by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
“…the Haitian government reported 316,000 dead, 300,000 injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,300 houses destroyed….” (Of the January 12, 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti.)
We know these facts, but maybe have forgotten them.
Deceptively light and lightning fast to read, A Wedding in Haiti, recounts two grueling, heartwarming and heartbreaking round trips Alvarez and her husband, Bill, made from the Dominican Republic to remote villages in Haiti. Alvarez is a Vermont resident and teaches at Middlebury College, and she and Bill own a thriving coffee farm, Alta Gracia, in the Dominican Republic, her native country.
Alvarez lulls us in part one with her road trip diary from Santiago to the northern village of Port-de-Paix, Haiti in the summer of 2009. In a promise to coffee farm foreman and native Haitian, Piti, Alvarez said she and her husband would, of course, be at his wedding. When he asks them to witness his marriage to his sweetheart, Eseline and mother of his child, Ludy, despite the inconvenience, the costs and the arduousness of the trip (from Vermont to Haiti, via the Dominican Republic), they know the right thing to do is to attend.
“I had assumed the marriage had already taken place and that Piti had either forgotten to mention it or had thoughtfully decided not to inconvenience us by reminding me of my offer. There has to be an expiration date on grand promises.”
Rich, lyrical, humorous, forthright…these descriptive words only touch the surface of the wholeness of A Wedding in Haiti. Alvarez talks right to you, as if she is in the room with you and you are having a friendly chat with her. So warm, so conversational, so honest. We learn of her parents struggle with Alzheimers, the ebb and flow of a long-time marriage and the history and culture of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Of her beloved Bill) and a day when marital harmony dissolved:
“Am I really married to this bloke? If two sweet young people weren’t sitting in the backseat, I’d give this guy a mouthful. Instead, I seethe. “That’s not thinking it through together. That’s making a decision before we even start.”
At times ‘A Wedding in Haiti’ is a delightful commentary on the hazards of a road trip through a third world country – the insects, the potholes, the missed turns, lack of food, bickering, floods, language barriers and menacing border guards. As much as I was enjoying Alvarez’s lyrical paragraphs, I kept thinking, but what about the earthquake? Was this going to be just another anecdotal travel adventure book? I need not have worried. She tackles the social, economic and political underpinnings of Haitian society head on throughout part two, the second road trip to Haiti.
In the aftermath of the earthquake Piti wants to make sure his and Eseline’s families are safe and well. Julia and Bill, who now consider Piti their son, offer to drive them home for a visit. They also decide that on the return trip they will take the long way back to Santiago through Port-au-Prince, the epicenter of earthquake damage. They spend a night in Port-au-Prince, although comfortable hotel rooms are few and far between. The next day before they begin the drive home, they take a tour of the area and are sobered by what they see.
“Everything we see gives us a sense of déjà vu: the palace crumpled as if a giant sat down on the its roof; the tent cities where people are packed together in squalor with no place to go; the children staring out listlessly from under tarps; women bathing themselves in the open, bathing their children, washing clothes, cooking on the sidewalk, stirring a row of steaming pots, smoke rising”
Spirits lift a bit though as they are leaving Port-au-Prince:
“It’s almost noon: a girls’ school is letting out. The future women of Haiti pour out onto the streets, dressed in skirts of that beautiful sky-blue color and yellow blouses, with yellow bows in their hair. Mothers are again tying ribbons in their daughters’ hair.”
I am inspired by Julia Alvarez and in awe of her writing ability.
Alvarez’s web site is a beacon of simplicity in this over stimulating world, is a delight to visit, infused as it is with her whimsical, honest reflections.
Let me introduce myself. I’m Julia Alvarez, a writer of novels, essays, books for young readers, poetry. You may be familiar with my novels, especially, How The García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, which was made into a movie produced by and starring Salma Hayek, with Marc Anthony and Edward James Olmos.
Click this link to learn more about the Alta Gracia coffee farm. From the web site.
“We are Bill Eichner, an ophthalmologist with farmer roots in Nebraska, and Julia Alvarez, a writer and teacher and a native of the Dominican Republic. Our farm sits on a couple of hundred acres in the mountains above Jarabacoa. We dream of enriching the human community, empowering farmers and their families to read and write, to feel pride in their stewardship of the land, and be paid fairly for their labor. We dream that from this place named Alta Gracia, high grace will spread to our neighbors beyond our small farm and beyond our small country.”
Published for the Sunday Portsmouth Herald on May 12, 2013