Christmas is HERE, it truly is…
December is already busy enough with all the lead up to what this Holiday time is, so why would I take a week away, 2 weeks before Christmas to go to Haiti, as I just did?
Well, quite simply because I had an opportunity, that I couldn’t pass up… to be part of a group that would spend a week in Haiti…on a cultural awareness adventure, with, at the core of this exchange a 2 day, 25 mile hike across the mountains of Haiti. It doesn’t get any more authentic then that. And yes,there were 6 other people that shared this very same sentiment.
What was coined the “Hike for Haiti” was an inaugural event, organized by FIDA-USA, as a fundraiser…hello, over 20k was raised by this group!… for the adult literacy program….a 9 month program which is offered to all members of the community cooperatives, as supported by FIDA…the Foundation for International Development Assistance, said organization founded by my parents, Jack and Anne Wall, back in 1984.
FIDA regularly hosts groups to Haiti which serve to bring awareness to Westerners that have an interest in understanding/seeing first hand the work of these mostly agricultural (now moving into poultry as well) cooperatives in rural Haiti, but mission is also to serve as a conduit to understand the people of this country which have been on the receiving end of every kind of disaster since they proclaimed their Freedom as the 1st Black Republic back in the 1800’s. No, they aren’t to be pitied, they are to be respected.
The first two days we were introduced to two different cooperatives. One, a relatively new one in the process, and the other, one of the first cooperatives established back in the mid 80’s.
Impassable roads became a norm rather quickly, as did an implicit trust in the skill level of our drivers. Can’t believe I used to maneuver these roads way back when….Pride became the hallmark of the people we were introduced to….the cooperative leaders, the owner of a new chicken coop, the farmers with irrigation drip systems in their gardens, the adults who had just learned how to write their names for the very first time. Yes, pride is a universal language. We could FEEL it! It gave us goosebumps.
After two days of bopping around in the back of the jeeps we would be given a break….well, not until we spent 3 hours getting to our drop off point, to go it on foot for the next 2 days. This hike was the carrot…that unique experience, that had been dangled before us, and which we all eagerly anticipated, without really knowing how deeply we would be affected.
It was a physically challenging hike…no doubt about it. First 7 miles, mostly uphill, reaching top elevation of 6,600 feet. Last 2 miles of day 1 a literal stroll through what is appropriately called the Pine Forest, before reaching our destination for the night, Winnie’s Guest House.
People walking. People carrying loads…on their heads, on donkeys, on motorcycles…traversing a road that was impassable by car, but which was manipulated with the stealth of a mountain goat by many.
Yes, they shared their road with us, and kids would join us for good chunks of time…grabbing our hands and walking with us until they reached wherever they were going.
You think you’re in the middle of nowhere and there would be a market, and then another, and another.
We learned that a Bonjou (hello) and Ki jan ou ye (how are you) greeting was all that was needed to soften our intrusion. In fact they didn’t make us feel like intruders at all. We were the crazy “blancs” that were walking for fun….a little bit hard to understand for a people that walked to live.
Winnie’s was a modest but welcoming respite after a full day of climbing the upward trail. Accommodations suited us just fine, even though showers just weren’t going to happen….limited water pressure and cold water on what was a chilly night, determined this…and nobody seemed to really care. A chat around the table ended at 7:30 when the power went off and off to bed we went. We had a big day ahead of us. 15 miles downhill to our final destination.
Although I have spent many years in Haiti, I found that there were a few things I did not know, and one was that spaghetti ( I swear this is “new “in the last 30 years) is commonly eaten at breakfast. That is what was served Saturday morning…I just figured we were carb loading. And yes, saw it on the menu at the hotel we spent the next night at to confirm what I had been told. Go figure.
As was the case the day before, at times we hiked as a glob but more often than not we trickled down the mountain in groups of 2 or 3. A couple of days bouncing around in jeeps followed by a couple of days hiking the hills of Haiti, what was 9 of us….the 8 “visitors”…less yours truly ,all there for the first time…and Patrick Bentrott, the gent who organized this expedition, the executive director of FIDA USA, and Legrand Charles, our token Haitian we would tease…but more aptly put, the local rep of FIDA-PCH, who works in the field as an agronome, and serves so well as conduit for these cultural exchanges….quickly went from being strangers to friends….encouraging those who well, had had just enough already, that they could indeed finish. And we did, with a flourish, being greeted by Betsy, my sister, who took over from my father the directorship of FIDA-PCH operations ,who drove through the mountains to meet us.
A well earned shower, celebratory dinner and night at the Cyvadier hotel in Jacmel was a welcome tonic for us “hikers” who had every right to feel proud of our respective accomplishments, while we were given a very special window on what was a very beautiful rural Haiti.
The next day turned out to be the true test of how adaptable we all were, and it proved that we, as a group, were really that adaptable.
What was supposed to be a 15-20 minute drive from the main road, to visit the infamous Basin Bleu waterfalls, ended up to be a 30-40 minute drive….of course up a windy bumpy road….that of course we would have to come down. What was supposed to be a “short” walk to the falls ended up being another 20 minute hike with the final bit requiring you to go down a rappelling rope to reach that last and most beautiful of the 3 falls. “Lunch” ended up being an early dinner at a very low key “restaurant” in Jacmel…yes, we had to back track to get there….being served a very traditional creole chicken and rice and banane
peseas. Everybody LOVED it!!!! What would’ve been a scenic drive in daylight through a myriad of hairpin turns, winding through the mountain upon leaving Jacmel, became a mesmerizing experience that left us all breathless and awestruck, as we wended our way in pitch dark…dodging people on foot, motorcycles and oncoming traffic. I do have to admit going into my rollercoaster mode and white knuckling it and closing my eyes for a time… Yes, from start to finish we rolled with it. I was soooo impressed.
Last day. Only day in the capital city of Port au Prince. To be sure our driving escapades were far from over…just of a different nature if you will…to round out our experiences you could say….like backing up a fair distance on Delmas, which is a major road…and all others getting out of the way so we could do this without issue.
A visit to the Apparent project, left us all awestruck. The work done here to lift the people up, so they could afford to keep their children, rather than ship them off to orphanages, was all encompassing and simply inspiring. We all left with this great feeling of good people doing good work…together, with the Haitians….and to further support this, we also left with treasures as found in the wonderful store selling all those things we saw being made.
Lunch was at the infamous Hotel Oloffson. I had been there many times during my 5 years in Haiti, and often took my tour groups there. It was as eclectic and dilapidated and charming and delightful as I remembered. And special treat was a visit to our table by the owner, Richard Morse, who saved this charm from its doom, when he took it over in the mid 80’s. After chatting with him, and finding out about his band ROM playing Thursday nights it was determined that that needed to be added to the next Hike for Haiti agenda/experience. Click his name above to see interview by Richard, giving his story. Such an interesting man!
One more little shopping opportunity at the Comite Artisanal before heading back to Wall’s Guesthouse…that place of respite, which my mother started in 1984 to support the work of FIDA. If you have ever stayed at Wall’s International Guesthouse, you have inadvertently supported the work of community cooperatives by way of FIDA! IE, Without the monies generated from said guesthouse there would be no FIDA. Yes, the folks were a good team.
And, less the run to the airport, one more trek in the jeep to have dinner up in Petion Ville at the Latin Quarter…noted as one of the 10 best restaurants in Haiti. Perfect way to end this day, this week, this experience. It is tradition here to leave your mark after dining at the restaurant, and that we did…finding a corner o the wall where we each signed our name, leaving this one sign that we had indeed been HERE.
That is what we left in Haiti. What we took with us, was more than the trinkets we bought as gifts/souvenirs. It wasn’t something you could see or measure. It was what was in each of our Souls. We were touched. Our hearts were warmed. We were humbled. We were accepted. We were shown grace. We were blessed. We quite simply left more complete than how we had arrived…what a Gift.
Thank you Haiti, for welcoming us so and giving us so many Gifts…
Merry Christmas/Joyeux Noel
P.S. Must apologize for not adding more photos, as I have plenty. But they are currently stuck in my phone and so I’ve had to hodge podge here. Will get into facebook album soon (with captions) so you can see more of the beauty and wonder of Haiti.