Haiti Rundown #2 – Degaje
August 24, 2010

This picks up after we had arrived and settled into our cooperative house in the jungle….

Days 3-5:

Most of our bags did not arrive with us,  so many of us only had what was in our carry-ons. We expected such a twist, so I at least had one change of clothes and necessities, but one change of underwear in the sweaty jungle can only go so far. Anyway, this little detail set the tone of our stay, as we grew more attuned to the Haitian principle of “degaje,” which is best summed up by Tim Gunn with, “Make it work, people.” Just go with the flow, do what you gotta do, rig it, whatever; just don’t lose your cool.

We woke on Day 3, ate incredibly fresh fruit and hiked into the center of the village of Marfranc to get to work painting a school. My friend Steve and I focused on spraying the upstairs, which was bare concrete, with base coats of barely tinted paint, more like colored water, which quickly soaked into the concrete. To paint the top of the second floor’s outside wall, I salvaged a long bamboo stick and taped it to a roller. Made it work. The others painted the several downstairs rooms. Because of the thin paint, this process continued for multiple coats over the next few days. It was hot, dirty, sweaty work, and we all loved it.

We had planned to make farther hikes up to some even more remote villages in the mountains to scout sites for a clinic and a school. But we needed a truck to take us to a distant drop-off point, and our host’s truck was broke, and the clutch we brought with us for him to fix it was the wrong part. So we stayed in Marfranc. Degaje. And it turned out wonderfully.

In addition to multiple trips to paint, we also paid a visit to the local nursing home, where we brought a different kind of paint, for fingernails. I didn’t like the idea. I hate nursing homes. The stench, the sounds, the sock-clad feet dragging under wheelchairs. The loneliness. But that’s not at all what we found. We found massive smiles. Clapping. Fresh air, zero stench. Laughs. Dancing. And dignity. Far smaller than any nursing home I’ve been to, and far more public. No one had their own room, just their own cot and bedside table, sharing two single-room, open-hallway barns, for lack of a better descriptor. One for women and one for men. No closed windows, no doors. No privacy. But also no beeping medical equipment. No sterility. And not as much senility in my opinion. Just lots of precious souls encouraging each other to degaje. We handed out plastic shaving razors to the men, and then we moved over to the women’s structure. And that’s where my comfort zone disappeared, thanks to Joline, our hostess with the mostest, who invited us to paint the ladies’ nails, because they love it. It was the little push I needed.

I painted a few ladies’ nails, the first one’s name was Ramon, a frail lady. She had pus running from her eyes and had difficulty hearing. But she held herself with dignity and a refined toughness that only comes from degaje-ing over a lifetime of hardship. She pulled my hand to her lips for a kiss of silent gratitude. And with that I imagined my late grandmother, with her gentle touch, and all the other mother figures in my life, and how Ramon had this aura about her that all mothers share, and she felt like my grandmother. She loved me and I loved her. All the ladies, maybe 30 of them, got their nails painted, including a young lady, maybe in her teens, who apparently had MS or a similar disability. She can only just lay in her cot, with zero response, only looking as the world spins around her. And Steve, perhaps our “toughest” team member knelt down and painted her nails to make sure she wasn’t left out. It was a beautiful day.

One of the days we walked around the market, which only happens two days a week. Market day is when people from all the surrounding tiny villages pour into Marfranc to buy and sell whatever they may have been able to harvest, kill, or otherwise acquire. When you look around at the mountains and jungle, you would never know there were thousands of people living all over the place, under the canopy of banana and cacao trees and behind veils of sugarcane. But on market day they all come out of hiding, wade across the Grand Anse river (there are no bridges), and buzz around the central village.

The sounds: Machetes hacking through cow legs. A hand plane shaving an ice block, making (literally) shaved ice to douse with black syrup from an old antifreeze jug. Machete blades dragging across hand-turned sharpening stones – one man, squatting on the ground, hand-turns a crank that spins an old motorcycle rim, which turns a leather belt, which turns the grinding wheel for the man standing up, holding the blade to the grinder. People shouting. Vendors announcing their wares. Goats bleating. Pigs grunting. Young men slamming dominoes on a piece of plywood. Plantains sizzling in oil in a cast-iron cauldron over an open fire in the street.

Which brings me to the smells – Cow skin and fat festering in the very hot sun. Food simmering next to it. The fragrance of ripe tropical fruit blends into the air, but the sweetness is tempered with the earthy must of the pigs’ wallow nearby. Around the corner is the smell of fresh tobacco laid out on paper, and an old lady smoking her thick, self-made roll of it. And there’s lots of sweat. And that is the market. After people get what they need, they carry it on their heads or drag it behind them (especially if it’s a live animal), strip down, and wade back across the chest-deep river, back to their homes under the trees.

After spending our days painting walls and painting nails and roaming the market, we hiked back home, through a centuries-old cemetery, through a narrow pass in the jungle foliage, past an old sugar pressing plant, down a hillside path overlooking banana plantations and people singing together while they hand-plow fields. Those were most of our days.

Except the day we went to the beach, which, all I can say here, was by far one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever visited. Absolutely breathtaking, and refreshing after our hard work days. A big, private cove flanked by green-covered limestone cliffs. Crystal clear, aquamarine water. And an old sunken WWI German U-boat laying right in the middle of the cove, hinting at the undercurrent of constant political turmoil in Haiti. We played on its rusted skeleton. And there was a swim-in cave. And powder sands. And I can’t say enough.

I’ve taken too much room already, so I’ll save our last full day, return trip, and deep thoughts for next post.

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I’m Off to Haiti…
August 8, 2010

By the time you read this (unless you’re up too late or a Kiwi), I’ll be on my way to (or already in) rural Haiti. Been looking forward to this for a long while now. Had a bit of panic today when I realized I misplaced my passport (but found it). Also whacked my nose and thought I broke it (but didn’t). Also mis-stepped and thought I tweaked my ankle (but didn’t). So I’m on my way finally.

While I’ve enjoyed the privilege to visit many nations before, this trip is a bit different. Until recent years, such trips found me over-preparing so I could be the most effective missionary possible. That’s not the case with this one. In fact, my biggest trepidation is that I am completely  unprepared. For instance, I feel like I haven’t practiced the Haitian language enough. Part of the problem is that this is one of the first trips that I don’t have the “plan of salvation” memorized in the language of my host country. In the past, that task gave me a big goal for learning more of the language. This time, however, this will be my first journey with a group that isn’t set on getting people “saved.” We don’t have team t-shirts or slogans or a mime drama to perform. Yes, all of us happen to be from my faith community, but we are simply going there to help and learn. Definitely not a vacation, but also not a “mission.” This is nice.

The main reason for me to learn the language this time is simply so we can listen in order to most effectively understand and  learn the best ways to help while we’re there. This is in significant contrast to multiple past “missions,” when we learned a language so we could talk more than listen, to be heard more than hear.

And so I’m a bit awkward feeling as I leave. I feel like I’m not doing enough. I’m just going there to…help. And watch. And learn. I’m  not going so I can preach in the streets. I’m not going with eyes geared toward seeing a country as a salvation project. I’m seeing it as a chance to be a guest in the homeland of smart, life-experienced individuals who may have a lot to teach me, but who also could use whatever helping hand I can give. But helping involves listening and working together, not just talking. So I’m going to try to listen, and just be aware.

I feel incredibly inadequate to be going for just over a week, thinking that I’ll be able to make a difference. But I’m trying to see it as just putting in my little shift, and working my butt off while I can. (My dad kindly described what I think I’m after by mentioning Isaiah 58:6-9. And even for those of us who don’t take everything in the Bible literally, I think that scripture captures it quite well for me.)

Anyway, I am incredibly grateful for the many of you who have made this trip possible with your donations, thoughts and prayers. Thank you.

As electricity, internet access, and time permit, I’ll post updates here (and possibly also at www.journeytohaiti.com).

Stay tuned.