One of the most incredible experiences of my life happened in the summer of 2010 when I flew to Haiti to volunteer with All Hands Volunteers (known at the time as Hands on Disaster Response) to help with the earthquake recovery efforts. There I met so many inspiring people who taught me important life lessons and my memories of them still fill me with joy to this day.
Volunteering in Haiti
For the most part, volunteering with All Hands Volunteers involved shoveling heavy cement rubble into wheelbarrows and dumping it into large piles which we hoped would eventually be cleared away by other more well-resourced NGOs. It was exceedingly hard, physical work, especially under the hot and humid Haitian sun, but all the volunteers knew that their efforts would mean the world to families who had lost their homes in the earthquake. Clearing the rubble off the slabs meant that families would get a sturdy transitional shelter to replace whatever excuse for shelter that they had cobbled together with earthquake debris and garbage after their homes were destroyed. The transitional shelters would also keep them warm and dry through the upcoming hurricane season and would hopefully house them safely until a permanent structure could be built.
People of all ages and walks of life, from retired professors, to intrepid Brits on their gap years, ambitious single moms, budding artists, experienced carpenters and construction workers, non-profit superheroes and recent graduates like myself, all showed up to volunteer with All Hands. And although there were obvious shortages of creature comforts in Haiti and it was challenging to be surrounded by so much devastation, the whole experience had some really fun moments. As it always seems to be with travel, it was the people who made the experience so memorable. I have written before about how wonderful it is to become fast friends with the people we meet on the road, and how important it is to cherish our time with them because it is all too often fleeting.
One such fast friend I met in Haiti was Ulli, a 40-something German with long curly brown hair, a goatee and impressive tan. He spent most of his days in India, but had been in Haiti since shortly after the earthquake. Drawn by an intense desire to do something other than sit idly by watching the devastating images flash across his television screen, he stuffed a few possessions in his backpack and got on the first plane he could to Port-Au-Prince. He smiled broadly as he answered my line of questions about safety in Port-Au-Prince, even describing, to my utter shock, an incredible encounter in the city’s infamous Cité Soleil slum. Having accidentally wandered into the dangerous neighborhood during those last minutes of rapidly diminishing equator sunlight, he was at risk of experiencing some of Cité Soleil’s infamous violence. But rather than being attacked, a large group of orphaned children surrounded him. Speaking no German or English, they sang to him in Creole and took his hand guiding him to a safe place to sleep for the evening. Once there, they cuddled with him on the floor and with that Ulli survived his sojourn in what is considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Now he spent his days volunteering with a few organizations and riding his bike around more peaceful Léogâne which is where our paths crossed. He was not an official All Hands volunteer, but would often be seen hanging around with the volunteers as they wound down in an open air bar after a long day of shovelling rubble. Rarely having money of his own, he was able to charm most people into offering him a drink, present company included. As we sipped on lukewarm Prestige, he described both the serene beauty of this troubled island nation, but also the horrific sights he had seen while exploring. He spoke with love, hopefulness and affection for a country that had too often suffered, but even he could not hide his despair. None of us could. The horror of the earthquake and endemic poverty could shake even the most optimistic of souls.
Ulli had no fixed address and always seemed to appear and reappear as if born out of the dust of a passing truck on a dirt road. Never knowing where he would sleep that night, or where the money for his next meal would come from, he was unmoored in a way that would frighten most people. Despite these challenges, he seemed perfectly happy, so long as he was able to help people.
One night, while bathing at a quiet beach where bio-luminescent plankton sparkled like stars beneath the surface, he tried to convince me to swim 5km out to sea to see a ship wreck and coral reef. He promised there would be even more stars under the sea there too. Nervous about navigating in the open ocean at night, I declined, but he just shrugged his shoulders and took off swimming. I expected not to see him again until he wanted to be seen again, so it both surprised and amazed me when he reappeared at the beach shortly after he tried to get me to swim with him. As he stood dripping and breathless in front of me, he presented a wet mesh bag full of the “treasures” that he had found by the wreck and reef during his swim. I admired his impressive feat and he told me to pick something from his bag of treasures to keep. While people like Ulli may not have a lot of wealth or worldly possessions, they always have something to give.
I fingered through the collection of mostly rocks and sea glass before landing on a small stone that caught my eye. At first blush it was unassuming round grey rock, but was pock-marked with little white craters making it look like it was covered in lace. “I’ll take this one” I declared while Ulli nodded in approval. For whatever reason, I still have that rock to this day. It sits on a small trinket shelf and makes me smile when I pick it up.
During my last night out in Léogâne, Ulli joined us at our favorite post-work hangout and to my delight, even bought me a beer for the road. I thanked him and asked that he pose for a picture with me so I could remember him by it. As the shutter clicked, he planted a big, wet, sweaty kiss on my cheek causing me to wrinkle my nose for the picture. In the years following, he would often post that picture of the two of us on my Facebook wall for my birthday which always made me laugh.
Travel Friends – Always Remembered
We kept in touch loosely as is often the case with travel friends. A few chat sessions here and there, a post on the other’s wall, but I always remembered him fondly and liked to hear what he was up to. The last few years it seemed like he had been travelling a lot and I hoped that one day our paths would cross once again along the road.
Unfortunately, there will be no one day. I learned that Ulli had a heart attack and passed away a few weeks ago. His friends expressed shock and disbelief that his light would just go out so unceremoniously, but to me that seemed like exactly Ulli’s style.
I can’t say that I knew Ulli well, or that I was one of his closest friends and confidantes; rather, he only joined me on my journey for a few brief but powerful moments. Yet I do find myself saddened by the news of his passing. He was someone who seemed to live entirely in the moment and who possessed limitless courage, for better or for worse. His drive to make the world a better place was infectious, and his ability to flounce cultural expectations and carve his own path through life, admirable. I’m sad that we’ll never get our one day reunion, but I know he wouldn’t want any of us to dwell on his passing for too long. He would want us out there living boldly and following our hearts to live the life that feels right, just as he always did.
The friends we meet when travelling may only pass through our lives for a short time, but those brief encounters can have a deep impact. I will always cherish those moments that I had the privilege of spending with Ulli and remember his carefree spirit. But I won’t rue our never to be reunion, I’ll just be glad that we met in the first place and will keep my heart and mind open to the people I meet along the way. That is the Zen way, and that was Ulli’s way.