Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Travelling to Haiti

Personal Journey | Sticking it out on a trip to Haiti

We were standing on a bridge over the River Massacre, and it was too late to wonder why we were taking our children from the relative comfort of the Dominican Republic to the violent poverty of Haiti. When we decided to make a four-day visit to the poorest, densest country in the hemisphere, we knew tourists rarely visited anymore.

Still, the vibrant music, piquant food, and people we had met from Haiti drew us there during a five-month adventure living in the DR. We were introducing our children to the mystery of travel, the magic of following an unexpected trail.

Unfortunately, by the time we had crammed into an old school bus for the two-hour ride to Cap Haitien, we were questioning our decision. Men were fighting in the bus yard, and we were the only blans, or foreigners, on the bus. Benjamin, 5, and Lane, 10, sat on our laps while bags sat on them.

But curiosity is a powerful diversion, and our children were fascinated by the men yelling at each other and women yelling louder to sell cosmetics. At the hotel, Ben was thrilled to see a TV, and Lane was enticed by a woman braiding hair by the pool.

My husband and I resisted the urge to turn back, and we were rewarded with an experience college tuition can't buy. At dinner we met Americans working in a health clinic. Lucia, raised in Haiti, had built a school on family land. Jan, a doctor from Maine, was running a temporary clinic in the school.

For two days, we traveled with them in the back of a pickup - no children's car seats here. Lane and Benjamin accepted the sweltering, back-breaking journeys because our friends were exciting, the scenery was exotic, and we let them drink all the Coca-Cola they wanted.

We went to the ruins of the Palace of San Souci, built in 1810, and told our children how Haitian slaves fought off the French in 1804 to become the first black republic. At Labadee Peninsula, we frolicked in aqua waves with dozens of Haitian families.

But the miracle of the trip was the clinic. We became doctors, not tourists. Our children became involved in others instead of themselves. Lane, normally content to hang out at a hotel pool all day, ran for instruments and antibacterial soap. Benjamin, happiest when he's with his Legos, got medical gloves and played with a boy from the village.

During our three hours there, we saw children with scabies, malnutrition and worms and adults with headaches, colds and backs broken from carrying water. I used a stethoscope while my husband checked for scabies.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed a man with eyes burned from the sun. Jan gave him her sunglasses. Lane was awestruck.

"You gave him your own glasses," she said to Jan. "I could never do that."

"Yes, you can do that," Jan assured my daughter. "One day, I know, you will do that."

Amy Miller lives in South Berwick, Maine.

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