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Being in Haiti

Haiti first grabbed at me on a college campus in the fall. Sitting near the back of a crowded Third World Economics class, Haiti wrapped its intrigue around my mind while I listened to a lecture on poverty, voodoo, dictators, gangs, and a tortured history built by international interference and suffered by beautiful people. In 1984, the internet of things did not exist; the images of crowded marketplaces, hazy mountaintops, and beautiful artwork shared by my professors fueled my imagination. In pursuit of an Anthropology degree, I focused all my required writing on Haiti; I wrote about voodoo for Religion and Culture; about the Taino in Vanished Peoples & Lost Civilizations; the Duvaliers in World Economics. The more I learned about Haiti, the more I wanted to know.

Others have told me that once Haiti grabs hold of you, it does not let go.

My interest in Haiti continued after college. I read books like Paradise Lost by Philippe Girard, Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston, and Madame Dread by Kathie Klarreich. Discovering the trove of writings by Dr. Paul Farmer and the beautiful Haitian author Edwidge Danticat was life-changing. Before smartphones and apps, cable news kept me updated; more modern tools like Google Alerts and access to international news outlets made it easy to stay informed. Despite an intense interest in this small island nation, it had not occurred to me to travel there because it seemed implausible. I was able to visit Haiti, from a distance.

Life went on. In my early 40s, after a many-year absence, I attended a church service for the first time. Sitting in a familiar pew, I scanned through the church bulletin, updated with new fonts and arresting visuals. The words “Haiti Mission Informational Meeting today”, stood out. I learned of the church's annual mission trip to Haiti to build orphanages, churches, and schools; trip participants also carried suitcases full of donations and monetary gifts to friends in Haiti. With a few nervous jitters, I attended the meeting, listening intently as the trip was detailed and questions were answered. On my way out the door, I signed up for the mission and committed myself to raise the funds by July.

It wasn’t the hot, noisy, crowded, chaotic airport in Port-au-Prince that made me feel like I’d finally gotten to Haiti. Overwhelmed and thankful to be part of a traveling team, all in bright yellow matching shirts, I huddled close within our group of twelve as our luggage was gathered and a small bribe was made to the airline official. Perhaps I appeared more confident than I felt; our team leader, very experienced in travel to Haiti, designated me the “end person”, responsible for standing at the back of the line to make sure our group stayed together at all times.

Nor was it the long row of children, all boys, standing outside the green metal slotted fence lining the walkway to the airport parking lot. Their dusty, serious faces were pressed through the fence, arms and palms outstretched; they shouted in sharp, urgent tones for the Americans to “gimme dolla”. Some in our group wanted to break the rules and go press a dollar in each little palm. Our team leader decisively told us no, that was not possible. He explained that once those little boys left that fence, the older boys were waiting and would beat them up for the money. So, we kept walking to our waiting bus, heads down, forced to ignore their faces and pleas for dollars.

Nor was it the lurching bus ride through the dusty, daredevil streets of the Haitian capital. I had to grab my messenger bag to stop it from falling out of my lap as the bus ground its way through pothole after pothole. I inhaled the thick, heavy smell of burning charcoal and smoldering garbage that wafted in through the open bus windows. A mixed barrage of aging cars and brightly painted tap-taps, aided by constant car horns, squeezed by our bus on both sides, missing us by inches as they sped past. The staggering, brutal devastation from the recent earthquake was everywhere. Buildings that once stood upright were now huge piles of concrete rubble reducing traffic to one lane; the car with the bravest driver at any given split second gained the right of way. Pedestrians hurried past multi-story homes and businesses that lay flattened, decorative verandas and inviting doorways crushed and twisted. A chunk of cement the size of a small car swung lazily from rebar over a crowded sidewalk as people walked underneath, unconcerned.

Nor was it the two serious-looking Haitian guards at the gated entrance to our hotel, semi-automatic rifles slung over their bony shoulders, eyeing us suspiciously from a distance as we unloaded the bus. Later I found them slouched down in lawn chairs on the porch of the hotel registration office, guns laid casually in their laps. They watched me as I picked my way across the dusty courtyard to the next bungalow. I stopped and shouted at them in French: Bonjour! In an instant they smiled, and invited me to the shade of the awning. Soon I was sitting in front of them, trying out my French for the first time in years. Each day I practiced with them, laughing together as they corrected and encouraged me. On our final day at the hotel, I looked for them to say good-bye; they waved and shouted at the departing bus for “Jhen-ee-fair” to keep practicing her French.

Nor was it that first morning waking up in Haiti, roosters crowing into the silence as the fierce Haitian sun began to rise. Through the hotel window, I watched as a lone child walked past on the hot, dusty road, on her way to fetch water, empty bucket on her head. She was smart, getting an early start before the sun got high and all of Haiti would be enveloped in an unwavering heat. The clanging of heavy pots and pans meant the restaurant cooks were already there, cracking eggs and shooing away the gaunt, white cats that lived in the corners of the restaurant (I later learned the cooks fed the cats in the evening behind the restaurant). I had gotten up early that Sunday so three of us could shower before church; there was no hot water and I finished quickly. Dressed in a long, pale green skirt with a white sleeveless top I stood in the shade of a palm tree, waiting for the green bus.

It was the old man at church. The old man at the sweet, simple Haitian church in a quiet spot of the Port-au-Prince neighborhood. The church with the wide, white stucco entrance, tall, pointed ceiling, open-air windows, and mahogany pews. Where quiet Haitian families filed in for service, little boys in pressed dark slacks, bright white shirts and shiny black shoes; little girls in yellow dresses and freshly braided hair with white ribbons. Our group sat near the rear, and even from the back of the church, the forceful preacher mesmerized with his commanding voice that cut through the morning stillness. As the organ sounded out its first notes, I reached down for a hymnal, but the pew had only three, and they were all taken. I determined to simply listen to the words, sung in beautiful French unison, and leaned forward against the pew. Then I felt at my shoulder the old man who had been sitting behind me. Tall and thin, he had come to stand next to me and was offering to share his hymnal in a hand that shook. I glanced up at him; he wore a crisp white shirt tucked neatly in dark brown Sunday slacks, held up by a cracked belt cinched tight in the last hole. He did not meet my eyes, but rather placed a bony finger on the page, tracing along under the words as he sang. Despite not having practiced French in many years, I took a breath and began to sing. I sang with this man who had invited me to sing; I sang with the others and our voices, rising and falling together, grew to one swelling, harmonious sound that rose beyond the walls of the church. It was at that moment when the room was full of our music, of voices blended, that I knew I had finally made it to Haiti.

When the hymn ended, the old man moved as swiftly and quietly back to his pew as he had come. After the service, I looked for him to thank him for his kindness. I saw many who looked like him, but I never could find him. Most likely, he had already left. Meeting me was perhaps not important to him; he had just come to show me the way.

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