“I have standby tickets, I could get out of here today,” I thought, as I sat on the concrete floor of my hut at Grassroots United, a nonprofit in Port au Prince where I’d spent the night, which happens to be 10 minutes away from the airport. It was few days after New Year’s, and I was tired of Haiti. Tired of the chaos, tired of the heat, tired of the treacherous insanity of the roads. Tired of the pushing and shoving, of everything being crowded beyond capacity, tired of the dust that is everywhere. Tired of having to explain, in a language I barely understand, that I know the taptap costs 15 gourdes, not 250. Tired of feeling like an outsider, of not knowing how things are done or how to get what I need. Tired of everything being uncomfortable and difficult.
I hate to admit it, but I was probably afraid. Up until then, I’d had the shelter of All Hands, from which I could venture out into Haiti until I’d had my fill, then scurry back to my comfortable nest full of people kind-of like me. But with the international volunteer program over, I was tossed out of the nest, alone now, with nothing to moderate Haiti for me. Without funds for hotels, restaurants, or rental cars, Haiti is not an easy place to travel.
I like to think of myself as a seasoned traveler, able to make my way anywhere. But the truth is, there are times when I feel as shy and awkward as if it were my first time over the border. But unlike my first time over the border, I know exactly how miserable travel can be. Over the years I’ve been mugged, harassed, bedridden by mysterious illnesses, had my bags infested with bedbugs, sat nauseated for 22 hour bus rides over mountains, been held up at borders, stopped by militias, and maybe the worst of all of it, just been lonely. Sometimes, instead of making me a better traveler, those experiences make me want to just crawl home to my comfortable bed and be done with it all. Haiti seemed to promise the worst of the worst. My friends were all gone now and there was a flight at 2pm. Leaving would be so easy.
But I knew that in this case, the easy path wasn’t the right one. I hadn’t finished what I came here to do. I’d planned to write about inspiring projects in different parts of Haiti, as well learn more about life and history in Haiti. I’d hardly scratched the surface.
I got a phone call from Jamey, who directs a project called Sadhana Forest in Ansapit, a rural, isolated region near the Dominican border. It turned out he’d be traveling from Port au Prince that day with a few other people, and I could go with them. I’d wanted to visit Sadhana’s reforestation project, but figuring out transportation to the isolated region had been a deterrent. That was now addressed. I wavered a little while longer, then pushed aside my worries, braced for an adventure, and packed up for the journey.
And what a journey it was. I found my way via taptaps (colorful, covered trucks with little benches in back) to one of the central bus stations of Port au Prince, and pushed through the cacophony of people, traffic, moto drivers trying to get my attention, and the occasional goat, to look for my new friends—Jamey, Lena, and Mar. They brought me to the bus, and I liked them immediately. We piled in and I took a seat behind a man with a rosary wrapped around his head and an egg in his hand. I thought the egg was some kind of Vodou good luck charm until I noticed he also had three chickens tucked quietly under his seat. Our bus driver was intent on making it to Jakmel in time to pick up another load of passengers before it became too dark to travel back, so he barreled around the narrow mountain curves so fast that even the Haitians were praying and singing in fear. Nothing but the blaring of his horn to warn oncoming traffic to get out of the way was protecting us from a head-on collision. Ah, Haitian travel.
Somehow we survived, but he kicked us off the bus outside of Jakmel, saying this was his turnaround point. Just as we had almost succeeded in negotiating a reasonable price for three motos, the bus driver changed his mind, and took us into town. As dusk fell, we flagged down a taptap to take us to the end of the road—a dark, stony beach another hour down the coast, where a line of women sat behind oil lamps in the dark, selling snacks and drinks. Several fishing boats a little larger than the bus anchored in the water nearby, the only transportation from here to Ansapit. Mar knew which boat was captained by an older man who might be more inclined to navigate a slower, smoother ride, and she led us there to wait.
When boarding time finally arrived, everything suddenly moved quickly. Several large men appeared, who crouched down and lifted us onto their shoulders like little kids, backpacks and all. We tried to keep our balance and they walked through the chest-high water to deposit us one by one onto the boat. We tipped them 20 gourdes each and scrambled for the middle of the boat to homestead a spot to lie down. We tried to hold space as more and more people piled in, but soon we were shoulder to shoulder, our legs overlapping those of the women across from us. When the boat was completely full, two more people boarded and pushed their way onto the floor, so that now our options were spooning, or laying on our backs with shoulders on top of each other. Luckily, I was between Lena and Jamey rather than strangers, and was actually relatively comfortable. Around 9:30 pm, the 7 hour journey began.
It’s funny, on the surface, the whole journey was exactly the kind of scenario I had been dreading while debating whether to get on the airplane early. But I ended up enjoying most of it. Good company transforms a hassle into an adventure, and the boat ride was beautiful. I lay watching the stars in the dark night sky as a handful of people sang Haitian folk songs late into the night. There wasn’t much sleeping due to the loud banter of the drunk guys at one end of the boat, and the periodic kicks from the women across from me, whose feet landed somewhere around my thighs. But still, it was mostly restful, and interesting, and beautiful. When we finally arrived at the shore and found a moto to take us the kilometer up the road to Sadhana, I found a tent all set up and ready for me, and settled in for 2 ½ hours of solid sleep before the sun turned my tent into an inferno. But somehow, I felt just fine the next day.
Sadhana Forest Haiti began as an offshoot of Sadhana Forest India two years ago, and it is in a desert, not a forest. Their goal is to create a microcosm of a sustainable, healthy world, from as holistic a perspective as possible, while rebuilding the ecosystem and serving the Haitian community in practical ways. Their philosophy is based in permaculture, which includes composting toilets, growing food, and a healthy vegan diet. Each day begins at 6:15 a.m. with a morning circle, which is a bit too early for me, but is offset by having much of the afternoons free to do as we please. We have movie nights, games, brainstorming circles, Kreyol practice, meals and other activities together, as well as Caribbean beaches and a river nearby. We’re at the edge of the Bukara desert, and I can’t wait to follow some of the trails up into the cactus-covered mountains.
On my first workday, we gave away 727 maya nut trees, which will provide food, shade, and leaves to rebuild the soil for the next 100 years. This week we’ll get over 1300 planted. During the week, we go to every house in a neighborhood to tell them about the trees, why they would want them, and how to care for them. On Saturday mornings we give away the trees, which we grow in our nursery, then we go back in the afternoon to make sure they are planted, watered, and mulched correctly.
In the process, I am beginning to see Haiti in a way I never have before. I spend every day inside people’s homes, seeing their lives, their houses, their smiles and frowns, a snippet of their days—so different from mine. Sometimes they want to talk about much more than trees, and we hear stories of their hardships, their kids in Port au Prince, their spiritual views, or how they can’t take a tree because the walk to the canal is too far for them, and they wouldn’t be able to water it. One woman was in the process of treating her stomach ailment with cupping, just like in Chinese acupuncture, but she had no idea that the Chinese have a similar practice. She had learned to be a healer in Port au Prince.
In Haiti, every interaction begins with a hello, a “how are you,” and maybe an introduction. If you try to buy a papaya without saying hello first, the vendor might just stop you with a very pointed, scolding “Bonjou,” and refuse to sell you anything until you greet her appropriately.
At one house, we began with the usual “hello, how are you,” and the man responded by saying his daughter has been sick for a month, indicating the young woman lying on the bed behind him. We asked what was wrong, and ended up spending the next hour trying to decipher the situation across the language barrier. She had abdominal pain, and couldn’t afford medication. She had been to the clinic, but it hadn’t helped, and she couldn’t afford to go back. We asked questions, and more specific symptoms emerged. We asked to see the prescription they gave her, and could only recognize one thing, the antibiotic Cipro. Had she been taking her medications? Oh yes, just as directed. But where was the Cipro? The pharmacy didn’t have Cipro, so they had given her amoxicillin. I had a theory, so we told her we would be back, and walked across the border to the internet in the Dominican Republic (a completely different world just a kilometer away) to do some research.
We checked my theory, ruled out some alternative possibilities, and by the time we left, I felt pretty certain my diagnosis was correct. About 25% of urinary tract infections are resistant to amoxicillin. I suspected she had an advanced, amoxicillin-resistant UTI. Lena and I both traveled with Cipro, so we took the appropriate amount out of our stashes, bought Cranberry juice in the D.R., and I pulled out most of the remaining cranberry pills out of my bag. We returned to her house after dark (illegally wading across the river back into Haiti because the border had closed) with the medicine she needed. Lena, who has EMT training, took her vital signs, which were all good, and we gave her detailed instructions for the medicine and juice. When we returned to check on her in the next days, she was out of bed, reporting that the pain was getting much better very quickly, and she would continue to take all medicines as directed.
So as it turns out, we are doing more than planting trees, and we are becoming part of the community. Everyone says hello to us, and this week I was invited to a Vodou ceremony for the first time. It was beautiful and fascinating, with drumming and dancing late into the night. The ceremonies, like most shamanic traditions, use drumming to induce an altered consciousness in which people communicate with the spirits. A woman near us was “mounted,” as they say, by a spirit, and we watched her fly forcefully from where she was standing into Lena and others, then stagger with a dazed look to a moto, where she sat down for the rest of the time we were there.
Everything I was feeling in Port au Prince not so long ago when I thought about getting on a plane has completely evaporated. I can’t believe I wanted to leave. I am treasuring every day here, and am excited to see more of this country when the time comes to leave Sadhana. I no longer feel intimidated by the travel, or hesitant about the discomforts. I only feel grateful to be able to experience this fascinating place in this way, and to do my small part to help build a healthier future here.
- Haiti, January 2012
- Bohol, Philippines, Feb. 2014