Monday, March 23, 2009

Communicating in Haiti

The biggest thing I would do differently about my trip to Haiti is I would spend more time learning some of the language. At a minimum I would have invested in a French-Creole-English dictionary. While there were people in our group that spoke French or Creole or both and translated for us, it is very isolating to not know any of the language.

We were made aware of our lack of know ledge right from the beginneing when Rhonny, the drivere, picked us up from the airport. He had been given a sign to hold so that we could find him. After we were seated in the truck he asked, "Francois?" "No", we answered, "English?" "No." he replied.

Well, I thought,this was going to be a long ride. So I dug way back into my brain to search for the French I had learned in that one quarter of French in eigthth grade, during repeated veiwings of Beauty and the Beast and a lifetime of Pepe lePew cartoons, and I came up with, "Bonjour." Rhonny laughed and answered, "Good Day." I was then able to continue with, "Merci, Sil vous plait, and un deux trois." Then I was finished. I chose not to dazzle him with, "the colors of the French flag are blue, white and red." which was the only sentence I could remember. We laughed and fell silent.

Later we had to wait on the side of the road for some of the group. Now I am by nature a chatterer (big surprise) and sitting and not being able to ask questions about everything around me was killing me. So I kept trying, I pointed to the trucks carrying loads of people, "Tut tut?" I asked. "Oui, Taptap" he answered. And he showed us how much money it cost to ride on one - these are the most common modes of transportation. This picture is of one of the nicer TapTaps, some are big open bed trucks with people piled on, some are vans with all the doors wide open. He also pointed out many of the motorcycles were also taxis and you would jump on the back.

Pause here and I will tell you the only Haitian joke I learned.

Q:"How many people can you fit on a TapTap?

A: "One more"

Now I was on a roll, I looked around for something else to talk about. The walls on the streets of Haiti are covered with colorful and detailed paintings advertising the business and other products. As we sat and waited in the truck, I became intrigued by the sign on the wall near us.

I interpreted the words as "Panther" and something about security. I thought maybe it was some sort of private security company. So I asked, "What's that for?" Rhonny replied but I could not make out any words. I shrugged, not understanding. So he answered, "Condom", with the appropriate gesture. Hmmm, well I did ask.

One last story of the language.

Katy was a med student that was visiting the same time we were. She spoke fluent French and acted as our interpreter many times throughout the week. One afeternoon after she had acted as intrepreter while we learned all the processing steps at the plant. She decided to go back to the house while we worked writing all of the processes into specifications. (She did not enjoy the engineering as much as we did.)

Later the workers wanted to demonstrate the cleaning process at the end of the day, we had specifically asked them to let us know when the processing was finished for the day. The workers asked, "Katy?" "No, she's at ....., hmmm, House?" No recognition. "She's home." "Oh oui, home." Great, so when anyone asked we said, "Katy home." and they would shake their heads in understanding.

Later that week I told Katy how happy we were to find out that home meant the same in French as in English. She shook her head and said, "No it doesn't." So we told her of our conversations and how everyone seemed to understand what we meant. And she told us that home in French means man (hommes). It seemed that all week we had been telling everyone that she was with a man. She was not as amused by this as I was.


Bina said...

well, you know more French than I do, that's for sure! I can't imagine how interesting (and frustrating) it would be to not know the language, but it seems you did pretty well, and got some good laughs!

Cheri and Jesse said...

I can't wait for you to demonstrate the "condom" gesture. lol

Maddy said...

That is fabulous from whichever perspective I choose to take.

I'm right there with you on the French. We had a particular text book [the one Eddie Izzard often refers to] so I would forever be hunting for the opportunity to ask 'ou est des singes?' but I would have to answer myself 'les singes est dans l'abres.' = where are the monkeys? The monkeys are in the trees.

Still can't see for the life of me how that could possibly be a condom advertisement. I'm not sure whether to plead ignorance or innocence or both.

Damama T said...

LOL! Language differences are a hoot! I was told recently, by a giggling 6-year-old, that my real name means table in another language. He thought it was soooo funny because tables are flat. And I am definitely NOT. LOL!

The other thing that's funny here is that hand signals ARE universal. ROFLMBO!!