We sit on the porch at the bishop’s house, three white women, one a child of 13. Pere Noé has already met us at the airport in Port au Prince, and we have stopped here in Mirebalais on our way to Hinche on the Central Plateau. He has asked us to sit on three wooden chairs as he disappears through a faded curtain hanging in the doorway of the house. We don’t know why we are here or how long we will wait. A Haitian boy sits on the low banister of the stair leading to the porch. We exchange greetings in French; Kim tries a little of the Creole she has taught herself. We are tired from our flight from California—my body wants to lie down and rest its joints. But we wait, dutiful.
Eventually more priests arrive, and we hear prayer. Then intense conversation in French and Creole. They are having a meeting. Pere Noé oversees 10 parishes and 10 schools, and the other priests are similarly charged. They have much business to discuss. The air is heavy and wet. Coleus and fichus grow wild in the garden. A kind of Afro-Cubano jazz emanates from the neighborhood.
After an hour the water is gone from our bottles and there is no sign of the meeting grinding down. Most of our things are locked in the car, but I held onto my backpack, my survival kit—computer, camera, mosquito spray and antibacterial gel. But we are now out of water and have no food. We are hesitant to interrupt the meeting to get the key. Out of boredom, the girl Kati looks for spiders and chases after the dog.
Eventually, a woman enters the garden. She is tall and lean, in a long dress and a black knit cap covering her hair. She sits near the boy on the stair. I am melting into the table, from the heat and fatigue. Kim chastises her daughter about the dog. She doesn’t like the look of its coat. They’ve had a conversation about not approaching animals in Haiti, but to the girl they are irresistible.
The woman approaches us at the table, and pulls down the neckline of her dress to show us a scar where her breast had been. She is speaking in Creole, pointing to her breast and her stomach. Pointing to her breast and her mouth, pointing to her mouth and her stomach. She is sick and she is hungry. We think we have nothing to give her. We have US dollars, but no Haitian goudes. We don’t know anything about the town we are in. Katie asks me about my power bars, but they are in the car. She wants to get the key from Pere Noé but her mother is hesitant to interrupt the meeting. We express our sorrow and regret with our faces, not having the language to say “I’m sorry.” The woman returns to her perch on the banister. We crumple under the heavy air and our uselessness.
Katie finally convinces her mother to interrupt the meeting to get the key to the car. They find a carton of strawberry Yoplait and a muffin from the flight and give them to the woman. She eats the muffin and gives the yogurt to the boy. He drinks it, having no spoon. Feeling trapped and inept I walk out of the garden and into the street. There is a market next door where a woman lies on a towel talking on her mobile phone. There are cartons of bottled water. Despite not wanting to flout US currency, I decide I’ll try buying some water. For $4 I get three waters, a package of cookies and a package of crackers. I bring the food to the woman and the water to my companions. There is nothing nutritious about the food. But there is nothing else. By this time another boy has joined the apparent family. They are all eating together.
We have been there for some three hours, when Pere Noé invites us in. Lunch is served: a meat stew with potatoes and carrots. The bishop dines with his family, and we eat in the front room, in view of the garden. I have chosen only the non-meat ingredients, and the stew is delicious. When we are finished, Pere Noé says it’s time to go. We walk past the family in the garden and continue on our drive to the Central Plateau.