While I was in university in 2008, studying International Development, I fell upon the kind of teacher that really, really loved to read 87 slides of a PowerPoint presentation. I tended to avoid going to these classes because hey, the PowerPoint was available online anyway. But it was the beginning of the winter semester and I felt like I could give this teacher a chance…it was a mistake.
The class was about international organizations and after the 47th slide we fell upon the subject of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. A few slides into that subject, a hand in the darkness of the class raised above my peers’ heads. It was a man whom I never met. He started by correcting a few facts and then began to tell his story of when he and his family had to escape the killings in Kigali, Rwanda. He was a survivor of this horrible episode of this tiny mid-African country.
The PowerPoint-addicted teacher stopped him, giggled and said he was getting off track. After class, I went to see the teacher and told her that I pay a lot of money to attend these classes and that she had stopped what was probably the most interesting intervention I had ever heard. Talk about a missed opportunity! She followed by telling me that if I wanted first-hand experience in a developing country to see what international organizations do, that I could just buy a ticket and go there myself.
My class was on a Tuesday in February 2008 and I was on a plane flying to Haiti on the next Thursday. My flight was delayed for four hours because they had to defrost the wings so when I got to the airport in Port-aux-Prince, the contact I made through the Ottawa Haitian consulate was not there to take me to the house where I was supposed to sleep in. So, without any means of communication and 400 American dollars tucked into my socks, I headed out of the airport. Outside MINUSTAH soldiers were facing a crowd who was waiting outside.
I saw two people in police uniforms and I asked them if they knew my other contact, an ophthalmologist working in a clinic in the Cité-Soleil neighbourhood, the exact place my contact at the consulate had told me not to go. But, I was stuck, so I hitched a ride with the police officers who knew where the clinic was. Upon arriving at the clinic, the police officers turned out to be cab drivers who asked for 20 dollars. I gave them 20 American dollars, instead of the Haitian dollars, which don’t really exist, and I exited the vehicle, making the cab drivers really happy.
Then I met the doctor, a white Haitian who brought me to Jacmel, in the south, so I could meet local people who have development projects in the work. After driving for hours from Cité Soleil to Jacmel, crowded into minibus with 15 other people we finally arrived in pitch black darkness to a home I would stay in for the next two weeks. My last meal was 24 hours ago and I was starving. Before leaving for Haiti, people kept saying to not eat the food or I would get sick. But when I was there, I couldn’t find a McDonalds so I just chowed down on whatever I was offered.
My first Haitian meal that night was a bouilli, a type of stew with all kinds of meat, vegetables and the sorts. It didn’t look too good, but then again, neither had my mom’s stew. The bouilli was delicious and for two weeks, Noël, the owner of the house, fed me like a king. One night he told me he would make me a Canadian meal to make me feel like home. That night he made me spaghetti with ketchup, I told him to go back to Haitian cuisine right away.
After four days of meeting people at this house and being boarded up after 9 p.m. for my “protection”, I told Noël I would be heading out one night to get a feel for the city. He gave me a cell phone and told me to call him if there was anything and to be very careful and to trust no one. So I left while the sun was still out and walked the streets of Jacmel – a stunning, colorful town beside the Caribbean Ocean. It was my first trip abroad so I just wanted to sink it all in.
I passed by a little restaurant on my way back to the house. Part of the restaurant was fully exposed to the street with no wall. There were 15 people sitting on one long table who were drinking rum, eating, laughing and having a blast. I entered the restaurant, took a seat at a little table in the corner and waited for the waitress. They all stopped talking and looked at me; the waitress came over and asked me what I wanted. I asked for the menu and she just stood there in total silence. Then they all started to laugh really loud.
The waitress told me that she’s not actually a waitress and that I had just entered her home and a family gathering. I was so ashamed I took my satchel and in traditional Canadian fashion, apologized profusely and started to leave. They asked me to stay and share hammerhead shark and rum with them. So there I was, at some stranger’s house getting drunk on Barbancourt rum, with people I didn’t know. It was an amazing night that I will remember forever. Then came the time to leave, and one of the older gentlemen offered me a ride because it was pitch black outside, I was drunk and he knew I would never find my way back to the house.
When I arrived at the house I went to my room which had a broken window with no screen. My going to sleep ritual involved getting fully dressed, spraying mosquito repellent all over myself, then spraying my sheets and rolling myself up in it in order to be able to sleep. Well, after a few pints of Barbancourt, I felt that sleeping naked; spread-eagle on the bed was a better idea.
I woke up in the middle of the night in a panic. My pillow was trying to eat my head. I threw the pillow at the other end of the room. I looked up and my ceiling fan was spinning and coming towards me, there was no electricity at this hour. I looked away from the ceiling fan only to see a girl I went to high school with in the corner of the room. She just stood there looking at me. I was terrified. I tried to get up from my bed, but fell on my nightstand and broke my unlit lantern on the floor. It was very dark and I thought that my sweat was blood because of the broken glass on the floor.
I crawled with my body aching from everywhere to the bathroom and into the shower. The shower was just a hole cut in the wall to allow the water would flow along the tiles. I slept with my back against the wall so to feel the water on my back. I woke up the next morning. The water pump had ceased to function so there was no water. But the drain had flooded and I was lying in stagnant water filled with little tiny leach-like bugs. I got up and looked in the mirror; I was riddled with huge mosquito bites. I just had a malaria-type fever, but my body, with the help of the malaria medicine, got rid of it.
A friend of mine’s brother was diagnosed at an early age with schizophrenia. I remember the stories he told me about his brother seeing and talking to the devil. It was always hard for me to understand what that actually meant. Having lost control of my mind made me get a better grip of what his brother might’ve had to go through. Now I knew that he did actually hear, smell and feel the devil. Hallucinating at that level is terrifying and it’s almost impossible to get a grip on reality.
Haiti is a wonderful country with amazing people, culture, history and a breathtaking landscape. Everybody I met during my travels was devoted, hard-working and compassionate. That trip helped me get a better understanding of what it’s like to live and work in a country where civil society encounters so many obstacles. The biggest danger there was not the people, but my drunk self. I had lost my mind in Haiti, but I gained an invaluable experience. When I got back to school, after missing three weeks of class, I thanked the PowerPoint teacher for the challenge, did my essay and exam, got a B- and never looked back.
P.S. I encourage everybody to go against the grain and visit this beautiful country that is Haiti. Just lay off the Barbancourt.
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