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“Thanks to God, you’re better,” my Haitian friend Madsen tells me when I catch him up on my now-cured explosive diarrhea.
God is very much on the tip of the tongues of most of my Haitian friends and the folks I meet here. Jesus is ubiquitous and more popular (but only slightly) than the NY Lotto numbers – a serious vice in Haiti [see note 1]. Alongside the daily numbers – on buses, in barber shops, taped to tents, tagged on partially fallen walls – the Word of God is found everywhere.
Descending the steep hillside upon which is perched a large, makeshift orphanage where the Cuban team is providing free health services, I see a garage door that proclaims: “God loves us. He saved us.” That’s some heavy food for thought and doesn’t help lift the anvil that’s been pressing on my heart ever since I huffed up that hill to where 347 orphans are ill, thirsty, hungry, and too alone.
I wasn’t expecting this unwavering faith. None of my (scant to be sure) pre-trip research prepared me for the Jesus craze that grips Haiti. Casual conversations peppered with holy references and the massive Sunday migrations through the dust-choked streets by young and old alike, Bibles tucked close, catch me unawares. Heathen though I am, I’m grateful this beleaguered people has something to hold on to. I remember something like envy overtaking me as I walked downtown on 9/12, passing full to overflowing churches. From Tribeca to Cite Soleil, when disaster strikes, believers find succor in their faith.
“You’re just cheap. You should give your salary to the church,” a Haitian medical student teases a Cuban surgeon in the emergency room. My ears prick up at this playful, but certain culture clash unfolding. Turns out the medical student gives 75% of her salary to her church and she is trying to convince the surgeon to follow suit. Her beauty and killer smile don’t win him over to the light and when he asks why she would do that, she explains the church is where she finds love and happiness and so is entitled.
More dense food for thought.
One terrible morning, after not sleeping due to stress, heat, the unfortunate musical tastes of my campmates, Cubans packing up two years of purchases in enormous boxes they hermetically seal with miles and miles of tape [see note 2], and an animated, pre-dawn phone negotiation between a Cuban doctor and her husband back in Guantánamo, I’m assaulted by this godliness. Seems someone in the massive tent city up the block thought it a good idea to blast religious pop on a powerful sound system starting at 6am.
In my mind, food, potable water, and safe shelter would be more appropriate for the thousands now getting an earful of Merci Jesus. But what do I know? I thought Jeff Buckley penned ‘Hallelujah’ [see note 3]. Later that day, I see a sign and point it out to my doctor buddies: ‘God is the chef of this house?!’ Everyone has a good laugh at my bad French: clearly God is the boss of this house, not the chef. But while He might be the boss of those houses still standing, I personally don’t see God at work in Haiti [see note 3].
To Madsen, whose younger sister just died of anemia, I tell it like I see it.
“No, friend. It wasn’t God. It was the Cuban doctors and the almighty power of antibiotics.”
Madsen nods. You know, we have a saying here in the countryside: ‘after God, the Cuban doctors.’
Haiti: it just won’t let my mind rest.
1. I’ve never felt the NY vibe so strongly outside of the city like here in Haiti. They play NY-rules dominoes (whatever that is – I learned dominoes in Havana and honed my skills in the Cuban camp in Port-au-Prince), you can buy Carvel log cakes (I shit you not) and the Yankees logo is everywhere.
2. Cubans completing two years of international service are entitled to ship – duty-free – three large boxes the size of a Westchester dishwasher, back home. In these boxes go 15 pairs of sneakers, a dozen bedazzled tank tops, 10 men’s dress shirts, sheets, towel sets, diapers, and as many pairs of jeans that will fit inside the new oven that after a month or so at sea will be installed in a Las Tunas kitchen. Each week, a saleswoman comes to the camp – her catalog circulates between the doctors like an issue of Penthouse in Cell Block C – and takes orders for everything from washing machines to PlayStations. I’m glad these folks have the opportunity to both do good in Haiti and for themselves and their family. And I understand the need to wrap the boxes in tape (an unfortunate accident to one of the boxes chugging its way to Cuba a little while ago means people are taking no chances), but must they do it at 1am? In front of my tent? Around midnight, one of my neighbors finally yells: ‘will you quit it with that freakin’ tape already?’ I send a mental heartfelt thank you her way. ‘Yeah?’ comes the response. ‘And what happens when it’s your turn?’ There’s a brief, golden silence. ‘Good point,’ she shouts, ‘but hurry it up!’ Damn.
3. I must admit I’m embarrassed by my musical ignorance here, but this is compensated by the fact that Leonard Cohen interpreted by a Haitian chanteuse is serenading several thousand displaced families.
4. Except perhaps in the sunsets. Port-au-Prince is blessed by such jaw-dropping dusks, taking a photo instead of experiencing it seems blasphemous.