PORT-AU-PRINCE — We start when the sun goes down and the pavement beneath our feet loses its heat.
“Anu machay!” I announce. Let’s walk!
I didn’t used to declare this. It started quietly, as a way to get exercise during the pandemic lockdown. A simple walk around our third-of-an-acre lot. To be honest, it was little more than walking in a large circle.
But no act, big or small, goes unnoticed by our kids. And after two or three laps (each of which take no more than a minute and a half) one of the younger boys skipped alongside me.
“Mister Mitch, what are you doing?”
“Can I walk with you?”
He took my hand. He fell into step.
Shortly thereafter, another boy joined. Then two girls. I had not viewed this as an official “activity,” but in a place where throwing small pebbles in the air can be a full-out competition, I guess I should have figured on it.
“Mister Mitch, can I walk with you?”
“Mister Mitch, I want to walk!”
On we go.
Round and round
The walk itself is not much on scenery. We pass the gazebo where some kids are reading. We duck under the laundry line. We slide by the guard shack, beneath the basketball rim, to the right of the trash dumpster, past the three-room schoolhouse, beside the purple-painted music room, down the alley beneath the patio, past a wheelbarrow, the old generator, the steps, the water cooler and back to the gazebo again.
What makes the walk special is the ever changing cast of kids who grab my hands, pull on my shirt, hug my legs. And the conversation. The curious, often meandering, stream-of-consciousness chatter that kids offer when they’re happy and engaged.
“Mister Mitch, Manez hit me.”
“Mister Mitch, look at my shoe.”
“Mister Mitch, can we have popcorn tonight?”
“Mister Mitch, I found a nail!”
Lately, with Christmas having just passed, there’s been a lot of spontaneous singing.
“Come they call me a rump-a-bum-bum!…”
“We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas…”
“The first Noel, the angels did sing…”
The other day, little Moise, Chika’s younger brother, held my hand and pointed to the sky and said, “That where Chika is.” Chika, of course, died five years ago. Moise talks to her — actually yells hello at the clouds — on a regular basis.
“Chika! Hi, Chika!”
On we go.
Although it is often the small kids who clamor to walk, at times, the teenagers saunter alongside.
“You are doing your exercise, sir?” JU, a 16-year-old, will ask.
“Can I exercise with you, sir?”
“Sir, can I ask you something?”
“Um…when you were my age, what was your biggest failure?”
It goes on like this. I’ve talked about nutrition, the law, Beatles music, World War I, high school, haircuts and American slang on these daily walks. I’ve navigated accusations over who hit who, who grabbed who, who stepped on the other’s shoe. I’ve given advice, solace, told stories about my youth and led a chorus of “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.”
The other evening, as we were walking, the little kids suddenly yanked at my shirt, stopping me in mid-pace.
“Gaday!” they squealed. Look!
They were pointing to the sky, and the sudden crescent moon.
They marveled at it for a good minute, asking me why it was so small, why it was so bright. They seemed perfectly content to stand there, on a concrete slab, talking in the early evening sky. I tried to remember the last time I stopped and looked at something in such wonder. And then I realized it was pretty much every evening about this time, and the gathering of innocent kids just happy to walk beside me. Haiti can be stunning in its simple pleasures. On we go.