September 20, 2018

Haiti Journal: Part VII

March 17 (continued)

Singing Makes Everything Better

As the flatbed speeds down the interstate, the signing continues. The song the kids sing next is Happy Birthday. Ricky and Shae’s son, Canaan, turns five today. The rendition the kids belt out is as loud and enthusiastic any I’ve ever heard. Canaan is a kind and quiet boy, somewhat shy, much like I was at his age, but I can see that he appreciates the attention. As we turn and bounce down a potholed, dirt road toward the coast, the flatbed truck squeaks and rattles, prompting the kids to sing even louder. Ricky has his hand pressed over Canaan’s chest to keep him from falling over. The birthday boy is jostled back and forth and is grinning from ear to ear.

The bumpy dirt road takes us through what appears to be a banana farm. On both sides of the road are tall, green trees, some hanging with bunches of unripe bananas. The scene gives the impression that we are traveling in a lush Caribbean forest. Staring out the window into the forest, I remember being told long ago that banana trees are not actually “trees,” but a sort of large herb or plant, information that seems without any value at all to me, especially as I write it down here.

Haiti Journal Keith HemstreetA slow, jarring mile or so ahead, we turn again and stop outside a high walled property that extends to the beach. An 8-10 feet cinderblock wall painted peach surrounds the entire property. The road we are on sits higher than the property, giving me a view over the wall. Probably in the ballpark of 15 acres, the land slopes all the way to the ocean. It is landscaped, well maintained, the lawn mowed. On the lowest part of the property, just above the beach, high palms cast firework shaped shadows on the grass. Further up, a newly built pavilion shades a half dozen picnic benches. The property also has some good flat land where the older boys are already involved in an intense game of soccer.

A solid metal gate, rusted by the salt air and humidity, is pushed open by some of the boys and the flatbed truck drives onto the property. The gate closes behind us and we come to a stop near the pavilion. One of the boys untwists the coat hanger and the back doors swing open. I jump down into the grass, take a breath of the fresh coastal air, and turn to help others off the truck, lending them my hand as they make the leap.

Haiti Journal Keith HemstreetWe unload boxes of hot dogs and crates of sodas, while the kids run off in every direction. Many of the younger kids immediately make their way to the seawall at the beach. A few of the women on the staff follow behind shouting. Apparently they are being told to stay away from the water, at least, until the adults are able to join them. The kids turn away from the beach and move back up the hill.

The group that arrived earlier brought two grills. They are fashioned from metal garbage drums and painted bright blue and red. Set up next to the pavilion, some of the women are filling them with charcoal briquettes. I walk over to observe the preparation. The wind makes it near impossible to ignite the charcoal. Match after match is lit and blown out. Some of the girls start crumbling plastic bags into balls and setting them atop the charcoal. They light the plastic, which shrivels, turns black, and disappears amongst the charcoal.

Turning to Ricky, I ask, “Is it safe to cook food over burnt plastic?” He laughs, agreeing that it may be best to go about it another way. Ricky, Jackson and I walk into the field and each pull up a handful of grass. Piling the grass over the already charred plastic, we stand stand around the grill to block the wind. The girls try to light the grass. For a minute it shows promise, but the wind continuously spoils our effort. In the end, our method is dismissed. A lot more plastic is used and the grill is finally lit.

The Magic of the Beach

Naturally, the kids’ can’t keep away from the beach. Within minutes of calling them all back up the hill they have moved down beyond the seawall and are jumping around the water’s edge. A group of us jog down the hill and give them the go ahead to swim. At this, they all go wild, jumping and screaming and splashing one another. That euphoric feeling brought on by sand and sea reminds me of my own childhood. As a kid, it always seemed a privilege to spend a day at the beach. Even though it was only a ten-minute drive from our home, it felt like a vacation. I remember how the anticipation would build as we packed towels, drinks, sunscreen and games into the back of the station wagon. When we’d finally arrive at the beach our excitement could not be contained. The moment my dad parked, we’d spring from the wagon and take off in a dead sprint over the hot sand toward the magical blue water that seemed to run on forever.

Haiti Journal Keith HemstreetI walk up and down the beach, attempting to capture the happiness of the children on camera. Two men paddle offshore in a wooden green fishing boat, one of them rowing with two oars, the other being chauffeured. A second wooden fishing boat, this one painted turquoise, is moored offshore, rocking back and forth in the waves. Further down the beach is a man carrying a canvas sack. He approaches and asks if we would like to buy a lobster. He has two inside the bag and carefully takes one out to show us.  It is stripped and pointy with long tentacles and powerful claws. When he holds it out the curled tail relaxes. The lobster is probably two and a half feet in length, easily the largest lobster I have ever seen. Kids gather around and inspect the creature with awe. Maybe if I were skilled in lobster preparation I would buy one and cook it for everyone. Since I am not, I kindly decline and thank him for showing us.

Haiti Journal Keith HemstreetThe fun being had by the kids draws me into the water. Placing my shoes, shirt and camera in a pile on the seawall, I walk into the water up to my waist and take a backward plunge. The water consumes me. Salt hits my lips and stings my eyes. It is just cool enough to be comfortable, almost refreshing. I come up and swim away from the shore. Across the Canal de Saint Marc the mountainous Gonave Island sits in hazy silhouette. Ricky later tells me that you can take a ferry across the channel to Gonave and says we’ll do that next time we visit. Pastor Henri told Ricky that on Gonave they live more primitively. When he tells me this I take a moment to imagine what a more primitive Haitian lifestyle might look like.

The idea of a day on Gonave is appealing, though admittedly, the first question that comes to mind is what kind of boat would take us there. I think I would have to see it and be comfortable with its condition before committing. Researching this later, I come across news of a tragedy. In 1997 the Pride of La Gonave capsized and sank just off the coast of Montrouis. Numbers vary widely, but it is estimated that between 200 and 400 people died. As I read on, I discover that the Gonave accident was proceeded by ferryboat tragedies in 1993 and 1996, in which more than 800 people drowned. Apparently, it is common to load these ferries well beyond capacity, increasing the likelihood of the boat capsizing. In light of this news, that I will ever visit Gonave seems unlikely.

I notice that Jackson has a football and hold up my hands for a pass. He tosses it my way. Water sprays from it as it spirals toward me. It’s a waterlogged Nerf, heavy to catch. Ricky joins in and we pass it between the three of us for a while. Then one of the Canaan students swims over and puts up his hands and we pass the ball around in a square.

Haiti Journal Keith HemsteetMost of the older girls and the Canaan staff hang out around the pavilion, talking and laughing while they prepare lunch. The air is rich with the smell of burning charcoal and grilled meat. As the food is cooked some of the younger children spread out a pile of legos on the table and start to piece them together, building the planes and cars of their imagination.

A few of the young boys have umbilical hernias. The telltale sign is a bulge protruding from their belly button. Shae explains that this can happen when the muscles do not fuse together completely after birth and a small hole remains behind the belly button where the umbilical cord was attached. It only dawns on me months later to ask if these hernias are going to be treated. When I research the condition, I learn that to repair the hernia requires a rather simple surgery that takes 30-45 minutes. It is important that umbilical hernias be addressed as the intestine can become strangulated and the tissue can die, creating a situation that can be life threatening. Could it be arranged for a surgeon to fly to Haiti and perform the necessary surgeries? Aside from finding the volunteer surgeon and funding the operations, what other obstacles exist? I make myself a note to ask, but have yet to.

Haiti Journal Keith HemstreetAt another table, some of the younger girls play the “cup game.” It involves taking a single stack of a dozen or so blue plastic cups, quickly building two side-by-side cup pyramids, and then putting them back into a single stack. There are two sets of cups and whoever completes this process the fastest wins. Ricky demonstrates his strategy, which is very efficient. Jackson also demonstrates and appears to be just as fast as Ricky. Sophie picks it up quickly. After a few tries I’d put her up against anybody. Each time she wins she flashes her bright smile.

Lunch is served and it’s a feast. As many hot dogs as you can eat with plenty of ketchup and chips, juice and glass bottled sodas (coke, sprite, and fruit champagne). Some of the kids drink 2 or 3 sodas with lunch. I have a hot dog with ketchup and a coke. A sugar rush sweeps over the picnic. Energy ramps up to a ten. The kids connect a speaker powered by a small generator to someone’s phone and music begins to play loudly in the pavilion. Creole hip-hop, mostly, with some recognizable American pop mixed in. The common thread is that every song is up tempo with a good dose of base.

Dance Party

We move the picnic tables to clear a space in the middle of the pavilion for the kids to dance. The youngest of the bunch are the first to show off their moves. Kindergarteners and elementary school kids popping and locking and shaking their hips. What a scene! I take some photos then put away my camera. A few of them are shy and the last thing I want to do is make them more self-conscious by pointing a camera at them. Five teenage girls take the floor and perform a dance routine. The high schoolers dance just outside the pavilion near the pickup truck. There are some incredible dancers among the Canaan students. As far as I can tell, every single one of them has more rhythm then I do.

Haiti Journal Keith HemstreetThe music plays on, song after song, guys and girls, men and women mouthing the lyrics. The dancing never stops. Everyone is in high spirits. One of the boys puts a plastic cup against a paddleball racquet and acts as if it’s a video camera. He climbs on top of a picnic table, pretending to film as the girls’ dance routine. Another boy takes out his flip phone, detaches the piece that encases the battery and extends it perpendicularly to mimic a handheld video camera with a flip screen. He gets down on his back in the gravel and pretends to film up at the dancers from a low angle. We now have a two-man film crew documenting the dance party with imaginary cameras. They slowly circle the girls, go in for close ups, jump back for wide shots. Friends of the boys laugh. I do, too, despite the fact that it’s me they are mocking. It is eye opening to be made aware of what we visitors must look like to the locals, always running around with cameras slung over our shoulders, photographing just about everything we see. I’m just glad that my camera was put away before these boys started poking fun at me.

While the dance party is in full swing, we discover that Maurice has darted off and is splashing around in the ocean. Two of the women take off running down the hill, shouting his name. Apparently Maurice cannot swim. When he gets out of the water one of the women takes him by the arm and sternly reprimands him. Disaster averted, I breathe a sigh of relief. Then, not ten minutes later, I again hear someone scream “Maurice!” and turn around to see that he’s made his way back into the water. Once again the women take off running for him. As soon as they have him safely out of the water, I return my attention to the dance party.

Mikey and the Sea Urchin

After a while we break for a swim. The kids are again having fun when the scene is shattered by a piercing scream. I turn around and see Mikey, one of Maurice’s brothers, hopping on one foot in the shallow water, screaming in pain. He falls onto his back and lifts his foot. Several black spikes are clustered around his arch. He’s stepped on a sea urchin. One of the older boys runs to his side, desperate to help. Shae comes running too, kneels next to Mikey and cradles him in her arms. Isura, who is fourteen, calmly squats down near his feet and lifts his leg by the calf.

As Isura inspects his foot, Mikey pleads, “No, no, no, don’t touch it!” Shae does her best to calm him, telling him it will be okay as she caresses his head in her arms. Isura tells him to look away for just a minute, quickly pulls out two of the spines from his foot and tosses them away. She splashes some water on his foot to wash away the blood and takes a closer look. She then uses her nails to dig out the deeper pieces. Mikey screams with everything he’s got, as Isura works on the remaining piece that is still stuck in his foot. I can tell by the strained look on her face that she is pinching as hard as she can. He squirms and kicks his legs, begging for her to stop. It is hard to even watch and I feel helpless as I stand behind Shae doing nothing. Isura again splashes water on his foot and goes in for a closer look. “I got most of it but there’s a little bit that’s too deep,” she says. Two of the older women make their way to the beach. One of them lifts Mikey into her arms and carries him up the hill to the pavilion. I look around at all the kids still swimming and splashing without a care and wonder who might be next. “Be careful of the sea urchins,” I say to a group of kids, a warning I immediately recognize as worthless. The kids continue to play, unconcerned by the potential danger lurking in the shallows.

Not long after we are called to the pavilion for snow cones. An old blue plexiglass machine chops a block of ice into what looks like a pile of snow that the girls then scoop into plastic cups and color with red syrup. The kids are ecstatic over the treat. A small girl runs up and hands me a cup. “Thank you so much,” I say, but she is already running off. Next to the machine, I notice Mikey eating a snow cone, a big smile on his face. He has his shoes back on and seems to be walking around without a limp, which is a relief to see.

I sit down and stare at the snow cone, wondering how my stomach will do with the ice. Reluctantly, I tilt my cup and pour some into my mouth. It’s as sweet as grenadine and perfectly refreshing on this hot day, but I can’t get over the thought that it might make me nauseous in due time. To be cautious I have been drinking only bottled water and suspect that the ice does not come from a filtered source. Looking around I see that just about everyone is enjoying one and decide it’s far too special of a treat to let go to waste. Giving in to the moment, I sit back against the picnic table and enjoy the rest of my snow cone.

Dinner is served soon after and it’s another feast. Grilled chicken flavored with spicy Haitian marinade, sides of seasoned rice, potato salad and chips. And more bottled sodas. Whoever did the shopping did not skimp on the drinks. There are crates of them stacked several feet high on the picnic table. One young boy points to a teen and informs me with a smile that the boy has already had five bottles. There is evidence in the boy’s behavior, as he jumps around wildly, dances amongst friends and regularly bursts into hysterical laughter.

Dinner, Sunset and Closing Thoughts

Haiti Journal Keith HemstreetMy stomach full and my energy drained from the sun I decide it’s best to move around to keep from falling asleep at the table. The sun is beginning to set, so I walk back down to the beach to take a few photos. The scene is gorgeous. A sunset over the ocean creates a momentary illusion of paradise, no matter how impoverished the surroundings. Looking to the horizon, my imagination conjures images of the families who have set off from this very shore in makeshift boats. Desperate yet hopeful people, drifting ever so slowly away from land, their raft rocking up and down in the waves as the waters grow deeper and more menacing. I imagine them fixing their eyes west at sunset, contemplating a vast expanse of orange and pink lit water that does not appear to end. Among the dreamers aboard the raft there would be little appreciation of the gorgeous spectacle laid out before them, only fear and dread. Sunset means night is coming. I saw in my mind fathers and mothers clinging to their children, saying what they could as darkness fell to assure them that everything would be all right. All night they would drift, a tiny spec afloat under the heavens, praying the most sincere prayers they have ever prayed, sending them skyward with the intensity of a Saint, their arms cramped from holding their children tightly against them, but not letting go, never letting go, hoping that God will see them through.

Back at the pavilion the kids are told to clean up. Without fuss they walk around picking up trash. I walk the property and find almost nothing left to dispose of. The place looks better than it did when we arrived. The high schoolers have loaded into the pickup truck the speaker, toys, empty crates and whatever was remaining of the food. All that is left to take back to Canaan are the two grills, which have been left open to cool and will go with the next load.

It is nearly dark as we help the kids climb into the flatbed truck. The youngest will return to Canaan first. The truck will drop them and return to pick up the rest of us. Once we have the kids loaded and the gate closed and secured with the rusty hanger, the engine turns over and rumbles to life. Suddenly, the truck lurches forward. Everyone screams with excitement as they bump and bounce down the road through the gate. Just as the flatbed turns out of sight, the children break into song. I take a seat on the corner of a picnic table and focus my attention on the sound. I do not know what they are signing. It does not matter. In this moment their voices are everything. The world, life, our purpose expressed in a single harmony. The truck moves up the road through the banana field, the distance between us growing, the sound of innocence and hope fading softly into the night.

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Haiti Journal Keith Hemstreet

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