Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Travel Bug


'Giiirrll... you best get to writin...'

We all know a place we've hated to leave, but been relieved to be out of. Maybe it was the vacation with the family that lasted a day or two too long, or the beautiful beach that was covered with sand flies; a pretty picture to take home, but tough to live in.

We've endured these love-hate vacations, and then we've gone home.

But the trip i just took to Haiti was not one of those where you can arrive home and hang your new trinkets on the wall, comfortable and happy to be that way. Instead it is one of those that whispers to you, "you're leaving this place, but this place is not leaving you." Out of the blue the voice appears, mocking you when you thought you've gone scot free, say, when you're having a welcome-home beer with friends. It cackles and says "you'll be baaacck..."

It's true, so when the voice comes out, with its assured black tone, i can only nod. The voice, and the place, have shown their digging little ironies before. I might have been relieved in some ways to be leaving the squalor of Limbe behind, but even when i was gone, i knew it wasn't over.

The night before i was to leave Haiti, we were clean and fed, having taken showers with running water in a Cape Haitian hotel, and having gorged on rice and beans and beer from the corner restaurant. The town of Limbe had left its mark on us through our experiences -- cleaning a trash pile in the marketplace, digging in the hookwormed soil, looking down on the heads of children, writhing with bugs and sores, pumping and purifying our water by hand; but it was the last night, in the city, and we thought we were going to make it out relatively unscathed.

But in the night, a hundred or more bugs came up through the mattress or wall or some other godforsaken, pestilent place and bit me all over the arms and face. "You are leaving here, but here is not leaving you..." The voice scared the piss out of me, and made me wonder what it was meant to teach me. After several permutations, i think i am beginning to figure it out.

I carried this pestilence away from Haiti with me -- scrabbling at the crowded bordertown market, Rosedanie and i with a UN police officer in tow, looking for medication to heal the wounds; watching the doubletakes from Dominican tourists we met on the beach; seeing Portland friends pull back in disgust when they spotted the arm and face. I was pissed off before we even landed, expecting those looks of wretched awe. And this is nothing, nothing, i kept thinking, waiting for someone to go too far in their disgust so i could erupt with a diatribe about how good we have it here at home.

For the most part though, i kept it to myself, and i am glad about that now. Even in that defensive state i came back in, with the bug bites so raw, i knew that i didn't know what was going on in Haiti, could never really conceive it, before i set foot across the border. So i could not expect others to get it, just because they had some awful reaction to my bug bites.

What is operative now is not that i have this great need to convince others that it's bad down there. (Although, in another niggling little irony, that is the essence of the documentary project i am working on with Helping Hands Noramise) What i have learned from the experience of taking something home with me -- something other than tourist trinkets -- is something entirely different than the other experiences i've had in other foreign lands.

There, i came, i saw, i bought the trinkets and i went back home, knowing that home was where i belonged. But in this experience, i sensed that something was left there that will not make it back home. I sense it was left there to remind me to stay on the ball while i'm here -- to honor that place by working harder in this one. At the same time i have these marks -- which have now turned to a group of purply scars -- to let me know what's come with me in lieu of the trinkets. I think it's called justice, and i'm still trying to figure out how it's going to look, hung next to my wooden Chinese masks.

There are a few other things at work too. Getting bitten on the face is also a challenge to the vanity -- now reminding me that i don't have so much time for social gathering and preening in the bar bathroom. Such things may matter in this world, but they take time away from doing the work that affects that world.

So in that way too, the bites were a reminder to get to work, to stop gazing at the navel and do works. So far, that has meant forsaking the gazing of anyone else at my navel too, which after several weeks, i meet with a resigned sigh that it must be this way. It's somehow fitting. I just don't have time.

As of today i am on day six of a nine-day cleanse. For six days i have barely eaten anything but nutrition shakes and almond butter on carrots. I have the strongest desire to stop at the local coffee shop and ask my favorite barista to pour espresso down my throat. But the timing of this cleanse, i suppose, is apt. I can't just cave and head for the java joint while there are so many tougher challenges ahead. What does that say for my ability to endure more bites, more trash piles, more sad looks from hungry kids? So those thoughts operate upon my battle with this rigorous cleanse regimen too. It's strange and not strange how all of this is connected, and how one thing justifies another seemingly unrelated thing...

This trip to Limbe certainly was one of those that i've hated to leave, but been relieved to be out of.

But not out for long. I will be back on a plane to Haiti in May. The humility i am learning is showing me that maybe in work i will fail, and none of you will grasp a single thing more than you knew before, after seeing or reading what i bring back. But i cannot sit here and do nothing while the mark of that country is still upon me. Or even when the scars are gone.

So now, instead of the dark, cackling voice mocking me for not knowing that i'd never really leave Haiti behind, there is another deep one, strong in its tone, slightly mocking too, but light like a white sky in April, and it says

'giiirrll... you best get to writin...'

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