concrete alleys and passing tires

Devoid of light, the night sky is crisp and smooth. Pinpoints of light in a vast expanse, the stars shine proudly from their heavenly view. The mountains struggle to faintly define their silhouette against the darkness and occasional lights in the homes scattered across the hillside seem to reflect the stars high above like a ripple-free lake.

I stand in perfect stillness, not wanting to interrupt the perfection surrounding me. My heart seems to stop beating out of respect, and not a sound can be heard. Quiet. Complete calm. Perfection.

The birds of the night begin their chorus song, echoing across the valleys and ridge lines.

I struggle to keep unnecessary thoughts out of my head. I want to remember every ounce of these surroundings. The stones that line the earth beneath me, I can feel their every contour under the soles of my shoes. The leaves of an apricot tree sway to the song of the choir, beckoning the moon to shine more light on their dance. I close my eyelids and soak it all in. I no longer feel like I am in Port-au-prince.

Twenty minutes down the mountain road and the congestion, corruption and commotion of a fractured and bustling Caribbean city comes to life. Concrete replaces the trees' canopy and the song birds are muffled by the movement of passing tires.

This is an escape, a reminder of the natural beauty this city has to offer. Trees struggle for their existence in a country that has only 1% of their forests remaining. The soil holding their roots is shallow in comparison to the neighboring country of the Dominican Republic as a result of continued erosion. The rains take their toll on the country and the bonds of poverty become harder and harder to break as the environment continues to fall apart under their feet. Under the concrete and plastic below, the bonds seem too much to break free from, but up here, in the darkness and safety of the trees, the song birds sing a song of hope.

It is with these thoughts that I jump back into our small four-by-four and head back down the mountain. I know what lies ahead, and I feel encouraged and strengthened with my renewed hope for this country. Twenty minutes pass, and the concrete hits with tenacity. The potholes welcome us back and we drive past the tent camps once more. I hate every time that I have to drive by a tent camp in a car, I don't like the thought that I only have to deal with 'that situation' for a mere 5 seconds, the time it takes to veer around a pile of rubble. I want to confront the uncomfortable. I want to delve into the poverty.

Seconds later and the tent camp is out of sight, but I fight to keep it in mind. It is too easy to become numb to the sites and sounds in Port-au-prince and I want to make sure that my time down here doesn't cause me to belittle the severity of everything around me.

Although it doesn't take long for a new site to grasp my focus.

Turning the corner, our car slows down as we move around a few pot-holes. As we near the curb, two girls walk out from the shadows dressed in glittery shirts and with their hair done up. They can't be more than 15. One wears tight black pants while the other has a short skirt on. They try to act confident but their size and age make it impossible to seem anything more than nervous. They start to approach our car.

I had heard about the girls in the tent camp who have no other choice but to sell their bodies at night. With no other way to bring in money for their family, sometimes which they are the head of the household, they turn to the streets at night. For $2-3, they can get just enough to buy rice or spaghetti for the next day. I had read the statistics. I had heard the reasoning for why girls have to make this decision. I had thought I understood the problem.

But on that street corner, sitting idle beside the pothole as the shadows lurch toward my car window, I realize that I have no idea what these girls face day-in and day-out. The girls' face burns in my mind. Her eyes seem to penetrate my own through the car's window and her gaze digs deep into my soul. I can feel it digging, and my soul is like deep soil for her eyes to take root in. Deeper and deeper they go and I do nothing to stop the feeling. Unlike the tent camps, this is a site that will not fade away. I don't have to fight to keep this picture in my mind.

The car picks up speed and as quickly as we turned the corner, we are gone. The girl inches back into the shadows and waits for the next passing car as it slows beside her curb.

Innocence fades into indistinguishable dark shapes, her fate stolen by circumstances outside of her control. Another victim to these concrete alleys and passing tires.

I know from my time down here over the last month that it takes about 15 minutes to get back to the apartment from where we are. I know which buildings are most destroyed and where the best street vendors are along that route. I know the potholes and the speed-bumps. But in these next 15 minutes, all I can think about is that face and those eyes.

I stare outside with a blank glaze, anger swelling within. I try to convince myself that perhaps she was not a child prostitute and I made a false judgement too quickly. Perhaps she still has her innocence. But a 'perhaps' does little to settle the discontent that causes my stomach to flip inside.

The car feels like a prison and I look up into the sky to find escape. The dark night seems to have changed so drastically during our drive.

No longer crisp.
No longer smooth.
No longer perfection.

Clouds of ash and grey swirl in the darkness and conceal the pinpoints of light. Like a renaissance painting which has been run over by a tire caked in grey mud, I try with all I can to focus solely on the beauty beneath. But the smudges of grey are too much and I can't take my eyes off of them. I get frustrated with the clouds, my body begins to tense, my heart is racing and I close my eyes to escape the clouds' presence. They disappear, but the face remains. Burned into the back of my eyelids, I can think of nothing else, and a tear begins to roll down my cheek.

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