Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Journies I

After a few days in Port -Au- Prince, we left for the country side. The plan was to drive up the mountains north of the city. Once in the mountains we would stay at the home of a Catholic nun in a tiny village. Our mission was to help care for her garden, run a couple of services in the village church, and deliver the illegal medicine hidden in our bags. After a couple of days there we would drive to Cape Haitian.

I loved Port -Au-Prince. The city was alive in ways not familiar to me. It was not just the bustling but the fact that people existed outside. Selling, buying, arguing, talking, for the most part was an outdoor activity. The buildings seemed to exist only as a backdrop for the real business that occurred in alleys, on the sidewalks or in markets. This was lively in all senses of the word. Things were alive in all their human glory as well as their human failings. Poverty forced many people to exist outside without a choice of the inside. Crimes as petty as simple bribery to as horrible murder mingled with the joys of a good barter or the sip of sugary, ice cold coke. Port-Au-Prince, like all great cities, was dark and light, beautiful and ugly. But what dominated the center was not open but closed: the Iron Market, a place where slaves were once sold. But even the Iron Market could not contain life as the market grew outside of it's enclosed walls. Outside there was a rock which held shackles, and a sign stating that these once held people. My chest contracted when I saw this, and there was from that moment a burden.

Port-Au-Prince with its vibrantly colored houses, its devastating slums, the poverty, the ostentatious rich was my first lesson in colonization. It was my first encounter with my own role as white. And it was here in this sprawling city that I realized the insidiousness of racism. It was when my eyes were opened to what it meant to be from the U. S., and I began to see what it was that the U.S. did that made it so hated around the world. In Haiti, the U.S. functioned both as the city on the hill with gold streets and as the great monster demon that sprawled over the world, devouring and using with no conscience. And no matter what I wished I could not erase where I had been born. Everywhere I went I carried its baggage.

And Port-Au-Prince marked, in memory at least, where I began to lose my religion. We stayed with a missionary family in beautiful house, a mansion really. It was the biggest house I had ever seen anyone live in. They had two maids and a housekeeper. They hired random boys on the street to tend the gardens, bring out trash, etc. When I expressed some surprise at the luxury they lived in, the missionary leader's wife, spoke to me sharply: "Haiti is very poor. These people are lucky to have jobs! They're doing them a favor." In my mind, missionaries lived as poorly as the people they served. I had already given my own poverty in the states a romantic feel by imaging that God was preparing my way to become a missionary. The luxury of the house stood in contrast to the city streets filled with beggars, lepers, children with no homes. They lived in a section filled with rich homes and high fences kept the poverty at bay but the poverty floated in through the smell of the beast that lay beyond such gates. And once we began to move about the city, I began to understand the kind of contrast that existed between these white missionaries and the majorities of Haitians. They did not live this way because they gave people jobs. They lived this way because they could in a poor economy. They took advantage of the poverty to make themselves richer than they could ever be in the U.S.

As our bus pulled out of those gates, instantly surrounded by a wave of beggars, I hoped that the mountains would offer a more flattering view of the missionaries. I hoped that I would see what I built up in my mind as a true missionary. And while I was sad to the see that city grow smaller into a blur of turquoise, yellow, and red, I felt some hope that maybe there would be hope buried in the mountains that rose ahead of us.

1 comment:

Erica said...

"The city was alive in ways not familiar to me. It was not just the bustling but the fact that people existed outside. Selling, buying, arguing, talking, for the most part was an outdoor activity."

That's exactly what a city is to me.

I was so surprised to see just cars and buildings when we got to Florida. People just lived inside. Public transportation and even taxis were almost non-existent. D and I were among the few , crazy people -if not the only ones- walking on the streets (many streets didn't have sidewalks.) The first 9 months before we moved to an apartment in family housing (the university villages), we never got to see our neighbors. Just cars. Downtown Gainesville was like a ghost town. Empty streets. It was weird. Of course, in the 7 years that we lived there, things started to change and life was coming to the outside.

But I remember that two years after we had arrived to the States, we went to Toronto to visit some friends, and I felt so happy to see a city that was alive, I mean people were living outside, walking, selling, talking... I felt alive again.