How To Go To Lagonav and Come Back

Waiting for our boat at the Carries wharf, a man puts his bag too close to the edge of the dock, and someone warns him to move it back. “It’ll fall into the sea.” It’s a reminder that this here is the sea we’re standing over, not just any old water. Staring at the bilingual “We Will Not Forget Li” spray-paint on the beach wall, I wonder if it’s commemorating someone who died out there. Then I laugh at myself. Today’s a calm day, this is broad daylight, this is a short trip, we have life jackets, and I have a propensity for drama. I try to focus on preparing to get on the boat, which from the way everyone’s gathered right at the edge, standing willingly in the sun, seems like it could be ready any minute now. I don’t want to fall down or fall in and make a fool of myself. I take note of my backpack pulling me backwards a bit and resolve to not let it knock me off balance. As if on cue, one of the boatmen plunges into the water right in front of us.

“Any minute now” turns out to actually be enough time for me to get sunburnt. When we finally start boarding, there’s some confusion about how we’re supposed to get on: are we jumping into the boat beside and then crossing over? Deciding to be deliberate, I follow a man onto the boat beside. Jumping from the dock, I drop into a crouch; I’m wearing a long skirt and it’s hard to tell that I haven’t in fact landed hard; there are gasps. I make my way over to the side, lugging my duffel. The gap between the two boats is widening but I step smartly across it and use that momentum to leap into the boat instead of tumbling backwards into the water. Heaving my duffel into the hold, I feel how weak my body is from standing in the sun so long. Maybe that actually helped. I had no energy to second-guess myself; I just moved. I’m reminded that my body’s a pretty good body, and I’m grateful to it.

The ride over is smooth: not a drop of water gets on me. As we pull in to Lagonav, the guy sitting next to me asks for my phone number: “We should stay in touch.” “M pa dakò”, I take special pleasure in responding. It literally translates to “I don’t agree” but it can sometimes have a sense of “I refuse to put up with this.” Most of my trips have catch-phrases that I’ll repeat in various situations throughout my time in Haiti; “m pa dakò” has become the one for this trip.

I’ve had unusually good luck with transportation, waiting in the sun aside, and I’ve arrived much earlier than planned. Unfortunately, the teachers aren’t available to meet today, since we didn’t schedule it ahead of time. I wonder if it would have been smarter to ask them to be available and then cancel in case of bad luck. I’m still trying to figure out how valuable my time should be in comparison to everyone else’s. Things being as they are, I’ll have to stick around here through Monday: the day of the solar eclipse. It’s a bit of a let-down: I was kind of looking forward to seeing the streets of the capital dead from people afraid to go outside. But they die at other times.

Maybe Anse-a-Galets is as good a place as any to watch what may be the end of the world from. Not that anyone I know actually believes that, but everyone says that some people do. I’m focused on people’s reactions because I won’t see much watching from Haiti. We’re too far from the path, so the sun will only be partially obscured. I search out articles to read about what I’ll be missing and learn that the word “eclipse” comes from a Greek term meaning “abandonment.”

The school director brings me a kachiman: a strange-looking fruit that’s milky and sugary on the inside. The phrase “alien apple” comes to mind when I look at it. I don’t get to eat them very often.

We sit and talk about the future — not the sci-fi futures I’m doing research on, or the end of the world coming on Monday, but the future after I graduate from school this May. It’s a difficult conversation but I’m prepared for it at least. Earlier in the week, when we were discussing trip details over text, he told me, “I need to protect you in every way, ok? Remember what I said about I said about how when you finish university we’ll think about other things we can do together.” I feel bad that one of his best hopes is a 21-year-old college student. I feel bad that I can’t be everything he needs me to be, at least not right now. But I’d feel worse about making promises I can’t or won’t keep.

I set myself up for this conversation by not being honest with him or myself from the beginning. I’ve always used school as my excuse for not investing more time or energy in Haiti: “Oh, I’d love to stick around, but classes are starting next week and I have to get back.” It’s taken me a long time to realize how good I have it as a student: a license to explore, plenty of time off from “work”, opportunities to apply for special grants, housing and food costs covered by a scholarship. It’s going to get harder to commit to something from here on out, not easier. Hence the need to find something worth committing to.

I tell him about how I’m not really sure what I’ll be doing when I graduate yet, but I’m not even leaning towards working primarily in Haiti, much less starting my own organization there, and certainly not an organization whose focus is raising funds for teacher salaries. I understand why this comes as a surprise to them: it was a surprise to me, too, everything except the bit about teacher salaries, which I still recognize as essential but always hoped to bring about in the course of executing other goals. But even with all its relative suddenness, potential cost, and lack of specificity, I know the decision not to pursue this is, for the moment, the right one.

I have the same conversation with the teachers during our training the next day. “We thought you were going to be our partner,” they tell me. Again, I feel bad for not saying yes — but I remember that any calculus where I’m weighing my fulfillment against theirs might be the wrong kind of math. In trying to decide what I’m going to do with my short, sweet life, I have to learn there’s no compromising between what makes me come alive and what the world needs: what the world needs, as Howard Thurman, a civil rights leader, once said, is a world of people who have come alive. I try to balance my relative privilege and personal sense that I owe others something with this truth that in order to be effective at serving others, I’ve got to seek out something that makes sense to myself.

This grave discussion falls in between a talk about what witches are (the translator calls the White Witch a lougawou, which isn’t quite the same thing) and my attempt to get everyone to come and watch the solar eclipse unfold via crescent-shaped shadows on the ground.

I’m reminded of how long time ago, the thing I didn’t dare say when people asked me where I planned on going with this Haiti business was to be a witch. Not the White Witch, I hope. Something like Terry Pratchett’s witches in the A Hat Full of Sky series: a combo teacher, nurse, social worker who travels to a new place to serve them for a while and is connected to a larger network of like-minded folk. A little magic — a Wi-Fi connection, basic science education, maybe even some fundraising– mixed with a big dollop of gently shaping people. I’ve met foreigners in Haiti who do that. The conundrum, I guess, lies in how much you can really reach people as an outsider.

Of course, some sorts of witches only stay in each location for a little while: long enough to train, to inspire, to heal, and then they leave the place and its people to fend for themselves. But what kind of life is that, moving around from one community to another? Maybe the idea is that you don’t need to live in a community, because you’ve got a sisterhood / siblinghood of witches to stay in touch with. Witches learn how to be witches through apprenticeships. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for them to learn by living, really staying put, in one spot for a while. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for them to return to the place that raised them and start their recovery efforts there.

I point at the shadows and try to talk about the clockwork of the solar system, but everyone’s captivated by a video someone downloaded — against the rules, I might add — to one of the tablets, in which a local comedian explains that on the day of the eclipse you need to keep your gaze directed at the ground. To protect your eyes, and because you might find some money down there. It’s pretty funny.

I content myself with the fact that we bought a book called “Mwen Konnen Zetwal Yo” (I Know The Stars) for the digital library. Someone will read it. Bobbing in the boat on my way home the next morning, I stare up at the stars and note that they’re brighter here than at home. At least they have that advantage. I feel like laughing at myself. The thought’s so cliche.

Meanwhile, those staring at the sea instead of up at the sky spot a whale, which the boatmen take as a sign that we’re going to get to the other side safely, and we do. It’s my first time leaving Lagonav without any idea about when I’ll be back, and I’m not sure how to feel.