When I encounter a foreigner in Haiti, the standard exchange quickly jumps to the question, “What are you doing here?”
This question implies work, not leisure. It asks for little information about the person concerned, and everything about their purpose in Haiti. I see you are here, but what are you doing? This is quite different from the question, “What do you do?” which implies permanence. “What are you doing here,” implies a passing fancy, a short term objective.
Visitors to Haiti often overwhelmingly imagine they have a unifying mission. They actually have a troublesome overabundance of different, small missions—projects for this school, water for that town, toothbrushes for this clinic. Invariably, visitors come with something to do: to build schools, to teach, to provide medical care, to hand out used clothing, to run water quality tests, to plant trees, to preach a gospel. People come to Haiti to meet the children they’ve sponsored in school for the past ten years, to train a group of Haitians how to use “modern” solar panels and water pumps, and to see poverty.
“What are you doing here?” I rarely, if ever, ask Haitians this question, and I don’t ask it of people when I'm in the U.S.
A recent trip to southeastern Haiti for – dare I say it – pleasure showed me another way to travel and experience the country.
“What am I doing here?” During those five glorious days - nothing. Sometimes, I was just sipping on a beer in a chilly mountaintop village listening to two Haitian guitarists sing and play for the community of people gathering around.
During the trip, I walked past private mansions—the kinds that have their own aristocratic names stamped in capital letters on luxurious signs. I hiked across mountain ridgelines larger than any you can find in the eastern U.S. Where I slept at night, I needed two blankets and all my scant clothing to stay warm. I gazed up at a pine forest, ate fresh conch in a spiced sauce, and walked on a beautiful mosaicked walkway along the Jacmel waterfront. I slept in a hammock between palm trees on the beach, and listened to tree frogs that sounded like they were clinking wine glasses together at a party.
People come to Haiti to do. Very few come to Haiti to see, to hear, to smell, to taste and to feel. Very few come to be present, to visit, to explore. I was just traveling around Haiti—what was I doing then to improve the lives of the people here?
I was learning to see Haitians through the differences between my culture and theirs. I was putting aside my preconceived notions of Haitian life, and my experience thus far in the Central Plateau. I was building my capacity to speak Kreyol with Haitians. I experienced the diversity of Haitian music, terrain, flora, cuisine, film and literature. I learned about Haiti's fascinating history and heritage. I saw, and acknowledged, that Haitians are wealthy businesspeople with multiple homes and fancy cars. I saw, and acknowledged, that Haitians live in thatch roof homes with dirt floors two hours walk from a water source. Haitians are skilled artisans, musicians, chefs, and dancers. Haitians are chauffeurs, politicians, doctors and masons. Haitians are unemployed. Haitians have traveled the world and Haitians have never left home.
When I returned to Cange, I felt like I arrived with fresh eyes to a familiar environment. This trip was a strong reminder that being with people, experiencing things with them, opening up my life to them and being curious about their lives builds relationships. There is no school, no water fountain, no social justice discussion that is comparable to building relationships by being present. These are relationships between people, not between a donor and a recipient. When I returned to Cange, I knew I needed to do a better job of seeking the impressive and the good parts of Cange, not just what is discouraging and difficult. For if I only focus on the negative, I am not seeing the whole. This is just as true with people. When I don’t see a whole person, it dehumanizes us both.
The way foreigners travel to Haiti is distinctly different from the way people travel to other places. In Haiti people are focused on making a visible impact in someone else’s life so they can give a report back at home of the mark they made. They arrive expecting destitution, see only destitution, and leave satisfied, with a sense of accomplishment. Visitors miss the beauty of the people of Haiti, they miss the beauty of the culture, the land, the cuisine and the literature. They don’t see the diversity of climates, personalities, and ways of life. People only focus on the problems and how they can resolve them. It’s so common, Haitians tend to only expect this “helpful” behavior. Visitors are blind to the context of their travel.
Most traveling I'm familiar with involves experiencing culture, seeing the local music, eating the local food, and meeting and being with people from another place. Such travel focuses on the highlights and positive qualities of a place. People rarely visit New York City to see the slums in the outlying burrows, or to discuss gentrification or to renovate deteriorating school buildings. People rarely visit Rome and Barcelona to hand out care packages to refugees of war from Africa and the Middle East. People rarely go whitewater rafting in West Virginia to address illiteracy rates. Visitors are blind to the context of their travel.
I propose a new form of travel, a middle route. This happy medium is somewhere between the two types of travel I mentioned. As Paul Clammer’s Bradt guide to Haiti says, “Yes, Haiti is materially poor with a host of complicated economic, political and developmental problems, but it’s hardly unique in that. There’s another story out there as well. It’s one that you’ll find by getting out there and exploring, squeezing into buses or having a cold beer at a street-side bar, learning Creole and listening to locals tell their own stories.”
Clammer continues in a later section, “Haitians are acutely aware that most of the world does not see them as a country proud to have found their freedom through the world’s only successful slave revolution and gone on to build a country with an immensely rich cultural heritage… Haitians love their country and know there is another narrative… The responsible traveler may even be he or she who goes out to enjoy Haiti the most, as well as trying to understand its complications.”
No matter where you travel there are always multiple narratives. The most glamorous destinations can have serious hidden societal problems, and the presumably poorest destinations are rich in diversity, culture and heritage. In either case, roam with an open mind look for multiple narratives, and celebrate life in new contexts.