Wednesday, June 20, 2007

mercredi le 20 juin

Lots of odds and ends things coming together these days. I went into town with a couple of the Brothers to buy a shirt at a big outdoor square called Champ de Mars. There were lots of people around the plaza, presumably unemployed and perhaps unemployable. There was a nice amphitheater that looked ready for a band to show up and start playing, but it looked like such a thing hadn't happened in a while. Like many of the places I have seen, Champ de Mars looks like it was once very nice but has not been kept up; in a city in America I could imagine it being a main attraction, but here it is mostly for out-of-work young men and for artisans trying to peddle the few pieces of wood left in the country for a few dollars. When we got to the stand where they were selling shirts, I found something I wanted, and I expected to haggle about the price, because certainly they jack up the price for foreigners, but the Brother who was handling the price war with this woman actually made me uncomfortable by demanding that the vendor go too low on her price. Perhaps that's why American tourists have a reputation for being taken for a ride when they buy local souvenirs: maybe they know the price is raised for them, but they also know that a few dollars' difference to us might mean a lot to the vendor. At any rate, the Brother talked this woman down from 150 Haitian dollars, which is a little over $20, to 100 Haitian dollars. You can do the math. Haitian dollars don't actually exist on paper, mind you -- the real currency here is the gourd, but for some reason people figure costs in Haitian dollars (5 gourdes = 1 Haitian dollar). Whatever.

Today was the birthday of Br. Norbert, one of the older Brothers here, and given the size of the feast we had and the number of Brothers from around the city who showed up, birthdays seem to be quite a big deal around here. Br. Joseph Alexandre, the provincial, came for the meal, and we ended up talking about how things are going, etc., and we made plans for me to go with him to the southern part of the country, to the city of les Caies, for the weekend. Apparently there is some kind of house there built for mission groups, so I definitely want to check it out. I am realizing more and more that language barriers would be a factor here, especially to work with the poorer segment of society, since they would not really speak or understand French, much less English.

I have to change course at this point and say a few things about the food here. First, let me preface by saying that it has almost all been very good. Still, it's different. I have foregone my usual vegetarian ways for the duration of my stay, both to be open to trying things and so as not to be a burden on people with far fewer food choices than we are. Too bad the computer was on the blink a few nights ago; I wanted to write something after we finished our supper, which consisted of onion pie (not good, BTW), banana soup, and potted meat. This evening was banana and tripe soup, to which I added some cassave, a tough crackery kind of thing made from manioc. Several of the things they eat here are the same as back home, just at different times; spaghetti for breakfast, oatmeal for supper, bananas used like we use potatoes. They also really seem to like Manieschewitz, the really sweet Jewish wine they keep at the back of the liquor store. Again, whatever floats your boat. They have few things here that we don't have, but that I really like: a fruit they call veritables, another they call abricots, which is the French word for apricot but which is totally different from our apricots, and a corn-based dish like grits that reminds me a lot of sadza, the staple food in Zimbabwe.

I have been talking with some of the Brothers about the local politics and the history of what has been going on around here, and it's pretty insane. One of the Brothers who came to lunch today was kidnapped and beat up last year, and several students at the school where I am staying were also kidnapped. They say that was going on up until about December. However, they also mentioned that Americans are safer than the locals, because the Haitian government does not tend to do much when Haitians were kidnapped.

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