Thursday, June 11, 2009

Traveling to Haiti to Meet Your Child: Some Advice for Newbies

This posting was written by Ross and Jean, first time parents and first time travellers. If you have insights, advice, or information you would like to share with other families, please email your story to dboni@allforchildren.org.

Our recent trip was full of firsts: It was our first time in Haiti, our first time meeting our son (Alexander, 10 months), and our first time being parents. During our stay, we kept a list of things we were glad we brought with us and a list of things we wish we had. We also include some tips about the trip itself. Some of what we say here applies only to taking care of little ones, but hopefully we can help those of you adopting older children to create your own lists. We also hope that some of the more experienced travelers currently in the adoption process will supplement our meager attempts here.

Traveling to Haiti: We found this video to be a good primer for arriving in Port-au-Prince. Our experience looked just like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6J2vAg7mbc

A few random tips about preparing for the journey:

1. Pack a “life-raft.” We had a carry-on bag that included essential items so that if our checked baggage didn’t arrive, we could survive for a few days. In it, we packed things like medication, diapers, a change of clothes or two for each family member, and some key toiletries.

2. Haiti uses its own currency, but we used credit cards and American dollars. Be sure to call your credit card company and let them know of your travel plans so they don’t shut off your card.

3. We stayed at the Karibe Hotel. Many members of the staff there speak some English, and almost all of them speak French (and Kreyol, of course). The wireless internet connectivity in the central part of the hotel is very good and we were able to have a (free!) Skype video chat with the grandparents. The connection to the wireless in the rooms themselves is less reliable. You can make reservations on-line: http://www.karibehotel.com/karibehotel/index.asp

4. Book Denis, the driver whom Diana recommends, in advance. He is always on time and makes an impressive effort to avoid cavernous pot holes (the roads are in terrible shape). He’s also a good guide should you have questions regarding Haitian social customs and the like. He will require cash at the end of the trip, at which time, he’ll specify the exact amount, but a full day of driving is about $100.

(Denis Frantz is a Haitian citizen who grew up in Boston. He speaks perfect English and understands Americans' cultural needs. You can call him directly to schedule transportation at 011-509-3402-0932)

5. Your room will likely not have a clock in it, probably because the power goes out frequently and a plugged-in clock would always be wrong. The hotel has a generator that turns on almost immediately when an outage occurs. But if you want to know what time it is, bring a battery-powered travel clock or keep your watch/cell phone handy. Haiti is in CST.
Our cell phones through AT&T worked fine, but calls were expensive: $1.99/minute.

The arrival in Haiti and after:

1. When you exit customs, an official will likely check your baggage tag. Be prepared for them to stop you and request it.

(On the plane, you will be given two forms to fill in: a visitors form - usually green - and a white customs form. At you go through the lines where your passport is stamped officials will take the larger section of the green form and give you the smaller portion to keep. DO NOT LOSE THIS PIECE OF PAPER. You will need to present it when you leave Haiti. The white customs form will be collected when you leave the airport with your luggage.)

2. When you leave the airport (you’ll see that green fence in the video), go to the left. Several airport-approved drivers will approach you and offer to take you. If you have an arrangement with Denis, tell them you’re meeting someone and keep walking. Denis will find you once you exit the boundary of that fence.

3. Red-capped men will follow you very closely in the hopes of loading your bags into Denis’s van for a $2.00 bounty. They are persistent, and we found it wasn’t worth arguing with them. As long as just one person is following you, it seems easier to give him a few dollars.

4. Because the roads are in terrible shape, you may want to take something for carsickness if you are prone to it.

5. Within a day or so of your arrival, have Denis take you to a grocery store. You can only use bottled water for drinking, tooth brushing, and the like, and extra 20 oz. bottles (a junior suite gets 2 a day) cost $2 each at the hotel. At the grocery store, you can stock up on large liters of water for the same price, in addition to other essentials. Kid messes, we soon learned, taxed both the hotel room’s tissue box and its tiny trash can, so we purchased paper towels, trash bags, etc., and we were able to do so with a credit card. We left whatever water and supplies we didn’t use at Jamie and Ali’s house when we dropped Alex off.

6. When you pick your child up, be sure you ask about what they are bringing with them and what their schedule at BRESMA is. Ali gave us a stroller (that doubled as a high-chair for feeding), a few bottles, a change of clothes, formula, jarred food, and a pack and play. We arrived with clothes, toys, baby toiletries, a first-aid kid with some basic meds (Tylenol, etc.), and diapers.

7. Use hot tap water and dish soap (bring your own) to wash bottles. Allow them to air dry COMPLETELY before using them again.

8. The floors in the rooms are tiled, and while BRESMA is tiled as well, we didn’t want Alex crawling around on the hotel room floor because, well, it had the things you might expect to be found on a floor with lots of traffic (a small shard of broken glass, for instance). When we got home, we mentioned this to family members, two of whom asked, “why didn’t you just throw the bed spread down and let him crawl on that?” Duh.

Things We Were Really Happy We Brought (Not Necessarily in this Order):

1. A travel kit of laundry soap, a sink stopper, and a drying line for hand-washing clothes
2. Dish soap, hand sanitizer, and extra wet ones for cleaning everything else
3. Toys for Alex
4. A Kreyol dictionary, which we consulted on the sly when necessary
5. 100% DEET. Seriously

Things We Wish We Brought But Didn’t

1. A travel baby-changing mat (we really needed this!)
2. Beach towels for the pool
3. Tupperware for food and snacks (there are several foods like cereal at the Karibe’s breakfast buffet you can grab and have later)
4. Toys for the big kid house. The kids asked us if we brought them anything, and we felt like schmucks that we hadn’t
5. Baby bath towel (the hotel towels are kinda scratchy)
6. Wash clothes (the hotel does not provide these, so you if you are accustomed to using them at home, bring your own)

Diana will most logically suggest that newbies travel with families who have made the trip before, but as in our case, that’s not always possible. Hopefully, these lists will help those who have to go it alone for the first time. Above all, we hope that those of you traveling for the first time feel prepared enough to relax and enjoy the first days with your child, as we did. It’s an incredible journey. Good luck.




- Ross and Jean and baby Alexander

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