Anthony Bourdain in Haiti – Humanitarian Travel

Every Monday I will break down one of my favorite Episodes of No Reservations and talk about what I learned from it and why it is my favorite.

Then you’ll definitely want to join in the conversation on Tuesdays as we talk about what happened the night before!

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“There are no easy answers…”

This quote comes from a great moment of this episode.  Tony is eating at a roadside stand, as he usually does, when he notices that everyone around isn’t eating, but staring at the food.  Tony decides that the obvious thing is to talk to his producers and get them to buy out the stand and feed the crowd around them.  That’s when Tony realizes that there are no easy answers.  Sometimes the obvious thing isn’t always the best thing and what should have been a wonderful part of the episode where hungry people were fed turned into a free for all where the largest of the group could exert themselves at the expense of all others.

This is what is so difficult with Humanitarian Travel.  There are no easy answers.  What seems good is often only a short term bandaid that leaves the place no better off in the long term.  Tony’s heart is in the right place and I absolutely sympathize with him…  I probably would have done the exact same thing!  It is just hard to make strides in changes for the long term.

Now this post is especially interesting for me.  Not only is this an episode that won an Emmy and one of Tony’s most thought provoking episodes ever, but I too have been to Haiti (pre-earthquake) and relate to many of the thoughts running through Tony’s mind.  On top of that, his visit to Haiti coincides with the post-earthquake country on the verge of being hit by a hurricane.  As I am writing this, I am looking out the window near the Washington DC area and watching rain fall as Hurricane Sandy approaches the east coast.  The parallels abound!  But before I continue about the episode and my own experiences, here is some background info on Haiti.

Haiti is situated on the island of Hispaniola who’s other occupant, the Dominican Republic, is where Tony is going tonight.  And while these two countries share an island, they are very different from each other.  Haiti was colonized by France and the Dominican by Spain.  Haiti for one reason or another has never had a stable government since the slave revolution in the late 18th century with such famous figures as Toussaint Louverture.  This plays a big part of the issue of understanding where Haiti is at today, as while the former slaves overthrew the government, the people over Haiti have always struggled to establish a strong one of their own.

Hispaniola is right in the Caribbean and while all other countries in this region (including the Dominican, Jamaica, Cuba but obviously not the US Citizens) make the bulk of their wealth through tourism from the Americas and Europe, Haiti is not a popular tourist spot.  Look at this photograph:

This picture is of the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Haiti has experienced massive deforestations throughout the past and because of this they no longer are a tropical paradise.  The reason for this deforestation, from what I have gathered, is that the infrastructure in Haiti has been so poor for so long that no government entities have ever seen an issue with massive cutting down of trees and the destroying Haiti’s natural resources.

When we think of countries, we think of first world countries as “developed” like the US, most of Europe, etc.  We also think of second world countries which are “developing” and close to being a major player in the world economy.  We then have third world countries which are those that are terribly “under-developed”.  But Haiti is the rare country that actually falls in none of these categories.  Haiti is what some people call “unable to develop” countries.  The UN calls these the “least developed countries”.  Haiti is the only country in all the Americas that falls into this category.  Between their societal vulnerability, utter lack and corruption of leadership, and extreme poverty, Haiti has long been a very difficult country to wrap our minds around.

So often throughout this episode Tony expresses how devastating it is too look around at all that is going on and feel like there is nothing that he can do.  He meets up with actor Sean Penn, who has spent an enormous amount of time working with Humanitarian Organizations in Haiti, specifically JPHRO.  Penn sympathized with Tony, saying “the first thing you worry about [when you get here] is that you’re going to get in someone’s way, you find that usually there’s no one there to get in the way of.”  This is often the case in places such as Haiti.  What JPHRO does in Haiti both helps with the short term, but also strives to bring long term change.  They provide emergency response 24/7 as well as helping people rebuild their lives, start businesses, and get an education.

It is important for the countries that we may visit in humanitarian effort, that we try and strive for long term change.  I went to Haiti for a week in 2009 (about a year before the earthquake) and worked in an orphanage for a week.  We were able to do some great stuff like fix a cistern that had broken, play with the kids, build a gate, etc.  But the most important part of our visit wasn’t what we built or who we played with because that stuff would have eventually been done with or without us.  No, the most important part of our visit was the large amount of supplies that we brought with us to help sustain the orphanage.  We had a very good relationship with the orphanage and were told what supplies they needed to continue their work in Haiti until another trip came in.

While short trips are great ways to experience a country, the best way to help a country is to partner with organizations that are already actively rebuilding (long term not short term) the country you so desire to help.  Organizations like JPHRO and the Orphanage we went to are actively building the community and country around them for the better, and saving lives of people in the process.

There isn’t really a pretty or neat way to end such a heavy post, so this one gets no bow.  Remember to watch Bourdain in the Dominican Republic tonight and to check back for a recap tomorrow.

Here’s a couple pictures from my trip:

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