Thursday, January 20, 2011

Haiti: My Best Friend Reggie

Without a doubt, the best part of my Haiti trip was meeting my new friend, Ysemaille’s ten-year-old son Reggie. Reggie is the sweetest child imaginable, and smart and thoughtful too. Once when we were riding in the truck together, he noticed me squinting to read my cell phone screen in the glare of the direct sunlight. Without any prompting or fuss, he carefully cupped his hands around the screen so I could see it clearly. How many adults would be so considerate?

Reggie got a Checkers and Tic-Tac-Toe game for Christmas. Checkers is a bit too abstract for him just yet, but he took to Tic-Tac-Toe like a fish to water. We played for hours. Reggie speaks Creole, understands French, and speaks a bit of French unless he’s feeling shy. I speak French and understand (some) Creole. We communicated in a combination of the two languages. The only word of either that you really need to understand the following dialogue is “gagner,” which is the verb “to win:”

Petra (placing my second white piece on the tic-tac-toe board): Mets les trois pieces en ligne: ca fait gagner.
Reggie (putting a black piece in the left corner, blocking my two white pieces): Voila, Reggie blocke, Reggie a gagner?
Petra (placing another white piece in what I have correctly assessed as a futile attempt put three pieces in a line and win the game): Pas encore, mais…
Reggie (putting down a third piece): Ah! Reggie a gagner!
Petra (tickle-tackling Reggie with cuddles, reducing him to delighted giggles): Oui, magnifique! Reggie a gagner perfectment: Formidable. Tu as gagne mon coeur aussi.

Tic-Tac-Toe was only one of the activities we did together, though. We played on the computer when the internet was up, typing out our addresses and sending emails to the USA. He’s fascinated by addresess. Another day I gave him a tour of my tent, and he helped me make my bed. He especially liked my pillow, which I do have to admit is quite nice. Later I asked him to comb my hair (of course, everyone is fascinated by my hair), which he did so gently I was amazed. Then he went to get the hair oil from the bedroom, to comb it through mine as his dad does through his (I thanked him and explained that white people don’t usually use hair oil).

The day we took his stepmom to the airport, he couldn’t believe I wasn’t going too. The whole way to the airport, he kept asking me, “Aux Etates-Unis?” which means “to the United States?” and was his abbreviated way of asking me if I was going home. I told him no, I’m staying with you for a while longer. On receiving this answer he would assume I’d misunderstood the question, wait long enough to be polite, and repeat it.

Perhaps my favorite day with Reggie was the day we drew pictures of our houses: first his own, then mine. We carefully chose the colors and noted all important elements: door, window, porch, chairs, lamp, hill, and sky. As we drew he exclaimed “quell belle maison!” which is “what a beautiful house!” His delight and pride in his house (and his drawing) truly touched my heart. Seeing where Reggie lives, most people in the US would barely see a house much less a beautiful house. But Reggie’s pride is understandable, as his house is undoubtedly the nicest in the neighborhood. We taped our beautiful drawings up around the beautiful house, and sat down for another game of Tic-Tac-Toe.

Haiti: Where I Stayed

My First Home in Haiti: My tent pitched in Ysmaille’s back yard. Ysmaille’s house is four rooms: bedroom, kitchen, livingroom, and bathroom (though since the refrigerator and stove are in the livingroom while the desk, computer, phones, internet etc are in the kitchen, the lines are a bit blurred). It’s built of cement with a tin roof, and the interior floors are tiled. The bathroom has all the fixtures you’d recognize, but there’s no water to the taps (see “water” below).

Residents: Ysmaille sleeps in the bedroom. His son Reggie and part-time domestic helper Flatude sleep on mats in the livingroom, which they put away each morning and retrieve each evening when they’re ready to go to bed. The first time I saw Reggie grow sleepy, get out his mat and blankets, and put himself to bed in the middle of the kitchen – all lights on, music still going, people up and about – I was floored. Roudy, Ysmaille’s friend and colleague, sleeps in a tent in the yard. Our tents were right next to one another and I grew very accustomed to the sounds of Roudy’s snores. He snores continually and very loudly. While this initially drove me crazy, I eventually came to find it comforting. Haiti was a stressful and scary place to be, but if Roudy was snoring, than he was sleeping, and that meant things were calm and ok.

My ‘room’: My tent, pitched in the dirt yard behind the house, was wonderful, my oasis in the chaos. Erika and Lilli set me up with the best available camping bedding before I went down, so I was very comfortable with my compact pillow and sheets and mattress. I understand that the guys at EMS enjoyed the challenge of identifying the ideal air mattress to recommend for someone who would be sleeping on rubble for a fairly extended period. They did an excellent job. I enjoyed being undisturbed by mosquitoes thanks to my net windows, plus the cool fresh air and the amazing gorgeous proliferation of stars on view in a place where there is no electricity to speak of.

Neighborhood: Ysmaille’s house is in a neighborhood called Delmas 75. It’s a fairly remote residential neighborhood about 20 minutes walk from the bus station.* The neighborhood boasts few actual remaining houses, and Ysmaille’s house is pretty well surrounded by two tent cities. It’s a hilly area, very dry, dominated by dirt roads, half-standing walls, rubble piles, and occasional dusty plantlife.

Electricity: This area has very little city electricity, and only a handful of the surrounding houses and tents have electricity. Between Ysmaille’s two generators, we generally had electricity for the few hours between sundown and when everyone went to bed. During this time, I could generally get on the internet for a bit as well. Having internet at home in Haiti is very rare. Ysmaille is the only person I met who has it.

Water: Ysmaille’s house is further distinguished in the neighborhood by the fact that he has his own water tank. The tank is a massive cement box to the left of the house, making the top level with the ground floor of the house: the top of the tank doubles as a spacious patio. Every few weeks, the water truck comes and fills up the tank.

Having water is not the same as having plumbing, however: as I mentioned above, there’s no water to the taps. We draw water from the tank in a bucket, fill up bigger buckets, and carry them into the bathroom for use. A shower means standing in the tub pouring water over yourself. To flush the toilet, you pour water in the bowl. You get the idea. Needless to say, all the water is room-temperature to cold. If you’re showering in the heat of mid-day, that’s fabulous. In chilly mornings it’s a bit rough.

Of course, the water in the tank is not potable. It’s only for washing. All water in Haiti, drinking water included, is privatized and must be purchased. Ysmaille keeps drinking water in the kitchen.

Home Number Two: A different tent set up on the second floor of a school and community center run by the Haitian American Caucus (HAC). I stayed here for a few days because I was shadowing the HAC director (see “My Work”), and the HAC place is too far from Ysmaille’s house for day-trips: to be there in the morning, I really needed to wake up there. Since HAC is set up to house and feed volunteers from overseas, this worked out very well.

Neighborhood: HAC is in a neighborhood called Croix-de-Bouquets, across the river from the rest of Port-Au-Prince and much more rural. Criox-de-Bouquets is also famous for being Wyclef Jean's (formerly of The Fugees) home town. Croix-de-Bouquets was possibly my favorite place in Haiti: the building is surrounded by mango trees and flowering jasmine that smells amazing. It’s quiet all the time, and there’s an absolutely gorgeous pasture out back. The stars at night are among the most beautiful I’ve seen.

Electricity: similar to at Ysmailles, except there’s no city electricity in the neighborhood. Since the HAC generator is rather unreliable, we made much more use of flashlights. No internet access here.

Water: The HAC facility has a water tank and indoor plumbing. The bathroom was bare cement, with a large window open to the outside, but there was (cold) water to the taps. Drinking water in the kitchen.

Home Number Three: A bed and breakfast called Maison Blanche in Delmas 75 near Ysmaille’s house but much closer to the bus station.* Moving here cut 20 minutes off each end of my travel time each day. Electricity and internet access were much more reliable here, though both cut out about once a day or so. My private bathroom had not only plumbing but occasional warm water to the shower. In fact, my very last shower in Haiti was actually hot.

From here, I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

* Of course, “bus station” in this context means “that intersection where the busses stop.” And the “bus” is actually a tap-tap, which is like a pick-up truck with a top and two benches welded onto the bed. They’re generally elaborately and colorfully decorated with images and phrases drawn with equal vigor from Christianity and secular pop culture: the Virgin Mary and Michael Jackson framed by the words “Grace a Dieux” (Grace/Thanks to God). This photo is not mine, it is Irene Prewitt’s and comes from her blog.