The Whites of Their Eyes
Above: Photo © David X Young
My father was an artist, as as such, felt that his sheer talent should merit him benefits. He took his art very seriously so he was not afraid of hard work as it related to his craft, but the idea of working a “straight” job was beneath him. Instead he would pick up projects here and there, using his most marketable skills in film making such as a cameraman, an editor, and even a sound man for short films or documentaries. Once in a while he would sell a painting but more often he just talked his way into opportunity or benefits and they rarely turned out as he expected.
My first impressions of Haiti I described in this post Jazz Under the Haitian Sun which is basically a summary of all three visits. I am fairly certain that the memory I am writing about in this post comes from my first trip to Haiti in 1976.
Having grown up in the Northeastern United States: New York and New England with its bluish-gray light, I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the Caribbean sun when I stepped off the plane with my father in the small airport in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Tennessee Williams describes the light perfectly in this scene from his play Suddenly, Last Summer:
It was all white outside. White hot, a blazing white hot, hot blazing white… It looked as if — as if a huge white bone had caught on fire in the sky and blazed so bright it was white and turned the sky and everything under the sky white with it!…The band of naked children pursued us up the steep white street in the sun that was like a great white bone of a giant beast that had caught on fire in the sky!”
This quote expresses beautifully the intensity of the light and also the need, the pursuit of the people. The “band of naked children” were not at the airport but they were near us as soon as we went to our guesthouse. Everywhere we went we were pursued but, unlike Sebastian in Williams’ play, this pursuit meant us no harm. The intensity, however, was there as the perpetual group of children followed, stared, smiled, jeered, laughed, chattered and touched us, seeming to want to consume us. When one child got outside of his permitted range, he or she would drop back and return home but more children were always joining. Our followers were like an organism which constantly recycled itself with fresh blood. We were never alone.
When we went to Haiti we settled in. Even our first visit of 6 weeks was long enough to make this foreign place a home for a while. Our routine was to get a late breakfast at the guesthouse (which was really a gentrified bordello), hang out by the pool where I would dive for pennies and my father would mooch on the girls or talk up the other guests to see if he could get something out of them. Then, after lunch, my father would paint on the roof, cocktail in hand, until sundown. At night he would often go out, leaving me with one of the girls who would babysit me until a customer came. Once in a while I went with him to the nightclubs and bars he would frequent.
My father considered himself somewhat of a celebrity in Haiti because he had been traveling there so long. In 1955 he was the only white person in the “Carnaval” and was protected by several tonton macoutes armed with machine guns.
Truth be told, my father’s history, experience and knowledge of Haiti was quite impressive, perfect for convincing the innocent tourist that their visit to Haiti would be so much more memorable if my father took them on a private excursion. Thus was my father’s angle, not without merit, and he tried it on all the tourists he could.
Most of the tourist were French Canadians who were there for the rum and the girls. They could care less about seeing the “real” Haiti so my father’s pitch had no sway. But the black Americans who often came to Haiti to connect with their African heritage, well, they were easy fodder. One such gentleman, whose name is long gone from my memory bank if I ever even knew it, signed up for a trip into the interior, guided by my father.
What I remember most about him was his size, his sheer girth as compared to the tiny compact car he rented to travel in. I was 9 at the time, and quite tiny myself, so you can imagine how small the car must have been.
As the financier of the trip, the gentlemen insisted on driving the car himself, which, upon entering, sank several inches lower from the weight. My father took the front passenger seat and I squeezed into the back. I don’t remember much about the trip except that it was supposed to be a day trip but somewhere along the way we must have taken a wrong turn. Once we got off the main road, which was at the start of the trip, all the roads were dirt. That year it had been very dry so everything was dust. So it easy to understand how we could have turned on what appeared to be a road and found out too late that it was really a dried out riverbed. Dusk was rapidly approaching when we realized we were most absolutely lost.
The sun hid from view and suddenly, because it did feel sudden, the sky burst into red and orange like a dying flame and then, just a quickly we were thrust into utter darkness with no candle, no flicker, no distant lamplight…nothing to comfort us. Like a guillotine — swift and painless — night was upon us and there we were, in the pitch black, lost in the jungle, for that is were we were for all intensive purposes — far from a town or any type of civilization, far from any sort of power grid, surrounded by lush greenery growing out of dry dirt,
Black as a color of paint is the combination of all colors, it is an amalgamation of everything that came before it, but black as a color of light is nothingness, it is the absence of light — it is a void. That is what I felt then, the void, the absence, and the terror that comes with it.
The night came right after we realized we were hopelessly off course but before we could correct our journey. So once the darkness came, it made the possibility of finding our way home that night that much less likely. As we drove along the dried out riverbed the way was filled with holes and bumps, not unexpected in a riverbed but quite unwelcome on a road. The car was low to the ground and with our weight it sank even lower. Soon we heard the scrapes of rock against the metal bottom of the car as we tried to find our way. We had to lighten our load. The logical choice would have been for the trip “sponsor” to remove himself from the vehicle, being that he was the far heaviest passenger. But, because he had, in fact, sponsored the trip, he did not feel he should have to leave the vehicle, regardless of logic, so my father and I stepped out of the car, into the darkness, and began to walk with only the headlights to guide us. Still, the car scraped the river bottom and the car inched forward, scrape after scrape, until finally our sponsor realized the inevitable, that he needed to leave the car as well.
Night in the jungle has an intensity of blackness that is in direct contrast with the white intensity of the daytime sun. For those of us who are used to electric lights, we don’t realize the full power of the night until we are away from all light.
So finally the car would go no more, the riverbed was too bumpy, and we had no way of knowing how to get to a real road now that it was dark. Now ee were all out of the car in the hope that we hadn’t damaged the car to the point that it couldn’t take us home in the the morning. But what do we do until then I remember thinking, in the total darkness. We were standing outside on the dry riverbed with the car now turned off and we felt so alone, I felt so alone. It was then we realized that we were not alone at all.
In the bushes we saw rows of eyes, just the whites of the eyes as the faces were all covered in darkness. I do not know how long they had been standing there. We never heard them approach.
There was a row of bushes along the riverbed and there were at least 20 people, mostly kids, all standing there, perfectly silent, watching us. Night comes so quickly there that it is easy to get confused about the time. It felt like it was deep in the night but it was really just after sunse, about 8 p.m. so everyone was still up. When they realized we had seen them it broke the spell and several of them began to laugh and smile. Then I could see white teeth along with white eyes. Floating faces in the darkness.
With the laughter the fear faded. We realized that the kids were more scared of us which is why they stared silently. Their black faces melted into the dark but they meant us no harm. Soon the adults came up to talk to us in rapid Creole which my father only understood a little bit. It was established that neither party was intending harm to the other and that, yes, we were quite lost and there was no solution until dark. They offered us food and the adults some clairin.
I must have fallen asleep because I don’t remember more until the morning when we headed out. Walking behind, our heavy host drove the car down the riverbed, avoiding the rocks that could be avoided. Finally we found an entrance to a road and headed home in the early light.
This was my first adventure I remember from Haiti.
This is part of an ongoing series, not necessarily in chronological order, about my childhood experiences in Haiti. My father, David X Young, started going to Haiti in 1955 on a Fulbright scholarship. He found Haiti to be magical, enchanting, and addictive. He returned to the island approximately every 2 years for over 30 years. He brought me to Haiti with him in 1976 for 6 weeks, 1978 and 1980 for 3 months each. Each trip was filled with incredible adventures and shaped my future which brought me back to the same island, this time the other half: the Dominican Republic, as an adult.