Last night, we were several hundred in the small square of Sainte-Suzanne watching a Chinese karate movie under the palm trees and stars. Dispersed among the hills and greenery, it feels like only several hundred families live here, in this village in North Eastern Haiti, instead of the documented 25,000 individuals. We gather together in this main square, home to the large Catholic church, dingy police station (where sleepy officers “work” and play cards for several hours every morning on weekdays) and other key institutions such as convenience stores and a shabby medical clinic. A 40” TV is set up and the sound system connected… right before the entertainment begins, a local political figure presents a 30-minute documentary on the economic history of Haiti. From my currently fuzzy understanding of Creole, I catch terms like “growing middle class” and “redistribution of wealth”. Our obviously well-dressed and educated speaker ends with a short speech underlining the importance of non-reliance on foreign NGOs and the desire to grow local tourism dollars in the region. I nod consent with the others. He wants to charge 50USD a night in a hypothetical hotel that would be build in our village… I absently wonder if any of the villagers present has ever even held that amount of money at one time… the equivalent of 2,000 Haitian Gourdes. Here, that’s big bucks.
Applause and shuffling follow as we re-adjust our standing positions. More applause, and the karate moves begin flashing on the screen, as do the Mandarin subtitles. As the only white person present, several people ask me if I understand what they are saying. I assure them that Chinese is a difficult language and no, I don’t speak it. They agree, happy to continue gazing at me and my pale skin with admiration – to them I know and have seen everything anyway. Whether or not I speak Mandarin is irrelevant.
It’s 6:10am on the following morning. After a peaceful night’s sleep under my mosquito net (which offers more psychological than physical protection… considering finding a fuzzy, black tarantula at the bedroom door last night), I lay quietly in the darkness that is growing to light. It’s nearly sunrise, and if I want to go for a jog, now is the most opportune moment. Not only because it’s cooler – only 18 or 20 degrees celsius as compared to the +30 degrees during the day – but also because the semi-darkness can somewhat hide me from the ever-present eyes of the Ste-Suzanne people. Their endless fascination and looks, paired with small kids screaming ‘blanco, blanco!’ everywhere we – the white girls from Canada – go, can be trying on the nerves. I’d especially like to keep to myself while sweating buckets and jogging along the uneven, dirt roads. To top it off, I remind myself that I’ve never been much of a jogger anyways. I’m a cyclist, by passion and nature, but biking remains for now a far-fetched dream in these dusty, Haitian mountains. So jog I will, mostly because it’s accessible and easy and quick to organize, and because I can. And I have the time.
I leave too late, lay in my bed under the net for too long. It’s 6:30 by the time I’m lacing up my bright, green and very old Nike runners… and it’s already light out. Too bad, I think to myself and head out the lane picking up my feet carefully to avoid the loose rocks and branches. I’m resigned to being a spectacle yet again, and glad I opted for knee-length pants instead of my tight short-shorts.
Nevertheless, I slow to walk as I pass through the main square, quickly glancing to my right to notice that someone has cleaned up the TV and speakers from last night. Walking also lets me greet and smile to the locals I pass, with the customary “Bonjou, Kijan ou ye?”. Finally, splashing through a small river, I am out in the open, and ready to run.
It’s Saturday, I suddenly remember. Saturday is market day in Trou-du-Nord, and the Ste-Suzanne women are leaving early with buckets and chairs stacked in perfect balance on top of their heads, with heavily laden mules and donkeys in tow. So much toil in hopes of making just a few Gourdes. As I jog in the opposite direction many women throw me a “Bonjou” with a laugh and a friendly smile. Kids put out their hands to get a high-five from the sweaty, white woman, laughing and pointing at me all the while. I can’t help but smile to myself… at how ludicrous this jog must seem to them. Why expend so much time, sweat and effort unnecessarily?
The dirt road continues to meander, at times through dense jungle-like forest, at times through open spaces showing bare, green topped mountains in the distance. The red Earth is glistening in the early morning sun. Something white hangs from a tree, and I realize I’m approaching a dead chicken, hanging by its neck from a branch above my head and to the right of the lane. It’s perfectly detailed and pointed feet hang down stiffly. I continue a bit further uphill, my own feet now turning to lead, before turning around and heading downhill. This, at least, is easier. I’m alone for a few minutes and allow myself a half kilometer of uninterrupted trotting to day-dream about becoming a half-decent runner. Perhaps if I keep up this morning jogging it just might be possible. Perhaps.
Arriving again in the main square, I pass conversations that interrupt themselves as the speakers take in my sweaty face and gasping breath. Perhaps they think I’m adjusting very poorly to the Caribbean climate, I think to myself with a smirk. A few more directed, confident steps and I am back home, in the IRATAM, the NGO where I currently live and work. Our bathroom has been cleaned, but for some reason the shower curtain is missing. I carefully place the dry toilet paper outside, and step into the shower grateful that we have running water, even if it is cold. Tentatively placing one shoulder under the stream, my practiced eyes continuously and calmly search for the presence of unwelcome creepie crawlies. But today’s shower is uneventful, absent of roaches, frogs and moths.
Classic Haiti, I realize. Nothing is ever predictable and things rarely go according to plan. Similar to how I’ll be intent on continuing my research of the fair trade coffee industry this morning only to be interrupted by a truck-full of 30 goats. They are loud, in a panic and are pooping everywhere. I’ve been told that the IRATAM hosts them here so that they can get their immunizations. And now that these smelly albeit adorable creatures have stunk up the entire premises, I’ve chosen to write this blog post instead of feigning reading in the growing heat. A thin trickle of sweat slides down my leg, and it’s time to start thinking about lunch.
Flickr albums: (beach life, coffee, Haiti internship, sunrises): http://www.flickr.com/photos/jestemat/sets/
Read about my experiences working in Haitian coffee export and join the farming dialogue on www.farmspiration.com