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That’s the Way It Is

June 7, 2011

I lean back in my rattan chair gazing dreamily out to sea.  The view of La Gonave is clearer than it has been since I arrived.  The big island seems much closer than fourteen miles.  Just off shore a salt boat drifts lethargically by, its sails barely filled by the gentle sea breeze.   Heavily laden, it rides low in the water making headway difficult.  At the edge of the patio a hummingbird darts from carmine flower to carmine flower on a shrub I haven’t been able to identify.  It ignores the nearby Frangipani with its wonderfully fragrant yellow-throated pink flowers.  Little lizards chase each other up and down the twisted trunk of the calabash.  I struggle with the melon seeds I am trying to eat.  They are much like sunflower seeds but it is much more difficult to extract the meat.  I haven’t mastered the mouth technique yet.   A tiny hermit crab sidles his way across the table.  The salt boat falls off, heading toward La Gonave, I speculate to seek a fresher wind.  I am right.  The boat comes about much further from shore, its sails filling as it gains the wind.  The last few days have been cooler, the air gentle.  The sun rarely wins the battle with the clouds that have refused to yield for several days now.  They are threatening to burst and the humidity has climbed to near 100%.  Everything feels damp.  I don’t feel like doing much.  The elements often dictate the pace of life here.  In Haiti, that’s the way it is.

Fritzner called on Sunday morning.  The night’s rain at Chatla had left the road up the mountain really greasy.  As we packed Brian and Kelly and their five boys, as well as Chris and myself into the Santa Fe, Chris suggested that maybe we go to the church at Chardin, lower on the mountain, but I thought we should at least try to make it up to our little mountain church.  We slid around a bit but made it up with less difficulty than we have at times when it was dry.  Fritzner and some of the others, waiting at the top of the road, applauded as we pulled up.  The steep winding footpath was quite muddy, but the footing was not too bad.  I found the service more interesting this week.  I had a hymnbook to sing from and I was able to follow the sermon a little bit.  As the elder spoke I was able to put together clusters of Creole words and realized he was using Galatians 5 as his text.  I could then follow along in my Bible, and picking up snippets of the sermon I was able to at least get the gist of it.  The teenage boys who speak to me each week after the service were delighted when they spoke to me in English and I was able to respond a bit more in Creole.  Everyone is enthusiastically delighted when they notice progress in a foreigner’s Creole.  In Haiti, that’s the way it is.

Imagine you are approaching a village the size of Balmoral, Manitoba, or Grinrod, BC, or Vivian, Manitoba.  (I don’t think I have too many readers who won’t be familiar with one of these.)  There is a farmers’ market in progress on the main street and the vendors have spread their produce at the roadsides, spilling out onto the road and reaching back fifty feet where space allows.  Vehicles are parked haphazardly all along both sides of the road leaving only one lane for traffic.  In the middle of that lane a large farm truck, piled high with sacks of rice, has stopped.  It is being unloaded by several workers, men and women, who carry the sacks on their heads or on their shoulders to a market stall.  They are in no hurry.  They pause frequently for conversation with those dragging the sacks to the back of the truck or with others in the market.  As soon as you pull in behind the truck other trucks pull in behind you.  Motorcycles, drivers and riders balancing piles of sacks, baskets of produce and wares, or live pigs, goats and chickens hogtied and slung over their laps, edge their way through the narrow gaps between the vehicles.  People on horseback, on donkeys or on foot jostle their way through wherever they can.   The air is filled with the loud and animated haggling and the blare of vehicle horns.   Unloading the truck takes over an hour.  Until then, you are going nowhere.  When it does finally move, the driver and you have to contend with traffic from the other direction trying to squeeze through the narrow traffic lane.  That was the scene in a tiny village on Monday as we headed out to deliver filters.  As I sat behind the wheel and watched the chaos I could see expressions of frustration, but they were always mixed with acceptance.  In Haiti, that’s the way it is.

As I sit in the Canter waiting for our installation crew to finish, I carry on a halting conversation with a few people who have gathered.  A small man of perhaps forty approaches and asks in heavily accented but very good English if I am American.  “No,” I tell him, “I am Canadian.”  “Are you from Montreal, or perhaps Ottawa?” he asks.  “No, I am from British Columbia.”  “Vancouver?”  “No, several hours away.“ He asks how I like the weather in Haiti.  “Not cold like winter in Canada.”  I am somewhat surprised at his familiarity with my home country; it is unusual here.  He tells me he spent several years in Miami, worked at Winn-Dixie in the dairy department, worked at WalMart, did bookkeeping, worked as a tree pruner.  “Do you speak French,” he asks.  “Only a bit,” I tell him.  “Oh yes,” he replies,  “only in Montreal, in Quebec.  In Vancouver you speak English.”  He tells me he speaks six languages, Creole, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and a little Lebanese.  When the recession hit, he could no longer hold a job in Miami and decided to return to Haiti.  “Things are not good now in America.  In Haiti you may be poor,” he tells me, “but you are free.  In America you are not.  Most of your wages go to paying taxes and bills you can’t avoid.  If you want to own a home you have a huge mortgage.  In Haiti you own your home and even if you have no job and little income you have a place to live.”  He asks where I live and I tell him Pierre Payen.  He knows where it is.  “Do you live there with your wife?”  “No,” I reply, “I am divorced.”  “Are you a Christian?”  “Yes,” I tell him.  “I was brought up a Christian,” he tells me, “not Catholic.  The Bible speaks against divorce.”  “Yes it does, but not everyone obeys all the Bible teaches,”  I respond.  He knows that well he says.  “Do you have children?”  “Yes,” I tell him, “three boys and a girl.”  “That is good,” he says.  “I have one daughter, sixteen.”  He asks if I have a job for him.  I explain that I only work for Clean Water, I do not do the hiring.  He asks if he can give me his number so that I can pass it on to whomever does.  “I can do many things,” he explains.  He could be a translator, he knows bookkeeping, he is familiar with computers.  He will do anything he tells me.  “I just need a job.  That is what Haiti needs—jobs.”  In Haiti, that’s the way it is.

At one of our last stops a man comes up to me, uncomfortably close, and launches into a conversation in Creole.  I try to interrupt him, telling him I do not understand.  He doesn’t even pause.  I tell him I don’t speak Creole well.  He continues.  I catch enough of what he is saying to know he is begging.  I again tell him I don’t speak Creole.  When he won’t relent I try to get away from him, offering to take pictures of some of those in the crowd that inevitably gathers.  He keeps moving into my face.  I continue to ignore him.  I sense he is growing irritated.  Finally he leaves.  He is soon back.  This time he speaks to me in Spanish.  I tell him I don’t understand, that I only speak English.  Again he is irritated.  Others in the crowd tell him that I don’t understand, to leave me alone.  He is undeterred.  Finally I tell him very pointedly in Creole, “I have no money!”  The others laugh and he leaves, fuming.  Those who want money are often persistent.  In Haiti, that’s the way it is.

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