A Day in Haiti

I woke up at 6am, sweating. I had done this every day by now, so the simple act of waking up consisted of only adjusting to the sound of the generator’s uproar and leaping from a bunk bed with no ladder.

I’m in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

One of the pictures I took during my 10 day trip in Haiti to set up eye clinics and document our work there

Ready to do my daily leap of faith from my bed, I peered out the window to see if the dogs I heard fighting last night had resolved things. Sadly, I knew that their differences would come back to light that night anyway.

No Internet meant checking my phone was a simple process of checking the time and making sure I didn’t need to add some charge before the power would go out. 60% meant I could forego charging my phone for charging my camera equipment.

The inconsistency of not knowing when I’d have power – or water – meant that my schedule was constantly in flux. I couldn’t charge anything during the night, at least for long, due to the inconsistency of the generator’s runtime.

Luckily, that particular morning gave me about an hour of charge time before we would venture out into the city for the day’s activities.

Living in a room with two elderly meant that I didn’t have time to shower in the morning, a habit I had grown accustomed to. Getting ready instead consisted of splashing water on my face and covering myself with insect repellant, a combination that made me sweat even more.

As always, breakfast consisted of oatmeal, black coffee, and any fruit that lay on the table. As I tried to multitask gathering my equipment and eating, I watched the doctors get a few sparse moments of rest before the taxing day would begin. I didn’t envy them.

The day was off to a great start. My GoPro had two fully charged batteries, a rarity. My Canon only had one fully charged battery, but the spare was gathering as much as it could in the corner of the room. As I slurped down my oatmeal and did a final check on my equipment, the truck came in through the gate.

Our guesthouse was in a convenient part of the city. We were only 5 minutes away from our main eye clinic, of which we had spent a full day stocking with equipment the day before. I had both cameras along with a harness, headgear, flashlight, snack, water bottle and handkerchief stashed into my bag and slung around my neck.

I was ready.

In Haiti, most people don’t have their own vehicle. If they do, it’s a motorcycle (they just say moto) or dirt bike. Public transportation solely consists of vans and pickup trucks with a makeshift roof.

After piling about 20 boxes of eyeglasses into the back of the truck, the rest of our team piled in with our escort hanging off the back and another sitting on top of the car.

I had a feeling that eventually, I would be hanging off the back sometime this week. I would do anything to capture the best video possible on the GoPro.

There wasn’t a single moment I was used to my surroundings in Haiti. The heaps of garbage, ditches full of waste, and irreverent faces of the destitute we passed all caught my attention fully, every single time.

The founder of the organization, HIS Vision, always seemed to notice this from me. Melinda would frequently tap my shoulder on truck rides and ask me how I was taking everything in. I always suspected that she knew exactly what was bothering me.

After a short trip, we pulled up to the clinic and saw an interesting site. The day before, the area was deserted. Today, there were over hundreds people waiting in the courtyard. Vendors were even selling food by the gate.

I began to record video for the first time that day as we pulled up. The shot panned the front line of people staring at the camera sitting precariously on my head. I have to wonder if they thought the camera was going to fall any second.

I had learned pretty quickly that Haitians don’t like cameras. I would learn this lesson even better in just a few short days.

But at the time, I was anxious and bold – ready to capture everything I could.

The team began setting up their stations at 8am, preparing the equipment for what would be a full day of eye exams and prescriptions. Because my station had not yet been determined, my sole function was just to take photos and record video.

The problem? Conserving battery was a losing battle against time. I took key shots of the crowds and “before” shots from the roof. To save battery, I knew my time was better spent doing physical labor inside the clinic, sneaking pictures along the way.

What I thought would be physical labor ended up being more akin to simply organizing boxes and making everything as clean as possible. To our benefit, the lack of electricity meant that our only light came from the barred windows, so there wasn’t a lot of light that would illuminate things like dirt and dust.

I learned that this was important because the Haitian people value appearance highly, and our goal was to position our clinic as clean, good-looking, and accessible.

The day started slowly, and I began to grow more anxious. I periodically snuck away from the clinic to explore more of the area – something that was not advised for very smart.

With my camera still placed on my head and recording, I began to explore the village we were in. Everyone stared at me with exact same expression that asked – “Why is this ‘blanc’ recording me?”

I wanted more action shots, so I began to run down the road at a brisk pace. After about 20 seconds, I noticed that some Haitians were also running behind me. Instead of thinking they were chasing me, I just assumed that we were racing. We ran for about 5 minutes before I stopped and ventured back. We didn’t say a word to each other.

100 numbers were handed out to 100 Haitians that day. Our goal was to see to all of them before dark, but there was a slight problem: we saw 19 by noon.

Not even halfway done, we struggled to move patients through the clinic quickly. I added to the confusion by tape recording brief and sudden interviews with the volunteers during their most stressed moments. I knew I would get the best insights this way at the sacrifice of their positive opinion of me.

Cornered in their small examination rooms with no air conditioning or windows, the two eye doctors were sweaty, exhausted and flustered. But they knew they had to keep their cool if they were to complete their work on time. I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed with the patience of a human being.

For lunch, we huddled in a small office and ate PB&J sandwiches away from the public. Melinda stressed that it’s important we eat in private, as many of the people in the area would have no idea where their next meal would come from.

But I didn’t think much about them while I ate. I instead thought about the poor lighting in the clinic that was making it hard for me to snap pictures. I was thinking about the dwindling battery life in my GoPro and how exhausted my feet were from moving about so much.

The only times I didn’t think about this silly inconveniences would be when I started working at the reading glasses station. I knew I needed something to help the time pass more quickly, or I would go insane.

So I learned how to read prescriptions and give out the glasses people needed. Only one person was handling this station, Erin, and she had a lot of people waiting to receive their pair of glasses.

I thought matching the prescriptions would be pretty easy. The doctor would write down a number, and my job was to match the number with the one on the bags of glasses. The numbers were categorized according to each box of about 50-100 glasses.

It wasn’t long before I realized that this would be anything but easy, especially because most of the numbers the doctors prescribed didn’t match anything we had. Additionally, we had to test the vision of the patients once they had their glasses to make sure the prescription was correct.

It’s a good thing I work well with people. I don’t think I’ve ever had to be so persuasive in my life. Helping the Haitians pick glasses that they actually like cosmetically was a unique challenge, especially due to the fact that I don’t speak French or Creole.

I had to rely on the occasional availability of an interpreter and a short list of phrases that I happened to know. I was desperate enough to try to speak Spanish many times, which actually worked occasionally.

Once I started streamlining this station, I noticed that the patients were being moved along faster. Everyone was settling into a rhythm, myself included, but it also started getting dark.

The sun set unfairly quickly.

We had to resort to using flashlights to find prescriptions and finish up the last of the patients. I found that by attaching my flashlight to my headgear, I could navigate the clinic and provide ample light for the team.

I was growing anxious at the fact that it was pitch black with the exception of a few flashlights, and we had to clean the place up once we were done.

But no one missed a beat. As soon as the doctors finished the last round of patients, they didn’t rest. Everyone was dedicated to gathering everything up and getting it into the truck.

We would be going to a different clinic, a mobile one, the next day, so we had no choice to bring almost everything with us.

We finally managed to get everything loaded into the truck, but we wouldn’t fit in the truck now that we had more people with us – the eye doctors we were training – so I would have to ride on the back of a moto.

I thanked my lucky stars that I saved some battery (and memory) in my camera for the ride, and I was on the back of the motorcycle within a minute of being told I would.

The rush of being on the back of a motorcycle on the busy Haitian streets wouldn’t be matched until the next day. Each bump that gave us air reminded me of a loved one I had forgotten to say goodbye to before I left America.

Just a few minutes in, we stopped in the middle of the road by a large group of Haitians socializing on their motos. It’s hard to describe the scene. Many of them were offering rides and taxi to the ones without vehicles. Some were fighting about food and money, while many were just passing by. We had stopped because we ran out of gas.

And I had run out of battery.

I knew that this was a prime opportunity, however, for me to capture some honest footage of the people, and there was still some light left for me to do it.

I used this opportunity to switch out the battery. I knew my spare still had some life in it, but I also had to switch the memory card because it was full.

The anxiety was palpable. I was surrounded by people who didn’t like the fact I had a camera on my head, and my only protection was one of the female volunteers with me, Stephanie, and our Haitian driver, Jimmy.

Somehow, I still managed to fidget with the camera enough to switch everything out in time for our last few minutes of driving.

The scenery, and my up-close angle of it, was breathtaking.

All I could think about as we ate dinner that night was how many more memories I was about to make. I prepared my equipment for the next day, charged everything I could, and then found out that we had no water for showers.

But I didn’t care much. I was more focused on getting to sleep as soon as possible. I climbed the bunk bed without a ladder by the only window in the room. I turned on my flashlight and read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for about an hour before I finally stopped sweating and was ready to fall asleep to the sounds of the generator right outside and the vocal Haitian nightlife.

I was sweaty, aching, and perpetually terrified about what would happen next. But I’ve never felt more alive.

Day 3 of my adventure in Haiti was complete.

More of my work around the web:

Yes, It’s Possible to Be Both Introverted and Extroverted

Should Everyone Get a “Trophy”?

10 Tips to Write Better, Faster and With Insight

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