The “North State for Haiti” team should have known we were out of our element the minute we turned the corner into the waiting area at Miami International Airport to board our flight to Port-au-Prince. The boarding lounge had transformed into part hair salon, part disco, part card room and part coffee shop. Before we even left U.S. soil, we had our first glimpse of life in Haiti.
Now that we’re home and slowly getting back to familiar routines, I am trying to encapsulate our week in Haiti by invoking every sight, sound, smell and texture I experienced, starting with the blaring boom box at Gate 10 at Miami International. I’m calling on all of my senses to help me wrap my head around one of the most sad-but-hopeful, exciting-but-peaceful, and familiar-but-foreign places I have ever travelled.
But would Haiti become more knowable if I immersed myself in Haitian life for a month or a year? Au contraire. I’m certain that the more time I spend in her quiet villages and noisy, bustling, dusty, multi-scented urban spaces, defining Haiti would be exponentially more difficult.
Haiti is challenged with recovery from a devastating earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince, its most populous city. At the same moment, she was beginning to recover from centuries of corrupt governments, unwanted foreign intervention, violent military coups, inflation, unemployment, declining tourism and a 2004 rebellion that required a multi-nation peacekeeping force to maintain order.
Despite all of these things, everyone I met in Haiti seemed proud of Haiti’s origins and hopeful for its future. And it wasn’t until I started thinking about Haiti’s future that my mind assembled the “Four Haitis,” distinct incarnations that are helping me make some sense of one of the most incredible, memorable weeks in my life.
Sunday Catholic Mass in Milot provided a view of the “First Haiti,” a community so deeply devoted, for better or worse, to its faith. Sunday mass in Milot is a whole-community, inclusive, dressed-to-the-nines social event.
On Sunday, walk on any of the thoroughfares in Milot, all leading to the Catholic church, and you are swept up in pre-ceremony procession through town. Mass is a two-hour flashback to my Jesuit High School days but with a refreshing Caribbean vibe, a full band, complete with bongos, and a celebratory air absent from American Catholic services. Following Mass, the whole town parades again, this time to gossip, mingle, eat and relax.
But make no mistake: Religion is a serious subject in Haiti, a nation that is 80 percent Roman Catholic. At birth, children receive a “Carte D’Identite Catholique,” Catholic Identification Card, that records Catholic life’s milestones: birth, baptism, communion, marriage, children and death.
Children at Milot’s Sunday service were incredibly protective of these cards, many carrying them in plastic bags, and deliberate about having them punched, to make sure their attendance at Mass was recorded. For many of Milot’s families, faith, a sense of community and a common purpose might be what sustains them through some rough times in Haiti’s collective healing.
We arrived at the “Second Haiti” after a one-hour journey by car from the calm of Milot. We traveled through the chaos of Cap-Haitien and a treacherous mountain assent and descent to the coast that almost put me in spinal traction. Cormier Plage is a magical, once-bustling resort on Haiti’s north coast.
This is the part of my story where you lose all semblance of sympathy for some of the team’s travel trials: six nights of restless sleep under mosquito nets, continuous perspiration and re-application of bug spray, meals of beans and rice, and the hospital’s quasi thirst-quenching warm filtered water.
A total disregard for our discomfort is allowed, because the beach at Cormier Plage is a blanket of pure white sand awash in an 80-degree saline bath. We took a somewhat guilty afternoon to relax, refuel and take a collective mental picture of Haiti’s not-so-distant-past as a popular tropical destination. “Tropical mecca” is a status that Haitians hope to soon recover.
The beach might be the main event for adventurous tourists, but the “Third Haiti,” a nation with an abounding history and surprisingly well-preserved historical landmarks, hooked me the second I set foot at the Citadel. This fortress, an 108,000-square-foot, 19th-century, UNESCO World Heritage site, perched above Milot, is part of a system of forts built to protect Haiti from foreign invasion.
Commissioned by Henri Christophe, then-administrator of northern Haiti and Haiti’s future King (and commissioner of San Souci Palace), the Citadel is a reminder of Haiti’s tumultuous freedom from foreign rule in the early 1800s. Unused cannons lie where, almost two centuries ago, they were poised to fend off foreign invaders. Its walls are moss-covered from years of exposure to heat and humidity.
The Citadel’s long-abandoned museum is a sad reminder of the heyday of tourism. But it is lovingly maintained by a groundskeeper who sweeps, dusts and sells 20-year-old postcards to the rare visitor. His perseverance, in itself, is a sign of hope.
On our last night in Milot, we experienced a “Fourth Haiti,” a culturally rich country with a sense of preservation. The hospital’s volunteers were invited to a celebration at the Lakou Lakay Cultural Center, founded by Maurice Etienne, a long-time resident of Milot, Lonely Planet-endorsed tour guide and an ardent advocate of Haiti’s recovery through cultural identity.
An evening of history, traditional dance, music and Haitian cuisine was the perfect cap on our journey, and a reminder that there is an entire generation of energetic, positive young people who may be able to effect Haiti’s changes while preserving Haiti’s culture.
Only four Haitis? I’m sure there are an infinite number of Haitis. Each woman with a load of bananas atop her head, every business owner, every self-appointed tour guide, and every aid-relief worker has his or her own version. So does every patient at Hopital Sacre Coeur who lost a family and was displaced from a home. And so does every resident of the tiny town of Milot who became a caretaker for an army of displaced earthquake victims, and welcomed eight North State strangers into their lives for just instant.
I’m just thankful that I was able to share in some of their life events. I hope that my account of our experiences “To Haiti and Back” help us all see that inspiration is all around us, that we can overcome even the worst circumstances with dignity, that “different” doesn’t mean either better or worse and that we’re really not that out of our element anywhere.
The team is accepting donations for CRUDEM. Make checks payable to CRUDEM and send to P.O. Box 633, 215 Lake Blvd, Redding, CA 96003.
For more information about CRUDEM and Hopital Sacre Coeur, visit crudem.org.
Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your NorthState weekend events to firstname.lastname@example.org.