My recent adventure to Haiti as part of my Hoops for Haiti campaign was definitely eye-opening, it was interesting, but above all it was unforgettable.
After getting picked up at the Port-Au-Prince airport and the stress of making it through the gauntlet of international travel, hoops intact, began to melt away I struck up a conversation with RaRa, our driver and interpreter. I was curious to know, as I always am when I’m in a new place, what was the colloquial name for the hula hoop. I like to add these little tidbits of information to my vocabulary’s repertoire because you just never know when that kind of information will come in handy. I was astonished when RaRa told me they didn’t have a name for the hula hoop because they didn’t have hula hoops at all.
“What do you mean, you don’t have hula hoops?” I asked in disbelief. Hula hoops are such simple toys, I was really amazed they weren’t around in some form or fashion already.
“I mean, I have seen these hula hoop before,” RaRa explained, “because tourists and other people bring them here when they come. But when they leave, they take hula hoop with them! They never leave them for us so we never come up with word for them.”
This made me laugh. Not only because it surprised me, and not only because it was amusing listening to RaRa’s heavily accented explanation, but also the sentiment of “why would we bother to name something we don’t have?” struck me as particularly funny.
“Well, then this should be really fun for everyone,” I said. I tried to hide on the outside the fanciful thoughts I was having in my imagination about single-handedly ushering the hooping experience into an entire country. It was pure fantasy, as I’m sure there had to be a single hula hoop somewhere on the entire island, but the thought entertained me for a moment.
When we arrived at the place where we would be staying for the week, a Mennonite compound in Croix-des-Bouquets with quarters for housing missionaries, humanitarians, and other guests, I began to unpack and unfurl my hoops. I ended up taking 34 hoops, coiled up and packed in two large cardboard boxes which I checked at the gate. While I twisted each hoop open, I had to smile as I remembered the look on the agent’s face as I passed through customs in Haiti. He had cut open both boxes expecting anything, I’m sure, but these sparkly, rainbow-colored coils.
Once I was unpacked, I sat with Karla and Beckham of the Ozark Water Projects to get a feel for the week. Unfortunately, right before their arrival, they had discovered that the initial location for the well in Canaan was not at all ideal. The local surveyors gave them a 60% chance that digging would result in either hitting no water at all, or hitting salt water, which is pas bon, as the Haitians would say…not good. That was a chance they just weren’t willing to take, especially with so many other options to dig, so the plan was to find our new spot for a well. And in the meantime, work on hand pump repair.
My second day, and first day of work, we were picked up by Jean and his crew and taken to a village somewhere on the outskirts of Port Au Prince. Jean, a native of Port Au Prince, has worked with the Ozark Water Projects on all their trips to Haiti. He was their eyes on the ground in Haiti and he knew all the spots that needed hand pumps repaired and how urgently. Once at the village, I quickly learned that hand pump repair, or any out-of-the-ordinary activity I suppose, garners an instant audience. Much to my delight, a large part of that audience was children. It was time to unload and introduce the hoops!
I admit I was a little embarrassed I didn’t speak the language. I always try to learn a little bit of the language wherever I travel out of respect to the culture and the people but I was a little ashamed I had done a terrible job of that this trip. The online lessons I found were quite costly and my local library was fresh out of the Haitian Creole CDs. However, I knew the basics of “Hello,” “Please,” “Thank you,” and the one I was about to use “Do you want to play?”
I said it to the first two little boys I saw who were both peeing on the same tree when we initially pulled up to the pump. As soon as I tried out my new phrase, their eyes lit up and they nodded with big grins on their faces. I handed each of them one of the hula hoops I had draped on my arm, kept one for myself, and laid the rest on the ground. Those hoops on the ground were immediately claimed as more kiddos began to appear. Hula hoops seem to have that power I’ve noticed- the power to make children materialize out of thin air.
I performed some tricks and did my best to give lessons and soon, there was a pretty good sized crowd of locals around. One thing that surprised me, however, was that I seemed to only have little boys around playing with the hula hoops. I noticed several young adolescent girls, and even a couple of women, but they all seemed to stay a safe distance away. The first few young girls I saw I noticed all seemed to be in the middle of some kind of task, walking this way or that with a bucket or basket balanced on their head. They would stop and watch me perform for a while, but when I would try to engage them or hand them a hoop, they would shy away, shake their heads “no” and sometimes at that point leave, carrying on with the task at hand. I eventually stopped asking as it seemed to only scare them away. From what little I observed, I gathered this was a cultural difference. Little girls were brought up learning how to cook, clean, fetch water, and do other sorts of chores while the boys were left to…well…do whatever they wanted, it appeared. I’m sure boys were brought up to leave the house each day and work, but with a devastated economy and no jobs to be had, men, boys, and young lads instead left the house each day to hang out and just pass the time. The crowd had grown to include some older boys, in their teens, and even some older men, as well as more young boys playing with the hoops. Every male there 16 or older seemed to be drunk or getting that way. I suppose with nothing else to do, why not? One of the older, and not drunk, gentlemen there explained it to me this way: “When you live in Haiti, you wake up, the first thing you do is you try to find something to eat, then you try to find a shady tree to sit under, then you sit there and wait for it to be night so you can go to sleep again. And that is your day.” What an existence.
With all that being said, however, I did have one little girl in this village who came out and played with the boys. She was probably eight or nine years old, I would guess, and absolutely beautiful. When I decided to take a break and hand my hoop off to someone else, she took a break too and came up beside me silently and held my hand. Then she stroked my arm hair, genuinely fascinated with it. As the morning turned into afternoon, I noticed my pantomimed lessons seemed to be paying off as the kids started getting better and better at keeping the hoops going around their waists and arms. The longer I was there, the more comfortable the few hovering girls became and they began trying them out as well. I noticed two young ladies jumping rope with the hula hoop together. The shorter one stood with her back pressed to the other girl’s front and they both jumped together inside the same hoop. I am continually amazed at the cleverness and imagination of kids with toys.
I showed them all the games I could think of to play with hoops. Not only how to do several of the tricks I do, but also how to hold up the hoops vertically and make a tunnel that was fun to run through as well as how to lay them all on the ground and jump across them like hopscotch. One of the older gentlemen set up a game for them, which I thought was genius, that was somewhat like musical chairs. He placed all the hoops on the ground and then lined up the kids about 15 feet away. On his command, they all had to run and stand inside a hoop, only one person per hoop. Anyone not inside a hoop was out and after each round he removed one hoop from the ground. I enjoyed watching them play. At least for that one day, the afternoon wasn’t spent sitting and waiting for night to come.
When we left that village we repaired one more hand pump in the city before calling it a day.
The next day the task was to find a better spot to dig the well. We had two main spots to take a look at, both owned by Pastor Bristol, a local pastor who managed not only a church and congregation, but also a school and orphanage. As much need as there is, I learned one must still be careful when choosing a spot to add a well. I heard countless stories of generosity and giving getting swallowed up by a corrupt government and lawless environment. For example, it’s not uncommon for an organization or mission to dig a well in a spot meant to serve an entire community only to have some individual come along the minute they leave, build a hut around it, and start charging for water. We knew that Pastor Bristol would not allow this to happen so we felt comfortable looking at his property.
I actually really enjoyed this day because I got to see more of the country from the backseat of RaRa’s car. I’d like to add how much I also enjoyed having a driver. Please understand, having a driver was not simply a convenience we felt like indulging in, it was an absolute necessity! I have seen some absurd driving in my life during my trips to Rome, Mexico City, San Jose, and Dallas, but I have never seen anything like the driving in Haiti! When he wasn’t ensnared in some labyrinthine traffic jam, or getting passed by massive trucks by mere centimeters, RaRa was dodging people, dogs, and goats milling in or around the streets and kiddie pool sized potholes or mountainous pile of rubble. I found looking out the side window was much less stressful than looking out the front windshield at all that needed to be navigated.
What I discovered peering out these side windows was the brightly colored artwork of all the tap-taps carrying loads of swaying people. Tap-taps, or I also heard them called top-tops, are Haiti’s answer to public transportation. Some were trucks with a lifted and artistically altered camper shell and others were small buses with as much room scooped out the back as possible to accommodate as many commuters as possible. But they were all painted with bright, radiant colors and smattered with what seemed pretty random quotes, celebrity faces, symbols, and designs. Among the painted faces I recognized famous soccer players, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Tupac, Beyonce, Wyclef Jean, Shakira, Chris Brown and even Justin Bieber. My favorites were the tap-taps that juxtaposed a portrait of a voluptuous woman in a miniscule bikini next to the image of Christ, fully robed and holding his arms wide in exaltation. It was an interesting little slice of everything they valued and whom they admired, all right there for all to appreciate. Often times too the front of the tap-tap would be painted with eyes and a mouth to give the whole contraption the appearance of some kind of large, lumbering, bizarre creature.
I enjoyed observing the people as well. I didn’t get as many photos as I would have liked because I just didn’t want to make the people I passed feel like zoo animals. I imagined how it would make me feel for a complete stranger, and a strange looking stranger at that, come into my world, point a camera at me, and snap unsolicited pictures of my daily life and I decided that I wouldn’t like that very much. So I refrained. I noticed a lot of American brands and slogans in English on t-shirts, I’m sure a result of past mission trips that had taken clothes and other items. RaRa told me a story about being at a soccer game a seeing a grown man wearing hot pink shirt that said “I Love My Boyfriend.”
“It was not his fault, because he didn’t know what it said,” RaRa added. “It was sad and funny.”
I noticed everywhere we went, no matter what time of day, people were out and about. We passed several markets crawling with people selling fruits, hot food, shoes, t-shirts, sugar cane, bread, just about anything one might need that day. And it always seemed to be teeming with people. I think the markets were as much social events as they were shopping experiences. I noticed lots of girls and women carrying baskets on their heads either going to or from the market. In the villages we passed through, I noticed mostly young children and women milling about the houses. Everyone I noticed lived in cinderblock houses with open windows and no access to to electricity or running water. The few nice houses I saw were vacant, either unfinished or abandoned completely, or they were surrounded by a cinderblock wall topped with razor wire.
One thing that really surprised me was just how desolate Port Au Prince was. Being the capital city, and having hotels and airports, I expected it to be a little more “city-like.” I expected to see nicer houses, more access to electricity and water and generally more modern amenities. But no, it was just as dismal as the outlying villages, the only difference was there were more people in one spot. So everywhere I looked, there were just gray cinderblocks. Some villages, the ones in Port Au Prince, were closely compacted with houses, and other had a little more space, like the one we chose for our well digging spot.
The village where we decided to dig was called Turbe and was about an hour drive outside of Port Au Prince. This was a country village, and the people had a little more space for a front yard which was boxed in by a fence made of rocks or cactus. Most yards were full of kids, dogs, chickens, goats, or some combination of those things. There was one house in Turbe I noticed that was pretty large, but was demolished and abandoned and had been taken over by the local goats. There were probably thirty goats milling about this homestead, all sizes and colors. They had made this ruin their palace. I noticed more goats than any other animal. There wasn’t much grass where we were…scrub brush seemed to be the prevalent form of vegetation so it made sense that goats would thrive there where grazing herd animals might find it difficult to find grass to eat.
The spot where we chose to dig the well was a large field own by Pastor Bristol and a location he had planned to build another church and school eventually. The Ozark Water Projects likes to pair the wells they dig with churches or schools when possible because that will be a place where lots of villagers have reliable and constant access. It was also much closer to the people living on the outskirts who were having to walk quite a ways to make it to the next closest well. There was also a farm right next to our spot so having that well would certainly ensure good irrigation for that farm when the weather couldn’t be counted on.
As the rig was setting up and we were preparing to dig, I pulled out my hula hoops to start passing them out. There was a much larger crowd at this village than the last and at first, when the locals realized I was giving them away, there was almost a frenzy to grab a hoop! Even the adults were arguing over hula hoops! When everyone had snagged a hula hoop, many of them ran away, vanishing back to their homes. I stood there a little surprised, because that’s not exactly what I expected to happen, but they had their hula hoops, which was my goal, I suppose. A few older boys who had grabbed a hula hoop hung around and I was showing them how to use it. Then I started performing some of my tricks and as they got more comfortable around me, I could convince them to try it out as well. Slowly, the kids started to reappear with the hula hoops and I began showing them how to do some tricks with the hoops. They really seemed to enjoy watching me hula hoop more than they wanted to do the hoops themselves! One would come up and hand me their hoop and point to their elbow, or their knees, or their neck, instructing me to show them how to hula hoop on that part of the body. I supplemented my extremely limited Creole with lots of pointing and sound effects and it seemed to get the point across well enough. Often times, the younger ones seemed too embarrassed to try the tricks in front of me, or maybe in front of their peers, but I would catch them off in the distance by themselves trying out the tricks. I thought about what RaRa had said about not having a name for hula hoops, and I would tell them as best I could what they were called in English, but “le cercles,” the circles, seemed to be what was sticking. Once again, in this village just like in the last, the boys took precedence over the girls and were more likely to grab and hoop and try it out. But I did my best the engage the girls as well. I played patty-cake games with them and they loved that!
After a few hours, I could feel myself getting burned despite the sunscreen I has doused myself in, so I decided to take a break in the shade and rest up for a bit. This was when I really got to know the girls a little better. The boys were all still out in the field playing with the hoops, and the girls surrounded me to take a closer investigation. At first the girls kept their distance and watched me as I performed with the hoops but by this time, they were getting more comfortable with me and touched my skin and my hair and my clothes. A couple of the older girls, I would guess 12 or 13 year old, began playing with my hair. I took it out of the braid for them and they saw that as their invitation to play, so they began fixing my hair for me. Each one would grab a tiny strand of it and split it into two pieces, twisting it around and around all the way to the end. This was going to take a while, but I was hot and sunburned and welcomed to opportunity to just sit for a while! They really seemed to be fascinated with my hair. I could feel them spreading my hair apart at the roots and touching my scalp, I felt them stroke the hair at the nape of my neck where it was sweaty from hula hooping, thoroughly investigating every property of my hair. One little girl about seven years old sat beside me this whole time and examined all parts of my face. She lifted up my earlobe and peered underneath. She gently pulled down the top of my ear and lightly touch the skin above. She ran one single finger lightly over my eyebrow. She poked at my jaw and check. She even reached her hand around and gave the tip of my nose a slight squeeze. I made a silly face at her when she did that, so of course she did it one more time for good measure. And just like that last little girl, she seemed most fascinated with my arm hair. Once all parts of my face had been examined, she sat there holding my hand and petting my arm.
At the end of the day, the rig had hit water, but not enough to stop digging. So we decided to wrap up for the day and return the next. The next morning, before heading back out to Turbe, I paid a visit to Pastor Bristol’s school and hula hooped for the girls and boys there. I also left the last my hula hoops for them, knowing that if they stayed at the school, all the kids would have an opportunity to play with them every day. Pitterson, one of the digging crew and the one who had taken me to the school that morning, caught on to the hula hooping very quickly, and would step in and help with a hula hoop lesson when my poor Creole and miming weren’t doing the trick. In fact, I got the sense he quite liked teaching those kids how to hoop! I think they needed to start their own hula hooping club.
When we finally made it out to the digging spot in Turbe is was getting close to noon. Chad, my husband, said “I don’t see any hula hoops,” speaking about the crowd that had gathered around the rig.
“Oh, they will come,” said Pitterson.
And sure enough, I hadn’t been out of the car for more than a minute when the same group of kids from the day before came running up to me. And there appeared the hula hoops as well. I couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other, but the look on their faces as they approached seemed to say “She’s back! She’s back! Go get your circle, she’s back!” This was perhaps my favorite moment of the whole trip. There was no warm up time needed today, they immediately began showing me what they had practiced, they held my hands, hung onto my arms, asked me to hoop for them, I felt like a celebrity! I had an entourage of everyone in the immediate community thirteen and under. One little boy in particular had taken an express interest in his hula hoop and showed me how he could move the hoop from his waist to his knees, and then take out one leg and hoop on one leg. I was so impressed!
I spent the rest of the afternoon hooping with kids and after just a couple of hours, the well was dug and the pump was installed. The concrete base still needed to be poured, but that would happen the following day.
I made one more stop that day and that was to Pastor Bristol’s orphanage. Karla and Beckham wanted to install one of their new water filtration systems and I hula hooped with the girls. All of the girls in the orphanage went to school at Pastor Bristol’s and I recognized several of them from earlier that day. Some of the hoops from the school had been brought to the orphanage so the playing continued! I get asked if I ever get tired of hula hooping, and the answer is no! If there is someone around excited to learn, I’m happy to keep hooping. This stop was especially nice because with no boys around, the girls got my full attention with the hula hoops, and I showed them everything I knew. We jumped rope, played hopscotch, made tunnels, all with the hula hoops.
This marked my last day in Haiti and I was a little surprised how quickly it had passed. The next day we got packed up, enjoyed a breakfast of eggs and fried hot dogs, and settled up with the compound for accommodating us. What that amounted to was- get this- folding up our money and putting it in a mason jar that sat on top of the refrigerator. It operated purely on the honor system. I speculated that this system had to be 100% successful because how could anyone look at that sweet little mason jar with the note on it and have the capacity to scam them. We then headed to the Port Au Prince International Airport.
It was certainly a new culture for me to experience and an unforgettable trip. I hope to return one day. Now that my fantasy of introducing hula hoops to a new culture was actualized, I had a new one: to return to the same villages one day and discover a group of hoop stars!