I have never in my life been mistaken for an adventurous person. I don't delight in jumping out of planes, playing chicken with deadly wildlife, or peering over the edges of tall cliffs. You won't find me trying the world's hottest pepper. I haven't once felt the urge to run toward a mob scene to “see what all the fuss is about”. However, despite these truths, I said yes when my friend Guerline called and said, "Risikat! Want to go on an adventure?" She had found her birth family in Haiti and was eager to reconnect after being apart from them for nearly twenty years. G's family had sent her to an orphanage at eight years old, hoping she’d have a better shot at life. The question, “Will you help me meet my people?” just isn’t something you say no to. So I said yes.
Preparations went quickly. I pride myself on finding creative ways to travel on the cheap, but I met my match with Haiti. I ruefully handed over $742 to Delta Airlines for a round trip flight from Minneapolis to Port-au-Prince, keenly aware that flights to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic (aka, the other side of the same freaking island) were less than $400 at the time. I made goodie bags with personal care items, toys, workbooks. I gathered all the items in my house that lie pristine, yet unused: a digital camera. Reusable water bottles. Survival gear. I got vaccinated for Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Rabies, and a flu shot for good measure. I started my anti-malaria pill regimen - complete with bizarre dreams featuring LeBron James (!) and elaborate action movie escape sequences. The weeks went by and before I knew it, I was walking off a cool plane and into a hot, chaotic scene at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport.
Ten minutes into being on Haitian soil, I was met with a surly airport employee demanding $10. "Can you tell me what this fee is for?" I asked in French, noticing that I had been picked out of the line seemingly at random. "You must pay," said the frowning man. Further attempts at clarifying the fee’s purpose were fruitless. Soon enough, a colleague sauntered over, a gun swinging from his shoulder. Long story short: I paid my ten dollars without a clue or explanation and stepped out into the world. I’d later find out from one of Guerline’s friends that this is a common scheme designed to get a few quick bucks from unsuspecting visitors. Corruption? Who knows? But there was definitely a lack of consistency across the board. Oof.
Guerline and I connected with her birth mother, her father, and a host of siblings and their children. We spent time in Pétion-Ville, Carrefour, Jacmel, and Port-au-Prince. Truthfully, Haiti cannot be boiled down to a simple list. But give me a little room to share a few of my observations and experiences:
Walk toward the light!
The energy situation in Haiti is a bit capricious. The power outages at our hotel, the unavailability of adequate street lighting, and the general lack of reliable electricity in homes and many businesses made for some unsettling nights. Guerline’s friend Remy, a Haitian translator for a local mission, recruited his friend Kakou to help drive us around on our first night. We drove through Pétion-Ville in search of a place for dinner. The car’s headlights illuminated masses of people at every turn. The noise of the streets was unfamiliar. Raised voices, shouting, music - a far cry from Minnesota life, to be sure. That first night, I witnessed four men roughly carrying a terrified woman by her arms and legs down a street even darker than the one we were on; no one stopped them. The next night, we got a flat tire. Haitian military men swung their guns around as they watched us negotiate with passersby to track down a jack, tire iron, and a new tire. Nighttime in Haiti is unpredictable. I felt acutely aware of the role light plays in helping people feel safe.
Rise and grind
Do you ever scroll down Facebook and roll your eyes at the multitude of the “I'm constantly making money moves! I stay on my grind 24/7” variety of posts? It isn’t that I don’t appreciate a good entrepreneur – but some people spend more time talking about how hard they’re working than actually doing the work. It reeks of disingenuity. However, Haiti turns the phrase “Rise and Grind” on its head. The poverty in Haiti is staggering – you must know this. But I didn’t see people begging anywhere. No one expected something for nothing. Every person I saw was selling or making service pitches. Used clothes, a cell phone cord, opened pens, four of the onions they’d grown, filling up tires with air, carrying your bag, helping you with directions – you name it, they were selling it. “Haiti is a jobless country,” says G's friend Remy. “People create usefulness in themselves however they can and with anything they find. Nothing here is worthless.” In short, people walked the walk. The night stretched on as we drank beers and watched people dance and stroll about, as Remy talked about all the reasons there were so few available jobs.
Breathe. Drink. Roam.
Like any decent traveler, I took precautions – I brought bottled water and plenty of medications. I was generally careful. And while I thankfully didn’t experience anything worse than a mild stomachache, I couldn’t help but internally recoil at the sight of garbage piled high along roads and choking waterways. What's the deal with waste management, here? Here’s the truth: Haiti’s natural environment is in a precarious position. The uncontrolled animal population adds to the trouble. Wild dogs roamed free in some places, snacking on garbage and drinking from pools of standing water in the streets. Veterinary services seemed nonexistent; pregnant, emaciated dogs were plentiful. Traffic consisted mostly of motorcycles and trucks – all spewing black, acrid smoke. Taking in a fresh breath of air anywhere in Port-au-Prince felt impossible. Where does trash go when you live on an island with finite space?
If nothing else, food.
The nuances of Guerline’s reunion with her family are complex – but food is simple. Visiting G’s mother near Carrefour required driving up a dangerously narrow road, improvising a parking spot, then walking up steep, rocky terrain littered with trash and bits of metal, all with curious street dogs at our feet. Her mother had lovingly picked out mangoes – one for each of us. I’m allergic to mangoes but I ate eagerly (followed by surreptitiously smearing hand sanitizer around my inner lips to kill the swelling. Gross, but it did the job)! In Jacmel, we visited G’s father and siblings. Food was scarce there, too. Her dad took great care to ensure every single person ate before looking to see what was left for him to work with. Being in Haiti made me ashamed to recall the scenes I’ve witnessed in US restaurants with American kids. The feeling of hunger was a constant distraction in some parts of the country. I'm certain my vegetarianism did me no favors (it's possible I ingested some form of rabbit), though I did appreciate Jacmel's plentiful fruit trees!
I saw him. Did they?
I saw a man dying on my way to the airport. He had been hit by a truck and lay sprawled on the road, a large pool of blood reaching out around his body. When I saw him, I groaned, "Oh, oh God" as I turned my face away. No one around me seemed to care. My hands started shaking. My sunglasses hid my expression well enough but I felt disoriented and sick.
And it isn't as though there were helpers on the scene. There weren't police. No ambulance coming. There weren't even gawkers. No one seemed to be asking, "Who is this guy? Does he have family? Do we need to call someone?" Instead, the people selling their fruits and veggies and wares kept on making sales. Pedestrians kept walking atop and around the trash piles. Every bus, truck, and van, including my own, gingerly weaved around the man's still body.
The air was thick with the smell of fermenting trash, diesel exhaust, dust, blood, animals. He wasn't moving. There was too much blood - who could survive that? But none of the people I saw reacted. Days later, I still do not understand this. No living being should have to die and be left alone like trash while the world just keeps moving around them. Still, I hesitate to condemn the dozens of people around. What could anyone do? It isn't like I leaped out of the car I was in to help, either. Is it possible that people turning away was a form of self-preservation? What does it mean when life is taken away so frequently and so violently?
What of the journey?
I didn't travel to Haiti to have some spiritual transformation or to "find myself". This trip was not a vacation. It was not about me or my personal growth. I wasn't aware of the landscape before I visited. I went only so my friend would have a friendly face and an understanding ear at her side. But thinking I'd just be a passive bystander in Haiti was completely wrong. I went, I saw, and I am affected.
As I sat in the airport, poised to fly back to Minnesota, I was practically jumping out of my skin. My brain screamed, “Get me the hell out of here!” quickly followed by, “You are so selfish. Some of the people here are really struggling and you’re just going to leave?!” I feel guilty about wanting, and being able, to flee. Things seem impossible – where to start? I think of the environmental concerns: water and air quality, land remediation. The child Restaveks I saw silently doing laundry, sweeping, and cooking, while their peers attended school. The people my age, brilliant and skilled, but with no jobs in which to channel their expertise. Who can change things? The corruption, poverty, and lack of opportunity are overwhelming. I have no bright ideas, no innovative solutions. All I have is this exchange from Scandal to remind me that getting depressed helps no one:
Olivia Pope: I don't know what the point is of this, of democracy and freedom and patriotism. If there are no white hats. If everyone is evil. If the deck is always stacked. If everyone I love is a monster. If no one is worth saving. What's the point?
Rowan Pope: There is, incidentally, a point. If there are no more white hats, if the deck is always stacked, and if everyone you love is a monster, there is, in fact, someone worth saving.
Rowan: Everyone! Everyone is worth saving! Even the monsters, even the demons. Everyone is worth saving. In the face of darkness, you drag everyone into the light. That is the point.
It is hard to acknowledge the monster in me. The privileged, unaware, self-indulgent person who doesn't have to care because I have all the resources I need. Haiti seemed like one of the darkest places in the world to live some days. I saw people in survival mode, doing whatever they needed to make it. Still, every act of indifference or cruelty coexisted with acts of extreme kindness. I showed up with rudimentary language skills. My new friends taught me. I showed up with no real understanding of where I was, and my new friends explained. People are people, wherever they are. I don't know what to make of the trip except knowing that I was there for my friend and that feels like enough for now.
There's a lot to love about Minnesota - the pristine lakes, rivers, and streams (we've got over 90,000 miles of shoreline, dontcha know), the festivals, the clean streets, and our ever-inventive ways to stay busy through long winters come to mind. But we also have serious issues. Knowing that Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation when it comes to things like education, jobs, and incarceration doesn't exactly put my mind at ease.
I recently traveled to Washington, DC for a training. Being there opened my eyes to an entirely different dynamic: race and class and nationality, all mixed together. I ducked into the Chinatown Panera to receive an important call. Having just come from a meeting, I was wearing a smart navy blazer - weave on point, eyebrows on fleek. Seriously, I looked good. Inside, the security guard, a West African man, briefly glanced at me as I purchased a self-serve coffee. A young Black American woman came in, followed by an older white woman. She approached the steps to access the seating area.
"WHERE ARE YOU GOING? You can't sit at the tables unless you're a PAYING customer!"
The security guard then turned to the white woman, saying, "Sorry for the inconvenience ma'am, steps are this way."
The young Black woman turned on her heels, incensed. "Why shout at me about being a paying customer when you know you can seat yourself and order your food from the table? Why are you falling all over yourself to help this white lady? She's my AUNT. I'm treating her to lunch! Why are you typecasting?"
Instead of digging a hole deep into Panera's tiled floor and throwing himself away for being so discriminatory, the security guard doubled down. "I'm not doing anything wrong! You people come in here, this is for PAYING customers. I have to make sure you can PAY."
It was bad.
I caught up with the woman briefly, offering to back her up with a complaint to the manager. I asked, "Does this kind of thing happen often around DC?" Her answer: "Hell, yeah."
Granted, I'm aware of the tensions that can exist between Black Americans and African immigrants. My first year of college, an Ethiopian friend of mine once complimented my hardworking nature by telling me my "Nigerian side won over". (What? As if my Black American ancestors weren't forced to work for free, for hundreds of years). My interactions with recently-immigrated Africans versus US-born Black Americans have been fraught with confusion. This is further complicated by my having a Nigerian immigrant father and a Black American mother. I recall being called "African Booty Scratcher" by Black American kids and people mocking my name. But I've also had Africa-born folks swear up and down to me that the racism experienced by Black Americans is self-created and totally in our heads.
Still, witnessing the Panera ordeal was surreal.
The inter- and intracultural issues among Minnesotans of color are complex. Really complex. For some reason, I'd assumed that the "crabs in a bucket" school of thought wasn't as prevalent in places where people of color aren't in the extreme minority. The Panera incident shook me out of my naive stupor.
I loved seeing so many people who looked like me walking around DC. The men and women wearing suits, having big conversations, making power moves. I thought, "That could be me, changing the world." But what of the scores of people who also looked like me, but were sleeping on the sidewalks in the shadows of our nation's monuments? Or being wrestled to their feet by surly Black and brown police officers after sitting for "too long" in the metro station?
What of the people who look like me, but who are unable to convince others of their innate humanity just by virtue of wearing a designer blazer - even if it DID come from a thrift shop?
In Minnesota, I am Black, period. I am never allowed to forget it. But when you live in a place where being Black isn't treated as some freaky anomaly, what are you to people? And more importantly: how do you respond when the person mistreating you looks just like you? What, then?
My father traveled a lot for work during my formative years. I'd eagerly await the small trinkets and souvenirs he'd bring back from faraway places - clogs from Amsterdam, intricate South Korean key chains, foreign currencies. I didn't quite know what engineers did; In my mind, dad was probably having the time of his life making friends and going on crazy Indiana Jones-esque adventures. As an adult, I would come to find that my rosy view of work travel was wholly inaccurate. Turns out, business trips are kind of a drag. Gray or beige conference rooms, bland box lunches, and hours of endless meetings followed by nights of silence are the norm for many an employee.
But not this one.
I've gotten into the habit of requesting later return flights for business trips. As long as you cover the lodging costs for your off-work time, most human resources folks don't care when you come back. If your extra days happen to fall on a weekend, you don't even have to deal with taking extra vacation days. And if you already have a pug-sitter lined up? It's all gravy, baby.
And so it was with Austin, Texas. I attended the Environmental Protection Agency's National Air Quality Conference and spent three days surrounded with engineers, air dispersion modelers, meteorologists, policy wonks, and communications strategists like myself. The charge? Figure out a way to make people care about air quality and the connection between air pollution and public health. Having spent years working with engineers, I didn't exactly expect a knee-slapping good time. But I was pleasantly surprised. I met some truly talented minds and came away with a renewed energy to communicate tough science in better ways. I was also reminded that it's total nonsense when people say they can't have a racially and ethnically diverse staff because there aren't qualified people of color in STEM. (There are. I saw them. Fight me.)
Still, three days of uninterrupted air talk left me itching to cut loose. Once the conference concluded, I left my swanky hotel and moved across town to a hostel on The Drag.
Now is a good time to mention that I am an extreme introvert. I may also be some kind of masochist, for why else would I voluntarily stay somewhere with shared bedrooms, bathrooms, and common spaces? To be sure, the constant activity took some getting used to.
I spent the first half of my free weekend wandering Austin alone, listening to my most recent read: Company Man, by John Rizzo. I also picked up a copy of Helen Oyeyemi's What is Not Yours is Not Yours at Book People, a local Texas bookstore. I even had an impromptu group brunch at a neighborhood cafe with four perfect strangers. Texans are friendly, y'all!
By day two, I was even braver. I chatted up the French dude who was sleeping in my room, Laurèns, and connected with some of the other hostel residents. This singular moment of courage quickly led to an hours-long whirlwind adventure with my new tribe, exploring the bustling Dirty Sixth Street (I drank! I danced - in public!) and weaving through the city to the laid-back Rainey Street (I drank more! I coolly bobbed my head!)
My new friends and I regaled one another with stories from our homes - Perth, Australia, Brooklyn, NY, Fort Wirth, TX, Kansas City, KS, Miami, FL - and Minnesotan Me. We connected over our love for Swedish power metal band Sabaton (I saw them live in 2016!), Tim Horton's, and of course, pugs.
We laughed. Ran. Drank. Posed. Jumped. Hugged. Ate. And a mere 12 hours after meeting, we said goodbye forever.
(Just kidding! Since it isn't 1978, we dutifully followed one another on Instagram and Snapchat)
Business trips shouldn't mean entrapment in beige prison cells with a succession of terrible PowerPoints and overpriced stale muffins bearing down on one's tired soul. They can be so much more. I'm happy to have had a small part in keeping Austin weird.
I was privileged enough to do lots of traveling as a kid, going on road trips around the country during school breaks. Wherever we had family, we were guaranteed a place to sleep. And with dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, that meant we were always on the move. When I was 16, my mother scraped and pinched to save up enough money to send me on a school trip overseas.
I traipsed about France and England, transfixed. I vowed to myself that I would make it back someday. Turns out, I achieved my goal faster than I thought. A $400 round-trip flight to Europe (Thank you, Google flights!) and an off-season itinerary, complete with multiple hotel deals, allowed me to hit seven countries in 12 days. Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, England, and Iceland - a whirlwind trip, to be sure. Vow #2: Someday I will live abroad. Even if just for a moment. Let's see how long it takes for this one to come true.