May 14, 2018

Haiti Journal: Part III

Haiti Journal, March 14 (continued)

Montrouis HaitiWindows down as we drive at 50+ mph on a two-lane highway toward the town of St. Marc, the nearest place to buy wood for the cafeteria ceiling. Large piles of trash sit in the street that we drive around without slowing. It could be that the piles have been made for collection, but as cars pass, more trash that blows off the heap, scattering around the landscape.

There are vendors along the side of the road. Hundreds of people standing about the sidewalks. Others are walking. One man waves his arm at us we pass. Suddenly, the driver slows down, pulls over, and looks back. He puts the pickup in reverse and drives backward toward the waving man who is now running down the hill. The man jumps in the back of the pickup, taps the roof and we drive on.

Navigating St. Marc

A sign reading “Bienvenue” greets us in St. Marc. Just past the sign the hitchhiker sticks his head around by the window, says something in Creole, and we pull over. He jumps out, shakes the passenger’s hand and says “Merci.” We continue into the city.

The streets are bustling. A fleet of motorcycles and scooters, nearly all carrying two or more people. Shops, buildings and vacant, crumbling structures. More earthquake and hurricane damage that has not been repaired. There may have once been a charm to St. Marc. Many of the buildings look to have been designed in the French colonial style. There is a beautiful cathedral and the town itself is built on hills that overlook shimmering, turquoise Bay of Saint-Marc.

The men drive us to a bank, park the pickup and we all get out. We are there to exchange U.S. dollars for Haitian Gourde. If you pay for anything in U.S. dollars, Ricky has been told, you are more likely to be overcharged. An armed guard stands outside the bank’s doors. Inside they search us with a handheld metal detector to make sure we aren’t carrying weapons. Another armed guard makes me take off my hat. In either corner of the bank is a policeman holding a shotgun.

The bank has air conditioning, which feels incredible. A line of people, 30+ deep, wait their turn for the tellers. I look for a place to sit down and soak up the air conditioning, but there are no empty seats. By way of hand gestures and Creole neither Ricky nor I can understand, we follow the driver back to the pickup and leave the passenger at the bank. We drive back into town, presumably to find wood.

Ricky and I are the only foreigners I see during our 4+ hours in St. Marc. For the duration of the trip, neither of us knows exactly where we are going or what we are doing next. The heat and continuous sweating slows my mind and body. We don’t even know the names of the men we are with. We simply have to trust in them to lead us, which we do, by way of our trust in Pastor Henri and Sister Gladys, who arranged for these men to work with us.

The next stop is a dark, narrow garage full of lumber. We point at some of the wood and try to explain what we need. There is an exchange between the driver and the man at the garage. He then gestures for us to sit. We wait quietly in the dark heat for 15 minutes. I am so tired I could sleep sitting up. Eventually, an older man comes out of the back and speaks to our driver. Ricky and I follow them both the pickup and the four of us drive back into the city to a second lumber garage.

This garage is similar to the first, dark and dusty, with high stacks of lumber piled from one end to the other. Outside a boy of about four is lying atop a pile of dirty clothes heaped on the ground in the driveway. I smile and say “Bonjour.” He replies with a “Bonjour” and rests his head atop the clothes.

The older man carries out a 12-foot long plank of wood and sets it at an angle atop the pickup. I ask if I can help, gesturing to the planks. The man does not respond and continues back to the garage for a second plank.

While he is working an older woman walks up the driveway, speaks in a stern tone to the boy lying atop the clothes, then spanks him twice on the butt. She walks away, still reprimanding the boy. For what, I don’t know. The boy acts like he’s experienced this before. Throughout the ordeal, he doesn’t as much as flinch.

The older man eventually loads eight planks of wood and secures them to the pickup with a rope. Ricky tips him with some currency he has from a previous trip. Whatever it is he gave him, the man accepted without complaint.

My Ignorance in Tipping

We pick up the passenger we left at the bank and he hands us each a roll of Haitian Gourdes. For the sheets of plywood we end up at a third lumberyard, a five minutes drive from the bank. A dozen men sit outside. When we walk up two men jockey for position in front of us. A younger guy, probably 20-years old, and an older man around 40 seem to be arguing over whose turn it is to help.

After inspecting their supply, we do our best to explain that we need seven sheets of 96 x 48 plywood. The argument over who is going to help escalates, as the two men try to out muscle each other for possession of the first sheet. The other men in the garage start shouting. Finally the older man relents, and takes a seat on a stack of nearby plywood, his shoulders slumped.

The young man first unties all of the beams on the pickup, lifts them and lays them in the street. He then loads the plywood sheets in the back of the pickup, and reloads the beams on top. The beams stick up so high I am worried they will take down a power line. I go to the driver and try to explain, pointing to the wooden beams and the slumping power lines just up the street. He tells the young man loading the wood and together they reposition the beams so that they sit a few feet lower.

Haitian 50 Gourde Once everything is loaded and tied down, I give the young man 50 Gourde, as this is the amount suggested by the passenger. The young man refuses the bill, gestures to all the wood he’s piled on the car, and walks away shaking his head. I hold out the 50 Gourde to the passenger who suggested it and say, “Should I tip more?” He takes it out of my hand and goes after the young man who loaded the wood. I don’t know the dollar equivalent of a Gourde, nor what the acceptable tip for a job like this might be. I’m working solely on the advice of the two locals we’re with, and unfortunately, we can’t communicate.

Next thing I know the passenger and the driver are yelling at the young man, who continues to brush them off. I walk the passenger and say “more” while holding out the bills he gave me. Ricky takes out his cash, too. The other people who are gathered on the sidewalk are adding their two cents. The passenger takes my cash, peels off two more 50 Gourde bills, and gives them to the kid, which he accepts.

Only later, when I am able to look up the conversion rate, do I realize that 150 Gourdes equals about $2.30. My first offer of 50 Gourde was only $0.77. No wonder he was upset. I insulted him and am upset with myself for not knowing the conversation rate before I arrived. Even $2.30 seems low, especially by American tipping standards, but it can also be a mistake to pay someone more than is accustomed, inadvertently causing a dispute between the person you tipped and others also working for gratuity. This is why you should relay on a trusted local to advise you in your transactions.

In 2016, Haiti raised the minimum wage to $4.84 for a full day of labor. A tip of $2.30 is almost half of the minimum wage for a day of work, and he made it in 15 minutes. In this context, our tip seems more reasonable.

A Fondness for Creole Rap

Assuming our trip to St. Marc is over, I’m surprised when we pull over and stop just blocks away. The passenger gets out and disappears into a grocery store. Ricky, the driver and I decide to get out and follow him inside. Ricky and I each buy a cold coke and large bottle of water. We also buy two cokes for the driver and passenger. When I look back, I see the passenger checking out in the next line over. He’s buying big bottle of wine, some sort of candy and a few other items.

Back outside the passenger disappears into a crowd of pedestrians, while the driver walks across the street and sits on a wall next to some teens listing to music on a boom box radio. Ricky and I decide to get back in the truck.

Almost immediately three young kids approach the pickup and ask for money. Not wanting to attract more attention, we tell them we have nothing. However, Ricky is drinking a large water and I am drinking a coke. The boys are persistent but kind in their pleading, and Ricky finally gives in, handing over his bottle of water. Two of the boys smile and walk away. One boy lingers. He is shy, not at all pushy. He gestures to my coke then pretends to drink from a bottle. Since I’d already had a couple sips, I hold out the coke bottle and point to it to make sure that is what he is asking for. When he nods, I screw on the top and hand it to him and he runs to catch up with his friends.

The driver walks into the street, shouts and motions for us to come sit with him. By this point, I am ready to be back at Canaan. To be the only foreigners lingering in the open does not seem like a good idea. My concern is based primarily on the State Department warnings I had read before arriving regarding violent crime in Haitian cities. If I had not read the warnings, I would feel much more relaxed, as there is nothing particularly ominous about St. Marc. Since it seems we may be there a while, and sitting in a hot truck is less than appealing, Ricky and I get out, jog across the street, and take a seat on the wall next to the driver.

Behind us is a town park with tall trees and shade. There are people in the park with little carts on wheels, selling random goods. Next to us is a group of teens wearing tank tops and wool ski caps. They are listening to Creole rap. One wears a thick gold chain. I wonder about the wool ski caps. How is that tolerable in this heat?

I really enjoy the music they are listening to. The songs have an infectious beat, and the rhythmic flow of the Creole language seems perfectly suited for rap. I wish I knew the language so that I could understand the lyrics. As the song picks up tempo, I notice that Ricky and I are both nodding our heads to the beat, just like the teens seated along the wall. What a laughable sight he and I must have been for locals – two stiff, older white guys trying their best to fit in with the cool kids. The ten or so minutes we sit on the wall at the park listening to Creole rap turns out to be, for me, the most enjoyable memory of our day in St. Marc.

When we arrive back at Canaan, we thank the driver and passenger, and several of the high school boys help us unload the lumber. It’s getting late, so we decide to push the ceiling work off until the next day. Pastor Henri asks which one of us is going to preach at Sunday’s mass. I tell him that Ricky spoke at my wedding, and that he was really good. So good, in fact, I’d like to hear him preach again this Sunday. I make it clear that “I’m no preacher.” Pastor says, “Here, nobody is going to laugh at you, so this is a good place to give it a try.” The conversation continues, until I offer to make a short speech, 2-3 minutes tops.

The Origin of Canaan Orphanage

At dinner, Sister Gladys tells the story of Canaan’s beginnings. When they arrived to settle on the land, a man approached them and asked, “Who are you?” Pastor told them they were the new owners of the land. The man said, “I have come to this land everyday for for ten years to ask God to send to me the people who belong here. You are not the actual owners until you tell me what you intend to do with this land and what you plan to name it.”

Sister explained to the man that they bought the land to start an orphanage and have already chosen a name. “It will be called Canaan,” Sister said, after Canaan of the bible, the “promised land” where Moses led his people after they had been freed from slavery. The man smiled and said, “Ah-ha, that is right! My prayers have been answered! Now, I have just one last question. What took you so long?”

Basketball and Homework with the Kids

Canaan Library Montrouis HaitiAfter dinner, I go outside and dribble a basketball around with the kids. Remembering a trick I learned form a teammate in grade school, I demonstrate how to dribble between your legs while you walk. Several kids attempt it. A few catch on pretty quickly. Others are too short to make it work.

That night Ricky, his nephew Jackson and I go to the cafeteria to see if anyone needs help with homework. There are a handful of kids in the cafeteria. I work with a few high school students, two girls and a boy, but my contribution is minimal, at best. The girls are named Tadjina and Isaura. The boy doesn’t need help with homework and I don’t get his name.

Jackson helps Isaura and I help Tadjina with a map of Puerto Rico. Tadjina, I notice, smiles at just about everything. And she should. She has the type of smile that causes others to smile, too. Tadjina mentions that she been to the U.S., so I ask where. She says, “A few places. Kansas, New Jersey, Florida.” Her favorite was Disney World, and her favorite ride at Disney was Space Mountain. As we talk, she continues to work on her map. I realize I am more of a distraction than anything, and decide to leave her to her work.

I slide down the table and talk to Isaura. She is sweet, very easy to talk to, and asks me to repeat my name. “Keith is hard to pronounce,” she says, and asks my last name. When I say, “Hemstreet” she laughs, then says, “Do you have another name, maybe an easier name?” I tell her my middle name is Michael. She says, “Okay, that’s easy, I’ll call you Michael. And you can call me Isa if that is easier.”

She asks about my family. I tell her I have three daughters and she asks their age. “Thirteen, eleven and eight,” I say, holding out my hand to demonstrate their heights. Isa says I should bring my 13-year old daughter next time I visit, since they are close in age. When I leave, Isa says, “It was nice talking to you, Michael.”

Jackson stays on and continues to chat with the students who all seem to be about his age. Ricky is helping a girl with her algebra and stays, as well. I walk back up the hill to our quarters to write for a little while before bed, seated under a mosquito net on the top bunk nearest the screened window.

Quickly, my eyes grow heavy. I put away my computer, lie back on my pillow and appreciate the fact that I am perfectly motionless for the first time since I woke. In no time, I am asleep.

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