10 Mistakes I’ve Made (And Lessons I’ve Learned)

Traveling is already expensive enough, if I can save some readers from making some costly mistakes by sharing from my experience so that they don’t have to spend all of the time that I’ve spent working in cultures not my own to learn the lessons that I’ve learned, then we can all make progress together a little quicker.  Sure, anyone who decides to work internationally would probably eventually make many of the same mistakes that I’ve made and learn similar lessons on their own without me having to point them out, but reading my blog is cheaper than an airplane ticket to Haiti.  So if anyone reading can learn from my mistakes before traveling themselves, then it will save them time and money in the long run.  Time and money that can be spent on something more important.  So, here’s a list of 10 mistakes that I’ve made during my last 5 years here in Haiti and some of the lessons that they’ve taught me.

1.  Being Impolite to the Red Hat Guys at the Airport

Even though it’s tempting to act like a jerk to all the guys wanting to grab your luggage at the PAP airport coming in because I’m an American and I can do things on my own, I’ve learned that it’s really not worth it.  We don’t tend to like people insisting on helping us without asking.  When I first learned Creole well enough to tell them off, I tried when I first came back into the country.   But even if we can really handle our luggage on our own, I’ve realized that if I can pay $5 for a smoothie in the Miami airport, I can pay a guy $5 to carry my bags for me from the belt out to the parking lot.  It’s worth it and that guy has a family to feed too.  But I only do it anymore if they have a conversation with me on the way out.  It’s a long walk from the luggage pick-up out to the parking lot, and during that time you can find out a lot about the guy in the red hat.  Where he’s from, if he has kids, if he likes his job hauling bags…  And that’s pretty valuable for these guys.  I’ve had my ride more than an hour and a half late before and the luggage porter has stayed with me the whole time.  I told one of them one time, “You know, you could go back and find more people to help and make more money and I’d pay you right now so you don’t have to wait with me.  My ride’s going to be a while, and either way I am still going to pay you the same $5.”  And he told me that he’d rather stay with me and chat because too many people treat them like dogs and then throw a couple crumpled dollar bills at them as they drive away before they have time to complain.  It was worth spending more time for the $5 as long as it come with a little dignity.  I don’t argue with them anymore.  I surrender my bags without a second thought.

2.  Letting Personal Relationships Interfere with Work

One of the worst forms of corruption here in Haiti is not financial greed, but it’s operating systems based on what the Haitians call “Moun Pa,”  meaning “Your People”.  People in positions of power or leadership here have the habit of making their family and friends benefit from everything they do rather than whoever is most qualified or most in need.  Being in a leadership position myself I’ve learned how difficult it is to not let “Moun Pa” direct my decision making.  Friendships mean so much within this culture, and there isn’t anyone who doesn’t need the help, so it takes courage to be objective and fair in managing community projects.  I’ve learned that the real friends don’t care if they don’t benefit from my work, and the rest of the people will respect me more if I don’t let “Moun Pa” cloud my vision.

3.  Neglecting Personal Relationships for Work

There’s gotta be a balance, and I’ve made mistakes both ways.  Many people doing this kind of work in a culture not their own, seem to think that their work has to define their entire existence, but it’s important to have a social life too.  It’s important to have friends that have nothing to do with work.  And I’ve found that I need to invest just as much time and energy and even sometimes finances into cultivating those relationships as I have to invest in the work in the community.  It’s necessary to maintain sanity.  All of those individuals who are involved in the work of the organization will appreciate all of the programs and how they help their lives, but in order to survive I also have to have individuals who are friends outside of that community service realm and can just enjoy life with me.  I need some people to help me forget about all that work stuff.  This is common sense in our American culture, but for some reason, in situations such as mine, people find it hard to separate the two.  I’ve learned that I have to.

4.  Encouraging Team Projects Based on What the Team Wanted and Not What the Community Needed

I don’t need to tell any stories of failed team projects born out of good intentions.   But it’s worth repeating that we’re not saviors and we don’t have all the answers.  Hopefully if a reader has been a part of a team that has carried out projects like this, they realize it without me having to blow the whistle on them.  If a reader is planning a team in the future, please realize that the American/foreign leaders in the organization that you plan to work with may not be completely honest about the local validity of your project ideas, because we don’t want to offend you out of supporting us in other ways.  It’s worth it to go the extra mile to search out the opinions of other local people before deciding what you are going to do in their community.  If you read my recent post, 12 Things That Actually Work, you will see many of the larger lessons that I’ve learned from this mistake.

5.  Making Pity Purchases

OPINION ALERT:  The greatest reason that so many Haitian businesses fail is because they’re based on a marketing strategy of “buy this because the Haitian who sold it/made it is poor and needs the income,”  rather than, “buy this because it’s a quality product”.  As someone working with artists and craftspeople to help market their goods, but also as someone managing a public charity, this has been a tough, and sometimes costly, lesson to learn.  I’ve certainly bought my share of crap that never gets used because of the look in the eyes of the person selling it, but try anymore to make purchases based on the quality of the product and my need for it, or my business’s potential to profit from it, rather than the merchant’s need.  It’s difficult to block out the sad stories and sometimes have the courage to say, “I’m sorry but that necklace you’re trying to sell me is just ugly,” or “looks like it was made by your 4-year-old child.”  And it can seem purely mean as well, but when coupled with sincere advice of how to improve the product quality and sales methods, then it proves to be much more beneficial to the producer and vendor in the long run.

6.  Assuming that Local is Always Better

This goes along with #5 a little because I always encourage investing in local business when possible, but not when it means sacrificing on quality.  I learned this lesson the hard way the first time that I bought a motorcycle in this country.  I went shopping for the bike with a trusted chauffeur who had experience buying multiple motorcycles knowing that I could trust his opinion.  When we got to the city of Jacmel, we looked at several different brands of motos, but there was one particular brand (I won’t mention the name) that was made locally.  When I learned this and heard how many local people were employed by the company, and realized that this meant I could get original parts locally if I ever needed, and could even meet directly with the CEO of the company, not to mention that it was about $200 cheaper than any of the other brands, I was sold.  Besides, the bikes were really pretty.  It was only later after everything was signed and paid for that I learned that all of those “original parts” were all imported from Asia and were of very cheap quality and the CEO of the company was a greedy businessman who exploited his workers while he got richer and richer.  The motorcycle didn’t last 8 months before it was in too poor of shape to drive anymore.  I have friends of mine who bought motos of other brands around that same time more than 3 years ago, and theirs are still going strong.  Now I try to do my homework before making big purchases.

7.  Not Learning How to Drive a Manual Transmission Sooner

This goes back to me being American and thinking I can do anything.  I’ve been driving since I was 14 for crying out loud, there’s no reason why I can’t drive any vehicle anywhere I want.  And I’d driven a manual before, but driving years ago on Iowa’s flat, straight, paved, roads is a different story than driving on the goat paths in the mountains of Mizak.  It took a good dose of humility,  a lot of asking for help from people without licenses, and a couple near death experiences, but I’m doing alright anymore.

8.  Believing White Rice and Red Sauce is All There Is

It took a long time to figure out that even in food preparation, a little creativity can go a long way here.  It’s easy to assume that because they don’t have a plethora of fast food restaurants on every corner here, that there really must not be much variety available in food choices.  But believing this is doing ourselves a great disservice.  Even if you have the best cooks in Haiti where you’re staying on your trip here, they are still attached to a system that never encourages creativity, so the fact that they give you the same rice and beans everyday, doesn’t mean that there aren’t other options.  I’m not even a good cook, but I am creative and pretty good at making things with minimal resources, so through working with my Haitian friends and other creative volunteers who are good cooks, we’ve been able to come up with ways to create almost anything to eat that we can make in the states.  Lasagna, chicken alfredo, french toast, apple cobbler, even pizza, just to name a few favorites that we frequently make.  Again, this may seem like a simple, inconsequential lesson, but the “rice and beans only” lie that foreigners are led to believe is just one more little detail that adds to the negative stigma of poverty that threatens development for this country.  If we can erase that, it’s a step.

9.  Taking Vacations to Port-au-Prince

When I first came here I thought it’d be nice to just get away every once in a while and spend some time in the capitol, so I went there over Thanksgiving and then Christmas.  Worst idea ever.  Thanksgiving wasn’t so bad.  I was able to get a holiday meal with turkey at the guest house I was staying at and it was early enough in my time here that I really wasn’t that good of friends with anyone yet to miss them too terribly.  But by Christmas things had changed.  I was the only one in the huge guest house that I was staying at and I fell asleep at night to gunshots.  Merry Christmas.  I’ve since learned that the gunshots weren’t due to any violence, but just Haitians way of celebrating sometimes, shooting into the air.  But I digress.  Anymore I spend as little time in Port-au-Prince as possible and realized the joys of spending the holidays in Mizak.  Now, even if I was living in the states I would want to come back to Mizak for Christmas because of all the fun that they have.  I’ve also learned that if I ever do need to get away there are plenty of other wonderful options without having to go to PAP.  And, if I have to get away, I’ve learned that it’s more enjoyable doing it with a few Haitian friends because they need the chance to escape from time to time also and life’s just more fun when lived with other humans.

10.  Too Few Chairs

Maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned in Haiti.  No matter how well you plan, or how many times you do it, there will ALWAYS be more people than chairs.  (Translated: There will always be more mouths than there is food, more need than there is money, more ideas than there is paint…)  Some mistakes can be corrected and the problem can be solved next time by adjusting our methods.  Others we just have to learn to accept.  The fact is, some people are just going to have to stand.

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2 comments

  1. Lovely. I so appreciate having the appropriate words, “Moun Pa” for a phenomenon I didn’t have the words to describe.

    At the airport, what’s the right amount to tip per bag? I happily surrender my bags and love the conversation, but I always get the “too few chairs” response from the porter — no matter what I give.

  2. Thanks Lee, well done. I admit to being one of those people who pass through the airport saying “no merci” and will probably not do it again. We are conditioned to not allow ourselves to be taken advantage of but those guys got to eat too. Mike

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