There’s a group of laborers that have taken to having English / Creole conversations with me. We talk at lunch, but sometimes also at the end of the work day. We use my Phrasebook as a starting point; pick a page, and start reading. They read the English words, I help their pronunciation, and then we flip roles and I attempt Creole. Some pages are worthless; being able to ask if your flight is delayed is meaningless to someone who has never been on a plane. The most relevant pages stick to the basics of time, weather, work, and family. I learn that Emmanuel has a wife and four children, two boys and two girls; Drivle is single, not even a girlfriend; we all laugh that he is ‘lib’ though I applaud his honesty since every other Haitian man I know boasts of his girlfriend, even as I suspect many are fabricated. Webert is single as well, but offers the conventional description of a girlfriend ‘at home’. Quiet Fanil allows that he has seven children, by several women, none of whom is his wife. I search for the Creole word for ‘stud’ but cannot find it. It figures that a dictionary that defines single as ‘silibate’ would omit sexually charged slang.
When I ask where they live, all four say La Gonave, the island visible in the bay. I ask how they get there, and they tell me there is a ‘taptap bato-a’, a water taxi. I picture the hydroplane that ferries commuters from Hingham into Boston, though the reality is sure to be more rudimentary. I ask how long it takes to get home, and after some discussion they settle on forty-five minutes, which proves to be an awkward period of time to translate. I ask them if they go home every night; in the States a forty five minute water commute would be considered light. They laugh and say no, only weekends.
I ask where they live, and again they reply La Gonave. Finally, I realize I have to ask where they sleep, and they point to one of the lean-tos at MoHI, where, apparently, they bunk every night, four of them, maybe more, in a space no more than ten feet square. Suddenly the parameters of our work days shift for me. I understand how the workers get here so early and never mind working so late. They never leave. Work is surely the most stimulating part of their day; once everyone leaves the émigrés from La Gonave have only themselves for amusement until the sun rises again.
On Saturday I ask if they are going to La Gonave. They look at me odd and say no. Then when are you going, I inquire. In July, they reply, which is two months hence. The more I know about them, the less I understand.
Among the four I know Emmanuel the best. He has worn the same grey tee shirt and loose checkered pants since I first met him in December. I am sure they were pajamas in a past life. He has a light heart and a ready smile. The thought crosses my mind that he may have no other possessions. He lives in a place that he visits only a few times a year, he sends money home to a wife and children when he has some in his pocket and can find someone to ferry it to the island. When the weather is fine and the resources flow, he is a day laborer at BLB or MoHI. If neither site wants him, he is on his own, in which case I can find him chatting along the path as I navigate between the two constructions. He is as buoyant off site as when he is working. Emmanuel can read; his English is quite good. He is an adult, a married man in his thirties with a wife and children to support. He is carries buckets of concrete for a living, when he can. That meager opportunity takes him far from his family, for a forty-five minute ferry ride is dear to a man of such limited income. Yet he seems completely at ease with his lot in life.
I reflect on my own habits. I never go anywhere without carrying a book, a magazine, or my computer. I always have something ‘on hand’; to occupy my time if I hit a lull in my day. The only time I am without accoutrement is when I do yoga, which is highly regulated in its own way. I do not waste time. I don’t consider myself particularly anxious, but as a motivated American, the thought of roaming the town all day in my only pair of clothes without so much as a pencil if no one wants me to carry their concrete is terrifying.
These guys are not dullards. They are literate and funny; their minds are quick. Yet they spend large periods of time in a sort of physical and mental limbo. Is that integral to the Haitian psyche, or is it an acquired skill? Are they frustrated? Do they rage against the dichotomy between their ability and their station? By all appearances they have a calm acceptance of life; they appreciate what comes their way and are untrammeled by grievances and disappointments. One could make the argument that such placidity sets Haiti back in her struggle to compete in the wider world. On the other hand, I could benefit from some of that serenity myself. I wonder if they translate it for me.