My stomach had finally gotten the best of me, so I spent the next morning resting in the shade of the orphanage in close proximity to the Porta-Potty. I sat with my notebook in the corner of the stairs looking out into the courtyard. My body appreciated this rest, but now that my body was slowing down, my mind was speeding up. “What are you doing once you get back from Haiti?” People had been asking me. And I had been troubled by my usual existential predicament, the conflict that has become the undercurrent of my travels and of the writing in this blog. Yes, I still don’t know where I am going or what I am doing. And when the sun is shattered upon the horizon and the cool winds begin to gust, it seems like everything is ok, I feel at home within myself and within the world, I believe that I will be ok no matter where I find myself. Yet in other moments, that hope vanishes; with this stomach trouble, feeling sick and hot and sweaty, when I just ache for a comfy bed and a bath and a bowl of chicken noodle soup, these moments are when I feel the most lost and lonely.
At that moment, bizarrely, a battered yellow school bus rumbled into the orphanage courtyard. A dozen Americans wearing cargo shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and what looked like safari hats filed out of the bus and stood in a line squishing cameras to their faces. I suddenly imagined I might understand what it feels like to be on the other side of tourism. This is my (temporary) home you are photographing! I thought. Why! They were taking pictures of me, too, tucked into this corner on the stairs. Finally, they migrated up to where I was perched, caked in dust and clinging to my notebook. “Hey! What are you doing here?” one of them asked me. I explained that I was here with an organization called Un Techo para mi País, and I told them about the construction that was currently taking place here in Onaville. “And…what about you all?”
“Oh, we’re just here to oversee things, make sure you’re doing your job.”
“No, come on,” another of them chimed in. “Tell him why we’re really here.”
“Ah, I see.”
“Yeah. We are here to pray for these people, to save them, and to do healings.”
Look around. What “these people” need is not prayers. What they need is clean water and food, shelters, and jobs. This is what I wanted to say. Instead, I said, “oh. Where are you staying?”
“At the minister’s house in Port-au-Prince.”
Someone poked his head into the abandoned orphanage. “Whoa—you live here?”
“Yep. In those tents.”
One woman stayed downstairs while the rest of them climbed up to the roof. “Yeah,” she nodded thoughtfully. “It’s really great what you are doing here.”
“Actually, it’s not all that great,” I said. “Building things here—houses, orphanages, whatever—this isn’t really doing anything. There are just so many problems, it’s so much more complex than I had any idea. This is not going to bring them out of poverty, and I don’t know what is.”
She looked directly at me. “Only the Lord Jesus Christ can bring them out of poverty.”
After they left, I headed inside to grab my water bottle from the tent. Now embroiled in thought, my mind raced between seeking home within myself and talking to missionaries about poverty. As I unzipped the tent flap, Roland appeared and said hi. I returned the hello, but I was distracted. I wandered around to the back of the orphanage and sat down on a mound of gravel to continue writing, hoping to sort some of this out. Soon, one of the Haitian volunteers appeared with a bucket of water and a sponge, and he stood behind a wall showering and singing. “Baby don’t worry, you are my only, you won’t be lonely, even if the sky is falling down,” he sang loudly. From my spot on the gravel, I started singing along. “You’ll be my only, no need to worry.” Another volunteer from Miami was taking a bucket shower behind another wall, and she joined in. “Baby are you down, down, down, down, down,” the three of us sang together.
“One love!” The Haitian guy shouted as he shampooed himself. “You listen to Bob Marley?”
“Yeah man,” I called back.
“Sing for me!”
“One love,” the girl from Miami called. “One heart,”
“Let’s, get, together and feel alright,” we all sang together.
“Bob Marley is a prophet,” the Haitian guy called when we finished singing.
“I know, man.”
“You know they story of the rasta movement?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“I have dread in my heart,” he shouted to me as he poured a cupful of water of his head and touched his fist to his chest.
At sunset I went up to the roof and sat with my closed notebook on my lap. It wasn’t long before Roland appeared. He sort of waved as he walked past me, and then disappeared around a corner. A few moments later, he returned. “Are you feeling nostalgie for you country?” he said.
I look at him sort of strangely. “Yes…? I suppose so.”
“Because, I feel you different today.”
Wow. Not only had he picked up on my contemplative mood throughout the day, he even guessed that it had something to do with some sort of nostalgia. I smiled and patted the ground next to me, and he sat. “I know. I feel different today.” I tried to explain. “When I go back to my country…I don’t know where I go.”
“You don’t know?”
I shook my head.
“You don’t go home?”
Ah. I sighed and smiled a little bit. “I don’t know where home is.” I tried to explain my wanderings, my transience and homelessness. How all the places that used to be home no longer feel that way.
“Wait. Home…significa house?”
“Yes, but for me, more. Home significa house, home significa friends, home significa purpose, home significa where I belong….” I did my best to explain my understanding of home as a spiritual concept.
“Oh, I understand,” he said.
“Yes, I understand. For me, the same.”
“Yea. I have house with my parents. But home, I don’t know.”
“No home, travel, short term,” he held up his hands. “Freedom. Long term,” he moved his hands further apart. “Lonely.”
I smiled. “Amen to that.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes and I sighed. This was incredible. We were expressing such complicated abstract topics, despite severe language difficulties; it took so much effort even to explain the simplest ideas. It was so hard, yet once we were able to sufficiently simplify the words, our comprehension transcended language and we understood each other. It took me about 20 minutes to explain this. “You know what I’m saying?” I finally asked.
“Yes, I understand.” He looks at me. “It’s….beautiful.”
After a short pause, he looked at me with that intrigued smile. “I can ask more questions?”
I laughed. “Yeah, of course. What you got?”
“Do you know Arnold Schwarzenegger, and…Celine Dion, and…Michael Jordan?”
“Yeah, I know who they are.”
He was straining so hard to express himself. He spoke slowly, searching for the words. “What is…ideas when sleep?”
“Dream. I am dream….”
“Dreaming. I am dreaming….”
He nodded. “I am dreaming…the occasion…I encontrar…these people. You understand?”
I threw back my head and laughed. “I understand you perfectly man. You’re dreaming of the day you get to meet those people. Me too. I am dreaming of this too.”
He laughed. “You too?”
“Yeah. Me too.”
I took his hand as we walked downstairs together for dinner. “Thank you, Roland. Thank you for coming to talk to me.”
He just smiled. “You are my friend.”
Working again felt good. Caked in grime, my skin used to the sun now, a t-shirt wrapped around my head and face, I sat on the roof hammering nails into the crossbeams. Today, the team was three Haitian volunteers and Dana, Nadia and me. We all worked exceptionally well together, and construction was frequently punctuated by moments of laughter and tomfoolery. We continued practicing the Creole we were slowly beginning to pick up, and the Haitians took every opportunity to teach us new phrases. “Mato!” I shouted when I accidentally dropped my hammer. “Mato tonbe até!” One of them called. He grabbed the hammer and threw it towards the ground. “tonbe até!” Our team leader was amazing at communicating with hand gestures. At one point he climbed up beside me and pantomimed, “we can’t hammer through this spot because there is a knot in the wood that keeps bending the nails.” I pulled the nail out and threw it towards the ground. “Klou tonbe até!” The other guy laughed. “Yes, klou tonbe até!” Nadia and I sat across from each other, hammering crossbeams into place, working much more quickly than we had the first day. I waited for people to drop more things. Another nail slipped and fell to the floor. “Klou tonbe até!”
“Klou tonbe até!” The Haitian guy echoed.
“Nadia tonbe até!”
He made an expression of mock alarm. “No! Nadia PA tonbe até!”
When the roof beams were all in place, we climbed down and played in the rocky “yard.” Nadia began demonstrating workout techniques, and the Haitians were amazed at her strength and endurance. They tried hard, but none of them could keep up with her in pushups, crunches, or a variety of other exercises. We transitioned into handstands and acrobatics, and then one of the Haitian guys taught us a game that involved trying to grab a t-shirt tucked into the back of an opponent’s pants. Later, we walked around Onaville to perform ribbon cutting ceremonies for completed houses. Before heading back to the orphanage, I walked down to Rosemary’s house. With a huge smile on her face, she told me in Spanish how excited she was. “Whenever I am in my house now,” she said, “I will think of you.”
Our work for the day was done, so I returned to the orphanage with Nadia and Dana. A group of Haitians called us over to the spot where they were playing cards, and in broken English they explained the rules. I sat across from a partner, and we played over and over again until we finally won the game. Back at the tent, Nadia and I were making goat and chicken noises. One guy overheard me and for some reason fell in love with my impression. From that point on, every time he saw me his face would light up and he would request the goat sound. Only, he didn’t have the words to ask, so he would stick out his tongue and groan “Behhh” and then cough, hoping I would get the hint.
To escape the mid-afternoon heat for a while, Dana and Nadia crawled into the tent to take a nap. I left the orphanage to take a quick walk, and near Rosemary’s house I knelt down to gather a bit of earth for my collection of sands from around the world. On my way back to the orphanage, I passed the guy who was my partner in our winning game of cards, and he reached out to slap my hand. Passing through the courtyard, the card players smiled and nodded. As I walked into the building, another guy held out his fist. “Rasta.” After I touched my fist to his, his hand went to his heart. I headed towards the stairs to climb up to the roof, and I walked by the guy who loved my goat noise. “Behhh,” he groaned as he stuck out his tongue and coughed. I bleated for him and then continued up the stairs, where a pair of Haitian guys called to me, “anfòm?” I nodded. “Anfòm.”
The evening disintegrated into madness. I reunited with Nadia and Dana, and as we waited and waited for dinner to be served, Haitian volunteers from other nearby camps trickled in until the orphanage was packed with literally hundreds of people. I have no idea where the equipment came from, but they set up huge speakers and a DJ booth. Soon music was blasting through the courtyard, and hundreds of anxious bodies hovered on the fringes of the rubble until Nadia finally broke the barrier and turned the space into a dance floor. When the speakers were blown out, a few of the Haitians from our camp snapped some wooden beams into pieces and built a bonfire on the rocks just outside of the courtyard. When the flames reached head height, some of the Haitians began to sprint and leap over the blaze.
It wasn’t long before the drums came out, and when a rowdy circle formed in the courtyard, I remained sitting on the rocks and gazing into the fire. My time in Haiti was coming to an end. When I arrived here, I was more than a little skeptical; I’d heard the stories about NGOs arriving in Haiti and doing precious little to help, all the while enjoying the profits generated by running ad campaigns depicting the poverty. But now, I felt like I had a slightly deeper understanding of the reality of the situation here. I was grateful for Un Techo. Earlier, I’d spoken with Nadia about the experience. “I’ve done a lot of volunteering,” she had said. “But this is the first time I haven’t felt underworked and over appreciated.” Un Techo entertained no illusions that we volunteers were here to make a real difference. Our time here wasn’t really about building houses; it was about sharing the reality that the people here live every day. And if I did make a difference in any way, it was through individual interactions. I didn’t change Haiti, I didn’t change Onaville, but perhaps I did have some sort of small impact on Rosemary or on Roland. And, of course, Haiti changed me. Now, as always, the questions course ever deeper. What does it actually take to bring a community out of poverty? Faced with the reality that defines the lives of one billion people, how can we allow such a heartbreaking divide to exist in our world? If this truly matters to me, what role can I play in this struggle?
During my time in Haiti, I worked alongside volunteers from across this country who had come to build houses with no expectation for personal gain. I pushed the boundaries of my ability to communicate without English. I smiled and laughed with the people who call this place home.
The fire crackled and danced over a pool of rippling embers. Tomorrow, I would board a flight back to the US. Tomorrow, I would leave, but not forget. I thought of all the news reports I had read before coming here, all of the destruction, crime, devastation, pain, poverty. I looked around me and thought about the sound of Creole shouted into the sunset wind, the way Rosemary smiled as she thanked us in four languages, the guy who likes my goat sound, the children wearing rags and the light in their eyes as they handed us nails. This will be how I remember Haiti.