So, you’ve decided to make a trip to Haiti to help the people there? Great! But now what do you pack to wear while you’re there? They’re all poor down there and don’t have money for clothes anyway, so it really shouldn’t matter what you wear, right? Wrong! After living in Haiti for 5 years I have witnessed far too many foreign visitors to the country blemish their good intentions for the people with poor fashion choices. The Haitians may seem like some of the most welcoming, friendly, warm people on earth when you are treating their illnesses, and repairing their homes, and hugging their children. But as soon as you turn you’re back you can be sure that they are criticizing your wrinkled cargo pants and your wide brim hat. For me, as a long term representative within the culture for all who are outside of the culture, it is embarrassing to see so many of my fellow foreigners demonstrate so poorly the rest of the world’s taste in fashion. Haitians are extremely sensitive to what’s ala mode, whether they can afford it or not and they expect you who can afford a plane ticket to come help them to be able to buy a pair of shorts that at least fits appropriately. So I have compiled this list as a warning of what not to do if you are thinking of visiting this Caribbean country. Please consider this advice carefully while you are packing for your trip. Your reputation and that of our entire race depends upon it.
1. Matching T-shirts
This trend among mission teams to the country makes my heart hurt every time I pass through the airport in Port-au-Prince. There is always at least 2 or 3 groups of people in brightly colored, poorly designed, T-shirts labeled with some cheesy theme about Haiti using a lot of alliteration. “Hope for Haiti’s Helpless” “Hearts and Hands for Haiti” “Healing Haiti Mission of Mercy” And so on. I understand you want to be able to find each other in the airport, but whatever happened to picking a meeting place through the phone or email? In order to be seen in the airport you have to make the shirts out of the ugliest most obnoxious colors possible. Trust me, you get noticed. Aside from being ugly, once you’ve arrived in the country these team uniforms also give off the impression that you are on more of a group retreat than a trip to invest in the local people that you will encounter and learn from their culture. And if you think writing a stupid message in Creole on your matching t-shirts will remedy that, wrong again. You will just come off as naive to all of the Haitians because they all already know that “Jesi renmen ou.” Only slightly less offensive are matching team caps or totes.
2. Safari Gear
Haiti is not the Australian Outback or the savannah in East Africa. You will be seeing no wild animals here so no need to dress up like Jack Hannah. If you are going to be doing some work project to help the Haitian people you do not need head to toe khaki, pockets for binoculars or vents in every seam. You do not need to wear an outfit that only wild animals can appreciate. You need to wear an outfit that your fellow human beings that you will be serving and working alongside can appreciate.
3. Gym clothes
Are you going to PE class or are you going into a culture full of creative, beautiful people? If the latter is true, then please leave the gym shorts and sweat stained sleeveless t-shirts at home in the hamper. Perhaps you can bring one pair to sleep in, or if you plan to be doing heavy labor on a worksite. But, as soon as the work is done, rinse your smelly self off and put on some real clothes! If you abuse the freedom to wear comfy exercise gear in this culture you run the risk of portraying all foreigners as careless slobs.
4. Cleavage, Short shorts, and Undershirts
I know that Haitians will bathe in the river in front of anyone that wants to watch, the women will whip their breast out to feed their child in mid conversation with you, and they all will simply take a step to the side to pee while you are right next to them, but this does not mean that anyone wants to see your whitey white skin in all of it’s glory. I’m not saying that you have to cover up like a conservative religious cult, but try to maintain a little modesty for the sake of our race, okay? Women with ample chests, cover them puppies up. Teenage girls, keep the shorts at least finger length. And guys who think you can show off your biceps on the worksite, please don’t. Remember, even if you see the Haitians taking their clothes off, they have nicer bodies than you do and they blend in with their surroundings better than you do. You don’t get to follow the same rules as they do. Skimpy outfits are only acceptable at the beach where pretty much anything goes (Still doesn’t make that speedo a good idea Mr. Pasty Frenchman).
5. Peasant skirts and Moo-moos
In contrast to #4 many overly considerate religious folk take the modesty too far and cover themselves up with ridiculous clothes that don’t even fit their bodies. Someone told all the youngsters before they came not to wear anything too revealing in order to be mindful of the local culture. So they raid their grandma’s closets and end up wearing clothes that are a very poor representation of their own culture’s generation. When this happens the young adults in Haiti feel unable to relate to their visiting peers because they dress so strangely. It’s possible to dress age appropriate, figure flattering, and still culturally appropriate. Don’t be in a haste to run to your nearest second hand store to buy them out of peasant skirts and moo-moos before your trip. Whatever you already have in your closet already is perfect.
6. Dirty Clothes
It’s true, water is hard to come by in most places in Haiti and doing laundry can be a complicated all day event. But trust me, the Haitians hosting you will be happy to go get some water and spend the day washing your clothes so that you don’t look like a beggar when you take to the streets. They’ll do it because their reputations depend on it too. If they have visitors staying with them and they don’t keep their clothes clean for them, then they are looked upon as inhospitable by the rest of the community. If it would be too dirty to wear in public in the US, then don’t wear it in public in Haiti. Don’t think that just because everything else in the country is filthy that you get to be too and no one will notice. You wear an item of clothing once, it’s probably already too dirty to wear again. You might be able to get away with putting jeans on a second time, but don’t push it. In this same idea, smelling good is just as important for your reception by the Haitian people. Sure, it sounds shallow, but if the work shirt that you’re wearing smells like you’ve been carrying 2×4’s all week, you won’t be making any friends in Haiti. Also, please don’t use the lack of water as an excuse to not bathe! Haitians typically bathe at least once a day, many times twice or even three times. So if you only bathe twice in the week that you’re here, they will be ashamed of you. You are expected to be an example of hygiene and health. Take a bath!
7. Bulky Work Boots
Okay Lumberjack Joe, what’s up with wearing the cargo-ship-sized work boots everywhere you go in Haiti? It’s not a good look anywhere. You can maybe get away with it if you are working on a project where it’s possible to drop something heavy on your toe, but even then it’s a little over the top. Take a look at the footwear of the Haitian laborers on the site with you and you’ll realize just how silly your giant workboots look. Put them on with high white crew socks and khaki cargo shorts and you’ve just become the poster child for an outsider trying to do good things for the people of Haiti with absolutely no effort to adapting to the local culture. Here’s what to pack for footwear to Haiti: two pairs of sandals – one pair of plastic ones for bathing and the beach and one nicer sturdier pair for spending time at your host location or easy walks around the neighborhood, one pair of good tennis shoes for where you’re working, and one pair of dress shoes to wear to church.
8. No Church Clothes
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian or not, you’re probably going to be expected to go to church while in Haiti and when you do, you can’t wear just anything. You cannot wear the same clothes that you’ve been wearing around the community all week. Bring something special to wear to church. Most churches in the US these days are a little more relaxed with their dress code, but in Haiti they go all out on Sunday morning and they will expect you to too. Especially if you are a Christian, then you want to be perceived as taking your religion seriously and if you show up in an outfit that’s too casual you will be seen as disrespectful.
9. Hawaiian Print
There’s a reason why they call it “Hawaiian” print. It should probably only be worn in Hawaii on a golf course or on a beach while sipping pina coladas. It’s true that Haiti has mesmerizing blue Caribbean waters and beautiful beaches and really good rum to be sipped under the coconut trees, but you are not going to be on a tropical vacation getaway when coming to this island. Your Hawaiian print shirt will only say “out of touch” or “I got lost on the way to Maui”.
10. Wearing Only What You Intend to Leave Behind
If an item of clothing isn’t nice enough for you to want to keep it, a Haitian probably isn’t going to want to hold on to it either. I encourage giving away clothes that you feel you can sacrifice, but make sure they’re quality. Also make sure that you do not pack your entire suitcase with only things that you intend to give away when you leave. You should bring a few things to wear while you’re in Haiti that are too nice to give away. You should bring a few things that you look so good in that you simply can’t part with them. Also, when you do give those other clothes away realize that you’re not doing it because the Haitians actually need your used clothes, but because they simply like clothes enough that they will take whatever you give them. Everyone likes a “new” t-shirt.
Overall, my rule is, whatever you would normally wear in the US, wear that same thing in Haiti. Don’t feel like you’re going to offend Haitians by looking good. They’ll appreciate you putting a little effort into your style and so will all of us long-termers on the ground who are always left to explain your fashion choices after you leave.