Scratch that, we were supposed to head out to a few orphanages.
Ummm, scratch that, actually we were supposed to head out to a campsite and then a few orphanages. We all piled on the bus still unsure of where we were actually headed or how the plan might change next. Eli and Sonali reminded us that this is how it goes on the island, plans change and one of the most gracious things we can do while we are here is to remain flexible.
Surprisingly we did actually make our way to a Campsite. Travelers, in the confusion of it all, asked if we had arrived at the Orphanage. We disembarked and walked through our first campsite of the trip. Vinyl tents, some with logos of aid agencies, bolted up-right sturdily by nails and bottle caps were all crammed next to one another. Some had tin doors for entrances, most just had a piece of cloth that didn’t leave much for privacy. We walked through the narrow passageways, peering into the lives of the residents. A grandma washed the hair of her grandson right outside her doorway. She scrubbed the back of his head as the soap, water and dirt made its way into a bucket, and then when it eventually overflowed, trickled down one of the long windy passageways we had walked up. We walked for 30 minutes and the onslaught of tent homes never stopped. 8,000 people crammed into a 3 kilometer square.
Some of the homes had additional tarp laid down as carpeting, giving the sense that this post-earthquake temporary housing situation had somehow become permanent. People adjust to the circumstances they live in I guess. Residents had actually built retail shops into the tents to sell fruit, biscuits and other amenities.
As we walked we were greeted by the smiles and curious looks of the residents. One small boy befriended us and although we didn’t speak the same language he walked with us for a little while. We knew that this was just life as usual for them.
When we lined up the school kids we had 30 backpacks to give away and at least 50 eager faces staring back. They were excited but mostly they seemed afraid that their name might not get called. Some names were called, they got to meet us, get their picture taken, and they received a backpack. The rest only waved at us as we drove off.
With heavy hearts for leaving the eager kids behind we made our way to the first orphanage, an all boys residence. The cholera preparation we had undergone came in useful after all. When the pastor arrived we gathered the kids and Raju, Yarel, and Iris gave a most impressive study on cholera to the kids. The kids were attentive, cheering and answering all the cholera prevention questions correctly. We handed the kids lollipops as way to thank them for their attention. All of us only hoped that our presence would keep each of them from some unforeseeable harm that could come their way.
We made our way to an all girls orphanage where the scene was categorically different. Immediately we could tell that the girls did not receive the same attention as the boys. We heard stories of not enough underwear and not enough medical attention. We could see it in their faces, volunteers commented how the girls didn’t look as clean as the boys. It got worse, the female volunteers took the girls to instruct them on personal hygiene and learned that these girls suffered from a disproportionate number of vaginal infections. We struggled to stop our minds from fearing the worst but it was unavoidable, our minds wandered. We distributed underwear and slippers to these girls before we left, but the thoughts of these girls’ lives lingered throughout the day.
As we walked to the next visit, another orphanage a few blocks away, most of us remained quiet. The lives of these girls we had visited played out in our minds. So young, full of potential where anything is possible in this world, and yet fate had handed them a most challenging hand. No choice, an earthquake comes and takes their parents away, and now they hide out in a corner of an island that is crumbling around them. I remember the face of one girl, she’s dressed in a beautiful black dress with a small necklace hanging down her chest, her hair knitted up tightly in tiny tails around her head. She never smiled, not once, even when the rest of the girls were singing ‘happy birthday’. Mostly she just looked straight ahead at nothing in particular. Sometimes she would turn to her friends and lip the words of the song, almost as if pretending to be a part of the group. I couldn’t help but thinking that this girl knows something: that her life isn’t the same as everyone else in this world.
On the drive back, we all bounced back and forth in the bus as it made its way through the torn apart streets. I looked at all the travelers and wanted to say something to each one of them. I wanted to thank them for being here, not only for the folks in Haiti, for also for me, and for one another. Seeing them give presentations, fold underwear, hand out lollipops, or pick up trash somehow makes me feel like I’m a part of something. I know we aren’t changing much, we go back to our Orange County homes, our flat screen TVs, and the lives that are awaiting us, and I know that we leave that little girl behind with that distant look still on her face. I don’t know her name and that little girl didn’t even notice me standing there staring at her, but she’s got some slippers now and although it breaks our heart to know that’s all we can do, at least in some way we’ve touched her feet and asked for forgiveness.