La Perle des Antilles

This may sound maudlin, but sometimes hate does turn into love and sometimes, if you’re in the right frame of mind, a challenging situation is indeed an opportunity.  By the time I left home at 18, I had moved house 17 times in 3 continents, 4 countries, 3 US states and the District of Columbia.  One of those places, for better or worse, was to have a major influence on my life.  In the early 70s my family moved to Haiti for what was supposed be “a few years”.

If nature abhors a vacuum, it’s equally true that young children abhor uncertain, chaotic situations.  So let me reiterate what I just said in the paragraph above – it was the 1970s (an era, in retrospect, when everyone was seemingly flying by the seat of their pants) and I had just landed in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, a 3rd world country ruled by secret police and a “president for life” dictator.  Oh, and we didn’t speak the language (creole).  My parents spoke French and my sister and I had spoken French as younger children but at that point had forgotten it after a few years in inner-city DC.  (Haiti was\is considered a francophone country but the reality is that the vast majority of the population do not speak French.)

My father’s job allowed us to have a comfortable life of a higher standard than we’d just had in DC, complete with a pool and servants.    I was in a new school (again), and as per usual most of the kids had known each other since infancy.  While it was an “American” school, most of the kids flat-out spoke creole amongst themselves outside of class.  I was told we’d move again in a few years so it seemed sort of pointless to learn the language and otherwise get attached to this place that I wasn’t overly fond of.

It wasn’t all bad, of course, because in spite of extreme poverty and political corruption, Haiti was – and is – a country unlike no other.  There is natural beauty (including the best beaches I’ve ever seen anywhere), an extremely vibrant culture and great cuisine.  I might have been a moody little git, but it’s hard not to like pate, poulet creole and fresco gwenadin ak pistache griye (shaved ice with grenadine syrup and grilled peanuts – trust me).  However, what really burned Haiti into my memory, and not in a good way, was the final breakdown of my parents’ marriage and also a fairly scary health issue my mother encountered.  I had made friends and was doing OK in school but I really couldn’t wait to see the last of that country.

Leave we did, and for a few brief years my sister, my mother and I ping-ponged around the US Midwest and East Coast.  Somewhere along the line I made a fetish out of “normalcy”.  I longed to fit in, to be as vanilla as possible, to blend into the crowd.  Finally, we ended up in incredibly small-minded town in the metropolitan Boston area as my mother worked ridiculous hours, raised 2 kids and pursued her degrees in arguably the best university in the US.  My “normalcy” campaign was an abject failure.  Sure, I had made a few friends and had become reasonably proficient at baseball but I was far from what you’d call popular.  In fact, I received more than my share of shit, straight up bullying, at school because I was a shy, geeky, pimply new kid (entirely on me) but also because of my family situation (beyond my control).  At roughly the same time I discovered the martial arts and latched on with laser focus.  I trained 4 hours a day 5 times a week so after a year or 2 I began to get fairly proficient.  The better I got, the more local notoriety I received and, for the most part, the bullying stopped.  After a fight or 2, kids decided to pursue easier targets.

Nevertheless, I was miserable anywhere outside of a dojo, and school, especially, was the 9th circle of hell.  I began to skip obscene amounts of school.  Towards the end, I was skipping every Monday and Friday.  To this day, I’m not sure how I got away with it, but let’s just say that my middle school was a bit of a chaotic, Lord of the Flies situation for students and teachers alike.  Most kids probably would have fallen in with a bad element at this point but honestly, I was too geeky to be accepted by the “bad element”.  Skipping school was the limit of my rebellion.

All miserable things must come to an end so, eventually, the day came when my mother sat my sister and I down to announce that we’d be going back to Haiti for a brief period so she could finish her doctoral thesis.  Looking back, as the divorced parent of 2 children, I  appreciate the courage behind her decision.  As a self-involved young teenager, naturally, my first thought was “WTF, why me and why, of all the places in the world, there???”  And I didn’t want to leave my dojo, the one place that I fit in.  Soon thereafter, however, the school administration finally noticed my laughable attendance record and the dragnet began to close in.   Suddenly, a few months in the Caribbean didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

In no time at all, we were back in Port-au-Prince.  This time, though, the experience was going to be radically different.  My sister and I were older and there was less “family drama” to complicate things further.  On the other hand, we had very little money and were operating well and truly without a safety net.  Money equals power everywhere, but even more so in desperately poor countries.  The 3 of us lived in 1 rented room for the first few months.   In adult terms, we had only been gone for a few years, but as an early adolescent it seemed like decades.

It was like “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” in reverse, only I was painfully skinny (we all were back then) and incredibly “blan”.  Even  my Irish-American schoolmates in Boston used to give out to me for how pale I am…so while my school in PauP reflected all the colors in the rainbow, I selflessly anchored the far gringo end of the chromatic spectrum.  The similarities with the book, however, outweighed the differences: it was the very early 80s, I was on the island of Hispaniola and, oh yes indeedy, was very socially awkward.

My mother had managed, by dint of a level of hustle one rarely sees these days, to send us to our old school.  This was notable because it’s a private school and as I mentioned above, she had very limited funds at that point.  (In fact, I’m fairly certain her income was poverty level by US standards, but in Haiti in those days it was “middle-class”.  One didn’t often see an entire “blan” family with limited means (and, at the time, limited connections) so it’s accurate to say we were a rarity.)  My classmates were an interesting mix of Haitian elite (the 1 percent), embassy brats, some missionary kids and a few odd-ball cases like my sister and I.  It was a weird mix by anybody’s standards.  The 14 year old kid on my left might have a Patek Philippe on his wrist and had driven himself to school in his BMW while the kid on my right could be a snuff-dipping South Carolina redneck in training.  Every high school has cliques and subcultures, but this place added class and a wider range of socio-political issues to boot.  (We had, for example, Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis in our school – which made for an interesting period after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982).

I also searched around for a new dojo – one that I could get to via public transportation (aka Tap-taps, camionettes and “publiques” (ancient communal taxis of a sort) and we could afford.  We eventually found one and I began training with my new dojo mates.  It was my first real re-introduction to unadulterated Haitian culture.  Nobody spoke English, just Creole (mostly) and French (sorta).  It was a real old school dojo, with the old-school “recitation of the credo” before every training session, all counting and technique names in Japanese and, distressingly (for me) they insisted on wearing a full gi at all times.  Wearing a full gi while performing intense physical exercise in a stifling, non-air-conditioned dojo in a tropical country was, shall we say, challenging at first.  I puked a few times and passed out at least once before my body adjusted.  That being said, my dojo mates and instructors where really cool guys and surprisingly accepting of the goofy “sans-ave” “blanmana” that was deposited in their midst.  Oh, and they were the most flexible bunch I had ever run into, capable of doing full splits with little or no warm-up.  Long after I finally gave up the martial arts, I’d often run into guys from the old dojo whilst out and about in PauP/Petionville and they were always extremely cool.

In spite of a very modest living situation, a certain amount of culture-shock, a high-school environment on steroids and being the new kid once again  I couldn’t honestly say that my level of adolescent angst and general miserableness was worse than it was in the States.  Still, I longed to return to Boston and continue training with my original dojo. This might seem strange but as I’ve said before, karate was the only thing in my life that was entirely mine in which I had achieved a certain level of success and notoriety.   However, as the months wore on, it became increasingly obvious that a “short stint” in Haiti was becoming a longer, more open-ended affair.

It’s fully to my mother’s credit that she allowed me to return to Boston and my old dojo.  Much credit also goes to first instructor and mentor, P, as he agreed to do the heavy lifting transportation wise, waiving the already cheap monthly fees, etc.  Be that as it may, I was essentially a young teenager living with very nice strangers back in the same damn town.   I realized 2 things very quickly: a) I missed my mother and sister a whole lot and b) man, did I ever hate that town.  I had always thought the fault was squarely on me but I realized the town sucked, too.  It seemed to dislike me, and I , it.  I remember a visceral feeling of suffocation and it dawned on me that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of its’ philosophy.  As much as I hated to leave my original dojo, I felt, surprisingly, a very strong desire to return to Haiti.

So, in very short order, I found myself back in funky ol’ PauP.  My living situation hadn’t changed, it was still as “challenging” as ever, but my attitude had.  I was still miserable, but I realized that non-stop moaning wasn’t solving anything.  I eventually learned creole, made a number of friends (many of them outside of school) and, hell yes, even met girls.  I returned back to my PauP dojo for a time, at least.  After a few years, we had a very small, old school traditional shotgun style house on a hill overlooking downtown PauP.  It was filled to the tin roof with books that we had brought and that various of my mother’s university colleagues had left which was key as we didn’t have a TV.   Hell, the phone didn’t even work half the time.  Those books saved my sanity and gave me a painless “by osmosis” education that saved my *ss in school.  Boredom is a very powerful motivator, one that is increasingly rare these days.  My sister eventually left for college, leaving just my mother and I.  My mother’s various jobs often took her into countryside for days at time which effectively left me, by this time an older teenager, alone.  I know what you’re thinking, and you wouldn’t be totally wrong (see above re: friends and girls).  I learned a number of valuable lessons, like it’s possible to get by on 2 gourdes worth of fritaille a day in a pinch and who I could sell my clothes to if my friends and I had prematurely blown the food budget on parties.

It’s worth noting that in some respects the Haiti I am referring to no longer exists.  At that time it was far safer than most US cities at the time.  While I did run into some issues whilst literally running in the streets, it was pretty tame.  I routinely cut through slums, on foot, at all hours of the day.  We’d do things like hop a tap-tap (or hitchhike) to Grand Goave (a town on the coast outside of Port-au-Prince) to watch a voudun ceremony, drink rum and return back home the next morning.  Crime and insecurity was not really a factor in those days, as crazy as that sounds now.  I often wonder if our ultra low-budget, no connection having re-introduction to Haiti as described above would do-able these days.  I’m not sure it would be.

Haiti is a complex place, one that you hate and love simultaneously.  It’s “The land of unlimited impossibilities” that’s always capable of breaking your heart.

 

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