Swimming in Haiti

I wrote this as I sat in the restaurant in the Kinam Hotel…downtown Petionville.  The heat, lord the heat…my primary occupation was to find a way to escape it.

Submersion

The woman meeting me for lunch today was late.

But the larger faux pas was mine.

I leaned my chair further back from the table

Until it pushed against the railing

At the edge

Of a balcony,

Overlooking a crystal clear

Sparkling

Pool.

And the day smothered me

In heavy blankets of heat,

Just like every day in Haiti.

 

I removed the linen napkin,

Placed deftly onto my lap

By someone who apparently had not noticed

That I had lost interest in lunch.

I just wanted a closer look,

Just a little closer

To the vacant

Glistening

Pool.

How cool it must be in there.

And clean.

And familiar.

It was the familiarity that moved me,

Of course.

So suddenly common

Amidst so much uncommon.

 

Without missing a beat of the siren’s song

Of water lapping on tile,

I slipped out of my sandals

Onto the railing

And leapt into the water below.

So that, when my lunch companion finally joined me,

Late,

My carefully chosen ensemble

Was drenched

And single beads of water slipped over my brow

And into my hairline

Following the line down my neck

And tracing my spine.

 

I shook her hand as she apologized and sat down.

Wishing I had acted on the impulse

Instead of imagining it

As I had

So vividly

That I could taste the chlorine in the sweat

That ran a river

Down my face.

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What You Don’t See

This is a picture I took on a beach in Haiti.

Just out of frame and to my left, is a man trying to sell cheap, plastic souvenirs to tourists. The only non-white people on the beach are the people who are serving drinks or selling things. The beach is attached to a hotel and from the lobby blares loud club music mixed with the sounds of an announcer for a soccer game playing on TV. The tree in front of me is hiding a dock where workers from a small island just off the coast are transported back and forth to their jobs on the mainland. The boats are always full to groaning with day workers who are terrified of the ocean waters.

Words Fail Me

“Are these from Africa?

The woman in the frame store jolted me out of my own little world with that question. I had gone back to Haiti and a little tented art shop near the top of the IDP camp. My hands ran over the framed pictures marveling at how different they looked in frames. In the artist’s tent the pictures on raw canvas are pinned to rope and wood wherever there is space. I had chosen the ones I wanted to buy more than a month before I made the purchase. I finally bought two, one folk art painting of kids playing in the camp, and a larger black and white one, a loose interpretation of Fet Gede (a voodoo celebration I had witnessed). I was wondering if I had made a mistake in framing them after all. Did the frames box in the life of them? Did I like them better frayed around the edges and hung with small wires from rope?

“Pardon?”

“Your pictures. Are they from Africa?”

“Oh. No. They’re from Haiti. I knew the artists.”

“Why were you in Haiti?” (Always the next question.)

But my mind had stopped again on “I knew the artists.” I did know them. They made me a gift of a third painting before I left as a thank you for always bringing people by to see their shop. It seems my mind is always overloaded when the subject of my past three months comes up. Like every conversation opens a tiny hole through which tidal waves of words push to move through.

“I was working with a nonprofit down there for three months.”

“Wow. I have a friend who just got back from Columbia. She said it is awful down there. Truly awful. I imagine Haiti is the same way, with all the earthquakes and hurricanes they have experienced.” And I start to nod my head in agreement. These are such simple quick conversations, I never really want to go into it with people I meet like this. I never feel able to go into it anyway. Besides, she is actually very sweet and is not really looking for deeper information, just being friendly. But then she says the thing that cuts me so deep I have no idea how to respond.

“What is happening down in Haiti is not the work of our Lord; it is the work of the devil for sure. Makes me wonder what is going on down there for them to deserve that.” And, I know she is not really wondering at all. I know she has decided that this nation has brought this upon themselves with their “ungodly” behavior. I have heard this before, unfortunately.

I stumble through some bits of information about slave debt and the monumental task of financing infrastructure under the burden of those conditions. I tell her that the entire world was appalled by their revolt at the time so finding support was impossible. But this rings as hollow in my ears as it must ring in hers.

The truth is closer to a conversation I had with a well-studied international aid worker and friend in Haiti soon after I arrived. He told me there were so many versions of the “truth” in Haiti that there was no sense in placing much stock in any of them, that all we can do is move forward.  But, when I am in back in the car, I cry. My failure to illuminate even a single aspect of Haiti’s worthiness and beauty to this misguided woman is becoming too familiar. And this time the failure comes too close on heels of seeing the faces of friends in the paintings and the memory of sitting on a small hill above the artist’s makeshift gallery watching them paint. I have failed my artist friends and Haiti. I sink into a funk that has become familiar to me ever since I returned home. I just don’t have the words, and that stings.

I met a woman once while working on a documentary shoot above the camp who told me about the days after the earthquake. She told me story after story. She told them to me as if they came unbidden. Like she had to tell them over and over. As if the telling would bring some sense to the world. As I drove home I remembered her story of the singing.

The dust had not even settled in Port au Prince. Aftershocks and trembles were still so common that people refused to sleep inside the buildings, afraid they too would become trapped or worse. Wails punctuated the shouting of people who were finding bodies. Unstable buildings still crashed along every street and in every neighborhood, keeping people wary of even the slightest crack around them. And there was weeping…always weeping. As she became accustomed to those noises, she began to hear singing. She followed the sound, looking for the source of the music. Eventually, she realized that it surrounded her. The people were singing. They were singing hymns. Pouring love, faith and prayers into valleys and hills surrounding Port au Prince. Thousands of voices, singing together. That moment gave her peace and hope. These people were not overcome. They still loved. They still believed. They still had faith.

Maybe I should have told her that story, instead of bringing up slave debts and old policies from governments long ago. That story does not contain the whole truth of Haiti, not by a long shot, but I have yet to find anything that comes as close as one simple story at a time.

Was I Ever Really There?

I didn’t want a going away party when I left Haiti. I got sick the day before I left and used that as an excuse to avoid the fuss-making over my leaving. I ended up going out for a drink with some friends and then catching the tail end of a larger party that was apparently also meant to be a farewell to me.

The next day I crammed my morning so full that my office goodbye was nothing more than a fly by of waving arms, air kisses and brief hugs. I am not even entirely sure that everyone there knew I was actually flying home that day and not returning.

And I did this all as if I were the only one to consider.

I did not give the friends I had made there a chance to really look me in the eye and tell me goodbye. I did not let it settle in to the people I worked with that I would no longer be a part of their work lives. I did not give anyone a real chance to have closure with me. It felt clean and tidy at the time. Today it feels selfish.

Working on a three-month assignment in a country as intense as Haiti is really such a strange beast, after all. It is such a short time, as it turns out. Enough time to learn that what you had originally thought you would do was not doable after all. Enough time to determine the best path forward, which is always a looser, more organic-to-the-culture approach. But not enough time to get anything like that going. Not enough time to see anything more than the flickering of success somewhere far on the horizon. Not enough time to have something to hold in your hands to show what your time meant there.

But the hardest thing about three months in that kind of situation is about relationships. I lived in close quarters with some great people there. Every day we would either be in each other’s rooms or we’d have only our tarped walls separating us, which encouraged constant conversation. I had many more friends to whom I sent demanding emails all the time for them to “Get on Skype” so we could chat…or “don’t even think about going somewhere without me this weekend.” I knew more about the habits and needs of everyone there than I know about any of my very close friends here. And every day, we’d share the frustrations of the day, the weirdness everything going on around us and whine about stuff that would not be worth whining about back home, but which gave us something safe to bitch about in a place where none of us really felt we had the right.

I have been home now for a month and a half, and I have been completely disappeared from that place in a way you can only understand if you have been there to see it happen. No one emails me. No one asks me questions or looks for counsel on what I know. Short term volunteers must flow through there now who have never and will never hear of me. The international staff that was there when I was closed the gap around the void I left, before I even got back home. To a newcomer there, I never was.

And I know this with certainty, because I was part of that gap closing in the past. My hands too drew the curtains behind those departing for home. It becomes so routine that the day someone has left, it is as if they were never there. There are occasional mentions in the context of conversations, but nothing much more than that. I never called or wrote either. And I understood it then every bit as much as I understand it now, which is to say…not at all.

Except to say that, in an environment like that, it is hard to become attached and lose people all the time. And it is not just the mushy and emotionally expressive ones who suffer those losses. Even the solid ones who do not show it feel the chipping away until they cloister themselves away to avoid as much of the attachment as possible.

The strange and unfamiliar sadness I feel over this is so complex that it is difficult to explain and I don’t process emotional things as clearly as I used to before Haiti. But, if I were to try, it might look like peering through a foggy train window toward a spot on the horizon that you can’t quite see, but know is there all the same.

xo,

Kimberley

Haiti, A Wide Road and Two Boys

At the top of the hill above the camp is the MASH unit style tent hospital. A wide dirt road runs in front of it, scored by the hundreds of vehicles that have passed this way over the two years since the earthquake bringing medical supplies, workers, volunteers and the sick and injured. There is not any other traffic on this road as it dead ends shortly after the hospital at what used to be the helicopter landing pad.

I met Elius and Thierry on this road (I have changed their names). We all do eventually, the volunteers. These boys are as familiar on that road as the doctors and nurses. They live in the tent city below the hospital and spend much of their free time hanging around that makeshift clinic above the camp.

Neither speaks fluent English, or much english at all really, yet both are extraordinarily comfortable around strangers and strike up conversations with more ease than seems possible given their life. It is clear that NGO workers have been a fixture in their life.

Elius appears to be the ring leader…maybe of everything. He pursues language with a thirst that I have never seen in a child his age. He speaks bits of five languages…the languages of the UN soldiers permanently stationed in the camp where he lives. When I first met him a woman in our group told him she was from Pakistan. His first question to her, in English – “What is the language in Pakistan?” and then “Do you have an Urdu dictionary you can give me?” He is as proud of his collection of foreign language books and dictionaries as he is of his new soccer ball, which he protects to the point of obsession. He is chatty and curious. I love the fact that every single interaction with him leaves me exhausted from the work I do answering questions.

“What are you writing now?

“Does your son eat plantains?”

“Do you have a car where you live?”

He always grabs my arm, conspiratorially, and leans in close as he asks me things. He is unlocking the secrets of the world. Every question brings him closer in a way I do not understand.

Thierry is quieter. His angelic face adds to the impression that he is some kind of spiritual puzzle to figure out. And, perhaps he is. But he is also mischievous and fearless…he boldly asks me for money to purchase books for school and academic contests. And I always give it to him. Always. I know I am not supposed to, but when he asks, I am a mom and he is a kid who clearly needs a new pair of shoes. Badly. I smile broadly the next day when he shows me his beautiful new Croc knock offs.

Thierry is completely captivated by my camera. He and I fell into a routine…he lets me take pictures of him and then I hand him my camera for him to take pictures himself. I always sit, far longer than I had intended, on benches made of solid sandbags stacked under a tarp, and I watch him and the boys that follow him around to see what he is doing with this giant monster of a camera. While he wanders around with it snapping mostly useless shots of motion blurred dogs and cars, I rest. And this is really the deal we have struck, even if it is only me who is aware of it. There is nothing I can do here at the camp without my camera and there are times when I need to just feel the body of the group here without a camera between us.

Learning that moving the camera creates a blur...

Over time, he improves and toward the end of my three months, I can usually count on three or four decent photos from the hundreds he shoots. He gets some interesting angles as he sits with friends and when I give him a task, like moving up through the crowds at church and get pictures of the little girls in the choir, he boldly moves in and gets those shots and more. I am able to sit with him, look through the shots and tell him the story I see in what he has taken. He beams.

Theirry's photo of the church

It’s funny how little I anticipated their impact on me at the time. While living your life, you do not stop to think “These moments will define so much of my experience here.” But they do. And, as I remember them guiding me through the camp to the church or the market, I wonder what kind of options there are for them there. I worry about the fact that Elius is smart as a whip and a natural born leader. Most of the easy options for a child like that involve doing things that are not legal or safe. Thierry’s angelic looks are becoming a handicap as he slips easily into the hearts of the international aid worker community and the recipient of their easy money…because the problems in Haiti are too damn big for one person to solve, but $10 for textbooks is doable. And I am not the only one who starts to feel protective around these boys.

They were on my mind as I boarded the plane for home. I imagined bringing them here with me and wonder even today if coming to America would be better. The opportunity we have here comes at a cost, which I did not really understand until I lived somewhere else. But the point is moot, I cannot bring them home with me, even if I could discern if that would be better for them. But knowing that doesn’t stop the wondering.

xo,

Kimberley

Haiti, With Love

My Dear Friends,
Some of you have written me today already, on the anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. I am greatly humbled by your reaching out to me. It feels funny to be the one among my friends who is the holder of that tragedy in Haiti, but I am so honored to hold that place with you. And it is an enormous comfort to me that you care enough for me to not only remember the day…but to send me your love as well.
For those of you who do not know, and I have new friends who do not know me well yet (there is time), I spent a little over three months at the end of 2011 in Haiti, helping an NGO down there build their communications practice. We did much together, but leaving the country was still gut-wrenching because there is still so more much I could have done, and wanted to do. But then, there always will be more to do, and my family needs me too. I hurt today thinking about the lives in Haiti that I still so badly want to work with to bring their country around. The more you know about the country and its struggles the more you come to respect their strength, resilience and desire to thrive against so many challenges. Everything new thing I learned about their history opened up spidering networks of additional information that led to an infinite number of additional questions. But the thing I know with a confidence you can only feel after working with the people in that country, is that it is not only possible that the country can return to self-sustainability and strength…it is the likely outcome. You can’t spend time with them and think otherwise. They will return to their strength, stronger than before the earthquake.
The day I arrived, I was taken on a tour of the camp. Beth Milbourne walked me through our organization’s IDP camp (internally displaced persons camp) and watching her was amazing. She strolled through with a comfort I thought I would never feel (I very soon did though) and she greeted people she had come to know (as I came to do also). As we were leaving the MASH unit style hospital at the top of the camp, the make shift hospital she had directed and worked in for well over a year, a tap tap pulled up with men hanging off the edges of it. The screams of a woman in the back of the public transport made it clear immediately why the men were hanging off the sides. She was in active labor. She was too far along to move her the twenty feet to the maternity part of the hospital, so the doctor on duty climbed into the back of the car and delivered the baby there. Beth beamed as she carried the new born girl from the car to the tent to be cleaned up.  The baby wailed, as they always do.
I had been there just a few hours at that point and I remember thinking to myself that I wanted this wailing baby to have different opportunities than her parents have. I wanted her to become an adult in a world that she could be strong in. This new life was not broken, had not seen tragedy, did not yet have her limitations ingrained on her thinking. I think about that little girl all the time. I am thinking of her today.
I don’t expect any of you to hold a love for Haiti like I do in my heart. I don’t expect you to understand my confidence in the people of that country, given the massive messaging we get this in this country on a regular basis about the hopelessness of their circumstance. But I do hope, because you know me and love me, that today you will open just a tiny part of your heart to the possibility that something beautiful and strong can grow there. Because Haiti needs us to believe in them. They need us to ignore the data and naysayers and see with them what is possible and probable, if they are given just enough to stabilize the ground they stand on.
This afternoon at 4:53pm, I will be stopping everything and dropping into prayer for them. I would be so honored if you would join me.
Much love,
Kim

Battle of Vetye

Tonight it is a national holiday in celebration of the Battle of Vertieres. I am sitting in a perfectly charming, if run down, hotel in Jacmel…alone. This feels like something straight out of an Ann Rice novel. Dark, distressed brick, stifling heat, tropical plants everywhere, white flowers drop from vines which wrap around tropical trees just outside of my room in the courtyard. Mosquito netted bed in the center of a room with numerous windows, no glass, just shutters. Truly a shame to be here alone.
As I sit in the dark bar/dining room, drinking my red wine and waiting for my poisson en sauce, I consciously avoid seeing rats scurrying inches from my feet in the dark. There are mice here too. It is a place of creatures. I am in their space.
An hour ago, a crowd of Haitians strolled through the hotel bar/dining/lobby area. Today is the celebration of the final battle before Haiti found their independence. It is wildly celebrated. I imagine the march through the hotel by dozens of people was a demonstration of defiance. No place is shut off to us. If this is not what it was, I don’t want to know. I want to think of these people rising and claiming what is theirs.
I thrilled to see them wander through. Women, men, children…all ages. They walked through totally without affect. No challenge was there. This is their space…that is all.
Just now a Ra Ra band marched through the street with a crowd following. The music was primarily drumbeats and earthy…horns and other instruments accompanied, but it is the drums that drive the Ra Ra bands. Beautiful and elemental. Scores of people followed behind, moving easily within the beats of the band. I stood envious watching them move so assuredly in their space. Tonight, they own their land. They are taking what is rightfully theirs. They are beautiful and magnetic. I don’t even want to join them in their dance. To join them would take away their power. This is their night and I celebrate who they are from the sidelines. I cannot be with them in this. I am separated by the chance of my heritage. Just as they are separated from me in mine.
I love that I had a chance to see them like this. Strong…beautiful…powerful and confident. No one seeking my approval, my money, my attention. Being with each other was enough. And watching them from the sidelines was enough for me.
As I am writing this, I Love My Life comes on the radio. It plays constantly here and surprised me when I first heard the Haitians singing it. I thought they must surely be joking. Fate has dealt them a bad hand. But I get it now. In many ways, they are better off than we are in the US. In many ways, I am jealous of what they have here. And that is my biggest surprise in my time here.
I want them to feel the strength they feel today every day. I want to fight on the sidelines for them. I want to do whatever I can to make every day a celebration of the Battle of Vetye.
Xo,
Kim