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Mountains beyond Mountains by Hyon O’Brien

There are no mountains in the State of Florida that we have called home for the past four years, and hardly any hills to speak of. So when I saw mountains through my airplane window two weeks ago as we approached Port-au-Prince, Haiti for a week-long tour, my heart leaped with joy. My guide book told me that 80% of Haiti is made up of mountains. It also mentioned a Haitian proverb, “deye mon gen mon (beyond mountains, there are mountains)” that is almost identical to the Korean saying, “san neomeo san”. Haitians and Koreans know that more obstacles and troubles are waiting for us when the present problems are overcome, and our struggles are not over.

Truly Haiti, a Caribbean nation that occupies one third of the island of Hispaniola about 1,000 km (625 miles) southeast of Florida, has seen more than its share of troubles since it was discovered by Columbus in 1492: the extinction of about half a million of the Taino-Arawak natives from overwork and disease under the Spanish colonists, countless deaths during the revolution of the African slaves to gain independence from the French rulers who succeeded the Spanish, hostilities with its neighbor on the island, the Dominican Republic, American occupation, grasping dictatorships by the Duvalier family, frequent coups by leaders who have failed to establish a secure nation for the people, and a never-ending series of horrific natural disasters culminating in the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that shook for 35 seconds on January 12, 2010 and killed more than 200,000 people and damaged or destroyed over 180,000 buildings.

My heart was heavy during my visit to this poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (the CIA World Factbook lists Haiti as #142 out of 195 countries in GDP ranking in 2013; Korea is #12). Looking at the sorry sights of the still to be tackled earthquake-damaged buildings and dwellings, abandoned places, ubiquitous mounds of trash even along the water’s edge that should have looked so romantic, thousands of lean-tos hastily thrown up as tiny temporary shelters still functioning as permanent living spaces even after five years, the many people eking out a living from the sale of meager items on display at roadsides and in market stalls. The list is too depressingly long to enumerate.

But amid the chaos, most of the Haitians we encountered at various situations along the way were hopeful, friendly and kind. Our visit to two charity organizations, Project Medishare and HELP (Haitian Education & Leadership Program) showed the resilient spirits of courageous Haitians. (Both these organizations are receiving modest aid from the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of South Florida, the group that organized our visit.) At Project Medishare we witnessed a young man with an artificial leg that had been fitted to him after the earthquake injury explaining his job as a welder at the medical clinic. At HELP we met two poor but smart, hardworking and forward-looking college students whose college education is being funded by HELP, and who will themselves fund the education of future students by giving back 15 percent of their incomes for the next nine years after they become employed after graduation. They too demonstrated an unyielding spirit of resiliency. It warmed my heart to chat with them to cheer them on.

Now that I am back in Miami away from the heart-breaking scenes of Haiti, I remind myself to bear in mind what Helen Keller once said: “The struggle of life is one of our greatest blessings. It makes us patient, sensitive, and Godly. It teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” I see myself interpreting “deye mon gen mon” in a positive way; when Haitians get over the present struggle there will be another. They will go on to solve that one too, until they will climb over the last mountain of trouble into a flat land of milk and honey. I truly hope Haiti finds its final flat fertile place where problems are few and troubles are light. Korea has done it. They will too.

“Mountains beyond mountains” is a good practical metaphor to ground us in reality as we face the many ups and downs of our life challenges. We may be better prepared for the next chapters in our lives -- family, career, friendship, health issues, retirement, and relationships in general -- if we accept the fact that life is certainly full of mountains to climb over. No one is free from troubles, obstacles, and problems. All face daily mountains that must be overcome. Along the way, we will do well if we can give a hand to those who are currently struggling. They will one day prop me up. I know I can face the mountains blocking my path if I can count on that support.


Hyon O'Brien is a columnist for the Korea Times, and a member of RPCVSF. This is a preview of her column that will appear in the January 31 edition of the Korea Times (www.koreatimes.co.kr).

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