Originally published August 14, 2014
The old school bus rattled along the highway too fast, it seemed, especially considering the frequency of vehicles approaching at similar speeds from the other direction on our side of the two-lane road. To be fair, we spent nearly as much time on their side of the road, as speed limits in Haiti seem to be determined by the speed at which one’s vehicle can move. So you’re always passing or being passed, and about half the time, if you have the courage to look down the road through the front window of your vehicle, you’ll find yourself facing oncoming traffic from one lane or the other.
Hence, the horn seems to be the most important part of a vehicle, as it’s always being sounded for some reason or another. When overtaking another driver, give a few taps to let him know you’re coming around. Or lay on the horn long and hard as you inch along past him. Either way. Doesn’t seem to matter, as long as you’ve got one hand guiding the wheel and the other poised to let the world you mean business.
As you can imagine, all that horn-honking makes Haiti a pretty loud place. But the noise isn’t the first thing we noticed as we arrived for our mission visit to Montrouis on Thursday afternoon. The first thing we noticed was the smoggy haze that covered the land. My wife pointed to the blue sky visible at a level near where our airplane circled as we waited to land at the airport in Port-au-Prince. “I thought the sky would be blue like that from down there,” she noted glumly.
Later, from ground level in that speeding bus, we could smell burning garbage and raw sewage all along the drive from Port-au-Prince to Montouis. We could see exhaust from old buses like ours and from poorly maintained tap-taps overloaded with precariously perched yet nonchalant passengers, and it was pretty easy to guess the origin of the haze that covers the land.
But neither the odor nor the pollution were the main things on my mind as we sped along the highway to Montrouis. Passing through a village, we could see a warren of concrete block and metal-roofed huts stretching out beyond the road. Alleys usually had sewage running along them, and children and adults took refuge from the heat in dark rooms and on porches. We ran the gauntlet of an open-air market set up on both sides of the main road, while shopkeepers lifted large plates full of unknown food toward the windows of the bus whenever we found ourselves caught behind a tap-tap loading being loaded past its design limits.
On the outskirts of that town — maybe 75 or 100 feet past the edge of the open-air market —a stream ran down from the hill. And as we passed that stream, what I saw trumped the crazy driving, the noise, the pollution and the roadside commerce. As we passed the stream, I saw women washing their clothes in it, I saw a young boy splashing water on his face and I saw a teenaged boy and an adult man washing naked in the stream.
And that’s what I was thinking about when we heard the words from the seat behind ours. One of our team members was sitting in that seat with her young daughter, who was on her knees in the seat, hands hooked over the sliding window and face all but pressed up against it. She was eagerly soaking up the sights of every kilometer of the drive.
“Mommy, Haiti is a beautiful place,” she said.
And it’s hard to tell from the photos, but she’s right.
There’s a certain beauty in the human ability to survive just about any conditions. We may find no dignity in the act of bathing naked in a public stream. Indeed, we may find it hard to think of anything beyond the simple unsanitary nature of such an act. But what I had been seeing as we sped along the highway to Montrouis were various manifestations of the beautiful human drive to live.
That’s a trait folks share from the earthquake-shattered slums of Haiti to the harsh desert of Arizona, from the barren steppes of Asia to the dangerous African veldt. The survival instinct of mankind gives him a unique ability to adapt himself and his living arrangements to just about any environment. And that adaptation can be a beautiful thing to see.
Maybe for a people who lack so much, recognizing the simple blessings of their own resiliency and spirit is a good way to begin to encounter God.
— R.E. Spears III