Towards the end of my stint in Haiti, when construction is under control, I try to knock off early and walk home. It is about a quarter mile from my home base at the BLB site to the school, then another half mile to Lex and Renee’s house in the middle of Grand Goave, then another mile or so across the river to Milleton, where I stay. The intermediate points are helpful because night descends fast here, and I can catch a ride at either if I cannot reach the river before dark. But the past two days I left early enough to walk the entire route, and it is a worthwhile excursion.
I take the walk to the school site twice a day, to check the status of construction around nine and then again for lunch, so that part is second nature to me now. I recognize everyone along the route, the children have learned that begging yields them nothing so they have stopped shouting ‘Give me one dollar”, but a few still like to run along with the blan. By the time I get to the highway I often have a trio of children dragging on my arms.
The walk from the school to the house takes me along the highway and through the center of Grand Goave. Market days are Wednesday and Saturdays and the pedestrians spill out into the road, choking traffic to one lane. Retail geography works in Grand Goave just like it does on the Automile; all the charcoal sellers squat next to each other, as do the mango sellers and the chicken sellers. Although blan are less of a curiosity since the earthquake, everyone looks at me with a stone face until I say bon swa, then their faces relax and they respond in kind. Although I am captivated by Haiti I am not naïve to its dangers, so I put my wallet in my front pocket, keep my shoulder bag slung across my chest, and if I sense someone shadowing me I cross the street. Still, nothing the least bit dangerous has occurred, if you dismiss my startles when I hear ‘Bon swa Paul’ out of sea of black faces. Sometimes I can discern someone familiar, sometimes not. It is unnerving to live in a place where you don’t know many people but so many know you.
Once I turn off the highway the streets are less crowded but no less interesting. I pass the dress shop with the mannequin wearing a nylon pants ensemble circa 1982, the open lot where young guys wash their motorcycles, the haggard housewives sweeping the dirt in front of their houses (what is the point of sweeping dirt away from dirt, I wonder), the masons skimming mortar over quake cracks as if the houses just need a Band-Aid, the fat guy squatting in front of the empty beer hall at this early hour, the cemetery with New Orleans style above ground tombs, and the walls with spray painted names of people who never made it to the cemetery. A dieu Edith. A dieu Dion. A dieu Phillipe. Names fixed to the walls that killed them.
Still the rubble and the reminders of the dead do not dampen this town of its good spirit. This afternoon there was a parade, a brass band pumping out an oom-pah beat while twin lines of women several blocks long danced down the street. I have no idea what they were celebrating, but it was riotous joy
A dirt side street leads to the river. The rainy season is a bit late this year and the river is bone dry. A path descends the banks. This is a favorite place to dump garbage, and therefore is the kingdom of the goats and pigs. In December there were maybe three or four animals runting through the trash, but now there are dozens. One mama pig alone has eight piglets scurrying around her, each a different color. There is a steady path of people walking along the river bed, but the further I get from the market, the slower the pace. I have entered an area where a blan is still a rarity; the adults stop to chat, the children ask me for a dollar and settle for having their picture taken. The river is stacked with garbage that, when the rains come, will wash away and turn the sea murky, but today the water in the distance is a sparkling crystalline blue.
I rise up the other bank into a different world, a rural scattering thick with tropical trees and lattice huts. Here the houses are stitched together with palm fronds, the cooking fires are small, the children are naked, and their bellies distended, yet I am never out of earshot of laughter. The word for happy in Creole is kontonn, which we think of as content. I can’t fathom how these people can be as happy as they appear except as confirmation of my hypothesis that contentment has nothing to do with physical comfort. On this far side of the river everyone greets me, a few in English. There are beautiful pale purple flowers along a hedge, the mango trees are bursting with fruit, a productive day of work is behind me, the sun casts a tender glow on distant mountains, and if life could be sweeter, it is beyond my imagination.
Parade in Grand Goave
Past the garbage in the river bed lies the beautiful sea