I write to you from our friend Wilkens’ backyard, which looks out on what is today an unusually calm sea where a dozen fishermen float in precarious dugout canoes, casting improbably large handmade nets that, I would guess, probably retrieve more trash than fish. An unknown fisherman ran up to the house in his squishy, falling apart rain boots asking for water, and received a tall glass of cold, clean dlo, a rarity, with no questions asked.
We were told to be here at seven this morning, and after stopping to water the corn we planted two days ago, we arrived at 7:30, still early by Haitian standards. Wilkens and Gouel brought dining room chairs that previously occupied a First Tennessee bank and a makeshift table out to where I am sitting and we had fresh locally baked bread (pen), bananas (fig) and Haitian style coffee (kafe), which is similar to espresso and so loaded with raw sugar that it is more like a syrup than a drink. It’s all so delicious.
We have just over a week remaining of our stay in Haiti, and part of me feels that I’ve been here for months while another part feels that I arrived just yesterday at that hot, crowded airport in Port au Prince. The timelessness that exists in the people and places here can be almost unsettling sometimes. With our foundation projects underway, I’ve been spending a good deal of time at the school (by which I mean about an hour a day) and Matt has been working on his gardening project next door.
What we’ve learned the most from these assignments has been, I think, flexibility. I came here under the impression that I would be meeting with two teachers to work on their conversational English skills a couple of times a week, very casually and sans Kreyol. I’ve ended up teaching English to a class of 15 Creole-speaking students two days a week, and teaching writing skills to a group of six eager teachers for another two days. You just have to go with it.
Similarly, Matt is something of a project manager for a garden on a rocky plot of land near the school. He was supposed to have twenty tireless young volunteer students to help him remove the rocks, till the clay-filled soil and plant seeds. None came. After long days of slow strenuous work, a gaggle of goofy, excitable boys wandered into the garden and started working, evidently having nothing better to do. After that the garden was finished in two days, aside from lugging a five-gallon bucket to it each morning to water what will hopefully soon be a whole lot of corn. Again, you just have to go with it.
Other than our surprise-filled endeavors for the foundation, it’s been business as usual for Matt and me. We wander the town with Gouel, who shows us down crumbling backstreets and through acres of farmland and into hidden little neighborhoods near the mountains. The villagers are accustomed to us for the most part, many know our names, and we are hardly ever called blanc anymore (except for a group of little kids at one particular house who never ever tire of enthusiastically reminding us of the color of our skin each time we pass). We are regulars at the little drink stop near our house, where all the chairs are broken and the tables are wobbly and if you don’t return your bottles the next day you don’t get your change. We almost understand the money. We swim in the ocean and read our Haitian history books and eat lots of rice and try to speak Creole and lounge on the porch and slurp tropical fruits. We play soccer and know the routes around the perpetual puddles in the road and wash our clothes in buckets and eat coconuts and ride on the backs of motos and sleep in hammocks and watch TV in French. And we sweat. A lot. Mostly, we try to live as authentically as possible while here.
We’ve heard talk of Compound People. Compound People are the missionaries or other aid workers who come to Haiti (or wherever else, I suppose) with organizations that provide “safe” lodging quarters that are set apart from what I think of as real village life. These places are gated and filled with Americans. There is one missionary group presence here called Life Teen, who live in one of these compounds a couple of miles out of town and travel around locked inside a riot truck on their way to pray with the needy people of nearby towns. We’ve seen the Life Teens at the church, but nowhere else. I don’t mean to spout any negativity. But, exactly what kind of experience is this? What does one learn about a culture or a people by watching them from afar and not mingling with them except to try to bring them the faith that they already have? Can you know Haiti by seeing it blur by from inside a caged vehicle? I wonder often how these peoples’ thoughts on life here might differ from my own. I wonder how our understandings range based on our very different circumstances in Haiti.
Yesterday I needed to exchange some dollars for Haitian goud and Gouel agreed to walk into town with me to make sure I got a fair deal. We hopped on a moto with another of his friends to make the trip quickly, me in the middle clutching Gouel’s knees, and sped off. As I traveled down the dusty road on this rickety motorcycle, dodging goats and dogs and potholes, I wondered, what would the Life Teens have thought if they’d happened to pass by and seen me, little, lone and blanc, sandwiched between two skinny Haitian guys and with nothing separating me from Haiti?