Under the Haitian Sun
The happiest man that I ever met lived in Haiti. I had spent the morning and early afternoon on the black sand beach of Jacmel with a group of friends. The waves were high and rolling, perfect for surfing. I was not a good swimmer so I just sat in the sun, watching, while others swam or jumped the huge waves. After a picnic on the beach, we walked through the streets of Jacmel, soaking in the local culture and architecture. As we approached one of the old colonial buildings, I saw a man with no legs, sitting on a wooden square with wheels, watching our approach with a huge smile and a joyous singsong. He sat in the shade, under the columned portico. As I walked around, he came up to me, full of questions. “Are you here on a visit? Where are you from?” I could just understand his Creole with my fluent French and the little Creole I had already learned from my studies in Port-au-Prince.
I was living in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, learning Creole and studying Haitian literature. Through a study program, I was spending seven weeks living with a young couple in a nicer neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. I learned the ins and outs of public transportation: every day I had to take a tap tap to school, a fifteen minute or so ride in the back of a small decorated pickup truck, where passengers were squeezed in on side benches for a small fare. I found my way around the downtown as needed, and also spent time up in the hills of Kenscoff, where it would get cooler at night, if I needed a break from Delmas where my host house was. I was soon to leave for another seven weeks to Cap Haitien, a good seven to eight hour drive north on the coast.
But today, our group was visiting the southern town of Jacmel and being introduced to another part of Haiti. I never found out the man’s name. His happiness was contagious. At first, I thought he was looking for a handout. But as we talked beneath the warm Haitian sun, it was obvious he was just curious and glad to interact with an outsider, a “blan”. As we talked, he grinned and joked. I slowly walked and he rolled himself along on his mobile square. Finally, I decided to move beyond the chitchat. I wanted to find out how, in his human condition, which I assumed was physically and materially poorer than mine, he could be so happy. So I asked him. Without missing a beat, he took my hand and responded. “What do you mean? I live in this beautiful place and I am taken care of. My community makes sure I have what I need. It’s a lovely day. Wouldn’t you agree?” And he started singing again, and smiling and thanked me for taking the time to stop and answer his questions. And then, with a final wave and an “adye”, he rolled away down the street.
Still these many years later, I can clearly see him in my mind’s eye, smiling and singing and grinning, happy to be alive in that moment. And I often think of him, especially when the winter cold grabs me, and the little things seem huge. I see him, sitting and singing under the Haitian sun, the happiest man in the world.