I didn't think this mission trip was really going to happen. I've paid deposits on a few trips in the past, and never been able to go. When our church announced a collaboration with the Haiti Orphan Project, I was interested. When my friend went to Haiti in May and it changed her outlook on life, I was intrigued. When they announced a trip in collaboration with the HOPE Medical Project this July, I already knew in my heart I was going to resign from my job and wouldn't have to beg for time off of work. I signed up for the trip.
It really didn't seem real and looking back, I was highly skeptical and not at all invested. I assumed that my plans would fall apart at the last minute, as they do. Today, Haiti is very real. And I'm so grateful.
The 7 of us traveling from Kansas City drove to St. Louis in two cars last Tuesday night. We slept for a few hours in an office building, woke up at 3am, and headed to the airport with 20 other people from St. Louis, Springfield, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. We spent Wednesday traveling: a plane flight to Miami, a plane flight to Port-au-Prince, and a bus ride to Gonaives. (I couldn't help but notice mountains on one side and the ocean on the other for parts of our drive, but it was a night-and-day difference from the Sea to Sky Highway a week prior).
We made the 3 1/2 hour bus ride to Gonaives to a soundtrack of Gospel music and Michael Jackson. Our bodyguard stood by the door the whole time, and our translator chatted and sang in the front. I was squished between 4 other people for most of the drive, and I was too focused on trying to avoid motion sickness to really look out the window. But I still saw plenty. Enough to know we certainly weren't in Kansas anymore.
The streets were crowded, often unpaved, and there was trash everywhere. Occasionally you would see the trash piled up and lit on fire-- who knows if all the material was actually safely flammable? As the acrid smoke filled my nostrils, the humidity and heat enveloped me, and the bus bounced endlessly, I found it hard to breathe. My throat was constricting and I wondered again what I had gotten myself into.
At one point, we stopped for water and I was so parched and hot and dusty and the water bottle was so cold and refreshing. Jesus' cry, I thirst! came to mind. I realized this trip was going to be more uncomfortable than I'd hoped. But I also knew that if I stretched out of my comfort zone, I'd be able to encounter Jesus in the needs of others, instead of serving my own. I started to pray, Lord, I can't do this. Would that you would increase and I would decrease if this is ever going to happen.
Just when I thought I couldn't handle the bus ride for one more minute, we arrived at the compound where we would be staying for the next 4 nights. Across the street from all the rusty corrugated metal-roofed shacks, half-completed foundations, goats, waste, chickens, and pigs, was a red gate. We entered and spilled out of the van into the huge enclosed yard. The accomodations were so much better than I expected. I was simultaneously grateful and guilty about it. But honestly, that respite was so welcome at the end of each long day.
There we had was running water (more or less), electricity (most of the time), and only 3 people to a bedroom. Of course, we still got some of the same warnings we would've gotten anywhere in Haiti: Be careful when you shower. Don't brush your teeth with tap water. Don't even think about drinking the tap water. Don't throw your toilet paper in the toilet. If it's yellow, let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down. Even in that walled compound, safety and comfort were a bit of an illusion, which was good to remember.
The water was always cold-ish, but I'm confident that I never would've wanted to take a warm shower anyway. All you did was rinse off the sweat, put on clean clothes, and start sweating again. The first few nights, I woke up thirsty every hour, but once I was re-hydrated and adjusted to the heat, I really didn't mind it as much. It was more than tolerable in the shade, although I'm not sure how long I would've lasted if I'd had to spend a full day in the sun. The high temps reached 95-100 degrees every day with at least 70% humidity.
After unpacking on Wednesday, we ate dinner, settled in, and debriefed. The group leader asked all 27 of us to introduce ourselves (check), what we did (?!?), and why we were here (?!?). I fumbled through it, but as I laid in bed that night I had to admit: This trip really just... happened. I don't know why I'm here. But I'm excited to find out. On Thursday, we headed to the Village de Vie orphanage after breakfast and spent the majority of the day there playing with kids and running the medical clinic and pharmacy. On Friday, we did much the same thing.
On Saturday, we went to a different orphanage in the morning: a place about an hour away in a town called Desire (pronounced dez-uh-ray). There was no clinic there, just time with the kids. When we got back to Gonaives, we stopped at the Village de Vie orphanage to watch a soccer tournament, went to our compound for dinner, and then went back to the orphanage for a building dedication celebration. We ate dinner again, graciously served in their new building. The kids were all so clean and happy in front of their big bowls of food. After dinner, we had a dance party with the kids until they started to fall asleep in our arms.
On Sunday, we went to church (for several hours) and saw the kids and families and patients and pastors one last time. Then we drove away from Gonaives and headed to a "resort" near the ocean. I put "resort" in quotation marks because it was not really a tourist destination. Nothing akin to a tropical resort that Americans would bother visiting. It's mostly for wealthy locals and the occasional missionary team.
It felt a little silly taking a day to vacation after all we'd seen, but I came to realize it was a good way to ease back in. It gave us time and space to process before heading back to our own fast-paced lives. We splashed in the ocean and played beach volleyball and had AC in our rooms, but we were still strangers in a strange land. The water was mostly lukewarm and we definitely couldn't drink it, but the water pressure was better. The beds didn't have bedbugs, but the mattresses were quite hard. We were more comfortable, but still removed from technology and the thousands of distractions being home brings. It was so good for my spirit.
Monday morning, I watched the sun rise behind the mountains, dove into the waves one last time, and then we left. Refreshed for the long day of travel ahead. We spent quite a while at the Port-au-Prince airport due to a flight delay, got to Miami and spent our entire two-hour layover in customs, and finally stumbled, bleary-eyed but relieved, into the St. Louis airport at 10pm.
Ross surprised me there! I was supposed to drive my car and comrades back to KC that night, but Ross took a Greyhound to St. Louis and met us in the airport, ready to drive us back. I'm sure I looked completely bewildered when I saw him, but I was so grateful. Sure enough, at 2am, about an hour away from Kansas City, my eyelids started drooping and I started mumbling incoherent things. I'm so glad Ross was driving!
I eventually crawled into bed at 4am and slept like a rock.
This morning, my pillows were to squishy, the AC was too cold, and the internet was too overwhelming. But I can't deny that our one-bedroom apartment felt like a clean and spacious palace.
I chugged water straight from the tap and took a hot shower (because I was so cold). I think that in a few weeks, or maybe even a few days, I'll take these things for granted again. But I don't want to. I want to remember. I want to hold them with open hands and a grateful heart. So what do I do now that I've been to Haiti? Now that I can't deny that I live in relative prosperity while many others live in poverty? I can't help but think back to my answer that first night in Gonaives: I don't know, but I'm excited to find out.