In the Country

10/30/92          9:10 p.m.   Verrettes   Last night we changed residence. We moved from the rectory to the convent across the way. Before we left for the evening, Fr. Gilles Dan-Roc and Frantz told us about a young man/boy of twenty who had been out here on the square playing dominoes in front of the convent on October 11th at 9 p.m. The military came by and insisted that the boy was breaking the arbitrary and unofficial curfew (time and enforcement up to whomever wants to use it for perverse intentions). They broke the young man's arm as punishment. This morning, lying here in bed at the convent talking to Gail, I looked up (I had moved from the head to the foot of my bed last night because of air circulation). Up on the wall, over my bed, hung a crucifix. The arm of the Christ was broken.

In the morning, we had attended a Mass said by Pere Salvetti where he anointed us with oil. Gail and I mused it was as if we had been re-baptized and re-confirmed on this trip to Verrettes. Afterwards we went up into the mountains. On our way, we had forded the Artibonite River—not easy with the swift water and the bed full of boulders. As we made it to the other side, I saw a little girl—maybe five or six years old—brushing her teeth with river water. It was an act of futility—the water was as thick and sable brown as chocolate mousse. The water’s color came from the all the top soil that is eroded into the feeding streams. Haiti’s mountains have been denuded—trees cut down and harvested to produce charcoal. As a consequence, the terrain is gouged out in long, devastating gorges and the remaining land is nutrient poor.

As we were making our way up the mountain (the road was hardly a road, more of a rough, rock-strewn path), Pere Salvetti pointed to a spot where a vehicle recently had gone over the side. All passengers had been killed. The drop off all along the road was sheer and there was no foliage to break the descent. Once a vehicle went over, it didn’t stop until it reached the bottom. Imagine our shattering surprise when, once we returned to Port-au-Prince, we were informed that the lug-nuts on our vehicle had been loosened and only through a fluke or probably the grace of God the wheels had not come off in the mountains and all of us killed in a similar accident. It was speculated that the Macoutes member who lived behind the rectory in Verrettes may have been responsible for the sabotage.

That day we also visited the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer located at Descapelles—near Verrettes. The hospital is located in buildings and grounds once owned by the United Fruit Company. It is an extraordinary institution established by Dr. Larimer and Gwen Mellon. They had read about the work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa and established a correspondence with him. Inspired by his work, Larimer Mellon attended medical school and Gwen Mellon became a medical technician. They endowed and opened the hospital in the area of Haiti most cut off from medical services. We toured the facilities and were amazed at what was being provided for the poorest of the poor. But, it is charity of the right type. Individuals are charged for the services—the equivalent of one day’s wages. In that way, those who are treated do not feel demeaned. As we approached the buildings, we saw a line of people waiting to be seen. They were protected from the sun by majestic hardwoods—hardwoods that spread large umbrella branches as shade and whose leaves moved, generous fans, in the mountain breeze. This was the only place that we ever saw the magnificent hardwoods that had originally covered Haiti.

The sun was setting as we made our way back to Verrettes. Outside the little houses and along the road, little coal oil lanterns, each about the size of a regular vegetable can and containing a wick, were being lit. Men, with roosters under their arms, were heading down the road. Cock fights would provide the evening’s entertainment. I understood but I was also repelled. During the daytime the usual pastime is dominoes. Score in this game is kept by attaching pincher-type clothes pins to the jaw and chin areas. It makes for some really strange looking individuals.

pere salvettiPD_0034women of verrettes

 

The Road to Verrettes

Around 1:30 p.m. Frantz, the Haitian priest, and Pat Labuda (a woman from the States who comes here regularly and our translator for this trip to the country) picked us up, at the Hospice, in an all-terrain vehicle and we were on our way to Verrettes. The main highway is a circus of crazy driving, avoiding pot holes (the whole infrastructure, here, is collapsing) and various vehicles (all sizes, shapes, colors, crammed with people and produce—no vehicle so full that it can’t hold one more—and the wild and strange tap-taps are indescribable).

Three-quarters of the way to Sant Marc, we took a side-road and went to the deserted beach located near a closed down Club Med. Frantz, Pat, Arsylvie (a nun from Venezuela), Gail, and I changed into bathing suits and swam for an hour in the sea. It was a superb treat and felt just a bit decadent.

Then, on the road again. At Sant Marc we came to our first army roadblock—a little scary. We were taken for tourists who had been swimming. Frantz had strategically draped a wet towel over the dashboard. That coupled with the dripping hair and the back end of the Rover full of backpacks evidently was convincing.

The road from Sant Marc to Verrettes defies description. To say it was dirt is to laugh. It was like driving up a mountain creek bed often with the creek cohabiting. After dark it became treacherous as we encountered huge ditches flooded with mud and water—with no means to judge the depth of the water or the tenacity of the mud. Somehow we made it though, always remembering to clap and shout “Bravo” for Frantz’s extraordinary driving acumen. We arrived at the rectory around 7 p.m. It was pitch black and cloudy.

On the trip, Frantz had told us of his close calls with the army. Last night, I dreamed we were with him as he was being pursued. In my dream I was afraid. I guess it was expressing my sublimated fear—fear that I had probably not allowed myself to feel while awake. I have had better night’s sleeps; I have had much better beds than a 2-foot wide cot; but, I have never been so thankful for just having a bed—the same with the moldy, spider-infested bathroom facilities. The rectory is ancient, huge, and austere—high ceilings, peeling walls, almost no furniture, the feeling of patchwork, everything in semi-disrepair. Solar batteries sit charging on the floors of the upstairs veranda. Last night, in the shower, the dust turned to mud and drained off of me. But, the experience did not.

On the Road: Willie Nelson and Jack Kerouac never imagined

 The next day, when we exited the airport and piled into the Hospice St. Joseph van, we were greeted by Matthieu. He and Domond would become the mainstays of transportation in the days, months, and years ahead. There is a cliché: Traffic was a nightmare. I always associated it with driving on an Interstate during a holiday weekend. In fact, that kind of driving is a dream compared to driving in Haiti.

For most of us, driving assumes roads and roads that are in pretty fair condition. Haiti lacks most areas of infrastructure that First World Countries take for granted—starting with paved highways. Even country roads in the United States are decently maintained.   In Haiti, the best road connects Port-au-Prince and Jacmel—at least it did until a recent hurricane wiped out the main bridge. Other highways, including the main one that runs the length of the country between Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien, are a series of massive potholes each one worse than the last.

Everyone drives at breakneck speed while attempting to swerve around the holes. That means traffic seldom stays in the lanes intended for it. Signals for variance are a cacophony of horns and semaphoric arm waving. The horns are so omnipresent that, in fact, they just blend into the general noise—almost like background conversations in a large room.

Vehicles of all descriptions and sizes clog the roads. Large farm-type trucks with tall slatted sides serve as long-range buses—where passengers stand, grasping longitudinally placed boards above their heads for stability; pick-up trucks that have undergone serious surgery and are painted in brilliant colors rush up and down streets in something approaching routes. These vehicles, called tap-taps, are the usual transportation of the cities. Each tap-tap has a name, usually referencing God or a saint, across the front and across the rear. Add to this mix private cars in various states of disrepair, flat bed carts (the size of pick-up truck beds) carried on two wheels that support huge loads of items such as bags of charcoal and pulled by a single man, and assorted chickens, goats, and large pigs in groups and singly and that is the scenic description of a normal street or road. This is the traffic we entered when we left the airport. And, we did not enter it slowly.

From the moment we had exited the plane and entered the van, we were in sensory overload—assailed by the noise, color, movement, heat, sweat, and smell.   The smell! It enveloped the body as thoroughly as the heat. The atmosphere was a soup of diesel vapors, body smells, gasoline and oil fumes, garbage stink, animal odors, and sewage stench. It assailed the nose and mouth—stuffing them as the uninvited vehicle of the necessary oxygen. The whole experience was physically stunning and, accompanied by the ricocheting van, thoroughly disorienting. Somehow or other in a sort of time dilation, we reached the Hospice St. Joseph.

taptap