By Mary Kay Seales
Perfect Moments. That’s what I call those weird mystical time-stop moments when everything you are and everything you dreamed of having or being come together. It may last only a few minutes or a few hours, but for that moment, everything, including you, is “perfect.”
I’m a child of the 1950’s, raised in a small town in an Irish Catholic family. We did not travel outside of Washington State for the most part, but I so longed to. I lived my fantasy travel life inside the pages of National Geographic magazine, on the ship with Magellan in my second grade classroom, and in the pages of the Maryknoll Missionary magazines at church with articles about Dr. Albert Schweitzer working in the Congo. At five years old, I wanted to join him, be him.
I came out of the womb wanting to travel, and so I have.
Two terms with the United States Peace Corps in Costa Rica and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, trips to Machu Picchu, Jerusalem, India and the Taj Mahal, the pomegranate capital in Azerbaijan, elephant sanctuaries in Sri Lanka, cathedrals in Mallorca, this list goes on. I’m forever grateful for these rich experiences that I managed to have despite never being rich.
On just a few occasions, and usually in one of these far-flung places, I have had what I can only describe as transcendental experiences, so 70s, I know. My term for these is “perfect moments.” Perhaps you’ve had them as well.
One Perfect Moment
Haiti, 1990. I am teaching at a little school outside Port-au-Prince, my two-year-old daughter in tow. Sixteen children. Sixteen different ages. Snakes in the bushes. No books. No phone. No car. No electricity. No classroom! Just my front yard with an old chalk board next to the rough concrete swimming pool, where the neighbors came continuously to get water, and where I dared to also swim despite the snakes.
At the time, Haiti’s dictatorship under the Duvaliers, Papa Doc and then his son, Baby Doc, and the soldiers of the dreaded Tonton Macoute, had officially ended. But the soldiers of the Tonton Macoute continued to wield power, and wreck havoc among the Haitian people, even at the time of my stay.
In February of that year, 1990, a young priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was leading protests in the streets of Port-au-Prince, promising to lead his people to a more democratic society. As things heated up heading into the resulting coup that took place that coming March, I realized this was no place for an American woman with a two-year old child. I quickly packed up my things and went to Port-au-Prince to catch a flight home.
So there I was in Haiti, fleeing in a way.
My only friend I had chanced to meet on the beach one day, found me a room in a little hotel in Port-au-Prince, and since my flight didn’t leave until the next day, he offered to take me to dinner at the famed Hotel Oloffson for my last supper. This hotel plays a role as one of the settings for Graham Green’s 1996 prize-winning novel, The Comedians, about Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoute.
At this beautiful historic restaurant, wild costumed dancers entertained us, the floor show during dinner. I was thinking how terribly colonial it felt, but all the same, it was beautiful and I loved it, as did my two-year old daughter. An older, very much older, Haitian gentleman, who was exquisitely dressed, approached our table, bent over, and took the tiny hand of my two-year-old daughter and said, “Bon soir, Mademoiselle,” “Good Evening.” Even at two years old, my daughter was charmed.
After he left, my friend told me that Graham Greene had based one of his characters in The Comedians on this very man.
We were then suddenly interrupted by a raucous gathering outside the restaurant. Everyone left their seats to run out to the grand outdoor veranda of the hotel. It was the end of February and the exact day of Mardi Gras. What timing! Wild costumed dancers were passing by, singing, laughing, shouting, dancing in the streets. So fun! It was a scene straight out of a movie. James Bond, I think.
But wait, there’s more!
Could things get more perfect? More adventurous? More interesting? That would be difficult, BUT, it just happened to also be a clear, full-on, full moon night! Wow.
I remember returning to my hotel room, and putting my daughter to bed. We would catch a flight to Seattle the next morning. I went out on the little veranda with my friend, who was saving me. Looking up at the moon, I distinctly remember thinking what a crazy, wild, incredible and very, very perfect moment this was for this 1950’s child from Port Orchard, Washington, the little girl who so desperately hoped to travel the world.
I have had a few other perfect moments in distant places, and I live for more of them. But this one comes back to me again and again.