BEYOND MOUNTAINS, MORE MOUNTAINS

The holidays over, the city was frantically busy. In order to reach Highway 3, we had to traverse the length of Port-au-Prince. There are few road markings in Haiti, no zebra crossings, or streetlights and seemingly only one set of traffic lights situated, rather incongruously, on a relatively quiet road opposite the entrance to the Oloffson. The now familiar thick, black clouds of diesel belched out of a thousand exhausts as the traffic weaved around each other, avoiding the mountains of rubbish, potholes, pigs and goat, crossing lanes at will, and forcing oncoming traffic on to the heavily peopled sidewalks. As we were navigating the Champ de Mars, a taxi careered into the back of a shiny new car (a rarity in Haiti) on the other side of the road. The irate driver flung open his door, marched over to the taxi, hauled the startled driver out of his seat and began beating the living daylights out him, much to Jean and Rico’s evident amusement. Drivers from the surrounding cars flocked around them and, for an awful moment, I thought they were going to join in. Fortunately they were more interested in getting the traffic moving again, and the fight was resolved fairly quickly.

As we continued on our way we passed the smiling face of Jovenely Moise, No. 5 of an astonishing 56 presidential candidates advertised on the giant hoardings (was it a ploy to confuse the mainly illiterate population?).

‘His bodyguard was killed yesterday,’ said Jean.
‘What? Where?’
‘In his home. They filled his body with bullets.’
‘Ew. Why?’
‘Violent man. Very violent past. That’s why he wasn’t allowed to stand for President. Dead now. He he he.’

We headed up the smooth, mountain road that President René Préval had built in 2004, a huge improvement to the previous unpaved track that Maddy travelled up by tap tap. Even so, Rico’s car struggled to negotiate the steep turns, grinding to a halt and almost rolling backwards, as usual, before Rico changed down a gear.

The mountains were drier and browner and even more bereft of trees, cut down to make charcoal, than the mountains we’d crossed to Jacmel. We passed areas where they were mining a white chalky substance. Everything was coated in the white dust - people, houses, plants and trees. One man, brandishing a pickaxe and naked to the waist, was wearing a motorcycle helmet, visor down. Clearly he was trying to protect his eyes and lungs but it must have been like working with your head in an oven.

It took an astonishingly quick two hours to reach Mirebalais, half the time it took Maddy. Twenty minutes later and we were walking across the Péligre Dam. The jury is still out as to whether damming the Artibonite was a good thing. Sure it provides much needed electricity but when they flooded the river in 1956, thousands of families living in villages in the valley were forced to flee their land, several dying, in the process. Perhaps, like all things in Haiti, it could have been handled better, the displaced villagers being provided with homes. There’s no denying that the glassy blue lake flanked by mountains is a beautiful sight to behold, and just as I had imagined it. It being the dry season, the water in the lake was quite low, so the river, some seventy metres below, wasn’t ‘rolling and crashing’. There were boats on the lake, washerwomen on the edge, fishermen in canoes and a couple waist-deep in water. Families of Carnival-goers, their luggage balanced on their heads, crossed the flaking concrete structure, just as Yolande and her family had done when she was a child. They were joined by other families moving here from their homes in the mountains where the water supply had dried up in the drought.

At the kiosk where we’d parked the car, a man was grounding coffee in a wooded casket. Taking the wooden paddle, Jean took over.

‘This was my job in Jérémie,’ he said.
Afterwards he bought a bottle of rum. ‘I keep the owners happy’, he said.

On to Cange where Jean announced he’d arranged for us to be shown around Zanmi Lasante, the socio-medical complex devised by the inspirational American doctor-anthropologist, Paul Farmer. Known in English as Partners in Health, the mother company was founded in Boston in 1987 to deliver health care to the residents of Haiti’s mountainous Central Plateau region. Farmer insisted that unlike Haiti’s other hospitals, this care should be given free. Jean had told us that he’d wanted to have his appendectomy here but, sadly for him, it was too far to travel and he ended up in a hospital in Port-au-Prince instead, at a staggering personal cost of $800. It’s the hospital I describe in The Other Side of the Mountain where Clare works and where the three main characters meet. I’ve described it in more detail in an earlier ‘blog’ so do check it out if you haven’t already. I was incredibly excited we’d be looking around because I’d assumed we’d only be peering through the gates.

Zanmi Lasante was bigger than I expected, the size of a small village, but otherwise pretty much as I’d described. A myriad of paved, low-walled walkways connect the labs, college, orphanage, kitchen, operating theatres, wards, football pitch, consulting rooms, radiology and church. The well-tended gardens, through which the paths weave, are lush with trees and shrubs, lending the place an air of complete calm, in total contrast to the chaotic world outside. I was introduced to the charming father Michael, and the instantly likeable Manio who’d worked here at the beginning with Paul and co-founder, Ophelia Dahl. They were interested that I’d read Mountains Beyond Mountains (by Tracy Kidder) and only too happy to arrange a guided tour. Luke, our appointed guide, couldn’t speak a word of English, so Jean was found, sipping Rum by the gate, and asked to translate. We played with some of the sick and handicapped children in the orphanage, all of whom high-fived us, one extremely vigorously. An affectionate boy with a huge smile, six fingers and six toes on both hands and feet, climbed into my arms and clung to me like a limpet so that when it was time to go, I had to peel him off me. It would have been heartbreaking if the children hadn’t been so obviously happy and well cared for.

In the 25 years since its inception, PIH has expanded in Haiti’s Artibonite and Central Plateau regions, and launched additional projects around the world (http://www.pih.org). In March 2013 it opened another, larger teaching hospital in Mirebalais. Known as University Hospital it provides care for a referral area in which 3.4 million people live, and a high-quality education for the next generation of Haitian nursed, medical students and resident physicians. The hospital employs about 700 people, 70% of which are from the Central Plateau. It has an emergency department, state-of-the-art operating rooms, and a system of 1,800 solar panels ensuring uninterrupted electricity.

Eventually we had to say goodbye and we returned to Mirebalais, which was heaving with people. We found a small local restaurant and had another delicious meal - chicken in a Ti-malice sauce and rice djon djon We were the only diners so I suspect they were very pleased with the amount we ate and the eight beers we consumed, and all for a mere $20.

After lunch Jean announced we were going to take the short cut home. Instead of going back over the mountain we would drive around it. Hmm!

‘It’s twice as far, Jean,’ said Simon, brandishing his GPS.
‘No. No,’ said Jean. ‘Short cut. Back by 5pm. Short cut.’

On and on we drove, further and further away from Cange and Port-au-Prince until, without warning, the potholed, bumpy road ran out. The track that replaced it was pitted and uneven.

‘First time for me on this road,’ said Jean proudly as we bounced, rocked and rolled along at a snail’s pace, our wheels, and those of the passing vehicles, churning up the white surface into a thick dust. It poured in through the open back windows coating us in a white film. Outside, everything was coated in white as it had been earlier, only in athicker layer, like a nuclear apocalypse.

Clinging on for dear life, my hat over my face, we travelled on and on for what seemed like hours, but was probably only 30 minutes, silently hoping the knackered old jeep wouldn’t break down, trying to stay calm.
‘No second gear,’ said Jean after a discussion with Rico. ‘We come this way, because no second gear.’

An hour later we joined the main road leading to Highway 1, the coast road that would take us back to Port-au-Prince. The relief when, forty-five minutes later we were cruising south at a heady 70 kph with only 90 km to go, was indescribable. We were still north of Cange but, speeding along now, we relaxed as much as the cramped conditions of the back seat would allow.

But then it started to grow dark. There are no streetlights in Haiti, and none of the hundreds of pedestrians seemed to own torches.

‘Do you think he has headlights?’ I whispered to Simon.
‘He would have switched them on by now if he had,’ Simon said.

And then suddenly two tiny beams of light were shining on the road in front. Rico’s car had sidelights, which was something of a bonus as some of the tap taps and cars whizzing past us simply had on their hazard warning lights.

The last two hours of the journey were, without doubt, the most terrifying of our entire trip as Rico and Jean, inching forward in their seats, kind of sniffed a way through the darkness, with Jean still pointing out landmarks we couldn’t possibly hope to see – Titanyen, the old potters field where the Tonton Macoutes used to dump their victim’s bodies; the town of Cabaret that used to be called Duvalierville; Cité Soleil, a famous slum. Somehow we managed to avoid potholes, oncoming vehicles, the shadowy outlines of the pedestrians walking home from market and Rico even managed to spot almost all of the many sleeping policeman, slowing to almost a standstill to drive over them safely.

And then Jean muttered something to Rico and Rico muttered back. The car stopped, beside a cemetery as it happens, and they both got out.

‘What now?’ asked Simon.
‘I think they’re having a pee,’ I said, never for one moment thinking they’d leave us. They cared too much about our safety to do that.
‘Baron,’ said Jean as he emerged from the darkness, pointing to the cross by the gravestone he’d just urinated behind.

‘Do you want to go to Petionville for dinner?’ Simon joked as, finally, we drove up to the Oloffson.
Jean’s ears pricked up. ‘You want to go? I take you.’
We’d been five hours in the car coming back, two and a half hours going! ‘I think its time we got back to the hotel,’ I said.
We took a shower to wash away the filth, dripped dried (there were no towels) and then headed for the bar and laughed until we cried.
Haiti the comedy … Too true.

We slept well but were both stiff as boards the next day. My ankles had swollen up and I noticed a rash had developed on the back of my legs, but I was unbelievably sad. Today we’d be leaving Haiti. Both of us wished we could have stayed longer but, due to the political unrest, the roadblocks and the rioting, we’d had to hedge our bets and had opted to shorten our stay by a couple of days. This meant that we’d miss RAM’s weekly performance, which we’re still annoyed about now.

Rico arrived to take us to airport and, as if by magic, Jean appeared. At the airport, as we said our farewells to Jean and Rico and unloaded the car, a man grabbed my bag and rushed off with it. I know your game, I thought, following him. I wrest it off him and went back to join Simon, who was settling the taxi fare.

‘Where’s my bag?’ he asked glancing around.
‘I’ve no idea,’ I said. ‘I was too busy looking after mine.’

We found it about 2 metres away, being ‘looked after’ by a man at the airport entrance, but when we arrived he passed it to his mate inside the building.

‘I get you to front of queue,’ this man said, leading Simon a further 3 metres to the back of the long snake where I was waiting. Poor Simon had to fork out $5 for the privilege.

We had a last drink in the departure lounge then waved goodbye to Haiti. This was a trip I will never forget and one that I will cherish forever. I only hope that I’ll go back there. There is still so much more to see.

(If you would like to make a donation to PIH please follow this link http://www.pih.org/)