Written June 30, 2018
Just off the plane, a man and woman sit at a lemonade-stand looking booth glancing at passports and giving “tickets” into the country. No one looks at the immigration forms we filled out. There are no mini shopping malls or food chains. There’s one makeshift convenient mart, which mostly seems to focus on selling rum and cigars. The staff all look threatening and scary. It’s like they’ve been told we’re afraid of them, and that encourages them to look even more intimidating. I hear Coach give the instruction, “Just keep your head down, don’t ask questions, keep walking.”
When we gather our luggage from the baggage area, someone is there matching tags to plane tickets. I’m not used to that practice being followed, based on my other travels, so I’d already tucked my ticket away. Somehow, I ended up as the butt of our group, and I’m the last one getting checked. Tired and scared, I panic looking for the ticket in my backpack. There’s a line forming behind me. Martha’s the only one who has noticed I got left behind, and now we’ve both been left. I start seeing spots.
I finally find the ticket, and we walk quickly to catch our team. They’ve already found the Nehemiah Vision Ministry camp director, who is picking us up. She introduces herself as Kristen. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that we’re going to be transported in a school bus.
Masses of dirt and trash line the roads. Rubble is everywhere. Everywhere. People drive with no limits. Our driver, Malo, lays on his horn and plows through the streets. Kristen says the most important rule of the road here is “The biggest vehicle has the right of way”. A moped drives next to us. The back passenger is holding a dusty, fat back television. A truck passes us heading in the opposite direction. There are bags of cement stacked ten feet high in its bed. Men ride on top of those bags. A man is peeing just outside of a market . Women walk by with baskets on their heads, full of random objects they’re trying to sell. Everyone’s shoes are broken and/or too small for their feet. Another truck goes by with over a dozen people standing in the bed to increase the number of people who can ride.
A scene driving from the airport to the NVM campus
This is the stuff I’ve seen pictures of in National Geographic and watched documentaries of on the cultural channel. I did my research before I came, I thought I knew what to expect. But witnessing this stuff firsthand and experiencing my reaction is taking the very breath from my body. God, look at these people? Why aren’t you helping them? Why is no one helping them? What can I possibly do, as one person, to help them?
One of the summer interns at NVM rode along. She is sitting in front of me. She leans back and asks me a few questions about myself before she tells me what university she attends and that she’s studying to become a physician’s assistant. All I can think is Why are we talking about what school you go to? Why are we talking at all? Can’t you see what’s happening outside this bus?
After forty minutes of heart-attack driving, we turn onto a bumpy dirt road (actually, all the roads here are dirt) that appears to lead nowhere. Mountains surround us, but we’re in what looks to be a dessert valley. The sky is gray; the air is gray. The campus is not protected in the way I’d pictured. We approach a waist high, flimsy, chain link fence. One scrawny Haitian man stands holding a gun at his shoulder.
Not the entrance gate, but one on the side of campus
We have enough time to drop our bags in the bunkhouses before being called to our orientation meeting. I’m frustrated during orientation because our orientation packets, that we studied over the course of about ten meeetings in preparation for the trip, already covered most of the information now being presented to us. I am not a person who can handle repetition or redundancy. Repeating yourself wastes time and implies that you think I wasn’t listening the first go around. Therefore, this gathering is causing me anxiety, which is elevated by my hunger and lack of sleep.
Adam, the missions director, talks for close to an hour. When he finishes, I practically run to the restroom. I haven’t peed since we were in Miami. I try to use this bathroom break to gather myself, but it doesn’t really work. There were a lot of rules being said to us just then. I’m afraid I can’t remember all of them. What happens if I break one? As I finish using the bathroom, I remember one of the rules being “Don’t Flush Toilet Paper Down The Toilet”. Shoot.
Dinner is being served when I join my group in the common room. It’s rice with a chicken sort of soup and spicy sauce on top. I grab a plate of rice and decline the chicken soup. The person serving the food doesn’t understand why I would choose to decline anything, so I try to explain I’m a vegetarian. Kristen hears this conversation and says, “Oh no, you have to eat some of it. You will get sick if you don’t eat meat while you are here.”
It upsets me terribly to be force-fed meat after not having any in such a long time. I’m quite sure that eating meat this far into being a vegetarian would make me more sick than just continuing to not eat it. I know she is only worried about my energy levels in this heat, but I’m too sleep deprived and culture shocked to process anything properly at this juncture.
I feel pushed past my limits. I try not to cry while I eat what I can of the meal.
After dinner, we all go back to the bunkhouses. Martha and I are on beds next to each other. I’m a bit exasperated that she hasn’t asked how I’m doing yet. I haven’t said a word since we got to campus. “So are you going to talk me down from this, or am I on my own?” I decide to express my anxiety build up to her. Surely she could already see it written on my face.
Our twin beds are questionably engineered by about ten 2x4s screwed together. The mattresses are cots covered in a slick blue material which is mostly cracked and stained. She lays on her left side facing me, I on my right side facing her. She agrees I’m allowed to be upset with the eating chicken incident. She comforts me on the culture shock, she knew she’d handle it better since she’s been on missions in the past. We conclude I’ll feel better after even just a few minutes of sleep. It has to be at least 85 degrees in here. I’m on top of my sheets with my shirt pulled up, sweating.
Beds inside the girls bunkhouse
I keep startling myself awake every couple of minutes. Each time, I look over to see if Martha is still there. I’m too panicky to rest. I finally drift into a deeper sleep, until I have one of those falling nightmares. I sit straight up from my slumber and find I was out for a full 10 minutes. Martha is gone.
My mind doesn’t start racing in the same way you’d think someone’s mind would race when they awake alone in a third world country. I feel surprisingly calm. I grab my water bottler and leave the enclosure. I walk into the common area, and see no one. I go to the pavilion behind our bunkhouse, and see no one. I see some people sitting on the roof of a building in the distance, but I can tell none of those people are my team members. I pause on the gravel pathway to grasp my situation.
My confusion turns to anger realizing that I’ve been abandoned.
I start pacing in and out of every building, trying not to be intimidated by all the Haitian strangers staring at me. I walk towards some cages of roosters. I find Martha checking out the ostriches within sight of the roosters. “Hey! How about let’s not leave Olivia completely alone while she’s sleeping to wake up and find that everyone is gone. Let’s actually never do that agiain while we’re here!” I shout towards her. She walks up to me and says, “Aw! But you were sleeping! I only got up to go to the bathroom, I didn’t know I was going to start walking. Do you wanna go see the ostriches?” She asks, in consolation. “No! I do not want to go see the ostriches!” I say, rolling my eyes at her, totally out of patience for the day. She grabs my arm and pulls me towards those dumb birds anyways.
Coach calls us to devotionals at 8:30pm. I don’t bring my Bible or journal, I decide I’m just going to be a good listener tonight. Except, I have no capacity to listen. I zone out, and daydream about taking a shower. I get called on to talk about my “high” moment from the day. Should I choose when I involuntarily had to eat something I don’t believe in eating or when I woke up alone and forsaken? I muster up some words about the feelings I had when seeing the state of the land from the airplane earlier, instead.
I give up hope of finding sanity before I get a night’s worth of sleep through my system. We go around in a circle and pray before parting ways again.
My cold shower feels amazing. Laying on my blue cot feels amazing. Listening to the sound of the fans running despite the fact that they don’t make me any cooler also feels amazing.
I know that this week is going to be incredibly challenging, but I think, just maybe, I’m going to be ok.
Liv – Authentically