Friday, January 8, 2010

Day Three in Haiti - Cap Haitien (1/7/10)

Today has been the best day yet! We got to sleep in until 7 AM (a step up from our previous 5 AM wake-up calls), didn’t have to take showers since we had the night before, and took our time getting up. We were meeting a chauffeur/guide and another couple for the day at 8 AM. We weren’t quite sure if we were going to have breakfast AT 8 AM or leave at 8 AM, so we got to the hotel’s restaurant at 7:45 to play it safe. If we were supposed to leave at 8, they could wait for us and if they were planning to eat first, we’d have plenty of time! We were excited to see that breakfast was included in our room price, so we both ordered Haitian orange juice and oatmeal. I’m not normally a big oatmeal person, but Haitian oatmeal is divine. It was exactly what we needed for our big adventure today. We were trying to multitask and check our email as we were eating (we can’t get the wireless from our room, so we have to go to the lobby or restaurant), but poor Adam knocked over his orange juice all over our table (but luckily not on the laptop). I felt so bad for the man who cleaned up after it, but he was very kind and really quick! Before we knew it, we were back to our breakfast. We also enjoyed some good Haitian bread with grapefruit jelly, which was a-maz-ing! It threw us off because it almost tasted like honey.

Our guide, Michel, and the other couple arrived for breakfast as we were finishing up, which gave us time to check our email and post our journal entry from yesterday. At about 9 AM, we headed off to start our day! We were traveling with a young Haitian couple. On our way out of town, we stopped quickly at a market so the girl could buy tennis shoes (she was wearing high heels when we met her). There is absolutely no way that she would have survived today without those tennis shoes!

Our reason for travelling north to Cap Haitien was mainly to see the Citadelle. It is a huge fort built in the early 1800s after the Haitians kicked the French out of their country and gained independence. King Henri Christophe (hence, the name of our hotel) took 14 years to built a huge palace, Palais de Sans Souci, with the Citadelle built high in the mountains seven kilometers away. The fort was there in case the French came back, but it has never been used. It is almost completely intact, even to the piles of cannonballs and bombshells lying in huge piles. But, we’ll describe more of the Citadelle later. We had also hoped to see the beaches at Labadie, which is where all of the cruise ships stop. Most people who have visited Labadie probably weren’t even aware that they were in Haiti. Since we only had one day and couldn’t fit in both trips, we decided to pass on the touristy beach and try our luck at hiking to one of the eight manmade wonders of the world.

After driving out of town on bumpy dirt roads going only 10-20 mph, we finally made it to the Palais de Sans Souci. It was beautiful. The majority of the walls are still in place and you can even see the foundation for the swimming pool and connecting fountain! When we arrived, there was a huge group of people to greet us. Women immediately came up to us trying to sell us straw hats, wooden masks, and necklaces. We were wearing our baseball caps and explained that we would be fine. A man also tried to persuade Adam to buy a brightly colored painting of the Citadelle, but I told him we would wait until after we got back from the Citadelle. We had to pay a bit to tour the palace, but that fee also covered our trip up to the Citadelle and the company of our sweet tour guide, Jacques. He was a reserved older man with one eye who took special care to explain everything to me in broken English since everyone else spoke Creole. He always made sure to hold onto my arm as we were climbing up or down steps and along slippery paths. We really grew to love him over the course of our day.

While we spent some time exploring the palace and ruins, the majority of our day was spent walking/hiking. That’s right, from the palace, there is a 10-foot wide path zigzagging up the mountains, leading to the Citadelle seven kilometers away. We had trained for a 5K this summer, so we felt pretty confident that we could be fine with an additional two kilometers (we also glossed over the fact that our training was 6 months ago and the reality of the steep incline!). As we began our ascent, we soon had quite the following! We had the six of us (including Michel and Jacques), plus about nine men and boys and five horses. For about $40 USD each, you could ride a horse up to the top of the path. They actually have a clever business plan – ride alongside you for the first mile or so, which also happens to be the toughest and steepest part of the climb. However, we kept explaining to them since I was pregnant, I couldn’t ride a horse, so none of us were going to. I don’t think they thought we could last, but after a mile or so, they offered one last time, then turned and headed back down. I can’t tell you how many times during the rest of the hike I wished the horses were back (although…let’s be honest. I am way too cheap and way too proud to have ever gotten on those animals – pregnant or not)!

Rather than give a long, drawn-out description of the next six miles, let’s just say that there was a constant incline with no way of knowing how far we had hiked or how much longer we had to go. We constantly had to be looking at the ground right in front of us to prevent slipping. The path is made up of uneven rocks with a very rough cement as mortar. About two thirds of the way up it also started raining, which added to the slow pace and added anxiety. The further we climbed, the more often we stopped. We were incredibly grateful each time the path leveled out, even a little bit. We also enjoyed the people that we met along the way. We were the only ones hiking up the path as tourists, but all along the path were actual homes and women were hiking up and down, many of them barefoot, with huge bowls of laundry or fruit on their heads. They put us to shame! We also enjoyed kowosol (soursop fruit) that a little toddler sold us during one of our breaks. The little Haitian children were probably our favorite part of the climb. They were running around, barefoot, and often in just a t-shirt with their bottoms hanging out while others were in Easter dresses! As we would pass by, we would hear little voices shouting “Hallo! Hallo! Hallo!” They would then run out in the road to stare at us, not saying a word. As soon as we were a safe distance away from them, they would then scream “Hallo!” and just shout. It was pretty cute. We also passed several horses, goats, pigs, and cows tied to small trees on the side of the road outside of the respective owner’s home. Several of the residents along the path also tried their best to sell beads, flutes, wooden masks, and a number of other small things but we had to say no to all of them.

After being told “We’re almost there!” about 20 times, we did finally arrive at the marvelous Citadelle. It truly is a massive and incredible piece of architecture. The Citatelle is situated on top of a mountain that’s 3182 ft (970m), which may not seem that high until you realize that the ocean is only 10 miles away. The last third of our ascent we were literally walking in the clouds. Our view of the Citadelle was limited to only about 25ft in front of us at best because of the clouds. When we arrived, we ate some very ripe bananas and bread with some amazing Haitian peanut butter. Haitian peanut butter is very similar to the natural kind that’s runny but it has some hot pepper mixed in so it has a little kick to it. It was an added bonus since it was already around 2 PM and our goal to make it back in time for lunch had quickly disappeared. After stopping briefly to eat, we made our way to the fort’s entrance. It was locked. They had closed it because of the rain. Luckily, another group was there as well, so someone unlocked it for us and we were able to explore the inside of the massive structure. We had to bust out our mini flashlights (thanks again “Santa!”) for part of the tour because there is no electricity (obviously). Jacques showed us around and we saw a lot – the aqueducts that are still in use, the three buildings entirely dedicated to storing gunpowder, the stacks of cannons and empty bombshells lining the hallways, and of course, the cannons that the Haitians stole from Napoleon himself. In fact, we saw some cannons that were identical to the ones at the Palais des Invalides in Paris where Napoleon’s tomb is located. One our favorite parts of the tour was when Jacques showed us where the bathrooms were. There were three stalls lined next to each other with toilet seats on stone (the toilet seats were not the original, obviously). When we lifted the lid and looked in, we saw a 200 foot drop into the jungle below. Let’s just hope there were never any innocent bystanders back in the day that were in the wrong place at the wrong time (Bombs away!)!

We then left the Citadelle and the lady who sold the food to us followed us down as well since the rain was going to prevent any more tourists from coming up the steep and slippery path. We made our way down the path slowly and carefully. The slippery rocks kept us on guard the whole way down. We made much better time coming down than we did going up and Karen said she preferred the way down while I liked the way up better. Going down is constant strain on your knees and my history of knee injuries has always made me apprehensive to do something like that. The good news is we made it all the way down, this time recognizing little landmarks along the path which let us know approximately how much further we still had to go until we reached the bottom. The rain stopped in the middle of our descent but picked back up again when we got closer to the palace. Before leaving the palace, an American stopped us and wanted to know what we were doing there. Turns out he was a student at the University of Miami-Ohio who was an International Business major collecting research on tourism in Northern Haiti. He was intrigued to hear that I was fluent in Haitian Creole, that we had taken the bus from Port-au-Prince, and had walked the whole way up to the Citadelle. He asked for some suggestions that would make the Citadelle and Palais de Sans Souci more tourist-friendly and we were more than willing to add our two cents worth. We walked to our car and were greeted again by the determined artist who wanted me to buy one of his paintings. He once again lowered the price and we were more willing to pay for this souvenir that we would actually enjoy. We hopped into the car, said our goodbyes to Jacques, and headed back to Cap Haitien.

Michel stopped to get some really good treats made from frozen milk and chocolate sauce. It was such a relief after a long hike. We continued on our way and saw a horrible wreck with two huge Mack trucks where one was rolled over and both were terribly mangled. Wrecks don’t happen often but when they do it’s pretty bad; especially when it involves two big trucks that were likely driving about 30mph. We finally made our way through the traffic in the rain and fortunately, Michel’s SUV had two functional windshield wipers! He did his best to avoid the massive pools of water that were larger than our car but there’s only so many places you can drive. As he was driving, he was also busy making phone calls, one of which he phoned a restaurant to make a reservation for all of us – he told them we were “very special guests” to him. We got to the thing (literally. The name of the restaurant (Bagay La means “the thing.”) and were about to go in when we saw a painted sign on the outside – no cocaine, pills, guns, knives, sandals, or blan (white people). Okay, so that’s not what the picture of the white person meant – it was referring to the casual dress that the cartoon was wearing, but we got a kick out of it. When we arrived at the thing, nothing was really set up, so Michel ran around trying to get service and hassle the kitchen staff to get our dinner out. Adam and I decided to take advantage of the much-needed bathrooms and were surprised when there were no lights. Luckily, we still had our handy flashlights with us (thanks again, Santa!), which solved that problem. There was no solution for the next. In the women’s restroom there were three stalls. Behind Door #1 was a toilet without a seat that didn’t flush. Behind Door #2 was a ridiculously dirty toilet with a toilet seat and lid with a dirty bucket on top of it. Behind Door #3 was a toilet with a seat that was even more disgusting than all the others…and had already been used (and didn’t flush). Not ideal. However, after hiking and holding it all day, I couldn’t wait until we got to the hotel, so Door #1 it was! I apologize for the next person who has to make that same choice since I just made the decision even harder.

Back at our table, the lights still weren’t turned on and our food was starting to come out. At 6 PM it is pretty dark here! Luckily, I married an Eagle Scout who was able to string our mini-flashlights over our table to provide some romantic ambience (thanks AGAIN, Santa!). We all had a good laugh about that. They kept flipping on lights in other parts of the restaurant, but never where their only customers were sitting. Oh well. We all had diri kole legime ak kabrit (vegetable and goat stew with mixed rice and beans), salad, and boiled plantain. We finally felt like we were eating a real Haitian meal and it definitely hit the spot (and only cost about $5 each!). After dinner, Michel was going to take us to the bus station to reserve a spot for our bus ride back to Port-au-Prince tomorrow morning (yes, we are enduring another seven-hour bus journey….our bodies will hate us, especially after today). To our surprise, the car wouldn’t start! All of the guys starting poking around the engine and Emanuella and I sat in the car to sit down while we waited. The lights could turn on, so we knew it wasn’t the battery, but that left the problem pretty open-ended. After a while, Michel had a taxi take us back to our hotel. Later, Michel came by with his cousin to take us to the bus station to buy our tickets. Adam had fun talking with some of the locals playing dominoes inside the station. The first thing they asked him (only in Creole) was if he and I were coming to Haiti to save all 14 million of them like Noah and his ark (since it was still raining outside). Adam got a kick out of that and told them it wasn’t us, but it might be some other white people. Everywhere we go, everyone just falls in love with Adam – he is a tall white boy who loves joking around in Creole! We booked our seats and somehow got lucky enough to have the front row again – that makes us excited. Michel is even picking us up tomorrow morning at 5 AM to take us to our bus AND bringing us breakfast since the hotel’s kitchen doesn’t open until later. All of this – for free! That’s right. We have a friend (one that we paid $100 to drive us to and from the Citadelle and hiked it with us). But, he also bought us some fruit along the way, the amazing Haitian Icees, arranged for an awesome Haitian dinner, paid for our taxi back when his car broke down, picked us up and helped us get our bus tickets, and is picking us up way too early and packing food for us! He has some awesome ideas for bringing more people to Haiti and wants to keep in touch with Adam for help. Plus, he’s already offered to take us around the next time we come to Haiti when Adam focuses on his photo documentary.

It’s been a very long day, but a very enjoyable one. We loved meeting all of the people that we did during our long hike up and down the mountains, as well as the company we had doing it with us (who I’m sure would have preferred the horses, but were willing to walk with the pregnant girl – that’s sacrifice). After some more negative experiences in Port-au-Prince and travelling to Cap Haitien, it was just so refreshing to be surrounded by good, honest people. We love Haiti! Thanks again for your prayers and thoughts. Boy, are they working! Now let’s just hope Adam doesn’t get malaria – he swallowed a mosquito as we were coming back home! Between that and the spilled orange juice, it’s been quite the day. Luckily, we can laugh at it all!

1 comment:

Joel said...

I'm loving these long posts. Keep 'em up! And stay safe!