Notes from The Coffee Shop – On Haiti and Comfort Zones

In any given hour at my local coffee shop, the conversations typically reflect the diverse interests and lives of the patrons. In any given visit, you may catch discussions about anything from local bands to quantum physics.  On a recent visit, however, there was only one subject on the minds and lips of the patrons – the Haitian earthquake and its aftermath.

I’ve debated what, if anything, to say here about this disaster.  There are so many angles from which to approach to the subject that I’ve struggled to pick just one.  Should I make this a plea for others to give to relief efforts?  Do I talk about the stark, ugly reality of the future of a place whose past was bleak even before catastrophe struck?  Do I discuss whether it is the duty and responsibility of the citizens of first-world countries to be the caretakers and stewards of those who are not as fortunate?  Do I decry the hateful dribble of a certain evangelical minister in his commentary on the Haitian people?  Do I just shut up and watch with ever increasing sorrow and discomfort the news stories?

Pausing to look at the words I’ve just written, a single one stands out… discomfort.  Haiti is and has always been outside of my personal comfort zone.  As a single female traveller who found herself on an unannounced fuel-stop layover in Port-au-Prince a few years ago,  I was suddenly faced with the reality of Haiti.  Upon the announcement of our impending stop, a list formed in my mind, a summation of my knowledge about the place and its history – Aristide, coup d’etat, “Poppa Doc”, malaria, slavery, voodoo, dengue fever, poverty, violence, political upheaval.   My comfort zone and sense of safety both began to rapidly evaporate.  The sight of Cité Soleil from the air did little to comfort my misgivings and rising panic.  Cité Soleil, for those who are not familiar, is a massive shanty town in Port-au-Prince, a place of unimaginable misery, violence, and poverty.  It is a heartwrenching and terrifying sight, even from above, and makes a startling contrast to the natural beauty of the island.  It left a strong impression that hasn’t lessened in the intervening years.

I’m thankful that I was able to be taken so far from my own personal comfort zones, even briefly.  The experience opened my eyes to a situation that had existed only as snippets on the evening news, somehow distant and unreal.  It gave me the determination to help others whenever and however I might. Many of us live an insular, yet not isolated, existence.  Thanks to television and the internet, the rest of the world is a click away. Yet, we often avoid that which is not entertaining, funny, or pleasant.  It is difficult to face the unpleasant reality that, while we sip lattes and read blogs, there are people who are dying of hunger, thirst, violence, and disease in places where wealth means having running water, food, and a safe shelter.   Haiti and other places like it are outside of our collective comfort zone.

“But, ” it has been argued, “we have our own difficulties.  We can’t help others when things are so wrong in our own lives.”   Yet, speaking as a nation, how do our difficulties stack up to a place where malnutrition is the standard and clean drinking water is a luxury that few have?  Compound these difficulties with a massive natural catastrophe.  Watch the pictures of orphaned children walking dazed and injured through the streets.  Take a long hard look at the piles of dead bodies.  Listen to the pleas for help from people who have no supplies, no water, no food, no homes, no families.  Step outside our collective comfort zone and face the reality that there are people suffering in ways that most of us can’t comprehend.  And then do something about it.


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