12 October 2012

Haiti in the rearview and through New York

[Published on 23 September 2012]

[I did not get a chance to wrap up my blog from Haiti. So, this post is for everyone who supported me and followed my posts during my time there.]

Haiti In The Rearview:
On Sunday 8 July, I flew back to New York City from Port-au-Prince. My departure was bittersweet; I already knew that my next destination was Indonesia for the Fulbright, but I was just getting settled into and comfortable with my life and work in Haiti. In the last month before I left, I wrote a lengthy protocol for the programs I supervised and made sure that my co-workers were well prepared to run things in my absence. During my last two weeks, as our patients became better and graduated from our nutrition programs, I held them tightly and said goodbye. The babies were so adorable and I would miss them badly.

That Friday, the 6th, the workday ended early and we had a small going away party in the office. Everyone gave a speech and thanked me for my work and for coming to Haiti. Many of the local staff spoke about how they were happy to see that, as a Haitian American, I came to the motherland and made an effort to learn more about my culture. One of my close coworkers, Lina, started to cry when it was her turn to talk. She said, “I don’t have enough words to tell you what Choumika meant to me.”  I hugged her and thanked her for her kind words. But as I hugged her, I felt bad. I felt like I was betraying everyone. I didn’t know that I would make such strong connections with the people there when I was coming to Haiti. In my short-term timeline, I was just going to work there for one year and go onto something else. On paper, it looked simple. So, saying goodbye was difficult. And that moment got me thinking about how difficult it might be to say goodbye to people in Indonesia. I travel from one place to another only to leave. How long could I keep doing this? But I told Lina that I would not forget her and that I would call her. I really enjoyed working with her. She conducted all of our screenings and house visits for newly admitted patients, patients with deteriorating health, and patients who might abandon our programs. I also had the chance to hangout with her at her home with her family and neighbors. She had such a great sense of humor and cooked delicious meals for me. At the party, we talked more, took pictures together, and slowly a smile appeared on her face. Later in the evening, we had a bigger party with good music and great people.

My last day in Haiti ended where it began, above Port-au-Prince in the hills of Kenscoff. During the previous night’s party, I found out about an excursion to visit some forts and thought it would be a good way to end my stay in the country. Some friends from another NGO and I spent most of the day visiting Fort Jacques and Fort Alexander. The views from the forts were breathtaking. I saw hundreds of houses below, clear sky for miles, and parts of Plateu Central further north. We walked around Kenscoff and ate pizza and ice cream at a mid-end restaurant surrounded by souvenir shops and a small bakery. I felt comfortable as I enjoyed my company and the atmosphere. I could not believe it was my last day in Haiti.

When I returned home, I finished packing my suitcase and went out to dance for one last time. The owners of the club, Marche Touriste, knew that I was leaving the next morning so they asked me to give a speech. I thanked everyone for his or her kindness and friendship. I told them I was going to miss my work and the people in this beautiful country. Then we danced salsa, cha cha cha, bachata, and rumba for three straight hours. All the men stood in line and danced with me one by one. I will never forget that.

 The next morning, our chauffeur, Jean Claude, drove me to the airport. The same man who picked me up one year ago took me away that day. I really liked him; he always had a smile on his face. He always wanted to know how my family was doing back in the States and about my well-being. And I could always count on him to drive a sick child to the hospital. During the drive into Port-au-Prince, we talked about my stay in Haiti, how I felt about the country, and where I was going and what I was going to do next. The drive felt surreal. There was no way to get out of it. The tickets were booked a long time ago, my bags were packed, and that night I would sleep in my room in my house in New York City. During our drive into Port-au-Prince, he stopped to get me conch meat. (You can buy a deliciously spicy cup of conch meat for $1. Isn’t that amazing?) He knew how much I loved conch meat. I spent the last of my gourdes on it.

The traffic was light and we reached the airport earlier than we expected. Jean Claude helped me unload my luggage and I gave him a long hug. I thanked him for everything, for watching over me, for being a great friend, and a great coworker. I told him I would come back to Haiti. It’s so close to the US, how could I not come back? I had his phone number, and I would call him.

(I felt tears forming in my eyes as I wrote that last paragraph. Jean Claude, like many of the Haitians I worked with, was a sweetheart. All of the staff worked hard to do their jobs well. People all over the country worked to get Haiti back on her feet. But you don’t hear or read about that in the media. I rarely hear it from my mother. She always told me about the hardships and dangers of Haiti when I was growing up. She didn’t even want me to go to Haiti when I got the internship. It was too dangerous. And she was right. But I wanted to go so that I could learn more about my culture, figure out what made Haitians Haitians, and try to understand why people were struggling. I heard about the struggles, went there and saw the struggles, and left the struggles behind me. Not much has changed. I think that is what hurts the most.)


There are small restaurants and one bar in the American Airlines section of the airport. The people at the bar knew my mother and me because we always sit and talk with them before our flights leave. On this occasion, I watched the Wimbledon tennis final between Roger Federer and Andy Murray and drank my last Prestige. I turned around at one point to talk to some friends from another NGO who were also flying back to the States and behind them I saw my classmate, Maryse, from Cornell. For one year, Maryse worked with an NGO that worked with Haitian peanut farmers and produced Plumpy’Nut in Cap Haitien. I visited her during a trip to Cap in October. We were on the same flight and were able to sit next to each other. (It’s a small world in a small country. And to go further with this point, one of our flight attendants noticed my Cornell Varsity jacket and told us that her daughter was a sophomore at the university.) I am glad I ran into Maryse; I had someone to talk to about my experiences in Haiti, someone who was in the same shoes, and knew exactly where I was coming from. We talked about being expatriates (expats) in Haiti, expectations other expats had when they arrived, cultural sensitivity, how the family that owns Prestige sold their rights to Heineken, and Haiti’s future. The latter is always a point of uncertainty.

Maryse dozed off for a nap, the plane was high in the air, and I thought, “There is definitely no turning back now!” But I was happy. There were many positives to life in Haiti: the scenic mountains, the gorgeous beaches, the food, the kind people, and an overall easygoing lifestyle. But there were just as many negatives. Many people were and still are desperate – they needed money, food, housing, better healthcare. People stole from, raped, kidnapped, and murdered other people. Yes, this happens all over the world, but for me Haiti was a different and extreme case. So, in a way, I felt like my departure was an escape. I was breaking free from uncertainty and danger in a land that I was trying to learn more about and understand, but still did not know too well by the time I left. The seat belt sign came on a few minutes before landing. I shut the door on my thoughts about Haiti for the moment and the flight attendant said, “Welcome to New York.”

Through New York:
New York City. What an amazing city! My appreciation for New York grows every time I return home from being away at school, at an internship in another state, or being abroad. When I first got back, I remember thinking about how clean the streets were and how smooth the road felt underneath the wheels of my mother’s car. I had got used to the dusty air and bumpy unpaved roads of Haiti and found myself commenting continuously on the cleanliness of the city. I also appreciated the city’s diversity and looked forward to having a great time at home.

For three weeks, I reconnected with some friends from high school and college. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn (hipster central), I hung out with two good friends from high school. I had not seen either of them in a long time so it was great to catch up with them. I dined on delicious Mexican tacos with two friends from college on the HighLine, located on the Lower West Side. It was my first time there. Another friend and I watched Robin Hood on beach towels in Bryant Park during the HBO Summer Film Festival. I went bowling with my friends from the Jackie Robinson Foundation at Chelsea Piers. I had delicious empanadas at a Colombian Festival in Long Island. On another date, I had brunch with three more friends from college, at Gabriela’s, a Mexican restaurant on the Upper West Side. Immediately after that, we went to Central Park for an event sponsored by Cornell and played Frisbee and danced some salsa. And later that same day, I went to Pier 84, near the Intrepid, and danced to more salsa. The pier was packed and the dancers were talented. It was such a beautiful scene under the bright stars and lights from the surrounding buildings of the city.


Whenever I didn’t reconnect with friends, I went everywhere with my mother when she wasn’t at work. I found myself feeling bad for having to leave her so soon as well. But Fulbright is an opportunity of a lifetime and I explained what it meant to me and made sure she understood why I wanted to pursue the grant. My brother and sister were always working so I saw them mainly during the evenings. I definitely wanted to stay home longer. I wanted to spend more time with my family and eat more of my mother’s food. I wanted to see more of the city. I don’t know why I thought three weeks at home would be enough time for me to transition from Haiti to Indonesia.

On 10 August, my sister and I said goodbye to our mother and brother. She left from LaGuardia to go to Ohio for the start of her sophomore year in college. After my mother dropped her off, she drove me to JFK. I hugged her, and I said I would call.

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