Book Preview: Three Goals – My Peace Corps Experience in Haiti (Mason Robbins)
Mason Robbins is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in the Grande Anse region of Haiti from 1999-2001. He lives in Cary, North Carolina and works as a Regulatory Affairs Specialist for a medical device manufacturer. In his spare time, he wrote a book about his Peace Corps experience in Haiti and will be self-publishing it, with all proceeds going to Haiti-related charitable causes. Below are some initial excerpts. We will post regular updates on the status of his book. In the meantime, feel free to reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The following is an excerpt from my self-published book, a collection of my personal journal entries, letters home and stories I wrote about my service following my return. The following excerpt demonstrates some of the challenges Peace Corps Volunteers face in adjusting to the new cultural, linguistic and physical realities of their new homes in a foreign land.
Learning Haitian Kreyol by Pantomime: After only five days in country, I arrived in Lyancourt on a Sunday. I remember the day of the week because the government regularly provided electricity on Sundays. Since we had electricity, I sat on my front porch with the house light on prepared to enjoy a pleasant evening watching the Haitian community in action. Of course everyone in town knew the eight of us had arrived. Since my house was on the main road, the electricity was on, and I was sitting on the front porch, I became the main attraction. Within a few minutes, I was surrounded by 20 young Haitian boys and girls. The Kreyol lesson began. I soon had numerous young boys with faces less than a foot away from mine trying to explain something about the cars passing on the road -- with animated hand gestures and voices at almost a shout. Somehow the natural thing to do when someone doesn’t understand something is to say it louder, as if somehow the ignorant party will be able to understand if the subject word is yelled in their ear. After ten minutes of this pantomime, I finally understood that they were simply saying “rapid,” although they pronounced it rah peed. I learned two valuable lessons from this interaction. One, I was not an auditory learner, and two, many nouns in Kreyol are exactly the same in English, only they’re pronounced differently. I also learned that I would be hounded everywhere I went for the next two years by teenage boys.
Adjusting to Nights in Provert, Haiti: Bedtime in Haiti comes early. Without electricity and with little fuel for the one oil lamp in the house, there wasn’t much reason to stay up. Most days we were in bed by eight o clock. I was usually ready for bed by that time, as adjusting to everything in Haiti was tiresome. However, getting to sleep was often difficult. When I would finally turn off my flashlight, the sounds of the night would begin.
The Rooster Stadium Wave: Night in Haiti is immersed in sounds of all sorts. The tree frogs begin their nightly courting songs. The rats, sensing safety, begin to investigate every corner of the house for scraps of human food or grain. Often, several rats found the same meal and commenced fighting over its contents -- their clawed feet scratching out their battle on the corrugated iron above like fingernails scraped across a chalkboard. I also commonly heard the drumbeats of a voodoo ceremony taking place somewhere across the valley. The rooster crows were also a constant of the night. I would hear the piercing crows of my host family’s rooster in our nearby trees and then follow the wave of crowing as the calls moved from house to house around the valley and returned back to ours -- like the “wave” in football stadiums. Contrary to common belief, the rooster wave lasted all night and was not discernible from the crowing at sunrise. As with all common things, like working on a hog farm amidst a constant stench, these noises eventually became unnoticeable, unless I consciously thought about them. Growing up in Indiana, I never had much noise in my private and relatively soundproofed room. I mostly fell asleep to silence. When I slept at other friends’ houses, they typically slept with the radio on all night. I was never able to adjust to this and would lay awake all night listening to the radio. Not in Haiti. I had taken a cassette Walkman with me just to hear some familiar music once in a while. While adjusting to the cacophony of Haitian nights, I would often play my cassette of Pearl Jam’s “Ten” album at full volume. Despite the blasting grunge, I would drift peacefully off to neverland, often waking to “Jeremy” blaring in my head.
My Mosquito Net Castle: My mosquito net was my safety blanket throughout my time in PC and in all subsequent visits to Haiti. It not only protected me from malaria and dengue fever transmitting mosquitoes, it also protected me from myriad other creepy-crawlies that exist in tropical Haiti. Other than mosquitoes, my most feared nightly adversary was the rat. Rats in Haiti are notorious for their brazen attacks on unwary sleepers. A fellow PCV, who lived a 3-4 hours’ walk from me, slept with a large stick with which he would swing blindly during the night at rats crawling onto his bed (I always wondered why he didn’t sleep with a mosquito net). Some Haitians I know have scars from rat attacks. In Provert, I cherished my mosquito net. At first, I let my net hang to the floor in a protective circle around my bed. I would check every inch of the circle before extinguishing my flashlight each night. However, one night, an adventurous rat found his way into my protective circle. This was problematic, not only for me, but for her (or him) as well. Once inside the circle there was no escape. I woke to hear desperate flailing and rat calls beneath my bed. Quickly, I grabbed my flashlight, which I always had close at hand, and went about investigating. I rapidly discovered a flaw in my protective circle and lifted the net to cease the commotion and let the rat flee into the night. From that point forward, I always carefully tucked my net under every corner of my mattress.
Sleeping Under a Tropical Misting Bottle: Nights up in the mountains are also often accompanied by rain. Not the quick, light showers of northern Indiana but good, hard, long tropical rains. The sound of these rains reverberating on the corrugated iron roof was deafening. If the rains came during an evening conversation, they almost always halted it -- you would have to shout to be heard. The rains also meant that you would spend the night damp. The Haitians have a proverb for this “Kay koule twompe sole men li pa ka twompe lapli.” [A leaky house can trick the sun but it cannot trick the rain.] That was definitely the case. The drips from the leaky roof would fall upon the corrugated iron sheets on the rafters, which would spray down upon everything in the house. As I lay in bed during these rains, I felt like someone was standing over me and misting me with a spray bottle. In times like these, I reached for my Walkman.