By Heather O.
When I was 21, I spent a semester abroad in East Germany. It was awesome. I took every opportunity to travel, and in the course of my 6 months in Europe I went from Poland to Madrid, and every place I could in between. I was young and fearless and kind of stupid.
One night in Poland, my traveling companions and I were turned away from the hostel we had counted on, and seriously considered sleeping on a park bench. Dangerous and, again, kind of stupid, but we didn’t have a lot of options. Luckily, our trusty ‘Let’s Go!’ guide came through,and we were able to score a room in a hostel that cost us less than $5 in American money, with an extra 25 cents for bedding. We stayed in a semi private room, which turned out to have 3 bunk beds. The three of us shared the room with another American woman, who was traveling alone, and a guy that didn’t speak a language any of us could identify, but who cheerfully sauntered around wearing only tighty whities.
In Spain, my friend and I got on a train heading back to Paris, where she was due to get on a flight back to the U.S. We discovered our Eurorail passes weren’t good on that train, and were forced to debark in the middle of nowhere and wait for another train that, hopefully, would take us to Paris. But I hadn’t taken spanish since 6th grade, and my friend spoke no spanish at all, so while we THOUGHT the conductor said there was another train, we weren’t entirely sure that he hadn’t just kicked us off to be stranded forever in the hot and dusty (albeit quite beautiful) countryside. My girlfriend suggested that we hop on the next train that was going to France, regardless of whether or not they took our Eurorail passes, and hide out in the bathroom for 7 hours. She said it would make a fun story. Stinky, perhaps, but fun.
Because that’s what it was about back then. Having fun and gathering stories. And if sleeping on a park bench and hiding out in a bathroom on a train was what it took, all the better.
I don’t think this trip to Haiti is about having fun. Gathering stories, yes, but fun? I’m not sure. In a lot of ways, I’m not sure what it is about. I’ve wrestled with my motivations for this trip ever since I volunteered to go, lamenting to my husband that perhaps my motives aren’t pure. That I’m not just interested in helping people in Haiti build gardens, but that I’m there to make myself feel better about living where and how I do. That I’m going for a healthy dose of disaster tourism, like some sick international version of rubber-necking. That’s it’s not about the Haitian people at all, that it’s about me.
My husband told me that of COURSE it’s all about me, but that shouldn’t stop me from trying to do some good. Of COURSE it’s about rubber necking, but that shouldn’t stop me from bringing clothes to orphans. Of COURSE it’s about trying to make up for having so much when others have so little, but that shouldn’t stop me from teaching people skills that might be helpful in their struggle to make a living. Because no matter what, service is complicated, and motivations are always mixed. But just because we don’t know why we’re doing it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help when we can.
So with a knot in my stomach and a feeling like I’m too old to be saddled with a backpack, I’m heading into the breach. Well, the Ft. Lauderdale airport, to be exact, but that’s kind of like the same thing, right? My flight arrives after midnight, and my flight to Port au Prince boards at 6am, so I’m going to pull out my sleeping bag and find a nice soft spot in the airport to crash for a few hours.
My 21 year old adventurer who almost slept on that park bench and who was willing to hide in the bathroom applauds my ingenuity and intrepidness.
My 34 year old self tells me to drop the stupidity and get a hotel room already.
Sometimes being a conflicted old fart has its advantages.
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