Meeting the Meal

Our little caravan of tents

Our tents– they ran out of classrooms and dorm rooms– were out behind the main buildings. Nestled upon the scorched, dry earth and tucked against a pasture full of horses and donkeys. It was 70 degrees with a light breeze at night, so I actually think it worked out better than being inside a cement building. Here’s the thing. People can warn you that Haiti is “noisy” at night– but that’s really an understatement no matter how emphatically they might tell you so. It begins around 3 a.m., maybe earlier. Way off in the distance you hear a wave, like a human wave in a football stadium if everyone yelled when it was their turn to stand up. It starts as a distant, echoey “ko-ke-ko-kou~~” and then builds and Builds and BUILDS until the three roosters around our tent join in with a boisterous “KO-KE-KO-KOU~~~!!!!!!!!!” Yes, I’m convinced Haitian roosters speak Japanese. It’s not so much a Cock-a-doodle-doo as it is a Ko-ke-ko-kou. The wave continues past the tent in the opposite direction, dying down until the world again becomes silent. And then, the wave begins again. This continues until about 5 in the morning, at which point the donkeys and goats begin to SCREAM. I don’t know who decided that goats “bah” or “mehhh” and donkeys bray. Really, “bray” sounds like a nice calming word. It’s not calm. It’s really not. Yes, this is a city girl talking. But I love animals and am willing to give them some slack. What on earth are you screaming about at 5 in the morning?! I don’t want to know. Please, if you travel to Haiti, don’t forget your earplugs. Unfortunately, even with a borrowed pair, earplugs make me claustrophobic, so I managed without them (thank goodness I’m a heavy sleeper). Something was wrong with those donkeys. And do all roosters crow in successive waves? Once you give in to the farm calls of early morning (which is still night to me), it’s so perfectly wave-like, it could put you to sleep. If only the roosters around our tent were more vocally developed. There’s was more like a “Ko-ke-DOODLE–crackle! Crackle-ko-doo! Blarp?” I’m sure they’ll work it out eventually…

This post was bound to come sooner or later. When traveling in developing countries– and really in parts of America that modernity has encouraged us to distance ourselves from– you will end up sharing space with your food…before it is technically “food.” That chicken clucking and busily foraging outside your tent? She will lay your breakfast, so you should forgive her the mess by your shoes. That rooster that just lost the cockfight? Yup, he’ll probably be dinner. Why waste a perfectly good rooster? The stronger one for mating has already won the battle. Nature just selected the next generation! And that goat? The one who screamed all night and then got danced (yes, “danced”) down the aisle during Saturday’s church service and is now tied up to a tree outside the kitchen? Yes, he’s probably going to feed everyone tonight. I don’t know for certain, since they are all useful in other ways, but I’m pretty sure he’s scheduled for stew. I don’t know that they eat female goats all that often, since the milk is more useful and they make more goats that way. But what’s a boy or two?

Rockin’ his curly blonde bangs

Is it wrong that I don’t feel horrible for them? I get that many vegetarians and vegans conduct their lives in a way that doesn’t involve the suffering of other living creatures. But what if they don’t really suffer? What is suffering to you? They aren’t feedlot livestock that never see the light of day, hardly move for their entire lives, get pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, and pollute the earth in unprecedented ways. These chickens walked the yard, ate bugs, scratched up the dirt; the goats nibbled down the weeds and provided more goats and more milk. They lived their lives as we bred them to. That’s a good life, right? In a land where crops are few and rain can be scarce (three months and counting without it!), is it wrong to sacrifice the beaten up rooster to nourish the community? If we don’t eat some of the animals, they’ll just keep making more animals which will then cause (even more) degradation to the environment because none of them are indigenous to the island. They aren’t pets. We can’t neuter them and feed them foods we don’t have. There’s no pet store to go to and buy your goats some food. They are the food. I don’t really have a problem sharing my life with them for a few days and then serving them up at the dinner table (and breakfast and lunch and dinner again, by the way!). I know, vegetarians out there are probably queezy about this right now. I don’t love meat, but I don’t shun it either. The little hypocrite monitor in my brain right now is whispering that I should admit that I think I ate another animal while there, one that I do consider a pet, and I struggled with that a little but, why revisit that experience? It’s not like it was the first time a cat or dog found its way into my stomach…I’m not afraid to admit, however, that I left some leftover bones from my meal for the doggies out behind my tent. I’m going to embrace that bit of Western mentality that connects me to my beloved dogs.

puppies, puppies everywhere
Our tent was in this rooster’s territory

Now that I reflect on it, my Haiti posts seem rather bleak. It was a short trip, and I was prepared from everyone who had told me about it for something horrifying that changed the way I see the world. They very over prepared me. Please visit the slums of India, then let’s talk. There was trash everywhere, yes. But not heaps. More like a dusting. There are poor people, and hungry people, and people with physical ailments that would likely be easily healed in our own cushy hospitals. There are people traveling by donkey and “beasts of burden” living to their fullest burdening potential. There were mistreated animals, drought killing more than plants, and houses that seemed built in troubling angles. Tattered clothing, bare feet (people might similarly judge me if they saw me in my garden on the summer weekends!). These things were all there. But there were warm, hospitable smiles, spiritually uplifting church services, beautiful clothing and shoes, families hanging out together, friends chatting with other friends, people sharing in chores, and communities working together to collectively make their lives better. Surprise. People are people no matter where you go. They eat, drink and sleep when they can; they work to improve themselves, their communities, and their families; they struggle to make relationships work in the confines of culture and the legal system; they are always looking for answers to troubling health questions; they dream about a better future; they enjoy confronting life and the daily questions it brings– like why are all these white ladies walking through our little town? Haiti didn’t shock me to my core– I’m not saying there aren’t shocking things out there. But it would do us all some good to remember the tenacity of the human spirit, and that inequality, poverty, and longing are part of the human experience no matter where you are, you just have to let yourself see it. Our translator recalled her first visit to the US and told me that in the poorer parts of Washington, D.C. she was shocked to see the conditions of people living there. She was horrified at the homelessness despite the terribly cold weather and that people here lived worse than people in her town in Haiti. We’re all in this together. Upon hearing a woman on our trip struggling with internalizing her experiences and saying, “In every Haitian’s eyes I look into I see more suffering that any one person deserves” a wise clergy member on our trip remarked, “Others’ eyes are just a window into your own suffering.” So true, my friend. So true.

Hugging the mentor of my mentor — People are people no matter where you go

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