greetings and tremors

This morning (Friday), I walked into the kitchen and said, "Bonjou!" Jean-Claude was very happy with me and immediately started rattling on in a highly-entertaining manner, as he is apt to do. He informed me that he had meant to tell us how important greetings are in Haiti. He said that he had once worked in a diverse company in which there were misunderstandings about greetings, or lack thereof, to the point that the boss had to call a meeting to discuss it. He also mentioned that you can get more things done or get better service in a store if you are sure to greet people well, ask them how they are, how they slept, etc.

We learned about this yesterday, too. We received a sort of cultural coaching from a woman named Carla, a blan (white person) who has lived in Haiti for twenty-plus years. At the beginning of our mini-Kreyol lesson, she mentioned a common Kreyol proverb that states, "A beautiful greeting is your best passport."

In the midst of our lesson, which took place at Carla's place up the mountain in a village outside Port-au-Prince, a girl in a school uniform came running up the mountain, limping. When Carla asked her what was wrong, she told us that there had just been an earthquake at her school and that she had caught her foot in a desk in the frenzy of students running out of the building. At first we thought she was crazy, because we hadn't felt a thing and people here are--understandably!--quite paranoid about the recurrence of earthquakes.

But we got the same story from the other students who followed her up the mountain. There had, apparently, been an earthquake at the school on a road a few miles below us, and we hadn't felt a thing. Some of the students actually had to be sent to the hospital with broken bones. These were not, however, a result of any falling objects, as the earthquake wasn't very strong. Rather, children broke their bones in their panicked scramble to get out of the building.

After we heard about this event, the men we were with--one of whom was a father of a student--began a heated discussion about the school building. It is a two-story building with a concrete roof. One of the young men, whose home in Port-au-Prince was destroyed in the quake--with him inside of it--kept insisting that the children should not even be going into the school building with its concrete roof. Aside from his anticpation about the danger of the situation, he asked how the students could be expected to concentrate through their contstant fear.

After we had discussed the building, Mom asked Carla to tell the four men about her new strawbale house and to ask them if they would consider building with straw instead of with concrete. (Previous to this, Carla had told us that she doubted that most people would even consider building with straw, because building with natural, traditional materials has a stigma of being lower class, whereas concrete is considered an elite material.) The men replied that they would consider this method. Carla asked further questions and they responded that they would have never considered building with straw before the earthquake, but that now they definitely would. However, they did say they would want to see pictures of such a building first. Of course, Mom jumped on that idea, and showed them pictures (via facebook) of our house, and particularly ones of the building process. They were interested and asked lots of thoughtful questions.
This exchange was a glimpse of the fear the Haitian people still feel as a result of the quake. This glimpse was broadened and hit home for me later that night during a casual conversation at home. Mom asked Jean-Claude about a certain ice cream company that used to have vendors who pushed trolleys down the streets. Mom saw these trolleys when she was in Haiti more than twenty years ago, and wondered if they are still around. Jean-Claude remembered them and began to talk about a man who used to push one of the trolleys to their street every Sunday. Jean-Claude added, "I haven't seen him for awhile, though. Maybe he died, I don't know."
At first this comment struck me as very odd. To me, it seems rather pessimistic, or downright morbid, for your first assumption to be that someone has died if you haven't seen them for a while. But then I realized that he was serious, and that that is a valid assumption here. Somehow this little conversation put things into perspective for me. (And I must admit, I never recall a conversation that started out about ice cream and ended with such sad revelations!)

This story kind of makes yesterday sound like a depressing day altogether, but actually, it was pretty good. Probably a lot of its goodness for me came from the fact that we were busy. :) I think my favorite part was taking two tap-taps (Haitin public transportation comes in this form--pickup trucks with cabs on their beds that are painted with brightly-colored designs and slogans and are packed with people) to the base of the footpath that leads to Carla's place, and then hiking for about thirty minutes the rest of the way. We did this with two of Carla's Haitian "sons" to show us the way. It was fun to get some exercise and to get to know the guys a little!
On the way back, we briefly drove through one of the tent cities (the one that Sean Penn started, in case you were wondering). On our way from Carla's to the tent city, we came accross a calabasse tree from which we managed to procure a calabasse! Here is Mom cradling her green baby. :)

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