Dwelling in Other

I was a rosy-cheeked, chubby, bright-eyed, broad-nosed, girl with cascading flurries of pigtails that sprung on my head like crowning pineapple leaves. The countless mix of bright colored bows and hair bobbles would flappity flop on top of my head as I ran around the yard. My skin would get pink from the inescapable tropic heat that rose from the pale grey concrete floor that wrapped around the veranda. I didn’t need much to be happy. I was swaddled in comfort.

A clump of juniper trees lined the half-patched asphalt and rocky driveway, which led to a pair of wrought-iron gates: “Chant-Ô-Vent”. They in turn opened into an extension concrete tiled brick driveway into our yard. The house sat at the center of the brick path — wrapped in my mother’s carefully manicured garden — the backyard and servants’ quarters at the end of it. A broad entryway flanked by bougainvillea led to the sprawling house of intricate mosaic tiles floors and wide windows. Paintings of world-renowned Haitian artists adorned the walls and crystal chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceilings.

Everyone agreed it was one of the most beautiful houses in the Soisson-la-Montagne countryside, nestled in the hills of the Thomassin 25 district in the southern part of Port-au-Prince. It was also one of the few houses in a sea of scattered one-room wood sprig huts and brick brack concrete dwellings peasant farmer families in the region were accustomed to.

Our multi-floor house had more rooms than we had time to spend in them. Upstairs my siblings and me each had our own bedrooms and a shared bathroom. My parents had a large bedroom equipped with an on-suite bathroom which perpetually smelled of my mother’s citrus lemongrass perfumed body powder.

The living room downstairs, also known as “the special occasion room,” had a curved wall with custom built bookshelves that held volumes of old French literature editions my parents enjoyed in college. Dispersed on the shelves sat framed family pictures: an old, grainy portrait photo of my grandfather taken in 1960, one year before joining the United Nations Organization mission after the Democratic Republic of Congo achieved its independence from Belgium. There was a picture of my parents’ wedding night, my father dashing in his black suit and my mother captivatingly beautify in white. My parents, aunts, uncles and friends reclined on the long-stretched sofa or played pool there after Marie had served dinner.

With walls that stood bare, save for single mirrors to bring some feeble sense of dignity

Swirls of cigarette smoke mixed with the pungent smell of whisky filled the room as the men sat on one side and discussed their favorite three topics: politics, business, soccer; while the women sat on the other end and chatted about children and the latest gossip. Sometimes I asked my mother if I could sit with them, but my mother would guide me to the stairwell. “Go on, now,” she’d say. “This is grown-ups time. Why don’t you go read one of those books of yours and get ready for bed?” She’d walk back to join the guests, leave me to wonder why I never could listen in to grownups’ time talks with her. Sometimes I’d sit at the top of the staircase, peeping through the rails, watching them as they danced and laughed tilting their heads back and forth until the wee hours of the morning.

A large sliding door in the living room opened into a semicircular terrace that overlooked the backyard filled with avocado, citrus trees and small vegetable garden of fresh herbs, mint, and tomatoes. In the shadows of a soursop tree, was the servants’ humble quarters, two modest concrete one-room structures where Marie and Rigaud lived. In the eighteen years that I lived in that house, I stepped into their quarters only a handful of times out of childish curiosity. I remember it was spare, clean, dimly lit by one ceiling bulb. There were thin mattresses laid atop steel bed frames in each room, with walls that stood bare, save for single mirrors to bring some feeble sense of dignity. Nevertheless, what I failed to recognize within the “Chant-Ô-Vent” gates would not be hidden from me for long.

My childhood was spent in the mountains. Under the clump of juniper trees, my siblings and I played with neighborhood kids and followed the invisible pathways between mass of rocks spurting stems of amaryllis bedecked in yellow blossoms inhaling the peppery odor intensified by the heat.

It was a very quiet neighborhood, cars would seldom venture up these hills to cause a raucous. Many feared the squeaky wailing of tires facing the halting mountains of rocks, scrapping the bottom of their cars to ring in unimaginable car parts, causing their exhaust pipes to gasp for air while rocking their car side to side like a jigsaw puzzle. Drivers cautiously navigated the narrow stretch of road that strung them along the edge of the sides of the mountain facing that faced the open mouth of the deadly steep valley. Only the daily experience of the residents 4x4 jeeps and pickup trucks seemed to quietly hum to the guidance of the rocks up to the mount. And just when the haunting silence would overwhelm you, the ringing sound of children’s laughter would fill the air, as they chased after the herded goats down the hill. You could also hear in gapping intervals, the scraping sound of the cows' hooves as they heavily trekked up the mountain.

Gisandre, Didier and I would scavenge through the small streams, bushes and corn fields of Soisson to get across to the neighboring hill region of Montagne Noire to visit our cousins Sagine, Nadia and Cedric. We would spend the entire day playing hide and seek, soccer or do the hula hoop. On other days, we would trek up the rich, red, muddy inroads of Thomassin, to pick up our cousins Bertrand, Philippe and Dimitri in Fermathe. Our feet would stump in melodious cadence as we wove up and down the hill to go back down to the valley for the Sunday church service, then walk-up the paved main road of the Route-de-Kenscoff for our favorite pit stop: the Marché of Fermathe marketplace. Marked by the towering bells of the Eglise Saint-Jacques of Fermathe, the church oversaw a buzzing, disheveled marketplace that laid informally on the stairwell narrow streets that led pass its holy entrance. Street vendors invaded each side of the road, squatting on the floor as they laid their baskets of fresh produce, second-hand clothes and shoes next to them preparing for a long day of negotiations with passersby to sell.

Nurturing Haitian women always thought everyone was Twò mèg

At the bottom of the stairwell, was an animated rainbow-colored Tap Tap station filled with transiting passengers. The transit stop was made up of gaily painted buses and pick-up trucks that served as shared taxis, Greyhound buses, big trailer merchandise trucks and all-around multi-purpose vehicles that brought everyone and anything from Point A to Point B in Haiti. I remember watching the big long journey buses being loaded to the brim with people and merchandise. When there was no more space inside goats and chickens were tied to the top rails of the bus to dangle on its sides and few daring souls would hop on the roof of the vehicle say a few prayers and hold on for dear life as the bus drove off. Since the government provided no public transportation, the Tap Taps —also referred to as camionette— were privately owned and ornately decorated vehicles for hire that followed their own informal fixed transit routes where riders could disembark at any point along the journey. Seen as “the poor man transport,” they were controlled by illegal private associations to fill the voids neglected by government officials. But to me they were always floating artworks that told the Haitian story.

The humming mixing sounds of honking cars and camionnettes that tried to weasel their way up the road and the animated shouts of negotiations in the marketplace transactions hung in the air like a working motor. The crowded toil roof makeshift street food stalls by the Tap Tap station were filled with mountains of greasy, deep fried pork meat bits caringly called griot, and expertly squeezed to a crisp banan peze. The smell of tortured animal grease fried and re-fried by the heat of the propane gas stoves and by the sun filled the air. The lady food vendors and customers shouted at each other like buzzing bees to negotiate prices, place orders and decide who was there first. Our short stumpy feet would approach the cook as she sweetly requested our order: "Sa’w vle Cheri.” We would buy grease, soaked paper plates full of griot and banan peze garnished with the finishing touches of month-long, sun-warmed pikliz, a spicy pickled concoction of cabbage, carrot and hot peppers that would light any bulls heart on fire. If one of us was brave enough, you would buy the “Bib” or “Bible”, the mother of all sandwiches, the ultimate combo. Made with freshly baked pen rale bread,griot, fried green plantains, pikliz and freshly sliced avocado that could barely be contained with two hands. The servings of food in Haiti are always generous because nurturing Haitian women always thought everyone was "Twò mèg” and had to feed you to sleep or enough to sustain you, for days if necessary, until you could figure out where your next meal would come from. With each bite a burst of savory oil would shoot up the roof of your mouth followed by the warm prickly sensation of the spicy peppers tingling the tip of your tongue. The soft cushiony bread would assemble the carnival of flavors as traveled down your throat. As though that wasn’t enough to animate your taste buds, we would take big sips from the tall glass bottles of iced cold Cola Couronne soda and let the bubbles fizzle in our mouths to re-enliven the zesty tang of every bite. I enjoyed every mouthful of glistening greasy morsel. Those moments were golden.

We were quite popular in the neighborhoods for the ease with which we got along with all the other kids regardless of whether it was TiLuc Dieudonné, the cow herder’s son from Duvette, or Eric Dufort, the Senator of the North’s son, down the valley. Everyone knew us and we played with everyone. Until, the day I knew I was other.


Those words hung in the air like a heavy mass

On one of our daily walks around the neighborhood, we stumbled upon children playing in an abandoned, unfinished house. We wanted to play with them, but as we were approaching, they began to speak to us in a weird accented dialect. Didier and Gisandre quickly frowned, while I was still struggling to decipher what they were saying.

Zou spik zanglish?” one of the boys shouted.

Seeing our perplexed faces, another boy chimed in “Yo blan, nou pa konpran’n?” Those words hung in the air like a heavy mass. When the boy called us whitey, it chilled my blood. I felt othered. Cast out. Like I was overstepping in unchartered territory.

Sa’w di la?!” my brother shouted back, cautioning them to repeat what they said.

Their eyes widened in shock to hear the creole sounds come out of his mouth.

“Why are they looking at us like that?” I asked nervously, looking to Gisandre and Didier for guidance.

“They are just pretending they don’t understand us. They know very well who we are!” my brother mumbled angrily.

“Pay them no mind, and keep your cool,” my sister insisted dryly.

My stare began to bounce back and forth between my siblings and the boys as I observed what felt like an eternal standoff. I skittishly tried to find the silver lining in their body languages that would announce a release in tension and allow me to catch my breath. Some of the boys must have read my mind and began to smile at us. As they were about to extend a friendly hand to us at the prospects of befriending those strange looking fellow Haitians, the eldest ring leader in the group, who was almost a teen like Gisandre, was determined to make us feel we didn’t belong. His knotted frown hung heavy above his brow, his eyes were light red with envy, his devilish smirk curled on the side of his mouth shyly shining the glimpse of his mocking teeth athirst for blood. I had seen glimpses of that look before; his features were marked with the beginning signs of hate that often hardened the faces of adults. To break the silence, you could hear the taunting high pitched “HEE-HEE-HEE" sounds of his giggles as he encouraged the others to join him in swarming around us. They began mocking us, crossing their eyes, perking their lips and pinching their nostrils together to impersonate the blans. There was nothing pointy about our broad noses or perky about our full lips, but it didn't matter, the message was received. Gisandre seemed — aside from her heavy breathing — to have turned into stone herself. She was always the unflinching protector. Meanwhile, Didier's face was turning red with furry, unable to tolerate the ridicule, he began to lean his body weight forward to lunge into a fight with the boys, when Gisandre quickly put her arm in front of him to stop him.

Seeing that, some of the smaller boys turned to other means of agitation. Facing us, they planted both hands flat on the ground to shift into a handstand so that their drawer-less wiggly pee pees would visibly shake in our faces.

I began crying and screaming “I want to go home! These boys don’t want to play with us. They are just being mean and we didn’t do anything wrong!”

I had enough. I couldn't bear the indignity any longer. The boys were tickled to see me cry and powerless. They began to run up to us and try to touch us to see if we were real, if we felt different to the touch. Gisandre and Didier began to wave their curious hands away while I screamed my lungs out all the more, feeling I was being stung by a swarm of mosquitoes. Irritated by my squealing voice and having to manage countless poking fingers, feeling outnumbered and furious, my siblings each grabbed one of my harms and levitated me off the ground to quickly flee the scene. Their stomping marching feet squeaked with thumping anger as we made our way back home. I never touched the ground until we made it to the front gate of the house.

“We made it home, you can stop crying now,” they angrily shouted. “Wipe your face so Mom doesn’t ask us too many questions.”

What? You want me to lie to Mom? I wondered. All I want to do right now is tell mom about all that happened so she can kiss and make it better. However, Gisandre and Didier insisted I stopped crying and encouraged me to take deep breaths to calm down my sobbing. I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of lying to my mother, but I nodded in agreement and went along with their plan even though my face was swollen red with evidence.

As though it was a secret we all had to sit with and unravel the meaning of it for ourselves

They peeked through the kitchen window as we walked through the driveway to the kitchen entrance, to see if my mother was near. She was floating in between the kitchen and dining room preparing for the night’s meal. Fearing her inquisitive look as to why we were home so early and why I was crying, they took one last look at my face and wiped the final tears that were flowing down my face.

“Hi Mom!” they shouted as we bolted for the stairs to run up to our rooms.

“Oh! Hi!” my mother retorted. “What are you doing home so early?”

“It’s too hot outside. We decided to play inside instead” we replied in concert.

“Alright! Don’t make a mess up there, Rigaud just cleaned your rooms,” she responded.

We each stayed in our separate corners the rest of that afternoon, wanting to be alone with our thoughts.

I never asked my sister and my brother how that situation really made them feel, but the frown on their faces had said enough. We never told our parents about the incident either, as though it was a secret we all had to sit with and unravel the meaning of it for ourselves.


With Love,

Isabelle


New blog post by Isabelle Alerte
Artwork by Alexa Masucci