Cross Currents

A cross cultural blog
FEBRUARY 15, 2009 8:02AM

Meeting My Destiny on an Exotic, Tropical Night

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I named this blog cross currents with the plan of writing about cross-cultural experiences, so I thought I’d start at the beginning. (PS does anyone know how to make a banner from my pictures?)


In 1983, I graduated from college. I was an idealist. I thought with good-will, effort and knowledge, we could solve all the problems of the world. So, of course I applied to the Peace Corps. 


The Peace Corps brochure mentioned all the skills they were looking for: Degrees in Forestry and Agriculture were desirable, as was having lived and worked on a farm. They wanted engineers, with specialties in building irrigation systems and schools. They didn’t want liberal arts majors with little experience of the world outside their middle-class, suburban American cocoons. They particularly didn’t want Political Science majors -- most host countries were afraid of spies, which they assumed all Poli Sci majors were.


I had taken lots of courses in Economics, allowing me to change majors in the second semester of my senior year.  Economics is a practical degree. Or at any rate, by Peace Corps standards, it’s not the poison of Poli Sci and better than Eighteenth Century English Literature. 


Needless to say, I wasn’t on the Peace Corps’ hot list. My application lingered. In the mean time, I didn’t manage to get a job. The combination of complete cluelessness about the world of work and a feeling that whatever job I took, I’d abandon it when my true calling came through, was a recipe for continued unemployment. 


I called regularly to check up on the status of my application -- far more diligently than I followed through on the resumes I sent to potential employers. One day, seven or eight months after I’d sent in my application, I got patched though to someone who had my file on her desk. Her tone of voice made it clear what she thought of kids with little offer except a lot of idealism and good intentions. She asked me what I’d do if I was assigned to the middle of nowhere (not her phrase) in Africa and there was no latrine.


Yikes! I had not mastered the squat and pee without getting any on your shoes (oh, yes, I’ve had penis envy). I’d wear sandals Africa; I’d be peeing on my toes. I’d never been on a hiking trip long enough that a number two couldn’t wait until there was a better option than squatting behind a bush. And what if there are no bushes in the middle of the Sahara?  


But the world would not be saved, poverty and hunger not eradicated by faint hearts who couldn't dig a latrine.  Besides, I didn't believe it. There had to be an outhouse.  I took a deep breath and told the skeptical woman, “I’ve been camping with no outhouse and if I was posted to a village with no outhouse, I would dig one.” After I got off the call, I hoped like hell I'd never have to discover if I actually can build an outhouse.  


Next time I called, I learned my file had been approved and would wait around until some country desk wanted my “skills.” More months passed. I kept calling. Later, I learned that the Peace Corps notes every call you made, so I looked enthusiastic and committed. Apparently desperate and deluded weren’t in their vocabulary.  


One day, I learned that the Haiti desk was sending me an offer. I’d work for a pharmacy program. If I accepted, I had a huge pile of paperwork to fill out, medicals to take, vaccination records to be excavated from my pediatrician's cellar, reading to do. 


The reading list was eclectic. Not much had been written about Haiti, since then, the tiny country had been stable and forgettable for thirty years, thanks to notorious Papa Doc Duvalier and his son, Baby Doc. I think whoever put the list together dug up the few books they could find. Being a product of a top-rated college, I did the reading, expecting a quiz during orientation.  I even spent an hour on buses and subway to make it out to the Boston Public Library, which had some of the books, including a song book of Haitian work chants published in the fifties. I confess my eagerness to do my homework faltered at this -- that and the firm conviction that no matter how hard the test, it wouldn’t include singing. 


Then I was off to Miami for orientation. I took a down vest and a heavy sleeping bag -- I knew too little of the world to truly believe that in the tropics you’d never, ever have snow. Plus maybe there were some anxiety issues I’d displaced. 


Although there’d been a hint that it wasn’t guaranteed that you’d pass on to your host country for training, it turned out that no one else did their homework. They’d read enough to place Haiti on a map, in the process figuring out that it’s not an island in the Pacific (that’s Tahiti.)


I could quote statistics on rates of deforestation, discuss the effects of deforestation on soil erosion, and soil erosion on the coasts and fishing. I could locate Croix des Bouquets, where our training would take place, on the map of Haiti that I’d hunted down in a specialist store in Harvard Square (another bus trip).


Orientation consisted of indoctrination into Peace Corps policy, frank words about the then new disease of AIDS and a lot of vaccinations (no one looked at the records I’d badgered my pediatrician to locate).  We got the full set of each vaccination, plus gamma globulin. We’d line up for turns to sit in a chair, get a needle in each arm, get up, move to the chair in front, get a needle in each arm and polio drops in the mouth. Then you got to lean over and offer a buttock for the painful gamma globulin shot. We also had to start taking our malaria pills. 


All of us passed orientation (meaning no one proved him or herself to be a drug addict, mentally ill, or an incurable racist) and we boarded the plane to Port-au-Prince.   


As we flew over Hispaniola, anyone looking out the window could see the deforestation. The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic was visible. On the Haitian side, the mountains were a denuded brown; on the DR side, a lush, leafy green. The rivers ran brown with eroded topsoil and leaving huge brown plumes in the turquoise sea. A picture is truly worth a thousand words, although I’d probably read a hundred thousand words.


Finally we landed. I picked up my carry-on and descended the stairs to meet my destiny. As I emerged from the plane’s cabin, it was night. The air was warm and sultry. It smelled of tropical flowers with a tang of the sea and a very faint, less pleasant under note, which I, much later and with more familiarity, concluded was rotting garbage. The stars were just visible in the sky. A floodlight lit the tarmac. 


I lingered on the stairs, wishing there was a camera to document the moment -- me, meeting my destiny.  Every journey to save the world starts with a single step. I was taking that step. I remember the moment because in about ten minutes, reality would hit.


I crossed the tarmac, picked up my bag and opened it for inspection. Two silent black men didn’t return my friendly, “Bonjour,” so I tried “Bon Soir.” They still ignored me. They pawed through my things. They found a box. They opened the box. One inspector pulled out a tampon. He opened the wrapper. They both inspected the naked tampon. He pushed the tampon out of the applicator.  They both looked at the result. 


Did I mention that I was with my fellow volunteers? The people who I’d be spending all my waking time with over the next three months of training. Everyone, including the guys, could see the customs inspectors playing with my tampons. I was absolutely mortified. I come from a reserved family. We didn’t talk about female troubles. We barely acknowledged their existence. We certainly didn’t let male eyes see the paraphernalia.  


I tried to produce a few phrases in French. “C’est mes choses.” I wasn’t sure I had the words in English to deal with this situation, not to mention French, which the inspectors gave no evidence of understanding. As I knew from my reading, French is the official language but everyone actually speaks Haitian Creole. 


The customs inspectors tried to put the tampon back in the applicator, failed, but put it and the wrapper back in the box. The other inspector opened a different colored box of tampons. “Um. . .um. . . C’est la meme chose,” I said in a barely audible voice. He took out a tampon. He opened the wrapper. The seconds of excruciating humiliation crawled by. The first inspector picked up another one. I wished the floor would swallow me whole.


I knew I had to do something. The inspectors’ baffled fascination made it clear what we’d already learned in Miami: sanitary supplies are not all that common in Haiti. I could be posted to the boondocks were they weren’t sold at all. I needed them. I could not imagine dealing with my heavy periods without tampons or napkins. I didn’t own rags. I didn’t know how you made rags stay put. Rags don’t have anything to prevent them from soaking through to make a big red stain on your clothes. A crisis was looming -- a crisis on a subject I was too embarrassed to mention.  This was making peeing on my toes for two years look like a trivial issue. 


I made another stab at French, my voice even fainter and less confident than ever. I was ignored. Eventually, several tampons later, they motioned that I could close my trunk and suitcase and move on. I slammed them closed. I fumbled with the locks. I moved on as fast as I could and stood, with the others in front of the Peace Corp van waiting for the last volunteer to be through customs. 


I stood with my fellow trainee volunteers, Peace Corps staff and veteran volunteers  and realized that I’d barely survived my first challenge. No one else seemed to realize that it had been a challenge at all. Not a good omen. The last volunteer made it through customs and we piled in the van and drove to the hotel where we’d spend the night. 


With one exception, the streets of Port-au-Prince are narrow. The houses are small and hot. The streets were full of people. Students stood under street lights,  gabbling the words of their lessons to commit them to memory.  Women tended vats of rice and beans for sale. Beer and soda vendors meandered through the crowds using bottle openers to tap the bottle in syncopated advertisement.  The women all wore cotton dresses and had elaborately corn-rowed hair. They carried babies. Toddlers ran around half-naked. People flirted, people walked, people sat.  


I gawked at the people I had come to work with and tried very hard to hold on to my confidence that with the tremendous force of my good will and desire to help, I might be able to do one iota of good.  

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I could feel your embarrassment over the tampon inspection. Good story writing.
I'm looking forward to hearing what happened next. Thanks for your comment on my Kolyma story; using the bathroom with some dignity was a big challenge there as well. I was planning to travel to Haiti with a church group last spring but chickened out when the food riots hit. Not quite as adventurous as I used to be.
BRILLIANT you are a gifted writer
you should write more about this period in your life
You definitely need to put a "to be continued" at the end! We want more! I understand the tampax thing. My daughter actually was in the middle of nowhere in Africa with no running water or electricity and George W decided Peace Corps wasn't going to hand out free tampax to them any longer. I mailed her boxes of tampax for almost two years.

The wooden penises she was given to teach HIV/Aids education were always being stolen. Crazy stuff!

Glad you made it back safe and sound and without malaria! You must have taken your pills!
When I was in the Peace Corps, the budget for the entire program was less than the Marines' budget for recruitment advertising. I doubt it was much different in the Bush era.

Having spent a huge amount of time overseas, I'm aware of how much difference a single American makes to people who've never met one. You become their idea of what Americans are and what Americans are like. Often the picture is quite different from whatever they've cobbled together from rumor, propaganda, and badly dubbed American movies or TV shows. EVERYONE in Haiti had heard of Miami Vice (then a TV show). No one had seen it. Still it had a large impact on what people thought America was like.
Thanks for all the kind words.
Your story is very engaging and I have always admired Peace Corps people.

this is fascinating...I wish you would write more about your time in Haiti. I found that fascinating at that age too...I considered the peace corp but ended up teaching english in asia instead. But I wonder about the rest of your time there. And I admire your tenacity in staying around past the airport inspections. It can be hard to be out of your comfort zone and Haiti sounds outside of most people who have grown up here--our comfort zones. I had a friend who after college took a teaching job in Port-au-Prince. He said it came close to breaking him...and he did lose his religion while he was in Haiti. He might have been losing it anyway, though...

I'd love to hear more though, especially since Haiti is so much on our minds and I think the news reports rarely paint an accurate picture of other cultures...