Sunday, August 22, 2010

My Trip to Haiti -- Part VII

The Quarterback, Amelia and Hillary at the beach
Day 7 -- Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thursday was beach day, and we were told we would be leaving at 9:30.  It soon became evident that this meant 9:30 "Haitian Time," since the assembly didn't start until around 9:30.  In addition to the usual prayers, the head counselor lead the children in prayer for their safety on the trip.  I don't want to read too much into this, because I suspect the prayer was exactly the same one she would have offered any other summer.  However, Eloise had told us that many parents were still quite skittish about sending their children to the beach.  There was a small tsunami with the earthquake, not like the big one in southeast Asia a few years back but just big enough that if you happened to be standing on the beach or in the water when the earthquake happened you probably would have drowned.

At around 10:30, a school bus painted blue and white drove onto the field next to the gazebo, and the children began to pile on.  There were about 125 kids and about 10 adults going on the trip, and any teacher will tell you that far exceeds the safe capacity of a school bus.  The kids and regular counselors got on, and the volunteers were told we would take another bus.

After the kids had been on the bus for several minutes, I heard voices yelling my name.  Christopher and Daniel were leaning out the window, and when they saw they had my attention, they motioned to me to come to the bus.  I jogged over, and they asked me why I wasn't going to the beach.  I explained that I was going separately with the other volunteers, and they seemed very happy.
Our tap-tap

The "other bus" we were taking was not what would pass for a bus in the U.S.  Haiti has an informal system of vans and converted pick-up trucks called "tap-taps" which function as somewhere between buses and taxis.  They are brightly painted, and people stand on the side of the road and hail them, or you can call them if you and they both have a phone.  People ride in, on and on top of these vehicles to get around.  One had been called for us.

It was about now that we noticed that the school bus wasn't leaving.  The kids had been on it for a good half hour, and we imagined the heat was horrible.  The driver was now standing in front of the bus with the hood open.  It had broken down.  At about 11:10, we piled into the tap-tap, the bus driver got the bus going, and we headed towards the beach.

Having spent five days inside the grounds of the camp, it had been easy to forget that we were actually at ground zero for the earthquake.  While the living conditions of survivors were in evidence daily, the destruction caused by the quake was not.  As soon as we ventured out of the gates, however, it was back to reality.  Rubble, empty foundations and collapsed buildings were everywhere.  Where there weren't building remains, there were tent cities.  Very few buildings were standing and undamaged.  We continued through what, I suppose, had once been the center of town and out onto a dirt road which wound its way to the shore.  At 11:30, we got out of the tap-tap and waited for the kids to arrive.
The remains of a building near the beach

What was perhaps most striking about the beach was that it could easily have been on any island in the Carribbean.  With all the poverty and misery in Haiti, it's easy to forget that it is, in fact, a beautiful tropical island.  The beach had a lot of garbage and debris on it where the tap-tap let us off.  There had been heavy rains for several nights in a row, and it probably wasn't that clean to begin with.  Once the kids arrived, we headed down the beach to a much cleaner and nicer stretch, and to a house owned by Eloise which also had withstood the quake. 

As soon as we arrived, the kids started taking off their clothes and putting on whatever they were going to swim in.  A majority had bathing suits, although the two-piece suits didn't necessarily match.  The smallest kids were mostly in underwear.  Some kids wore shorts and t-shirts, or suits that obviously were too small or too big.  No one cared.  As soon as the counselors gave permission, everyone headed into the water.  I took my time getting ready, and by the time I walked towards the beach, a little girl decided I was late and needed to be pulled into the water.

The scene in the water was unlike any that would be permitted at any camp or school trip in the U.S.  Adults stood around the perimeter of a relatively small area of water.  125 children all squeezed into this area and jumped all over each other in what, in my experience, is "no horseplay or you're out of the pool" behavior at American venues.  I asked one of the counselors how many of the kids knew how to swim.  He had no idea.  The motion of the children kicked up sand from the ocean floor, meaning that when children went under water they couldn't be seen.  I spent most of my time praying I wasn't going to have to rescue or, God forbid, not rescue any children.

Once I had been yanked into the water, four or five kids at a time clung to me for dear life.  While I understood the impetus, I was truly afraid they were going to send me under the water and I wasn't sure I'd be able to get back up with them on top of me.  Add to this that Christopher and Daniel very much wanted to be around me, and showed their enthusiasm by leaping on top of the pile of kids who were already holding on to me.

After a swim it was time for lunch.  Some men who appeared to be camping on the property brought out freshly picked coconuts and, while the kids played, the adult paid them 25 gourdes (about 60 cents) each to hack off the top of the coconuts with a machete so we could drink from them.  It was fabulous.

The plan had been for Amelia and me to grab the three children who said they were thinking of suicide and talk to them sometime today.  However, it was pretty clear we were not going to be able to do that in all the hubbub.  This was difficult for me, since my training is certainly not to let it go when a child says they are suicidal.  The fact that we had already let it go for 24 hours was disturbing enough, but there really wasn't a way to even find these kids (whom we did not know), let alone assess them.  Finally, Amelia went and spoke to the head counselor, and we agreed we would talk to the kids before assembly the next day.  After another swim, we headed back down the beach to the bus and the tap-tap, and back to camp.  We were due back at 2:00.  We arrived close to 3:30.

After dinner, Amelia asked Daniel if he would like to talk to us about the earthquake, and whether he thought some other kids would too.  He said yes, and told us he would ask around to see who wanted to come.  At about 8:00, we sat down on the porch to talk to Daniel, Christopher and Christopher's cousin, Marie, age 10.  Each told us what had happened to them during the earthquake*.  I asked each of them what they thought was happening, and they all had different ideas, but each of them mentioned that it had crossed their mind the island might be sinking into the ocean.  This was not something that had even occurred to me, but then, I don't live on an island.

We discovered that none of them had much of an idea what causes earthquakes.  This seemed important.  Even though earthquakes can't be predicted reliably, I surmised that the idea that they "just happen" made their fear that it would happen again more pronounced.  I was right.  After a brief lesson in plate tectonics, all three of them visibly relaxed.

We spent some time talking about the definition of bravery.  The kids, both this group and the many others, did not seem to feel they had been brave during the earthquake.  They were using a definition of bravery that equaled not being scared, and they felt that no one had been brave.  I asked them what they thought the most important thing to do during the earthquake had been, and they told me it was to get outside and away from buildings, to pray for survival and to find their families.  I pointed out that that is exactly what they had managed to do.  They may have been scared, but staying alive was their number one priority, and they had done it.  I also told them that I knew it was hard to talk about this, and so the fact that they told us their stories and how scared they still were meant that they really were brave.  They like that.

It was 10 PM, and Marie was visibly exhausted and wanted Christopher to walk her to her tent in the dark, so they left.  I told Daniel he needed to go to sleep, but he refused.  I asked him what time he went to sleep usually, and he said 11 or midnight.  I asked him what time his mother wanted him to go to sleep, and he said 9, looked embarrassed, said goodnight and headed toward his tent.  I went inside and, as I tried to sleep, contemplated something that another volunteer, a Haitian-American, had told me at the beach:
It's good that you're here.  Only by coming here can you know that these children are human.
* You might reasonably be expecting me to relate the children's stories at this point.  I have struggled with how much to share, because what they say is supposed to be confidential.  I have decided to strike a balance by only relating what I believe anyone who knows them already knows and what I said to them, rather than all of what they had to say.

Tomorrow -- The Work We Came Here to Do


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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