dirty with who knows what. Also, I’ve had an unfortunate encounter with a dog who was given a bunch of love and attention by a white person (who was not her owner) so whenever I walk by she literally throws herself at me and rubs herself all over me and jumps on me and doesn’t leave me alone. If for anything else, spare people that nuisance. Many a Haitian are afraid of dogs as is without one jumping at them for snuggles. The same rules applies to cats as well. One sure-fire way of scaring off a dog is to lean over a pick up a rock. If there are no rocks, pretend anyways. They’ll likely run off before you have to throw anything. Or fake throw anything.
The bigger you are, the more right of way you have
As a pedestrian, you are at the bottom of the food chain my friend. As a white person, you’re a little higher up but don’t test your luck. Motos, cars, busses and trucks take any advantage they can get. They already pass by extremely close as is so go slow and do your best not to trip.
When talking with a Haitian, honesty is the best policy. They are so good at reading emotions. When talking politics and beliefs and other opinions, try to stress that your views and opinions are just that, yours. I believe many people associate what one person says as an accurate depiction of the whole. We can find that mindset in our own country too about the views of people in minority groups. They are all individuals and have a wide range of beliefs and opinions, the view of just one does not represent the whole.
Don’t flush the toilet paper
The system just can’t handle it and will eventually spell disaster somewhere down the line. There are a number of people who don’t use the toilet properly, so finding a nice clean bathroom can be challenging. With that in mind, just like when you take a long road trip, go before you leave home, and if you don’t have to go, try anyways.
My final and most important tip isn’t just for foreigners in Haiti, but for everyone wherever they are. It’s easy to get lost in life and then suddenly take a step back and realize that we’re unhappy. Or rather, we notice a lack of happiness, of joy. It’s easy to become entangled in routine. Personally, I am a low-energy person and I am comfortable in routine, but it’s also really easy to see when life lacks vitality. I struggle and struggle, trying to find meaning in the life I live—being a missioner isn’t all that glamorous—and often feel a little emptier inside. I look at my Haitian friends and their struggles, how hard they work to support their family or how hard they work to forget their troubles. They laugh. They make jokes. It’s because of them that I laugh and am happy for just a little while. I retreat from the world to destress but it’s the world that breaks the monotony of my day. I have no perfect answer to achieve perfect joy. I’m still searching for it.
Being a volunteer for FrancisCorps in Syracuse, NY, I learned a lot about St. Francis. What an amazing saint! Most people know him for his love of nature but one of the things that I admired most about him was his joy. He wasn’t necessarily always happy, but he did his best to have perfect joy. The joy that comes from our Loving God even when we are having a terrible day. Especially when we’re having a terrible day. It’s when we surrender control of ourselves and trust in God’s will that joy will find us and the heavy burden will be lifted from our hearts. My final tip and prayer is that each and every one of us may live our lives joyfully and find peace in our souls.
A little story about perfect joy from St. Francis: https://assisiproject.com/2018/06/23/saint-francis-explains-perfect-joy/