Apr 11, 2011 at 6:51 am #1272050
Having been in Haiti for almost two months now, I decided to get out of the city of Port au Prince and take a walk with a few friends. The itinerary? Kenscoff to Seguin to Jacmel. A 20 mile walk that lets you escape the blazing heat, overpowering smells, crowds of people and pollution and traffic of the capital city, heading up into hills and then down to the sea. A hike in Haiti commences like this: you get on a tap tap (a modified pick up truck that has wooden benches and a roof and is crammed full of people to the point of sitting on laps) or a moto… and proceed to take your life into your own hands. Our choice was either five tap tap rides in a row (exhausting) or hire several motos (pricier, also exhausting, but much quicker in traffic). Sans helmets, surrounded by crazy drivers, swerving though market crowds and bouncing over dirt roads and enormous potholes we made it to our final destination intact… barely. After a night in the hills of Kenscoff we started our hike.
Technically, our hike was a road walk, but on a road that becomes so steep, rocky and switchback filled that it is impassable by cars or trucks. The air was cool and the sun blazed down. We dodged the occasion moto, scrambling onto a narrow shoulder on the side of the road, warned ahead of time by honking. At one point, we were passed by two motos bearing newlyweds and we shouted congratulations after them. There were children herding donkeys and young men galloping at ridiculous speeds down rocky descents on horseback.
Women and children carried burdens on their heads – buckets, chickens, produce. At times it felt more like hiking though a farm, as we dodged piles of manure that scented air. Trash dotted the landscapes, but I've become used to whole city blocks and canals heaped with trash, so this seemed relatively clean in comparison. Leave no trace is not an option for Haitians, and in Haiti it's ok to casually toss your trash along the roadside. We received plenty of stares and many friendly greetings. We also met with many "give me's" – the phrase "give me one dollar" is a very popular one, and "grangou" which means hungry. I managed to make what seemed like an entire village laugh when, while walking on loose scree in an attempt to get out of the way of a wheelbarrow, I fell on my face. There were two water sources along the way – piped springs where women and children gathered to do laundry. We also had a few opportunities to buy sodas from coolers at roadside stands. The mountains we were walking through were small but steep, about 6,000 feet above sea level and densely packed together. Looking out you could see handfuls of small homes perched on hillsides, surrounded by terraced farmland. Reaching the final peak of the plateau whose spine we had been walking up and down, we were greeted by wind, cold sprinkling gusts of rain, and Haitians in winter jackets. After this point the walking levelled out and we saw a sight which filled us with excitement – trees – lots of them! Much of Haiti is bare of trees; deforestation caused by farming and a huge demand for charcoal. Walking through an entire forest of trees, listening to birds, enjoying the breeze and air that felt clean and cool was an incredible feeling. Living here, I no longer take unpolluted air or water for granted.
We were reaching the outskirts of the the forest and decided to stealth camp that night… which is easier said than done. There was very little flat ground… and what did exist was either right next to footpaths that led to homes, or was covered in manure from grazing animals. We took our chances and set up next to what seemed like a very lightly used footpath. One hill over there was a farm in the distance. We used gasoline with our super cat stoves (after flagging down a moto and paying him for some of his gas) because our previous attempts at using diesel fuel and paint thinner had been miserable failures. The gasoline smelled terrible but it worked. After dinner we encountered two national forest rangers who after ignoring our initial greetings, warmed up to us and politely asked us to relocate next to their dormitory for "security reasons" because "a lot of people lived near by". Since this would mean both backtracking and setting up again in the dark, we politely declined. They seemed puzzled (understandably so, considering how many displaced people are living in tents not by choice right now in Haiti) but they agreed to let us stay and even declined our not-so-subtle offer of a bribe. This was a relief, especially because this area of forest had a fire caused by arson about a month earlier (we had hiked through a whole section of forest with no undergrowth, and burned tree roots). We hadn't been to sure of what reactions we would get, staying in this location… and we had known that we would be discovered by at least a few people!
The night was punctuated by the sounds of drumming from a vodou temple off in the distance and I fell asleep wondering who we might encounter, if not in the night, then in the morning. We awoke undiscovered, which was a pleasant surprise. The hike started with a water source outside a bamboo farm, and we walked through farms, past churches and people wearing their Sunday best. The road wound steadily downward, with motos with their engines off coasting past us. Going to the bathroom was a matter of squatting behind a rock and praying that a moto or a passerby wouldn't see you, and telling yourself that the people you could hear were too far away to see! Finding a place to eat lunch where we wouldn't be deluged by staring faces and demands of "give me" was also a tricky matter, as descending towards Jacmel we were walking through many small villages. We finally sat down on a dusty road shoulder of a hair-pin turn, with a steep cliff right behind us. Not long after we were offered a ride in the bed of a large truck with a load of spring onions… and with the sun getting hotter as we descended towards town, and hardly a breeze despite our view of the ocean that we were headed towards, plus a friend dealing with blisters, we accepted what turned out to be one of the most bouncy, fun, terrifying rides of my life. Hair-pin turn after hair-pin turn later, we reached a market in a small village and were let out. We had left the pine forests at the top of the plateau and the arid farmlands of the descent behind and were back in tropical weather and landscapes. Our hike ended as it began, on motos… only racing towards the beach and some delicious barbecue.Apr 11, 2011 at 7:04 am #1723093
Nice story Angela! What are you doing in Haiti?Apr 11, 2011 at 7:37 am #1723099
@foundLocale: Sacramento, CA
Fantastic! I love those sorts of trips!
I've been dreaming of walking in Haiti for a long time now. I think that I was first inspired to do so by an article in National Geographic. It talked about the country's extensive footpaths and walking practices that were the defacto transport for so many poor people. Adding to that, the villages are widely spread and that deforestation has created views, it seemed like an interested country to do some long walks in.
I've never done it for various reasons. Partly, I've just been putting it off for a future when Haiti is hopefully more safe and secure. Could you say a little more about the potential for petty or violent crime when backpacking in Haiti?
Thanks!Apr 11, 2011 at 8:20 am #1723116
Doug – I'm here in Haiti volunteering with a small NGO that works with both international and local volunteers (everyone, including the staff, is an unpaid volunteer) and distributes aid that has been sitting unused by larger organizations. We also partner with other organizations and help them with logistics and support. I personally have been working with a trauma counselor who is a partner organization, and I've been going to a tent camp for internally displaced persons and doing art projects with people there. I have a day working with all women, a day with mixed adults, and a day working with kids. It has been incredible. I'm leaving soon to work for the summer but I hope to come back. I've been giving a lot of thought as to how I can best help the children here.
In terms of the logistics of hiking through Haiti – what will really help is knowing Creole. Out in the country people generally do not speak English or even French. You will have a much easier time and people will treat you much more warmly if you can speak their language. One of my friends that I hiked with speaks Creole, which really came in handy when talking with the forest rangers.
A good example of why language skills are necessary: A friend was attempting to hike the highest mountain in Haiti and was chased away from a village by people with machetes because they believed that white people carry cholera. (Because of what had been heard on the radio, with the UN being blamed as the source of cholera.)
As far as safety goes, though… as a culture, people here are very accustomed to looking out for one another and helping. People sit on strangers laps (when public transportation is too crowded) and help them with their belongings, and there is a lot more talking with strangers than there is in the States. However, a white face is automatically assumed to have money. And given the distance between cities with ATM's or wire transfers, you'd be carrying a lot of it on your person. You'd have to be very cautious. But It would be a great place to do a long distance hike, and when you speak the language the people here really open up to you – you would learn so much about the culture. I'd like to do it myself some day.Apr 12, 2011 at 5:15 am #1723522
@ejcfreeLocale: off grid
Nice, very interesting. You give a great picture of the place and culture. I'm struck by the barren landscape. It is so different from that here in Puerto Rico, just around the corner. Must be very difficult to scape a living off of those dry slopes.
Congratulations on your good work. Thanks and Take Care, EricApr 12, 2011 at 5:59 am #1723529
@b-g-2-2Locale: Silicon Valley
Haiti is pretty unstable right now. You might try hiking across the border in the Dominican Republic. Same island. Different politics.
–B.G.–Apr 12, 2011 at 7:01 am #1723542
@foundLocale: Sacramento, CA
I'm sure that hiking in DR is excellent, and Haiti would be quite different.Apr 12, 2011 at 10:58 am #1723623
"Haiti is pretty unstable right now. You might try hiking across the border in the Dominican Republic. Same island. Different politics."
Actually, I would deem Haiti a country that has experienced instability pretty much perpetually from colonialization onwards, but right now it's relatively stable (as much as a country filled with IDP's, stifling unemployment and poverty, and too many meddling NGO's can be). Why? Because the presidential candidate that the vast majority of the working class wanted elected just won the elections and cholera rates are pretty much stable (although the rainy season is predicted to cause a spike).
Unrest in Haiti typically manifests in barricades of burning tires at roads and people armed mostly with rocks at them. Pretty much all you have to do is stay alert to current events and you'll be able to plan ahead accordingly. When tensions were really high over who would be elected, and the election results announcement was postponed, and people were phoning in threats of violence if Martelly was not elected, and gas prices were rising and there was a tap tap transportation strike rumored to be happening soon, we still travelled and went on this hike – and things were fine, other than a small half-hearted road block of some palm fronds and a single tire that we swerved around when we got dropped off at our bus for the ride back.
The DR has a different feel to it (more tourism, more Spanish influence, much more prosperity… and more trees).
Haiti in the 80's… now THAT was instability.
:)Apr 12, 2011 at 11:03 am #1723629
"Haiti in the 80's… now THAT was instability."
Not too stable in the early/mid 90s when I was there either!
Sounds like you're having a great adventure and making a real difference at the same time. Good on ya!Apr 12, 2011 at 11:06 am #1723632
@b-g-2-2Locale: Silicon Valley
"The DR has a different feel to it (more tourism, more Spanish influence, much more prosperity… and more trees)."
About ten years ago I had to go to Santo Domingo on a three-day business trip. When I got there, there was a hurricane predicted to hit the north side of the island, so everybody I had lined up for business appointments was gone off to the north side, and there wasn't a darn thing for me to do for three days except to sit by the pool and drink something cold. I kept trying to sneak out on the hiking trails, and I kept getting warned about the approaching storm. Bummer.
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