17 Pilgrims, a Poem

Editor’s note: Something I started writing when I awoke very early one morning in Haiti’s Central Plateau, trapped between my mosquito net and my racing thoughts.

17 Pilgrims

Seventeen pilgrims on the road from Port-au-Prince to the Central Plateau.

Haiti is life lived on the road, in full view.

It is a hot, dusty iceberg. The mystery resides in the heat and the dirt.

The water is there, but ― did I mention? ― don’t drink it.

Haiti is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a plantain husk.

It is a mosquito buzz at midnight.

It is the fear your net is tattered.

Haiti is a heart pumping in the hot sun.

It is families separated.

It is drums in the night.

Haiti is the roosters who practice dawn all night long, it is the cries of ya-ya-ya that dance with the drums in the night.


Haiti, I met you just a week ago. I’m not sure my mom would approve. I’m not sure I approve. I doubt this will last.

But I thought that about my wife of 22 years. As then, I’m intrigued.


Haiti, you are a Dickens novel with a Kreyol accent, a plume of dust rising from a single road to fill every nook and cranny of every home in an entire country.

You are life lived on the road and drums in the night. You are a geography of risk. You are a rich man’s house hard by a tent city.

Haiti, you trudge to the end of a long day. I expect you to wake tired in the morning. Instead, you are bright smiles.

Haiti, the sound of your yearning excruciates. It is the sound a dump truck makes as it tips over with a load of rock, the sound of a hungry child looking to you for food.

I landed in Haiti an adult. I leave an awkward adolescent, upset with my frustrated wants.

Haiti is not solved. Rather, it dis-solves.

Reach for certainty in Haiti and it is gone.

Haiti is a parent’s children settled in the States. It is drums in the night. From where are they coming? you ask. No one will say …


Haiti is one step forward over uneven ground — with a sloshing bucket of water balanced on your head. It is the road crew drove the electric pole through the water line. It is “Who are you?”

Haiti is tires full of tomatoes. It is children walking to school in pressed uniforms. The boys in plum pants. In early evening half-light, they press and spin against the wall as a van speeds by.

People say that before you die, you see your life in a split second. From a van’s back seat, I watch people’s lives blur by, left to right. Haiti, I have seen YOUR life pass by in a single week. Tears and laughter. Chatter and sweat. A plume of dust rises from a dusty road.

I am at a loss.


Haiti is one step up and a Voudoo dance backwards. It is tarantulas in the rockpile. We roll back the rocks together; you laugh when I squeal at the site of eight hairy legs moving into the shadows.

Haiti is a warm night sleeping next to your lover. She will leave before dawn.

It is a waterfall with child guides who are bullied out of their meager earnings by a cruel caretaker. Sullen, broken stares. Can’t one thing not be negotiated over this gradient pitting abundance against limitless need?

In Haiti, you pay with your conscience, not your wallet. And for what?

Haiti looks in to you with dark, round eyes. It reaches to you in the market. It accosts you on the street. What it wants — and what you want — are the same. Haiti wants a piece of you. And though Haiti is exhausted from 22 decades of not getting what it wants, it gets this.

Seventeen pilgrims on the road from the Central Plateau to Port-au-Prince.

A geography of hope.

Papayas growing thick on the trees, thicker in the market.

Promises unfulfilled.

Drums in the night.

A plume of dust rising from a dusty road.

And a question, Ki jan ou rele?

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