Go with it

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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?

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Market Day

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Today is one of the two weekly market days in Petite Riviere. In larger cities, market can happen every day of the week, but here there is only market on Wednesday and Saturday. For the average person, this means having the forethought to know exactly what you need on a specific day and remembering to buy everything you will need until the next market. There is no “running to the store” when you are making picklese (a spicy slaw that is a Haitian staple) and realize you forgot the carrots, because unless you know the person who sells the carrots and where they live and they are willing to let you come to their home on their day off, there will be no carrots.

On market day, vendors (usually women) flock to the already busy streets downtown to sell whatever it is that they baked, grew, weaved, raised or bought from somewhere else. Unless the vendor happens to have a house in this part of town, she will fashion an awning of some sort—perhaps a real umbrella, perhaps an old sheet—to hide from the sun that is already scorching at 9 a.m. The display cases are buckets, baskets, blankets and burlap sacks, with an occasional table or upended barrel, depending on how far the vendor had to walk with their merchandise to get there.

The market is absolute chaos. People mill in the street, carrying live chickens or enormous bags of charcoal while cars and motorcycles impatiently honk their horns so that they may squeeze through the crowds. Negotiating is necessary to not get ripped off. Like anyone, Haitians want to make money, so any person who will pay an exaggerated price is fair game. There are no cash registers or lockboxes. Instead there is a tattered purse that the seller wears around her neck into which she stuffs wadded up cash, and from which she will sometimes, but not often, reluctantly make change for larger bills.

The market in Miragoane, a much larger town nearby, is a totally different story. It is still chaotic, but the underlying organization is more pronounced. There, the market happens daily under a big pavilion. The tables are built right in, and I assume that vendors occupy the same spots every day (though I don’t know exactly how that works) and any sellers who can’t fit in the pavilion overflow into the streets outside. In this market, the aisles are narrow, everything is swarming with flies and you can buy everything from Ramen noodles to voodoo supplies. At the back there is a meat section, unrefrigerated and gruesome and a place that I got out of as quickly as I could, but not before noticing that it is common practice to display the severed head of the beast you are selling (to prove that it’s fresh?). I prefer the vegetable aisle.

Haitian currency is the goud, of which there are five in a Haitian dollar, and there are ten Haitian dollars in an American dollar. The Haitian dollar doesn’t actually exist; to my understanding it is a simplifying concept, so that one coke can be said to cost five Haitian dollars rather than 25 gouds (which comes down to about 50 cents in American money). It’s all very confusing.

This morning Matt and I took our first solo trip to the market in the village (previously we’ve had our friend Gouel help us sift through the madness). Beforehand we sat on the porch and looked at our goud, trying to decipher what each bill was worth in dollars and remembering what Gouel told us we should pay for things. As a white person in Haiti, I expect to be taken advantage of every now and then. I’m okay with it. But we still want to do our best to not be seen as walking dollar signs or as what are perceived as perpetually confused Americans in Haiti. So we worked up our nerve, practiced the Creole words we would need and marched into the market to buy our signature bread and bananas, and marched back home, successful and not ripped off at all.

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Never on time and never late

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We’ve been in Haiti for almost two weeks now, and things here are coming to seem a little more normal. I no longer get nervous when a motorcycle blares its horn and passes within inches of me on a busy road, I don’t mind when (often naked) children in the street yell “blanc!” as I walk by, and I have pretty much mastered the art of the Bucket Bath (or, as you may have guessed, taking a bath with water from a bucket). I love sleeping outside every night because it’s just too hot indoors, I love that goats and cows and chickens roam the town and the soccer fields, and most of the time I don’t even mind the heat. All of these things and many more I have gotten used to, but the culture here is so totally unlike anywhere else that most aspects of it still absolutely baffle me.

For one, Haiti seems to run on a schedule independent of the rest of the world. “Haitian Time” is something Matt and I joke about often, and anyone who’s spent much time in the Caribbean might understand what I mean. It’s not uncommon to arrive at church on time (at 6 a.m, I might add) and wait over an hour for it to start. The same goes with school events, meetings, plans with friends, and so on. Of course, people are late everywhere in the world, but the difference here is that no one minds in the least. Time spent waiting on something to happen is not at all considered time wasted, and no one ever seems to get bored. I see people sit, completely content, for hours with no source of entertainment or person to talk to, and for a while I just couldn’t understand how someone could be okay with doing nothing for so long. So I tried it out, this Haitian way of just being, and it turns out to be pretty great. Here I usually spend a good portion of my day just hanging out on the porch, perfectly happy in not doing much of anything except trying to figure out what it is that’s so great about doing nothing in Haiti. Maybe it’s being able to hear the waves on the beach or feel the breeze coming off the ocean, or maybe it’s just knowing that I don’t have to be in a hurry to get anywhere, but sitting still on this island is surprisingly satisfying.

Because so much time is spent doing very little, the days here pass incredibly slowly. On a normal day at school in the US, I am up early and doing a million things all day long so that by nighttime I am absolutely wiped out and wondering where the heck all my time went. I’m sure you can relate. A day in Haiti is effectively the opposite. I am still up early and doing something, but by noon I have usually spent a couple of hours on the porch and taken a nap and tried to make plans that have fallen through, and by night I am thinking, “Well, today I met with teachers at school for an hour and did my laundry. Success.” I think this different way of looking at time comes from the simple fact that doing anything in Haiti is so much harder and more time consuming than doing anything in the US. Getting water for most people requires carrying several jugs down the street and back, or doing laundry means dragging out buckets and soap and water and hanging things out and taking them in, going anywhere means walking or hiring a moto to take you, and don’t even get me started on going to the market and cooking. Doing just one or two of these things in a day is a pretty big accomplishment. Life moves slowly here, and time is still valued, just in a very different way.

One thing I forgot to mention: Haiti is breathtakingly beautiful. The village of Petite Riviere is ushered toward the sea by beautiful rolling green mountains that are entirely too tall to logically be so near the coast. We had quite an adventure yesterday when we paid two motorcycle drivers $20 to take four of us up into these mountains (three people to one bike is pretty standard) on a steep road made mostly of loose gravel and dirt. We had to continually get off and walk when the motorcycles couldn’t make it up a section of road, so we didn’t actually hike the mountain, but we hiked the steepest parts and that has to count for something, right? Naturally we lost track of time there and our Haitian friend Gouel missed his afternoon classes. We saw enormous gardens of vegetables to be sold at the market, children on painfully long walks home from school, women with bags of charcoal on their heads on their way into town miles below, and unbelievable views of the mountains rolling into the sea.

Other than the mountains, our excursions have included a very stressful trip to the busy town next door called Miragoane, a visit to the local agronomist, a couple of play days drinking beer and playing soccer on the black sand beaches, seven o’clock breakfasts of bread and Haitian coffee (which is like espresso loaded with sugar), long hours at mass services conducted completely in French, and evenings at little bars and restaurants where there are no lights or air conditioning and dancing kompa (an intimate slow dance) is always encouraged.

This evening Matt will compete in a soccer game in town, on a sloped, rocky field where many play barefoot and everyone plays bare-shinned, and do his best to prove that white guys can kick.

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A Hot First Few

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Four days ago, we arrived at a hot airport, crowded with mission teams and nervous excitement, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. We were greeted there by our host, Michena, and a truck that bounced and bumbled (also swerved, stopped, honked, sped, dodged, and drove mostly on the wrong side of the road) out of the busy city and several hours down the coast to a village called Petite Riviere de Nippes.

Let me be totally straightforward: I haven’t adjusted yet. I’ve been putting off writing this post because I have no idea what to say. I haven’t yet wrapped my mind around this village, these people, and the lifestyle that is so immensely different than anything I’ve known—the culture shock I’m experiencing is so far beyond anything I imagined. Perhaps I should have expected this, this window of utter disbelief at being here and jaw-on-the-floor confusion. But I didn’t, and so I am stunned. Thus, I am writing this with no direction or motive, no insightful thoughts or words of wisdom. So rather than trying to pen a thoughtful essay about how people are people no matter the culture, or how it is incredible that people can be so happy with so little (though these are true), I will simply write what I know.

The village seems small, but I am told it is home to almost 30,000 people—however with no definite city limits, this is hard to know for sure. The main road is half paved and half dirt, with colorful houses and storefronts lining the street. Between the road and the buildings is an exposed drainage ditch which residents step over without thought, and which I am absolutely terrified of falling into. Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days, when anyone who has anything to sell sets up beneath a Digicel umbrella (Digicel is one of two major phone companies in Haiti) and waits in the busy street for the buyers who have no choice but to buy there because there is no other place to buy. For sale is everything from onions and garlic to rice and couscous to eggplants and fruits I’ve never seen in my life, as well as baskets and pots and clothes and meat and flipflops. It’s like Whole Foods, only hotter and with negotiable prices.

The American Haitian Foundation operates a school here called CESA, that has nearly a thousand students ages three through 18 (this is comparable to a k-12 school in the US). It is three stories tall and pink, totally open air and always buzzing with activity. On Friday there will be a talent show at the school, which I have been asked to be a part of (We have dance practice each evening and I am petrified of how this will play out). Each grade at CESA wears a different color uniform that every student somehow manages to keep spotless and unwrinkled despite a dusty walk or motorcycle ride to and from school.

Motorcycles are the primary form of transportation in the village besides walking, and like a taxi, you can hire one to take you just about anywhere. It is fascinating to see all of the things that it is possible to fit on a single moto– a full-sized door, a live pig, three or four or five people, several trees, and so it goes. This is almost as fascinating as the things people here can carry on their heads—baskets and buckets filled to the brim with various household items, open bins of rice (that’s true confidence), person-sized bags of charcoal, and so it, too, goes.

The house in which we are staying is on six acres of land and right on the beach. It has three bedrooms, its own well, a television, and electricity in the evenings and on the weekends. This is not common in Petite Riviere, as many people do not have power or water or water at all. I sleep in one of these bedrooms under a bug net and with all the windows open in the hope that a cool breeze will find its way to my already heat rash-covered body. Matt sleeps in a netted hammock on the porch with the very same hope. In another room is Michena, her husband and their 6-month old baby. The third room belongs to Michael, a Californian who has been living in Haiti and working for the foundation for 4 years. He will marry a Haitian woman in February and move into the house they are building in the village.

Matt and I have been taken under the wing of a guy named Gouel, a student and friend of the foundation. He often meets us at home and walks into town with us to go to dinner, to the market, or to Wilkens’ house. (Wilkens was “adopted” years ago by Joanne, a member of the foundation, who will be here tomorrow.) Gouel sings and plays drums in the church choir, and takes English classes at another local school. Gouel wants more than anything to be fluent in English. He raises guinea pigs in his backyard, which to my dismay he will cook and serve to us next week, and which I won’t be able to refuse because Haitians’ generosity is innocent and unbound and impossible to dismiss.

I have swirling in my mind a thousand more observations, all of which are still as jumbled and fragmented as the ones I have noted here. Soon I hope to be able to make more sense of life in Haiti, and through my writing to at least semi-adequately describe a place that is overwhelmingly indescribable, and to represent it with a clarity that I haven’t yet achieved.

 

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