A Travel Journal: Inspired in Haiti

Nearby, a young boy ambled past on a donkey. I was standing along the side of a dirt-packed road, and the houses strung along it wore a thick film of dust over their vibrant, Caribbean exteriors. Neighbors lounged outside on porches and stoops, laughing whole-heartedly while kids ran barefoot, pulling homemade kites behind them. Clusters of women balanced buckets of water on their heads and made their ways home as the sun dipped low in the sky, smoldering.

I was in Haiti, a two-hour flight from Miami and yet a world away. A step back in time—to when feet get you where you’re going, and cooking (not to mention washing) is always an outdoors affair—it was there that I got inspired. Wandering through the little town of Grand Goave, I started to see things differently. Because, in that Caribbean village, the simple and everyday took on new meaning.

At home, I have a room dedicated solely to cooking, another to eating, another to sleeping and another to sitting. We Americans spend time decorating our homes and making them say something about who we are. But in Haiti, the houses were the size of sheds and butted into one another, sometimes even built atop one another. Inside, they’d be barely big enough to fit a couple of beds pushed together, and a lone light bulb might dangle from the room’s patchworked ceiling. Yet, it was the windows that caught my eye.

Because the windows weren’t just windows. While the rest of the Haitian house merely fulfilled the basic need of offering shelter (and little else), it was the windows that were full of personality. Small and built for ventilation rather than lighting, the openings were formed from patterns set into the concrete: suns and starbursts, diamonds and rings, a geometric medley. Walking through the twisting alleyways, hardly any two homes shared the same motif; each was like a tin can punched with its own constellation of holes. Then, if you peered higher, these designs would filigree the wrought iron of the buildings’ gates and window casings, each unique from the next. It caught my attention because, it was something that in our culture is nothing but ordinary—a cookie-cutter framework of panes and sills—and has been made it into a focal point and outlet for creativity.

And then, as we’d visit families and pass out packages of kids’ clothes and toys for the tots, other things started to become clear: We’d reach a home with a woman sitting outside on a tree stump or a weather-worn lawn chair with a baby on her lap. We’d ask her the baby’s name and age, and if this was her first child. Then she’d shake her head and tell us that, no, she’s actually the baby’s aunt or cousin or sister. Making our way through the thickly fronded groves and up the trail-beaten hills, this scene repeated itself: We kept assuming that the woman cradling the newborn was its mother, but she almost inevitably was someone else, lending a hand. This—I realized—was real collaboration.

In story after story in HOW, we touch on the idea that design is the fruit of collaboration, a meeting of minds that play off one another. Yet, it seems something that we struggle with. I think that’s because we’re used to life where you take care of yours, and they take care of theirs. But that’s not how things work in Haiti. They’re used to a lifestyle where you pass your neighbors every day on your way to get water and, hiking on foot, you have the time to smile and nod “Bonswa” (“good day” in Haitian Creole) to one another. While we’re isolated by cars and cubicle walls for privacy, Haitians pass time in the company of their community.

We all know the intensity that comes with travel—when your senses awaken from a seeming hibernation, latching onto all the new sights and sounds that waft up from foreign soil. And that was especially true with my trip: Stripping away all the distracting superficialities and getting down to life’s bare bones caused me to look back on the life I’m so used to from a different angle. It all struck me as much more vivid in this new light. And for that new perspective—on things as ordinary as a stroll down the street or the windows dotting our humble abodes—it was about more than just getting my feet dirty in a new experience. It was about seeing things anew and getting inspired—by the things already all around me.

HOW June 2007