Friday, September 30, 2005
Last week brought the 43rd birthday of Sr. Carmelle Voltaire, the director of the guest center where I live. She spent most of the week in a contemplative, near-brooding state that often accompanies the passing of another year, but her personality emerged in full form on the evening of her birthday party. She donned an impressive African gown for the event, which she had received as a gift in the United States. By nightfall the whole neighborhood had caught wind of the buzz that surrounds a celebration in Haiti. When fetching water, dealing with illness, and amassing the basic necessities of life take up so much of one’s time, celebration takes on a whole new meaning of release from the daily concerns of life. Simply put, Haitians know how to party.
Whereas dinner around here is usually a bit of oatmeal or some re-heated spaghetti, Sr. Carmelle’s birthday spread consisted of an impressive display of mounds of rice and beans, crispy fried chicken, deep-fried plantains with a spicy vegetable garnish, a colorful assortment of vegetables, sweet potatoes, Haitian-style french fries, and the deep-red sauce that goes with everything. The celebration was begun with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday in French, English, Spanish, and a Creole-English mélange, along with a champagne toast led by Ciné, Fondwa’s elder statesman. I was a bit surprised at the champagne, what with being in rural Haiti and all, until I realized that one bottle split amongst 30 people makes it more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. After the toast there was a long prayer and tribute to Sr. Carmelle, who strikes a large figure in the community because of her role in the guest center, the health clinic she runs, and the religious order she takes co-responsibility for. A young man at the event who happened to have the same birthday as Sr. Carmelle then took the opportunity to thank everyone to coming to his party, “even if I didn’t have time to invite you,” to the delight of the crowd.
The evening was topped off with a delicious home-made birthday cake and the rare treat of Haiti’s best (and, as far as I know, only) beer, Prestige. I took my Prestige with a bit of Coke, as per the local custom. It sounds strange, but a concoction with carbonation, sugar, and alcohol makes for a great birthday beverage. The sisters each have their own approach to alcohol, with some modestly abstaining while others indulge in the temporary freedom provided by the party. One sister, Myrlande, went so far as to offer a beer to the guest center’s pair of resident 2 year-olds, Djet and Julie. They not only accepted, but insisted on finished it to the last drop. I couldn’t quite tell later in the evening if their stumbling was a result of the Prestige or their limited motor skills. My American sensibilities aside, perhaps it’s only fair that everyone, young and old, escape through celebration from time to time.