Towards the end of December, we flew from Miami to Toussaint Louverture International Airport aboard Air France. In the lobby of the Miami International Airport, the sound of Creole was ever present. But once aboard the jet, only French and English could be heard overhead. I did not remember this problem on competing airlines like American, Spirit, Delta, and Jet Blue. For this trip, I paid the lower Air France ticket price and got no emergency exit plan directions in Creole, but I did get a flawless landing.
On arrival, there was none of the welcoming heat or rain storms of Port-au-Prince. There was no looking on the roof of the airport for loved ones to wave to. Instead, the plane pulled to the gate and we disembarked into an air conditioned space. If not for the traditional twoubadou band playing in the corridor, arriving to Haiti would have felt like arriving to any major city. The airport is a beautiful blend of modern technology with traditional art and architecture. The stairs were lined with the old African writing style called Vèvè and a strawed covered area was being added to the front or the airport. The atmosphere at the airport was festive and welcoming. At no point did I feel the oppressive presence of a repressive government. We moved rapidly and uncoerced from immigration to the busy parking lot.
As we loaded, our car obstructed the exit path and a driver shouted to me, “se pa lan bwa ou ye” meaning “you are not in the woods”. To that I shouted back “Gen bon bagay lan bwa a tou” , there are some good things in the woods. To that he responded, “I know, I am from the provinces too.” We parted ways and I was off to the woods. With an exaggerated sense of fear for insecurity, we did not linger in Port-au-Prince. We headed directly to Pestel from the airport. Driving through Port-au-Prince, the city did not feel any less safe than many other major world cities. Having grown up in Brooklyn, I have a keen sense of the safety of my surrounding. We stopped by a couple of stores and each had guards armed with shotguns. Even the gas stations had armed guards. This is relatively new and was not the case in the Haiti of my childhood. Truly, things just do not stay the same; apre yon tan se yon lòt.
As we moved out of Port-au-Prince, we entered areas where the pace of change is slower. Passing by Ti Goave, I saw and wanted dous-makòs, a sweet delicacy. I controlled my impulse while arguing against those in the car who voiced the same desire. Even with the windows closed, the vendors easily sensed temptation and aggressively swamped the car to make a sale. I feared getting sick, as I have no immunity from prior exposure to cholera and the epidemic is still on-going. A few years earlier, UN troops negligently infected the Artibonite River with cholera, contaminating the water sources on which the people depend.
In Miragoane, the mountain was doted with patches of colors making me wonder who commissioned this public artwork. As we approached, the artwork morphed into hundreds of clothing and bedsheets left along the mountainside to dry. Below in the lake, people were bathing and doing laundry. We passed by a restaurant, and I did not allow myself to feel hungry but I could see that the cholera epidemic had its impact. A faucet was attached to the bottom of a bucket that was repeatedly filled with water for people to wash their hands.
We stopped by Aquin and took a turn onto Julien Raimond Street. The Saturday market extended onto the main road and into Julien Raimond Street where cars, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians and merchants merged and moved in seeming disorder. Having gotten there in early morning, most of the merchants with heavy loads, sat in the prime sitting areas on the side of the road. Gently, our car inched forward and made its way to the lakou (the home and courtyard) where my wife grew up. This lakou links her to the country's past. Along the street, old homes intermingle with newer modern construction. The traditional homes date back to the revolutionary era when the people added a front porch to the old Kongo homes that became known as shotgun houses and cottages in the USA.
We took some time to take pictures of Aquin's coast, but we wanted to make it quickly to Pestel. The trip to Pestel, with the improved road was supposed to take 6 hours, with no public bathrooms along the way. Between Okay and Kafou Zaboka, the road is smooth but not paved. It carves through the mountains as it heads to Jeremie. But we were not going to Jeremie. Pestel is off the beaten path. We took a turn off the National Highway #2 onto a rocky, narrow, and perilous track where cars crisscross within a hair's breath of each other while avoiding mountain bolders on one side and precipitous cliffs on the other. My brother in law, who had never traveled so far into the country, was breathless in the grip of fear. I, on the other hand, was elated having seen so much improvement in the road condition. Both the previous government and the current government have made dramatic improvements to the road.
As night fell, my attention turned to the sky. We had entered an area of the country with minimal light pollution. Every square inch of sky was filled with countless stars. Looking at the sky on the road to Pestel gives one a true sense of the grandeur of the universe and the beauty of Haiti. Ten hours after our arrival to Haiti, we pulled into my parents driveway. I burst out of the car, opened my arms wide and sung an old Haitian African song: Nou rive agoye, kò a miwa ze Danbala wèdo... I had come to Haiti to be immersed in Haitian culture and at this moment my vacation had begun.
I was accompanied by my wife and kids, and by two of my sisters and their family. In years past, I had done voluntary work, medical clinics, alphabetization, museum exhibitions, radio and TV interviews. But this time, I was there for fun and this was the most fun vacation I have had in Haiti. My wife and I did take time out to talk on the radio about Haitian history and Haitian-Dominican relations. That encouraged even more people to stop us and invite us to religious services for Ibo and Nago ancestors.
During the day, we walked the chemen trase (footpaths) that the sandals of ordinary citizens have carved throughout the countryside. The Haitian artist, Koralen, called these roads chemen papiyon for the numerous butterflies that accompany travelers along these roads.
Mornings began with the rooster crow. I tended to ignore the first rooster crow because that occurred at around 4 am. I usually started my morning a couple of rooster crows later. With no running water in the city, people survive on their personal collection of rain water in private cisterns. With 12 guests in the house, within a few days, water became in short supply, and at that point I learned that the expression “pase dlo lan je w”(pass water in your eyes) for go wash up, is not at all figurative; it is often literally true.
The inconveniences were worth what Pestel had to offer. We got to see the sky abundantly filled with stars. We saw shooting stars. The Pestel sky is active. Its beauty is only matched by the awesome beaches over on the two Cayemite Islands. Blue like the sky but with many variations of shades, and surrounded by rocky mountains, sand, tropical folliage giving the beach a textured and variegated appearance. As we navigated the sea by canoe, our gaze fell on unending beauty. We hopped from one beach to another and ate the catch of the moment, barbecued fish and lanbi (conch) roasted beachside in their shells. The sound of birds, the ocean waves, the feel of the water, the delicious beachside meal, the clear ocean water, green mountains with shaded valleys, and the unending smile of my wife tickled everyone of my senses.
We feared that our kids would not enjoy Pestel, but they did not want to leave. They bonded with cousins, and made new friendships. I left my son and nephew playing soccer in the streets with kids that they had just met, but here in Pestel, that was ok. Just play ball, no field is too small, no surface is unplayable, and no number of players is too many. Before leaving, my brother in law got into the action and played along with the kids. To explain his behavior, one child remarked, “Li te pase timoun tou” (He was once a child as well).
Having climbed so many of Pestel's mountains, we decided to experience one of its mountains from the inside. We went to Bellony and after climbing to its apex, we then entered the gwòt (cave) and descended the mountain from its interior. We got to observe the many pieces of jewelry like stones dangling from the roof of the cave. Once at the bottom of the cave, we stood and turned off all artificial light sources and experienced complete darkness from inside the belly of a Pestel mountain. Once done, we were off to Lèwa to an aunt's house to refresh with “dlo kokoye” coconut water.
On this vacation, we saw and enjoyed the beautiful environment and culture of Pestel. We also came face to face with some of its social problems like the children who work as restavèk in exchange for shelter and education. Pestel is endangered by rampant charcoal making and potable water remains scarce. As the vacation came to an end, I marveled at how Pestel had given us so much joy and taught us so much about Haiti. Pestel renewed our sense of being Haitian. If we owe Pestel anything, it is to help preserve its natural beauty threatened by the charcoal industry, as well as to help ensure that every birth is wanted so as to minimize the risk of children being abandoned by their parents. If you enjoy the pictures taken from Pestel, than join the task to make Pestel an even better place.
Once back in Port-au-Prince, we spent the day of our departure visiting family members who embraced and entertained us with blag, pate, soup joumou, ak kola (jokes, patties, pumpkin soup, and cola). Port-au-Prince gave us a heart warming welcome. Originally built for 200,000 inhabitants, the city now embraces more than 2 million residents and is still stretching out its arms to more. Avoiding traffic tickets on the congested roads was difficult, but our driver managed to do it. Some streets are oneway while others allow for two way traffic, but none were labeled. At the kafou (intersection) called “Jeral Batay” (The Battling Gerald), the right of way goes to the most audacious driver. Our driver got through and looked in his rear view mirror to count how many cars he bypassed.
By 6:45pm we had to be back on Air France, where again no Creole would be spoken by the airline staff. But much to our surprise, when we landed at Miami International Airport, there was an exhibition of photographs taken in Haiti. They were beautiful, but little does Miami know, even better pictures could have been taken in Pestel.