I was in the back of a truck bouncing through Port-Au-Prince with six strangers. We sat in complete silence as we drove past groups of children, their pleas for money blending into a steady drone of unintelligible noise as we passed. The only thing separating me from the Haiti I had heard so much about was a thin metal grate. Barely enough to keep the children from climbing in when we stopped, it only mildly interfered with my view of the city.
I expected to feel bad. I knew Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere. I knew they had severe problems with deforestation and clean water. I thought when I arrived I would empathize or feel sad for them. Instead, I watched silently as we made our way through the streets, feeling only wonderment.
Little did I know that in a few days I would have the most shameful experience of my life.
Haiti is a place of opposites. The next day our guide even told us it’s “A place where the impossible is possible, and the possible is impossible”. Spending the day visiting churches and schools where our trip leaders had built community wells, I began to understand what he meant. We saw children playing and laughing. Whole communities rising up around a center of freshwater, education, and religion. We saw mansions and expensive cars on stunning countryside. We also saw rivers of trash and sewage, shanty towns, crushing poverty, and barren landscapes.
The next day we visited Champ de Mars plaza in downtown Port-Au-Prince. The downtown area felt like a city. Walking on sidewalks was like being at home after the previous day on cramped streets. Making it to the plaza, we headed towards the Le Negre Marron, the statue of the unknown slave. Built by Albert Mangones in the late 60’s, it commemorates the revolt of the slaves against the French that made Haiti the first black republic.
A group of twenty year olds lounged on their mopeds nearby. One of the guys had lived in Miami for a few years, until he was deported, and spoke english very well. He called me over and they had me repeat words in creole while they laughed either at my accent, or because I was repeating something inappropriate. Either way, I was glad to break away from my group and meet someone new. Eventually I grew tired of our game and wondered back to the statue.
If you stand at the statue and look across the plaza, you can see the Presidential Palace. The government has had it’s share of corruption, and there is no mistaking the symbolism of a statue commemorating freedom sitting across from the palace. It made the place feel like a rallying point and the tensions and frustration with the government were thick in the air. Soon, a fight broke out, and a group of men started yelling at us, but our bus arrived just in time. Our guides looked shaken, and I couldn’t help but think we’d had a close call. We left just as a crowd formed, and soon we were rolling through the streets, making our way back to the school in Petion-Ville.
We arrived and the guard opened the gate for us. We drove down a hill and past the student housing to our guest house. The students were outside and we headed back down the long gravel road to join them. Then a soccer game began and we started to play. I was running on the grass and thinking about how special it was to have a patch of grass in this country. I was thinking about being surrounded by tall walls topped with broken glass to keep people out. I could barely keep up with chasing the ball. The younger kids begin to filter out of the game, and they were replaced with older and better players. Already out of my league, I headed to the sidelines to watch. Soon I was standing next to a young man on the edge of the field. He waved and shouted to a few others as they ran off to join in. Soon it was just he and I watching the game in silence.
I turned and asked him if he was going to play. He turned to look at me, and didn’t respond right away. Then he said he didn’t have any shoes to wear and asked me if I would give him mine to wear in the soccer game. Too selfish, and afraid of losing my shoes, I said no. He didn’t respond, he just gave me a look like he knew that was what I would say. Then he quietly turned back to the game, shaking his head. The look he gave made me think about everything I had seen; the dumps that were always burning, beautiful beaches, starving children, art galleries, and deforestation. For the first time in my life, I was deeply embarrassed to be an American, and to be wearing shoes. I stood there for a few more minutes, then I just turned and walked back to the house alone. Soaking in the shame of the moment with every step.
I still think about that interaction a lot. What I think I’ve learned is that I can’t do everything, but I can empower others. I couldn’t clean up the trash piles. I couldn’t change the politics. I couldn’t take care of the children, or drill wells, or build a hospital, or anything else. What I could have done was a lot easier. Just share my shoes with no expectations, and let someone else do the work. Let someone else play the game.
Tyler Hull is a Marketing and Web specialist at Bernard Health. When he's not working, he enjoys traveling, photography, and meeting people along the way.