Sunday, April 7, 2013

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

In Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl, Charlie Bucket and his parents, four grandparents and their giant brass bed and Mr. Wonka explode through the roof of the chocolate factory, punching an enormous hole to make their exit. Then they jerk and crash left and right into an unknown world-- space-- filled with Vermicious K'nids and faraway stars. That's what we did yesterday. We squished into a glass-and-metal box and blasted back and forth through various worlds and time periods. Sixteen of us went in a chartered bus-like machine down our peaceful mountain into places unknown. As Mr. Wonka would say, we were lixivated.

Decending the mountain is itself lixivating. Up here in the rarefied air, we see vast arrays, swaying banan trees, are cooled by soft, clean breezes. As you wind your way down the mountains toward Thomassin, you are corkscrewing down through zones of hell. Thomassin isn't that bad-- lots of crowding, etc., but Port-au-Prince, oh, Port-au-Prince is when you've really arrived to the real deal. In the bus,  at first you balance and shift so the soft part of your arm doesn't bother your neighbor's arm. Your legs smash against each other but that's not as big a deal. You wish your butt was smaller because you are worried you are taking up too much room. You are. Your arm has nowhere to go. It is starting to get very sticky and wet. So is your neighbors'-- on both sides. Ew. Finally you give up and just stick together. It's kind of icky, but you manage it. You aren't even a quarter of the way down the mountain yet. First we sweated our way to Croix-Des-Bouquets, a lovely name. It means Cross of Flowers. HA!!!

The landscape here is as schizophrenic as everything else. On one side of the road in Croix-Des-Bouquets are the only large, flat agricultural plains I've seen. They are plowed and ready to be planted as the rainy season approaches. They are beautiful, with the looming mountains wreathed in early morning cloud behind them. Julienne came with us, and she said here were the sugar plantations so long ago. The landscape transforms as you realize that lovely rich dirt is drenched in blood, the blood of centuries of slaves and indigenous. And as you enter Croix-Des-Bouquets, you see the lottery kiosks and trash everywhere and gashes in the unpaved road and peoplepeoplepeople and you wonder where the flowers are.

And that's when you make a hard slamming right down a long dirt road to the orphanage, past four guards with enormous machine guns and a tall metal gate, and you find the flowers-- the little girls who live here. This orphanage is owned by the United Church of Christ, which our benefactor and host, Leon Pamphile, is the Bishop of here in Haiti. The compound is enclosed by cement block walls, the ubiquitious razor wire and the guards I mentioned. These guys seem like bad-ass hombres. Mirrored sunglasses, guns from their shoulder to the ground. Yikes. What are they guarding that is so precious?

We enter the orphanage, a large two-story wooden structure with cool tile on the floor. We are ushered in to the dining room-- a long, narrow rectangular room with a twenty foot long table. And here they come: little girls of all ages in bright-pillow case dresses, tied at the shoulder with ribbon. They have been told to kiss our cheeks, and dutifully they do, with purpose, not missing one of us. Although it is clear they have been trained to do this, I can't deny it is completely charming. I am immediately on their side and enchante-- they are so sweet, these little ones. We ask them to sit around the table. We sing Hineh Mah Tov-- my entry song with every group here in Haiti. It's a loud, bouncy call-and-response. The kids here get the Hebrew immediately-- perfectly. They start to smile. I clown and act a fool. I would do anything, I know, to make their smiles grow. So I do. I dance around the room. They hide their smiles, put their faces in their arms to hide their laughter. It is delightful. I'll be a fool for them any day of any week.

We break out rainbow-y pony beads and stretchy cord, giving every girl handfulls. Busily, they get to work, absorbed. We run around the room, all four translators and the twelve of us-- bringing scissors, tying knots. When the damn cheap elastic breaks, beads cascade to the floor. We rush to bring new. We adults sing every French song we know: Frere Jacques, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. The girls know most of them and they sing gamely with us. Then they begin a song of their own. A hush falls over us. Their voices are magical. They sing like angels. I have goosebumps. I start to understand the four armed guards. I start to get mad that there aren't more. There is child trafficking here. These girls are so sweet, so precious.

We loosen up. The girls politely take our cameras and take pictures of us. Then they start taking them of each other. My iphone is my carte blanche will kids all across this country. The kids immediately know how to use it-- probably without having seen one before-- and finger through all my pictures. They laugh at my doggie pictures from home. Technology, like music and art, is a new lingua franca.

I have brought a few books for them. Some of the girls have enough English to read them. They are transfixed. They crowd around Zelinsky's Rapunzel, Deedy's 14 Cows for America, Selavi, Winter's Nasreen's Secret School-- a book about a secret girls' school in Afghanistan. I wish I had brought more books. Children's libraries appear to be unknown here. I drink in the sight of them reading, exploring illustrations, and they drink in the books. We are mutually fed. What a glory and a joy!

Back in the Great Glass Elevator. We are headed to Port-au-Prince. And the joy begins to fade. The closer we get the Port-au-Prince, the more it feels like we are approaching a terrible, terrible bloody car accident on a highway you can't look away from. One of the most famous tent cities expands to the horizon on our left (gauche.) It is a warren of tarps and mud. To our right (droite) there are Eqyptian pyramids of trash, a thousand years old, smoking. Cows, each emaciated rib visible, munch on garbage. Scrawny dogs with runny eyes lay in the gutter, somehow alive. People with small suitcases full of odd candy or plastic wrapped cookies or plastic trinkets sit in the blazing sun, or under USAid tarps, filthy and tattered, held up by sticks. We turn down an alley to see the ruins of the Catholic Cathedral. It looks like it has been bombed. Tall cement walls, once stately, set with round and intricate windows, have been gutted and chopped half-way up. There is no roof. Rubble closes off the end of the road. Beggars surround our van, desperate, angry, million-year-old eyes looking in. The people say, "please."

The driver kills the transmission, turns around, drives. We go to Neg Maron, the national monument. Neg Maron is a statue of a former slave, shackles broken, a machete in his hand, blowing a conch. He has freed himself. He will fight for others. And his conch calls to the world to recognize the basic, inherent rights of man. A life of dignity. Freedom. He is iconic. I have been waiting a long time to see him. We get to the site of the Presidential Palace. It was destroyed in the earthquake and is all gone. Razed. To the left, across a wide street, is the statue. We are told his is a very unsafe place for us to be. We may not take any bags out of the van with us. They must stay with the driver, where he can guard them. I think he is armed. We are told our iphones are most definitely in danger. I take mine anyway. Common sense is not my strong suit. No beggar, no danger is keeping me from seeing Neg Maron. Some elect to stay in the van. Not me. I leap out, surrounded by street artists at once, folks who are desperate for a sale. I ignore them and race across the wide street, a suicidal act for sure-- tap taps don't slow down for pedestrians here. I make it. There he is. He is majestic. I kiss his hand, veined and enormous, fisted around his machete, the weapon of his freedom, and his children's freedom. My sweet boy, one of my favorite translators, Valerie, has run with me. He laughs at this white woman kissing Neg Maron. He is rather incredulous. He is, perhaps, beginning to see that a person doesn't have to be Haitian or Black to know what it is to honor the fight, the struggle, the desire for freedom. He hugs me.

Quick! Back in the van! Lots of street artists are coming, and we don't want to be outnumbered. To the Hotel Olaffson for lunch.

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