Last Saturday, I walked around town with my two guides, Emmanuel and Maurice, a seventh and fourth grade boy. I didn’t realize quite how big Ouanaminthe is. We walked to another border crossing where there is a huge factory. In that neighborhood is where they also cut down trees to make charcoal and cut the river for a border crossing. I also passed by a cock fighting ring and a lot of gazebos where men gather to play dominos. The loser in dominos places a clothespin on his face. You’ll pass by men who appear to have green beards but are really just green plastic clothespins. We also passed by a chalkboard that had Italian cities written on it, Rome, Milan, Naples. Turns out that Haitains are a big fan of European soccer and have soccer movie theaters. Most of the tour was visiting other seventh graders. I also got a mix of reactions from people mostly based on whether they thought I was Dominican, Cuban, or American. If you’re a Dominican walking around Haiti with kids, you will get not so nice looks because a Dominican walking around with a kid is a Dominican walking around with a child servant. Another funny reaction was coming across babies. The moment I get in reach of two or three steps of a baby, they start screaming their heads off which usually results in laughter from the parents. All the other kids scream at the top of their lungs- Blan, Blan, Blan. I actually woke up the next day with what I thought was a kid yelling outside my window Blan, Blan but turned out to be the dog barking. The most exciting part of the walk was coming across a highschool volleyball game. Everyone get as close as possilbe to the boundaries, yelling, making grand gestures anytime there is a question of the ball being out. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay to see who won because it was getting late and the Sisters told me never to stay at the end of a game in case the losing team starts throwing rocks. It was nice to see more of the city even though the landscape doesn’t change much of cement houses, mango trees, kids playing in the dirt roads and people in line at the water pump, it has its own beauty and I never get tired of seeing new faces.
I was playing basketball one Tuesday afternoon with some sixth and seventh grade boys, wearing my jean skirt which does not have the best mobility for jump shots. Carl, one of the seventh grade boys, has started to say s— every time he missed the ball. I gave him a talking to and explained that it is not a polite word to use. After our little talk, I was going in for a drive and tripped, scartching up my knee and hand pretty badly. As I was hunching over, I was mumbling sh. Carl asks me “Quoi Madame, qu’est-ce que tu veux dire, sh–?” (What Madame, what do you want to say sh– ?) No Carl, you already said it enough today for the both of us. Walking back to the school office, all the kids were running up asking “Let me look, let me look”. One little fourth grade boy slightly lifted up my jean skirt to take a peak at my knee. But fortunately now it’s all healed up and I’m back on the court. If you hear Haitians play basketball, you’ll hear oh mon cheri, Out! Out!, Walking, Walking and now they have picked up double dribbling which they pronounce, doorbell- I was a little bit confused the first time I heard it.
I had my first excursion to the beach last week which took a little convincing to go. Sleeping under a tent is not something that you willingly choose to do in Haiti. I went with a friend, Becca, who is also volunteering in Haiti, and her group of volunteers, who had made this trip before. The beach was probably as remote as you can get well besides the mysterious Frenchman who lives in his yacht. I took my first Haitian transportation, a tap tap, which is a pickup truck, with seating in the back. The nicer ones, have a covering, some cushioning, and are brightly painted. The more rustic have wooden planks set up in the bed of the truck. The question of the day is How many Haitians can you squeeze into one tap tap. I’ve seen twenty. Another game is what’s the most important part of a Haitian car and try to figure out how many your car has- is it the brakes, mirror, the horn. For me, it’s the horn because it’s Haitian car communication. You might not be able to brake but you can give people a beep in advance especially important if you’re driving in the mountains. Before we left, we went to a grocery store, which is weird to go into an American style grocery store in Haiti with actual store aisles with marked prices and a cash register. Im used to going to the street markets with the sisters with piles of fish here, women sellling limes, on the top of their heads and where prices can change and be bargained. I did find a bottle Aunt Jemima syrup which I bought for the Sisters. The drive from Cap Haitian to Labadie is a dirt paved road zigzagging through the mountains with breathtaking views of mountains, cliffs, and blue sea. I just made sure my eyes were on the vista and not the road. As we went down the last descent to the beach near Labadie, I noticed guard rails with a marked improvement in the road and not near so much trash. Also there was a strange wire, not electric, going down the mountain. Well as I soon discover that is part of the zipline for the Royal Carribean beach in Labadie, which feels like a faraway Neverland from the world outside its chain-linked fences. Through the eight-foot high fence, you can see lounge chairs, jetskis, boats, huge inflatable toys. We were on the other side and took a Haitian water taxi, which are rickety wooden boats covered with tin. On each post of the covering was painted an inspiring word, wisdom, hope, love except for the last one in the back which was painted, boat driver, designating his seat. After a twenty minute boat ride, we landed into a little beach cover, which also is obviously used by Royal Carribean including the Bamboo Bar and a Haitian cultural stroll. A mysterious frenchman lives on his yacht there for about three months of the year and a group of Haitians stay and take care of the beach. The beach was absolutely stunning with crystal blue water, cliffs and mountains in the background, and coral reefs. It’s like a tropical Italy. After soaking in some tropical sun and lounging on the beach for two days, I felt refreshed and ready to return to my kids on Sunday.
April has also been kite season here. The first kite I saw was in the trees which I didn’t recognize as a kite until seeing a little boy running down the road trying to make his kite fly. They use leftover plastic bags, popsicle sticks or sticks used for hotdogs, and place string around an old bottle of sorts. It seems to work pretty welll- I saw one kite that was about 40 yards in the air. I actually got helped in making one with one of my favorite next door neighbors, Maurice, who is a little five year old boy with a hearty laugh and also is a big help in correcting my Creole. We took an old palm branch to make the base, a black plastic bag, some string we found on the ground and up, up, and away… well except as I was told by Maurice I used a palm branch that was too old so the kite didn’t get quite so high as we wanted.
April showers have come to Ouanaminthe and thank goodness. It hasn’t rained since January which has been hard for the farmers. The sisters haven’t been able to plant a large portion of their garden because they’ve been waiting for the rain. The first day of rain brough with it a very unexpected surprise, hail! The sisters had told me before that it hailed but I thought either I didn’t understand or I just didn’t believe them. But I saw it with my very own eyes and immediately asked, Impossilbe, How the heck is their hail in Haiti? Which brought some laughter. I still don’t understand how hail comes when it’s 90 degrees outside.
I asked Isaac, one of the fifthe grade boys, why they stay so long to play soccer on Friday. He said that it was in their class schedule. He pulled out his notebook and showed me his handwritten class schedule and sure enough Football was in the space 1-2 Friday afternoon. Hmmm, I thought that’s interesting- that’s the first time I’ve seen that. The next day, I go into the fifth grade classroom and look at their bulletin board with the class schedule and what do I find 1-2 Friday afternoon, Departure. He wrote in Football himself to show his parents at home. They are seriously one bunch of rascals.
In the past two weeks, I ‘ve ended up having to be the substitute teachers for the kindergartner class and the second grade class. The hardest part is not cracking a smile. The kids love to come up and ask for permission to go to the bathroom. I’ll see one tiny hand in the air approach me then all of the sudden I’m swarmed by thirty little people with their hands waving in the air yelling Permission Madame, Permission Madame. I have to say a million times, no sit down. Or I’ll hear Madam Madam, he hit me, she took my pencil. A lot of times, I have no clue what they’re are saying but I go along pretending, “You did that, a student like you. Say sorry and if you took something, give it back.” I was not so happy though yesterday to find a little kindergarten girl latched to my arm and then ended up trying to bite me to get my attention but such is life inside a kindergarten class. The day ended well though with all the totters singing You are my Sunshine.
One question that has confused me here is asking how many children are in a family. The response is always given with how many children the mother has. I asked the sisters why do you say the mother and not their parents. The sisters said, it is the mother who carries the baby when she is pregnant and the mother who suffers to raise the children and give them an education. The father comes and goes as he pleases. He might leave for two or three years and then decide to come back. Haitian men think women are weak, which is very strange to me. I think of a mother washing clothes here. Not only does she walk to the nearest river or water supply, hand wash clothes, probably for seven or more people but then she has to walk back with a load of wet, heavy clothes on top of their head. I don’t know weak people here.
Sometimes i get to have a nice chat with the driver for the Sisters, Mr. Bernard, if I go along with Sr. Mary Mercie to do her errands or if I have one myself. One time when it was just him and me in the car, a man knocked on my window motioning that he wanted to talk. I thought it was a bit strange because he didn’t look familiar but I rolled down my window. He just wanted to take the opportunity to say hello to the Father. Bernard laughed- no, no, I’m not a priest. Afterwards, Bernard told me this happens pretty often which is no wonder since many cars have religious in them and also Bernard wears a big cross on a chain. But back to our talks, recently it has been a lot of politics with the elections. He is the president of the Martelly bureau of his district and is very proud of it. He wears a bright pink Martelly bracelet. If you asked him about the other presidential candidate Maginat, he would say with his eyebrows furrowed and bottom lip sticking out, that there would be a lot of problems and riots. He also told me he wants to see election run only by Haitians and not paid by foreigners which is something I would like to see too. He also thinks that Martelly will be president for the next twenty five years with an interrum session of Wycleaf Jean, his fellow artist and associate. Although I am not sure what to think of Martelly, it has turned out to be peaceful which is what the country needs. It has been a winding, twisting election with as many turns as the Mississippi and I am glad to reach the end, well almost the end. Now it is a matter of transition of power.
Well, Carl is one of my seventh grade boys with a lot of gusto.He is the class clown and can even crack up teachers while they are scolding him but can also be the bully of the playground but a beloved bully. I think that he also must love school because he is usually the last person to leave school and is at school seven days a week. He also has a bottomless pit for a stomach- sometimes he is the last person at school because he sneaks to the school kitchen to eat the leftovers from that day. Sometimes my eye overlooks this because it’s hard to scold a hungry boy.
But it was a question for a while if Carl could come back to school next year because he was failing and he could be a terror with the little kids. For the first four months I didn’t know what to do with him in the classroom- walking around the classroom, starting fights with the other students. Grading the English exams for the second trimester, to my astonishment, Carl who had been scraping at the bottom in October now has the highest grade! I told Sr. Gracitane and her mouth nearly dropped and we looked at his other exams and found the same. We’ve been trying to find the source of this miraculous change. Sr. Gracitane thinks it’s because he wants to come to the Youth Easter celebration at school which lasts three days meals included. Well, Sr. Gracitane really thinks he wants to come for the food at the Easter celebration. To come the seventh graders have to have a grade 7 out of 10. I also told Carl that if he didn’t have 7 out of 10, he couldn’t be part of the volleyball team, which would be a sacrifice on my part too because he is one of the best players. Also it used to be three months ago, sitting in my room on a Saturday afternoon I would hear kids playing outside and then Carl yelling at a little fourth grader and sometimes chasing him down with a rock in hand. Now on a Saturday afternoon, I hear them playing but now the fourth graders call out Carl Carl because they want to play with him. But mostly I think it’s the grace of God and the guidance of the Sisters.