Alan: I must confess that the climb to Chermaître has been the boogeyman of this entire trip. Since coming to Haiti I have wondered if I will be strong enough to make the climb but all those fears were dispelled by two little Haitian boys named Schneider and Livingston. They were my guides up the mountain, these two little boys, who I outranked in age, in size, in strength, in privilege, were helping me—a complete stranger (sweatin’ like a barn animal / gasping for breath)—up a mountain they so easily climb every week. The boys held my hands and clenched every time I slipped, they made the climb a breeze, so much so, that I arrived first! The people of Chermaître, while they may not have much, have proved themselves to be of the highest orders of humanity. They are kind when they have no reason to be, they are generous when they have every reason to be selfish, and they are effervescently joyful even when it rains for days at a time. As my time here comes to end, I will never forget those little hands that held my own up that rugged mountain. I hope through my continued work with VHP, I can someday, somehow, return the favor.
Sophia: I thought I had conquered the mountain, but it got the best of me. After a wonderful day and debrief on Wednesday night, I got sick shortly after dinner. I spent Thursday being nursed by Lila, Andrew, Jackie, and all of the other trippers. On Friday morning, Dr. Gueslin joined us here and took care of me throughout the day and through last night. Lila brought me many “get well soon” letters from my fellow trippers, from our incredible drivers, from Père Wildaine, each of which made me feel infinitely better. Later in the day, she brought me a letter from the children of the village. This brought me to tears; they barely knew me, and yet they gave their hearts wholly to a stranger, asking about me and hoping that I would be outside to play with them soon. At this point, all I have really seen of Chermaitre is my tent and the bathroom, but what I have heard through the walls and from those who have visited me tells the story of a people who exist in the most generous, open way possible. Today, Saturday, I feel endlessly better and cannot wait to witness and be a part of Chermaitre for myself.
Gabi: Throughout my time in Chermaitre, I have discovered the generosity of the Haitian people. They continuously proved to me that, as Manning shared in one of our debriefings, people here don’t expect anything from you. They are not expecting any form of payment for their actions. They are generous because they want to be. When all of the children of the village and some of the adults, kindly and bravely lugged our large hiking backpacks and suitcases filled with equipment up the mountain for us, without us even asking for the help, they did so because wanted to help make our climb easier. There is an incredible sense of community and love among the people of this village. When we arrived in the village, we were openly received by members of our women’s co-op, smiling at us, giving us hugs and kisses. A couple of days later, we gave out Luci lights to the members of the women’s co-op, something that they hadn’t expected to receive at the end of our meeting with them. However, not every member of the co-op was present in the meeting and, as I was handing out the lights, I was continuously reminded that there were other members who were missing. Receiving those comments made me really happy, because I realized that these women have formed strong bonds with each other. They want to make sure that all of their companions get treated the same way they do. It was truly a beautiful sight. The women were also all genuinely happy and excited to have received the Luci lights because they could now have light at night. Until I had arrived in Haiti, I had not really thought about the fact that many people live without electricity or access to electricity, and suddenly I found myself in a meeting where women were receiving their own personal form of electricity, and expressing interest in receiving solar powered stoves and ovens in order to eventually learn how to make pastries.
Then, when we were painting the preschool classrooms with primer, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by children holding our spare paint brushes and rollers, haphazardly applying paint to the walls. I believe that watching us physically improving their school got them excited, and made them want to help. This also made me very happy because I hope that having participated in bettering their school has made them more excited and proud about their presence in the school buildings. Overall, being in Chermaitre has been an eye-opening experience. In the United States, most interactions function on a system of reciprocity, where the reward is usually a monetary payment. That doesn’t exist here, in a remote village where people have so little to give. Here, people are selfless, they are generous for the sake of being generous, because they feel the desire to help. Additionally, we often take things like electricity and even painted rooms for granted, but things that seem rather insignificant to us can mean the world to someone in Chermaitre. Having a Luci light can enable someone to have more autonomy by allowing students to be able to do their homework when the sun goes down, and parents to be able to comfortably engage in activities around the house. Adding a coat of paint can make a classroom feel like a home.
Sam: I certainly sometimes feel a discrepancy between those who surround me and myself at Vassar, while I also have felt it in high school and my experiences. I’m a diligent student who has the tendency to focus solely on my studies and academics, while others around me pursue sports, activities, and passions in addition to school. This difference has yielded me a sense that I’m more of an observer and a receiver, and less of an individual who can effect real change or influence in a situation. But this perceived gap or separation between myself and others is starting to be filled by an increasing confidence and a decreasing self-consciousness. Traveling to Haiti has presented opportunities that have instilled in me a sense that I am not always stationary, and that I can indeed enact change.
As a co-representative for the education initiative, the notion of leading the education meetings and acting as the mediator between the secondary school students, the primary school teachers, and VHP is intimidating. I was especially nervous to lead the meeting with the primary school teachers, because despite having already met with the secondary school students, asking the appropriate and necessary questions to the teachers in order to extract the information we needed was crucial. And I went into the meeting cautious but confident; from the meeting’s beginning, I felt rewarded and I was making a meaningful difference: I spoke in French, welcomed the teachers, and throughout Grace and I asked questions that were calculated and critical. At the end, seeing the confirmation of my fellow trippers’ and also of Lila and Andrew’s of a job well done was rewarding, but I also held a personal sense of accomplishment. So far in the trip, I have overcome, in separate circumstances, the stagnation that sometimes invades my thoughts and actions, by acting as a leader and a tripper, who can make a difference and contribute to the overall progress of the group; I have practiced my French and surmounted my fear in speaking with others, while maintaining the attributes with which everyone associates me. I can’t wait to see the opportunities that the rest of the trip will offer for me and my growth as a person.
Sabrina: Haiti has opened my eyes to so many things I have taken for granted and has made me realize how materialistic the world I live in is. I live in a society where there are a few number of helping hands and so many hands holding me back, dragging me down. People will tear me down just to be a step up. But a step up to what? Are we searching for more money, power, friends, happiness? I do not know but I have realized here that there is no purpose besides the one we create. The way to achieve that purpose is understanding who we are and what we represent. The choice is yours to make, to decide if your own self-interests are more important than someone else’s. We can blame situations on people, bad luck or even God in some cases but it is our choices that decide how we react. My fellow trippers have made me realize this and be able to articulate this. These trippers are the most beautiful, generous, and loving people I have met. They remind me that the society we have come from does not designate who we can be. Here, in Haiti, anything is possible because all you have is positive support and unconditional love.
Christine: I cannot imagine being anywhere else right now. Everyone I have met is so open, giving, and full of energy, from my fellow trippers to the people of Chermaitre. Being in such an environment, I can’t help but exude these qualities myself, things that don’t necessarily come naturally to me. My favorite parts of the trip by a longshot have been playing with the kids and getting to know them. I quickly learned I was a little too trusting when I was walking up the mountain and let one of the girls who was helping me hold my headlamp. I have yet to see it resurface. I can’t help but be trusting with these kids though as they’ve shown me so much love and support from the moment I started walking up the mountain. One girl literally, supported my legs as I started to waver on a steep incline on the way up. I thought it only fair to return this favor of support by offering piggy-back rides when we went on a hike the next day, a decision I was not physically equipped for but did anyways, albeit very out of breath.
Over everything, these kids really, for me, represent the core of VHP as they are the new generation. They are growing up in the world that VHP created: their education, the buildings they hold classes in, and the food they eat when at school are all part of the vision that VHP has been able to realize in Chermaitre. They will grow up knowing that they have support from two families, one in the US and one in Chermaitre and through this we can truly be in the partnership that we often discuss.
Udbhav: The days in Chermaître move slowly and surely. Every hour seems like a week, every day like a year. Time is experienced exponentially here. It makes me wonder about things back home…where properties of exponents no longer hold, and each month seems like a day, each year a week. The problems here seem more intense and basic- water cisterns do not have pure water, walking to school takes longer than being in school, governments fail the people, and the people fail to realize their best selves. Regardless, the energy of the people, their fascination with the world around them, and the relative ease with which they smile remains incomparable. Maybe, problems and happiness are unrelated after all. Sociology asks us to understand how successful can a person really be given the social life that they are born into. What can a child of Chermaître really achieve? What does a child of Chermaître want to achieve? Those two are very different questions. Sometimes I am encouraged to go back to life back home in Allahabad, India- where I would be too aloof to be adrift. Maybe people here seem happier because they realize that achieving something is not the same as being happy.
Daniel: “Your thoughts are not real”, Lila Meade (Madame Andre) says frequently. I have been told about the hike up to Chermaître and about the village itself more times than I can remember, but nothing would have prepared me for Wednesday evening’s journey. It was an exciting hike featuring breathtaking views and the kids were everything I need in life right now – joy, full of laughter, and pursuing a purpose (getting up the mountain). After conquering the rough terrain with my peers and fellow trippers, we were greeted by women who expressed pure emotions and kissed us on our cheeks. After this moment and even till now, it has been a flurry of emotions and positivity. Have you ever felt pure without showering for a while? Well, that’s me right now. Pure bliss, pure joy. These are things that envelope my dirty self at the moment.
With little concept of or regard to time, I find myself less burdened with limitations of time that normally surround every activity I do. I am enjoying every meeting with the various initiatives, every hike to visit households and farms, conversations with new friends in my ‘simplified’ Creole and conversational French, the blessed food that refreshes me, interactions with fellow trippers and the STRONG people of Chermaître. I have also witnessed countless moments of selflessness, care and love that have floored me.
What Chermaître and its people has to offer is a view of ‘Mountains beyond Mountains’, an understanding that life as I have known it has more facets than acquisition of material and satisfaction through that or a longing for comfort and protection, a space to feel loved by people who think I am Haitian because of my looks but still smile and embrace me with pure joy after learning about where I’m from and kids to dance with and play hand drums with. As days pass by, I understand more of what VHP does and what my contribution is; this organization partners with people not thought of, people unknown or not focused on even as they keep thriving and being the strong, diligent, committed and hardworking people they are. So I am happy that I can join other VHP volunteers and other villagers and children in Chermaître to draw and paint a better future. Trust me, it looks colorful already and there’s more paint left. Like Alan would say, Bless!!!
Phebe: From these couple of days in Chermaître, the generosity and love of both my fellow VHPers and the people of Chermaître have blown me away. On Wednesday evening, we reached the base of the mountain where we would start the infamous hike. The villagers and children immediately took our large hiking bags for us, while we only had to carry our small backpacks. At first, this did not feel right. I felt that we should be carrying our own things, but quickly I realized, as a little girl grabbed my hand to help guide me up the mountain, that these people wanted to do this. Throughout each day, acts of love and generosity appear everywhere from making us three meals a day to villagers allowing us to see their homes and farms to the smiles of children just as you say hello to them. Even yesterday, as I was recovering from an illness in my tent, all I could hear was laughter and joy echoing from throughout the school. Personally, as a Christian, the people of Chermaître have shown me the way God intends us to treat one another and love everyone. I see this love spreading through all of my fellow trippers, whether they are Christian or not, and know that this group will be able to spread this love back home in the states, where love and kindness are much needed at this point in time.
Lila: Eleven Vassar students are now in love with Chermaitre, its people, children, landscape and raw beauty. Almost 20 of us nestled into our mosquito tents each night, sleeping on the concrete floors of the school rooms, under the most adverse of conditions, including way too much rain, visits of bacteria into our internal systems and too many ‘house visits’ (or should I say ‘tent visits’) from our indefatigable Dr. Gueslin Joassainvil in the middle of the night who rescued us from our own bodies. But none of this deterred us from falling in love with our friends in Chermaitre, who ran to us as we entered the village, embracing us like family. The children stole our hearts as we sang, jumped rope, played soccer and laughed together. Meeting after meeting, the new trippers learned of our relationship with the people of this village and surrendered to being in love: seeing the dignity of the reforestation director, realizing the passion of the Women’s Cooperative members, watching the hero of our work Père André Wildaine in true form and watching the clinic serve scores of people each day defied any and all of the challenges we faced coming in. Our work is so important and coming here with each visit manifests itself unrelentingly. This group of Vassar students is officially ready to take on anything!