The most gracious meal

The most gracious meal I ever had was served to me and my friend at the end of a long day by a young boy.  After arriving at the home where we would spend the night, we were asked to wait a minute while he purchased a loaf of bread from his neighbor. He then offered us a torn piece of bread dipped into a nacho cheese sauce with a large smile. While this meal was not normal to us, nor was it a fine dining experience, it became the most memorable part of our trip, and would create a lasting impression on me. Without the context of the story, this would simply be a strange dinner. So let me share the full story.

Back in my late twenties I was high on adventure and low on funds. This combination forced me to search for unique opportunities that could be undertook for minimal costs. Which led to the idea to hike across Haiti, and to explore everything the poorest country in the western hemisphere had to offer. I still remember the lady at Hotel Oloffson, Haiti’s most famous hotel, giving us a puzzling stare as we asked for a recommendation on a guide that could lead us over the mountains of Parc Nationale la Visite, and eventually to Belle Anse, and finally an attempt to summit Pic la Selle. “No one does this”, she explained in broken English. After a night of drinking and eating we met an art dealer who offered to escort us if we would promise to buy some art upon our return.

The next morning we woke early and packed everything we had into a small school backpack. The “guide” helped us secure a ride to Kenscoff, and from there we would travel by foot across the mountains. The first few miles would be gentle downhill paths which eventually led to a large river. After a relaxing pause at the river we began the uphill portion around 11am. By noon it was above 90 degrees and 90% humidity. I remember suffering from cramps in my calves, and then my hamstrings, and then eventually in my quads. Honestly, I think I required stopping for cramps in muscles I did not even know I had. But the most humbling experience was being passed by an old lady carrying a large basket on her head, who climbed like a mountain goat without hesitation (or shoes). Eventually we would climb through the mist and reach the plateau outside of Seguin. The land at this elevation was amazingly beautiful, and in extreme contrast to that of which we passed to get here. The next hour was a comfortable walk at dusk to the house of the Priest who lived in the largest home in Seguin.

It was understood that the Priest would provide us a place to sleep for the night. However, when we arrived he informed us that he already had guests, and that he could not host us. He did however introduce us to one of his students who offered to house us for the night, and could walk with us in the morning. We were then escorted to his small, 3 meter by 3 meter, home nearby. The house, which was smaller than a typical American bedroom, had a small table, two chairs, and a bed. Amazingly, the host then did something profound, he excused himself to go get us something to eat. A few minutes later he would return with a loaf of fresh baked bread and a can of nacho cheese sauce. Dipping a torn piece of bread into the cheese he offered it to us, and we ate together. We spent the night talking and then eventually sleeping.
It was one of the most uncomfortable beds I could have imagined. It turns out his bed was nothing more than a sheet of wood with his limited clothes folded on it, and then a sheet laid over the top. It was maybe the size of a twin bed, and my friend and I attempted to share the space by request of the host. However, as uncomfortable as it was, we could not complain… Both the host and our guide slept sitting upright on the two wooden kitchen chairs that made up the rest of his furnishings. The next morning we would finish our hike down to Marigot, and then catch a tap-tap to small resort in Cap Jacmel along the Caribbean Sea.

There were so many parts of this trip that were amazing and memorable. But non compare to the gracious character of our young host in Seguin. A dozen years later I sadly cannot remember his name, but I can still remember the feeling of this event. To have someone offer his bed to a stranger like me, and then sleep nearby in a chair is uncommon in my world. And later I would learn that the meal of bread and cheese likely cost him a week’s wages. Without context this sleeping arrangement and meal would be mediocre at best, but once I had the opportunity to appreciate the context, I could value the experience for what it truly was, the most gracious meal I have ever had.

How often do we judge people based on our limited knowledge of their circumstances? Next time we have the opportunity why don’t we try to get to know the person and their circumstance before we label them, judge them, or criticize them. I guarantee that once you understand their situation you will react with more empathy than you would without this knowledge. Granted we can’t get to know everyone, or everyone’s situation, but we can choose to assume the best in them and treat them as such. This world is full of great people…

Wish you the best,
Douglas Diemel

Image from Google Maps – If you search on Google Maps you can see just how little of Haiti is built up…

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