Taryn Lind - Haiti

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I was only 16 the first time I had ever been out of the country. And not unlike many other people my age, I had a very skewed perception of what the rest of the world was like. To be fair, a lot of what I saw was indeed to be expected. The living conditions and poverty levels- the trash and sanitation- the corrupt government- all of these were things that I knew existed, so to see them I could only be so surprised. I mean, you could just google ‘Haiti living conditions’ right now if you want. And I don’t mean to sell the imagination short either- it can really do a lot of the work for you. But as much as you can try to prepare yourself for a culture shock that you see coming from a mile away, just like you prepare yourself for a knockout punch, in the case of both you’ll still end up on the floor not knowing which way is up. Such is the case when I went to Haiti with my class for the first time in my life.

Now that I’ve compared travelling outside of the country to being knocked unconscious, it might seem like it isn’t exactly the most pleasant experience, and I’ll be honest, it wasn’t necessarily great all the time. At certain points I became quite uncomfortable, but those were certainly in the minority. When you pass hundreds of people on the street who are living in poverty, stepping over chunks of torn up road that haven’t even been attempted to be fixed since the earthquake from four years ago (and are probably still there today), it would take a psychopath not to be heartbroken at the mere sight of it all. The capacity for empathy is one of the most profound faculties we have. Philip K Dick believed that it was what made us human. But I’m no stranger to empathy, and if the story stopped there then I’d have wasted your time. Everyone knows that third world countries are just that: third world. And narrative from here is predictable: go to other countries, see people in poverty, and help them. That’s the narrative I sold myself. And so off I went on a journey with a bunch of my friends and classmates, as some kid who wanted to help people less fortunate than himself. As I look back on that mindset I can’t help but compare it to the missionary mindset. Just like the missionary mindset in the 18th and 19th centuries, it came well-to-do place in my heart, but a perhaps contained a hidden sense of superiority.

When we arrived we were struck by the hot coastal humid air, shovelled ourselves into a van and brought past a series of concrete compounds wrapped in barbed wire (or broken glass for those who I assume couldn’t afford the latter) until we arrived in front of the one that would be our home for the next ten days. Upon arrival we were taught how to deal with waste, shown where we were to be living and showering, and basically what life would be like during our visit. The shower fixture consisted of cold refreshing water drizzling out of a pipe into a concrete box, and privacy was hardly any to be had. Making eye contact with people on rooftops while naked was not something I was used to before, but it was manageable. Hell, it even felt novel, like it was part of the experience. I knew this was all temporary, and we would return to our first world lives soon enough. However, it wasn’t until we walked out into the city when I really out a feel for how the world out here was.

Of the things I most distinctly remember, amongst the piles of trash on the side of the mountains, playing soccer with local kids, collaboration activities, and a particular bus ride with someone, I would have to say that the walk to the local grocery store had the most lasting impact on me. It’s hard to say why this is the case, but I think it was partly because it was the first time I really became fully immersed into a foreign world. Everyone on the street, rather than beg, tried to sell you things. There was trash littered all around the area, and the traffic laws were practically nonexistent. The grocery store itself was guarded by a man with a shotgun, and inside were rows and rows of the same product with practically no variation. And yet, despite the immense poverty (the annual income per capita is around $350 (haitioutreach.org)) the store was rather expensive. the people there were extremely kind, much more inclined to smile or say “bonjour”. We take our own culture for granted, almost by definition since we live in it, breathe it, and essentially are it. That one simple walk did something that to me that had never happened before: it took the idea of culture shock and turned it into a reality- it turned the hypothetical into the actual. I felt like I had stepped into a different world, one kind of like my own but yet the polar opposite. And just like how the Haitian people lacked what we would consider sufficient capital, a relatively uncorrupt government, and environmental regulations, they certainly had something we lacked, something of equivicallable importance. But I wouldn’t be one to know or judge, since it’s not something I have.

During the bulk of the trip we were divided into groups among the three schools (two Haitian schools and our own) and given the task of collaborating to solve a problem that each school had. And while I certainly learned quite a bit during this time, it wasn’t until near the end of our trip end when I sat next to a 22 year old senior in high school named Nicholas that I really saw my mind shift. The school system there essentially functioned such that you had to pay to advance grade levels, but often times the teachers didn’t even show up to class to teach. This was the moment I had waited for. I wished to bestow onto him some useful knowledge that I could give him that would make his life better. For example, I had imagined teaching him English or math or something like that. But he was fluent in English (not to mention Creole and French as well). It had never occured to me that perhaps what I wanted to give him was not something he wanted in the first place, or that the way I wanted to help him was a way he wanted to be helped. I had imagined my life to be so much more information rich that I had all of this knowledge I could give him. One didn’t survive the tough and unforgiving environment of Haiti without knowing some serious secrets about the way the world worked. And these are the kinds of things that someone like me who never had to endure such hardships would never understand. It turned out that I learned far more about Haitian culture and the language than I ever ended up teaching him. It would be unfair to even treat it as a teacher/student relationship. We simply talked and exchanged thoughts.

I will never understand what life is truly like in Haiti. I can empathize and I can imagine, and I can observe and speculate, but ultimately I am myself and I am destined to only know what I know. I won’t, however, make a value judgment about whose life or culture is “better”. Sure, there is much in my life that I can be grateful for, including the computer from which I type, the sense of security I have from my (relatively) stable government, and all the rest of the physical, first world commodities that are so readily available. But I get the sense that in the midst of all this material stuff, we lose something else. I just don’t think we can have it all. But hey, who am I to make this call? I only know my own side of the coin. The difference, however, is that Haiti showed that there are indeed more sides of the coin. In fact the sides are nearly infinite. I’d best be grateful for my own life and the journey I have ahead of me, and make the best use of it that I can, just as everyone else is trying to do in their own respective ways.

Susan Weber