At a new build site, with Dana, digging holes. We chopped into the rocky earth with heavy metal poles, slamming the sharp end into the ground over and over again. Another person used a different tool to dig down and remove the loose rocks and earth, and then we repeated. Slamming down to loosen the soil and break rocks, then remove. Then I was on my hands and knees with a tin can, scooping earth out, until I was lying on the ground reaching up to my shoulder into the hole to pull out those deeply embedded rocks. We dug holes and more holes as the sun traced through the sky and baked down on our bodies. Each house needed 15 holes, each of them two or three feet deep. A wooden post went in and painstaking measurements were taken with a tape, the post was pulled out, and we continued digging. Finally, the first stake was plunged into the earth and the hole was filled with rocks, gravel, and dirt. In the opposite corner, the next stake was planted, and we used a tube filled with water to make sure the posts were level. Strings were tied to loosely hammered nails, and then each hole received a stake that had to rest perfectly beneath the line. A post went in, it was too high, we pulled it out to keep digging. The sun rose in the sky and we worked through the morning, dig and chop, rocks and posts. The tent of the family provided early shade, but as we worked, the shade crept away into burning sunlight. Over the course of the day I drank a gallon of water.
Two Haitian representatives of the company Digicel (a potentially large donor) had joined our team for the day. They invited Dana and me to eat with them, and I was glad to retreat to the interior of the tent for a few minutes. “You rasta?” One of them asked me as we took seats on an odd collection of stools.
“A lot of people ask me that, and I think it means something different to everyone.”
“What’s it mean to you?”
“To me, it’s about respect and understanding, humility, self-awareness. I try to practice love and respect for all of humanity.”
He nodded. “So one love. No differences.”
“You don’t need to have dreads to be rasta,” he said. “I am rasta.”
“Yeah man, I can tell.”
They passed around a few Tupperware containers of pulled turkey, yams, and rice as a skeletal stray cat begged for scraps. They asked us about Un Techo, and we described the mission. “It seems like a solid organization, from what we’ve seen so far. They do a great job involving the local community, yet they also recognize that just building a house isn’t going to change things. The house is like a commitment. It’s just the beginning. After we leave, other Un Techo volunteers stay to implement Stage 2: social inclusion programs that will help the community lift itself out of poverty.”
We talked a little bit about the politics, and it was interesting to hear what they had to say about the new president and the overall situation that Haiti was in. Sadly, they didn’t seem to have much hope for their country. I had to tell them that I shared their frustrations, mentioning that it wasn’t actually even legal for Un Techo to be working here. “Also,” I went on. “Did you guys see those huge houses up on the hill?”
“Yeah, what’s the deal with those?”
“Those are government-owned houses. They are unoccupied. I think like five or ten of the 60 houses are used, but the rest are empty. There is a whole camp of thousands of displaced people here, yet the government won’t let anyone live in those houses. Because they can’t pay, of course.”
Our conversation turned to US politics. “In a lot of ways, it’s not all that much better for us,” I went on. “I guess that’s politics in general. It takes forever to get anything done, and then as soon any progress is made in any direction, the other side immediately tries to undo everything that was just done.”
Dana brought up the recent budget crisis, mentioning how both sides just ended up at each others’ throats rather than trying to unite. “This time, they were deadlocked, the whole government almost shut down, because one side was trying to cut out women’s health, art, and music,” she fumed. “Kids need art and music!”
One of the Haitian guys was nodding. “WE need art and music!”
“This is why I hate politics,” I said. “I think real change has to come from other sources.”
“Yes,” he shot me a knowing look. “That’s why rasta mindset is so important.”
We gave the cat some scraps and then stepped back out into the heat of the sun. It was mid afternoon by the time all 15 posts had been planted into the earth. A pile of prefab wooden floor and wall panels lay on the ground nearby, delivered earlier that day, and in teams of four or five we lifted the huge 3×3 meter floor panels and carried them over to the house-in-progress. We called it a day when we ran out of nails to hammer the floors into place, and I guzzled another quart of water as we retreated back to the blessed shade of the orphanage.
The roofing materials had arrived, so later in the afternoon, we returned to Rosemary’s house. She wouldn’t stop smiling when she saw us walking over, and she watched us patiently the entire time we worked, continuing to fill our bottles with water and chunks of ice as often as we would let her. Nadia and I climbed up onto the roof and straddled crossbeams once again, and from below a huge sheet of corrugated tin was passed up to us. When the sheet was finally, painstakingly lined up and hammered down, the next piece was passed up. The same process was taking place on the other side of the roof, but there was only one person working, and it was one of the Haitian team directors. He bounded back and forth across the roof, holding nails in his teeth and slamming tin sheets into place with single deft blows. He had single-handedly constructed his side of the roof in the time it had taken me to hammer in about four nails.
Before the final tin sheet was even nailed into place, Rosemary was already inside the house, sweeping her new floor.
Canaan is a neighboring IDP camp where almost 28,000 displaced people have sought shelter. Alejandro wanted to take us through, so we hopped into the bed of the pickup truck as the sun started to go down. The gravel road twisted and climbed into the hills of Canaan, passing through patches of light rainfall as the cool wind gusted against us. Tents and completed Un Techo houses were scattered across the barren landscape. Ragged dogs trotted across the road, and children waved gleefully when we shouted bonsoir. A blast of chilly wind announced our arrival at the peak of the hill. Behind us, a sea of tents and tin roofs stretched into the distance. Before us, far below, was the cloudy ocean. The orange sun hung low over the sea, hazy through a distant rainfall. Far across the waters, the dark outline of Gonâve Island peeked through shafts of sunlight falling from storm clouds.
When we returned, I climbed to the roof of the orphanage to sit beneath the straying raindrops for a sweat stained, dirt caked moment of solitude. After a while, I noticed Nadia on the other side of the roof, writing by headlamp. She was chatting with a Haitian volunteer who was sitting beside her, and I walked over to join them. “But what about New Jersey?” He was saying.
“New Jersey??” She asked.
He was asking questions about US geography. We were from Miami, Nadia was explaining. Which is a city. New Jersey is a state.
“Also a state.”
“And San Francisco?”
I knelt down beside them. We exchanged names; his sounded like “Willa”, though I would later discover that it was spelled “Roland.” He remembered our names for the duration of the visit.
“So…city? State?” The language barrier was pretty extreme. His English and his Spanish were both limited, yet his patience was incredible. He focused so hard as he spoke, slowly picking out the words. He would intersperse Spanish here and there, sometimes asking us for the word in English. I pulled out my notebook, and we drew a crude map of the US in order to demonstrate the difference between cities and states.
“So…there are cuantos states?”
“Whoa.” A smile crept across his face. “50.” He paused to formulate the next question. “So…government…50, or one?”
Nadia and I laughed. “That’s a good question. Well….” And we spent thirty minutes responding to the questions he continued to ask, trying to explain the nuances of federal versus state government, how different laws can apply to different regions, why there is no problem traveling across state borders.
“In your country…time is the same as here?”
“Well… our country is so big that we actually have four different times.”
“Whoa.” That same intrigued smile appeared on his face. He paused for a moment. “Why?”
“Well…” Nadia drew a diagram of the sun on my crude US map, tracing its trajectory from east to west. “The sun rises over here, and goes this way…so, it rises earlier over here, and later over here.”
He paused to take that in. “So, when the sun rises here,” he pointed at the east coast and then at the west, “here it is dark?”
We nodded. “Yes, exactly.”
He thought for about 30 seconds. “Why?”
Nadia and I glanced at each other. “Ok, so we now somehow have to explain how the rotation of the earth creates time zones.”
Roland’s curiosity was insatiable. He’d clearly had little or no education in the realm of world geography/astronomy, and he had to fully devote himself just to understand the language Nadia and I were speaking, yet he grasped everything we were saying. It was pretty unbelievable that the three of us were able to communicate such complex topics with such simplified language. Later he asked about climate in the US. We had to draw a map of the globe and sketch in the equator and the poles. “So,” he said after our explanation. “Cold.” He pointed at the North Pole. “Menos cold, menos cold,” he said as he moved his finger towards the equator.
“Sorry,” he said when we finally descended from the roof together, smiling. “I just have many questions.”
Our supply of nails had been replenished, and it was time to finish the floors and put up the walls. Again in teams of four or five or six, we carried the huge prefab wall panels over to the house and heaved them upright until they rested upon the edge of the floor. Thin support beams were angled against both sides of each wall, crisscrossing inside the house. After the six wall panels were in place, we began nailing them together. This was not nearly as straightforward as it might seem. Most of the wood was mildly warped or otherwise imperfect, and each time we’d prepare to hammer in the next nail, the Haitians would spend five or ten minutes arguing about whether the walls needed to be pushed or pulled or raised or lowered or tweaked in some other way in order to correct the imperfections. It was slow progress.
We worked through the heat of the day, continuing to drink copious amounts of water. When I left my construction site late in the afternoon, I walked up to the Un Techo base camp just up the hill from the orphanage. This was the center of operations; people were coming and going from within the huge tarps. A generator whirred and clanked away, powering someone’s laptop and a small TV. I looked out across the vast, windswept hills dotted with USAID tents, corrugated tin shacks, and Un Techo houses. The billowing wind hurled clouds of dust at me as I walked back towards the orphanage. There was something both beautiful and sad about this place. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen poverty. I’ve returned from places like this, I’ve gone back to the US, back to my country of gluttony and excess, I’ve felt the nagging discomfort before. And I still do not understand how we can allow such a heartbreaking divide to exist in this world.
I climbed to the roof of the orphanage again to watch the sunset, and then I came down when it began to grow dark. Waiting for dinner, working on these notes, I sat on the stairs with Nadia and Dana, surrounded by Roland and a quickly growing cluster of Haitians who had suddenly decided that we needed to learn Creole. The moment burned into my memory: here we sat, surrounded by a dozen huge, tough-looking Haitian dudes wearing metal chains and sideways caps, who were collapsing into fits of giggles when we attempted to repeat the Creole phrases they were teaching us.
I awoke suddenly at some point in the pitch-black early hours of the morning. The music, the drumming, the radios, the conversation, it was all gone—everything was silent. I unzipped the tent carefully, slipped on my sandals, and stepped outside into the courtyard of the orphanage. Everything was fiercely illuminated in the moonlight. The gusting wind was warm against my body. The lights of Port-au-Prince twinkled on the far hillside, nestled into the base of the mountain way across the valley. A thousand stars pierced the blackness. The wind whistled as it tore through the orphanage, and all else was still.