Experiencing Haiti Ann Paton

My colleague, Kirsten, and I were scheduled to travel to Haiti with a group from Delray Beach, the town that serves as Be Like Brit’s Florida headquarters, in the fall of 2017. This was in the scary days when a determined Irma was beginning to flex her formidable muscles in earnest. The trip was cancelled at the last minute, and I have to say I puffed out a secret little sigh of relief.


Unlike my colleague Kirsten, who was born in Central America, and has lived in Panama, Mexico, the Bahamas and Guatemala, I am a provincial woman who has banked a lifetime of hopeful, world-traveling dreams, but has actually tasted only small bits that border the U.S like teeny-tiny nibbles on the edges of a giant global cookie. I always make myself small when my well-travelled friends tell their stories of river cruises on the Danube, the wonders of Machu Picchu, or their visit to Iceland’s Golden Circle.


When I told my doctor I was planning to visit Brit’s Home, he openly disapproved, clucking over my faulty septuagenarian immune system. My kids worried about crime and the possibility of catastrophic weather. When the trip was finalized for the last weekend in January, I kept a low profile. I had made up my mind to go, and I was impatient with myself for being scared. I had gotten the shots, the special bug repellent, powerful sunscreen, special salts for quick rehydration. I was physically ready and emotionally overflowing with curiosity, both exhilarated and fearful.


The flight from Fort Lauderdale was short – just two hours. Our checked bags were giant Be Like Brit duffels packed with car parts for an old Jeep, economy-size bottles of shampoo and other key supplies for Brit’s Home. Kirsten and I were fortunate to have Chloe Rits, Florida’s Director of Outreach, with us on the flight. Besides being entertaining company, she made sure we had what we needed to sail through the Port au Prince airport unhindered. We quickly found our driving crew and headed off in the golden afternoon light toward the green-blue mountains called the Chaine de la Selle and the town of Grand Goave in southwestern Haiti, where Brit’s Home dominates a mountainside.


That van trip from Port au Prince to Grand Goave is indelibly tattoed on my brain for its riot of colors and smells and endlessly teaming masses of people travelling home at the end of the day. Tap-taps, the brightly painted converted buses and trucks that serve as mass people-movers, blocked the thoroughfare as more and more people jumped on, precariously saved from the crush of traffic by a tangle of helpful arms and bright smiles. Small scooters deftly wove in and out of traffic, some holding entire families, further burdened by big yellow tanks of water and bags of food.


The narrow roadside held countless women gracefully managing gigantic bundles magically balanced atop their heads. Small half-clad children grabbed at their skirts as clouds of dust swirled around them. Massive piles of trash seemed to fill any space not occupied by tiny, bright storefronts or slapdash lean-tos housing maze-like neighborhoods. Skinny, scabrous dogs and pigs by the score travelled too, on a mission to scout the trash piles for food.


Laser-focused, our driver deftly wove through the masses, never taking his foot off the gas or his hand off the horn. I wanted to get a good look at the famous Three Hands Statue outside the airport, but kept squeezing my eyes shut to the near misses our van made as it powered its way through rush hour traffic.  


Even after dark, even outside Port au Prince, the stream of people on the roadside was un-ending. Now and then, figures would dart in front of us, dark silhouettes in the bright rush of the van’s headlights. I had never held my breath so tightly for so long, or strained my eyes to see the landscape so intensely.  


The last leg up the mountain to Brit’s Home is precarious. I imagined jolting off the thin pavement into the manmade culvert that lines the side of the road, but up we went through the fortress-like gates of the orphanage to safety, and to the voices of 60+ children singing high and clear in the velvet darkness.

When the singing stopped, the children came to us, some running, full of laughter, and some with shy reluctance, to give us hugs of welcome. I choked hard to keep back tears then for that haven full of children skipping safely off to bed.


Kirsten and I could each have had a room of our own but we decided to share. We unpacked and gathered for dinner with Mami Love, Chloe, Bernie, Jessica and Danielle. We shared fragrant homemade pizza, salad and cold, fat bottles of Prestige Beer that could not have been sharper, deeper or more delicious. We went to the roof later and found Orion’s Belt in an endless sky of faint stars, mountains black sentinels in the distance. Dogs barked mournfully across the night to each other while we laughed and talked and dreamed of what that roof top view would be like in the daylight.

First thing the next morning, we tripped up the stairs with our cups of coffee to gasp at the sparkling sea and the green mountains protecting it, the soft blue sky laced with delicate steams of cloud, the unbridled beauty belying the harshness of the lives being lived far below.


For the next two days we visited an orderly mission, where kids of all sizes played soccer in a tree-lined field. We saw a Cuban-run medical clinic, the best in Grand Goave. To us, so accustomed to state-of-the-art medical facilities, the place felt like a set from a 60s horror movie. Parents prayed in a makeshift chapel waiting for their daughter to give birth. Two women helped a young man doubled over in pain, scrabbling over the broken tiles of the courtyard and through the door in search of care.


We went to a beautiful beach, a bus full of singing children from Brit’s Home following. We sang back, laughing loudly as we jolted over the rutted road. The beach was a paradise, the lush greenery curving over white sand into the lazy azure waves. I wanted to steal the children’s smiles as they pulled one another into the water, and tuck them in my pocket for a treasure to enjoy when I got back home. I took a little flute-shaped shell instead, and it rests beside me as I write.  


We met a woman and her 4 children by the foundation of the house that was being built for her by Be Like Brit that day. The piece of land was secluded near a river where families washed their clothes on the rocky shore. It was a good place for a house, and the woman smiled with pride and happiness while her children skipped and jumped around us in excitement.


Their new home would be a lifetime escape from the patchwork tent where they’d been living. Now they would proudly own one of the sturdy blue-roofed little houses, each a proud testament to all the ways that Brit’s Home and Brit’s team is living the dream that Brit had – creating a better life for Haiti’s children and families – providing jobs and homes, education, clean water and, most of all, hope.


Before Kirsten and I travelled with Bernie back to the airport that Sunday we walked down the mountain with all the children pressed and shiny in their church clothes. We sat in the new church building, and we sang our hearts out surrounded by families who came from their little houses, and tents and lean-tos to worship together.


Each person in that church was clean and polished, respectful for worship. A little girl in a red dress held my hand. The voices in the hot church rose up through the tin roof and into the sky, and I think everyone there felt that God was listening. I looked at Kirsten standing tall next to me, and she smiled her knowing smile. It was a simple moment in a simple place with no walls on a dusty road on a hot hill in a poor town. In that moment I realized, “Mwen renmen w”, Haiti. I love you. And I will be back again.

-Ann Paton