Haiti Traveling


How quickly we humans normalize even the most extreme scenario - as long as we see it over and over. By now, it seems perfectly normal for our fringed-draped bus to 4-wheel it over piles of rubble.

The following has been re-posted to HCPLive.com with permission from Dr. Jan Gurley. You can visit her blog, Doc Gurley, at www.docgurley.com.

How quickly we humans normalize even the most extreme scenario — as long as we see it over and over. By now, it seems perfectly normal for our fringed-draped bus to 4-wheel it over piles of rubble. We automatically get out and walk up the steep dirt-road hills of this large urban city while she groans and grumbles her way to the top, pebbles pinging with 22-gauge speed. Houses lean right and left and even bow down toward us, almost touching forehead to ground and you forget the tilt is not actually an obeisance, but, instead, a predator-lunge at geologic speed, as though these houses have gotten a taste for humans and someone needs to put them down.

When we walk, we bump shoulders with people forced to crowd into the inches-wide grit-strip next to vehicles that fart throat-burning greasy black exhaust right in your face.

Roads shift and snake, constantly appearing and evaporating. We head, rocking and trailing a plume of dust

toward a rubble bottle-neck and all of us gasp as a man calmly wheelbarrows his way into the already too-narrow, two-rut track. There’s a hill behind the man and, as our driver brakes into a slight fishtail, we see an SUV headed toward us, the man now centered between two on-rushing vehicles. Even as the cry goes up — voices yell, horns toot, and our group begins a collective wail – he calmly lifts the handles of his rustbarrel to dump the entire boulder-piled load right in the middle of the two-rut gap. Vehicles squeal, we lurch forward against the benches in front of us, dust billows into us from behind and we see him calmly shake the last pebbles loose, turn away and head off to get another load, the situation having now taken on Saturday-morning-cartoon extremeness. After the instant-drenched sweat, heart-stopping fear, people are angry. What was he thinking? How are we going to get through NOW? We’re supposed to be there soon. Cars and buses jerked and filled both lanes behind us as vehicles jockeyed to get ahead. Horned blared and voices gwen-gwenned angry Creole phrases. It would be wrong to say the widened street behind us had become a parking lot. Parking lots are ordered tiles of vehicles. This was a mosaic of cars, mortared into place. There was no way in hell we could back up and turn around now.

Two of our team get out and start throwing the man’s many twenty pound (and heavier) basketball boulders on top of the existing, massive road-narrowing pile, trying to open the now-impassable two-rut channel. The sun is blistering, dust poofs around our two team members as they jog into place, our security pair piles out and the shouting has begun, but the most remarkable thing about watching this physician, and trauma nurse throw boulders is the contrast between their wide, well-fed, American swings and the sinewy man’s slumping shoulders as he trudge-wheels away for another load. That is a pure Haiti moment — the abstract made visible, the burst of well-fed, American energy displayed against the raw, determined, unstoppable Haitian grit. That road-narrowing mountain of rubble is the result of one man’s unwavering commitment – one load at a time, one sweat-pouring, back-aching step at a time, a leaning-forward, cannot stop or you’ll never start again indomitable will that purposely, deliberately ignores how impossible the task ahead is, a blinkered will that trudged onward between hurtling, seemingly inevitable collision and death and somehow, despite all odds, manages to achieve, by God, this one more load. And, without hesitation, metronome plods on to the next.

Although no one, at the time, could have said why, our entire group paused and realized that if this one man continued this way, it was no contest — not even if our entire team got out and threw boulders. We could never compete against that one man’s determination. He would outdo us.

And for the first time, on that realization’s heels, we thought -in a cringeworthy cross-cultural moment — to stop and wonder why. Why this moment? Why this rubble? And the only laws of traffic here in this completely sign-less city are the Laws of Physics. A stupid pedestrian is rapidly a dead pedestrian. Why step in front of on-coming traffic to place rubble in the middle of the road, turn, and go get more?

Only then, after the heart-stopping fear for the man’s safety, and the rebound anger at being made to feel that fear, after the what the hell shouting and the we need to get through this mess boulder-throwing — only then did we discover that beyond this man’s pile, the narrow street further ahead was now closed due to something that had happened, the SUV coming back to both get out before it was permanently trapped, and to let people know. The wheelbarrow man had clearly already heard the news, moments before. Where we sat, surrounded in a wedge behind us by a sea of shouting, gesturing drivers, was a rare area large enough to turn around even a bus.

You could say the man with the wheel-barrow blocked the road to stop what could have been a much worse situation. Or to warn us. Exhausted, under broiling sun, he took painful, additional steps out of his way to deliberately place the blocking load in the road. Or you could say he needed to claim this precious opportunity before it was lost — a dead-end space where you can have your back to a rubble-wall as you try to protect your family in the dark. Regardless of which, or whether both or all three might be true, every one of our first interpretations of the situation had been off.

The one glaring brightness is the sight of the metal-benched individualized buses — so shockingly different that they stand out like poinsettas sprouting on a lunar crag. Haitian buses are glorious, a rolling work of art, the visual transformation of something mundane into something joyous. If someone could figure out how to sell them Each one is unique, full of passion and details that reveal as much as a memoir about its creator. In contrast, I’ve weirdly begun to realize that our fringe-draped bus, who seemed so exotic at the start, may actually be something of a prude.

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