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Gathering up, Gradually Returning, and Finding a Place

September 8, 2013 by · No Comments · Uncategorized

When I do guided imagery as part of writing instruction, I read from a script adapted to the theme I am developing with students.   I take them through a visualization, usually of an event, and ask them to recreate that event in their imaginations as a kind of internal movie.  To conclude, I always read slowly and deliberately from the script, “And as you finish experiencing this event in your life, you can think about what it means to you now, and you can appreciate the insights it gives you…  And now, you can gather up the sensations, ideas, sights and sounds to bring back with you… and you can gradually return to this time and place… to this room, taking all the time you need.”

After that, I direct them, when they are “fully ready,” to pick up their pens or pencils and “make as many notes as you can about the details of what you experienced so you will remember them when you write.”   On my recent trip to Costa Rica with a group of teachers from the Portsmouth area, we frequently stopped to write and reflect.  I find myself reviewing those notes, and thinking about what these experiences mean to me now, hoping to experience the insights they give me;  first I gather up the sensations, ideas, sights and sounds and sort through what I have carried back.  What I remember most are sensations.

I remember the bitter undertones beneath the sweetness of the hot chocolate we sipped in the forest, made from the roasted cacao beans we had shelled and ground into a thick paste mixed with sugar cane juice and boiled water.  I have never tasted better chocolate.

I remember how our guide would suddenly go still in the rainforest and listen, poised, until he could identify a squirrel monkey, a coati or a scarlet macaw.  I remember the sound of my own footfalls, and the way the light changes as we move deeper into the forest, the crashing of the waves heard through the humid bosque as we came close to emerging.

I carry with me the zumba classes with “Rico Suave” in the unairconditioned hall in Puerto Jimenez, and “Domingos en Movimiento” en la plena sol en la plaza en Pital.   I carry the bells of the church calling the entire village to la misa en Pital, and the whispered instructions of Olga’s granddaughter Valery, “pray for something,” she told me, indicating that I should kneel on the tiny plank provided.

I savor the tastes of fresh cut mango, piña, and banana in the morning, the coconut water from fresh cut pipas on the beach, gallo pinto, and huevos a caballo, tomando un traigo en the sala of la casa de Doña Olga watching “TeleTica”—The Blind Side in dubbed Spanish.

And I will also remember the ominous signs in English inviting me to purchase my “Costa Rican dream,” and the chaos of the colegio in Puerto Jimenez, the young teacher at the bilingual school who asked me to translate her employment form, who is the same age as my oldest child, and who has no idea what she is doing.   I will wonder who can own dreams, at what price, and why people believe they have the right to dream of owning what is not theirs.  I will wonder at their tendency to simply plant their flags on any soil as if it were uninhabited, merely awaiting their arrival.

The question I posed to the group before we left was about contact zones from a 1991 article by Mary Louise Pratt—what happens when cultures collide in unequal relations of power?  I come away from this trip feeling as if I myself am a contact zone.   It is not an unfamiliar feeling.  When I came back from Santo Domingo the first time in 1991, the shock was total and painful.  The discomfort was so great that I coped with it in the only way I knew how.  I detached myself.  It is a horrible way to live in the world, being conscious of denying the entirety of who you are because no one sees value in it.  I remember my aunt’s words, when my son Sam, then a toddler, called her pool ‘picina.’  She said, “He will need to forget that.”  I got that message too, to let that go, to move on, to assume my place in the world, but I could only pretend to.

I lived like that, más o menos, for 17 years, until I came back to Santo Domingo to live again, like Rip Van Winkle, in 2008.  Since then, I have struggled to bring those worlds together by traveling back and forth, by bringing people here, by working to bring the writing project to Santo Domingo, and even by attending Spanish language lunch tables.  These things make me feel healthier and more whole.    It sometimes feels like it’s about resistance, about resisting the power of this culture to dismiss or diminish that part of me, to ignore and lessen the people who don’t conform to it.  It is about defying those who would domesticate and commoditfy  everything in order to control it, and who leave the rest of us such precious little space in which to live.

Everyone on our trip posed an inquiry question.  Mine was about social class.   Social class issues are salient and ugly in the contact zone.  Many of the people I met lived on the boundaries of the tourist economy, hoping to eke out enough of a living to keep going by hosting visitors, offering services as guides for  kayaking, horseback and boat rides,  or pedaling their wares in the streets of a marginal tourist destination.   On the bus to Pital I passed humble shacks next to luxurious resorts.  The contrasts are stark.

Up until quite recently, Costa Rica did little to limit or control the foreign incursions.  They are now beginning to regulate tourism and foreign ownership a little more.  Doña Olga spoke to me about “tourismo malo” where all people do is lie on the beach and give nothing to the country.  She prefers “tourismo bueno” where missionary and service groups bring school supplies and help paint or build, but she did not argue with me when I pointed out that those kinds of trips, while providing some much needed goods, did little to challenge the unequal relations of power that had created that poverty and that need in the first place.   A five cent rise in the price paid to growers in Ethiopia for a kilo of coffee would transform their lives and provide far more for the country than all of the food aid sent there  as aid in a year.  But these are the kinds of questions that are not raised.  The poverty is taken as a fact of life, as if it were as natural as the coming of the rains in August, and rich Americans come down on service trips, take pictures of themselves building houses, or planting trees in the rain forest,  and feel righteous and benevolent, never questioning why it is that they have so much when so many in the world have so little.

So what can one do?    When I was in Birmingham this spring for the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, I heard Charlene Hunter Galt speak.  In response to a question about what we can do to promote civil rights now, she offered some advice.  “Read ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and then ask yourself:  ‘what is my place in the movement?’”  We can serve the movement best, and by this I expand the idea to the movement for global racial and economic justice, by doing what we do, only differently, more consciously.

What I do is teach, and write, or write, and teach—I’m not sure about the order most days. And where I do it is in the contact zone that I have become, in the liminal space between languages and cultures and countries.   This actually can be a position of power.   I need to write and teach in service of the movement.   Part of doing that is to be more fully who I am as I move in this world.  I need to remember every day the people who have invested some degree of hope and trust in me.  I need to keep present those I met who are living on the margins and try to honor and widen those spaces by offering fair recompense for their labors, and insisting that others do the same.   I need to educate others by doing my work, by writing, by teaching, by asking others to “think, think, think, write, write, write, and to find a stopping place,” as one participant put it.  We need to stop sometimes to reflect, but also  to know that this work, like writing, is never done and that the struggle itself has dignity and meaning, and that we can’t take a break from it because so many people have no choice.

Sometimes I don’t have “all the time I need” to make a return to “this time and this place and this room,” but I have to make that time.  Writing helps.  So this is my attempt to gather up the sights and sounds and appreciate the insights this experience gives me, and to create enough meaning to enable me to live more fully and consciously wherever I am, and to honor my place in the movement.  The struggle is ongoing.  It is how I choose to live.

Save the National Writing Project

March 18, 2011 by · 5 Comments · Uncategorized

On March 2nd, all direct funding for the National Writing Project was eliminated from the federal budget.   This move puts a network of more than 70,000 teachers at more than 200 local sites at colleges and universities all over the country at risk.

Anyone who has been associated with the writing project will tell you that it works.  I would go so far as to say that it works miracles.  Honestly.

The writing project is one professional development program that respects and honors the work of teachers.  It helps them to think deeply about what they do and to connect with other fine teachers of writing all over their individual states and all over the country.

The writing project is a professional development program that trusts teachers.  It is based on the philosophy that the best teachers of writing are those who write themselves, and that teaching is intellectual work.   The writing project supports and helps to develop the kinds of teachers you would want working with your own children—smart, dedicated, thoughtful.   The writing project inspires teachers to believe in themselves and their students.   They learn the latest research, plumb the depths of theory, and demonstrate their practices for other teachers.  They become teacher consultants, providing professional development to other teachers.   They think critically about everything they do.   And yes, their students write better, more deeply, more extensively, and at a higher level of challenge—all of them.

I knew all of that when I founded the writing project site in New Hampshire, but I didn’t understand how much it would apply to me. When I discovered the writing project, I knew I had found an intellectual and professional home, and that home has done more for me as a teacher of teachers  and a teacher of writing than I would have dreamed possible. I am a far better educator because of my association with the writing project.  My students, and their students, have benefitted.

Unlike many programs, the writing project is “the gift that keeps on giving.”  Many educational reforms are expenditures on programs that are implemented and then gone.   The writing project is an investment in teachers as professionals, an investment that pays great dividends over time.   This year, our site, the National Writing Project in New Hampshire, will hold its tenth summer institute.    Teacher consultants from our first summer institute, held in 2002, are still working for the project, providing and participating in professional development activities, running writing camps and family writing nights, working in partnership with school districts, or participating in study groups, writing and publishing articles about their work.   Some have gone on to become part of the site leadership team.  Some are consulting with the state and with school districts on literacy programming.   All in all, our site provided more than 15,000 hours of professional development programming this past year.  Every year, we reach more and more teachers, and thus, more and more students.

Devastation and Significance

January 22, 2010 by · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

            In Haiti, all the usual means to measure misery or the scope of devastation seem paltry and inadequate. As more and more people are accounted for, or not, survivors say with some relief that  they lost  “only a cousin” or even “only my little brother”. In a world of total destruction, even unthinkable tragedy can  seem like a blessing because all around is evidence of how it could be much worse—whole families wiped out and one lone survivor not knowing how to continue to live.

            The images are poignant and horrible. A Red Cross worker recounted to one of my friends here how the hardest thing to bear was after they could no longer work each day because with no electricity, the light would become too dim, an eerie silence would descend.  The only thing that would break the utter stillness were the cries of people still trapped, who continued to call out in the perfect blackness of a night without light.

            Another friend reported seeing a news reel in which a hand and part of an arm extended from out of a fallen building. My friend watched in morbid fascination as the hand moved, waved back and forth, stopped for a time and then would start up again. She did not know if it was from some kind of reflex or periodic bursts of hope.  

            Haitians are not an abstraction to us here, not like hearing when something happens on the other side of the world. They are all around us on this side of the island. Our greetings to these neighbors have become tentative. We almost don’t want to ask if their families are safe, but we do.  No one is untouched. I have heard accounts of more than 100, 000 wounded. People say that no one has begun to have an accurate count of the dead.

            I have written about the renewed spirit of solidarity with Haiti that I have seen here—everywhere you see the signs reading “Solidaridad” and the newspapers are full of Dominican leaders urging solidarity with our “brother country”.   When I saw the pictures of the Presidential Palace looking like a collapsed meringue pie, I could only hope that this could be the end of what that palace has represented, that this new respect for Haitians will continue, that the debt will be forgiven and that Haiti can be built back on its own terms.

I felt something—a kind of energy– when I went to Haiti last year. Most people who go there feel it. The first country to be founded on a successful slave revolt, a country known for its art and for the capacity of its people to survive despite impossible odds, cannot be destroyed now.  One of the people I met in Haiti who was working with one of the schools there told me that he didn’t know why God made him Haitian, but he would try to find out.  He wanted us to think of them, not in terms of poverty or misery, which is always there, as dry and constant as the red clay dirt that coats everything in the endless heat.  He wanted us instead to think of colors—the vibrant colors of the tin shops and the tap taps—nowhere else, he said, did God create a people who loved color so much. 

As natural as it is to want to see meaning in tragedy, I am not sure there is any in this. Perhaps it is up to all of us to give the destruction and loss significance through our response.

Down here on the Ground

January 18, 2010 by · No Comments · Uncategorized

Down here on the ground

I hadn’t anticipated writing more about my experience here but the stories I hear from Dominicans who have been to Haiti or are working in the hospitals here are so moving that I feel compelled to write more.

Yesterday I talked with some members of the Fuerza Civil (Dominican National Guard) who had been over working in Haiti. They had spent three days working through some of the wreckage, hoping to encounter survivors, but as they put it, “At this point, we are mostly pulling out corpses, and often in pieces.”  They arrived back in Santo Domingo last night and head back over on Wednesday for another three day shift.

The word from the hospitals is better, but still tragic. A French professor from the university has been going to the hospitals helping with some of the translation, but also just with the work that has needed to be done, like bathing patients and moving them. Today she was at the children’s hospital.   She told the story of a girl who had residence in the United States which had just come through and had been planning to leave in a few days when the quake hit. She was studying in her house with her 23-year old tutor, an engineering student from a local university. She was gravely injured and her tutor was killed when the building fell in. Her legs were paralyzed. At first she had been saying that she thought she had injured her feet, but she has come to realize that it is her spine.

She told of another little girl who was reluctant to allow herself to be bathed because the dress she had been given to wear was the nicest she had ever had.  But you know, the professor told me, we found one just as nice for her to change into.  People are not donating cast off clothing, but the best that they have. The children in the hospital have toys to play with and Dominicans keep coming to the hospitals every day, wanting to help.

It isn’t that there aren’t worries, but never have a heard so much talk about the neighbor country and the brother country. And never have I seen so many people giving the best that they can give to people with whom they have not enjoyed the best relationship. For now at least, no one is speaking badly of Haitians. For me, this is the real Dominican Republic, and this is part of what draws me here.

The Earth Moves

January 14, 2010 by · No Comments · Uncategorized

I have written much in the past about the problematic nature of Dominican/Haitian relations.  Generally, if you mention to a Dominican that they share the same island with Haiti, the first thing you will hear is how completely different the two countries are.  They will mention language, culture, ethnicity… and marvel at how separated we are from the country on the other side of this island. But not today. The disaster of the earthquake that shook us all seems to have revealed a deeper connection—or at least a realization of how interconnected we really are. 

We felt the earthquake here—I have experienced “temblores de tierra”  (earth shakes?) here before.  They usually feel like a shiver that enters from outside of you and quickly passes through.  We aren’t used to movement coming up through our feet. I can only describe what I felt on January 12th as if I were suddenly riding on a skateboard that was gyrating in circles.  I was seated at a computer, and I had the sensation of wanting to hold on and wait for this feeling of seasickness to pass.   Only later did I learn what had caused that sensation.

The Dominican family I was staying with was glued to the television reports on the local stations. For some odd reason, internet blackberry connections were getting through in some places, although there was no phone service, and people were sending pictures from their phone cameras.  There has been an influx of Haitians to the airport, because the one in Port au Prince is closed. They are heading off in busses to cross the border. Points have been set up to collect canned goods and medical supplies here in the city and in other parts of the country.

My inbox is full of pleas from my Dominican (and some North American) friends to help the Haitians.  Perhaps my friends are not typical, but I think they represent something.

I listened to Dominican talk radio this morning. News of Pat Robertson’s vicious comments had reached the island and Dominicans were outraged. I sense in that outrage something personal, as if he could have been speaking about us. Of course he could have been, but such sentiments are rare here. And I wonder if that isn’t part of this.  I was shocked when I heard how little money the United States had pledged to help Haiti.  I can’t help thinking that if it weren’t such a poor black country, more aid would be forthcoming.  And that is what makes me think about this solidarity. Maybe it comes from a realization of where lines really get drawn when it matters.

 Callers stressed the connection to their “brother country” and posters stressing solidarity and listing donation drop off points are posted all around the university where I am working. Everyone knows someone who is Haitian, or someone who travels to Haiti or was living there.   This is personal.

As someone on the program put it, the rats that feed on the Haitian corpses and spread disease don’t know borders.  The agriculture that was ruined in Haiti will need to be supplied by farmers here. The hospitals that were destroyed call to us to supply sufficient doctors and supplies.   What affects the western end of the island affects us as well. Their disaster is our disaster.

I don’t see this as one of those cases where calamity has its silver lining—this is much to horrible, and the solidarity is much too grim.  But the solidarity of spirt I have seen in these past few days makes me love this country even more.

Literary Map of Santo Domingo

June 7, 2009 by · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

One of the things I have done, as my time has been winding down here, is to teach a creative writing course with Frank Baez and Erica Martinez.  Frank is a Dominican writer who just won the National Poetry Prize (while we were teaching the course) and Erika is a Dominican-American writer who is also here on a Fulbright scholarship.   We worked with the course participants to include their environment in their writing by having them go to a spot in the city and take notes to integrate into their writing. Then we did workshops on writing poetry, essays and fiction.  The writers decided how to develop their material and we did work with revision and editing.  The result is this literary map of Santo Domingo.  To view the map, click on the link listed under blogspots on the left hand side of this blog.  This is all in Spanish, but I think even if you do not read that language, you can get an idea of how the project worked.  Enjoy.,-69.890784&spn=0.114944,0.248566&z=12

Stranger’s Eyes

May 7, 2009 by · No Comments · Uncategorized

I haven’t written in a while, partly because I was completing the poetry challenge for the month of April, but partly because things have become more normal for me here. When a friend from New Hampshire visited in February, I saw the difference. “Wow!” she exclaimed, “Did you see that? Three people on a motorcycle!” or “He just ran a red light” or “There’s someone begging on that corner” or “Someone came up to me asking for money”

We see up to five people on motorcycles, including babies riding on their mother’s hips, and helmets are extremely rare. The same is true for crazy people in the streets—except for the one who slapped me across the face (that was memorable), beggars, shoeshine boys, chiriperos, even rats. I am complaining about the lack of water, but it doesn’t surprise me or catch my attention so much any more. I am no longer experiencing the assault on the senses that one experiences when one moves to a new place. There are things I simply no longer notice in the same conscious way.

This is as it needs to be and as it should be. One cannot go through life all the time like a wide-eyed tourist. For one thing, it’s exhausting. It means a constant processing of sensory input at a high level. Nothing enters automatically. Everything has to be processed, and when you add a non-native language to that, it can be overwhelming.

Last night I started co-teaching a creative writing class in Spanish. I don’t quite know how I ended up doing this. The original idea was that I would take the class as a student and simultaneously mentor the teachers, but somehow I ended up co-teaching. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. My friends find this hard to understand because I have been teaching classes in Spanish for a while, but creative writing is a whole other level. They are producing literature, and I have to go very slowly reading literature in Spanish. I find that my timing is off with the exercises because I write more slowly than I normally would in English. Teaching writing when one is at a severe linguistic disadvantage is not something for the faint hearted.

In one sense, however, I have an advantage. We are sending our students out to various parts of the city to make observations, collecting sensory data. Later, we will use these observations to create pieces of writing, which we will use, in turn, to make a literary map of the city of Santo Domingo. The advantage I have is that I am not so far from having “ojos del extranjero” or “stranger’s eyes”. It is easier for me to make the familiar strange because it wasn’t very long ago that it wasn’t familiar at all, and I still carry around in my head that other Meg who came here twenty years ago not speaking the language, or even the earlier Meg who grew up in a small town in New Hampshire where she didn’t see a nonwhite person until she was ten years old—and that person was a summer tourist.

While I don’t recommend such a provincial upbringing, the experience of having lived in a world that is so utterly “other” can be a plus for a writer. I only need to shift my perceptions and call up that person to whom everything here was strange, and look at the world again with stranger’s eyes.

The Black Hole

April 23, 2009 by · No Comments · Uncategorized

There are things I love about this country, but the level of bureaucracy is not one of them. At first glance, this would seem to be a country with no rules. No one seems to take anything terribly seriously. People habitually arrive late; customer service is subpar, and traffic laws? When I first came here, I thought there were none. Later I learned that no one follows them even though they do exist.

For this reason, I find it puzzling that while no one seems to take anything very seriously, when it comes to paper work, people become completely rigid and inflexible. Not that everything really has to be done by the letter, but it has to appear to be done by the letter. As long as it has an official seal and stamp, everyone is happy. On most occasions, in fact, documents that were completely faked were accepted much more easily than legitimate documents. We got here a week before school started and spent that week chasing paper. I had gathered most of the required documents prior to leaving New Hampshire, but they all had to be officially translated (never mind that this is an English speaking school), certified and legalized (even though they were original documents). Then we had to get appointments with doctors to have an eye exam, a physical, and a dental exam. Never mind that we had gone through quite rigorous medical screening before we left New Hampshire as part of the procedure for Fulbright. None of this is easy to get here, especially if one does not have a car. Finally I gave up and got my ex-brother in law to get some of the documents for me. Faked ophthalmologist certificates were delivered with some creative spellings of my children’s names. These were accepted without question.

Getting Sam into the university was a similar nightmare. I don’t know how many times in the process it was seriously suggested to me that I needed to fly to New York to the Dominican Consulate to get papers legalized. Never trust that anyone will see the absurdity in anything when it comes to bureaucracy. After having medical records sent from New Hampshire that were rejected on some technicality or other, I found myself in the absurd position of translating a form to a Dominican doctor in a government office without Sam present. Part of this involved me reading questions off like heart rate? and filling in the numbers he gave me for a person he had never seen. On another occasion, we went to the emergency room to pay someone off to get a medical certificate. The first thing they asked me was whether I wanted the certificate to say he was healthy or unhealthy. All of this is accepted without question.

I had a feeling that renewing Sam’s Dominican passport was not going to be easy, but I set off for the passport office anyway. First someone determined that he was a naturalized citizen, which he was not, but that got us off down a fatally wrong path. I had his old passport, his birth certificate and an official translation, and the required photos. Not nearly enough. First we were sent to the Junta Central Electoral to have the document “transcribed”. Then supposedly we were going to be able to get it legalized. I thought this sounded like a bad idea, but Sam wanted to persevere, so off we went. When we got to the JCE, we were handed another whole set of requirements. The first of which involved another visit to New York to get the document legalized, but then it would need to be legalized again once we got back to Santo Domingo. The translation would also have to be legalized, even though it was done by an official translator, and then we needed his Dominican father’s cedula and passport, neither of which he has used for 18 years, so surely they are expired as well. Sam and I just looked at each other right there in the office and laughed, nodding to the officious woman as if to say, “Sure, we’ll do all that. No problem.” The thing is we weren’t getting a new passport; we were renewing an expired one. Clearly no one considered that we had to go through all of this to get the passport the first time around.

So we let it go. Sam has a US passport and that will just have to be good enough. But there is a dark and terrible side to all of this. Many people just don’t bother even though they don’t have any other choice. My friend’s new grandchild, who some of you may have seen in my facebook pictures, doesn’t legally exist. Neither does her mother. Her mother’s birth, even though she is Dominican and born to Dominican parents, was never registered. Because she doesn’t have a birth certificate, she was never allowed to go to school. She does not know how to read and write. Because she has no papers, she cannot register her child. The child’s father is trying to figure out how he can register his daughter when she was born to a mother who doesn’t legally exist. This situation is common for Haitian immigrants who are defined by the Dominican government as “in transit” even though they might have lived here for decades. When they try to register, they are either told to go back to Haiti (even if they have never been there) or are given the same kind of crazy run around of shifting requirements that we were. This situation is untenable. It’s like entering into a nightmare black hole of endless requirements. Lives get sucked into that hole and lost.

On a Haitian Morning

March 28, 2009 by · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

On my third new Haitian morning, I sat on the porch of the mission house and clinic where I was staying listening to the cacophony of rooster calls and other animal noises. Niki, the student in the Ohio State group, mistook a cow lowing for a cell phone ring, which is some kind of statement about how far our lives are from this Haitian countryside. Haitian mornings are noisy—the ubiquitous roosters of course, but also stray dogs and hooting birds, and voices raised in song. The line forms for the clinic hours before it opens, and often people sing.

Some things are constant, the mango trees here, like the ones outside my apartment building are starting to bow with their heavy fruit. Soon it will be ripe and we will cover ourselves in sticky mango juice on both sides of the border when we try to eat them. But so much is different. It is as if there were ocean between us and this were a separate island, but of course we are not.

I stayed in the outskirts of the city in Petionville my first night in a mission house there, with Cheryl, the director of the project, and Niki in a dorm style room. Cheryl is also a writing project director, and the person I came to see. We didn’t know each other all that well before the trip. We had only met once, at the writing project annual review in Berkley about a month before.

We moved out to the countryside to this rural clinic the next day in order to visit the schools. The first school we visited is heavily patronized by the mission and thus better supplied than most. They have arranged for children to receive a meal there so they won’t be hungry and can learn better. There were as many as 30 children in the preschool rooms, but only 9 children in the highest class, the sixth grade. Most of the 6th graders were overage because they can’t always attend school and sometimes miss years and get behind. After sixth grade, there is nothing further in terms of education in this area. Children were reviewing for exams while we were there. I was happy to be able to follow the lessons in Kreyol.

Jean Marc, one of the translators, told me that there were more boys than girls in the school because families felt it was more important for boys to be educated so they would have a better chance of supporting a family. He also told me that children walk miles to be able to attend the school, even the little preschoolers. Most of the teachers have little more than a sixth grade education themselves.

Later, we talked more with Jean Marc, Cheryl and I. He talked about what he had seen of the project and where the problems were—there were many. He talked about his own role, and how he identified with the people in the schools because he was a Haitian, and what they did to or for them, they did to him as well. In the course of it all, he said, “God made me a Haitian—I don’t even know why—He knows why.”

And who does know why for any of it? Why was I born in a small town in New Hampshire, and what am I doing here on the mission porch talking about development with Cheryl and Jean Marc? It is comforting to believe in some sort of divine plan, and I do feel a sense of rightness about it: that this is exactly where I should be and that this is the work that was given me to do. But I am leery of that as well. People have marched off to all sorts of foolish and destructive adventures (like the crusades—and there are plenty of more contemporary examples) believing God is on their side and it’s all part of some divine plan. That may be too simple an answer.

Speaking of manifest destiny, it’s all too easy for educated, well-nourished Americans to swoop down here in planes and travel to these rural schools and find them wanting. Cheryl shared some of her inquietudes about the project itself and compared it to the treatment of black people in the states a hundred years ago. Colonialism takes different forms now, but it lives on. As I mentioned in my last post: “El que tiene dinero…”

In order to catch the bus back to Santo Domingo in the morning, I rode back to the mission house in the city for my last night. Roberta, one of the missionaries who run the clinic, wove in and out of traffic and the masses of people moving in the streets. It’s like a huge sea of humanity moving through the crowded, dirty streets, yet everyone’s clothing is so clean and well pressed. Niki started talking about how the slave ship that brought her ancestors to this hemisphere had landed in Virginia and her people had moved to West Virginia and then into Ohio. She marveled that if that ship had docked in Port au Prince instead, she could be one of those people moving in that street. She was glad that chance took them to Virginia. The point being: “Tout moun se moun”—Every person is a person, and Jean Marc might wish he’d been dealt a better hand as well.

But Jean Marc also talked about the Tap taps. Tap taps are flatbed trucks with roofs constructed over them and bench seats inside. The streets are thick with them—tap taps and UN Peacekeepers, but that is another story. They operate in a manner similar to the públicos in Santo Domingo. You hail them, get in, pay a small fee and when you want to get out you tap the sides and the driver stops to let you out—hence “tap tap.” They are practical and serviceable, but they are also gloriously beautiful. Every one is painted and decorated in bright colors with different sayings. They are covered in design and sometimes have little signs hand painted on their roofs as well. I heard that there is a tap tap in Port au Prince which sports a portrait of Barack Obama. Jean Marc noted that tap taps are found nowhere else in the world, and that Haitians created them because they love bright colors. There is a metaphor somewhere in that as well.

Crossing the Border—Haiti Part I

March 27, 2009 by · No Comments · Uncategorized

The first question everyone asked me when they learned I planned to go to Haiti was, “Who are you going with?” When I told them I was going alone, a look of horror crossed their faces, followed by admonitions to be careful and lists of things I should not do, which included just about everything. Their fears were not even slightly allayed by the fact that I was meeting someone over there and joining a university trip.

I had been studying Kreyol a bit in preparation for my trip, which one of my friends told me was “not even a language.” Another expatriate told me she saw no reason for visiting such a dirty, third world country. I am not saying that I didn’t have some trepidation about crossing the border into a place with serious travel warnings posted and UN Peacekeepers patrolling in white jeeps, but something else seemed to be operating here beyond these rational fears.

There is the physical presence of Haiti, which occupies the western third of our island, but there is also another Haiti which is more powerful in our imagination. Haiti represents everything dark and strange, our night terrors. Dominican parents have been known to tell their children that if they aren’t careful, Haitians will carry them off in the night. They joke about not being able to see them in the dark. It is this latter darker Haiti of our imaginations which is evoked when I told people I was going to Haiti.

On the way out of Santo Domingo, our bus followed a small guagua with the following message written on its back window: “El que tiene dinero piensa que él que no lo tiene no vale nada.” (Those who have money think that those who don’t are worth nothing.) It seemed an eerily appropriate message that only grew in meaning over the course of the trip.

I was actually more terrified by the political border than by Haiti itself. I didn’t like leaving my children on one side of it and crossing to the other. The border is a dusty, desolate outpost with a huge wall and gate on the Dominican side. The bus company takes all of our passports when we board the bus. They pay the taxes that we have paid in advance (in dollars, oddly) to the appropriate officials. They handed back the Haitian passports first and then the Dominican and the few of us who were neither waited while our passports were checked in a special room. Once we had been checked through the Dominican side, we were let out of the gate into a no man’s border land where a market thrives. People trade goods in little market stalls and money changers approach us asking if we want to trade pesos for gourds.

Once we entered the Haitian immigration station, no one spoke Spanish anymore and my Kreyol was not good enough to allow me to understand much, but I was checked through. I had crossed the border at Jimani and rode along the shore of a salt water lake called Etang Saumatre. The dirt road bordered a cliff and frequently the lake water washed over it.

At first the differences aren’t so apparent. The land seems drier, and the houses less finished in their construction. At first you don’t notice the lack of infrastructure, or the abandoned nature of the place. That comes later.