Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Haitian hiking

38 hours that feels monumental

This weekend has to rank among my most memorable experiences in Haiti.

Five folks from varied backgrounds, who minimally knew each other, hiking across rugged country side—experiencing the “real Haiti” together in a whole new way. We only stopped talking when we were completely winded from the mountains, were taking pee breaks, (even those are minimally private in open Haitian country-side), or enjoying well-earned sleep.

The hike to Jacmel cuts through the mountains on a footpath well traveled by Haitian peasants, leading from just outside Port-au-Prince, across the Southern peninsula of the claw that is Haiti. Literally, the hike is made possible by lakay Winnie, a lodge that sits nestled in the mountains, at the halfway point of the two-day trek.

Lonely Planet describes the hike as such:

Haiti was named for the Arawak word for ‘mountainous land,’ and with good reason. Hispaniola’s mountains are among the highest in the Caribbean and the country is more mountainous than Switzerland… The Haitian proverb Deyè mòn gen mòn (Beyond mountains there are mountains) must have been composed on this walk.

Yeah, my sore tush seconds that opinion!

That said, our group was fabulous, and each person among the five of us had a good level of flittin-around-outdoors experience. Our crew represented an almost perfect spectrum of things I am interested in: two State Department employees, a microfinance consultant to Fonkoze, and a teacher, in addition to myself.

I was intensely looking forward to some strenuous physical activity, and welcomed the sweat and heavy breathing these mountains inevitably drew from us. What I wasn’t expecting, but found overwhelmingly positive, was seeing the parts of Haiti I knew so little of. The vast majority of Haiti lives outside urban centers and we saw it, chatted with it, held hands with it.

On day one we were on a well traveled footpath. Here we had the chance to talk to plenty people. I was determined not to miss the photo opportunities I am usually so loathe to take in the city. A chance to take a picture is also a chance to talk with people. In the city, I rarely even pause when I walk in the streets. Many folks asked us where we were headed. We got to talk with kids, see their houses, run across a WEDDING PARTY in action, on decorated mules! Women carrying 30 pounds of vegetables on their heads, and wearing whatever old shoes they had--heeled clogs or slippy sandals--walked alongside us, not even breaking a sweat. We, however, were DRENCHED! I overhead one woman in a village say in Creole, smiling at us, “Yeah, blans are crazy. They like to walk.” I just smiled and agreed, “Yeah, we are crazy.” We both laughed.

We also saw many more signs of voodoo in the countryside, the voodoo priests’ houses painted in particular styles, circular outdoor temples constructed around the poto mitan or central pole, and small stone alters built to offer food to the loa, or voodoo gods.

So we’d been told the hike could take eight hours on day one. I was shocked when we were nearing our destination for the day in five and a half hours! We’d had almost non-stop conversation about subjects I’m passionate about—forsaking or partaking in the good life in Haiti, poverty, travels in other countries… so the time had passed quickly. I felt we were already bonding, but when we realized we did an 8-hour hike in 5.5 hours! Well, we kicked ass! We also had the rest of the afternoon to lounge on the porch of the lodge in cool mountain air, sip coffee, tea, and rum to keep us warm J. I swear, mountains get cold—2000m altitude chills even the topics!

Well, after day one’s stellar performance, we got cocky. Based how quickly we completed the first day, Winnie the lodge owner estimated day two would take us about 4 hours. No sweat. Hahaha.

Day two’s hike was a totally different experience! Whereas day one was a road through what at times appeared to be moonscape, with parched colors and massive rocks, on day two we trekked through fog and luscious foliage. Because of the fog we couldn’t see—no concept of the distance to go, the drop below, the landscape in general. Instead of conversing with other travelers, we passed through several villages. When we’d go through, literally, kids and sometimes adults came running out of the fields, yelling BLAN!! … usually followed by ba m youn ti bagay, ba m senk goud. Give me a little something, give me five gouds. Sometimes kids would whisper it repeatedly, walking behind us. Like a mantra!

Along the road, we started asking villagers how much longer to our endpoint. Ooo li loin, se bon wout enko. Oh, it’s far, you’ve got a good ways ahead of you. At first we laughed and didn’t believe them. But eventually it became clear that this was no 4-hour hike!! When a Haitian tells you it’s far, you know it’s far. These folks are used to walking hours every day!! We were starting to get a bit nervous, and the fog was turning into a drizzle that made the rocks slick.

But we got lucky when Winnie the lodge owner passed in a truck. We happily jumped in back, semi-painfully wedging ourselves between propane tanks and rusty wheelbarrows, and got ourselves down to the beach.

The happy ending was that we saved ourselves 2- 3 hours walk thanks to Winnie’s truck! We had enough time for a swim in the Caribbean, fabulous fish for dinner, and a contented car ride home, which I should mention involved a 5-star bottle of rum! (I haven’t been drinking in a car like that since high school prom!!!) Passing Nalgene bottles of mixed beverages while our driver sailed around the mountain curves made for a sweet finale. I won’t mention how I felt at work Monday... but I can’t wait to find the next thing to climb on!!!

A few pictures :)

The before shot!

Farming on a hillside terrace.

A whole new meaning to a bucket o’ chicken.

Fellow travelers on the road, in all shapes and sizes. I love the smile of the girl on the left.

Leftover Carnival mask? No, it was to keep the dust off while he rode his bike. Why did I never think of that?

That way! The footpath was along the ridge of the mountains.

Not-so-highspeed action shot.

No need for horse-drawn carriage when the bride knows how to ride the horse!

The hut on the right was actually a sort of outdoor church, in the midst of a service when we passed!

Trees?! That’s rare!

This looked like total moonscape with huge rocks everywhere. You can see the path ascending in the background, cut into the mountain.

Haitian petting zoo. Just don’t scare the sheep off the cliff.

This shouldn’t have been such a remarkable sight. But it was the first forest I’d seen in Haiti since arriving, as the country is painfully deforested, stripped raw. It was in the protected National Park La Visite.

A roadside hut. The owner was napping outside.

Some plants might be too big to hug. In the top left corner of the photo is a plant that looked like it came straight from a Dr. Seuss book, huge yellow flowers towering high!

New advertisement for Barbancourt, Haiti’s national rum. Truthfully, we had only three tiny flasks at our halfway point Saturday night, and I was just trying to consolidate last drops!!

The next morning. The kiddies were playing UNO in a field.

This blind man and his daughter had come RUNNING through the fields toward us, after the daughter started sounding the Blan! alert. I didn’t realize the picture was coming when I looked up.

How your vegetables get to market and people get to cities.

Cabbage for sale!!

Randomly on a crest on the side of the road, little altars (look like houses) built to offer food to the voodoo gods.

This family was totally jamming out on the porch—the rara horns, drums, and… an American flag?!

We finally made it to the beach! This little boy, Arnaud, came swimming at the same time as us, clad in holey tighty-whiteys and clutching and empty plastic jug as a flotation device. He had the most expressive face when a really big wave came, and was quite a good swimmer, even without the jug! I wanted to take him home with us.

NOT POSED! Craftily captured through the gas station window as a bathroom break turned into a ‘small’ liquor purchase which turned into quite the ride home! “A flask?! We’ve been sipping tiny flasks all weekend! No we want that one!!” points to BIG bottle!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Ditchin' it.

Mini-adventures... in a ditch?!

Put it in the only-in-Haiti category.

I got into an argument last night with a guy (specifically, a construction foreman) about whether I was going to be allowed out of my house or not for the evening!! In recent days, a work crew has been tearing up the side of the road by my house. When I came home from work yesterday, the huge crane/tractor/digging machine was stopped near the entrance to my compound. Enough solid earth was left that I made sure the crane operator saw me, then proceeded to duck under the crane and cross the narrow bridge of street remaining to get to the entrance of the compound.

After getting home, I hastily got ready to go out. I had plans to see the movie "Ghosts of Cité Soleil." It was the first time the movie is publicly aired in Haiti, and it's a powerful documentary about gangs that controlled Cité Soleil during the end of Aristide's time in power. I was NOT going to miss this, and felt pretty lucky even to have an invitation to go!!

So only 45 minutes later when I walk out my front door, I discover... there is a MOAT (minus the water) around my residence!! The ditch diggers had continued happily along with their digging, and it was not clear how anyone was supposed to enter or exit the compound!

So I get into a bit of an exchange with the construction foreman.

Me: Eskize Monsye, fok mwen soti. Como m ka pase?
(polite tone) Scuse me sir, I need to get out. How can I get through?

Him: Uhhh li ap difisil.
Uhhh it’s going to be difficult.

Me: Ok, men eske li ka ap rete youn minit e m ka soti la?
OK, but can he (signal to crane operator) stop for a minute and I can get out through there?

Him: Gjaharku creole I don’t understand.

Meanwhile crane operator is happily digging away, all of TWO FEET from where I am standing, and I have to step back as the ground is coming out from under my feet!

Me: Monsye! Li ka rete youn minut? M ka pase la.
Can he stop for a minute? I can get through there.

Him: gksh kreyol dgkjh Ale sou lot pòt.
Garble garble Go through the other door.

Me: Nou pa GENYEN youn lot pòt!! Monsye, fok mwen soti ASWA.
(slightly less polite tone.) We don’t HAVE another door! Sir, I have to get out TONIGHT!

Meanwhile my fellow compound neighbors are gathered around, all a little big-eyed in disbelief. Finally, Foreman gets it, has the crane stop, and I kinda skip across on the last pieces of crumbling earth, sinking halfway down the ditch before mounting the other side. Gentleman that he is, he offers me his hand so I can hurdle what he must think is the impossible moat. pfff. I get on by without it, which incites his "O! Li pa vle ed mwen!" <> She doesn’t want my help!

Now how I am going to get back in later that night... remains to be seen! After the movie, I actually passed up an invitation to go out drinking cause I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to get in my front door! By then, 3 hours later, the moat had fully extended in front of the entrance to my compound. I smile at my favorite Foreman, roll up my pants, and hop on in. It’s about 8 feet deep, and 8 feet wide.

Saving the day on the other side of the moat is my skinny-ass Haitian neighbor Gustav, he literally pulls me up along the dirt out the moat! I just couldn't believe he was that strong and didn’t get tumped in with me!

And yes, the movie was worth it

By the way, the crane operator of Project Moat hit a powerline—I had a great view from the balcony of sparks everywhere and the neighbors screaming with glee! So I’ve haven't had electricity for several days and might be a bit out of touch. I’m hoping we get some sweet drainage system of this whole shebang though!!

And PPPPPPPPPPPS!! I’ve forgotten to mention it. I made my big stay-or-go decision! I’m going to Peace Corps :) I’ll be in Cameroon in June! That was a lot of stewing… condensed, but I’m happy to have made the decision and move forward full steam. There’s still plenty plenty to do and learn in Haiti, it will be a busy last two months! bisous à tous,
K :)