Friday, February 06, 2009

This is how it is

I'm home. Ben, the photographer who traveled with me, had a saying on this trip.

"It is what it is."

I wrote an essay on the plane back about this visit. It's called, HOW IT IS.

Copyright 2009 by Bonnie Vanak

Let me tell you how it is.

There is a vehicle, an SUV of course. because you need an SUV. No status symbol, but simple practicality.

Maybe it will have a snorkel. Snorkels are good for fording rivers. You don’t know when there will be a river, when there will be rain, when there will be gushing water growling down the mountainside, thirsting to sweep you and your vehicle away, like a giant broom whisking away dust.

The snorkel is good.

You climb into the SUV, maybe it’s a Toyota, or a Montero, and if you’re lucky it will have a high ceiling. This is good because when you bounce up and down like a jack in the box, you will not hit your head.

If you’re lucky the vehicle will have good suspension and seat springs. If the seat springs make this squeaking noise like eee eee eee, that’s not good. It means your bottom will get a lot more sore as you are bouncing and coming down on the seat.

Now you’re inside the SUV and you put the seat belt on. The driver, a member of the projects team, cranks up the radio loud, playing a talk show with laughing or angry people, or maybe music that makes the bouncing up and down have a beat to it.

You set out. You know where you are going, but you don’t know what will be there. It’s all mysterious, like a movie about to unfold. There may be adventure. Or not.

There will be hunger, and sad or stoic faces.

You have to ride a long way to get to the hunger. You can almost feel it grumbling in the far distance, like a giant beast gnashing its teeth.

You want the hunger, the sadness, the stark sunken cheeks, the big round eyes filled with resignation and dull acceptance. You need it and almost crave it.

You’re a poverty junkie. You seek it out, like heroin on the street. You live for it. It is what makes the stories sing, the sadness and the grit, and you do what you must to get to it.

The SUV starts out with a cough and you are off. Passing by the window is life on the streets, a brown river of frail humanity selling, moving, standing still, yelling, quiet, talking, laughing, peeing.

Pas pipi las. Don’t piss here.

You pass the cemetery, then the turquoise sea is a blur against your clean, sparkling window, a ribbon of blue promise threaded with muddy brown.

“That is the most dangerous place in Haiti,” says your projects guy. “They clean the fish there. That’s where the sharks hang out.”

You wonder if the sharks are hungry, too. What would a shark say if you whipped out your notebook and asked questions about the hunger.

“Do you pray to God when you are hungry?” you would ask the shark.

The shark would think a minute, tilt its triangular head and nod.

On the way there, you stare out the window or you trade war stories about disasters. You were in that flood in ’04, but the projects guy was there right after, and his SUV had to nose bodies out of the way, like they were mooing cattle, only they were floating in the grayish brown muck that was the flood.

Two hours later, you are in Jacmel. It is a pretty city, with a serene blue bay so sharp it hurts your eyes. The burning yellow sun kisses your cheek in welcome.
The hotel greets you kindly, with its cool tiled floors and salmon walls and scowling Mardi Gras masks. There is a lunch, but you don’t eat. You know where you are going there is hunger, and there are no latrines, either.

Lunch is over, and you climb back into the SUV. The windows are slightly dusty now, the snorkel snakes out of the truck like a black plastic chimney.

The road rumbles beneath you as you leave Jacmel, and your guide points out the landslides from the last hurricane. Part of the seaside road has caved in, but you still have pavement.

The pavement ends. “Now we are off roading,” the projects guy says cheerfully.

The bouncing begins.

Sometimes it is a lot of bouncing, tires squeaking over rocks that once were pavement, sometimes it is smooth as crunchy peanut butter.

You bounce and bounce, your head nodding like a bobble doll.

Vaguely you wonder if bobble dolls were invented in Haiti.

The SUV grumbles as it climbs the mountain, your guide blowing the horn to announce you are coming to the trucks that may be barreling down the road, oblivious, like rich people sweeping past the poor in bored indifference.

White dust cakes the windows as you bounce. You are Jello in a large rectangular box.
Minutes slide by, then the hours. Nearly three hours later, you arrive. There is a small painted sign nailed lopsidedly to a tree with few leaves.

It reads Baie D’Orange.

The community representative with his dark sunglasses and his Fidel Castro-like cap comes and greets you. He climbs into the SUV.

You bounce some more as the vehicle creeps down a hill.

At the bottom of the hill there are scattered trees and a house. Beneath the small copse of trees is a coffin.

The official kindly explains this is the house of the coffin maker.

The wood coffin sits in silence, patiently waiting to be filled. Its patience is always rewarded because the hunger is bad.

You look at the wood coffin, sitting there beneath the quiet trees, like a little wood house.

Then the SUV growls off, and you bounce some more.

You know you are going somewhere.

You will soon get there.

You aren’t certain what you will find. Maybe there will be a sad-faced child with sunken cheeks or a stoic mother who will tell you in painstaking detail how her twins died, 21 days apart, shrinking into their bodies like collapsed balloons.

Or a woman asked to sell her son like a goat to pay off a debt.

Or a man telling you about a woman who died yesterday from the hunger, who is now being welcomed into the dark earth.

Or a chorus of voice calling out the names of their loved ones who died from the hunger when you ask who has lost someone from malnutrition.

Maybe there will be fog rolling in on the mountain, barricading the sun, rubbing against your skin like the icy stroke of a cold finger.

Maybe you will see tombstones along the pathway as you walk, little stone houses sheltering those who can no longer feel the mist against their cheeks.

And when you leave, you can’t forget the sunken eyes or the goat-sold children or the mist or the tombs forever sitting in silence on the clay earth.

That is how it is.


Norah Wilson said...

Bonnie, what a beautiful, terrible, heart-wrenching essay. I hope the power of your pen raises lots of money to help ease this horrible suffering. Thank you for being willing to be the eyes and ears that tries to waken our sleeping, oblivious conscience. I can only imagine how much it must cost.

Bonnie Vanak said...

Thanks Norah. What I do is little compared to the people I meet in my travels, who live and help there, and the plethora of volunteers.

They amaze me with their dedication.

Phil said...
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