My heart breaks for Haiti.
Such a beautiful country. Such a wonderful, rich heritage. Such a friendly, welcoming people.
And yet, such a dire circumstance.
When Angela and I arrived in Port-au-Prince, we clad ourselves in optimistic expectation. We had read the stories and the travel warnings that cautioned against all but essential travel to the country. But we had already visited many countries deemed too dangerous for travel on this trip around the world, and we had seen no real cause for alarm.
Seriously, the world is far safer than western governments would have you believe.
But Haiti was different. The tension and unrest were palpable. Desperation seemed to lurk just out of eyesight. For the first time on this trip, we felt like we were out of our element. Unwelcome strangers. Potential marks for violent crime.
On the ride from the airport to our hotel, we took in the surroundings with grim revelation. Our guard was up, the hackles on my neck standing at attention. We would not be wandering these streets at night. Only once the imposing metal gates of our hotel had closed behind us did we feel a measured sense of relief. The hotel guard carried a machine gun.
But those feelings of unease led to feelings of guilt. And then to resolve.
Fear is a cancer, and it has to be removed to prevent its spreading. We have found that people all over the wide world are fundamentally good and well-intentioned. And I refused to cower from irrational fear. If I was to be afraid of Haiti, then the country would need to give me good reason.
I went walking through the narrow, garbage-strewn streets. Alone. For, although I could struggle against my own fear, I could not bear to risk the same for Angela. If all went well, she could choose to join me the next time.
I carried neither wallet nor camera. Just my ancient cell phone that I would gladly relinquish if necessary. And still, I felt conspicuous. People stopped talking in mid-conversation to openly stare at me as I strode by. No one approached. No one threatened. But no one smiled either. Even the curious children kept their distance as I slowly turned in a circle to capture a Google photosphere.
Then, on my way back to the hotel, I realized that Haiti was just as cautious of me as I was of it. Instead of the typical mutual curiosity that comes through travel, Haiti and I were wary. Circling each other. Strangers with no common language between us. Each waiting for the other to make a move.
With that revelation, Angela and I determined to slowly approach a relationship with the country. Make some friends in the hotel and see where that would lead.
“You need to learn some Creole,” Jerry said. “It will help you understand the heart of Haiti.”
Over the course of several days, we had found ourselves looking forward to talking with our new friend Jerry. He was quick to laugh and always seemed to be harboring an innocent secret that you couldn’t wait to hear.
“Where should we start?” Angela inquired.
“Pa gen pwoblèm,” Jerry replied. “No problem. It reminds us that all things are good. Even the hard things. The difficult things.”
In return, Jerry asked us to teach him some English. But we assured him that he was doing just fine with that language already.
“I’ll teach you some Arabic instead,” I offered.
“Okay,” Jerry said enthusiastically. “Where should I start?”
“Mafi mushkila,” I stated.
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“No problem,” I smiled. “The words that make everything okay, no matter the language.”
Jerry belly laughed and walked away, expertly repeating, “Mafi mushkila, mafi mushkila.”
Angela and I turned back to our drinks. Jerry had promised us ‘something special’ the evening before, and we were cautiously curious. Angela’s was a heavily-spiked coconut mousse that required a spoon, and mine was a full 10-ounce pour of 15-year-old Barbancourt Estate Rhum.
It was a one-and-done kind of drink for both of us that inspired the need to dance. Fortunately, there was an incredible Haitian band playing at the hotel bar that evening. And dance, we did!
As we were leaving the restaurant, a large group of Chinese tourists came in for a meal. “It looks to me like you need to learn how to say ‘no problem’ in Chinese,” I said to Jerry.
“Aw, man. Ain’t nobody learning that,” Jerry laughed.
It’s a hard thing to visit a country as desperately poor as Haiti and come away with positivity. With hope. With a renewed belief in the universal goodness of humankind.
Angela and I didn’t preach or proselytize. We didn’t teach children or tend the sick. We didn’t fight the corruption or feed the hungry. We didn’t solve any of the myriad endemic problems plaguing this beautiful, desperate country.
But we did make a friend.
And maybe that’s a small start.