Today we drove our 4-wheel-drive rental truck from Saint-Marc to Gonaives (24 miles) and then back to Port-au-Prince. (72 miles), with barely any stops. While I drove, Andre snapped a lot of these photos on the fly. On a U.S. freeway, this distance might take two hours, but because of the condition of the roads in Haiti -- even this route, the country's main highway -- it took us the entire day and evening, with barely any stops. Everyone warned me not to attempt this journey, but I had heard so much about how hard hit Gonaives was during the series of hurricanes in September 2008. I was curious to see what remained of the damage. Actually, the highway itself, was one of the casualties.
Our day began in the Saint-Marc hotel pool, with a leisurely take-off around 9:00. The road was mostly rocky and pot-holed, with mud and flooding in parts, and even some good stretches where we could work up some speed. We passed rustic huts, rice fields, markets, and cemeteries, with empty stretches of coast on the left and tall hills to the right. In Haiti there's a saying, "Mountains beyond mountains," which pretty much sums up their terrain. It also means that behind every challenge is yet another.
Up until the 1980s, Haiti used to be self-sufficient in their rice production. Today most of it is imported from the U.S. at cheaper prices than they can grow it themselves.
Due to our slow and difficult progress, we barely had time to stop anywhere. Suddenly, Andre ordered me to a halt. I thought he had to pee badly. But instead he had spotted a young girl with a basket of sweet mangoes for sale. He bought half a dozen and offered some to the rest of us. When no one took up his offer, Andre proceeded to eat all six by himself. Later on the way back, he searched and searched for the same vendor, but no luck.
Andre was so happy to be in Haiti during mango season. He ate a half dozen a day. But these that he bought on the way to Gonaives were his favorites. On the right, Andre and his brother Reginald washed the mangos at a well.
Here are more scenes along the way:
It was interesting how they put collars on the goats so they couldn't get through the fences.
This is charcoal for sale.
We arrived in Gonaives (with a population at the hottest time of day. After parking the truck by the plaza, we finally got to stretch our legs and walk around. All four guys attempted to climb a statue in the center of the plaza, but only Coach and Andre made it to the top. A few soldiers were posted on the top of a building facing the square, with their weapons ready, but overall downtown Gonaives looked busy, but mellow...just a sleepy town compared to Port-au-Prince.
Haitian heroes of Independence: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Capois La Mort, Toussaint L'Ouverture
There were some signs of the massive flooding that happened last fall from all the hurricanes. Here a couple of aerial photos from the internet to show what it looked like before:
There's still more clean-up to do:
But overall, Gonaives looks like a regular Haitian city these days, with all the usual activity, markets, pedestrians, school kids in uniform, traffic, and a mix of old and new architecture.
When Jean-Milaud and Coach stopped to wash their hands, they met two little schoolgirls. The girls spotted me taking their picture, so they dodged the slow-moving traffic to come ask me to take their picture again.
In the market, I noticed some bags of possibly cornmeal marked "U.S.AID From The American People." Our friend Khadija used to work as a nurse for U.S.AID Haiti, but has since been transferred to Sudan, Africa and now Bangladesh. I've seen this before in the third world, where U.S. donations end up being sold rather than given to the people. Corruption always infuriates me, the naive American.
After walking around in the heat, we were famished. We found a cute little cafe and ordered five plates of fish, rice, and fried bananas. When I asked to use the bathroom, the waitress hesitated. "Okay, follow me," she said in Creole. We went out back and around the building, until we reached an outdoor concrete shower. A young woman was bathing. She moved over to make room for me. I squatted and peed, thanked her, and wound my way back alone. Some young people called out to me. One of them knew a little English, which he was eager to show off. A beautiful young girl in a pink blouse asked me to take her picture, which I was more than happy to do. Her portrait is one of my favorite pictures from this trip. On the way back to the truck we ran into a rap star who Jean-Milaud, also a musician, recognized. We had fun taking pictures with him. Jean-Milaud gave him a copy of his CD.
By then, it was getting late and we had to start back for Port-au-Prince, mostly without stopping.
These kids are heading home after a day at work.
About sunset, a collapsed bridge caused us to detour along a small beach. My hands were cramping from gripping the steering wheel so long and my knees ached from changing gears, so I suggested we stop for 5 minutes, even though Port-au-Prince was still several hours away. A trio of cutie pies came running up, chanting "Blan, fe fotom" (white person, take a photo of me), which I obliged.
We arrived in Port-au-Prince after dark. It had been a long day, but worth it.