Sunday, May 12, 2013

Road trip: Bassin Zim

Getting out of Port-au-Prince is the very worst part of any road trip. In Croix-des-Bouquets, cars and motorcycles compete for limited road space with crowded tap-taps emblazoned with slogans like The Good Shepherd, Mèsi Jezi (Thank you, Jesus), Dieu est avec nous (God is with us), and Bondye Konnen (God knows) and Jazz la (Jazz). As part of an astute political analogy, Amy Willentz recently wrote, "These colorfully painted and meticulously decorated jitneys honk and rattle and seem to promise a breezy world of Caribbean fun and speed. But motionless in the endless traffic jams, inside all is darkness and jumble, heat and noise, and suffocation."

We can keep moving on the motorcycle, threading in and out of lines of traffic, though I am almost clocked in the head by a pink floor fan. Its owner clutches the side of a tap-tap with one hand, and the fan and a 3-tiered corner shelf unit with the other.
At the desolate base of Morne Cabrit, Goat Mountain, we pass tidy rows of candy-colored houses. It looks like 3,000 toy blocks were plunked into the middle of the desert under a postcard-blue sky. There are no trees. There is no surrounding infrastructure. This controversial (because Haiti faces a housing crisis, and no-one knows who will live in these houses...) project was financed by the Venezuelan Petro-Caribe Fund to the tune of $44 million. Across the highway, a backdrop of scrub and cacti frames a donkey nuzzling her foal.

Route National 3 winds up the mountain overlooking Lake Azuei and beyond, Lake Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic. Ignoring flashy new billboards warning of the dangers of overloaded motor vehicles, tap-taps hurtle towards Port-au-Prince piled impossibly high with plantains, breadfruit and mangoes. Trucks from the opposite direction carry red, mesh bags of garlic and plastic washtubs - imports from across the border.
The air cools as we continue to climb. There are more trees and, from Morne Blanc, a stunning view of the Central Plateau. In Terre Rouge, we pass a restaurant called "Slave Bar Resto." Wooden stalls will overflow on market day to make the road nearly impassable, but for now they sit empty just past an empty military base. Formerly a UN base, it was also occupied last year by members of the former FAd'H (Haitian Armed Forces) when they were vying to get their jobs back. Near Mirebalais we pass another base, this one used by Nepalese UN troops. It is here that cholera was introduced to Haiti in 2010, from sewage that the UN dumped into a tributary of the Artibonite river. In accidental irony an NGO sign across the road reminds passers-by, Dlo se lavi. Water is life.

Mirebalais is happening these days. There's a spiffy new park at the entrance to the city, with a welcome sign missing the "M" in "Mirebalais." The new Partners in Health teaching hospital has been inaugurated three times, perhaps appropriate given the contribution it will make to healthcare provision in Haiti. For old times' sake (...Ben used to work in Mirebalais part-time), we stop at the Buena Bar-Resto for a meal under the raised eyebrows of Papa Doc Duvalier. Si dye and the Haitian justice system vle, Jean-Claude, son and heir to Papa's dictatorship, may face charges of crimes against humanity. The hearings are dragging out, though, and neither the government nor international community seem inclined to push for a trial. Across the country, victims' families have just commemorated a particularly bloody day for which justice has never been served.

Too close to the Buena Bar-Resto's dictator, a second hand ticks around the face of Jesus clock. Jesus is blond-haired, blue-eyed. A flat-screen on the opposite wall is televising Au nom de l'honneur, which as best as I can tell is a French-language Jordanian soap opera set in Switzerland.
We spend the night at a Mennonite retreat center nestled into a valley in Marouge, just outside of Mirebalais. New friends Jon, Samuel, Widner, Wadner and Gonzales knock mangoes out of trees with precision and play the latest rap music videos on an i-pod touch.
From Marouge, the highway (gloriously paved with funding from the European Union) winds along the Artibonite river and past the Peligre dam, a tragedy of a project that flooded agricultural land and doesn't supply Haiti with as nearly as much electricity as it could.

Through Cange where Dr. Paul Farmer built his first hospital, Thomonde, Savane Longue, Savanette Cabrale, Marmon... Fields of maize and beans stretch out beyond breadfruit, mango, and calabash trees. Bare mountaintops rise above. Brightly painted houses with the pitched roofs and tall shutters of traditional Haitian architecture are made of split palm logs. An elevated house for grain storage and one or two ancestral tombs, carefully maintained in deference to the dead, complete each lakou. We pass a cockfighting ring, a mechanic's shop, the signature red flag that rises above a peristyle, and three billboards advertising the cellular company Digicel, a borlette special, and an NGO hand-washing campaign. 
In Hinche we order juice and a plate of spaghetti for a good Haitian breakfast. The Relais Bar-Resto also seems to be a favorite of local politicians, ostentatiously sporting revolvers in the back of their pants.

Hinche is the capital of the Central Plateau and the 1886 birthplace of Charlemagne Péralte, who led the Caco guerrilla resistance against the US occupation. A bust of Péralte stands at the center of the public plaza, and in fading pastoral mural of peasant farmers, Taino Indians and vodou practitioners, he wears a suit and holds a Haitian flag.

It's market day, and the dusty edge of town is a swarm of vendors, come in from the surrounding countryside by donkey or on foot. The road northeast of Hinche bumps through Papaye, the base of Haiti's largest organized peasant movement, the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP). We realize how worn out the shocks are on Ben's motorcycle. It is hot, the landscape barren.

Suddenly, the road makes a sharp turn and ends in an oasis: a 65-foot cascade of white water surrounded by trees. UN soldiers are sunning themselves on rocks at the base. The pool here is usually a brilliant blue, but heavy rains before our visit have made it murky.
Above, smaller cascades tumble into three successive pools, Candelabra, Arc-en-ciel, and Wells. We sit overlooking the uppermost pool and our pint-sized guides, Midlove and Roslyn, regale us with stories of the hungry loa, spirits, that live in underwater caves. A blan came swimming here with a gold tooth, wearing a chain around his neck. He drowned. You can't swim wearing any jewelry, they say, lest you attract the unwanted attention of a loa. Fortunately, you can protect yourself by leaving money in a cave ("We can show you where!") as an offering. Then, after your swim the loa will come to you in a dream and tell you which borlette numbers to play. "You'll win enough money to buy a motorcycle."

When I point out that we already have a motorcyle, Midlove nudges Roslyn and whispers into her ear. "Our mother drowned in this pool," Roslyn says with a sneaky grin. "She left us orphaned with no money and no-one to care for us."

A small grotto closest to the base of the falls is studded with moss-covered stalactite and smells powerfully of the rum serviteur pour here in supplication.
Further up the trail, Midlove and Rosyln pick deftly over slippery river rock and lead us into a stunning cathedral of a cave. Shafts of sunlight shine in from an opening in the roof and bats whirl overhead.
Trying to soak in the majesty of the space, I ask the growing crowd of children with us to please be quiet, but they're excited to show us the mouth of an underground passageway that they say leads to the Dominican Republic. Nearby: a corona bottle of kleren, twine wound tightly around a stalactite, charred evidence of a small fire.

Caves were also ritual spaces for the island's first inhabitants and there are fading Taino petroglyphs on the walls of the cavern. They're hard to see among the modern-day graffiti, but as our eyes adjust we begin to pick out carvings of cartoonesque stick figures, a spider, and other images.
While not exactly the idyllic day picnicking at a waterfall that I had imagined, we manage to pay off our guides and hide in the woods to eat lunch before we climb back on our bike. In the end, we've only driven 140 miles round-trip, but it feels like 500.


Anonymous said...

and I'm going to miss hearing about your ti voyaj around ayiti cheri...but something tells me there are some great places to explore around the bayou too. - RH

nerkert said...

Thinking of you on your last weekend in Haiti, looking ahead to your first weekend back with us. Love you so much.

Ansel said...

Bel bagay, what an amazing trip! Haiti really has everything, doesn't it? On to the next adventure...


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