– Gerry Hadden –
Ron and I were hurtling down Haiti’s National Highway Two when his beat-up red Cherokee Blazer came to a sudden, shuddering stop. My forehead bounced against the front windshield. We both jumped out of the truck and cursed. It was getting dark and I couldn’t afford to be outside the capital any longer.From the dusty ridge we could see the cruel and crowded slums of Port-au-Prince on the horizon below, simmering like a coal fire against the blue green sea. Haiti’s NH2 was officially a highway, but it looked and felt more like a dry riverbed. Potholes deep enough to entrap cars pocked its surface. There were no guardrails between us and rocky oblivion on most of the curves as we descended from Haiti’s Central Plateau towards the capital. On some stretches the road narrowed to such a degree that traffic could move only in one direction. Often that meant yielding to giant, swaying Korean-made cargo trucks overflowing with Haitian laborers on their way to or from the fields and the few factories that were still operational in that country run nearly into oblivion. But when Ron’s Cherokee broke down that late May afternoon we were alone on the mountainside.
After hours of jarring journey the truck’s drive shaft had finally broken, detached from the front axle, then embedded itself like a jouster’s lance into the stony road. Ron tried hammering it free with a rock. The first one broke in two.
“Here,” I said, handing him another. “A bigger one.”
But it was useless. The weight of the truck held the drive shaft fast in the ground. Ron shimmied out from under the truck and fished a small crowbar out of a toolbox and set to work banging again. After several minutes we climbed back into the vehicle.
“I’m going to call Triple A,” I said. I knew the joke was bad but I was nervous. I’d slipped out of Port-au-Prince just two days after legislative elections and the results were still not in. Things were tense in the capital; some 15 people had been murdered in pre-election violence. In the last week several small bombs had been set off and everyone was braced for more trouble. But when an Organization of American States election official told a group of us reporters that the final tally would be delayed at least another few days - ballots from the deep countryside were still arriving on the backs of donkeys - I decided to take a chance and slip away to gather tape for another story. This was my first assignment abroad for NPR and my pulse was ticking a few beats per minute above the recommended rate for a man of my age, 33. The attacks of September 11th were still more than a year away and Americans and the American government were paying close attention to this tiny but potential tinderbox of a country. Our audience was huge and interested and I was the untested new guy.
Ron was walking in a big circle, holding his phone over his head. “No coverage,” he said. “Damn it damn it damn it.” Then he pocketed his phone and clenched his fists and said confidently, “To Plan C!”
Plan C apparently consisted of going back to Plan A because he slipped back under truck and resumed his hammering. I stayed in the cabin listening back over the sounds of a small sugar mill crushing freshly cut cane. The juicy squeak of the metal press, the sucking plod of the grey horse turning the mill in muddy circles. The laughter of children as sap ran and the man with the microphone winked. The mill was at the heart of a short piece on rural cooperatives that I hoped would shed a more positive light on Haitians and their efforts to lift themselves out of poverty. Nearly every Haitian I had met so far had implored me to do a ‘positive’ story about the country. We journalists were always reporting the bad news.
I had my headphones on but I could still hear the clang of Ron’s crowbar against the driveshaft like the distant call to supper on some cowboy ranch. Then I heard what I thought was a sort of yelp. The truck lurched forward and began to roll down the steep incline.
Through the open driver’s side door I saw Ron rolling out from under the Cherokee, kicking up a cloud of white dust. Apparently he’d freed the drive shaft. But he’d forgotten to secure the truck’s emergency brake. I was sitting in my tangle of cables, microphones and mini-discs and the emergency brake was on the far side of the cabin, low to the floor, too far for my foot to reach it in the short moment I had to react. As the truck picked up speed I chucked myself out my door. I dragged half my gear with me and landed prone on the gravelly ground. My headphones were still strung around my neck and the cable quickly went taught; it must have become caught on some part of the truck. Without thinking I grabbed fast to the headphones and was promptly rolled over. The cable snapped and boomeranged back in my face. I stood up in time to watch our wounded red vehicle bounding toward the next downhill curve in the road, now doing about 20 miles an hour and gaining speed, its perverse driveshaft scraping along the road. When it reached the curve I bid a hasty goodbye to a week’s worth of recordings still scattered across the floor of the truck’s cabin. But then the Cherokee struck a huge rock on the edge of the precipice and its front end shot up in the air. The steering wheel spun hard towards the mountain and when the wheels touched down again the truck lurched back across the road and smashed into the rocky mountainside, coming to a stop on two wheels. Ron and I ran down the hill.
“Fuck me,” Ron said, “that was lucky.”
“You got any cigarettes left,” I said. I didn’t smoke. I quickly gathered my gear from the floor of the truck. We walked over to the big boulder that had saved Ron’s truck and probably us and sat down on it. The sun was dropping, the grey stain of the city in the distance darkening now. “If I ever go to grad school I’m going to study cable management,” I said, untangling the wad of wires at my feet. Ron had grown morose.
“I guess we’re walking home,” I said.
“Are you kidding?” Ron said, sitting up straight and inhaling on his cigarette. In his white undershirt and with white dust covering his face and mustache he looked like a baker on a smoking break. “We can’t walk down this mountain. After dark it’s filled with bandits.”
“We’ve got to get the truck moving. If we leave it behind they’ll strip it and torch it. ”
Ron ignored the question. The truck’s prognosis had worsened. In the crash the rear axle had slipped out of alignment a couple of inches. We managed to get the driveshaft back in position but we couldn’t secure it. Ron started his hammering again. It was the only sound on the entire mountainside - clang, clang, clang, clang. Then some young Haitian men came walking around the bend in the highway, shirtless and bony and they helped us push the truck more or less back on to the road. One of them, a severely buck-toothed kid with long lanky limbs, had an idea: we should start the truck, drop it in reverse and ram it tail-end into a boulder thus forcing the rear axle forward and the driveshaft back into its socket.
“Why not?” Ron said.
Six of us pushed a big rock into the road behind the truck and Ron slammed the Cherokee against it in reverse. It cracked the bumper but the rear axle shifted forward again and the driveshaft jammed at least temporarily back in place. When Ron saw that it had worked he smiled at the Haitian kid’s ingenuity. He said something to the boys in Kreyol and tipped them some gourdes for their trouble. The boys skipped and disappeared up the road. We were at least an hour from any village and I wondered where on earth they’d come from and where they were going.
Ron dropped one last time beneath the truck and secured his broken driveshaft wrapping the joint in some wire and we started slowly down the mountain again just as the sun went down. An hour later we limped into Port-au-Prince doing 5 miles an hour, the truck rolling diagonally forward in a mechanical canter. We trundled past the crowded market stalls, the public water taps with their long lines of people waiting patiently or not so with big plastic drums. The narrow, tin-roofed shops and the families milling along the dirt lanes that perhaps in better days had sidewalks but now did not. There were no streetlights and the air was thick with the smell of charcoal fires. Clouds of cooking spice and exhaust and charcoal inseparable. I had the sensation that we were at once in the city and somewhere very removed from it. There were no signs of election related trouble and Ron told me that the radio was saying as much.
But I had arrived back just in time. The election results were announced the next day, giving 18 out of 19 open Senate seats to former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party. Fanmi Lavalas’ sweep seemed a clear indication that Aristide would win the presidency again in November. Under Haiti’s constitution a president can serve two terms. What we didn’t yet know was that officials had counted the votes using a faulty method that unfairly favored Aristide’s candidates. Nor that the ensuing controversy would set off yet another degenerating cycle of violence and political stagnation in a country that has only known brief moments of real freedom. About the only thing I knew at the time was that I’d managed to get myself very far from home in a very short span of time.
Just a week earlier I was living in Seattle, Washington, preparing to be fitted for Buddhist monk’s robes. Now the would-be monk was a foreign correspondent. My life had changed so suddenly that I’d barely had time to pack my bags much less to reflect on the track switch my karma had just thrown. But as I rode along in Ron Bluntschli’s ailing truck back through Port-au-Prince, clutching my radio gear tightly to my lap, I was thinking, these journalist’s clothes fit pretty well too.
I’d been at this job for less than a week. NPR had hired me for the position as I was finishing my fifth year of local reporting for public radio station KPLU in the Emerald City. I was fluent in Spanish and NPR’s Foreign Desk chief Loren Jenkins liked the fact that, outside of work, I played Latin music in various clubs around town. The next thing I knew I was on a plane to D.C. for training at NPR’s swank Massachusetts Avenue headquarters. Jenkins introduced me to the news staff.
“Listen up, everyone, he’s fluent in Spanish.” A few heads nodded approvingly.
“He plays Cuban drums.” A lot more heads moved.
Jenkins then passed me off to the sound engineers. A bearded man in a conservative tie handed me a digital recording device, a couple of microphones, a bag full of cables and wires and a hard plastic suitcase that weighed about forty pounds.
“That’s your satellite telephone,” he said. “Whatever you do don’t stand in front of the dish.”
“Because it’ll soften you up like Raman Noodles. It emits microwaves.”
We went up on the roof and he had me fiddle with a compass and a map until I had the position of our satellite more or less pinpointed. I aimed the dish, moved behind it and dialed. The engineer’s cell phone rang.
“You got it,” he said, rejecting the call and pocketing his phone. “Now you’re a pro.”
Before leaving D.C. I asked Loren if I was going to have a chance to meet the reporter I was replacing, Phillip Davis.
“It’d be nice to get the lay of the land from him. Contacts, tips, the do’s and don’ts of living in and working out of Mexico City.”
“Phillip’s long gone,” Jenkins said. “Married a Mexican girl. He’s back on the National Desk, in Miami.”
“How will I get the keys to NPR’s bureau in Mexico City?”
“There is no such thing to get,” Loren said. “You find a place when you get down there.”
As I was boarding my flight to Mexico City it sank in: I was flying off to start what was, in my dreams at least, my dream job. I felt like telling the flight attendants. I was startled by how easily I’d parked aside another equally important project of mine: my meditation retreat. My three-year meditation retreat, for which I’d been practicing for as many years. I’d been slated to enter a retreat center in New South Wales, Australia, in a few months time. My teacher had given me the green light at a recent teaching in Northern California.
“I have the time, the inclination and the money,” I’d told the saffron-robed Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche as I bowed before him. Hundreds of students were waiting behind me, in line to pay their respects as well. “Will you accept me at the gompa?”
“Yes,” he said, smiling. “Why not?”
His answer nearly sent me levitating. I’d finally made it. I was ecstatic. There was no backing out now. You didn’t just ask the spiritual leader of Bhutan for retreat permission lightly. And you didn’t squander a rare yes. A year earlier, when I’d made the same request, Rinpoche had responded, “You cannot escape from work.”
So I’d gone back to work. But now, happily, things had changed. I floated back to my seat in the audience across a sea of burgundy-colored meditation mats and piles of prayer beads. I wondered what change Rinpoche had seen in me. Now I believe that he hadn’t seen any change at all. I think maybe what he saw was that I would never make that retreat.
As my plane took off from D.C. I said adios to my search for meaning via the sedentary observation of my mind. Instead, I thought, I’m going have my mind blown away. Then I thought of the hippie in the film version of the musical, Hair, who accidentally gets shipped off to the Vietnam War. But my flight didn’t feel tragic, or even like a mistake. Enlightenment had been one of my goals, but working for NPR was another. I was in heaven, to borrow from the theists.
During the flight I had time to look back on it all. On how I’d gotten here, on how I'd become a Buddhist. I was raised Presbyterian but nearly from the beginning my soul, that insoluble pillar of theistic reasoning, had been under assault. I didn’t realize it until one fall day when I was seven years old. My sister, Hartley, two years older than me, came into my room and unwittingly delivered the existential concussion.
“Wanna see your real name?” she asked.
I got up and padded after her down the stairs. All I knew about my biological past was what my adoptive parents had told me: that my birth father was Swedish. From there, a thousand fantasies already. My sister, who was adopted at birth as well, apparently had English ancestors. Now she was leading me quietly into our father’s study. The off-limits zone. I don’t know if he was home but I was nervous. So was Hartley. She lifted up a dusty bowling trophy on a shelf and slid a small silver-colored key out from under its base.
“Where you did find that?” I said.
“Duh. Where do you think?”
She crossed to the metal filing cabinet and worked the lock easily; so she’d been here before. I was shocked. I was supposed to be the mischief-maker in the family. My sister pulled out two manila folders, legal length. She handed me one.
“Here you go. Lars.”
She took the folder back, opened it.
“Here.” She pointed to the bottom of a sheet of paper with lots of things crossed out in black ink. But the first and last name typed near the bottom had not been blacked out - as, I would later learn, they should have been according to New York State adoption laws.
Hartley showed me my birth name, Lars Besser, and hers. Then she quickly filed away the folders and locked the cabinet and set the key as she’d found it. I went back to my room. All of three minutes had passed. I had been doodling great white sharks on looseleaf paper, and I went back to it. But I was no longer a little boy. I was now two little boys. One was named Gerald, after his adoptive grandfather, and the other, Lars. The son of a Swede. Background, blacked out. My sense of identity, already on a shaky platform, had just been toppled by a sub-sea blow out.
Later that same year, just as I was getting used to be being two people, I became less than one. For a long time after I blamed the Muppets. I’d been playing ‘Swedish Chef’ with some friends in the neighborhood, inserting fallen dogwood leaves into the spinning blades of a rusty old push lawnmower. In a fit of enthusiasm I inserted one leaf too far. The whirring blades clipped off the top joint of my left middle finger. When the ordeal of bleeding and suturing had ended and my eyes had adjusted to the light in my hospital room I asked my mother the question that was most bothering me.
“Mom,” I said, “Where is my finger?”
“They couldn’t reattach it,” she said sadly.
This upset her greatly because she was imagining there were things I would now never be able to do: play concert cello, or operate on brains - anything requiring a high level of dexterity and ten birth fingers. I could have cared less. These issues were not arising for me.
“So where is it?” I said.
“They would have thrown it away,” she said. “They have a special garbage. An incinerator.”
“What is that?”
“A big fire.”
I could see it all clearly then. The pale, lacerated stub. The fingernail catching fire first. Roasting in a huge outdoor campfire ringed by stones. Men and women in white lab coats standing around making sure the flames consumed it fully. I could also imagine how it must have hurt. I’d burned my fingers just recently, setting tiny plastic army soldiers on fire in a pal’s garage. And this got me started on a conundrum. I certainly hadn’t felt any pain due to the hospital ‘incinerator.’ So my fingertip couldn’t have been Me. Me was still in bed dealing with the pain on the other side of the wound. Fair enough. But what, I wondered, would have happened if I’d cut off my entire hand? Where would Me be then? Not in the hand, I thought. Suppose it had been my whole arm? Or, what if every year those same docs in lab coats cut off a little chunk of me until less than half of my original body was left? Then I’d be a Me in the minority, as it were. Might my soul have escaped by then? Where does it reside and how much room does it need anyway? Does it even exist?
Doppleganged then cloven, I carried these confusions with me into adulthood. As the years passed the identities of the people around me became more and more solidified. College majors, careers, political views, brands of beer, brands of shoes, tolerances and intolerances. My identity remained mushy. I had a driver’s license, a diploma, a history verifiable in the dozens of thick photo albums on a shelf in our living room. By the innumerable witnesses to my life. Friends, girlfriends, the mirror in the bathroom. Yet everything I was, all of my experiences, ultimately hinged on the exhilarating, sometimes terrifying randomness of my adoption. Who would I have been if hadn’t been adopted? Or if I’d been taken in by a different family? By carnies? Or physicists? Or zillionaires? As time passed I asked myself if my listing platform might ever be righted. And then I stumbled upon a philosophy that said, Wrong question. That the only question that matters is, Who’s asking the question?
Look, the Buddhist masters were saying, and you won’t ever find anyone. Not anyone with any sort of permanent, free-standing identity at least. No permanent self. There was this giant misunderstanding. They called it Ego. And it didn’t really exist. There was nothing to defend after all. The trick was to watch that Ego carefully, to watch it until it deconstructed itself under the light-handed scrutiny of meditation.
What a relief! This drama, this low-level, ever-present mental anguish, might dissolve under investigation. It might give way to a fuller experience of life. To the realization that everything is fundamentally as it should be. It might mean the end of fear.
When I first read this, at age 28, I rejoiced. For the first time, instead of feeling out of step with the world I felt one step ahead of it. I could already imagine myself a monk.
I came back to earth, along with my plane, at Mexico’s Benito Juarez International Airport. I booked myself straight into a downtown hotel and hit the streets looking for a place that could serve as the NPR bureau and my home. I set out for the trendy and supposedly safe Condesa neighborhood on the advice of several sources.
As the newest arrival on NPR’s foreign desk I felt tremendous pressure to prove myself. It seemed like just yesterday that I’d filed my first NPR ‘spot,’ or 1-minute news story, for the top-of-the-hour newscast in Washington, D.C.
I’d been working quietly at the KPLU bureau when a bulletin came across announcing that police were evacuating downtown Seattle. I was alone in the office so I grabbed my recording kit and ran the few blocks to the scene. There, police were stringing up yellow tape.
“What’s going on?” I asked one.
“Bomb scare,” he said, pointing. About a hundred yards away, in the center of a pedestrian square, a graffiti-covered pick up truck stood abandoned, its tires punctured. Propped up in the bed of the truck I could see a six-foot tall sculpture of what was clearly a human heart. I ducked into a pay phone and called my editor who was down at the station’s broadcast center in Tacoma.
“There’s a truck out here with a heart in it.”
“NPR’s already called and wants spots,” she said. “So does NBC radio and a half dozen other news outlets. You want to become famous?”
“You’ve got five minutes,” she said. “Write something up and call NPR’s news desk. They’ll take you in.”
I hung up and reached for my pen and notebook. But I’d forgotten them in my haste to reach the scene. I ditched the phone booth, ducked under the police tape and sprinted into a nearby Starbucks. Coffee addicts were waiting calmly in a long line for their fixes despite the excitement outside. I ran to the register and grabbed a handful of napkins.
“Excuse me!” I said out loud. “Can anyone lend me a pen?”
The caffeine crazed patrons just looked at me.
“Does anyone have a pen?! Please!” Then I saw one by the cash register. I snatched it up.
“That’s mine,” said a stoned-looking barista.
“I’ll be right back!” I yelled and ran back out into the street. I nearly collided with a cop who scolded me and told me to get back behind the police line. I assured him that that was my intention but I ducked back into the phone booth instead. Sweat was dripping past my temples. It was difficult to write on the tiny napkins with their big green logos taking up most of the space. But I gave it my best shot: “A suspicious vehicle left on the Westlake Mall is being investigated by police…” I called NPR. The switchboard patched me in to the Newscast unit and a producer gave me a countdown. My hands shook as I read the spot from my napkin script. Some of the words had gotten wet and smeared.
When I was through there was silence. Then the producer came back on the line and said, “Nice job. Call us again with an update in half an hour.” At 10pm that night I was still filing stories, burning through my reel of recording tape in one of our two small recording studios.
I was up so late because the story had evolved over the course of the day from a bomb scare into something decidedly less deadly, and more intriguing. The pickup truck belonged not to terrorists but to a mentally unstable local artist named Jason Sprinkle. Sprinkle, known around town as a provocateur, had abandoned his vehicle with its odd cargo in a place he considered symbolic of America’s rampant consumerism. He’d jumped out and popped the tires and run like hell. It was performance art, a smallish protest against shopping culture in an urban stronghold of sparkling outlets and chain stores.
What Sprinkle hadn’t counted on was setting off a stampede of terrified office workers and shoppers. This was pre 9/11 but the world had long grown skittish when it came to terrorist threats. Sprinkle was eventually caught and thrown in jail on terrorism-related charges. In the end he was held in the clink for a month, given a year’s probation, then freed. But friends said Sprinkle’s stay in jail broke his already fragile spirit. Several years later, while I was living in Mexico, I read that he’d been struck and killed by a freight train in Mississippi. It was unclear whether he’d taken his own life. I took the occasion to thank him again. If it hadn’t been for that forlorn and grotesque rendering of a heart - his own maybe, made manifest - abandoned in the shadow of Abercrombie and Fitch, I might never have ended up on a plane to Mexico.
On my first day in Mexico City I cruised the Condesa neighborhood’s tree-lined streets searching for ‘for rent’ signs on doors and windows. I strolled past wide, three-story houses stuccoed royal blue, bright orange, salmon. Block after block of buckled sidewalks, uprooted by flowering magnolia . A man on a bicycle towing an aluminum oven filled with steaming tamales. The tinny blare of his recorded sales pitch cycling again and again from an old loudspeaker. Ricos tamales oaxaqueños… Ricos tamales oaxaqueños… An Indian sharpening scissors in a doorway under the absent gaze of somebody’s grandmother. Schoolgirls with black ponytails and Hello Kitty knapsacks. Two squat men in blue uniforms guarding a hardware store with shotguns. The Condesa was intriguing at first pass but house hunting was not how I wanted to be spending my first days on the job.
Haiti saved me. I believed then that few people had ever said such a thing but now I know better. That night my hotel phone rang. It was my new editor, Paul Glickman.
“I need you on a plane to Port-au-Prince ASAP,” he said. “We want you there for the legislative elections. Call me as soon as you get to your hotel.” Glickman was a former reporter who’d covered the Cold War proxy conflicts in Central America during the 1980’s. When editing with him over the phone he had a habit of pausing for so long I’d start to wonder whether he was thinking or drinking a coffee down at the corner cafe. He was always thinking. Glickman was thorough and he knew his stuff. Editing with him each day was like playing tennis with someone better than you. He improved your game.
“You got it,” I said. “I’ll call you from my hotel.”
Hotel? I had no idea where to stay, or even how to find out where to stay. I logged online with my NPR laptop and hastily booked a place over the internet that looked promising: a spiffy, whitewashed Holiday Inn just a stone’s throw from Haiti’s presidential palace. Then I scrolled through the Palm Pilot addresses I’d inherited from Philip Davis until I found the name of an American woman named Karla Bluntschli in Port-au-Prince. I called her then to see if she could work as my driver and translator, or fixer, while on the ground. She agreed.
The following afternoon I was on the last plane from Miami to the tiny Caribbean nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. I was lucky I made it. Airlines were canceling flights because of a spate of violence in Port-au-Prince that was threatening to derail the elections. Small homemade bombs had been exploding around the capital: one at the entrance to the electoral council, one at an outdoor market that blew off a man’s finger, another just outside the airport. Some 15 people had been murdered in electoral violence over the last several weeks. As we were pushing and shoving our way off the plane - Haitians always mobbed each other with the same vigor whether they were returning to their country or leaving it - a chubby American stewardess grabbed me by the arm and said in a soft southern accent, “Excuse me, sir, are you American?” I nodded yes as I struggled to keep my balance and she squeezed my elbow in a motherly gesture, and with worried eyes said, “Puh-leeze be careful.”
That woman, with her coiffed blonde hair and her American Airlines uniform, had probably never ventured past Haitian customs even in the best of times. Her concern spooked the hell out of me.
Walking out of the airport I was swarmed by young men who tried to take my bags from me. Some spoke English, some didn’t, all of them were yelling. I’d arranged for Karla to pick me up and soon I spotted her waiting for me in the parking lot - she was the only white woman around and she was craning her neck in the way people do when searching for others. Karla had big tired eyes and a graying ponytail and she strode straight over when she saw me. In near perfect Kreyol she got the crowd of men to back away from me. I didn’t know what she was saying but her gaiety set me at ease.
“What was that all about?”
“It was about a country where there are no jobs,” she said. “These guys are just trying to make a buck. Get in!”
We piled in to her beat-up red Cherokee and pulled out of the parking area. It was muggy and dusty. The main road to town was unpaved and scarred with huge potholes not unlike the National Highway 2 on which I would nearly get stranded with Karla’s husband, Ron, later that week.
In and among the slow moving cars surged crowds of people, the descendants of slaves from various West African nations whom the French had thrown together in the 16th century in one of the cruelest chapters of the colonial period.
As Karla’s truck jerked and jolted along the road she glanced at me to see if I was holding on okay. “If a Haitian president could just come to power and stay in power long enough to pave Port-au-Prince’s roads,” she said, “he would be loved for eternity.” She and Ron had come to Haiti some 15 years earlier as Christian missionaries, out to ‘save’ the Haitians. But unlike most of the earnest, naïve do-gooders, Karla told me, she and Ron quickly saw the futility of trying to impose non-Haitian ideas on Haitians.
“You wanna know what happens?” she said as we sat in traffic, “I’ll tell ya. Lots of well-meaning, helpful folk come to Haiti to save it. They set up a clinic or micro-lending institution or farming cooperative, fund it, teach the locals how to manage it, oversee the project for a few years and then leave. And as soon as they’re gone their project falls apart - or better put, the Haitians take it apart - salvaging whatever is of interest to them and generally going back to how they’ve always done things, for better or worse.”
“Haitians are still deeply scarred by the colonial experience. The only way to survive the French was through secrecy and duplicity. Haitians are still extremely cautious with outsiders. And like anybody, they don’t like being told how to do things.”
“But you all stayed.”
“We’re still here.”
Not only had Ron and Karla stayed on - they’d even broken with their American church when their new-found respect and understanding of Haitian religious traditions put them at odds with their own spiritual leaders.
“You can imagine the conversation,” she laughed. “Me and Ron explaining to our minister that Voodoo is as valid a practice as any. Didn’t go over well.”
We arrived at a medium sized house perched on a hillside in the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. The Bluntschlis were renting this place while slowly building their dream house on a mountainside outside the capital. There, among other projects, they were designing an interactive outdoor ‘freedom’ museum in a neatly tended field. They hoped to have it finished by 2004 when Haiti would mark the bicentennial of its bloody independence from France and two subsequent centuries of shafting by the ‘international community’ scared pale by the world’s first successful slave rebellion.
After a brief lunch and some strategizing for the week Karla dropped me off at a wretched hotel downtown along the Champs de Mar, not far from the stately, whitewashed National Palace where farmer-turned-President Renee Preval was happily approaching the end of his term with his skin still intact. I looked around for the Holiday Inn I’d seen in pictures online. After a brief study of my notes and the semi-ruined dump bearing the same street number as my virtual booking, I confirmed that it was in fact the same building. But it was clearly no longer part of the American chain.
“Hasn’t been for years,” Karla laughed as she drove away. “See you in the morning!”
Nor apparently had anyone been keeping it up since the chain dropped it. If I’d had a gallon of paint I might have slapped it on the façade myself. After unpacking my bags I sat down on the old cast-iron bed and took several deep breaths. I let my mind clear for a moment. Then I gathered up my gear and headed for the street. I had little idea where to start, how to shape the stories that would preview the upcoming elections, in part because I hadn’t yet called Glickman. First I wanted to get some small feel for the place. As I crossed the long open interior patio of the hotel I had the sense that I was the only guest there. The staff, from the cooks to the pool cleaner, were standing by the empty pool bar watching me. The only sound was the rubber squeak of my boots against the smooth concrete floor. I pushed open the front door.
Outside along the main street cars coughed grey smoke and colorfully painted pickup truck taxies drove past and crowds of people picked their way between them. About a dozen desperately poor young men accosted me. One guy, a mulatto with frizzy black hair and a filthy Jimmy Hendrix t-shirt, introduced himself in English as Robinson.
“I was deported from Florida last year, man,” he began without prompting. “I been in the States for 12 years, since I was seven years old. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here.”
“If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “that makes two of us.”
“I’ve had to learn Kreyol all over again.”
“Why were you deported?”
“I never had papers, man. My parents never had papers. One day the police caught me. A few days later I was on a plane.”
The abruptness of Robinson’s displacement made me feel better in some strange way. He took me by the arm and led me across the street. I was recording now.
“This is where I work,” he said. We were standing next to an open manhole. Robinson grabbed a rope and lowered a bucket several feet down and scooped up a load of filthy brown water in which he dipped an old shirt. Wringing the shirt with great effort he then began ‘cleaning’ the cars parked along the road. What he was actually doing was swirling muddy water on the vehicles. But it was something.
“You can see the crisis we’re living in,” he said into my microphone. “There is no infrastructure here, man. You can see what we’re doing. We are creating our own jobs just to get by.”
“Until you can find something else,” I suggested.
“You gotta get me outta here,” Robinson said.
“I’m the wrong guy,” I said. “I just got here myself.”
“How long you in town?”
“Dunno. Couple of days. A week, maybe.”
“Okay, man. Let’s catch up later. Anything you need. You come find me, man.”
“Thank you, Robinson. I’m just going to walk around a bit then.”
“You just ask for Robinson!” he called as I moved off toward the wide plaza in front of the National Palace. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere!”