It kind of catches you by surprise. After all, there was so much to learn.
You left the cold crisp New York November morning and arrived a few hours later in the hazy tropical sun. As you walked down the stairway from the plane, the first thing that struck you was the intense heat of that sun. The second was the overpowering stench of one and a half million people driving cars on leaded gasoline, using open sewers for latrines and cooking with charcoal. And you learned... the third world reeks.
Morning came especially early. Your hosts wanted to be on the road by 6:00 AM. Whatever for, you couldn't imagine. And indeed, you couldn't have. Nothing in daily grind of New York gridlock prepared you for Port-au-Prince's roads. The sidewalks teemed with peddlers, and women carrying goods on their heads, and livestock. The streets filled to overflowing with cars and motorcycles and ubiquitous tap-taps. These were small pickup trucks with a brightly painted wood cab and benches running along the truck bed hanging out over the street. The local form of mass-transit, each could carry a dozen or more people.
When the streets had filled to beyond capacity, the traffic overflowed to the sidewalks. And when the sidewalks became impassable, the pedestrians resorted to the streets. Before long it seemed certain that absolutely no one would get anywhere. Three hours it took to leave the city. And you learned it wasn't the first world that perfected the traffic jam.
Traveling through the city you had noticed that everything here hides behind walls. There were no yards, no parking lots, no plazas, no open, empty lots in the city, only walls. Some were simple cinderblock affairs, unpainted and uninviting. Some were stucco or cement, studded with shells or bright colored stones. Some were even painted with fading murals. They had corrugated metal gates, heavy steel gates, painted wooden gates or even ornate wrought iron, but everywhere there were walls. Now you were in the country and instead of seeing the occasional pleasant farmhouse you saw... walls. And the further from the city, the more inventive the walls. Lack of money, it seemed, was no barrier to constructing walls. Stones and hedges replaced cinderblock as the day wore on. And somewhere about the center of the island, you saw the most enterprising and forbidding wall of them all: a neatly trimmed prickly-pear cactus wall. And you learned, this land is all about walls.
It took the entire day to reach the work site, in a small city at the far end of the island. The following morning was Saturday when you would assemble at the site, meet your Haitian work mates and spend a half-day on the project. Your work mates were young, eager men, with strong bodies and a cheerful expressions. They often sang as they worked. The intense sun that melted your softer, northern body had seemingly no affect on them. The site was off the corner of a street, a ninety-degree bend. Two buildings, one facing the street, the second on a raised courtyard beside it looking over and down the street around the bend.
The only access to the second building was a staircase of seventeen steps from the street to the courtyard. Every piece of the school would have to be brought up these seventeen steps. Every cinderblock, every bag of cement, every bucket of water, every steel reinforcement bar had to be carried, by hand, up these seventeen steps. And you quickly learned, schools are heavy.
As the week wore on, you befriended two carpenters at the site. They invited you, one morning, to help them work on the roof of the first building. A fourth floor had been added and only the roof remained to be completed. From up there you could see much of the city, all the way down to the waterfront. As you worked you saw coffee beans spread out to dry on a nearby roof. You watched as a ferry boat was loaded down at the city wharf. From the time you started work until nearly lunch, the boat was loaded with produce and sisal, livestock and people, even a Volkswagen. Finally, it set sail, its powerful engine heard even after the ship had slipped from view over the horizon.
Nailing down decking for the roof was a simple chore, involving mostly a hammer and nails, lots of nails. Quickly you discover you are quite good at bending nails. Haitian carpenters, it seems, are even better at straightening them. You are pretty sure of this discovery. You've tested it out very thoroughly. Each and every nail you bent was snatched from under your hammer as quick as flies are snatched up by hungry frogs, then straightened and used by one of the carpenters. Didn't matter how badly bent the nail, it would be rendered pin-straight and driven in precisely by the ever so patient carpenter. And you learned, nothing in Haiti is wasted, not even a bent penny nail.
As the afternoon wore on, the sun began to beat down with a specially powerful intensity. The salty sea-air mixed with the ever-present smoke of burning charcoal to form a thick haze you could literally taste. Your carpenter friends were trying to tell you something but you couldn't quite make it out. The heat was bearing down and the building seemed to be moving. Several people were now motioning for you to come down off the roof but you couldn't quite figure out why. The heat was so intense, your legs seemed to buckle. You wake up in the courtyard under a tree. They are pouring water on you. Too much sun. After a while, your fellow missionaries decide to send you back to the guesthouse for the rest of the day.
The next day you return to the site, still a little woozy from sun-stroke. You have to take it easy. No more working up on the roof. You spend the morning helping to carry buckets and mix cement. Then the pastor comes by. He has some business to conduct in a village nearby. Would anyone like to join him? And you remember, schools are heavy. You and a couple of other missionaries volunteer.
The village is ten miles away over a rough dirt track. It takes only an hour to get there. As you enter the village, the pastor points to a tiny wooden church that leans ten degrees to the right. "Our next project" he says proudly. You pass through the village square and park between the fishing boats and the cemetery. The pastor has several people to visit, perhaps you'd like to relax on the beach he suggests. So you make your way past the cemetery and the two stalls of the fish market onto the stony beach. And there you see them.
There were three of them, two girls and a boy. They appeared to be eight to ten, but they might well have been older. Haitian children are often older than they appear. Strangely, Haitian adults are often younger than they appear. But just when the change occurs you can't quite say. You had seen many children, back at the school site. But these were the first you had seen so obviously malnourished. Even from a distance you could tell from the distended stomachs and the hollow look of their eyes. Their motion was cautious and deliberate, as if not to waste energy. A closer look would reveal that the boy's hair was orange at the roots, another sign of desperate hunger.
As you sat among the stones, they huddled off to themselves at first. But curiosity is a universal trait of childhood, even stunted childhood. Before long they are climbing over you, feeling your skin, your hair, so different from their own. Now, more than at any other time since you arrived, the language barrier tears at you. There is so much you want to ask, so much you want to say. You begin with the most simple words: "tete"... head; "main"... hand; "nez" ... nose. Each word seems cause for celebration between you and your new-found friends. Now the oldest girl is trying to tell you something. Something about the stones on the beach. You just can't make it out. Then one of your missionary companions suddenly cries out "pumice!" The stones are pumice. The girl is saying that if you rub the stones on your skin, they make it soft. Yes, we understand. There is a big celebration.
Soon the children drift away, returning to the scavenging you had interrupted. You realize that soon you, too, will be drifting back, to the world you call home. The pastor calls, his business completed. It's time to go. You turn to look at the children, retreated into their own world. And it's then that it catches you by surprise. It's so DAMN hard, ... to leave.