A service-learning trip is an opportunity to do service work and learn something from said service work. Over winter break 2013, a group of 10 people from Western Oregon University (WOU) traveled to Haiti for a service learning opportunity. As a group, we left December 12 and returned December 23, 2013. Through the WOU Service Learning and Career Development office (SLCD), I applied for this service-learning trip. After interviews, I was chosen to be part of this group. There were two advisors, two student leaders and six students. I was among the six students. Because of my anthropological education, I was quite observant with my surroundings.
Cultural observation took place everywhere I went. Not only did I get to see the life on the streets, life in the smaller neighborhoods and the hustle of the market, I also experienced the comfort of a beach side resort, home cooked meals, and naps in the middle of the day after drinking coconut water straight from a freshly cut coconut. Not only did I experience the hardships of not having running water, I also experienced the joy of kicking off my shoes and walking the coast of the Caribbean Sea.
From basic observation, it’s easy to see how Haitians interact with each other on the roads. Like on most American roads, the main streets of Haiti have stop signs, stop lights and double solid yellow lines. However, unlike American drivers, drivers in Haiti seem to not use any of the “safety rules” Americans are used to. On each far end, what Americans consider the shoulder and used for emergency reasons, were motorcyclists who were the taxi drivers and people walking.
These taxis were sometimes carrying three or four people at a time. People who were walking were carrying baskets of clothing, food or basic household items. Further, moving inward, the next sets of lanes were for bigger vehicles. The vehicles varied from two-door sedans, jeeps, tractors and/or buses. Even when there was a solid yellow line, vehicles would pass each other regularly. Throughout this whole process, taxi drivers swerved back and forth through the traffic. People even tried to sell things through the windows of vehicles. Everyone who was driving and walking seemed to be dancing with one another. Their vehicles were doing a complicated, but beautiful dance. Every so often, someone would get their toes stepped on, or have a fender bender, but a simple wave and smile is all that needed to happen for them to continue their intricate dance on the streets of Haiti.
Besides the observation factor, we spent five days at Ecole Classique Bon Samariain in Arcahaie, Haiti. Throughout the time there, we painted a huge mural on one building, and the school name on the other building. When we weren’t painting, we were setting up a playground and shoveling rock. It was amazing because the community members showed up in the late afternoon and helped us.
We didn’t get much time to play with the kids because they were studying for finals. By our last day, most the children where done with school. It was quite interesting, however, because when we did get the chance to play with the kids, they were very intrigued with my tattoos; I have full-sleeves. I learned how to say bell and butterfly in Haitian Creole because of my tattoos. One of my tattoos is of my last name. The kids learned my name, quickly. One kid would say Jo Jo and another kid would follow suit and say Bruno. They remembered my name. I’m sure they went back to their parents and told them all about the girl with the tattoos. I’m curious as to how long those stories will last in their family and how long will this memory last while I continue to tell stories of my time in Haiti…
Now that it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been back to my regular schedule – my reality – I miss Haiti. I miss the people, the food, and the weather too. There was more of a culture shock when I returned then there was when I arrived in Haiti. I missed the vehicles on the road. I missed all the people walking around and selling things. It was difficult to interact with people when I returned. My friends wanted to know my experience, but it was just strange to talk about it. I asked myself: How much detail do I share? Would they understand what I’m talking about? Did they care about all the details? It was strange for me at first.
I spent the first two nights back home by myself. Honestly, I don’t think I left my bedroom that first day back. After reflecting and spending time writing, I learned a lot from this trip. I am grateful for the opportunity. I suggest any student who’s interested in traveling and having a safe and life-changing experience to visit the SLCD office and apply for a service learning trip; it’s worth it; I’m a changed woman! I wouldn’t change a thing about the experience.
By Jo Bruno