Saturday, June 23, 2007

samedi le 23 juin

So much has happened between yesterday morning and today that I am going to have a hard time fitting it all in one email. To begin, I wrote before that I was going to go on Friday morning to visit the communities in the south with the provincial, Br. Joseph. Thursday evening the director of my house comes home and tells me that I am supposed to stay at the provincial house that evening (Thursday) because we are leaving early the next morning. OK, no problem – throw some things together and go. When I get there, it turns out that Br. Joseph is no longer going south because he has other commitments in town, but the director of the provincial house, Br. Élithère, will be taking me. I never did quite figure out if he actually had business in the south, or if he was just taking me around to be hospitable. Anyway, we get up at some awful hour, 4:30 or so, and we two and a third Brother are on the road by 5. Br. Élithère immediately starts driving like a bat out of hell, which at this point can’t scare me any more than any of the other frightful driving habits I have seen on Haitian streets. We blaze out of Port-au-Prince in what has to be record time, and hit a state road that takes us south. I should say that the roads here are deceptive because they are totally inconsistent; sometimes this “state road” is little different in quality from a normal road in the United States, while at others it is more or less a series of very deep potholes connected by wisps of asphalt. When Br. Élithère hits a patch of good road, he floors the gas pedal, to the point that I almost looked forward to the potholes, except that during those stretches of bad road he takes to swerving and pitching all over the road so as to find the best pieces of road and thereby slow down as little as possible. This whole time, I should add, he regularly acts as if he is driving an automatic transmission instead of a manual, so the engine is screaming at us because we are careening down the road at 90kph in third gear.

Our first stop is the Brothers’ residence at Miragoane, a dusty little one-horse town on the northeast corner of Haiti’s southern peninsula. We pull in at about 7:00 or so, meet the Brothers, eat breakfast, and hit the road again. I should add that this whole time, Br. Élithère is talking to me the same way he is driving: fast and aggressive, and not loudly enough to make up for the noise of the road and the squealing engine. Not that he is being unkind, but when I don’t get his comments and questions the first time, he takes up that tactic that I thought only Americans did with foreigners: he shouts each word at me ridiculously slowly, as if to make sure that I know what an idiot I am for not speaking his French-Kreyol mélange like a native.

I should add at this point that the difference between hearing and listening has never been more acute for me than it is these days here. To listen to one’s own language requires little more than simple hearing – unless we are really distracted by something else, in general if we hear the words, they are instantly meaningful to us and we understand what is going on, even if we aren’t really following the conversation. When someone is speaking a different language, however, it is quite different, at least for a dummy like me. When people around me are speaking French to one another, unless I am actually listening to the words, it easily fades into background noise, just as it would for a language that I don’t know at all. However, we tend to assume that if a person speaks a language beyond his or her native tongue, that he or she has kept up with a conversation by simple fact of being proximate to the speakers. I mention all this because several times Br. Élithère would be speaking to the young Brother in the backseat and suddenly try to get me to join the conversation, and of course I had not been consciously listening, so I didn’t have a clue about what they were saying.

Anyway, after some bumping around on awful roads to get to Br. Élithère’s hometown of Camp-Perrin and seeing some of the sights there, we ended up going to Les Caïes, the third-largest city in Haiti (I think) – the Brothers had a nice house (brand-new) on the outskirts of the city, and a new school under construction, and we spent some time there before going to see their old residence and the school in town. We weren’t there long before blazing off to Port-Salut, a beachfront town not too far south. For me, this was where the real fun began. We got to the house and hung out a bit before deciding to go to the beach, so we went down the road to a local private beach managed by a restaurant/cabana kind of place. I went swimming for an hour or so, and when I got back out of the water, one of the Brothers had ordered dinner for us: cole slaw, fried bananas, tomatoes, and lobster. Let me just say that I love lobster, it’s one of the few things I miss as a vegetarian (but hey, they ordered it, and I don’t want to look ungrateful, right?!) and this was particularly good lobster, even as lobsters go. Sitting there on a beach in the Caribbean, eating a lobster and washing it down with a cold Haitian beer (it’s no Chimay, but somehow I suffered through), it was hard not to laugh at the idea of being in mission territory. After we went back and cleaned up, I happened to mention to one of the Brothers that I had never tasted coconut (there are coconut trees everywhere here, so somehow it came up), and he naturally asked if I would like to try it. Again, who am I to say no, so we went across the yard to one of their coconut trees, and he said he would get someone to climb up to get a coconut for us. Sorry, did you say climb the tree? For those of you whom I don’t know personally, I love to climb trees, so I went ahead and asked if I could do the honors. Long story short, minus shoes and socks, and a quick “Fais attention” (be careful) from the Brothers, and up I go. I admit my technique could have used some work, but I got my coconut, and it was good. A few coconuts later (they cut a pole to shake down another few coconuts so someone else wouldn’t have to climb, but I think mine tasted better for having climbed for it) we got back in the truck and drove back to Les Caïes for the night. The room they gave me was stuffy because of the heat, but like many of the houses here, the Brothers’ place there has a flat roof, so I casually asked if I could sleep up there. Again, long story short, I passed a marvelously cool evening on the roof au clair de lune. A few of the novices came back with us to PAP, and again, Br. Élithère got us up well before dawn. He had us on the road by 5, and home by 10 am, with a few breaks in there to stop back at the house at Miragoane and stop for breakfast. By the by, he drove fast enough and swerved hard enough on the worse parts of the road that one of the novices got carsick and had to get out of the car to throw up. Br. Élithère drove a little more slowly after that...for about 15 minutes.

The Brothers later suggested that, unlike PAP, I would be able to walk around Port-Salut without fear of danger, and the cooler weather and the ready availability of the beach makes that a nice option for future excursions, especially if we wanted to try bringing students. Possibilities…

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