Location: marengo, il, United States

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A Small Piece of Haiti

While I lack in formal education, I do believe that I have a distinct advantage over many of my fellow American brothers and sisters. For a short period of my life, I had good fortune to live in far-away lands beyond the borders of the continental United States of America. That is to say, I spent fourteen months in the Far East on a tour of duty with the U.S. Marines, and after that, several hours down in Old Mexico while stationed in California. While neither experience would produce framed documents worthy of display, both did offer an education not found in any textbooks on the planet. And then there is Haiti.

Now even though my encounters with the first two parts of the world mentioned occurred many years ago, I learned things in both places that should shortly tie in to this piece. But Haiti lays fresh and warm on my mind still, so as the climate where I presently sit has turned an offensive attitude toward my poor defenseless feet, I want nothing better now than to swoop us up in my keyboard arms and haul you and this journalist down there for a visit.

You aren’t required the hassle of getting a passport for this jaunt, and undoubtedly we shall both return unshot by either political insurgents or malaria-infected mosquitoes. You won’t need sunglasses to visit this sun-drenched Caribbean island, nor will you require lots of naps during our short stay.

Well, hopefully I say that concerning the naps. But if you doze on me, I may steal your watch, so be warned.

Haiti is located at approximately four o’clock on the map, if you will think of Cuba as the clock. The island is slightly smaller than Cuba. About one-third of the western side goes by the name of Haiti; the eastern two-thirds belongs to the Dominican Republic. The climate stays at a pretty even 85f. The terrain where I take you now is fairly rugged. Roads are almost nonexistent.

I mentioned passports. I had to show mine twice back in the summer of 2000; once upon arrival and again when leaving. Those two events caused some well-deserved apprehensions among my fellow travelers at the time, including myself , so feel lucky to go along with me now.

There are three things that stick out in my mind about Haiti and its peoples. The first one is roads. Oh, but I just said roads are “almost nonexistent”. My group did travel by bus on a road. It took us from the airport in the capitol city of Port Au Prince to an out-lying compound about one hundred miles to the west. That short distance we covered in less than nine hours. You would be amazed at how time flew during this ride, and had you been there, you would be even more amazed to find that you survived the trip.

That ride dashed many preconceived ideas I held upon arrival. I pictured a journey upon a romantically rough road that wound its way through thick lush vegetation. I imagined passing by friendly natives that traveled on foot, fresh fruit spilling from hand-woven baskets balanced atop heads, flashing brilliant white smiles from black faces, waving happily to us all as we bumped by, and us, the friendly Americans, kindly waving back or snapping pictures.

Actually, we saw all of that. Every bit, that is, except for the lush jungle growth I expected, and all that fruit contained in darling little cornucopias.

To say that the roads were rough misleads a body terribly. The jostling and teeth-shattering ordeal in fact turned out to be the entire groups favorite ride this side of Great America, after we returned to the States. And the only unfortunate reason, we later determined, that Great America won’t produce this ride in my land is because of lawsuit hazards.

During the eight-hour ride no one complained, however. That would not have been prudent. Not only were we the guests in this country, but our gracious host that had invited us along was himself kept too busy to speak by grasping onto whatever part of the bus he happened to land in next from moment to moment. Trying to keep yourself from being flung out an opened window simply causes a simpler man to reflect on his life and choose his words very carefully. The wiser ones save their strength, for in Haiti there is a saying of profound truth: Beyond the mountains are more mountains.

The second strong impression came from the Haitian people. After we arrived at the compound we were introduced to a man that would drive us more places. The group almost came to blows trying to be the first in the back of this smiling man’s pickup truck, but we managed to restrain ourselves -- again, due to the host being present, plus our intentions of at least pretending to be civilized. I can’t remember if we drew lots for this event, or if there were firearms involved. In any case, we quickly discovered that out current driver had learned his skills from our previous bus driver, and even though he had not completed the full course, he must have been a star pupil. His only flaw that I noticed was that he missed many of the potholes and gullies and ravines and narrow canyons that are a part of Haitian roads…Oh, wait…this section is about the Haitian people, not the roads.

Where was I? Oh, yes, of course! Hold on to something, for I am getting there. I have a point. I indeed have a point.

Because of this improperly trained driver and his major fault of driving carefully, we did manage to periodically focus on other things besides securing handholds and teeth. One was the walking Haitians.

A sharper-eyed gent among us noticed this particular response to our white-man-waving-at-the-native action. If we waved to a pedestrian by casually describing an arc in the air with five fingers fully extended, the native waved back at us in kind, accompanied by a huge grin or most-fetching smile. If one fluttered their fingers in their direction, as some of our distaff members might, the flutters got sent back, and again in a very positive way. A four-finger wave drew the same number of fingers returned, as did a three and even the peace symbol-two.

And the smiles. Oh, these people lead a grim life, yet even as most walk with their eyes fixed on the ground where they tread, when a person waves it is like Christmas, and to the Haitians, gifts are meant to be exchanged freely.

Then Mr. Smarty pants, the one standing up behind the cab of the truck, had to try one more thing; he held up his right hand and offered the next complete stranger he spied the famous Vulcan greeting. That poor man stopped dead in his tracks at this odd signal, and as we passed on by, he turned to glare at us all. We continued on, leaving him standing on the side of the road, mystified and thoroughly perplexed at the truck-load of whites he watched disappear through a cloud of choking Haitian dust.

My third reminiscence requires me to recount the dog. Our group got dressed as fancy as we could and went to church on a Sunday morning. As honored guests, we sat on a stage behind the pulpit and the preacher. Every pew was full.

The front row contained children. The children ranged from toddlers to teens, and they all had a peculiar thing in common that became most-obvious from where we sat. Twenty two children sat perfectly still during the sermon, and they each listened to every word said. This I saw evidenced by twenty-two pairs of eyes that never once faltered or looked away from the pastor’s face as he spoke. However astonishing that might sound to us familiar with our own children and their behavior in our American churches, what happened next overshadows it.

I looked up the aisle to a set of opened front doors, and there I saw an average-sized short-haired dog. He paused at the doorway, sniffed the June air, and then he walked inside the church, sniffing the floor. I could sense that several of my teammates saw the animal as well. I watched this tan hound work his way down the aisle toward the stage. At the same time I scanned the crowd to see what would happen next. Would some elder get up to chase the dog away?

But so far, no one had noticed. The dog kept his nose to the floor, sweeping his head side to side as he advanced slowly, taking his sweet time and not missing a spot. And still all eyes in the church stayed on pastor.

The dog came within two rows of the children, and I felt the twitter on-stage from our group. The dog ambled past the kids, and their eyes stayed on pastor. The dog stopped and looked up, and then headed to his right and left by an open side door, and yet not a one of those boys or girls gave him notice. As the mutt’s tail vanished out of sight, I had to sit there and wonder, did I just imagine that event, or did that really happen? And if so, then why did no one at least laugh?

But I see it’s time to head back now. We can ponder this and other mysteries on the way, as I promise the ride will feel as smooth as silk.


Post a Comment

<< Home