Aug 5, 2010 by

Nathan Penny is part of our regular team on HumidCity’s little sister site CincyVoices. When he submitted this post I decided it should be shared with our New Orleans readers as well. -Loki

There are two things that have changed my life in the past few years. The first is Louis C.K.’s amazing bit on Conan. Seriously, it’s brilliant. The second is what I saw in Haiti. The company I work for in Cincinnati produced a short documentary on Rev. Vaugelas Pierre and his Mission there. You can watch it here. We traveled to La Croix for filming approximately four months before the January 2010 earthquake. This is my experience, juxtaposed to another normal day in my life here at home.

For a minute I can’t see, because the sweat from my forehead has run into my eyes again. I shift my camera to my other arm so I can blot my face with my sleeve. Strangely, there are no flying bugs surrounding me. I walk back towards the white Land Cruiser we drove in with, parked by the unfinished cinderblock and rebar house at the bottom of the hill. Next to them, a row of dried, cracking mud and straw roof huts that look like they would collapse if I leaned too heavily on one of them. One of the Haitian couples from the village is there with Rev. Pierre. I think they’re talking about one of the wells by the mission’s schoolhouse. There are no trees, even on the rolling mountains surrounding us, speckled brown, gray, with the occasional dull green from the dry brush that did manage to grow between the cracked earth and rock. The sky above is an endlessly blue, save for a few clouds and the random trail of smoke rising from a shelter in the distance. The sun is agonizingly bright, white hot. It’s about 11:30 in the afternoon, and it’s already 99 degrees out. I’ve just finished filming some b-roll of the construction work on the houses financed by the La Croix mission… when I say construction work, I mean about twelve guys carrying cinderblocks by hand up the side of this small, rocky mountain. The last hurricane season blew away most of the weak huts the people had previously built. Several of them drowned in the flooding, or died of a resulting condition. Walking over, Pierre and Pastor Mike say there is another group of villagers about three miles from here. We needed to head back to finish up the second part of the interviews for the documentary, not to mention I’m already exhausted from the heat, but this is the only opportunity to get the footage so I want to go.

We “drive” for a bit; it’s more like stumbling. Some places there’s actually a road, but mostly it’s just gravel roads littered with craters. Mikes hands slide over the steering wheel, whipping around a pothole the size of a Volkswagen. It’s like an SUV full of bobbleheads. He mentions something about them going through a set of tires about every five hundred miles or so. They get them from the church in Pennsylvania, and I know they have to bribe customs to actually get them. I’m not too crazy about this truck, remembering the jostling six hour drive in last night from PAP Airport, only sixty-five miles away. I grab hold of the handrail as the truck bobs and rolls and turns off into another village, kicking up an inertial cloud of gray and tan dust. A few women are washing clothes and dishes in a barely soapy tin tub. Most of the teenagers have regular looking clothes on: jean skirts, faded t-shirts, khakis… although pretty much every toddler I’ve seen has been running around naked. One of the younger girls recognizes Pastor Mike and immediately runs up to him when we get out. There’s actually trees here, I noticed. I found out later this was one of the places Pierre planted them years ago. He told us that he would probably be killed over them if gangs came up this way, who would certainly cut them down for charcoal. Filming goes slowly, because I have to stop about every five minutes to wipe dust off the lens of the camera, which feels a lot heavier than when I started this morning. I get some good footage of the kids, the pressed, swept dirt floors of most of their shelters, the animals roaming freely. There’s a bit of universal movement towards a hut where an elderly woman is standing, hands on her hips, talking to Mike. Feeling obligated and hearing low murmurs, I head that way. Inside, lying shaking on a thin white blanket, is an old man, probably in his seventies. His jet-black skin is pocked with large, openly infected sores, a stomach-churning combination of puffy white and pinkish red, probably staph. I definitely did not expect that, but reality hit me right where I was. Clumsily, I mutter a “mesi” or “thank you”, the only kreyòl I know, and move on to try and film a mud wall or something, anything else. Dr. Tyger tells us the next morning that the man had died.


I still can’t believe how crowded it is in this place. I can’t walk a few feet without having to re-navigate around somebody huddling around an iPhone. The store is brightly lit, everything pristine white or lacquered hardwood, save for the occasional glass and metal. Enormous, panoramic banners are plastered behind every glittering, shiny gadget. As soon as one person walks away from a computer, two people waiting behind them jump right in their place, clicking incessantly, Facebooking, taking unflattering pictures. I turn to barely miss running into some guy’s enormous Banana Republic bag, not that it would be anywhere near as disastrous as knocking the giant coffee out of his other hand. I try to apologize, but he keeps walking, unfazed. There’s a line of people waiting to put their name on a list at the front of the store, I assume to buy a phone. There’s a startling amount of people working today too, yet they’re effortlessly outnumbered.  It’s so loud I can barely hear the muzak, just the relentless drone of conversation. Every few minutes a group of people walk into the store, look around at the crowd, and then almost immediately retreat the way they came in. Ha, I don’t blame them. It’s constantly busy here, so jam packed full of people that the store had to convert to a system where literally every employee has can make credit card purchases. I just read the other day how the manufacturers can’t even keep up. At least Channel 9 isn’t here today, I think to myself.

I try to focus, and head towards the accessories aisle, which is hopelessly crowded. It’s a little warm in here, probably 75, 76. I need a case, but I think they’re sold out. I’ve already scratched my phone once. Finally, I spot a friend of mine who works here, back at the tech support desk. I momentarily quicken my pace to greet him, but quickly change my mind as I get closer. Despite the surrounding droves of people waiting, laptops and phones at their sides, his unusually confused expression is fixed directly on the woman standing about a foot in front of him, her jaw squared in a noticeably cross demeanor. She looks like she just came from work, fairly dressed up.

“I don’t understand why this is so complicated. I already made an appointment to get support!” As she spoke, she jams her pointed finger on the table top beside them in an annunciated fashion. I eavesdrop from a safe distance as my friend answers: “I know, but your appointment was for half an hour ago and we had to move on to the next person. I can still fit you in tonight, it will just be a little while until someone’s available.”

“No, I can’t -” she stops, shaking her head. “This is crazy. Is this your idea of customer service?” she asks, laughing angrily. She’s hardly demonstrative, but it’s definitely capturing the attention of those around. I notice a security badge hanging from the keys in her left hand. “I just drove twenty minutes to get here. It’s completely out of my way.” I smirk to myself; my friend lives in Kentucky, a good 50 minutes from his here.

He doesn’t seem to take issue though. “I know, and I want to help you. I’ve just got to find someone. Gimme a minute.” He calmly steps away to talk into a radio. The woman motions her hands, as if hopeless. “God,” I hear her mutter as she walks to the side, looking down to rummage through her black purse for her phone. My phone dings in my pocket. It’s a text from Anna. Figuring this is obviously not the best time to catch up, and noticing the empty space on the wall where cases usually are anyway, I turn and make my way through the endless sea of people towards the exit, the light reflecting off the glass.


Blinded again. It’s almost 2pm. I crouch down, propping my camera against an unoccupied table to escape the beams of sunlight refracting off the metal window frame. The rows of roughly-carved wooden benches are lined with kids, each one wearing pale red shorts and a checkered shirt. A few have shoes on. A musty aroma blows by every few seconds from the steaming vat of rice, beans and tiny bits of fish at the end of one table. Pierre and another Haitian are spooning portions onto tin plates, passing them down the lined-up rows of boisterous, hungry children still waiting. Behind me, a women sifts rice, tossing it in the air. Several kneel on the dirty floor behind a crumbling concrete divide, amongst bubbling pots and vegetable husks, straining boiled things through a weaved basket. We’re under the tin roof of a large, open hall. It’s not as hot here, thanks to the towering ficus trees looming around us, but I’m still sweating hard. Birds squawk noisily from the tops of the trees at the woman sweeping the dry courtyard outside with a straw broom. The sound of tap-taps (an over-crowded taxi of sorts) occasionally sputter by outside the large red iron gates of Pierre’s compound, workers clink shovels and pickaxes on the foundation of a new church building being built. All constant reminders of my uncomfortable distance from home.

I’m struggling to pull off a tight shot of the kids, as they’re either moving around or staring right at me and the camera. I reposition around the hall until I feel at least decently satisfied with the shots. Moving past my producer, I can hear her talking to Pierre about the children.

“Say that again, Gone-ay-eve?” she asks, leaning in as if to hear the pronunciation better.

“Yes Gonaives, some from Saint-Marc, which is a very long way to walk,” he says, motioning towards the children. “Some, it takes a whole day to get here.”

Her eyes widen. “A Day? An entire 24 hours walk?”

“Yes,” he smiles, “… and only several even have shoes. We give them clothes, but cannot yet afford all shoes.” I pass by, listening in a bit more intently. Pierre goes on to mention that this meal is the only one most of the kids get all day. A lot of them have chronic diarrhea or some sort of gastric problems from the water they drink at home, which is the same stream that garbage gets thrown in and the animals drink from typically. Pierre and the mission build wells, but some of them still have to carry the water for miles, and all of them are used to the woods to being the bathroom.

As the evening wears on, the Dominican Republic cuts the power in the area, as they commonly do. Pierre switches on a generator for an hour or two so we have light. A gallon of diesel here costs more than most Haitians make in several months, but they get it donated from the church. There’s a toilet and, Thank God, toilet paper. You have to use a bucket of water every time to make the pump flush, but no one cares. We shake the dead gnats and bugs off the sheets before bedtime as the room cools down from a single AC unit. I pull my phone from my pocket and check the time, the little Airplane Mode icon in the opposite corner a taunting memento to my seemingly never-ending remoteness.


“Guess they didn’t want to wait either.”

I look up from my phone. “Huh?”

The barista nods in my direction as she pulls a shot from the espresso machine. I turn to look behind me at the front of the packed store I was just in, people still milling about, crowded around smart phones and laptops, the employees desperately trying to give everyone personal attention, a seemingly inhuman accomplishment. The entire mall’s busy today. It’s loud… but not nearly as loud as it was and still is in that place.

As I look into the mass of bodies, my eyes fall on a blonde girl and an older guy, probably her dad, walking more quickly than others out of the front of the store.”I can’t believe I can’t just go in and buy a computer. Why is that so difficult?” I overhear the man say as they pass to my right. The girl is practically jogging to keep up with him. “I waited for at least forty minutes and no one helped me. They’re not getting my business,” he huffs loudly. The girl grumbles something under her breath, visibly embarrassed at his vexation and trying to ignore everyone’s stares.

“You want room for cream?” the barista says. Regaining my attention to the task at hand I hand her my credit card. “Yeah, just a little,” only to inevitably glance back down at my phone. The background picture is of Anna, from our vacation last year. She’s sitting on a window ledge of our 15th floor hotel room, looking out at the sea of cars on Michigan Ave. It’s one of my favorite pictures. The afternoon sky’s rays are blooming through the open window, a bright hazy white that ended in a perfectly clear blue sky. I remember that moment, the feel of it, standing there looking at her. The cool AC in the dark room, the energy of the sun, the effervescent flicks of dust in the beams of light through the glass. We had worked a long time to take that vacation, and seeing her so happy was…  a blessing, a few seconds instantly immortalized in my memory. Anna’s text is in an overlaying pop-up on my screen: “wanna do sushi for dinner? :)” it says. For a minute I stand there, thinking. Then I type:

“sushi sounds great”

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