Our children’s import to Haiti was fun
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Perhaps it was the wide grin on Charles’s face as he greeted us at Toussaint Louverture International Airport. Or the way Sister Claudette lovingly served my family bread and papaya juice in her damaged compound. Just as probably it was riding in the bed of a pickup truck, watching street life more colorful than any theme park parade.
Somehow, my daughter, Lane, 13, and son, Benjamin, 8, were OK — more than OK — vacationing recently in one of the saddest places on earth.
After returning from a 20-mile drive that took us through the mud-soaked markets of Carrefour and over the rubble-strewn roads by Cite Soleil, Lane announced that she wanted to be an exchange student in Haiti. Her typically timid brother declared he would fly back on his own to visit our host and friend.
My husband and I had thought that traveling with children to post-earthquake Port-au-Prince would be a humanitarian mission at best, living hell at worst. But we agreed that for his 50th birthday we would go to Hispaniola — a few days in Haiti and then by bus to the relatively affluent Dominican Republic next door.
The decision to visit Haiti’s capital was not simple. We had been in the country before — but in the north, where a Haitian-American friend runs a school. This time we would be going to a city that is simmering in a kind of wreckage that tragically passes for daily life.
Our itinerary gave us a day to visit with Charles, who had moved back to Port-au-Prince in his retirement, and another day to see Claudette, in Leogane, which suffered the worst earthquake damage of any city in the country. We knew them through their sister, Lucia Anglade of Long Island, who founded the school we help support in the north.
At the airport, we walked into a bedlam of desperate drivers crazed for a fare until Charles found us and drove us directly to the concrete house he had built himself. He was proud that the building was intact and crouched in the corner of the kitchen to reenact the moments following the Jan. 12 earthquake.
The children were silent as he told of driving around for 48 hours to get people to doctors and help uncover those caught in the rubble. Lane later said she felt sad for Charles, who had worked so hard to create his dream house, only to see the world around him crumble, taking with it electricity, running water, pavement, and hope.
Back in January we had waited to hear if our friends had survived. It was three days before Lucia heard her siblings had lived. It took nearly a week for relief agencies to reach Leogane, where Claudette cared for the injured and homeless.
Now, months later, we were in Leogane. On our previous trip, Lane and Benjamin had sat in this same pickup truck, waving to children. Now they sat quietly staring at the piles of garbage that were nearly indistinguishable from the heaps of clothing and vegetables at wet and filthy marketplaces. Meridian strips were overtaken with makeshift shacks and acre upon acre of tent settlements flanked the roadway.
Sister Claudette was preparing to welcome German diplomats when we arrived. Aspiring nuns scurried about cleaning. The Germans were considering rebuilding the compound, where 130 earthquake survivors are living in tents donated by Rotarians around the world.
Lane and Benjamin were aware of the conditions. We live in small-town Maine, idyllic even by New England standards. They walk to school. We have an acre of lush lawn by our house, which sits by both the village and the forest. We see more friends than strangers in town, where the local ice cream stand offers every flavor you can imagine.
Benjamin described Port-au-Prince as “yucky, horrible, gross.’’ He thought it would take a long time for Haiti to get better. But he wants to go back, because “I want to look around more. I like to see the mountains and people.’’
Being in Haiti “makes you know what you have and not care so much about a better cellphone or if your iPod breaks,’’ Lane said.
Her love for the place is about people. She had spent one afternoon singing with two other teenage girls who spoke no English but knew all the words to a Beyoncé song.
Lane tries not to think about how much less Haitian children have, how hard their lives are, she said. “I don’t think about that because I don’t want to treat them special because of that. I don’t want to think about that when I’m there. I just want to have fun with them.’’
Amy Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.