Friday, September 23, 2011

Haitian Diary, Day 1: Sycophants In Linen Pants.

And so it began: My Haitian journey started as all mine do, work late, last minute packing at midnight and then up at 2 a.m. to shower and take the earliest flight outta Dodge. The moon and the stars tell their stories in this pre-dawn wonderland and I listen dutifully, my body moving 80 miles an hour long before my mind's reflex has taken charge, content as it is to count the lightening bugs along the road's shoulders.

NOLA airport: Meet John, Respire's accountant. Waiting game. John suggests we request a seat change. The plane ride is a cocktail of conversation and nervous excitement, slowly sipped and savored. John is tender with brokenness. He shares his story. So much like mine but I keep it inside. There are only a few Haitians on this flight, the animated conversation in Creole behind me reaches a fevered pitch every few minutes, the young woman attempting to convey some profound emotion that the person on the other line seems to be slow to comprehend.

Mr. Sean Penn.

Miami airport: Short layover, pit stop and then waiting again at the gate. Sean Penn brushes past us and is ushered straightaway to First Class; cattle class boards finally. Mr. Penn is still standing as we get on the short flight to the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. He is surrounded by sycophants in linen pants and embroidered polos announcing their humanitarian affiliations. Mr. Penn does a double take when he sees me. Apparently remembering me through the fog of some night of drunken revelry. I do the subtle head nod of affirmation and make my way to the aft section, beyond the gauze barrier that separates the classes. Mr. Penn's 20 year-old girlfriend looks nervously about, we all need coffee. We all need peace.

Haiti: The Port-Au-Prince terminal is a makeshift affair. The original terminal still in disrepair from the 2009 earthquake. There is a band playing tourist friendly Creole music. Their smiles and matching costumes serve as one last artificial sense of the first world. Beyond the doors of the terminal is Haiti. I take a deep breath. Bus exhaust and body odor. Coulda been New York or London, except in my heart. I felt safer in Haiti.

Meeting Megan: She sees John and they share a warm reunion. I am lost in the chaos of a hundred similar reunions. Sleepy eyed travelers blinking in the bright Haitian sun looking for loved ones. Recognition, heart-smiles, laughter, and sweat-drenched affection. Our driver awaits and soon we are speeding along the suicide circuit that is the Haitian National Highway system. Fatigue dissolves into adrenaline and everyone becomes more and more animated. Salty sweet cold drinks from a street vendor and then a not-so-quick stop to purchase 8000 books for the school. I am reserved, for me anyway and self-conscious. I do not know what to expect of the next week and half. Megan's eyes are as blue as the Caribbean. She is looking out the window but she sees far beyond it, into the glorious future of Haiti. I wonder what Sean Penn is having for lunch. I am ready for rice and beans.

Gressier: The house is a holy chaos of children and their implements. Suitcases are shuffled from room to room amidst conversations truncated by telephone calls and instructions for the new guests: Bucket baths, don't flush the TP, if it's yellow, let it mellow.... Standard third-world fare. My time in India makes all this part of the charm if not the privilege of getting the first world out of your system. Up the mountain....

Creole: I am no linguist but there is a quality to the Creole language that fosters warmth and community. Beyond the constant greetings and salutations that mark every meeting everyday, there is a deeply organic personality in its cadence and inflection. Often called dirty French or worse, Creole redeems the remark, grown in Haitian soil, flowering wildly. I learn 20 maybe thirty words this first day before the war of attrition with my memory cuts the number in half. "Te" is dirt, "zeb" is grass. "Frem" is brother. I walk down the mountain. "Bonjou", says a woman with a five gallon bucket of water on her head. "Bonjou" I say, sounding to myself like French tourist with a cold. I wonder if Sean Penn knows the Creole words for "clumsy-tongued American".

Sunset: Night is a cacophony of car horns, loud speakers from soccer matches or church services and the giggles and chatter of Micha, Jessica, and Esther. They are immune to their mother's reproofs. They are not tired and banishment to their room only means trampolining off of each other's beds and the kind of cackling laughter that brings smiles to all of our faces. The rest of the crew decompresses around the large table/work-space while I sit on the front stoop and drink in the Haitian night. Finally the house falls still and silent. The generator stalls out and there is only moonlight splintered by fan blades slowly spinning to a halt.

Bon nui Micha, Jessica, Megan, John, Kyle, Taschi, and Esther. Bon nui Mr. Penn. Sweet dreams all. Sweet dreams. Tomorrow we will begin again. Tomorrow it may all end. But we will have each other, and Love conquers all. Renmen tout triyonf.


  1. Beautiful, Mark! I can't wait to read more!

  2. Aw shucks! Thank you Shannon! I can't wait to share more of incredible Haiti.