June 18, 2018

Haiti Journal: Part V

March 16

U.S. Embassy Alerts

The following morning I download my email while lying in bed. More warnings from the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. “Demonstration Alert – Downtown area of Port-au-Prince (Ministry of Interior near the National Palace in Champs de Mars; Grand Rue; St. Jean Bosco Church towards Bel-Air; Ministry of Social Affairs on Avenue Charles Sumner) Events: On-going demonstrations and barricades. Actions to Take: Please avoid the area.” The email is from the previous day, but similar alerts are issued daily.

My hope is that the protests are unorganized, benign and more importantly that they do not escalate. Whether or not to even read the U.S. Embassy alerts is something I am struggling with. On the one hand it’s necessary to stay informed in order to avoid walking blindly into a bad situation, while on the other, the things I am blind to don’t cause undue stress. Ignorance is bliss, I guess, until it jumps up and bites you.

I put away my phone and appreciate for a moment the perceived security of Canaan – the stirrings of those in nearby buildings, the wind in the trees, the voices – but lingering in bed will only allow troubling thoughts to return. It’s like that Mark Twain quote, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Nothing good comes from worrying about situations that may or may not come to pass. I decide it’s best to get up and busy myself with the morning routine.

Our goal today is to finish the ceiling. I dress, drink some water, make sure all of my bags are zipped up — i.e. closed off to rats — and walk down the hill for breakfast. Aside from being tired, I have felt good so far. No intestinal disruptions. Wanting to keep my stomach in good order, I stick with the breakfast that’s worked for me – peanut butter and marmalade on white bread and a cup of hibiscus tea with sugar.

Getting to Work

After breakfast we begin our work by cutting two more beams, affixing them to the metal brackets, and nailing the brackets into place. The U-shaped brackets Pastor Henri has are at least ½ inch longer than the height of the 2×4 beam, so we have to cut small pieces of wood and wedge them into the bottom of the bracket to fill in the empty space. It is not ideal, and would probably make a professional carpenter cringe, but to us this seems the best solution.

We then cut 2 of the last 3 pieces of plywood, both irregular quadrilaterals. After, we snip all remaining wires that hang from random holes in the ceiling. Despite the repeated assurance that there is no power coming to this building, I can’t help but be unnerved by the task. To me, it’s sort of like playing wire snipping Russian Rolette. “Okay, here I go. Snip! Phew, still alive! Your turn.” I snip some of the wires, Ricky snips more, almost, but not quite sharing equally in the risk of electrocution.

When we lift the plywood pieces to the ceiling they are only off by a small fraction of an inch, which works just fine. Again, the accuracy of our cuts is a credit to Ricky’s geometry skills. I wonder how it might have turned out had Ricky not been here and I had been put in charge of this project. As a laborer, I can contribute. As the lead architect, it would have been a mess.

Pastor Henri shows up when he has a free moment to lend a hand, and Rafael stops by regularly to lift, hold, and hammer. Ricky and I break briefly for lunch, then spend some time in the kitchen washing dishes. Like all chores here, it is an exercise in teamwork. Ricky gathers plates and utensils, scrapes excess food into a trash bin and piles it all on the edge of the sink for me to wash. Inside a large sink are two buckets of water, one with soap, one without. The water has a potent smell. Some sort of sterilizing agent. Bleach, maybe. I work my way through a growing pile of dishes, dunking each into the bucket of soapy water, scrubbing them clean with a sponge, rinsing them in the clean water, and finally setting them on a rack to dry. In comparison to the ceiling work it is a chore of such methodical simplicity I find it almost meditative.

As the day wears on, lifting the wood becomes more of a challenge. My shoulders burn and my arms begin to shake when I lift them over my head. My clothes are soaked through with sweat and covered in sawdust. At one point my arms give out, I simply cannot hold them over my head any longer, so I climb one step higher on the ladder and use my head to brace the wood against the ceiling.

Once a plywood piece is put in place, two people hold it up, while a third person affixes an adjustable steel pillar between the floor and ceiling. Positioning the base flat on on the ground, the metal pillars are twisted clockwise to extend the height, allowing a flat piece on the top to press tightly against the plywood, holding it securely in place. Then we can work on putting up the support beams, which secures the plywood sheets permanently in position. I am not sure if this is how it is typically done, but it seems logical so this is how we do it.

We finish around 5:30 p.m. and not without an overinflated sense of pride. I have never done anything like this in my life, and it doesn’t look half bad. Pastor Henri even gives his approval. After taking in the details of our handiwork, he nods his head. “I like it,” he says. “This will work.”

A Chat with Maurice

Outside the cafeteria I sit in the shade and talk with Maurice, who I would guess is somewhere between 7 and 9 years old. Maurice is a strong boy and appears healthy, but he is in need of constant supervision. He has a hyperactive energy about him and has a hard time communicating socially. I am told his mother struggled with various addictions while she was pregnant, which most likely contributed to Maurice’s difficulties.

Maurice and I talk about superheroes. He tells me that King Kong is big, strong, and climbs buildings. “Hey, I’m King Kong!” he shouts, pounding his chest. He also likes the Hulk, whom he imitates by flexing his biceps, growling and showing his teeth. I have noticed Maurice is always playing the air drums with his fingers – while walking around, in between comments or when he is just looking for something to get into.

Maurice asks if he can see my phone. Says he wants to play Temple Run. It’s the same request I get from my daughters at home. They love Temple Run. For some reason I find this heartwarming. Maybe it has to do with the similarity of childhood interests, or the discovery of common ground between Maurice and my own children. To me it’s an indication of how easily kids can connect, play together, and form friendships, regardless of where they are from. Children harbor no prejudices. It’s a shame we can’t let them stay that way.

Before I can answer Maurice, he starts searching my pockets for the phone. I gently take his hands, move them away, and tell him I don’t have my phone with me. “Hey, can you get it?” he asks. “Can you get your phone for me? I want to play Temple Run!” I tell him not right now, but that I’ll bring it down later. He nods, indicating he’s okay with this, and goes looking for something else to do.

I stand and walk into the cafeteria to ask what time we should be back for dinner. The students are all seated and eating. When I turn around, I see that Maurice has followed me inside. From the table closest to us, he picks up a bowl of mango slices that were meant for the everyone to share and says, “Hey, can I eat this?” He then proceeds to shovel a handful into his mouth. Several of the kids yell “Maurice!” and before I know it he is face down on the ground with a woman standing over him. She holds the bowl of mangoes in her hand and passes them off to one of the students before lifting Maurice off the ground, taking him by the hand and leading him out the back door.

What in the world just happened? I think, and walk outside, realizing I didn’t even ask the question I intended to ask. Hiking back up the hill, I can’t help but feel guilty. It was me that Maurice followed into the cafeteria, which makes me partially responsible for the resulting drama. The last thing I want to do is further complicate that child’s life.

I am quick about washing up so that I have a little time to type some notes into my journal before dinner. The air inside my room is still. The heat impossible to ignore. Even when I stop moving, I continue to sweat. Lying back against a folded over pillow on the lower bunk, I prop my laptop on my legs and type as fast as I can.

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