Sunday, April 28, 2013

Haiti Earth Day Trip: Part 1

The entire purpose of this blog is to information share with as many current or potential volunteers as possible. So, the first installment about my time in Haiti is a sort of 'How to' guide for future volunteer trips.

Everything I am recommending is from personal experience or from seeing others and learning from their experiences.

Due to the frequency of random occurrences that seem to happen while volunteering/traveling in Haiti (and other foreign countries) I have decided to use the letters 'JIC' to stand for 'just in case'.

What to pack:
This really depends on what you plan on doing there and because of that I have decided to organize the packing list into various categories.

The Absolute Essentials If You Plan On Doing Outdoor Volunteer Work:
-2x the amount of underwear you think you will need. *JIC 
I know, I know, twice the amount seems crazy and unnecessary but please, just trust me on this. Random things will happen and you will be thankful you were prepared.
Side note for the ladies: Thongs, sweat, heat, and lots of walking/physical activity do not go well together. Granny panties all the way. Also, sport bras. It sounds like such a 'duh' item, but people tend to forget 'duh' items a lot.

-Durable, ankle covering socks.
Again, pack 2 or 3 more pairs than you plan on using *JIC

One for showering and then a hand towel (not a washcloth). Both should be cheap and lightweight. The hand towel will come in 'handy' if you're doing volunteer work outdoors, during the day. Volunteer work in Haiti rarely happens inside and there are very few places to seek shade. A hand towel is easy to roll up in a backpack or bag, can provide shade for your face/neck, and can be used to wipe away sweat. You should also try and get the hand towel in white or another light color, as lighter colors won't absorb as much heat as darker ones will.

-Sweat-proof Sunscreen: 
As I've said, doing volunteer work outdoors, during the day, in Haiti is grueling. There is little to no shade and you WILL sweat. A lot. Therefore, I suggest sweat-proof sunscreen, preferably aerosol/spray form, which will prevent the issue of gross, greasy hands. Whether it's spray form or not, though, sweat-proof is the most important part. Also, it should be SPF 35 or higher. Take it from me, you can apply sunscreen as often as you'd like but if you keep sweating it off, it is not going to protect your skin. The sun and heat in Haiti are no joke. You do not want to get a sunburn in a place where there's no access to air-conditioning and the average daily temperature is 90 degrees year round.

 Baseball cap, bucket hat, sun hat, sombrero, etc. It doesn't really make a difference which type you pack, just make sure you have at least one. The best type that I've found are the ones that are baseball caps with the flap in the back to protect your neck:
Honestly, though, you just want to pack one that you wouldn't mind getting incredibly sweaty, dirty, or that you wouldn't mind losing.

Again, doesn't matter what type, as long as you pack a pair. I reccomend finding a cheap pair from the drugstore (Walgreens, CVS, or even Walmart) that you don't mind getting scratched up or that you wouldn't mind losing.
Side Note: If you are around local kids and have sunglasses on, do not be surprised if they ask you to give them your sunglasses. So, if saying 'no' to kids isn't your thing, then pack some extra pairs to give out.

Hiking boots, work/construction boots, combat boots, etc. will all work just fine. The exact type doesn't really matter.
The things that do matter: Do they cover your ankles? Will they stay on your feet when you're in mud? Can you walk through rubble or over broken glass/other sharp objects in them? When walking through puddles of various mystery liquids, will they keep your feet dry? If they can accomplish all of those things, then you're good.  Personally, I prefer my Army Surplus combat boots because they are relatively cheap ($40.00), I've previously used them in other dangerous environments where they've proven themselves reliable, and they effectively cover my ankles without restricting my ankle's range of motion.

They're lightweight, versatile, and probably the cheapest thing on this entire packing list. They can be used
as a type of sweat-band on your forehead, they can provide protection for your neck from the sun, and can be wrapped around your face to keep out unwanted smells/ filter out the air you breathe in. There are too many uses/functions for bandanas for me to mention all of them right now, but you get the general idea of how useful they can be.
*Special tip*: Bandanas, when soaked in the astringent Sea Breeze, can be used to immediately and drastically cool somebody down. It's better to soak the bandana in astringent instead of water to cool off because water will most likely be scarce and should be saved for drinking.
Sea Breeze:

-Disinfecting wipes/Hand sanitizer:
These are especially important if you are planning on coming into contact with local kids. The children are usually so excited to see new people and new faces that they will grab on to you in any way that they can. Hands, arms, legs, shoulders, and even faces are all fair game to hold/grab on to. The main issue with this becomes any dirt (or other things) that were once on their hands are now on you. Having the wipes/ hand sanitizer around helps keep the spread of germs to a minimum, while also removing any top layer of dirt that may have found its way onto your skin.

-Water bottle:
Have at least one full water bottle on you at all times when working outside. Haiti is hot to begin with, but when doing physically demanding labor it becomes almost unbearable. If you plan on spending any considerable amount of time outside you WILL need water. Hopefully there will be a clean water pump for you to refill your bottle with, but in case there isn't one, pack extra bottles already filled with water. I made the mistake of not packing my own water bottle on the day I needed it most and deeply regretted it. I became a liability for the team and put my health at risk. It is generally understood that every member of a volunteer team should be self-reliant and responsible for their own health. Water is one of the most important aspects of everyone's health and should be one of the first things you pack before heading out for a day of physical activity in Haiti.

-First aid kit *JIC:
Pretty self-explanatory but a 'must have' for sure.
Things to have in your kit:
-waterproof medical tape
-alcohol swabs

-Granola/Fruit/Protein Bars: *JIC
Hopefully you or your fellow volunteers have already organized the details for your meals during the
trip. In case something happens, though, it's always a good idea to have one or two snacks on you. Sometimes even the most well thought out plans can change and in the event that a meal is not provided as quickly as you may need it to be, having easily portable snacks on hand is always helpful.

And lots of it.

Finally, you'll need a backpack to put all of this stuff in! I saw all kinds of different backpacks being
used during the trip. One made out of waterproof material struck me as a particularly smart idea but as long as you can fit all your essential items in it, I see no backpack really being that much better than another. Considering how much dirt (and other things) ended up getting on the one I used, I would recommend using one that you don't mind getting dirty (or possibly throwing away after the trip).

The things I wish people had told me to pack:
-Cheap, plastic sandals to wear in the shower:
You will most likely be staying in a place with limited shower access and if there are showers, they are most likely outdoor showers that you share with who knows how many other people, doing who knows what in the shower before you got there. Skip the ick and bring some flip-flops.

-Bathing suit or Bikini (for ladies)/Swimming trunks (for guys):
Again, most showering takes place outdoors in Haiti. If you're lucky, there will be a door on your outdoor shower. If you're not lucky, then a bathing suit is the best way to avoid awkward situations. Also, just because there is a door, this doesn't mean it will stay closed when there is breeze coming through (Yes, that happened to me). Oh, it's also important to be aware of where you are showering. What I mean by that is, from where you're showering, is there a rooftop from which someone could watch you? (And yes, this also happened to me). Although the initial use of the bathing suit might be for showering, it's also nice to have just in case you want to take a day to go to the beach :-)
-Cocoon Silk Travel Bag/Sheet:
Before arriving in Haiti, I had prepared for the eventuality of having to interact with bugs by buying and packing lots and lots of bug spray. The one bug I hadn't prepared for, however, was the bed bug. It took me a couple days to figure out that my swollen, itchy bites hadn't all come from mosquitos, but were also from a bed bug infestation in the bed I was sleeping in. Well, lesson learned. From now on, I'm traveling with one of these guys:
Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Hell yes.

-Portable Fan:
Small and battery operated are preferable. If staying in a room with no AC, I highly suggest packing this item (and extra batteries in case the first pair run out). The room I stayed in had no AC, one window with very little access to a breeze, and was a part of the main building (so there was no door to crack open to get a breeze). As I've previously stated, Haiti's average temperature is around 90 degrees and even with the sun down, it can be unbearably hot. Save yourself from night after night of restless sweating and bring a fan. 

-Mosquito Net:
Just because a place has one already in the room for you, you won't know the condition that it's in until you're there and if it's damaged/has holes in it, you're as good as bitten. I had a net with a hole the size of my foot in it, and yes, I got bitten. A lot. They're inexpensive (I've seen some for as little as $7.00) and easy to pack. 

-Baby wipes:
There were some mornings that I was just not in the mood to take another cold shower but had to because of how much I would sweat at night. Those mornings are when baby wipes would have been super convenient. You may also have times in which the showers are out of order or occupied,  making baby wipes a desired commodity.
It is important to differentiate, though, that although disinfecting wipes may have similar cleaning  properties, they are NOT to be used in certain sensitive areas. It is for that reason that I suggest bringing both baby wipes and disinfecting wipes.
Baby wipes are also super useful when/if toilet paper runs out ...

-Work Gloves:
Gardening gloves, work gloves, whatever you call them, they're made to protect your hands when working outdoors and they were sorely missed when we planted trees. There were all sorts of 'surprises' in the soil that left some volunteers with cuts on their hands. Thankfully, I avoided getting any cuts but felt the need for gloves when moving rocks and digging with my hands. They're a definite packing item if you plan on doing any sort planting, construction, or demolition work.

Other Suggestions:
-Don't skip the toiletries:
-Do everyone a favor (including yourself) and pack deodorant.
-Bring aloe vera and Calamine lotion *JIC
-Make sure you pack a toothbrush AND toothpaste (I didn't think I'd ever pack one and forget the
                                                                                        other but it happened)
-Shampoo and body wash should be as unscented as possible to avoid attracting bugs.

-Keep covered:
-I know it's hot and so long sleeves and jean pants aren't your first choice, but long pants and lightweight long sleeve shirts will protect your skin from sun, bugs, and dirt.
-Also, be respectful of the fact that you're in a foreign country to do volunteer work, so while doing that work, don't wear anything revealing or inappropriate.

-Extras that make a difference:
-If you're planning on staying in Haiti for a while, it might be worth it to purchase an international phone/plan. Personally, I found it very frustrating to not be able to make phone calls. However, due to
the communitere's wifi, I was able to use twitter, facebook, and the internet on both my phone and laptop.
-An English to Creole dictionary might be a useful investment if you plan on staying for a while or directly talking with locals.
-If you plan on paying for goods/services with US dollars bring many different types of bills (1's, 5's, 10's, and 20's are a must)
-Hand mirrors are useful to bring. Not really all that necessary, but nice to have if you can fit it in your bag.
-One small bottle of a strong perfume. Spray it on a bandana to cover up unwanted smells, spray in your hair on mornings that showers aren't available, etc.
-One bottle of pain reliever and one bottle of Pepto each. *JIC

-It's the middle of the night and you have to go to the outhouse ...
-Pack a flashlight and extra batteries *JIC

  If certain items on these lists seem unnecessary or extravagant, then by all means skip over them. Some items make more sense for some volunteers/trips more than others.  However, I know what it felt like/looked  like to go without them. It's also my opinion that I'd prefer to be overly-prepared and as self-sufficient as possible for future trips. 

  Unfortunately, I was not as prepared as I could have been for this past trip and ended up relying on the other volunteers around me when I shouldn't have. Although everyone was super generous in their help, it made me realize what I need to do in order to be more of an asset to a volunteer team next time around. It's my hope that by sharing this information, that it educates more self-reliant and self-sufficient volunteers.

  I promise, there's more exciting entries about Haiti Earth Day 2013 coming up!!! Check back when I go  into detail about the conference, The Boom Booms, and volunteering in Cite Soleil!

Much love and well wishes,