In Haiti I own quite possibly the most unreliable car on the planet. It’s a 95 Nissan Pathfinder, green, extra crazy little yellow lights on the front bumper. When I brought it home a year ago a good friend told me that it was exactly the car she would expect me to buy. Since that day I have driven it maybe a total of 5 times without it breaking down on me. I’ve had it repaired about 50 times, I tried to return it and resell it, I’ve even had mystics try to remove evil spirits from under the hood because it’s obviously cursed. And yet, for a while when I was living in Haiti I would drive it quite frequently, knowing each time that I got in it that it undoubtedly would break down on me along the way and I would lose time out of my day having someone repair it.
In the US, I have an extremely reliable vehicle. My parents’ old, white 98 Dodge Caravan minivan which is perfect for hauling around paintings or living out of like a bum. It’s got approximately 3 trillion miles on the odometer and every day I put more on. It’s never given me any serious trouble in all of my years of driving it, until last week when the alternator went out while I was driving north on I-95 through southern Georgia. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not much of a car guy, despite Dad’s best efforts in teaching me, I never was able to capture much about car care beyond filling up with gas and checking the oil. And even on those things, I usually choose to test the gods rather than trust the gauges. So last week when the minivan just sputtered to a stop on the busy interstate, I was really a fish out of water feeling quite lost. Because not only am I an idiot under the hood, but I am also very inexperienced in having to deal with situations like that at all in this country of the United States.
So after having sat on the side of the road for a while racking my brain for what to do, I remembered that I had State Farm insurance on the vehicle, so I sang the song like they do in the commercials and waited for an agent to appear in a magical puff of smoke to solve all of my problems. None appeared. So then what did I do? Well, I did the only thing that I know how to do in those situations, I called my best friends in Haiti. I called Papi and Berthony, the two guys that I never leave home without in Haiti. The two guys who are always there to solve my problems and help get me out of any messes that I make for myself. I called them each one after the other but both conversations went about the same once I explained to them my predicament.
“Well if I was there with you I’d have fixed it already and we’d be on our way.” They told me.
“Yes, I know.” I would respond. “I wish you were here.”
“Well what you doing driving by yourself anyway? Didn’t you have anyone to go where you’re going with you?”
“No, that’s just what we do in the US. We drive places, often by ourselves. Sometimes very long distances, by ourselves.”
“I just don’t get your country.”
No, me either. In our country you can put your faith in a machine and know that even if something goes wrong, we have systems that allow you to solve the problem all by yourself. But in Haiti you can have an absolute piece of junk vehicle that you can’t trust at all, but you still drive it everyday because you have complete faith in the community that surrounds you and know that whatever problems you encounter, someone will be there to help you solve them or to solve them for you. If my car dies in Haiti (when my car dies in Haiti) usually one of the other many people that I have with me in the car will be able to fix the problem by themselves so we can carry on. It may be fixed with a tin can they find on the side of the road and a piece of string that they find on an abandoned kite, but it’ll work to get us at least to a repair shop. And even if no one in my car can fix the problem, chances are that within a matter of minutes someone else that I know or even that I don’t know will pass by and stop to help and end up fixing it for us. And even then if no one passes by, no matter where I may be in the country, someone in the car has a cousin who lives just down the road who knows how to fix cars. When you live in a place like that, you never have anything to worry about no matter how crappy your car is.
It’s just not the same here. I sat there on the side of I-95 for over 2 hours with the hood up, obviously needing some help, but with thousands of people passing by, I knew no one would stop to even ask if I needed help. Not in this country. And that’s such a lonely feeling. But it’s a feeling that I feel frequently while in the USA that of being surrounded by people yet by yourself. When you’re in need you know there are people within reach who could help you, yet you’re all on your own. We work hard to get ahead, we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and we be all we can be. But we never experience an authentic sense of community where survival is a group effort and one’s happiness and success cannot be determined without considering those around him. It’s something that we actually seem to thrive on here in the states but in Haiti you would have to search like hell to find that feeling and once you did find it you would discover just how miserable of a place it really is.
I think this is why I enjoy working with Haitians in the environment of a nonprofit organization, because when there’s a problem in the road, when something breaks down, they understand that we’re all in this together. There’s always someone in the car or someone on the road to help you fix it. As Americans we like to place the blame somewhere and we like to identify the source of the problem. Haitians will patch up the problem and keep moving down the road. Living in Haiti there’s no proverb you’ll hear more often than, “Men anpil, chay pa lou.” Many hands make the load lighter. And I know that even within the organization, if I break down on the road, they’re always there to help carry the load and keep on moving towards our destination.
I did eventually get my Caravan fixed. I was able to find a tow truck and get to a repair shop where I paid lots of money to get it going. And by the next day I was back in the driver’s seat, by myself again, headed across country. Gave me a lot of time on the road over the following days to think about just how much I prefer to have an altogether unreliable machine but to be in a fully reliable community. The journey may not be quite so smooth, but it is, in the end, more beautiful.