April 8, 2012

Coffee: A Rebirth (excerpted from the final chapter of A Tourist of Saints)

By Flip Holsinger In andrew wyeth, coffee, Cormac McCarthy, God, haiti, Haitian coffee, haitian coffee beans, journalism ethics, photo technique, photojournalism

A Tourist of Saints

by Philip Holsinger


Coffee: a rebirth 

(Excerpt from the final chapter, with photos)


9 January 2012

After so long and so much dreaming, we are finally picking up the first coffee trees and driving them to the mountains near Carice. For years I have heard about this dream. I have heard the stories of the family coffee plantation that Max Viuex built and politics took away. I have heard about the strength of the independent coffee farmers Max served beside with planning and processing. I have heard Max, Anasthace and Bertrand say that this is where the strength of Haiti lies—where it has always been—in the earth and with people’s hands planting and harvesting. Not in the empty hope of factories and urban jobs that only give people money to buy soap and spaghetti.

“Those people [who import those things to Haiti] they make nothing,” Bertrand said. “They buy soap in Argentina and sell it to poor people on the street who sell it to each other.”

But the planting and harvesting is different. It gives people dignity. It gives them the ability not only to grow a product for good profit, but also the opportunity to grow food for living a good life, he said. With the purchase and planting of these trees tomorrow it begins again for the Vieux family and for the thousands of farmers they will serve beside in the mountains.

This is the vision Richard Quadracci from Wisconsin has. Not a vision for development and money, but a vision for dignity. I just hope Richard can pull off his own dreams. I hope he can come through with the tiny amount of support he is trying to provide for trees and fertilizer and a little bit of machinery.

But even if Richard and his friends and family can’t help, maybe this jumpstart of their promise will be enough to keep the revived heart of Bertrand’s energy going.

Three years ago Max, already 103 years old, told me his “five-year” plan to resurrect the coffee plantation. I believed in his belief then but I didn’t believe it would happen. Now I do. I see it is possible. And maybe this is all anyone has needed. Just to have a little push to look over that horizon. Maybe Bertrand can do it even if no money from the outside comes behind to help him.


10 January 2012

Bertrand is already preaching about the engineering needs for the coffee co-op and plantation he will rebuild. “If we have water we have payroll,” he says. “We must have some pumps and some cheap pipe for irrigation. Then we can water the whole mountain!”

Bertrand responds to a phone call he received from one of the American investors who is trying to win a U.N. agricultural grant for the coffee. Someone has thrown out a random figure for how much has been used up on big paper plans that have not produced any crops in Haiti. $400 million. Who knows if the figure is accurate. What is undeniable though is that no major crop production appears to have been generated by aid or investment.

“400 million dollars,” Bertrand says. “That could be a thousand little projects like ours in the mountain. Projects that feed people. That make food. Just imagine. You start a little thing there and very quickly it is feeding people and giving them life.”

“If I had that money that was taken from me by the foreigners who hired me to get them mangos,” Bertrand said… “If I had that money right now… I was planning on it. It is why I worked so hard in the mangos to earn that money to be able to go back to the mountain. If I had it, that $350,000 they never paid me… I would be in America right now buying all the pumps and pipes for the mountain. I am putting every penny into it right now so I can still make this thing there.”

I see it. Bertrand has sold his trucks, that maybe he can’t afford to sell. He has sold his property that is his only security. He has gotten rid of so much. Things he may not be able to afford to get rid of. Even in his house he took his only treasures…  the artifacts of his family history. He took them from his walls and tables and offered them up. These are relationships he is selling. Bertrand is selling his memories… to purchase diesel fuel and coffee trees.

We are talking in terms of millions only because we are talking about what others waste in Haiti. We are talking in terms of hundreds of thousands only because this is what others say must be spent on any project in order to make a real difference.

Bertrand looks at this money flowing through the news headlines and says, “They give $100,000 and just throw it away. They have tractors parked that are not being used. They have trucks. But if I had only $20,000 or $30,000 I could water the whole mountain.”


12 January 2012

Haiti is not a story with a climax followed by a memorable resolve. Haiti never ends.

Bertrand is walking on the concrete under the veranda of his house so drunk I don’t know how he is standing. “Too many cranberry and vodkas,” he is saying. This is the first time in six years I have seen him this way. He knows he overdid it.

He is talking about God. A first. God and politics, the forbidden subjects of this house. Until now. At midnight in the fallout of such a bizarre day what is there left to talk about?

After Sean Penn and Patricia Arquette. After invitations and dinners and drinks. After being filmed by The Travel Channel. After personal promises by an American billionaire to raise financial support to rebuild the Vieux family coffee plantation and jumpstart an entire way of life for thousands of farmers. After such momentum Bertrand has never seen, what else is there to discuss except hope and fear? For what lies ahead he has so little control over. He has his energy and his willingness to work. But without the money to buy the tools he needs, he is just another pair of hands in a country with eight million pairs.

Bertrand knows these celebrities with their endorsements and these billionaires with their big checks can put tools in his hands. He knows no one else has offered. The offer makes a man expectant. Hope is like a pregnancy. You don’t know how it will turn out.

So of course he’s drunk. Of course he’s wondering about the divine. He is standing on a precipice from which he will either soar or fall. There is no room for middle ground in this country. You thrive or you die. There is no middle class drift here. No numb suburbs. Everyone is moving rapidly in some direction. Every hand is clamoring for a grip, every foot for a hold. You are either boarding the flight or sadly watching it go.


Journal notes: 12 January 2012

1 a.m.  It is the first hour of the second anniversary of the 2010 earthquake and I am remembering the pink wounds on dark skin. I have no one to tell except my late night text buddy thousands of miles away in the U.S. I text Miranda: “The Darker the skin the brighter the scars.” I am writing poetry in a text message. The day draining out of me like light leaving a black hole. It escapes me with an incredible force and I fall asleep with my phone on my pillow.

3 a.m. In the early morning hours the market begins to unload itself from heads and necks and tap taps. Voices like cicada rise in a violent hum then suddenly it is only a radio playing in the street. Like some invisible conductor has dropped the baton, directing silence. The din slowly returns. I come in and out of consciousness feeling finally at home in chaos.

7 a.m. I rise. We are scheduled to pick up Richard and Scott at The Plaza Hotel downtown at 10. I think it is an appointment we might manage to keep after they voiced their complaint yesterday for having been stranded without a car or driver.

8 a.m. I am told the city is shut down because it is a holiday—the second anniversary of the quake. Somehow we have all overlooked this. We will not be getting the guys at ten after all. So I ask if we can organize seeing Papi Max, who has been ill. I want to photograph him with the first coffee tree in his hands. It is why I am here. To hand Papi Max a tree to show him that his dream of resurrecting the life in the mountains is actually happening.

Nixon is sent to check on Max and when he doesn’t return I know it is going to be a while.


9 a.m. Bertrand and I have coffee. He talks and I listen. He is remembering the mountain when he was a boy. The market outside his house is a circus now. But it wasn’t always so.

“Used to, there was a big fog in the morning,” Bertrand says.

“What do you mean, the big fog in the morning?” I ask.

“You know. Sometimes it comes from the hill,” he says. “And you can’t see. It’s all white.”

“Dew?” I ask.

“Mist,” he says. “There were all kinds of birds. And then, there was a flower… all over the place! It was called sunflower. It was yellow, yellow. Everywhere was yellow! I go hunting with my slingshot every morning. When I wake up I take my slingshot and I’m gone in the mountain. I come back ten, eleven. Every day. When they put me in school the world died. You know? The world died. I didn’t like it. I’m looking at something all day long in front of me. Sitting straight. It’s not right.”

He talks about the systems we create that separate us. He talks about the breakdown of family and home.

“This is an object you cannot touch… So the thing happened is that… The thing is that little thing we can have together… like cooking together, spend some times together, and be on earth together. Spend a moment together. Remember… the American people was a brave people… in their home. They got to a new land. Where they had a little home. Making fire together. To cook at night for the children. Watch outside if the Indians are coming or not. These were close families. They had to be. But the system that they created got them living one next to another, but further than ever to each other…”

I agree with him that this is the better reality. Living and eating together. That this is how we should be today. Living simple and sharing our home and spending time together.

But we live in a new world now and not in the past, he says. This is not that world back then of brave people and morning mists and yellow flowers.

“You, in society you cannot talk like that,” Bertrand says. “Because now it’s eight o’clock man. We gotta crank the car. Go get money, Phillipe. Because lunch time is coming. We have to have money for lunch. So these are the important things in life today. Let’s talk about lunch. Breakfast. Supper. You know? So, what do we talk about? We talk about what everybody else is talkin’ about. So we forgot the human that we are to become survivors of this new world that we created. So, we cannot talk of feelings. You know. This person don’t exist anymore. Almost, it’s not existing anymore in us.”

“But I want I want it to exist all the time,” I say.

“Well, you want it,” he says. “You know, when you say you want, that’s because it’s almost not there. You know. You want it to exist. Yeah, that’s beautiful. Me too. I want it to exist in me too. But, you know, my reality… I have my daughter in the states. I have two sons here. And you know, time is very hard. We have to fight every day. We have to pay electricity. We have to… you know, reality is so tough in front of us. We paying a gallon of gas, eight dollars U.S. Phillipe, and we are the poorest people on earth. And we’re still having a good time with you. You know. We still have a good laugh. But we never forget that gallon. Because it’s coming tomorrow again, the gallon. Remember that. So, we would love to talk like we were Indians looking at the stars. But man there’s a gas station and we got to fill up the car. What are we gonna do? Do you have money? Do I have money? So let’s start the conversation that’s for us now. That’s the conversation… “

“Anyway, you want some more coffee?” He asks. He calls for Nixon to bring us more coffee.


We talk about family and for the first time in our friendship we ask each other personal questions we have never asked. I tell him about my big brother and big sisters. He is pleased to learn I am the youngest just like him. He says my mother needs to put me in a cage. That I’m a wild bird like him. One born for the jungle. He admits his family have all had their suspicions of me. That it was like one day I just fell from the sky into their lives. They suspect I am with the U.N., the U.S. military or something. But he knows I am like him. That I am really an African. He laughs but I know he means it. I hope I can live up to his respect.

“I wish I could bring some good coffee. I would make them cook it in the mountain. And I would grind it. To send when you go to your mom. You know. I would have picked from some trees and prepare it for your mother and father. And your sister too. They would love that coffee.”


He comes back to the life of work in front of us.

“You know what happen to my age? I work so hard and every time I work I lose everything in this country where I live. And then I’m 58 now and its like I’m 17 because I have to start again. So I never have time to think I’m 58. I never have time to live my 58. So I’m like 17 again. Because I am on the bicycle again. And I start pedaling to make a project in the hills to restart something. You see I’m going to do the coffee project in the hills. It’s so hard, Phillipe. Just by driving over there. This six, seven hour drive. In the mud just like I was going to a rally. You know, like a Dakar Rally. And you are going to be there to film. And I know it’s gonna be a tough thing, what I’m gonna do. And when I told it to Anasthace. Anasthace say, ‘I don’t know where you get the courage Bertrand. I don’t know where you got that thing.’”


Nobody knows. It is like some sub-atomic generator inside the man, his energy. I have never known anyone who works so hard as Bertrand. He has said his age a half dozen times this morning, like he feels it. But I can’t see it. He could be my father and yet he looks younger than me. He may feel some worry, but looking at him and watching him work, all of us know he will carry this thing. If he can just get started. If he can just get the trees in the ground. If someone can buy him the tools.


I decide right then I will stay. I will help him. If I go broke and lose my health. If I exhaust every last year from my body trying, I decide I want to be here for this. But I keep my feelings to myself. He has had too many empty promises put on his table like cheap photographs of resorts he will never visit.


9:30 a.m. Nixon returns. Papi Max will see us. Bertrand grabs one of the coffee trees and we walk across the courtyard to his house. He is not doing well. For the very first time I see in his eyes his age. His eyes drift. They are not sharp. His hearing is terrible. He has a cough. He greets me and though he says my name—which pleases me—I don’t know that he really remembers who I am. Bertrand stands over him and asks many questions about his health. Bertrand is scolding the orderly for not having gone for the doctor. Bertrand sends the orderly to find the doctor.

“This happened once before,” Bertrand says. “Last year he caught a cold and became like this. We were all worried. Then he recovered.”

Bertrand told his father what we were about to do. He said he had a gift for his father. Then he lifted the coffee tree and Max took it in his hands.

Max smiled. It was like the sun splitting a hurricane sky.

We spoke a little longer but Max was coughing so we said our goodbyes and headed back to Bertrand’s.


I excuse myself and say I will meet Bertrand and the guys in an hour. I am going to walk down the street and take in the old sights and smells.

“Come grab me at the Kinam,” I say. “I’ll be there having a coffee.” I grab my cameras and bag and head out.

10 a.m. The market ladies and children lean against the walls in front of the houses. I open the metal door in the wall and I step into the middle of carrots. The narrow street is a paved hill path between walls with a river of people cascading up and down. I join the river.

I pause to photograph the carrots I narrowly missed stepping on. A young man comes to me. It is Jeff the artist. He lives across the street in the favelas—the labyrinth-like concrete things of houses teetering on the eroding cliffs of the river just beyond the road. It has been a while, he says. We embrace and I ask about his family. We go to see them.

I remembered him because of his sisters. And because he never asked me for a handout. His sisters were like a group of stand up comedians. I photographed them in a portrait four years earlier. I was curious to see what had become of everyone.

There is always the question of the earthquake. Was anyone lost? But you can’t ask it that way. You just ask to go see them and then they tell you one way or the other.

Everyone was alive. And there was an addition to the family. Jeff said after the earthquake he and his sister Sabine found a baby in the streets with no family. They assume his family was killed because no one knew him or where he had come from. So they took him in. Hungry and poor themselves, what were they to do? So they named him Kevin and now he calls Jeff and Sabine Momma and Papa.

I shouldn’t be, but I am amazed. Just like that they accepted this. Here they are a family of half a dozen or more living in two rooms and they take on the task of a baby.

I shoot a photograph of another sister, Darlene, holding Kevin. As I shoot, the wind shifts and the smoke from their morning charcoal fire blows into the room and the light coming through the door is like a plank resting on the boy and the girl. I know this is a photograph that will outlive me.

Jeff shows me what he has been doing. His is an artist. He paints for the tourists. Not many tourists these days in Haiti though. Just the high-paid aid workers. Which is something I suppose. He reminds me in a very subtle way that four years ago I had commissioned a painting from him. I am ashamed at how easy I make and forget a promise like this. I remember. I had every intention of coming back to get the painting. I got sidetracked. And then I didn’t see him for several years. But he didn’t forget. He can’t. My promise cost him back then. Though he is too kind to say it this way.


11 a.m. The walk down Rue Gregroi is always a walk through layers of memories. So many years have I walked up and down this road. I pass the guys drinking Haitian moonshine next to the ravine who always ask me for a job. I see the coffee woman across the street from Jet Set who always kisses my cheek.

Knowing I have some time I head to the Catholic church. I was told it was packed. People singing and praying. Remembering those lost in the earthquake. Thanking God for those spared.

I photograph a 13-year-old girl praying. Nancie Exarrer.

I go to the Kinam. I am greeted by the wait staff like I am returning family. I realize I haven’t been in the Kinam for a year. It is like an eternity. China has come between me and Haiti, I say to the guys when they ask why it has been so long.

I sit down for coffee and to do a little work but as soon as the cup comes so does Nixon. Bertrand is outside with the truck and we are heading downtown.

12 p.m. The drive is so slow people walking are outpacing us. I am tempted to get out of the truck and walk downtown. The traffic is so bad that even the extraordinary driving of Bertrand is incapable of moving through the congestion. Though at one point we fall in behind a Haitian National Police truck with lights and siren whaling and manage to push through a few blocks of traffic before we are cut off and stuck once more.

It turns out a protest has been staged against the president. We are passed by Haitians carrying professional signs with an anti-Martelly message, and wearing t-shirts with the same message. I wonder if any of the international press will bother to ask who paid for the t-shirts and signs. And who organized the people?

2 p.m. I have never been to the Plaza Hotel until today. My first thought is that we have arrived at The Green Zone in Bagdad. It is not so bizarre as this really. But there is a pool with beautiful foreign women in bikinis, an elaborate buffet, and the alcohol is flowing in bottles and glasses.

Richard and Scott are by the pool, but in sport coats and ties. They don’t want to look the part of the casual aid worker, Scott says. They are investors after all and want the Haitian President’s men they are meeting to feel a sense of gravity with them.

Richard shows me how his satellite phone works and I give it a try. We will use it in the next few days to send photos from the mountain when we go to plant the first one thousand trees.

Everyone is tired. Richard and Scott have come to Haiti and been met with more delays than meetings, so they are both particularly worn thin. Even though we are about to plant the first thousand trees I sense a doubt in the air as to whether this thing can ever work. Bertrand does not seem capable of keeping an appointment so how can he be expected to manage the accepting of large sums of cash and materials for the building of the coffee plantation. No one is saying it plainly but these conversations are in the air. At some point they will have to be on people’s lips.

I know what Bertrand is capable of. I have watched him for years and I know if only he can get a little lift that he will fly.

We move from the poolside to the open-air restaurant. I decline to eat. I am actually very hungry but I am being stubborn. I do not want to be a part of this place. I am in my dirty jeans and stained shirt and ball cap. I am not one of these protected people. I decline to eat because I am thinking of Jeff and Kevin and Darlene. I want to have them close to my heart today. And because I am standing with Bertrand in solidarity of his worry that all these promises may amount to are good intentions. I am painfully aware of this.

We are seated at a large table near the buffet. And I realize the actor Sean Penn is just behind me. Our backs are to each other. Several of the guys at my table begin to whisper. One guy from New York accompanying the investors is so excited he says he is going to get out his camera and he moves like he is going to get up and greet Sean Penn. I say very plainly and firmly that if anyone from my table as much as looks at Penn that they will never sit at my table again. Anytime anywhere.

I calm down and our table settles into conversation. Soon I hear my name and it is my good friend Cyril. He is a Haitian who runs a company with my good friend Alex Georges. They are fixers for media companies, celebrity personalities, as well as tourism infrastructure developers.

It is a joy to see Cyril and we embrace. I introduce everyone and Cyril starts calling foreigners over to the table to exchange the courtesy. Cyril asks what I am doing and I tell him about Bertrand and the coffee and the American investors. Cyril gets excited and says he heard a rumor Bertrand was resurrecting the family’s coffee plantation. He and Bertrand talk excitedly for a moment and then Cyril says for us to wait. There is someone he wants us to talk to. He leaves our table and goes to Sean Penn’s table and brings back a tall American who had been talking to Penn.

The man introduces himself. He is Todd Carmichael, an adventurer and coffee company owner. He is in Haiti filming a Travel Channel series for a reality television show on coffee around the world. It takes about a minute before Todd Carmichael understands what is happening, that the man in front of him—Bertrand—is likely the most interesting person he will meet anywhere. From Bertrand’s appearance and the sound of his voice to his family’s story and the profanity and poetry that pour out of him with breathing, Carmichael knows this is the face and voice he needs on his show. He asks with desperation in his voice whether Bertrand will agree to be interviewed.

Meanwhile the investors have had to leave. They are taken to the airport and we are left alone with the television guys.

Bertrand is worried. “Can I trust them?” he asks me.

“Probably not,” I say.

“Should I do the interview?” he asks.

“Probably,” I say.


5 p.m. This is how the world ends. And begins. Bertrand is sitting at a table being interviewed by Todd Carmichael for the Travel Channel. Carmichael is desperate for a sound bite from Bertrand that will paint a picture of death threats and Carmichael’s courage. But Bertrand won’t fall for the trap. Carmichael is working on him. He asks the same question again and again. He and Bertrand talk about coffee and Carmichael brings it back to his question. “Will someone try to shoot me?” He asks. “Will someone try to kill me when I cut out the middleman?” Bertrand smiles. He won’t say the words. He knows what Carmichael is doing. Shoot. Kill. He is fear mongering. Bertrand won’t give him the words.

Later Bertrand says, “That man is trying to scare people away from Haiti so he can buy the coffee from the peasants. He is trying to make Haiti look like a dangerous place.” Bertrand says he knows Carmichael is only using the story of the Viuex family for Carmichael’s own agenda. “But maybe what he doesn’t know is we will use him for our agenda. Our agenda is to help the people in the hills stand up. Maybe when some man in New Jersey sees me talking on Carmichael’s show and understands how we are helping ourselves and helping the people in the hills, maybe this man in New Jersey will have some pipe he can give us. Or some pumps.”


6 p.m. We have wrapped up filming and the Travel Channel crew goes with Todd to film him in private. We know he is giving his commentary on what has just taken place between he and Bertrand. Carmichael promises Bertrand everything. He says, “I am going to buy your coffee.” He says, “I am coming to the mountain to film you.” He is making so many promises I know he won’t keep them. I think he is a living stereo-type of the television personality. Back slapping, complimenting, promise-spewing.

When it came time for the filmed interview everything was staged. We had to fake like we had just met Carmichael. In the first take they seated a beautiful American girl from Indianapolis with us with a map spread out on the table. But when Carmichael faked his entry and faked his meeting us for the first time it was too awkward for him to reach around the girl. So the director yelled for us to stop and then yelled, “Lose the girl!” I burst out laughing. Nobody else was laughing. Bertrand just leaned across the table and stared into my laughing face with a big dumb grin. I burst out, “He just said that!” I turned to the director and said, “You just said ‘Lose the girl.’ That’s hilarious.” He didn’t laugh.

When the cameras and crew had gone a woman appeared. She said she had been watching us and wondered who we are. When she learned Bertrand’s story—that he is about to restart his family’s coffee plantation and with it reawaken an economy for a whole region of Haiti—she became excited. She said she had someone she wanted us to meet. Would we accept her invitation to have dinner tonight with the American actress Patricia Arquette?


7 p.m. I think Bertrand and I laughed the entire length of Port-au-Prince as we raced back up the mountain to Petionville. Bertrand wanted to shower and change his clothes for dinner. I kept my resolve to remain in solidarity with Jeff and Kevin. I put on fresh socks and washed my face. But I wore my same clothes. Then we raced back down into the city. This time we were headed to the Olofson, that historic hotel of intrigue near downtown. A place that as far as I can tell has a reputation for being a place with… welll… a reputation. Sort of like a Kardashian sister. Famous for being… well, famous. But no one really knows why. And I have never figured out why anyone comes back to the place. Aside from being old and rickety—which gives it some charm—it is… well, old and rickety. The service is horrible. It is cramped, there are mosquitoes, and the seats are uncomfortable.

It is where foreigners go to be seen by one another. But only some foreigners. The real money is hidden away in private compounds.


8 p.m. We are introduced to Patricia. We are surrounded by swarming  American girls in colorful, flowing gowns. Everyone drinking out of nice glasses and trying to be near the actress while acting like they don’t care. This is what the aid workers do in the evenings.

Bertrand and I we were at a natural advantage in this crowd. Aside from the fact that we were invited to be the actress’ dinner guests, we were there for business. Patricia’s non-profit organization is a compost fertilizer project. We were there to talk fertilizer for the coffee.

Bertrand was seated at the head of the table and Patricia next to him. It was all over after that. He goes right after Patricia.

“What do you do again?” He asks her.

She says she’s an actress.

“What does this mean, ‘an actress’?” he says. He’s taunting her. But he has a good reason.

He asks her questions about her motives. He asks her if she is in Haiti trying to save the world. A person with the wrong agenda or a sensitive personality wouldn’t survive him. He challenges her reasons and yet he is a gracious interrogator. He is not trying to trip her up. He is trying to find their common ground. It is what Bertrand does with people. He finds rich soil in you. Soil just like he has in himself. Then he shares his seeds. And he looks for the seeds you have to share with him.

Patricia and Bertrand remain face to face for an hour. Nothing comes between them, except drinks. No one gets to be in this conversation. They are on stage and everyone gets to watch. Not even Patricia’s boyfriend dares to interrupt what is taking place at the end of the table.

And yet in this entire time I don’t think they have hardly spoken about fertilizer. But it doesn’t matter. Once Bertrand trusts your motive then anything you offer him he will already trust. Because he already trusts you.

I am finally learning this man.

And unlearning him.


10 p.m. The cranberry and vodkas keep coming. At some point every poet becomes a madman. I can see the desperation in him. Everything slides away so quickly here. The alcohol buffers the fear. The more he drinks the more people fail to see the man but instead see only foolishness. And they miss what is really happening. They miss that he has actually let down his guard and he is showing them the violent, dying truth of the matter. That Haiti is a painted, filthy mess. Even if it is also a rare, enduring flower. Truth is never pretty even when it is brilliant. You can only stare at that light for so long. Then the blessing becomes the curse. You are left temporarily blind.

What is faithful in Bertrand is also what is haunted by ghosts. His devotion has been rewarded with betrayal… and death. His fear comes out in these moments.

This is where the aid workers and do-gooders exit. This is where the missionaries stand on their principles and say they can’t work with someone like this for the sake of their good reputations. This is where people grab their children and turn their heads and sneak away.

It is in these moments I know I must plant my life deeper. For it is what Bertrand and his whole family have done for me. When I was broken. Lost. Confused. They took me in. When I was at my worst and they planted themselves in the confused soil of me and rescued me.

A Haitian proverb comes to mind: Le yo vle touye chen yo ki’l fou (When they want to kill a dog they say its crazy). People run from what they don’t understand. They turn their backs on it. And they try to kill it by depriving it of oxygen.

After Bertrand has become drunk and has frightened everyone from his table I tell him we must go and he becomes upset. I hate this part. He is drunk because entropy has pulled back the curtains and he fears the end. Bertrand is where he has been so many times. But now the stakes are higher. He is 58 and knows his energy is waning. He has begun again so many times. He has been robbed and beaten so many times. All his hope is chained to fear based in history.


11p.m. We come back to the house and something happens that has never happened. Bertrand tells me things he has never told. And tears come.

Bertrand Vieux can shed tears. It is like God drawing water from a stone.

“Phillipe, when my brother greeted you today I was amazed. You were his enemy. When he lived in Cuba. You killed his brothers. But he embraced you. He has accepted you like family.”

I realize what I am witnessing. These are not just his tears. These are Richard’s tears. These are my tears.

“I know the sky is deep, Phillipe,” he says. “I know. But God is not out there. I don’t know why people pray to God in the sky. God is closer. God is closer than you think. God isn’t a spirit out there you have to call like you are dialing me on the phone. God is in the earth and giving birth to your Idaho potato. God is in the mango tree….”

I have never heard him say these things. He hates all systems of man that do not feed people—religious, philosophical, political, or economic. All are evil to him that do not produce food and life.


Midnight. The day has drained out of us like it has drained out of the clock. We settle into silence with the whole world sleeping. Bertrand’s eyes are bright but his eye lids falling.

He says it is time for sleep. He says he is sorry. He says tomorrow we go to work. No more foolishness.

As if a spirit is in him exploding with things to say, he turns before he goes up the stairs to his room and leaves me with this thought:

“Do you know what is a bad man?” He asks me and pauses for a long moment. “A blind man. You see, Phillipe. You are a good man. Because your eyes are open. You are not good or bad by what you do but how you see. A blind man chooses to overlook things. You are not blind.”


18 January 2012

One thousand coffee trees are in the ground! It is as if the earth itself is sighing a breath of relief.

Richard and Scott came in by helicopter to participate with Bertrand in the first planting. They were joined by dozens of farmers and their families with a hundred onlookers. This was a true ceremony. Max’s dream has been reborn.

© 2012 Philip Holsinger, all rights reserved.

Contact Philip: flipholsinger@gmail.com

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