Safe and Warm in Haiti

The day I arrived in Port-au-Prince was a whirlwind, joyful and strange and a bit overwhelming, soothed by stints of reading, and coding, and a nap. Adaptation is something all humans tend to be incredible at, myself being no exception (and possibly programmed to be even more so). Learning new social cues is fascinating rather than daunting, my main concern being not to fixate too long on any one person, lest they be put off by my stares.

That night, Emilie and I walked down the hill to a new restaurant/bar, recently opened. My own friendliness matched by one of the owners, Em asking if we already knew each other, given our laughing and kissing on cheeks (no hugging here), comrades in awareness and intent. He wants the area to be the Castro of Port-au-Prince, helping others to open shops and bars nearby, seeing the cultural shift rather than the competition. I feel the beginnings of something big – possibly struggle and tragedy, but more hopefully the expansion of the safe space we experience in their courtyard out into the streets. The weather had cooled, and the open floor plan with beautifully graffiti’d walls reminded me of Berlin. Brazilian pop played, and we capped our beers and talked for long hours. The same kind switch to English, accented by French and Creole here rather than German, so that I might participate.

Lit by oil lanterns, I feel the sort of quiet happiness you only get from stolen moments, the knowledge that you have participated in safe space when which is rare outside your bubble. But too often we long to use these spaces as sanctuaries of permanence, rather than celebration. Mecca is where we go to understand the world we strive for on a daily basis, to remind us to look up and see, rather than feel like we taking incrementally smaller steps, like some role in a philosophical mathematical proof. To be only around like-minded people is easy and wonderful, we can dive deeply into our shared interests and create esoteric structures of understanding. But those structures are fragile, not shored up by webs of links to other aspects of the world. And it is selfish to hoard those understandings, to not challenge ourselves and other people. As I recently read on the twitters, “design like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.”

dinnercatAnd yesterday, I found myself amongst a group of hackers who gave up their weekends to fly continents away. They learned to interact at a different pace, waiting for translations. They learned just as much as the students and call center staff who came to talk. A day spent in a hot room, wind drifting through, my own tie and vest and dress shirt too much. My eventually exposed shoulders disrespectful but for my own profuse apologies and broken english allowances. One founder saying “the heat is a violence against you,” me not knowing possibly how to respond.

A sudden rush to get out the gate before the street is repaired, who knows where the means to do so came from. Despite our attempt to collect our equipment and pack into bags and into the truck, we are left watching as 7 Haitian men spread a small hill of asphalt via wheelbarrows and shovels. Rather than hover, we walk up the steep hill to drink beer from a shop made out of plywood, held together by a nail gun, and hand painted in more of this language I fail to grasp. The sun sets over the ocean, reminding us that we’re on a tropical island. Well, that and the mosquitos. We finally see some cars come up from the road we came from, and we head back to our Van of Privilege.

On the way to dinner we stop in a gas station supermarket to change money and get local rum. Again, children giggle at my hair (and the now showing tattoos) and stern adults walk them away. The numbers etched on my skin having an extra layer of indiscerability here. The harsh florescence and my own exhaustion make this a less welcoming place. Blocks away, our dinner includes goat, and taro root, and a very polite cat who holds the chair at the head of the table. The cat’s body language renders understandable, though I’ve struggled at times to understand the social cues here. I’ve realized how much of my interaction is based on wit, and compassion, and a deep understanding and care of what people expect and can handle. Here, I have none of the same leeway (because I have not built it, because I do not understand). It is atrociously good for me.

We return back to the hotel. Expats around tables, snow-marked (not pixelated) Alan Rickman and Bruce Willis on same small screen which showed Se7en the night before. We talk about making safe space for people in taking leadership roles (or at the very least being heard) who might not otherwise, and what it is to learn new things, and what tomorrow looks like.

This morning, I forgot to think about if I was being proper or not, and joked about my stick figures, and heard about cocreation. We played Bear-Ninja-Cowboy in the courtyard, and everyone laughed and cheered. Today they have a lot of work ahead of them – not the kind of work you plow through on your own, but the kind where you ensure the people around you are on the same page. Today is about building consensus, buy-in, and understanding. I am excited.

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