You can never imagine what a place looks like till you see it, with your own eyes. I craned my neck for that first memorable look as our plane circled and landed at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, airport. It reminded me of the one in Idaho Falls, Idaho. We descended from the plane on a portable stairway, crossed the tarmac to a long, low metal building with dark tinted windows. It looked like home, but inside, it sounded different!
All voices jabbered in Creole, the national language, and a live band struck up a festive tune. I could hardly keep my feet still as we moved through customs.
We knew you couldn’t drink the tap water, but the airport bathrooms offered all the basics, were clean and even had toilet paper! Nice!
We found our friend and trip leader Matt Smith at baggage claim. Whew! We’re home free! We’d anticipated this trip to Haiti for years, not knowing what to expect. Our flight and arrival at Port-au-Prince Airport struck me as routine, almost anticlimactic. But what a relief to finally be here.
The airport arrival waiting area reminded me of a fair grounds. It was all outdoors, covered concrete walkways led to graveled yard, with a few wooden benches, crowded with Haitians waiting for rides. We stood or sat on the concrete, waiting for the arrival of several more group members. Hey, that’s okay! If I wanted normal, I’d have stayed home!
Matt took us for our first Haitian meal to a nice sit-down restaurant, nothing fancy but clean. Our food was delicious. I had a goat curry. My husband Rog had grilled chicken. Yum! Looks like we won’t starve.
We returned to the airport to pick up our later arrivals, then loaded the luggage onto the roof of our bus, while a friendly idle taxi driver spontaneously serenaded us on his trumpet. A country with friendly people and music – it felt foreign in all the best ways.
As part of our preparation for the trip, we studied warnings of potential dangers, particularly in the city. As we drove through town, Port-au-Prince seemed cheerful, busy and safe. Our fears appeared groundless. But like any big city, you have to know what you’re doing. Our Haitian guides knew how to keep us safe and out of trouble. Thanks to them, we got along just fine.
Little did we know our day had just begun. Helping kids, particularly orphans, initially drove Matt to create his NGO, Operation Shield. A psychologist, he first offered his professional services in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Seeing first hand the critical needs of Haitian children, he was fired with a desire to help kids, and now that desire lights his life. So our next stop was the largest of the orphanages where we would work during the coming week.
Traveling to the orphanage, we observed that Haiti is beautiful. Palm trees, banana plantations, brightly decorated homes and businesses exhibit in irrepressible spirit of optimism. It’s definitely third world, but people dress in clean, crisp clothing and flash ready smiles.