22 August 2012

Le Faux Pas (Troisième Partie et Finale)

Jasmine (L) and Makendy (R)
Makendy paddled out to us at just before six, although, at the time we thought he was almost an hour late. We had gone back and forth several times over whether or not Haiti observed Daylight Savings Time and ultimately came to the wrong conclusion. Truth be told, the longer past (our) six p.m. it got, the more strongly we suspected--hoped, really--that he'd forgotten, or something. We would have only partially minded. I went out to the cockpit with cash to pay off our balance and collect our meal.

"Hi, Makendy. Uh, where's dinner?" I asked, looking down into his boat, empty of everything but water. He requested that we meet him at the dinghy dock and he'd walk us to dinner. "Oh," I said, trying to try to hide my disappointment, "I was hoping we could get it to go, you know, here at the boat, for tomorrow."

"That will not be possible" he answered. Makendy's English was pretty good so I had to wonder how my request had gotten messed up in translation?  Or, had it gotten messed up? Perhaps he had never intended to be a "meals on keels" operation. More importantly, from what as yet unplumbed emotional depths were we going to get the energy to make it through a dinner, I wondered. There wasn't any politeness or curiosity or civility left between us.  Our plan had been to spend the evening curled up in as close to fetal positions as it was possible to get in our salon while watching downloaded TV shows on our laptop. But that was out now. An invitation was being extended to us and payment aside, it was a magnanimous gesture, we knew. We pulled psychic selves together as best we could, lowered our dinghy, and met Makendy at the dock.

"Are you sure you wouldn't like to have music with dinner?" Finally, his offer made sense, and it was also clear that it was never his plan to be a carry-out service.

"Sure, Makendy, that would be nice." You had to give him credit, he was trying to set a tone, just not where we wanted it. He jogged triumphantly down the path to a building near the harbour while Jane and I exchanged hapless glances. A few moments later he returned with his laptop under his arm and we walked off in the fading light to his house for our lobster dinner.

As we neared the location of the day's earlier debacle, I noted wistfully that the cottage was no less a charmer at dusk; its pinks and greens only made richer by the half-light of evening. I wished again that we'd been able to get a picture of it (unaware that Jane, in fact, had) as Makendy pushed aside the gate and headed up the conch shell lined path.

Jane, who was in line behind Makendy, turned back to me with the most wilted expression I'd ever seen on her as if to say, "This CANNOT be happening!" I returned it with one of my own that telegraphed my intention to die of mortification on the spot. Makendy, blithely unaware of our rapidly collapsing emotional state, just continued to lead the way to the house.

The dining room was no more than eight-by-ten, lit by a single, one-watt bulb perched up high and powered by a car battery that sat on a low stool in a corner. The exterior, load bearing walls were cinder block; the wooden interior walls, which did not reach up to the corrugated metal roof, served mainly as room dividers. The floor was concrete slab. There was no front door, nor can I recall seeing any other doors or any windows. Yet even in the enervating glow of the room's only light source we could see that the interior paint job matched the extravagant cheerfulness of the cottage's exterior: a tri-color border of pinks, greens, and blues ran along the tops of the pink walls and across a supporting beam bisecting the middle of the room. Below the border, the walls were adorned with various posters, a paper calendar, a clock (from which we finally verified the correct local time), and a sterling silver serving tray with filagreed handles. There was a small but substantial pine sideboard on the wall opposite the front door, topped with an assortment of glass serveware, a buffet painted in dinner-mint pastels on the right wall as one entered and a small table to the left. In the center of the room, occupying the majority of the remaining floorspace was the dining table, set for two. Overall, it looked as though it had been plucked from the pages of a children's fairy tale.

Dinner, Makendy explained to us as he set up the laptop, was being served at his Grandmother Vita's house. We didn't know if he'd been told about our earlier blunder. She knew. There was hardly any mistaking us, and there was hardly any mistaking her feelings toward us; she was there, in another room, as far from us as possible. If intuition is worth anything, we got the message, loud and clear: We may have been paying customers, but we were not welcome guests.

We spent the first few very uncomfortable moments alternating between complimenting his grandmother's home and asking about the different courses his sister had prepared for us. In the center of the small table, a pile of still very lobstery-looking lobsters over spilled their serving plate. Makendy had to show us how to eat them, something he seemed very accustomed to having to do. There was a heaping plate of coconut rice and another plate piled high with fried plantains. And by special request (mine) a bowl of epis, Haiti's traditional seasoning, was there to spoon over the lobster and rice. Makendy's sister, Katiana, who had cooked our amazing meal, had gone to purchase a couple of bottles of water for us and would return shortly, he explained.

We started in on the food, easily enough for six people and realized that Makendy made no move to join us. It was our dinner, we'd paid for it. It would have been inappropriate for him to help himself to our meal, or at least that was what we gathered. Not for a minute could we imagine eating in front of him, of anyone. What would be the fun in that? We insisted that he pull up a chair and help himself. This he did without waiting for a repeat request. Still, a tension hung in the air that our feeble attempts at cordiality did nothing to dispel. 

"Makendy," Jane said, "please tell your grandmother what a lovely home we think she has."

"...and that we're..." ("so sorry, we had no idea we were causing any offense") I tried to add, but Jane wisely shot me a look that instantly shushed me.  

"..And that we're so grateful to have been invited into her home," Ambassador Jane continued over the mumblings of what would have been an ill-advised sentiment on my part. The message she'd asked him to relay was apology enough.

In your world and ours, Makendy's grandmother, Vita, would have been a cross between Maya Anjelou and Auntie Mame, presiding over continuous cocktail parties to which anarchists and clerics alike would hope to receive an invitation. In her ingeniously eclectic Upper East Side flat complete with rooftop organic vegetable garden, she would drift effortlessly in and out of  conversations, interspersing incisive political commentary with breezy advisements to grab a canapé before they all disappeared. Lithe and statuesque, she blossomed into the dining room. The tiny bulb tacked to the top of the wall was so dim that I felt more than saw her lean over and kiss Jane on the cheek. She  wafted her way to me and reprised the gesture. Then as quickly as she had appeared, she vanished returning the room to its sub-utilitarian glow.

Something approaching a blessing upon our entire journey was conveyed in that kiss, or so our immense relief made it seem. A traveler's rite of passage it was, in any event. Awkwardly as it had come about, we had been touched by another life far from our part of the world. We would remember Vita, her home, her regal bearing and her generous spirit forever. 


Haitian fishing boat
We were anchor up by 6:30 the next morning. Only a minefield of pop bottle buoys lay between us and the open sea. As carefully as we'd tried to maneuver around them on the way in, we'd still gotten  a piece of fishing net wrapped around our port engine prop. It was Lole who discovered it when he was cleaning off the port hull. The first few minutes out of the harbour were tense as we failed to see anything floating in the water in the pre-dawn light. We came to the conclusion after a quarter hour or so that the reason we weren't seeing any of the tiny plastic floats was because they hadn't been set out yet. Apparently, we'd even beat the fishing boats out and, thankfully, everyone else as well. 

The rest of our dinner engagement went quickly if awkwardly. Katiana also joined us, at our insistence, when she returned with our water. Makendy's English was good, but limited; Katiana spoke none at all so our conversation was brief and basic. We insisted that they keep the leftovers except for the epis. Makendy still needed to be paid, so he accompanied us down the path in the last rays of light, dinghied out to JOY with us and waited while we pulled together all the cash we had left. Then he asked if we had anything we could give his family; shoes would be especially welcome. School shoes are a particularly precious commodity, it seems. We couldn't help him there as our inventory of sturdy footwear never made it out of Milwaukee, but I gave him a couple of my Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirts and Jane found some Ikea dish towels still in their packaging. We bagged these up along with his grandmother's bowl after Jane had transferred the epis to one of our storage containers and rinsed it out. I bade him farewell on JOY before she dinghied him back to shore where said her goodbyes.

With an irony befitting our entire visit, the one job I'd sincerely wanted someone to do, the translation of "more JOY everywhere!" into Haitian Creole, never got done. We'd chosen Keke for the job, but he declined. Maybe he didn't think he'd get it right or maybe his mother tongue was one thing he wasn't interesting in selling to strangers. 


  1. How about Louisiana creole, with maybe a little Haitian thrown in. I'll work on it. LC

  2. Not one to be foiled, I emailed Didier (proprietor of the Port Morgan hotel) and asked someone to translate it for me. "Plis LAJWA toupatou!" But if you can get me a Louisiana creole translation, that'd be awesome.

  3. In french it sound like "plus la JOIE tout partout" . Creole and french have some similarity.