Kontra Maryaj (Marriage Contract)

For the last several weeks, I’ve been working very closely with two local volunteers. Although we joke around and chit chat quite a bit, we mostly keep it strictly business. So upon realizing today that I didn’t know much about them personally, and vice versa, we started exchanging a few details about ourselves. Nothing too intrusive, just the basics. 

During our chat, I learned that one of the volunteers is expecting a baby. After congratulating him, I asked if he planned on marrying his girlfriend. He replied, “Yes, maybe for three months, then we’ll see.” Confused by his response, I asked if he meant that he’d wait three months, then propose. He was equally confused by my question.  I thought perhaps something was getting lost in translation, as I had instituted an English only rule for the day to give them a chance to practice. So I temporarily suspended the rule in the hopes of clearing up any confusion.

Speaking in Creole, the volunteer explained that he would have a three month marriage contract with his girlfriend, and at the end of three months, he’d decide if the contract should be renewed for another three months. Then after that, if things had gone well, he’d marry her a third time, for life. I stared at him for a few seconds without responding, which he interpreted as a lack of understanding. As he started to repeat himself, I interrupted and let him know that I understood what he said. I just didn’t understand the idea of multiple, short-term marriage contracts, as I view it as a life-long commitment. Whether it lasts or not is another story.

He went on to explain that because women change after marriage, he wanted a marriage contract so he wouldn’t be financially obligated to a woman. Just as I was about to concede the point because I felt his argument was somewhat rational, he added that after marriage, women become unattractive and possessive. Ahh, yes. Finally, we’re getting to the real issue. Seems that Haitian men have some of the same preconceived notions about marriage as many other men around the world. I’m not necessarily surprised by that, as some things are universal. It’s just that the whole idea of a marriage contract really threw me for a loop.

But as I thought about it, the idea itself isn’t really that far-fetched. I mean, it’s similar to people moving in together before marriage, isn’t it? That’s what annulments are for, right? What about those people who are in super-duper long relationships before officially tying the knot? And let’s not forget about those celebrity-style pre-nups with clauses about women gaining weight and not keeping themselves “up”. In all those instances, you’re essentially testing the waters and/or able to cut your losses if things don’t workout as you thought they would.

I told the volunteers that I finally understood their point of view. I didn’t agree with their reasoning nor would I ever agree to such an arrangement, but I did understand. In the end, everyone has to do what works for them.

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Yon Goute nan Jakmel (A Taste of Jacmel)

Last week, 30 days had passed since my last mental health break. Without actually counting the days, I could tell it was time for me to spend some time away from Leogane. But because I’m leaving soon, it didn’t make much sense for me to spend the minimum required three nights off base. So instead, I decided to take a day off, and spend it in Jacmel.

Given my previous near-death experience with Jacmel, I was nervous and anxious about traveling there again. But having survived much longer and more arduous tap tap rides to Île á Vache and Port Salut, I felt confident that I could survive a return trip to Jacmel. Besides, I really enjoyed the city when Jessica and I went in November, and I didn’t want fear to stop me from going back.

So early Saturday morning, another volunteer, Kisa, and I made our way to the bus station in downtown Leogane. Once there, we decided to take a moto taxi for 50 gourdes each (a little over $1 US) to the bus station in Carrefour Kolas. After waiting about 20 minutes, a van finally pulled up. It was already packed with people, but the driver insisted there was room for us. As I looked inside at the overcrowded, stuffy van, I had flashbacks to the Blue Bird bus ride from hell. I asked if another tap tap or van was coming. The driver said there were manifestations in Port-au-Prince, so we’d have to wait.  (I’d later learn that many drivers and riders were upset over the government’s decision to increase fuel prices, which disrupted transportation.) Just as we decided to squeeze on board, the driver informed us that there was no more room. I breathed a sigh of relief.

After waiting a few more minutes, Kisa and I decided to take a moto to Jacmel. We knew it’d be more expensive than a tap tap or van, but it’d be faster, more fun and less crowded. With an idea of how much we were willing to pay in mind, I approached a driver and asked how much he’d charge to drive the two of us to Jacmel. He replied 500 gourdes, and didn’t appear to be in the mood to negotiate. So I went to another driver. He gave me the same price. When I stared at him blankly, he asked how much we wanted to pay. I offered 300 gourdes and he declined. So we compromised at 400 gourdes ($10 US). After giving the driver the speech I give all moto drivers (“Don’t go too fast and be careful because I don’t want to die. Do you want to die?”), we were on our way.

The moto ride through the mountains to Jacmel was spectacularly amazing. The majority of the ride was smooth and relaxing. There were only a few times that either I gasped or held my breath for a moment.

The beach in downtown Jacmel, much like the one in the Leogane, is filled with trash and other debris. So once we arrived in downtown Jacmel, I asked our moto driver to take us to Hotel de L’Amite just outside of Cayes Jacmel in Marigot. Because our final destination was several kilometers beyond the city center, we ended up paying 600 gourdes total ($15 US). Still a good deal, in my opinion.

As soon I stepped onto the white sandy beach at L’Amite and gazed out into the turquoise blue sea, I knew I’d made the right decision in taking the day off. I instantly relaxed and breathed in the fresh air. For the next couple of hours, I soaked in the sun’s rays and waded the warm water.

For lunch, Kisa and I made our way to Cayes Jacmel where we stopped at the Hotel Cyvadier’s restaurant. We sat at a table overlooking the hotel’s small beach cove. While we waited for our food to arrive, we sipped on delicious rum punches and enjoyed great conversation. Our bellies full, we made our way to a fast food restaurant called Epi Jacmel for dessert: ice cream. I selected the 8 oz cherry flavor, and ate every single ounce. (My tummy was later angry with me, but it was so worth it.)

Next, we went exploring in downtown Jacmel, where we stumbled upon a boutique selling jewelry and home decor items. The store (unfortunately, I don’t remember the name) had some of the most beautiful handmade, hand-painted merchandise I’ve seen in Haiti. I wanted to buy almost everything they had, but settled on a ring made of recycled paper.

After briefly browsing around a papier mâché shop, we walked along the beach. The trash on the beach contrasted with the beauty of it is something that’s difficult for me to wrap my head around. I realize there’s no waste management system in Haiti, but Jacmel is supposed to be more “progressive” and touristy than other parts of the country. So to see the amount of trash on what could be a really beautiful beach is disheartening. I don’t understand why the local government or private citizens can’t come together to clean it up. But I have digressed.

As our last and final stop of the day, we went to the historic Hotel Florita. Originally built in 1888, the Hotel Florita  is architecturally stunning. It has exposed brick walls, arched doorways, large iron doors and beautiful artwork everywhere you look. While Kisa and I enjoyed another rum punch, we marveled at our surroundings. There are lots of images out there of Haiti. They’re usually quite negative and focus on activities occurring in the capital. But Haiti is much more than just Port-au-Prince. I wish more people could see and experience the other side of Haiti…the beautiful, magical side of the country. On the other hand, perhaps it’s best that the masses stay away and leave the rest of us to enjoy the unspoiled beauty. But again, I have digressed.

Just as the sun was beginning to set, we started making our way back to Leogane, smooshed in the cab of a mini-truck with two other people (including the driver). The ride wasn’t nearly as relaxing as the moto ride mainly because it was dark, so the bright lights from the oncoming traffic was blinding. But it still wasn’t as scary as the previous “incident”. And for that, I was grateful.

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Yon Lòt Ti Vakans (Another Mini Vacation)

Approximately every 30 days, volunteers are required to leave base for a minimum of three nights to take a mental health break. So last month for my break, I decided to return to the southwest and traveled to Port Salut. Similar to Île á Vache, traveling to Port Salut from Leogane is quite the journey. After four taps taps (Leogane to Petit Goave to Miragoane to Les Cayes to Port Salut), six and a half hours, and less than $8 US, I finally arrived at my destination: L’Auberge du Rayon Vert.

The Auberge is a small hotel located across the street from Pointe Sable beach. I enjoyed a large room with a king-sized bed for $80 US per night. The room was sparsely yet nicely decorated with locally made furniture, tiled floors, a modern bathroom, air conditioning and hot water. There’s also a very nice restaurant on the premises, where I enjoyed breakfast every morning and rum punches every evening.

I don’t know how to describe Port Salut other than to simply say it’s beautiful. White sand beaches. Warm turquoise water. Nicely paved roads. Friendly people. Clear blue skies. Fresh air. If Île á Vache was paradise, then Port Salut is heaven.

There are “touristy” things to do in Port Salut, such as visit waterfalls and caves. But I chose to do nothing, except enjoy lazy days on the beach listening to music, reading, searching for sea shells and eating fresh-caught seafood.

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After four days in “heaven”, it was time for me to make my way back to Leogane. Instead of a tap tap, I decided to take a moto from Port Salut to Les Cayes. (I neglected to mention it earlier but on my way to Port Salut from Les Cayes, a woman became sick on the tap tap from the twists and turns through the mountains. When she leaned over the side of the tap tap to vomit, it flew to the back of the tap tap where I was sitting, and landed on one of my favorite dresses. I didn’t want to risk a similar incident happening on the way back.) I loved every minute of the moto ride. It feels very liberating to ride through the mountains on the back of a motorcycle with the wind whipping through your hair and unobstructed views of the scenery. So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the anonymous woman who vomited on me. Because of her, I experienced one of the best moto rides I’ve had in Haiti.

As I approached Leogane, however, the exhilaration I felt from the moto ride had long dissipated. On the last stretch of my trip, a very large woman decided to squeeze into a very small space next to me. I was wedged between her and the railing on the back of the tap tap – the one thing preventing me from tumbling onto the National Highway. She elbowed and pushed me as we rode along, fighting for more space. Determined not to let her “win”, I pushed and elbowed her back, fighting to maintain what little space I had. At one point, she scolded me for not sitting properly, to which I responded that I couldn’t because I didn’t have room. She didn’t say anything else. By the time she got off the tap tap I was exhausted. I felt as if I’d been in a wrestling match. And basically, I had been.

Despite being vomited on, the wrestling match and countless other incidents that I didn’t bother to mention, I’d do it all over again. After all, these experiences make for great stories to tell my family and friends, and create memories I’ll carry with me for a lifetime.

Mwen La (I’m Here)

I’ve found that when people in Haiti ask “Koman ou ye?” “How are you?”, they really want to know. They aren’t simply asking in passing or to be polite. So unlike in the United States where people tend to say “fine” and keep it moving, people in Haiti expect you to answer the question honestly.

There are lots of responses to “Koman ou ye?” There’s “mwen kontan”, ” mwen byen”, ” mwen pa pi mal” and “mwen malad”. For the cool kids, there’s “pose”, “map swiv” and “map boule”.  But I think one of the simplest yet most powerful responses is “mwen la.” I’m here.

At first, I’d never use that expression to answer the question because it seemed to be a nonchalant response…as if to say I’m just here, existing and that’s it. But lately, it’s come to mean something very different to me.

I’m here. Just to be “here” is a blessing in itself because there are so many people who aren’t. To be “here” means you get another opportunity to do better…to be better than you were before. To be “here” means to be present…able to appreciate what’s in front of you rather than harping on the challenges of the previous day or stressing about what’s to come. To be “here” means la vi kontinye…life continues.

So koman ou ye? Mwen la. E mwen vrèman kontan mwen la.

Nap Vote (We’re Voting)

Poster reminding Haitians to vote

Today, Haitians head to the polls to vote in the final round of the presidential election. Leading up to today, I’ve listened in on passionate discussions of the elections among supporters of Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly and Mirlande Manigat. I have to admit, I don’t know much about either candidate’s platform, other than they both vow to provide education and jobs, and just generally do a better job at running the country than the current administration.

Of the two candidates, I’ve been the most curious about Tèt Kale, bald head, the moniker used on all of Martelly’s campaign paraphernalia. I hadn’t heard of the pants-dropping, cross-dressing kompa singer before coming to Haiti. He’s hugely popular among young people here, and quite frankly, I’ve been struggling to understand why. I’m not sure what it is, but something about Martelly doesn’t sit well with me. Perhaps it’s the sinister laugh I hear on the other end of the telephone when I receive robocalls from his campaign. Or maybe it’s because he chose pastel pink and hot pink for his campaign colors. It could be because he distributed fake goud notes with his picture on them while campaigning. The fact that he supported the brutal military regime that overthrew Jean Bertrand Aristide during his first term as President doesn’t exactly elicit warm, fuzzy feelings about him either. But most of all, I simply don’t understand why someone with no prior political experience or ambitions would suddenly be interested in being Haiti’s president at such a crucial and critical time. And that makes me suspicious of his intentions.

But as a non-Haitian, my opinion doesn’t really matter. So I’ve tried to keep it to myself when engaging in conversations with locals about the elections. Instead, I ask why they think their candidate of choice would make a good President.

Manigat supporters, and I’ve only come across a few in Leogane, tell me that because she’s well-educated, has previous political experience and is mild-mannered, they believe she’s the best person to negotiate and lead the country’s recovery and rebuilding efforts. They are a few people who also just like the idea of Haiti finally having a female president.

When I ask Martelly supporters why they think he’d be a good president, they usually respond with a blank stare, as if the answer should be obvious. When I return a blank stare of my own, they go on to explain that because Martelly cares about the Haitian people (they usually site distributions he did after the earthquake as evidence of this), has money of his own and has no prior political experience, he’s less likely to succumb to corruption.

I hear little from supporters of either side about their candidates’ concrete plans for Haiti’s future.

Given the importance of this election and my general inquisitive nature, I’d love to accompany some of the locals I know to the polls just to observe the whole process. But as a precautionary measure, many non-governmental organizations, including the one with which I volunteer, have either restricted movements for international staff or they’re on full lockdown and cannot leave  their compound. So I’ll be watching from the sidelines, checking online news reports and listening to the radio to find out what’s happening. Whatever happens, I hope and pray that Haiti’s next president lives up to its citizens’ expectations.