It's remarkable how friendship can take shape almost by accident. And also, so quickly. Strangers one minute, hardly taking notice of that particular person . . then mysteriously common ground, like-minded views or kind consideration take root. Then the person seems quite familiar. I can't remember a time when I didn't know him.
The priest we met at breakfast ten days ago has been quite incredible in the past week. He has transformed our view of Haiti - at least geographically - by first taking us cross-country to Léogâne (a hill-top district, close to the epi-centre of the terrible tremblement de terre, and poor before and after that travesty) - showing us his 'school' project. Prior to that, to the Justice and Peace meeting that we were so surprised by - when gay rights were high on the agenda which seemed strange . . but then when one thinks about it . . it shouldn't be all that surprising. Of course, poverty is the number one issue but all aspects of human dignity should be considered together. They are all as important as each other. And then yesterday to the beach! Going to the beach - like the pool - feels slightly self-indulgent for a trip of this kind. Initially, at least. But you need days like this. There is an fatigue associated with this kind of travel - the constant surprise and wonder of it all - so detached from my normal expectations of the world. Leisure time is crucial if we are to get through 45 days of astonishment and admiration in equal measure. To be able to waste away a few hours eating, talking and swimming is a great leveller. You certainly notice next day as you feel stronger and ready for the next challenge.
The car journey took us through a few small villages - flat and dry - and always thriving with Haitian 'commuters' and dawdlers . . gainful employment is scarce and so life seems to exist on a much more relaxed basis. And I've seen a steadily more harmonious Haiti in the four visits since the earthquake. Cooperation is much more evident here than back home. When I see this kind of harmony and mutual accord I wonder what on earth caused us to be so individual and competitive in the UK. But you don't find a Utopia anywhere. And back home the problems and issues are just different. When we travel we are confronted by aspects of life that are so much better than we know back home - never the whole package but elements like the weather the clean warm blue sea . . and we may over-idealize the life we are seeing here steeped in colour and filled with intoxicating smells; burning plastics, baking palms and parched earth; foods and pheromones. Personally, I am counting the days with a healthy perspective that being here must come to an end and other responsibilities must resume. I still love it here - and I think I always will, my desire to help them is not a white arrogance but a genuine response to help people that are worst off than myself! I appreciate and have come to love more and more the blend of brokenness and paradise that is Haiti. It might even reflect my own life which has never been perfect but the challenges are there, amidst the triumphs, and I suppose we are judged by how we respond to the challenges all around us - personal and global. And preferably, I believe, in a responsible and loving way. The dark side, which we all have, grows stronger or weaker. Prominent or overpowered. And so it is with Haiti.
The roads to Léogâne were the steepest I've ever travelled . . anywhere. Corsica was dramatic enough. Here the steep ravines would have swallowed up the car. The roads were strewn with deep craters far worse than Cap-Haïtien, in the north of Haiti, which I experienced in my first visit in 2010. The road climbed and narrowed and eventually we reached the school - I was sure we'd have to stop the car and walk before the final summit but I'd forgotten we were carrying a dozen bags of cement, I couldn't lift one of these. We arrived and got down from the car covered in dust and were given a quick tour of the school . . ramshackled and like four garden sheds housing small classes that were in session. The children were immaculately dressed given their obvious hike to school every day. The surrounding countryside was staggeringly beautiful. I'd never seen this Haiti. You could see the ocean on one side of the school and on the other was an endless sea of hills, a rich patchwork of greens and browns with borders all joining together without interruption. And just in front of us a drop of thousand feet to the valley below. It was a view from the window seat of a plane. I felt strangely detached and my memory of it now - four days later- is clearer than when I was there. There was broken hutch and ramshackled stalls in the school garden that felt more like a ghost town were it not for the young children just inside . . they are Haiti's bright future.