We unpacked medicines and equipment on a hot fall Saturday and set up the temporary clinic for Monday’s opening. Our host, Father Solomon, offered to drive the American team to the beach for a shot at cool, rest and relaxation.
The U.S.-based doctors, nurses and support staff, who volunteered at the two-week clinic, could see the blue of the ocean in the far distance. We had heard stories from those who had been before to this mountainous farming area of Lamontay, about the beach’s beauty. We also knew of the steep incline where one of the previous medical teams walked down, only, on the way back up, to have two of their strongest male participants call for help and rehydration. And yet, the people who lived on this mountainside climbed it daily — to school, to market, to church.
Father’s four-wheeler wound down the switchbacks, passing the usual sights of a Saturday afternoon — children playing, women carrying bundles of goods on their heads, teens standing and talking.
He crossed the dry riverbed to the flats where the dusty cactus of the mountains changed to more lush vegetation — the big leaves of the banana and coconut palms — creating a wall of green between the beach and us. He paralleled the water, passing through some small villages where he knew his parishioners and waved to them. Finally, we parked, gathered our belongings and followed him to the beach. Some of the villagers joined us and, by the time we reached the white-sand bay with the surf caressing the cove, we numbered quite a group.
The Americans and many of the Haitian children took no time to disrobe and run into the surf. Father, who visited Miami occasionally, stripped to his swimsuit and put his feet in the water.
The temperature was bath temperature. For some time, I floated and let my skin wrinkle. On shore, I reverted to my Southern California childhood, building a castle. The sand was too rough to make the gingerbread-frosting type, where the mixture of fine granules and water escaped in a fine stream from between my fingers.
I changed my objective and gathered leaves, sticks, sponge and coral — many types, shapes and sizes — and added them to my rough-hewn sand castle. Some of the kids watched. I handed whatever was in my hand to those standing within range, and they took the material and added it to the sculpted mound.
More kids and a few adults joined in the impromptu construction. Some searched for new materials; others brought pieces of the same building vocabulary. Our creation grew to 15-feet long and became more complex in its decoration.
We worked for 20 minutes or so, handing one another materials or adding to the piece on our own. I never heard a word exchanged — either among the others or with me. The waves nearby crashed continually, as if to remind us of what would eventually happen, despite our determined effort and concentrated attention.
And then, almost in unison, we stopped. There was no pronouncement. We had reached the end. The artists backed up, forming a circle around their piece, and smiled, nodded and finally acknowledged one another. We clapped for our group effort.
The visual result might have disappointed some sophisticates, but those interested in community art would have been impressed. The snake-like mound sprouted various plant materials. Rocks, pebbles and shells patterned its surface. What might have looked like fifteen individual artists’ canvases, didn’t. Our materials, repeated with a rhythm, a tempo, emphasized we worked as a collective.
One of the Americans snapped a photo of the piece. And just as quickly as the magical moment began, it ended. The Haitians headed off to their own activities. The Americans toweled off saltwater and sand. We followed Father back along the trail to his vehicle and up the hill to the church compound.
I beamed as we rode back up the mountain. The unscripted interaction felt like manna from heaven. Humans sharing! Cooperating! Working together with patience, mutual respect, and a release of control. Did these simple actions forecast what we might achieve elsewhere?
Father happened by the back of the jeep where I was looking for a place for my foot to jump down, and he put out his hand as support. He looked at me and said, offering the English he used rarely, “Good?” “Yes,” I nodded, still cool from the water and aglow from the art connection, “Good.”
J.O. Haselhoef is the author of “Give & Take: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti.” She co-founded “Yonn Ede Lot” (One Helping Another), a nonprofit that worked with volunteer groups in La Montagne (“Lamontay”), Haiti from 2007-2013, when Haselhoef wrote many of these stories. She
lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.