Haiti: Do's and Don'ts

Posted on: 2010-08-02 23:24:39

As part of writing down my thoughts and experience on the recent mission trip on Haiti, there were many feelings and experiences that I was not prepared to handle. Others, were adequately identified and met. The purpose of this post is to answer questions for those of you who are going or thinking of going to Haiti in the future and to help give you a more complete idea and hopefully answer some of these questions: "What should I bring?" "What should I leave at home?" "What should I expect when I get there?"

Some of these answers are personal experience. Some of them are suggestions and hints from people who live there. Others are observations garnered from other visitors' experiences and suggestions.

So I present to you a list of Do's and Don'ts. Things to expect and general observations. If you have been to Haiti, please leave feedback. Hopefully this page will be useful for someone else traveling to Haiti.

Note: these aren't in any particular order. Also note: this list is not exhaustive. Also also note: Understand that there are certain sites or sources of information like Wikipedia, for instance, that appear to be misleading or misinformed[1]. Take what you read about Haiti with a grain of salt. Err on the side of caution.

h3. Don't expect electricity.

During our stay in Port-au-Prince, the hotel we stayed at had a generator. About every night between 10:00 and 10:30, the power to the city gets shut off. One of our companions told us that it's because the city can't meet the needs of the power consumption at night. At any rate, many places do have generators and may run them at night. Ask whomever is hosting you if they have generators or if you can expect to have power at night.

h3. Don't expect hot water.

Yeah, don't expect to get hot water from a faucet. Anywhere. If you want hot water, someone will either have to boil it, or run it through a coffee pot. So, if you bring a bunch of ramen or need to shave, remember that you'll have to find or make your hot water. Again, the hotel we stayed at was happy to accommodate the needs of people who wanted hot water. I can't imagine anyone else wouldn't either.

h3. Don't expect... water.

This one is a little tougher. Don't expect water even from the cold faucet. Almost every house in Haiti has a water tank on top of the house that provides water to the house. These tanks require the water to be pumped up to tank. Those pumps require electricity. Catch my drift? This normally happened because the tank would be empty after a night of people taking showers after the pump was turned off. Occasionally there was water, but there was not enough pressure because people downstairs were showering. Keeping a small bottle of hand sanitizer on you will help!

h3. Don't expect air conditioning.

Our (the guys of our group) first 3 nights in Haiti were without A/C. Luckily, our hotel had them and we got to move to another room. They ran all night on the generator. Depending on where you stay, you may or may not be so lucky. You may want to bring a small fan. Even most of the tents we saw had outlets that allowed for fans to run, especially during the night. One group mentioned that their tents didn't have fans or outlets. Ask whomever is hosting you. If you are staying in tents, a power strip and extension cord may come in handy to run a power line into your tent. In Haiti, anything goes.

h3. Don't flush toilet paper.

The sewer systems here don't handle toilet paper for some reason. There are going to be small waste baskets beside you. Yeah, it's a little gross, but you'll get used to it. For latrines, they may just tell you to throw it in. But if there is an actual toilet in the city, just don't do it!

h3. Don't throw away glass (or plastic) bottles.

Haitians, for better or for worse, recycle a lot. You wouldn't tell it from all the trash in the street, but the glass bottles you'll get when you buy a coke or beer will be recycled again and and again. Don't throw them away. Most places will have a spot for you to put them. Same for the plastic bottles. Fill those up with water and keep a few of them on you. It'll waste less and you'll have extra water. Now that's win-win!

h3. Do keep lots of water on you at all times.

Not all of the water in Haiti is safe to drink. We drank "bottled" water while we were there. Many of the places buy water in the large 5-gallon water-cooler size bottles and then have coolers scattered. Make sure you keep your bottles filled. The climate in Haiti is warm and humid. You will sweat just sitting outside and you need to keep hydrated.

h3. Don't expect the internet to work.

Again, our hotel provided this for us. Most places we visited had internet -- and it seemed that every one of them was satellite. It was slow but it usually worked. Usually. The point is: don't make promises about sending e-mail or keeping up with stuff while you are away. Between the lack of electricity and storms it may not work.

h3. Do expect to be overwhelmed.

Haiti is a 3rd world country. Some parts of Haiti are great: sandy beaches, restaurants, decent hotels. Port-au-prince is nothing like that. It is: streets in disrepair, reeking of sewage and decomposing garbage, rubble and collapsed buildings everywhere. Babies crying. Children begging. Guys will cat-call the ladies. Few people speak english. Vendors will crowd you and shove their wares into your face. Babies will poop and pee on you. Flies and mosquitos are everywhere. Animals run through the streets. Naked people sometimes do too. People urinate in the streets. People bathe in the ditches.

At one point while we were just on the outside of City Soleil near the red market, the smell of rotten food and decomposing garbage was enough to make me gag. I've got a pretty strong stomach for that stuff. It was intense. If you are visiting an orphanage, you'll probably smell feces, urine and vomit. Be ready for it!

h3. Bring stuff to read or a deck of cards.

Depending on where you are going in Haiti, you will spend quite a bit of time traveling. If you are going with a group and you are not a group leader, you will have plenty of time during travel and down-time to read a book or play cards with others. During a 9 day stay, I finished 3 books. Most of that before bed and traveling. You will want something to do to help you unwind. Some people wrote, some people slept, many read books, and others played cards.

h3. Bring extras.

People lose things. Sometimes you'll end up giving items away. It's better to pack a few extra pairs of socks, t-shirts, work gloves, or snacks and give them away than to need them and not have them.

h3. Bring snacks.

Your host may or may not cook for you. The hotel we stayed at served breakfast and dinner. No lunch was served. Bring plenty of nutritious, energy dense foods: nuts, granola, etc. Being in the heat will drain your energy out of you as you sweat.

h3. Pack light.

Getting through customs can be a pain. When we arrived, we had a fairly long walk from customs and immigration to where the car was parked. If you are going to be moving around remember that you'll have to carry what you bring. Pack light, especially if you are going to be moving around frequently.

Another reason to pack light is if you intend to bring stuff with you. This is a topic that will require more discussion. The gist of it is this: there really isn't a reliable and affordable way to get items to and from Haiti. FedEx and UPS do not make deliveries there. If you want to ensure someone gets something, you'll have to pack it and deliver it yourself. Split it between people. Utilize the 2nd checked bag. Heck, buy a cheap suitcase and leave it there. It will get used.

h3. Wear sandals.

Everybody wears them. Boots are nice, and shoes are okay. We didn't walk around on the streets much, but between boots and sandals, I'd have to say that sandals are the best choice. Not only are they light but they are cooler than regular shoes. I wore my Keens every day while I was there. Those (in my humble opinion) are the best choice. Make sure you bring stuff you can be active in: running, climbing, etc. Don't wear flip-flops.

h3. Bring surge protection.

Lighting was common while we were here. If you do decide to bring a laptop or other sensitive equipment, then make sure you bring a surge protector to make sure it doesn't get damaged the next time lightning strikes a block or two away from where you are staying.

h3. Bring rain gear.

I'm fairly certain that whomever came up with the saying "When it rains it pours" had visited Haiti. It truly does here. I'm not sure if it's how it normally is or if it only did this during our visit, but the last 4 nights we were here... like clockwork around 6 p.m. came lightning, thunder, and rain. Heavy rain. Coming through the corrugated roofing rain. It also wouldn't hurt to have a waterproof pack and/or a couple of trash bags to protect your gear.

h3. Bring small bills.

This could read: Don't expect exact change. If you haggle with a street vendor and get him to come down to $5 on something he wanted to sell you for $20, don't hand the guy a $20 bill. Give him $5. These guys are going to try to make as much as they can off of you. Even if they are honest, don't expect them to be able to give you exact change. We had several businesses that weren't able to give us change or break a $20 US bill.

h3. Do expect to get everything dirty.

My wife washed my t-shirts this morning. She is currently washing them again. I'm not certain what exactly caused them to change color, but my white t-shirts are now a dingy brown. So are my shorts. As is my backpack and everything else I took with me when venturing out on a tap-tap. There is so much smoke, dust, dirt and sweat that everything you wear will get amazingly dirty. Some people bought packs of very inexpensive t-shirts. Don't wear expensive clothes! They will get messed up.

h3. Do carry some form of protection on you if you travel in small (less than 5 person) groups.

As far as I know, it is illegal to bring a gun into Haiti without proper documentation. I'm not sure what is required to do this, but it brings me to a discussion I had with one of our travel companions: a gun would be useless in Haiti. If you (God forbid) ever find yourself in a situation where you are fearing for your life, run away. Do not try to fight people off. Their sheer numbers will overwhelm you. This is the primary reason that even if you could carry a firearm, it wouldn't help. You couldn't carry enough bullets! One guy suggested carrying a metal water bottle on a carabiner. Another suggested a pair of knives. Only do this if you are prepared to use them, though. Otherwise they will taken and used against you. But seriously. Check with your host. Make sure where you are going is safe. Don't go anywhere alone. Ever. Many places will be able to set you up with security if you need it. Don't assume you can take care of yourself if you have not been trained.

fn1. I note this because the "Religion section of Haiti's Wikipedia page":http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiti#Religion says makes note of "Haitian Vodou":http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haitian_Vodou. What it does not tell you is that many take this very seriously. First-hand reports of run-ins with Vodou "priests" in Haiti reveal a practice that is not as benign as some of these websites would have you believe. There is a reason why Christian evangelical missionaries say what they say ("Wikipedia uses the word defame":http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haitian_Vodou#Organizations) about Vodou. Let there be no mistake: Satan definitely has a hold on Haiti.