This is a strange time for Project Leogane. In two weeks, the vast majority of the people here will be gone, and the project will transition into its final phase. Belval Plaza, which we've called home since February 2010, will be gone. We're shrinking, and we don't need this big, broken, and yes, even beautiful space anymore. The memories I've had here won't ever leave, but I'll be. No, I'm not leaving Haiti, but many of the people I've come to call friends are. It will be something akin to a skeleton crew come 2012 - people running programs, a few skilled international volunteers, and our local staff.
I don't have it in me at the moment to write something like a retrospective, both because it's late and I'm tired, and because I'm not done yet so the motion would be premature, but I am aware that much of what I know of what it means to be in Haiti will change significantly in two weeks.
Paddy and I and a few good friends will leave the country for fourteen days, heading east to the Dominican Republic for some much needed R&R at a house we are renting. I am looking forward to it, but in the back of my head I can't help but know that come December 22nd (the day we leave) I will have said goodbye to something that has, perhaps more than anything before it, defined my life. It won't be here when I return. In some ways it is sad, in others it is needed. I can't help but be excited at the prospect of once again having my own room, however small it may be, in a house that allows a certain level of privacy. That is needed. For all of what I might project, I'm in some ways a private person. When I cannot find a place to let that part of myself come out, when it needs to come out, it begins to wear on me. Tents don't work. Yes, they offer some private space, but under limited conditions. No sane person would dare go to their tent to seek privacy in daylight hours. The sun turns them into saunas. At night, they are welcoming, but the walls don't get much thinner than a tent. You're still far from private.
But still, even though I need some escape from it, the communal element of this place will be missed, and more than that, what this place represents for me. I came here to see if what I thought I might want to do with my life is in fact something I want to do. I do. I came here looking for fundamental shifts in who I am. They've happened. I didn't come here looking for a deep and sometimes painful yet ultimately beautiful connection with someone, but Haiti, in her frustrating and yet somehow knowing way, gave me that too. All of that happened in this place. It has been the richest experience of my thirty years.
I've been harsh recently, frustrated with this country and her people, but I've come to recognize the ebb and flow of life here. There are moments of true joy - a sense of belonging and being that cannot be matched anywhere I've been before. There are moments of intensity that can be both beautiful or sad or both, which work to expand the possibility and understanding of what it means to live. I've written of this before. When you allow yourself to try and be integrated and aware of life far outside the realm of what you know and are comfortable with, deep shifts in the fabric of character happen. There are also moments of sheer frustration or disgust. I used to write them off as some different something I didn't know and needed to respect, because after all, I am a foreigner and this isn't my country, but I've let that go. Some things are universal. Cultures and countries can become excuses hidden behind. Allow yourself honesty and you'll know what should or should not be. Haiti has a powerful way of breaking that truth open in people.
I went lambi diving with some local kids the other day. After a week of work that left the BSF staff exhausted, I managed to get my hands on the keys for the Mahindra. Paddy and Billy and I piled in and we took off. It felt great to drive. I love driving in this country, despite having this unnerving feeling that if Haiti is going to do me in, it will be on her roads. But not then. We drove for an hour, out to Petit Goave, simply to get away from everything, to a place we barely knew. Our original plan was to find a beach, any comfortable one, and buy seafood and beer and eat and drink and let it be. We didn't manage to pull that off in Petit Goave. Despite having a few beaches that apparently blow the mind, we couldn't find them so we doubled back around and headed to Paradise Beach, a place I've been many times before, but gets the job done. It was nice. It is very much a tourist place, if anything in Haiti can be called that, choked full of international NGO workers, and we didn't set out looking for that, but we were happy to settle in regardless. Wanting some alone time and loving the water, I grabbed my fins and mask and went out, and met two young men hunting for conch (lambi), one of my favorite foods in Haiti. I asked them to show me how they did it, and they tried. After an hour with them, I realized I was far beyond their capability to teach. Some things cannot be learned in an afternoon. But, failure aside, it made me appreciate Haiti a bit more, which has been needed these days. It made me feel something akin to a connection to her people, which I haven't felt much in the last month. It made me happy, and made me smile, as ridiculous as that must have looked with a dive mask on.
I didn't catch any lambi, but I walked out of the sea renewed, and with some needed perspective. I'll never make excuses for this country, but I won't allow myself to settle into the comfort of stereotypes either, despite how tempting it proves to be as the months here continue to erode the fascination, leaving the real. Life and people and places cannot be expressed in black and white. I cannot allow myself to believe that they can.
Haiti, and All Hands, thank you for what you've allowed me to develop, and let's make the next eight months memorable yea?
In other news, listen to this.