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From Leogane to Labadee

By Heather Oman

The morning sun reflected off the pier, turning the cement white. I squinted and held up my hand to shield my eyes. I had misplaced my sunglasses on the boat, and I realized that if I wanted to spend some time on shore, I’d need to buy another pair.

I walked down the pier, following the other passengers who had signed up for yoga on the beach. I’d never done a yoga class on the beach before. It sounded hip and new age, like something only people from California do. Still, I couldn’t resist the idea of doing yoga in such a beautiful place.

The yoga teacher brought us to a shady spot on the beach. She was a slight woman, the kind of person whose stature belies her strength. She led us through the workout, a routine designed to challenge the beginner, with a few advanced moves for the rest of us. At the end, as we relaxed in Child’s Pose and breathed, I looked out at the ocean. The waves were big enough to play in, and I knew the water was warm. It was like something out of a postcard, or a brochure for the cruise. It was as close to paradise as I’d ever come.

I picked up my towel and went to join the rest of the family. The cruise was an early Christmas present from my in-laws, and there were over 20 of us in the group. I found them congegrating under some palm trees, pulling up lounge chairs to stake their claim in the shade.

“It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” my sister-in-law, Emily, said.

“Yes, it’s perfect,” I agreed.

“But, the real Haiti doesn’t look like this, does it?” she asked, looking sideways at me.

I continued to stare at the ocean. Finally, I shrugged. “The rest of Haiti looks like this, I guess. There’s more trash, though.”

And fewer dessert buffets, I thought.

I dumped my towel, put on my flip flops, and told Emily that I was going to sign my kids up for the

Aqua Park, a water play area set up in a protected cove where the ship had anchored. There were big slides to climb up and slide down into the water, and I knew my kids would love it. I walked along the path towards the park and passed a make-shift map of Haiti. I paused, looking at it. Labadee was marked at the north with a tiny icon of a ship. It was our first port of call. I traced my finger down the map, south, until I found Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, and then west to Leogane. I wondered who had drawn the map, and if the artist had ever been to Leogane. I wondered if he had seen what the earthquake did.

I made it to the Aqua Park and stood in line for tickets with the rest of the parents. When I got up to the desk, the attendant managing my paperwork started to make small talk.

“So, this is your first time in Haiti?” he asked as he studied my credit card and ran it through his machine.

“No, I’ve been here before,” I answered him.

“With Royal Caribbean? Another cruise?”

“No. I, uh, spent some time in Leogane.”

The attendant was startled by my answer and looked up, straight into my face. Then he smiled.

“Leogane, eh? That’s very far from here.”

I had no concept of the distances in Haiti and wasn’t really sure how far Leogane was from Labadee.

So I just nodded.

He handed me back my tickets for the park and whispered that he had given me a discount. “You are in my country now, and I take care of you.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just thanked him, and walked away.

***

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck near Leogane, Haiti, approximately 25 kilometers west of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. An estimated 220,000 people died. Over 300,000 people were injured, and over 1 million were left homeless and living in tent cities and camps. I, along with rest of the world, watched helplessly as image after image of heartbreak and horror flashed across the news. It was one of the worst disasters in Haiti’s history, with immeasurable cost to human life, and it left the world in shock and mourning.

Five months after the earthquake, my husband came home from a conference and said, “Do you want to go to Haiti for two weeks?”

It was a question out of the blue. It was crazy. It was unthinkable.

I stared at him. “What?”

He explained that he had met a professor from BYU who was looking for volunteers to go to Haiti to teach square-foot gardening and distribute seeds and work on other humanitarian projects. The group was called Sustain Haiti.

“This is right up your alley, babe. You’ve got to go.”

My husband could arrange his work schedule to be home with the kids for two weeks, and we could afford the price of the plane ticket. It was an opportunity to help, and we both knew it. We decided I should take it.

We talked some more, made some phone calls, wrote a lot of emails, ironed out logistics, filled out paperwork, and at the end of July 2010, I found myself on a plane to Haiti.

To get to Leogane, I flew into Port-au-Prince. I arrived alone. I was supposed to fly in with others from Sustain Haiti, but there had been some errors with my ticket, and my arrival time was hours before anybody else’s. I wasn’t nervous, though. I had traveled internationally alone before, as a student studying in Germany. In Europe, I had made a point of trying not to look too American. Americans, I had observed, are easy to spot because they wear white socks with tennis shoes and jeans, and they have shaved legs. My time in Europe was thus spent in Doc Martin combat boots, long skirts, black tank tops, and so much leg hair that upon re-rentry into America my sister told me I looked like a man.

I found myself doing the same tricks while waiting in line in Port-au-Prince, watching those who were so obviously out of place and trying to separate myself from them. I glanced around and immediately realized how silly my mental games were. It didn’t matter what I wore. I was white. My skin marked me as a foreigner.

I congregated with the rest of the crowd around the conveyor belt bringing in the luggage. I was told to carry my essentials in a backpack that I kept with me at all times, as there was a high likelihood that the suitcases would be lost. It was good advice. My luggage never showed. With nothing to do and nobody who spoke my language, time moved slowly, and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I felt awkward and very, very out of place.

It was a great relief when Rony, the country director, found me. The rest of the volunteers from Sustain Haiti eventually arrived, and we spent a few minutes on introductions. Most of the volunteers were students from BYU, as much out of place as I was. Rony was Haitian, though, and he navigated us through the airport and into the parking lot. There was a chain link fence around the airport, and people were pressed up against the fence, holding out their hands, asking for money, maybe, yelling at us. I didn’t know if I should look at them, smile at them, or ignore them. I put my head down and followed Rony to where Paul, another volunteer, was waiting for us with a van. There were four of us who arrived together, and we all piled into the hot car and started on the road to Leogane.

If you google “Leogane” and “Driving directions from Port-au-Prince,” Google tells you that Leogane is about 20 miles west of the capital city and that it will take you about 36 minutes with traffic. Clearly, Google has never been to Haiti.

It took us hours. As far as I could tell, there were no traffic rules. The road was paved in some spots, but in other places we were driving through dirt or mud. Cars merged at random, honking all the time.

Crowds of people milled through the streets, walking close enough to the car that I could have reached out the window and touched them. Often, vendors came up to the car and walked next to it, offering us their wares. Paul said something to one of them, and money changed hands. Paul then handed each of us a small, plastic, rectangular pouch full of water and told us to drink it.

“It’s safe, and it’s clean. Just bite off the end of the corner and suck the water out through the hole you make.” I did, and I was grateful for the refreshment. The water was cold, and I was already sweating in the heat of the van.

I was caught between wanting to stare out the open window and take everything in and needing to keep my head down so as not to get dust from the streets into my eyes. I saw so many things I had never seen before: women carrying large full baskets on their heads, goats eating in the streets, booths and small shops of every kind offering overflowing piles of fruit, and clothing strung along clotheslines that were hung on the edges of crumbling buildings. Everywhere, there were people, people, people. And garbage. So much garbage.

At one point, the highway divided, and a large median appeared between the lanes. On the median were hundreds of makeshift homes crammed together. Each home was a small rectangle, maybe 10 feet by 6 feet. The walls were made of corrugated sheet metal, and blue tarps were stretched above as roofs.

Different scraps of materials hung down in front as doors. One door was made of an extraordinary piece of lace. In the midst of the mud and the dust, somebody had tried to make her home beautiful.

“Are people . . . living on that median?” I asked Paul, pointing.

Paul nodded. “People have had to find wherever they can. In this case, they found a large median.”

I thought about the lace. I wanted to meet the woman who had hung it. I wondered what her home looked like before it was destroyed.

While we drove, Paul kept up a running commentary of the projects that Sustain Haiti was involved in. I tried to listen, but I was overwhelmed. I thought, How do you break through the noise, the rubble, and the garbage and accomplish anything in this place? How can you live here without getting lost?

When we finally got to Leogane, we pulled up to the house that Sustain Haiti had rented. It was one of the few two-story structures in the city that was still intact. We met the rest of the group, and Paul took us through a brief orientation, again reiterating the work Sustain Haiti was doing. They were involved in a little bit of everything—visiting orphanages, cleaning up a hospital, setting up gardens, working on sanitation issues. Paul said they rotated individuals through each project, but then he wanted to know if there was anything we were specifically interested in.

“I came to here to garden,” I said.

So the next day, we set out to garden, and I saw what Haitians were up against. We went to a garden built and maintained by a member of the Church, Fritz Gerald. His garden wasn’t thriving, and he didn’t know why. He had decided to dig it all under and put down a piece of plastic under the dirt. He thought this would keep the garden from being invaded from the roots of the nearby trees. It didn’t seem like a bad idea, so we helped him clear out the garden in preparation. I started digging through the soil and found a lot of rocks. I started throwing them to the side and realized that it was more than just rocks. I was finding debris from the earthquake. I found wires, pieces of cement, even a red sandal. I showed the sandal to Fritz, and he just shrugged. I tossed it to the side, over a small wall, onto another pile of garbage.

That wasn’t the only time I found a shoe in the dirt, digging into the soil in Haiti. How do you grow tomatoes in soil that has shoes in it?

The longer I spent working in the gardens set up in Leogane, the more I realized how much we didn’t know, and how little success we might have. I had a working knowledge of how to plant a vegetable garden, but that was back home, in Virginia, with four distinct seasons, a last-frost date, and a neighborhood Home Depot. Figuring out how to translate this knowledge to a place with constant summer and a food shortage was daunting.

And yet we pushed on, trying everything. We planted new gardens, tended to gardens already planted, and cleared land for future gardens. We offered our seeds and our limited knowledge to whoever wanted them. We taught lessons about the square-foot-garden method, about caring for a garden, and about the importance of compost. I tried building a nursery of sorts at the house for future use, when our seeds wouldn’t be available. I spent one morning carefully cutting plastic soda bottles in half so I could use them as containers for sprouting seeds. I gave them to people who didn’t have room for a garden but maybe had a spare pot to grow a tomato in. Every evening, I came home hot and tired, covered in dirt, and reeking of sweat and grime.

And every night, as I put in my headphones and turned on my iPod to drown out the sounds of roosters and of the dogs fighting in the streets, I wondered if we were doing any good. I wondered if we were actually helping anyone.

My last Sunday in Haiti, I fainted. It was the first Sunday of the month, and I had decided to fast. It was a foolish decision, as it was so easy to dehydrate in the Haitian heat. At church, I went outside to check on the garden that Sustain Haiti had planted behind the chapel. It was a garden somebody else before me had built but that we had carefully tended. I leaned down to check the radishes, to see if they were ready to harvest. I stood up, and everything went black as I fell clumsily to the ground. I needed to go home and get rehydrated. But before I went, I dug up the radishes. They were perfect. I tucked them into my dress, smearing dirt across my waist, and carried them back to the house. I washed them in the kitchen sink, under the small trickle of water that came from the faucet. I rubbed the dirt from the roots, revealing the ruby underneath.

There were orphans in the ward who always followed us home on Sundays. They were in the other room, laughing about something. I put the radishes on a plate, walked into the room, and beckoned one girl to come over. She bounced over to me, curious about the radishes. I gave her one and made the motion that she should eat it. She took a small bite, spit it out, and made a face. I laughed as she backed away, shaking her head. Then I nibbled on the radish myself, to make sure it wasn’t too hot, the taste spoiled by the heat. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either. Radishes aren’t commonly grown in Haiti, and we never ate them as a part of our diet there, so I understood the girl’s reluctance to embrace the new food.

But all the same, the radishes made me glad. I finally had something to offer.

***

As the cruise ship pulled out of port, I stood on the balcony of my room, watching the shore. I was agitated and felt angry. My husband came outside and put his arms around me.

“What’s the matter? Didn’t you have a good day?”

It had been a good day. The kids had loved the water park, the weather had been perfect, and the food was amazing. The ship had set up a buffet on the shore, piled high with fruit and vegetables, with a grill for hamburgers in the back. Everybody had eaten well. But even as I had filled my own plate, I thought of the orphans and the radishes. I wondered if the Haitian workers stole food to take home to their families. If it were me, I would fill my pockets when nobody was looking.

I also had wondered how Royal Caribbean prevented unwanted visitors from venturing into our private paradise. That question was answered when my husband had tried to go for a run in Labadee. A chain-link fence patrolled by guards prevented him from leaving the area. Keep the tourists in, keep the locals out.

I answered my husband’s question, “I just can’t shake the idea that not far from here, people are starving.”

My husband nodded. He had seen the pictures, he had heard my stories. He had held me on the nights I couldn’t sleep, my soul still trying to process what I’d seen.

He tightened his arms around me and said, “Look at it this way. All of the people who were working on shore today were Haitian. They have a job, a steady one. The cruise ship provides them employment and an influx of cash, which is something Haiti desperately needs.”

He was right. All of the decadence, all of the overindulgence inherent in a cruise, all of the money casually tossed around on shore probably helped more than my seeds. It was depressing to think that it wasn’t gardens that would save Haiti, but rather the world’s demand for luxury. It made me feel like Sustain Haiti’s efforts had been useless.

“So, that’s the answer? Go on more cruises? That’s going to solve Haiti’s problems?” I asked sarcastically.

“No, probably not,” he said gently.

We were silent as the ship moved in the water, as we passed the shore of Haiti. And as night fell, I noticed that there were few lights on the land. I knew it wasn’t because we were far from the cities. It was because in Haiti, electricity was scarce. I pointed this out to my husband, who hadn’t noticed. It was amazing, he remarked, a huge difference from all the other ports. Everything was so quiet. Quiet and dark.

“I think you should go back,” he said as the land disappeared completely from view. “I think it would be good for you.”

“Maybe,” I murmured. I didn’t tell him what I was thinking, what going back to Leogane would be like. I didn’t admit that I wasn’t sure I could do it. I thought of the nights when it was so hot I couldn’t sleep, and of the noise of the streets. I thought of the smoke-filled evenings, when people set fire to their garbage because there was nothing else to do with it, how the smoke stung my eyes and made me cough. I thought of the faces of the children asking for something to eat. I was embarrassed to tell my husband that it might just be too hard to see it all again.

After the cruise, I became friends with Fritz Gerald on Facebook. I wondered, do I tell him that I was in Haiti? Do I tell him that I slept in a cruise ship in Labadee while he slept in a tent in Leogane?

I didn’t. I didn’t mention the cruise at all. We talked mostly of his plans to come to the United States, to study at the English Learning Center at BYU. He had applied twice for a student visa. Twice he had been denied. So he stayed in Haiti and waited to try again. I offered my support and told him I would help him in any way I could.

One night, he posted pictures of Leogane, of friends from Sustain Haiti. Some of them I know, most of them I don’t. But then, he posted pictures of the gardens. Tomatoes, squash, eggplant, and a perfect row of cabbages. The gardens were growing. They were small, but they were still there.

I closed my computer and cried.

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About Heather Oman

(Prose Board) lives in the south with her husband, her two kids, and her wiggly black lab. She is a licensed speech language pathologist, but spends most of her days trying to teach her own kids how to say please and thank you. She is a member of the Segullah Editorial Board, and is the founding member of the blog Mormon Mommy Wars.

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