Thursday, January 7, 2010

Day Two in Haiti - The long road to Cap Haitien (1/6/10)

After getting to bed around midnight, our iPod alarm woke us up five hours later so we could begin our day. Adam got up to take the first shower while I started eating my breakfast of French toast, syrup with raisins, and Haitian orange juice. Adam wasn’t in the bathroom too long before he came out, grabbed a knife off of the breakfast tray and headed back to the shower. It turns out our shower head didn’t really work – it just dribbled out water. Seeing as we only had limited time before our driver picked us up and knowing that I can’t stand showers that aren’t full force and steaming hot, I opted to just braid my hair, get dressed, and call it good. Since we’re living out of backpacks, we realized we would be wearing a lot of the same clothes a few times before we wash them by hand, but who knew it would start so early! Luckily, I’ve discovered that the bag of Tide I packed gives my entire backpack (and everything in it) a fresh, clean smell. Besides, Western ideas of hygiene just aren’t the same here, so we figured we’d do our best to blend in.

Julma picked us up at 6 AM to take us to the bus station. When we first turned out of the hotel compound, I was surprised at how quiet and empty the streets were. Once we turned onto the main road that was no longer the case. Hundreds of people were already hard at work or getting transportation to get to their jobs. We passed by a huge industrial park where they have employ hundreds of Haitians (mostly women) to work in the clothing factories. Most of them work all day for less than $5 American. They must work from about 6 AM to 4 PM (we drove by the day before as the factory was closing). The bus “station” is located a few blocks over from Cite Soleil, which has been made famous (or infamous) for its poverty and violence. The UN once called it “the most dangerous place in the World,” so we were again grateful for the safety that we experienced in our private taxi. We’re not going to lie, we are really tired of paying so much money to be taken just a few miles, but at the same time, we’d rather spend the money to be cautious…this is one instance where my frugal upbringing is put on hold.

The bus “station” wasn’t really a station at all. It’s just a place where a bunch of buses are parked at a big intersection. The final destination of each bus isn’t very well marked either. Our bus was an old school bus that had been repainted in bright colors and designs. The steering wheel wasn’t on straight and the shifter was actually a long stick with wires, a plastic “handle” and some sort of plastic weaved around it all. We paid $12 each for the seven-plus hour bus ride to Cap Haitien, which is the first decent price we’ve paid for anything. We were one of the first ones on the bus, so they had us sit at the very front, which turned out to be a bigger blessing than we fully realized. Many people tried to take our bags to put them on the top of the bus, but our driver insisted that we hold on to them and put them inside. We were able to find a spot on the indoor luggage rack for our backpacks and then we kept the camera bag and daypack on our laps. We had been told that the bus wouldn’t leave until it was full, but during the hour and a half we were on there waiting, we couldn’t really tell how they knew it was full or not. There were constantly people getting on and off the bus. Many were selling sunglasses, books, candy, perfume, etc. They would stick them in our faces and Adam always had something clever to say in Creole that would make them freak out that he spoke their language. One of them insisted that he was really a Haitian (Adam doesn’t take it as a compliment because he says they have no one to compare his language to….I guess my broken Creole doesn’t even count!). We both had a good laugh when a man hopped on the bus right outside my window wearing a KU Jayhawks baseball cap. There was also a man wearing a K-State polo on our bus, as well as a University of Nebraska hat. A lot of used clothing finds its way down to Haiti so it’s not surprising to see random T-shirts that were made for a cross country team in Kentucky or a High School Prom theme that was “Night Under the Stars”.

We were told we wouldn’t leave until the bus was full. The word “full” has new meaning for us. Full means 3 adults and baggage or a small child on your lap on a two-person bench. Full means the luggage racks inside are packed to the brim and have things falling down on you. Full means the front door never closes and 5 Haitians are packed like sardines into the entryway. We were excited to have a seat near the front so we could see the beautiful countryside out the front and side windows, but with people standing in front of us the whole way, we were only able to see out the side window.

The bus finally was deemed full and we started on our way. Several people tried to get on the bus at the last minute and only after being yelled at and pushed and pulled in all directions did they get off. We drove maybe half a mile before we stopped in front of the Cite Soleil police station. Apparently a few other people had slipped onto the bus and were told to get off. The police didn’t come onto the bus but a shotgun and a uniform are good motivators. While stopped in front of the police station, we had a good view of the slums that make up Cite Soleil. We tried to think of how best to describe it and settled on this description: It’s like a lot of ruins with corrugated aluminum roofs on most of the “homes”. It’s like an old city that hasn’t been inhabited for 100 years but now has people living in it. Unfortunately, that’s how it was built. Trees even grow out of some of the houses. There was a pretty distinct smell coming from piles of burning trash and the dogs and pigs picking through the trash. Broken glass, rusty metal cans, and plastic bottles can’t be burned so they line the walkways and fill empty lots between the homes. I’ve seen a similar village of slums in Nassau, Bahamas but it wasn’t near this big and didn’t have the same reputation for crime.

Despite the bumpy ride, we really enjoyed our bus ride (well, at least for the first two hours or so). We were able to see the city, small towns, farms, and of course, the huge mountains. There was always something interesting to see outside, so we had a hard time doing anything but take pictures and stare outside, trying to soak everything in. Granted, halfway through our trip we were wishing we could fall asleep or get up and move around, but the seven hours were fairly interesting. About once an hour, the driver would stop the bus and almost everyone jumped off to relieve themselves on the side of the road. I was curious as to what the women would do, but soon learned that on bus trips you wear a skirt or dress and just squat. After that realization, I said a quick (and incredibly sincere) prayer that I would not have a case of pregnancy bladder and would be able to wait until we got to our final destination to use a real bathroom. In that same prayer, I also asked that Adam and I wouldn’t get too hungry until we got to Cap Haitien. We brought some almonds to tide us over and bottles of water, but seven hours is a long time and the food they were selling on the side of the road just wasn’t safe to eat. It was quite the balancing act of eating almonds, getting thirsty and drinking water, but making sure not to get too full (spoiler alert: our prayers were answered! I will never take a modern bathroom for granted ever again…or gas station bathrooms for that matter).

The road continued up through the mountains and by the ocean and took us through several small cities. One of the upgrades to the school bus was a train horn. This horn let everyone on the road that we were coming through and not stopping. It never ceases to amaze us how these drivers maneuver through traffic and narrow roads. I’m also amazed at how much abuse these busses can endure. The driver grinds gears on nearly every shift and as long as there aren’t cavernous potholes in the road, it’s full speed ahead all the time. Everything rattles and creaks on these old buses and even though we’re packed in shoulder to shoulder, we still are bumped and jostled around. We finally made our way up to Gonaives which is nicknamed “Villle d’Independence” because that’s where the Haitians finally kicked the French out and declared Haiti an independent nation on January 1st, 1804. The city is also known for the devastating landslides caused by Hurricanes. The deforestation in the surrounding area is so bad that any amount of rain causes massive amounts of erosion. It’s also here in Gonaives that our journey became a little more interesting. While driving through the packed streets our bus side swiped another car and just kept on driving. Then about 10 miles down the road a police officer stopped our bus and had a long chat with the driver. We were stopped for about an hour and we never really found out what the result of the wait was, but after the driver was taken by the police into a nearby city and brought back everyone got back on the bus and we headed off again. Past Gonaives the road heads into the mountains. The road switched up and down the mountainsides in hairpin curves and steep inclines. Another 10 miles up the road we pulled over to let one of our passengers rejoin us after he hired a motorcycle to catch up to the speeding bus when we left him at our long stop.

At that point, we were about halfway done with our bus ride. Every time we looked at our watch, the clock hand seemed to have barely moved. Every five minutes or so we would try to slightly alter how we were sitting to alleviate the pain that comes from sitting in such close quarters on such a crazy road. We also attempted to do a few leg stretches and foot exercises to keep our blood flowing, but that only took another 10 minutes. Finally, we started to enter Cap Haitien. Right at this moment, it began to rain. Only one of the windshield wipers worked, but at least it was the one in front of the driver! We began to stop quite often to let a few people off. Each time we stopped, we looked around to see if this was the final stop where we would have to fend for ourselves to find our hotel. Each time we continued to drive, we were slightly relieved. Finally, we drove up to another bus “station” and everyone started getting off in the rain. One of the drivers told us to just wait and he would take care of us, which we guessed meant we would be paying for his “help.” He called a taxi, told us how much it was, and helped us get in. He paid the driver for us, but only half of the price he had told us, so he kept the other half. Adam was still packing our bags in the back, so he didn’t see the exchange and the man reminded Adam of his help, so we had to pay him a little more! So, within our first five minutes of being in Cap Haitien, we had already paid more for one five-minute taxi ride than for our entire seven-hour bus ride!

We hadn’t been able to get a hold of the hotel we were planning on staying at, so we figured we would just take our chances and see if we could get a room upon arrival. We were, but at a much higher price than was quoted on Lonely Planet. Again, what could we do? We had just driven through the entire town and knew there weren’t too many options. We were glad the hotel took our Visa because we were using our cash a lot more quickly than we had planned on. The Hotel De Roi Henri Christophe is actually quite beautiful, even when raining. It has open corridors, high ceilings, colorful Haitian paintings, plenty of picturesque seating and free wi-fi! We immediately took advantage of our newly purchased room by taking a much-needed nap until dinner. We ate on the porch of the hotel’s restaurant and I got spaghetti bolognaise (Haitian specialty) while Adam ordered seafood crepes. We were pleasantly surprised by the portions and taste of our meal and finally were given some real Haitian bread! We also met a Haitian American who was here from UC Berkeley as part of her MBA program. It was fun for Adam to speak in English for a while and for me to actually understand a conversation that was going on!

Once we finished dinner, we finally took amazing showers. After seven hours on a dusty, bumpy bus ride, we welcomed the chance to use soap and shampoo to feel completely clean. This hotel’s showerhead worked a lot better than the Palm Inn’s had and it had a lot of hot water, so we were in heaven. After cleaning ourselves, we decided to go ahead and wash the clothes we have already used. That was quite the experience! We put a little Tide in the sink with water and began the long process of hand washing everything we had worn. I washed, Adam rinsed, and then we found creative ways of hanging up our clothes to dry. We had brought rope to create a makeshift clothesline, but also took advantage of the wire hangers in the closet. We had started to hang our wet shirts in the closet, but the overwhelming smell of body odor from the closet inspired us to find someplace else to air our now-clean laundry.

Now as we are preparing to turn in for the night, we are enjoying the music of a nearby Pentacostal church singing, preaching, and shouting loudly in the distance. Keep in mind that it is already past midnight here and this has been going on for over an hour. We are excited to “sleep in” tomorrow until 7 AM! We’ve decided that it makes the most sense to shower at night rather than the morning, so that gives us a little extra time in the morning to work with. We were also THRILLED, GRATEFUL, and ECSTATIC to get a hold of Erick (brother to a Church member Adam knew on his mission) who happens to be in the bishopric of the ward we’ll be attending in Port-au-Prince. He has already offered to pick us up on Friday from the bus station to take us to our hotel, find a ride to and from church next Sunday, and take us to the airport on our last day here. We can’t even begin to describe how grateful we are to have heard from him. We are really looking forward to both Sundays that we are here so we can attend church and feel at home with the Haitian saints. The gospel truly makes us all brothers and sisters and we are so grateful for the generosity we have already been shown. The long bus ride and constant fear (and reality) of being taken advantage of has made both of us start to wonder what we are doing here, but we know this is an amazing opportunity that we have and one that will change our lives. We’re grateful we have each other to rely on and also the prayers of our family and friends (along with our constant prayers!). We really have been watched over and realize that it’s more important to be safe and cautious then to ensure that we aren’t being overcharged.


Emily said...

Man, you sure do know how to make a person worry! What crazy times you've had so far; but you're right, it's going to change your life forever. I'm so glad that you've been kept safe and that you've gotten in touch with members in this new city. Hopefully you're able to get out more and see Haiti. Have a wonderful (and safe!) trip. You'll be in my prayers :)

Anonymous said...

Haha, so for the last couple of nights I have been impressed to include you two in our prayers, and boy now I know why! It's an amazing adventure, but I'm really glad that the Lord is watching over you guys and keeping you safe. Enjoy your trip and the hot weather, we'll keep the snow right here for you to come back to! ;-)