- Uniquely Haitian Experience
T-Shirts for Haiti
It was 1984 when my husband of just over a year suggested Haiti as a vacation destination. He had an acquaintance who recently returned from the popular Club Med resort and suggested I bring T-shirts for the Haitians. “They need clothing,” he informed me, “and they are grateful for anything you can give.” At age 24, I knew nothing about poverty and oppression. Beckoned by the white sandy shoreline and allured by the cobalt and turquoise oceanfront I found myself on a cold, blustery January morning standing in a long line, huddled like sardines in a can, waiting to board a flight to Port au Prince Haiti from New York. The four-hour charter flight was crowded and uneventful, filled only with noisy, restless vacationers embarking to this one particular resort.
At the airport terminal in Haiti, an austere grey building with wide rectangular glassless openings for windows, the tepid breeze allowed the Haitian flag to give a gentle wave as if to beckon me further into this mysterious land. The wave became a stark contrast to the multitude of armed guards standing firmly and unsympathetically with their rifles.
The officials stared at the passerby’s and pulled clothing from suitcases in search of anything illegal coming into the country. Timidly I handed over my passport for inspection and made a quick attempt at shoving my belongings back into my suitcase. Apprehensively walking past the armed guards with whom I shared a common bond as droplets of sweat rolled off our foreheads, I dragged my much too heavy suitcase outside. “What’s in that thing?” my husband mused as he grabbed the big sky-blue suitcase from my hand. “You’re not going to need much clothing here, it’s hot as hell.” I smiled to myself. Stepping into a van adorned in what looked like 60s psychedelia, I was greeted by a tall, lanky man in a starched crisp white shirt and a wide welcoming smile. Beckoning to me by holding out his long-outstretched hand, he assisted me up the step. “Welcome to Haiti,” he cheerfully exclaimed with a thick Creole accent. “This is a beautiful country with beautiful people. You’ll love it here.”
An hour’s ride to the hotel stood before me as the hot arid air was tempered by a breeze passing through the open windows. Traveling through Port au Prince I caught a fleeting glimpse of the impressive white capital building, surrounded by evenly spaced palm trees. The paved road of the industrial suburb with its gloomy factory buildings turned to a dusty dirt road lined with tin roofed huts. The 15 people in the 10-person van started to look apprehensive. “Is there really a resort in this country?” a few shouted. Others pondered whether they made the right choice to vacation in Haiti. “I think I made a mistake.” Another exclaimed. I began to wonder whether I made a mistake too.
All along the road I spied Haitians working; either carrying, pushing, or chopping.
Some hauled children in makeshift carriers on their back, others bore colorful fruit in handmade baskets, while still others balanced massive sacks of what might have been flour or rice on their heads. Amazed by their smiles, their laughter could be clearly heard amidst their hard work and poverty-stricken surroundings. I could only imagine how hard their lives really were.
We learned from the driver that Haiti in 1984 was the poorest country in the western hemisphere and the third poorest in the world. The annual income of a typical Haitian was roughly a dollar a day. Those statistics hold true today, 30 years later. Between the rows of tin shacks women were bent over in a single file washing clothes and pots in a stream. (I’d learn later was also used as their toilet). The smell of wood burning filled the air, stinging my nostrils. It was their only fuel source for cooking. Ghastly raw sewage could be seen in the roads, alongside children innocently playing their silly games as they do back home in the states.
Many of the other tourists took a more positive outlook. “Look at it this way,” one exclaimed, “tourism brings in much needed dollars. “It helps their economy. It gives them jobs.”
Somehow the distinction between us the tourists and them the Haitians, felt wrong to me. “They,” as if alien, different from human. Deserving of their fate? No. Suppressed by a corrupt and uncaring government, yes, but no less human, no less deserving of clean water and an education.
Arriving at the modest resort, we were greeted and serenaded with an uplifting Haitian song and dance. Adorned in flowered skirts, crisp white blouses and that lovely wide grin we were handed a mouthwatering tropical fruity drink, pink umbrella and all. I saw the van driver lifting my suitcase with a grimace.
“See,” my husband chirped, even he thinks it’s too heavy. What did you pack, rocks? I’ve been known to have had that embarrassing “jumbo” sticker placed on my luggage by airline officials a few times before.
“We recommend you take a malaria pill. There has been an outbreak in this country and it would be wise to do so”, the resort director commanded. “Malaria”, I shrieked, “we were never told anything about malaria.” There were no governmental health warnings when we left the states.
“This is a very serious condition,” He continued, “please take it and you will be protected.” He walked around and handed everyone a pill. “How safe is this? I wondered and then never gave it a second thought. This was Club Med in 80’s after all.
The resort was a stark contrast against the extreme poverty seen during the ride over. Scattered about were three story bungalows that faced the beach. Pink roofs topped the bright buildings, each one a different color, as if a child opened a box of crayons across the welcoming blue sky. An open aired restaurant and theater could be found on one end while a pool took center stage.
I loved the scent of the sea breeze and couldn’t wait to immerse myself into the beckoning blue green ocean with breaks of white waves. Restless to walk the sublime beach and feel the granules between my toes, the sprinkles of shade from the billowy green palm trees that swayed in the gentle breeze provided much needed relief from the sweltering sun as they dotted the landscape along with tropical gardens and tennis courts. A dock could be found on one end of the resort. The locals were allowed on the far end of the beach on the other side of the dock, off the grounds of the resort. Every day they lined up hundreds of paintings facing the ocean, like tin soldiers waiting their fate. Sitting in the sand on the superb beach, talking to magnificent Haitian people on the other side of the dock was where I formed new acquaintances with the locals. They would be there every day selling brightly painted Haitian art, hand carved wood statues along with highly polished conch shells.
On the second day, I took my bag with me, filled with items from my much too heavy suitcase. Putting it down on the warm sand I took out an array of new and gently used t-shirts I collected from family, friends and my own stash. A swarm of Haitians surrounded me. I started handing them out; one to a little boy who donned a tattered ripped red shirt as if a cat clawed at the front, another to a young man whose shirt, too small for his frame, showed his midriff and still another to an artist whose paint splatter made the shirt look like its own work of art.
Appreciative beyond words, the Haitians shook my hand, hugged me and flashed
wonderful wide smiled grins. Deeply touched, the warmth and honesty from strangers was something I never experienced before. “I have more.” I offered. “I’ll be back tomorrow.” In return I was gifted with a painting from an artist named Michelet. In bright hot Caribbean colors, a familiar scene of women in their colorful garb tending their chores, a small hut in the foreground and the sapphire ocean in the back exemplified typical Haitian life. To this day, this painting adorns my family room wall. “Now I know what you had in your suitcase,” my husband mused.
Our accommodations while clean were sparse and dreary. I wasn’t too pleased with the room. The cinderblock walls reminded me of a jail cell even though two were painted emerald green and the other two, white. One green wall donned thick purple curtains over the wide ground floor window. When open, you could gratefully see the beach. Club Med in the 80’s was not known for its pleasant accommodations as the goal was not to spend time in your room, but to enjoy the myriad of activities.
We ventured off the resort one day to visit the Citadel, a fortress located about three hours away. This icon was built by Henri Christopher, a key leader during the Haitian slave rebellion after Haiti gained independence from France at the beginning of the 19th century.
During the first hour of the journey we traveled by bus. The verdant countryside dotted with small thatch- roof huts as children shyly peaked through the doorway of their homes. Barefoot women carried firewood strapped to their backs while others toting laundry and dishes headed toward the stream down a steep hillside. Fruits and vegetables adorned the side of the road, abundant and flourishing in this fertile part of the country.
My husband and I transferred to a 4-wheel drive vehicle. The ride for the following hour proved to be harrowing, navigating hairpin turns and constricted roadways. Eyes fixed to the dirt passageway, I tried to anticipate which way we’d turn as the driver negotiated the pretzel like road with precision. Hugging the flank of the cliff when another vehicle approached my palms became red and sore from holding on so tightly. Continuing the climb, the road curled like a snake and the reward became evident as the awe-inspiring views of the fertile countryside
revealed the lush valley below.
The diver informed us “The citadel was built several miles inland, atop a 3,000-foot mountain to deter attacks and to provide a lookout to the nearby valleys.” The location is so remote it still seems to deter people today, I thought. We stopped at the base of the mountainside where local Haitian men lined the dirt road offering mule rides to the top, an alternative to walking the next leg of the journey. Heaving myself on the back of a mule for the next hour I traveled through the steepest, narrowest and most rugged part of the trip. Gripping the reigns tightly as the mule’s legs would get so close to the edge, rocks and dirt would fall down the cliffs edge to the deep valley below. My fear receded and my eyes widened in excitement as I spotted the Citadel jutting out from the mountainside.
Thankful to have reached my destination safely, I walked stiff -legged as I gazed upward toward the angular two story stone structure in considerable disarray. Pieces of stone and rock were strewn about with no noticeable preservation. As I climbed one of the numerous staircases to the highest point – all free of guardrails – I spotted off to the side cannonballs neatly stacked and aligned in angular formations as if they were ready for an impending attack. It was thrilling looking out at the awesome sight of the rich blue Atlantic ocean, dotted by small ships perhaps transporting goods or bearing local fisherman. Taking in the spectacular vision of the lush peaks and valleys to the north, the tour guide pointed out the city of Cap-Haitian in the far distance. Shielding the sun from my eyes, it was also possible to view the eastern coast of Cuba some 90 miles away.
Outside the Citadel scores of Haitians attempted to sell their wares to the “rich” tourists.
“Don’t give them money,” our tour guide instructed, “they just use it to buy alcohol or drugs. They are a very depressed people.” I suspected that the tour guide wanted me to save my money for him.
Approached by a no nonsense Haitian woman, grinning with a smile as beautiful as the perfect sunrise, she was holding the hand of a little girl. Her faded blue skirt, impeccably tied hair, shirt white and crisp as snow, was in contrast to her mud-laden feet and calloused hands. While most tourists turned away, I eagerly met the woman half way, excited to find out what she was selling. The girl struggled to hold a basket filled with soft cloth filled dolls. Brown fabric for the skin, the doll adorned a multi colored striped skirt and blouse and bejeweled dangling shell earrings. A matching turban covered the head as simple stitches of thread created the facial features. “Would you like?” she asked with that lovely thick Creole accent I’d come to enjoy.
“Did you make all these?” I asked. “They’re lovely.” She shook her head up and down as she rushed to get her words out, afraid I would lose interest and walk away. “You stick a pin when you want to curse someone.” She joked half-heartedly. Smiling and giddy, I inquired, “A voodoo doll?” “Yes. You buy one for your daughter.” “Oh, I don’t have a daughter,” I coyly replied, “but I would love to buy one anyway.” “You don’t have a daughter YET,” she laughed aloud in a hearty chuckle making her belly jiggle.
Was that a prophecy, I silently questioned? Handing her one dollar, the full price for the doll. I was ashamed to haggle. Picking one from the basket, with a smile I asked, “Where are the pins?” With a big hearty laugh and a shake of her finger, “Ah, you have to get yourself.” Exchanging laughter, I reached into my bag, which was slung over my back and pulled out a few t-shirts.
“Here”, I said, I hope you can use these.” You would have thought I gave her the secrets of the universe, (but I had a feeling she already knew what they were.) “You already paid me,” said the lady, as $1 is generally their whole day’s salary. “A gift,” I said, “enjoy.” She took my hand in both of hers. “Thank you, thank you” she kept repeating. I reflected on how a few T-shirts could make someone so happy and I am not referring to the woman’s happiness, I am referring to mine.
When my time in Haiti ended, I left the resort with an almost empty suitcase and a very full heart. I also brought back something else many years later. “Mommy, what’s that up on the book shelf?” “That’s a doll I bought from a lovely lady many years ago when I was in Haiti.”
Smiling to myself I clearly remembered her premonition and my memories of the country filled with people so full of hope.