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Whatever needs to be done

May 5, 2011

Whatever needs to be done.  I’m quickly learning the breadth of my offhand statement.

Tuesday morning Leslie explained Clean Water’s accounting system and I did the data entry for the month end accounts.  Chris had me repair the office filing cabinet as it was falling apart.  Leslie also encouraged me to come up with some ideas for hurricane shutters for the second storey of my house.  Currently the upper windows are covered over with plastic, which makes them useless for much-needed ventilation.  She also had me begin compiling a shopping list to equip my house and stock my larder, informing me that our shopping trip would also serve as my initiation into Haitian driving.  In the process of my work I got around to trying to match my keys to locks, but inevitably for every lock I needed to open I had no key.

Wednesday and Thursday I loosely oversaw trenching and laying pipe for a waterline to hook up to the public water system that is being installed in the neighbourhood.  This is pick and shovel work with only the vaguest of plans.  My lack of language skills is a huge impediment to having effective input.  Thursday was a little better as one of our workers and I put a lot of effort into understanding one another with considerable success.

My little crew was laboring alongside a much larger work party that is constructing a canal along Clean Water’s property.  I was amazed that these workers laid about 100 feet of rock and mortar wall Wednesday.  The walls are hand-laid stone with parging.  No forms are used; only a string-line is used as a guide.  The quality of the construction is excellent and as I observed the easy fluidity with which the masons went about their work it was obvious that they are very skilled.  It is interesting however that this canal will empty into an existing one that is considerably narrower.  Perhaps they will widen it.  Or perhaps not.  This is Haiti after all.

In most things I do here I find myself having to resort to what Haitians refer to as degaje (pronounced day-gaj-ay), meaning making do or getting by.  I set about a task and immediately discover that I have neither the tools nor the materials I would customarily use.  Most projects here it seems are accomplished utilizing duct tape, baling wire and whatever else one can scrounge.  Fortunately I am a graduate of Red Green’s School of Construction and Repair.   Another Haitian principle I am being urged to learn is that one accomplishes more by apologizing after the fact than by first asking permission.

I also became the resident butcher, killing and cleaning a chicken for Wednesday’s supper.  No one else has a farm background with a history of killing things. The swing of the machete raised a cheer from our workers.  Chris tells me that this will considerably raise my esteem with them.  Go figure.  It seems to have had a similar effect on Chris; he is already planning to raise things for me to kill.

A local missionary from Saint Marc and her sister joined us to enjoy the chicken at supper.  Leslie did a wonderful job of roasting the bird; it was delicious in a way that only non-commercially raised chicken can be.  She also prepared a number of mouth-watering side dishes to accompany it.  During supper it was noted that all at the table had something in common:  we all have lived in BC at some time.

I love Haitian food – lots of spices, Scotch bonnets and lime juice.  I find the incorporation of fruit into main dishes intriguing.  Locally produced vegetables are available here year round.  Fruit seasons fluctuate, but the market always has a wide variety of inexpensive in-season selections.  Rice is a Haitian staple.  Artibonite rice is more expensive than foreign imports, but it is superior in both quality and flavour.  Pork, chicken, goat, beef and seafood can all be found at incredibly low prices by Canadian standards.  A 40-pound box of American chicken can be had for $27 in Saint Marc.  Fish is all one low price regardless of species.

Those close to me know that I love to cook and relish experimenting with new things.  Accordingly I am looking forward with great anticipation to learning to prepare Haitian cuisine. I downloaded a number of recipes from the Internet, giving preference to the more provincial dishes that use indigenous ingredients, and added those ingredients to my shopping list.  Leslie tells me that Yonese is an exceptional cook, delights in people taking an interest in her cooking, and is more than willing to share her culinary secrets.   Consequently I will be asking her to show me how she prepares some of the traditional Haitian dishes.  Her advice may come in handy, as I gather from mealtime conversations that I will be doing the lion’s share of the food preparation when Leslie is away; cooking is not Chris’ forte.

The weather has been very hot.  I find I have to change my shirt during the day to maintain some semblance of comfort.  Socks are not usually part of my wardrobe.  The seasonal rains have arrived but in a very parsimonious way.  On Tuesday they wafted in on a cooling breeze but aside from some gentle thunder the sooty clouds produced little.  There have been brief encores from time to time but not even enough rain to settle the dust.

I have been trying to attend to some personal tasks, in particular organizing my home.  Either there is too little storage or I still have too much stuff.  Ultimately I believe the latter is true.  I went to Saint Marc on Thursday with Leslie to buy groceries and purchase a few items for my kitchen including storage containers to keep the rats out of my food.  The primary value of the trip for me was learning what is available and where to find it.  Some of the items I wanted were not at hand in Saint Marc at this time; Leslie tells me I just have to watch and when something I want becomes available, I should grab it or even several as insurance against future scarcity.  Some items one has to make a trip to Port to find.  Others are just much cheaper there.

Food was another issue.  Some foodstuffs are expensive, others ridiculously cheap.  I bought a bundle of cinnamon sticks that I couldn’t close my hand around for 65 goudes ($1.63).  Ten boxes of matches cost me 12 goudes (30¢).   A liter of vinegar, however, was 15 Haitian dollars ($1.87) and a can of mushrooms I could buy for a dollar in Canada was 85 goudes ($2.13).   Service in the stores is wonderful.  Everyone is very friendly and attentive and after packing up your purchases the staff carry them out to your vehicle.

Yonese did the marketing so I don’t know what vegetables, milk and other market items cost.  I do know they are cheap.  Leslie warned me to clearly specify quantities; otherwise Yonese tends to purchase large amounts.  Bulk items such as rice, dried beans, cornmeal and the like are measured in ti mezi (small measure), using a one-pound coffee tin and gros mezi (large measure), using a five-pound coffee tin.  Not specifying will result in getting gros mezi or a plastic shopping bag filled with tomatoes.

Leslie purchased a Nokia cellphone for me for 1000 goudes ($25).  International airtime is 12.5¢/minute.  One of our workers has a store and we purchase airtime from him.  Leslie had local airtime put on my phone for mission business and I will purchase my personal time tomorrow.

I drove home from Saint Marc.  Traffic was light and it was not much different from driving in Canada.  The main difference is one cannot trust that other drivers and pedestrians will do the expected.  A left turn signal may actually mean the driver ahead of you is about to turn left.  On the other hand it may mean he wants you to pass.  If one assumes the latter and is wrong a collision is highly likely.   And then there are the animals.  Most roam free here.

After work the Rollings and I went to Club Indigo.  This was formerly Haiti’s Club Med before the Americans pulled out.  On the way we saw another change, one of many lately.  A crew was painting centerlines on the road near our home.  After strolling the beautiful grounds we stopped to feed the turtles and then enjoyed a cold drink in the airy coolness of the club’s outdoor lounge.  Olivia informed Leslie that she would be very happy if Mommy got her ice cream.

Back in my house after supper I spent some time trying to navigate the sometimes confounding and confounded uncharted waters of my newly acquired MacBook.  I am currently fighting to overcome its refusal to empty the trash.  Apparently this is an issue with Apples.  None of the on-line suggestions I tried worked, but there are many others I have yet to attempt.

I really need to be spending more time working on my Creole.  I do some every day, struggling to make myself understood to our workers and to understand them.  Each night I go over phrases that would have been helpful earlier in the day.  My recipe searches have led to a broadening of my food vocabulary. And I try to remember the words Leslie points out to me.  Chris wants me to spend time just sitting and talking to our guards.  I understand what he wants me to accomplish and how necessary it is, but it makes me feel I am not contributing adequately.  Living on this paradisiacal island seems more like a vacation than work already without sitting with my feet up shooting the breeze.

During my brief  time back in Haiti it has become increasingly obvious that God has indeed prepared me for this calling in countless ways.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Geri permalink
    May 6, 2011 4:34 am

    It will all come together as you work on making Haiti your home. Have fun with this Barry and be sure to enjoy each new adventure. I have to laugh at you killing the chicken. (I also have a strong farm background)

  2. Jerry Rolling permalink
    May 9, 2011 8:36 am


    You write delightfully and I look forward to following your Haitian adventure.

    Blogs like yours and Leslie’s help those of us immersed in the North American culture appreciate the joy and challenges of your mission.

    My best wishes and I look forward to meeting you.

    Jerry Rolling

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