23 August 2011

byenvini a ayiti (welcome to haiti)!

I have been in Haiti since Friday afternoon. Currently, my quads, hamstrings, calves and feet are very sore...

I arrived in Port-au-Prince (Pap), Haiti around 3:10pm on Friday. The feeling was very surreal as I looked below at Haiti's well-known mountainous terrain. I took pictures of the mountains from the airplane and on the walkway to pick up my suitcase. As I walked, I started to hear music. It started to get louder and louder. I thought to myself, "Is there a party right now in the airport??" At the end of the walkway, there is an escalator that brings passengers to a shuttle bus. At the end of the escalator, there was a band playing music. What a welcome! A smile formed across my face. I had never seen anything like that before. It was pretty cool. I took a quick picture as I passed them because I had to board the shuttle to baggage claim. 

When I walked outside, I felt the intense heat of the sun. After about five minutes on the shuttle, we reached baggage claim. It was a busy scene with a small conveyor belt for a lot of luggage. I waited and waited for my bag and I never saw my suitcase. That's because it had arrived on an earlier flight from Miami (sigh of relief). An agent retrieved my bag from a storage room in the back and that was it, time to go! I handed in my customs form and upon leaving the building was hounded by porters. An airport employee pushed my cart as I held on tightly to my belongings. At the end of the walk way, I would meet one of my coworkers, Alex, and our chauffeur. I waited for about 15 minutes, which felt like an hour. A porter offered me a ride, but I told him that I was going to wait. I couldn't even remember the address of the program's house. So, I decided to call another coworker, Jill, to see if Alex was on his way. As soon as I started talking to her, I saw him walking across the parking lot. I yelled his name to get his attention. Apparently, a politician was assassinated in the streets of PaP and there was a huge traffic jam. So, their trip from Leogane to PaP, which would normally take less than an hour and a half, took more than three hours. Alex and our chauffeur, Jean Claude, loaded my bags onto the back of the landrover and we left the parking lot.

First order of business - ordering pizza pies from Domino's. Alex was hungry and according to Google, there were three Domino's in PaP. I couldn't believe it - there's a Domino's Pizza in Haiti???! Interesting... I really didn't know what to think. During the ride, I introduced myself to Jean Claude and told him that my parents are from PaP and that this was my first time in the country. He was very glad that I was there and impressed by my Creole [I speak Creole every now and then at home with my mother. But, she makes fun of the way I talk all of the time and I am more comfortable speaking to her in English. So, I appreciated his compliment :) ]. The first Domino's location we reached was no longer. The store had apparently shut down. So, we searched for the second. The streets of PaP are a mixture of well-paved, unpaved and broken roads. Cars side-swipe each other like there is no tomorrow. A speed limit does not exist. I made sure my seat belt was fastened. People here are also pros at jay-walking. I got the sense that the drivers pay more attention to the pedestrians than vice versa. The second Domino's we reached was actually where Google stated it would be. Alex ordered two pies of cheese pizza. I am not a fan of Domino's pizza. But, the pizza I ate was very good. 

Before we hit the road to Leogane, our chauffeur showed us the ruins of the Presidential Palace. The pictures I had seen on the internet were brought to life before me. The columns supporting the dome had collapsed and the dome currently lies to the right side of the building. We rode into the night as the sun quickly set. I saw many people in their tents provided by countries like the US and China. Water from the mountains also flowed over the streets. There were people all over the place. It was definitely a lot to absorb.

We reached the house around 8:30pm. The house is very big - about six rooms, two bathrooms, a big kitchen, a living room on the second floor, two rooms worth of office space on the first floor, a balcony and a spacious backyard. It feels like a vacation house. The only thing missing is a swimming pool. Our neighbors include the co-founder of Gadyen Dlo (Guardians of Water, they provide safe, chlorinated water to NGOs and many families in the local and rural communities of Haiti), Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and people living in tents. I stood out on the balcony and all I could see were the palm trees swaying back and forth in the wind. It started to get dark so, I went back inside. I had some avocados, finished the last of our pizza with Alex and Jill, and followed the meal with a bottle of Coke. There's an endless supply of soda in this world! -it's like I never left America...

My room is very quaint - two beds, a picnic table for a desk, two small wooden tables and two shelving units made out of wicker. I unpacked, checked my email and went to sleep. Alex invited me on a hiking trip to the other side of the country for the weekend. I said I would go and thought it would be a great start to my time here. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I thought it would be fun. I mean, what could go wrong?

"This is your first day in Haiti??"
I had some leftover avocado and half of a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast. I made the most of it. Alex, Jill and I got into the landrover and Jean Claude drove us to Furcy, a community high above PaP and well into the mountains. We met up with Alex's friends from the US Embassy and our neighbor, Michael, who co-founded Gadyen Dlo. Then we started our walk on the trail.

I felt very prepared - I put on sunscreen, wore appropriate hiking boots, a head band, and I packed lightly. About an hour or so in, the sun's heat intensified and my feet started to feel very hot. I also struggled, a little bit, to keep up. The path was rocky at some points, paved at others - you just didn't know what to expect. We saw many men, women and children along the way carrying produce on their heads, pulling mules, or just talking amongst themselves. So, there were a lot of bonjours and bonsoirs. We walked up, down and around the mountains. The boot on my left foot kept brushing roughly against my leg, bruising my skin. I thought to myself, "What were you thinking...?" But, the views of Chaine de la Selle (the mountain chain) were gorgeous. We walked through the clouds since we were about 9000 ft above sea level.

Along the route, we met two guys from Quebec. Francois, an international lawyer working for the Embassy, was hiking the route for the third time (kudos to you sir) and Andre, his friend visiting the country. Francois gave me some hope. He told us we only had one steep climb left (the worst part) and then flat land all the way up to the lodge, our final destination for the day. We crossed a small bridge into the national park, La Visite. It was very scenic- tall trees on both sides of the path and natural springs flowing near by. It's the kind of place that makes you forget about all of your troubles. After about 45 minutes we reached the lodge, Auberge La Visite, a little haven in the mountains of Haiti.

For 40 USD, I slept in a tent, ate dinner that night, and breakfast the next morning. We had white rice, pork and mushrooms, followed by soup. It was a delicious meal. I got to know some of my hiking mates over dinner. The people from the embassy worked with USAID and the CDC. Another person worked with Landrover. We talked about everything from the side effects of malaria prophylaxis to scandalous politicians. Some of them couldn't believe I came on the hiking trip during my first day in the country. I thought it was better than staying in the house. I chatted a bit more with my new friends from Quebec, then hit the sack. It was only 9pm, but it was dark and I was exhausted.

I had a tent all to myself. I only brought a sheet, blanket and pillow. Luckily, we were provided with comfortable mattresses. I changed clothes with the narrow beam of light provided by my newly acquired Haitian cell phone. I fell asleep very quickly. However, I woke up intermittently during the night to the annoying sounds of roosters, cows and other animals. I also kept sliding off of my mattress. My tent was on a small incline and I had to readjust myself several times during the night. Needless to say, I didn't sleep that well...The next morning we ate pasta and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast before continuing our hike.

The second part of the hike was mostly on flat land and downhill. But, the route was extremely rocky. My feet started to hurt, the pain in my groin from the day before was getting worse, and I started to get blisters. "When would this hike end??!" We could see the Bay of Jacmel in the distance. Only two mountain ranges to pass and we would be there soon enough! The views were breathtaking - a lake, hills and valleys, and the beach, our final destination, far off in the distance. Only three more hours to go... Around two and a half hours, we reached a curve and saw that we had at least three more hours of walking. It seemed like we were getting closer. But, Alex, Jill, and I had had enough.

We decided to take a mototaxi down the mountain [Now, just the day before Alex told me that tap taps (taxis) were safer to ride in than mototaxis. Here we were about to take a mototaxi down a mountain]. At this point, I was up for anything. After bargaining with two mototaxi drivers in French (Alex and Jill) and Creole (me), we all hopped on the back of one mototaxi. It was a very tight ride - we are all very comfortable with each other now. But, what a wild ride! Thank goodness we had an amazing driver. We rode over the rockiest of roads with cliffs on both sides of us at some points and made it safely to a taxi station at the bottom of the mountain. The "station" was on the bank of a river. We had to get to the other side to get into a tap tap. I am from NYC and the opportunity to cross a river has never present itself. It was either that or get across by siting on top of someone's shoulders. I was without gourdes (Haitian currency) so, I had to do the walk. Alex, Jill and I held hands and slowly walked across. We were about half way through when the current started to get stronger and I panicked...big time. I stopped, regained composure and finished crossing the river. Once I was in the tap tap, I sat there in my soaked pants thinking, "Never again..."

The ride to L'Amitie Hotel took about 15 minutes. I could see the turquoise-colored water from inside the truck and thought the experience was worth a relaxing trip to the beach. Once there, I changed into my swimsuit and took a dip into the ocean. The water was warm and so refreshing. We dined on chicken, pork, rice and fried plantains. My coworkers gave me a toast, "Welcome to Haiti!", with the local brew, Prestige. What a welcome it was. We finished our meal and drove back to Leogane with our driver, Jean Claude. I couldn't wait to shower and get some sleep. I needed to get some rest for my first day of work.

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