On a recent trip to Port-au-Prince squished into one of the 10-passenger vans, carrying 18 passengers, that make the route between the capitol and Jacmel, I became an unintentional audience to the converstion of three young men sitting directly behind me. The three of them had never met before but somehow fell into a very vivid discourse with one another about their personal sexual exploits. From Fondwa to Leogane they took turns sharing detailed stories of the women they’d been with. I felt bad for the innocent woman who got stuck on the rear bench with these guys as they would intermittently consult her for a feminine perspective, “Know what I mean, Honey?”
This went on for an hour and a half as we wove through the mountains and then took the straight highway on into the city. I was on the bus with an American friend of mine who was on her way to a conference with the Clinton Global Initiative and she had been asking lots of questions about the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and international interventions in Haiti. I joked with her that I wanted to ask the guys behind me her questions because they clearly wouldn’t have held back their opinions. “Hey guys, speaking of getting screwed, how do you feel about foreigners trying to help your country?” I thought it’d be the perfect segway. Little did I know that I would soon get some answers without even having to ask them.
As we drove through Gressier, on the far end of the neighborhood before entering Port-au-Prince, the guy in the middle, who had just finished telling about a bootylicious girl that he had enjoyed poolside while her boyfriend was in the house, yelled out, “Mesi, Chofe!” signaling the driver to stop. He popped open the back hatch behind him and hopped out wishing the other two men a good rest of the ride. As we moved on the other two kept talking but it became clear that the one who had just gotten off was the real horndog driving the conversation, because now these two quickly turned the topics from women to work.
“It’s tough to make life work by doing what you feel is important.” The guy behind my right shoulder told the one behind my left. “You make compromises just to make money and then those choices end up making you fall down in the end.” When I heard this young man say that he was an artist, that’s when I really started to listen closely to what they were saying. He started telling the other a story about one such time that he made a compromise and it ended up costing him.
He had gotten a commission from a French woman to make 27 paintings for her. It was the largest commission he had ever received for his work and it was going to pay him well enough to live quite comfortably for some time after. The only thing was that this woman wanted him to do all of the paintings with voodoo imagery, which wasn’t his usual subject matter. But she liked his style so much that she asked him to do the paintings and he couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to make this money. So he agreed to do the series and after months of working was almost finished with all of them. He was even very happy with what he had created and knew that his client would be satisfied.
One day an uncle of his showed up at the house and saw the paintings that he had done and immediately went into a rage that his nephew, someone in his family, would paint such images. He went on screaming about how such things are dangerous, powerful, and sinful. Making such work was putting his whole family and anyone in the house at risk. He then went to the kitchen and found a knife which he brought back into his nephew’s room and started slashing each and every painting he had worked so hard to create, tearing them to shreds so that they’d be beyond repair.
At this point in the story the artist’s cell phone rang with a Lady Gaga “Bad Romance” ringtone interrupting his tale of trauma while he chatted for a moment with the caller.
When he hung up the phone, the other guy listening to his story took the chance to give his point-of-view. “I wouldn’t call myself a writer, but I like to write,” he started, showing that he can empathize with the struggles of the creative process and other’s interpretations of one’s work. “But when I write I never choose to write about spiritual things because it just gets too messy. Because we can never know what’s true. Because everyone’s got a different opinion on those things and we can never accurately express through our art something so beyond understanding.” He explained. He continued to say that he preferred rather to write about things that could be seen and touched and identified and proven. Those things are less risky.
Every couple of minutes Gaga would once again infringe upon my right to eavesdrop and I would curse her name and her catchy dance beats. But the two would pick right back up where they left off.
The painter maintained the importance of spirituality in the creative process but said that he felt it was important to create what you feel in your own spirit to be true and let what you believe to guide the art in a way that enhances your own experience rather than compromise it. He shared another story of a friend of his who was also a painter who had done a painting from a dream that he had had that depicted the all seeing eye over the ocean. The image and the painting itself haunted the artist so much that it eventually literally drove him crazy, making him mad. He never made another painting after that and after a while of it consuming his sanity and ability to live. The artist committed suicide and the man behind me on the bus said that it was because of that one painting.
I was so engrossed in the conversation behind me that I almost missed our own stop at the Karfou Matissant 23 where I had to shout out my own thanks to the driver and hop off of the bus with my American friend. As I pulled my bag out of the vehicle and watched the van drive away through the sludge of the city streets, I regretted not taking the chance to introduce myself to the guys and exchange contact info so that someday I could possibly hear the rest of their story and become part of their conversation. Because what they were discussing fascinates me and infuriates me endlessly, the intersection of religion, art, and the cross cultural relationships that drive them to often collide and explode and sometimes quietly destroy. Unfortunately I did not get that chance, or more appropriately, I did not take it. But their stories certainly struck a nerve and a heartstring within me and I wanted to share them for others who may find a bit of reality within the stories that speaks to them. I may elaborate more on that nerve and heartstring in a future post but for now will let the stories sit there and simmer.
Do you ever think about the stories that surround you on a bus, a subway, a plane, that you will never know? How would your life change if you did know them? How might theirs change if they knew yours?