The day before we were scheduled to leave Ouanaminthe this past August, we had lots of last minute activities going on. What I didn’t remember when I woke up was that I was not in control. No one is, especially in a developing country. I had briefly forgotten that and deluded myself into thinking I/we had some semblance of power over how our time would be spent on what was supposed to be our last full day in Haiti.
For background information, those of you who don’t personally know me, I’m an agenda-maker. I want the day to have a clear starting point and a clear ending point, with everything in between being neatly and nicely organized. I especially like each activity to take exactly an hour so that the schedule looks good on paper. My almost always patient husband knows the distress it causes me (and thus, him) when things don’t go according to plan. It’s not pretty.
So that last day was supposed to start with our first ever First Aid Workshop with 25 registrants coming to participate. The day before, we had found out that the person teaching the class couldn’t make it and it was too late to find a replacement who knew the curriculum. And could speak Creole. So I had already had my moment of panic about that the night before, but regrouped and decided that it was a good thing we weren’t going to have the class because then I would have more time in the morning to focus on the last bit of training I wanted to do with our staff. It also meant the afternoon could be a little more relaxed as we made a run over to Ferrier to do performance evaluations and set new goals with that team. I naively started the day thinking that our last full day would be enjoyable and less challenging than most of the trip had been. How cute of me, right?
Well, as you can predict, things didn’t pan out as I had hoped they would. Not even close, in fact. First, the staff was busier than I had planned for as they dealt with the 25 people who showed up for First Aid. (It’s a developing nation – not easy to notify people of such a change!) That took a while. Then, the maintenance supervisor came to notify us that there was rain water pooling near the batteries for the solar panels. (Again, developing nation. Electricity is spotty as it is without adding water to the mix.) Meanwhile, Jacques was working with the gentleman who was troubleshooting our Internet connection and was having no luck.
Things were not looking good, when in stepped Hans, an American friend we had made several months back. I remember thinking how fun it was to see him and that at least there was one bit of the morning that wasn’t a complete mess. So he and I stood in the library talking and laughing, swapping funny stories about our experiences in Haiti. Hans also told me the news that he was getting transferred to another city and would be leaving Ouanaminthe soon. He lamented the fact that he had just met a girl from the Dominican Republic and really liked her, but was afraid he’d have to break it off because of his transfer. He said, “As a matter of fact, I’m going to pick her up at the border right now so that she doesn’t get stuck in the DR for the weekend.” And went on to tell me what I can only guess were his plans for the weekend. But I can’t swear to that because in my mind all I could hear was the teacher from The Peanuts. “Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah.”
All of a sudden I had a flash of the festivities for the town’s patron saint, being set up as we spoke, and it occurred to me that maybe the border was going to close for the festivities. So I put my hand on Hans’ arm to stop him and said, “Wait. What? Why’s the border closing on a Thursday?” He went on to explain in a lighthearted manner, clearly not getting the fact that I was starting to feel lightheaded and panicky, that the DR had announced it was closing the border that afternoon and for the next few days, most likely in retaliation for the poultry ban Haiti had put in place against the DR after claims that the DR was selling them spoiled chicken. He kept talking, still not seeing my distress as it hit me that we were potentially going to be stuck in Haiti and miss our flight. A minute later, he realized I had stopped listening to him and asked what was wrong. I stammered out, “We’re supposed to leave tomorrow to go back to Santiago for our flight on Saturday.” “Tomorrow” being Friday, to get us there in time for a sunrise flight on Saturday morning.
By that point, I was seeing images of unpacked suitcases of clothing strewn about our hotel rooms and beginning to hyperventilate, realizing that my hopes for a nicely organized day had just taken a long dive off a short plank. “JAAAAAAAAAAAAAACQUES!”
It was 11:45 am and the border was set to close at 2pm. That gave us about two hours (we needed about 30 minutes to wrap things up as best we could at the library) to pack, say goodbye to my in-laws, and get cash from the one and only ATM in town (I told you already: developing nation. Hardly anyone accepts credit cards) to pay the remainder of our hotel bill and leave cash for expenses related to the water pooling around the batteries and the Internet issues. Three tired and hungry kids watched as I began to have a nervous breakdown.
We head to Jacques’ mother’s house first to get that out of the way. Quick, emotional good-byes are said, necks are hugged. Off to the bank which is on the way to the hotel. It’s oddly quiet in the SUV. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was mentally on my 16th or 17th version of a “To Do” list.
Enter patron saint festivities.
Remember the one and only ATM? Located behind glass doors on the inside of the bank?
It hits me at that exact moment that I might actually lose my cool in the very near future.
It’s not often that Jacques swears, and usually when he does, we all find it hysterical and collapse in fits of laughter because of how funny it sounds in his accent. This time no one giggled.
We needed $400 to cover the remaining expenses, and aside from realizing how stupid it was to put that off till the last moment (in our defense, it was a hell of a trip this time, way more challenging than normal), I was also starting to think there was something weird going on: like Haiti was closing in on us. Have you read Messsenger by Lois Lowry? (I have three kids… youth literature is big in our house. I highly recommend the series. Go read it if you haven’t already.) In Messenger, the main character, Matty, an adolescent boy, is running through a very scary forest that is quickly closing in on him, putting up poisonous snarls of thorn bushes and quicksand in his path, trying to stop him from reaching the other side to save a community from peril. This is what I was feeling. Our beloved Haiti was closing in on us in a way that I was finding totally disconcerting and alarming. Like it didn’t want to let us go for some reason. (It wasn’t until much later that I decided it wasn’t out of malice that Haiti didn’t want us to go home, but more on that later.)
Thank God for Jacques’ audacity. No one else would think to ask the hotel owner to trust us to wire him the money from the US when we got back. No one but Jacques, that is. So that’s the plan as we head back to the hotel.
It’s now 1:15. We still have to pack, so I take the kids up and everyone starts tossing stuff into suitcases. Jacques arrives soon after that to throw his stuff in the last duffel, and we do a double check under the beds and in the bathroom, and then carry the luggage down to the SUV. It’s all still very quiet as if we’re all trying to move as gently and silently as possible so as not to wake the sleeping beast that is trying to prevent us from leaving.
It’s now 1:45.
As we get in the SUV, Jacques calls out to the hotel owner’s son, who hops in the SUV with us. Wait. What? Yes. His son. The owner himself was not on site and so Jacques couldn’t get his permission to wire him the funds. I’m at the point where I consider putting my head between my knees since there isn’t a brown paper bag anywhere to breathe into. The son’s proposed solution is to come with us across the border to get cash at an ATM in the DR. Sounds like a plan, right?
But the mother in me is screaming, “How will he get back across and home to his parents if the border is closing?” Granted, he isn’t exactly a child. He’s probably in his early 20s. But it’s Haiti and he is someone’s son after all. Turns out he’s done this many times and when he can’t cross at the border patrol, which happens to be located halfway across a bridge, he pays someone to cross him in their makeshift boat in the nearly dry river. Duh. Problem solved.
Until we get through border patrol. We pay an additional $25 to cross with the SUV so Rubens, our operations manager, can drop our bags off closer to the restaurant we’re stopping at rather than making us carry them. Turns out that after taking our cash, the border patrol agent informed Rubens that he wouldn’t be able to come back across with the vehicle. And obviously that can’t be brought back to Haiti in a makeshift boat.
So we jump out in the middle of the bridge, grab our bags and say a quick good-bye to Rubens as he convinces the border patrol agent to let him back up onto the Haitian side. And we walk silently, each of us carrying our luggage and a heavy heart, and walk two blocks to the restaurant to wait for the driver from Santiago, which is a two hour drive from the border.
Oh. That reminds me. This is the driver who never answered his phone to confirm that he could indeed switch from a Friday pick up to Thursday with incredibly short notice. The driver whose voicemail we had filled with frantic messages and whose text inbox was surely going to reach its limit. That’s the guy we were waiting for, in a town that has no hotels to my knowledge.
I slowly let that register as Jacques left me and the kids and all our luggage to go get cash.
It’s now 2:15.
Sitting in a completely modern restaurant unlike anything they’d seen for the last two weeks, the kids are in hog heaven with WiFi, bacon cheeseburgers, French fries and soft drinks whose brands they recognize, after what was their first trip to a developing nation. It was now silent in a much more pleasant, less ominous way as they got a long overdue technology fix and some junk food. As enjoyable as that was to me, knowing that they were happily occupied and fed, I couldn’t help being a bit nervous that Jacques seemed to be taking too long at the ATM. It was a really long wait, after he had told me the ATM was only 2 or 3 blocks away. He did finally show up, at 3:15, a full hour after leaving us. Three ATMs later, he had finally found one that worked and got out the cash we needed. We all said good-bye to the hotel owner’s son, whose name I never did catch, and Jacques came in to sit down.
And then something finally went right for the first time that day: Jacques’ food arrived just as he sat down (I had ordered for him).
And then something else happened: the driver called to say he was almost there to pick us up.
So back to my feeling that Haiti was closing in on us as we unexpectedly fled Ouanaminthe a day early. I couldn’t shake that feeling until I was safely back on US soil. It kept coming back to me. In my head, Haiti was flipping us the bird and saying, “You don’t leave till I say you do.” It was an awful feeling. Very stressful, particularly after an already challenging trip filled with schedule changes (you know how I hate that) and rotten weather, bug bites, bats and unexpected camping, not to mention the issues we had at the library in Ouanaminthe with electricity, Internet connectivity and other challenges that seemed to keep springing up. By the time we had to flee like fugitives, I was already regretting the longer than normal stay. The border issues were just the last straw that, once broken, led to me feeling like Haiti – a country for crying out loud, not a person! – was trying to strong arm me, to show me who was boss. (I know how ridiculous that sounds, no need to call a shrink.)
Obviously, I know that while I can personify Haiti for the purpose of a blog, of course it isn’t actually possible for Haiti to take on a character in real life. But if it could… If Haiti could take on a persona, maybe it wasn’t so much that it wanted to cause us trouble or to make our lives difficult by forcing us to stay there. Maybe it was trying to hold onto us because, for selfish reasons, it didn’t want us to leave. Maybe Haiti sees the good we’re doing, the effort we’re making to help its people, and it tried to hold onto us for dear life.
Now doesn’t that feel better?