The Why (and How) We Travelled to Haiti With Our Two Young Boys

Every December, Dan and I sit down during our quarterly couples retreat to review our travel schedule for the upcoming year. 2018 was proving to be a busy year, especially since we themed it the year of adventure.

And an adventure it’s been so far!

Haiti came up in a discussion on a couple of occasions, and it always set with me as one of those curious adventures. I wondered why this trip, why now and why with my family?

If you follow the media, it paints a grim picture of Haiti, and it certainly didn’t help when Trump called it a shithole country. Many lost respect for the nation come those words and even more just gave up on its people. While I am still trying to find the proper words to articulate my experience there, it certainly doesn’t come close to any of those things.

Haiti is marvelous. It’s magical. It has a rich culture, great food, and a good vibe. It has people doing their best with what they’ve got, and smiles abound. There are textile companies, designers and warrior females empowering Haitian women to reach for the stars. Of course, all this you don’t see.

But ...

  • You do see the poverty (82% of the population live below the poverty line.).

  • You do see the garbage (there is no proper garbage disposal infrastructure).

  • You do still see piles of rubble from the devastating earthquake that, to this day, still shakes Haitians to their core (It’s estimated that 360,000 Haitians lost their lives in the 2010 earthquake. Everyone we met or spoke to lost someone in that disaster.)

  • You do see mile after mile of cinder block walls and barbed wire fences (to keep the ‘bad guys’ out).

  • You do see young kids washing their clothes in street water (that’s all they have.)

And that list goes on.

After all, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, which was highlighted by just how many water hand pumps were in use and how many slums there were.

So why bring our four and five-year-old boys to such a seemingly deprived country?

The media may be spot on with some of their assumptions and political babble. But what you don’t see are the talented entrepreneurs shining a glimmer of hope on a nation that seems like the world gave up on. So, alongside some incredible organizations like Grandi and Avanse, we packed our bags and ventured out to fulfill a lifelong dream of introducing our kids to a world they don’t know exists. And this age was the perfect time to take such a trip because a) they’ll remember parts of it 2) they are now seasoned travelers. 8-hour travel times is easy for them now.

While traveling anywhere with kids is already tricky, and heading out to an impoverished nation was even more nerve-wracking, we found ways to help the boys navigate a world that is polarizing from our own. This is how we did it.

Haiti - Martell boys

The How:

1. Start Them Young

If my boys had never been on a plane before let alone a different country, we wouldn’t start with such a grand mission. Young minds need the time and space to learn and process all the new things around them. Throwing them into a completely different travel situation, new foods, new culture, new language, can be shocking. The last thing we wanted was for them to have a terrible experience. So we timed this trip based on their age and experience with airports and travel. Since we have our packing and travel systems locked-in (thank you Evernote and the Family Operations Manual), we knew what time we needed to be at the airport, and when and how to board with young kids. We also knew what we needed to bring, what could be left behind, and what foods were necessary for our time in the air.

2. Storytell and Explain

When we decided on this trip, we started having conversations here and there with the boys about where we were going. We explained that we would be going on a plane to somewhere really hot (Haiti in June ‘feels like’ 45*C with humidity). We discussed the culture, the language and even what side of the road they drive on (Same as us!) As we got deeper into those conversations we spoke more about race and religion, laws and, yes, politics. They needed to understand that the conditions in which many Haitians live are not a result of anything they've done, but because of years of political corruption, compounded by huge natural disasters. When we say something isn’t ‘fair,’ this is the perfect example. (Max sure bit his tongue on this subject. He always complains about things not being fair: someone has more juice, someone had an extra 10-minutes on their iPad... He is now a little more grateful for the unfairness in his life. ;)

The chit chats at dinners and during car rides helped to paint a positive picture of the country. Which I am so thankful for because as soon as we landed in Port-au-Prince, Noah got trampled by some agitated locals and we were quickly whisked away by our security detail. All 12 of us hopped into a somewhat air-conditioned van and promptly left the airport area. Off to the townhouse, we went.

3. Go With the Flow

Haitian time. Likely worse than ‘island time.’

Did you know that the average outing to the bank, even only to deposit a check, can take up to 4-hours? Haitian time coupled with poor infrastructure can do that to a bank/business.

  • Everything takes longer, something we at home need to learn to appreciate more. Reservations go missing. We almost didn't get our room at the resort later in the week because it was insanely busy. At the time, I was trying not to panic, but all I could think about was where could we safely sleep if they gave away our room.

  • Laundry service isn’t 24-hours as stated on the laundry bag. It’s more like 96-hours. (I almost left without our laundry).

  • Air conditioning works when it wants or when the power grid is actually on.

  • The milk is powdered, something my kids got used to relatively quickly out of necessity.

  • It’s SO DAMN HOT that you can’t walk on the beach without your sandals.

  • Cockroaches will squirm around your feet and make you dance a little.

  • Language barriers are still an issue.

  • The poverty is heart-wrenching.

But with all that, we just went with the flow. You have to. To expect the Taj Mahal in a place that is still recovering from an earthquake from 8-years ago is naive and ridiculous. The hot days, sleepless nights, and colossal culture shock was all a part of the experience.

4. Bring a Nanny and Hire Security

Ok, admittedly, both of these details were organized by our friends Brenda and Jason Atkins. They frequent Haiti enough to have the logistics of their trip down to a science every single time. Traveling with them to their second home made the trip ‘easy.’ We wouldn't have been able to navigate the Haiti airport, let alone everything else without them. We simply showed up in Montreal, and they accompanied us for the remainder of the trip (With three other kids and the sitter.) They were incredible!

Anyway, going to Port-au-Prince, given the recent civil unrest, required us to have security. I have never, ever in my life met such a gigantic big teddy bear of a security guard than I did when Joseph shook my hand. Wow! He could easily palm Noah’s head if he needed to. He and his colleague drove us everywhere and followed us around while in public. That meant grocery stores, restaurants, and shopping. While I felt safe, I was also sad that this had to be the case. People are so poor and hungry and anxious to feed their families that they really on crime to get by. And us tourists are prime targets for robbery, violence, and kidnapping. So Joseph kept us safe.

The nanny (Gabby) was the cherry on top of it all. She would watch the boys whenever we needed a break or when I wanted to attend the Haiti Tech Summit. Allowing us that flexibility permitted us to seek more in-depth conversations with some of the incredible Haitian entrepreneurs we met at the summit.

#noblenoah in Haiti

5. Pack Light. Roll Strong.

The endless battle. Here is how I did it for myself and the boys.

The boys: I rolled up an outfit for every day of the trip and threw in two extra t-shirts. I knew they would spend most of their time in their swim shorts, so daytime clothes weren’t necessary. I only packed 6-sets of Pj’s as they could wear the same one two nights in a row. Running shoes and flip flops is all they needed.

Me: Same thing. I looked at my schedule and the weather to determine what needed to come. Packing light and recycling outfits are the best way to go. Less to carry, less to wash and less to worry about.

6. Know The Risks

Water. As abundant as we have it here in Canada, safe drinking water only comes in plastic bottles in Haiti (Which is one of their largest pollutants.) You can’t even clean your veggies or brush your teeth with the water. To prepare our boys, we consciously created mini-water police by the name of Noah. He made sure that we only drank from our bottles and brushed our teeth with that same water. He was on edge about it (maybe a little too much), but a damn good champion for good health.

The sun. Haiti’s sun is stronger and hotter than here in Canada. Sunscreen is a given, but we especially remembered to drink tons of water. Every morning before leaving our room, regardless of where we were going, we doused ourselves in SPF 50+ from head to toe, then reapplied every hour or so.

The heat. WOW! It was so damn hot even being in just a bikini was overwhelming. Shade is your best friend when you can get in it. Everywhere we went we had at least 1.5 liters of water that followed.

#mightymax and coconut

The Why:

1. To teach The Boys the Universal Language of Humanity

LOVE. When we first met the seven boys from the boarding school we were supporting, I was a little worried -- worried because I wouldn’t be able to speak with them and concerned that my boys wouldn’t want to play with them because they only spoke Creole. Boy, I was wrong. All kids immediately took upon each other to play, jump in the pool, snuggle on the couch and share each other’s iPads. It was incredible to see how they could all communicate without talking. They pointed, nodded, made gestures and smiled (The universal language). Now and then Max or Noah would ask me a question about why they were here and where they came from, and on we continued. They all just melded together and played. It was beautiful.

2. To Show How Love and Empathy Translates Across All Languages/Cultures

Different circumstances, natural disasters, corrupt government, entire industries were torn right out of workers hands, poor healthcare system, little education, ... there are so many things that the Haitian’s could be forever frozen from, but they keep going. Despite who they are and where we come from, I wanted to see it for myself and teach the boys how the human spirit, regardless of circumstance can be loving and empathetic. Seeing it with our own eyes, feeling their sunshine, eating their food, watching as they navigate their reality was why we traveled there. We saw how much they love and how much they care for their people. Most Haitians that can afford a little extra will pretty much always feed, cloth and give shelter to other friends and family. The love they share for their people runs deep --- and it shows. It was a profound event for us all, especially my kids.

3. To See How We Can Help

Before arriving in Haiti, I thought I knew what the people needed. I thought they needed more clothes, access to food, more clean drinking water, free healthcare, and new schools. While this is true, they DO need those things, what I learned was that they want to build those things themselves. They are tired of hands out and ‘foreign aid.’ Quite frankly the NGO’s work is hurting their economy more than it is helping. Haitians want to learn how to start their own businesses and succeed in running them. They want education for their teachers so that they can build and run their own schools. They want their doctors better trained and a system that allows access to better health care, not just to those who can afford it. They want sex-ed, parenting education, and how to live and work as a family/community. They want to do this all themselves; they just need the training, infrastructure and international community of supporting nations that will import their goods/services. Skin in the game, not handouts.

Views from our townhouse in Haiti

If traveling is a family value of yours and you’re up for an adventure, I say head to somewhere that is off the beaten path, not expected and maybe even a little ‘scary.’ Before we left home, many of our friends and family said that we were crazy to travel to Haiti, let alone bring our four and five-year-old with us. Admittedly, their naivety had me worried for a while, until we landed in Haiti and saw first hand what it was like to be amongst the people. It’s easy to pass judgment on a country if your only filter is that of social media posts, YouTube video’s or words that may come out of a shithole presidents mouth - but be kind, be inquisitive, be open to understanding that what you see is likely not reality. In our case, we learned the most valuable lesson -- that passion and drive are strong even in the poorest of nations. Haiti is a fabulous place if you can see past the devastation. Our boys loved meeting new kids, trying new foods and getting immersed in an entirely new culture. Above all, they appreciate everything at home a heck of a lot more.

So that is how and that is why we traveled to Haiti with our two young boys.