A CHRISTMAS IN THE TROPICS
Juliana’s presentation as the newest member of the Jack and Jill’s book club was cause for apprehension. This rite of passage mattered. Peer pressure always matters. The epiphany within the story convinced her she could muster the mettle to face a demanding audience. Failure was not an option.
“The winter of my seventeenth year was memorable for its impact. My Jesuit priest uncle had recently joined a parish at a remote location in Haiti, my mom’s birthplace, and he had invited me to join him for the Christmas holiday. The idea of spending Christmas in a warm climate was odd for a girl from the northern hemisphere, accustomed to a white Christmas. My parents’ quick agreement made it even more suspicious because the proposition had the allure of a punishment but, for which crime, I didn’t know. A teen, just starting out on the dating scene with no particular behavior issue. I had tried to inhale marijuana a few times and didn’t exactly like it and yes, I had gotten drunk a few times but who else hasn’t? Foregoing a snowy Christmas, my favorite winter activities like ice skating, skiing, and window shopping at the mall was just too much. Grudgingly I accepted to go since I admired my uncle so much. He always spoiled me.
I arrived there on December 18. Disappointed at first by the unpaved roads, the remoteness of the hamlet, however, I was in for a surprise. A place lacking amenity was very rich in culture.
My journey into surprises began the first evening. Being the priest’s niece and a guest held a very special meaning for the populace who considered hosting a devotion. Everyone greeted me with a bright smile and tried their best to make me feel welcomed. I ate a most delicious meal, a recipe I had never had. Not known for a hearty appetite, I found myself feasting on the servings. I rationalized my behavior by believing at first that my hunger must have been at its zenith but for the duration of my stay, my reaction was always the same to the dishes I was exposed to. Eating lost its utilitarian status to become an enticement.
Besides my first succulent dinner, a church choir enlivened my first evening. Since the Christmas season was in full swing, it met every evening to rehearse carols. I went to the church to watch it and this blew me away. First of all, it seemed as if the entire hamlet was part of the choir. But just as tellingly, the voices were awesome. The leading soloist was none other than a girl around my age with a voice that my uncle would tell me later reminded him of a famous American diva called Marion Anderson! Great food and great singing. Not what I would have expected. Certainly not from an impoverished town.
I spent nine days and I must admit that each one was pleasurable. I couldn’t t get over the choir’s appealing sound and the overwhelming participation by the locals. A New England native and one with a strong family background in music, it was a matter of interest to me. I even began to wonder if my trip took place by happenstance or if it was a calculated and well-thought-out Christmas gift. Knowing my uncle, I had the strongest suspicion that the latter possibility was more likely. I sang also and forever I kept finding excuses not to join our own church choir. The sight of this young teen singing her heart out impressed me greatly. I went to sleep that evening, puzzled with lots of questions and few answers. My uncle only told me that the place would turn out to be a good experience without any safety issue and to freely mingle with the villagers. Because of the Christmas recess, students were on vacation. I wanted to meet this young teen, talk to her and find out what I could about local customs. I certainly spoke no French and I knew limited Creole, always eschewing the chance to converse in it all along since the passing of grandma.
My suspicion grew that there was plenty of subliminal message or a subtext to his behavior. I fully sensed he wanted to teach me something about life; something about the art of facing hardship and just as much to learn how others coped and have succeeded in survival. Aha! A spoiled brat from affluence, born with a silver spoon. So, I figured it would indeed be most interesting how I would communicate with the locals. I intended to achieve this my first morning there.
From the church rectory to the small-frame, thatch-roof, one or two-room, brightly colored surrounding homes, reminding me of an artists’ colony, was a short distance that I could cover in no time. Every house that I passed by without exception exhaled the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and everyone always offered me to drink a cup, first by saying, “Bonjour,” then “Sak pase?” “Good morning,” followed by “How are you?”
This was a coffee-growing region; its flavor was far superior to what my taste buds were accustomed to with one caveat: heavy on sugar. I passed by several homes before I found the one with the singing sensation. She was a youngster around my age, petite with a ready smile. She lived in a house with her mother, a woman in her fifties maybe, bow legged, with wide hips, shortly cropped salt and pepper hair, busy roasting freshly harvested coffee. The two of them looked like Siamese twins or as they would later teach me “like two drops of water.” The diva’s name was Guerda; her mom’s was Gerta. Guerda spoke English haltingly but well enough for conversation; it made matters easy. Just as importantly it occurred to me that I expected others to know English but unwilling to be fluent in their language. Typical American self-centered and jingoistic attitude.
I greeted both of them using my newly found vocabulary. I made the comment that her mom was young and when she translated the compliment to her, she responded in a folksy and colloquial speech that left me stunned, “Sixty-seven coffee harvests have occurred since my birth. I am not so young but then again you couldn’t know.” That was the beginning, “But you definitely look young indeed with your hair color resembling a corn kernel, your body the proud owner of fresh legs with the stamina of a young buck. The days of my youth, I could run from sun-up to sun-down and still be full of energy; those days are gone. I reckon you are the priest’s niece. Welcome to our land and feel right at home. This is a good thing that you are visiting. Humans are not like eggplants that never change their skin texture even after cooking, we can learn and can change. I used to be an oak only to discover the wind as my enemy. Now I am a willow and I can bend. My head holds my life experiences.” Finally, “Do you care to eat something?” Before I could answer, Guerda had a plate with a nice fish in a sauce with avocado and plantain. I couldn’t help but salivate at the site and the aroma. Mind you I had already sipped countless cups of coffee and my own breakfast at the rectory was substantial. She smiled at my hesitation, “You folks from the US are always concerned about your diet. A horse can eat all day and not be fat because it runs so much. Here we love eating and we work hard and walk or run all day long. We are not fat as you can see. So not to worry, sit and enjoy the meal.” Where I found the appetite to eat, was a mystery to me; but eat, I did, as the flavor was just out of this world. Guerda’s mom’s lull would be short lived; she would not relent and it was obvious that my presence tickled her, and she wanted nothing more than to have a long chat. Guerda herself was just as amused to translate the best she could. I learned that her mom was illiterate but was able to get by just by following Mother Nature and her common sense. “I am able to tell the time based on the internal clock of animals and the sun. The rooster never fails to crow at four AM; at noon, my shadow is right underneath me. I can pretty much tell the time by its position when I walk around the yard.” Guerda also explained to me there has always been a tradition at the hamlet to sing. Her mom during her younger days was just as good as she now was, and she thought nothing much of it. “Singing for us is a way of life. We will have a very special performance at Christmas Eve for the midnight mass.” That turned out to be the understatement of the year! It was clear she was a smart girl. She explained to me she learned English of course in school but honed her skills by listening to the Voice of America on a small short-wave radio Santa had given her as a Christmas present many moons ago. Santa’s name became so repetitive, it grew on me, “Tonton Noël.” Needless to say images of grandma kept popping in my head about the days when as a little girl she used to tell me stories in Creole that I had since buried. Guerda was just as curious about life in America as I was about their local customs.
Certainly, this earthy way of talking using proverbs was something new to me but a widespread style locally. It became a cultural learning experience for me to observe the descriptive ways of common things or facts and along the way, I accumulated several original ones with a range from the comical to the stern but always philosophical. For example, referring to a longstanding habit or tradition, one would say “Since the days of little cucumber fighting eggplant.” In the case of sharing blame, one would say that “Sharks are not the only flesh-eating sea animals.” Or better yet, telling someone off who thinks he can tell you your trade, one would say “I carry you on my back and you tell me you step on tadpoles!” This cultural awakening kept me captivated and amazed. My ability of learning all of this couldn’t have been accomplished without the help of Guerda who several times had difficulty with the translation and had to explain the concept, so I could get the gist of the saying.
Since we were of the same age and able to communicate with one another, we became buddies and pretty much inseparable. My uncle just smiled when I found my way at the choir during rehearsal, next to Guerda, humming and trying to learn the words so I could sing. I had become determined to learn the cultural, French equivalent of “Silent Night” called “Minuit Chrétien.” My goal was to perform a duet with Guerda in at least one stanza. My desire to join the choir opened the flood gate with my uncle. He indicated to me that indeed he thought that my visit to this remote place would help me in many ways. For one thing, its very remoteness was a blessing in disguise; it would force me to assimilate, blend in and learn some new facts of life. It was a gambit for I might not have liked it and might have remained dour during my stay, but he knew me well enough to conclude otherwise. He further explained that the isolation of the place allowed an experimental agro-forestry project to blossom. A church sponsored humanitarian development idea that had worked in other Latin American regions was transplanted here. It was grafted on a local custom to form a network to cultivate called “Kombit.” The immediate effect was an improvement in economic well-being because the quality of the coffee commanded a premium price and no middlemen meant more revenue for the peasants. Part of the profit generated helped underwrite the local school (which Guerda was attending). The whole process took place using organic means for fertilizer such as vermicomposting, a low-tech method of forming fertilizer using earthworms. My uncle had stints in Latin America and Africa and was very fluent in foreign languages and was always encouraging me to learn at least one, to no avail till now. My epiphany was the discovery of the pleasure of learning about other people’s culture and the universality of the human spirit despite artificial barriers.
By the third day of my journey, I had the single purpose of learning the whole song and at the very least be able to master one stanza and give a solid performance, going toe to toe so to speak with Guerda, in a friendly way, in the spirit of Christmas. It also dawned on me that the area was cool and not hot or humid as I had expected. This was due to its elevation, since it was on a highland. As Christmas Day was getting nearer, the nighttime activities increased almost overnight. Besides the choir rehearsal, youngsters (especially boys) were entertaining themselves partaking in activities entered around the use of light. For example special but short matches (Bengali matches, aka “allumettes bengales”) that give off a nice, glowing flare temporarily or longer ones that can rise like a rocket but come down with a shower of stars, “pluie d’étoiles.” Some others were parading, each with a multicolored, candle-lit miniature house called “Fanale.” This was a beautiful sight indeed; the miniature house was built of wood and the wall was made of thin, transparent color paper. Neat. It seemed like there was a game of one-upmanship, for one “Fanale” was more beautiful than the other.
Christmas Eve brought the entire hamlet alive like never before. Besides the previously described activities, at around 10PM, a single line formed, with every participant holding a candle and singing on the way to the church. Hence began the show that Guerda had alluded to. The performance was eclectic, yet simple, unpretentious yet sophisticated; the passion of the participants was palpable. The caroling as a stand-alone concert, lasted for a good hour, including many local songs preceding the midnight mass; it continued right through the mass. The celebration reached its pinnacle at midnight and the song for which I had rehearsed was performed in a serene but solemn atmosphere, bringing tears of joy to many, including myself and my uncle, present at the celebration. I still feel the goose bumps thinking about it. I was able to do the duet with Guerda and that made me feel good. She was generous to share the spotlight with me for my voice was no way near as good as hers. The pleasure that we shared was real and crossed all borders. We are members of a universal club in the world: humanhood.”
Reynald Altéma, MD