Notes from the Field: Off the Beaten Track

by Jon Becker, TWP Board President

The sun is dropping in the sky as we snake our way through Port-au-Prince traffic, along several tent camps, and never ending rivers of people. We finally leave the city, and the road opens up. We drive for miles with no sign of surrounding life, suddenly we’re surprised to find areas overflowing with people, vehicles, buildings.  Why the surprise?  Because there are no lights, presumably because there’s no electricity.  So, we have to remain alert.  Under a black sky, and thanks to intrepid route finding by Sebastian and our backcountry guide/interpreter KeyKey (from partner International Lifeline Fund), we pull into Gonaives and the Paraiso Hotel for a late dinner, a place to sleep, and breakfast before we get back on the road Thursday morning.

I awake to see that we are now in very different surroundings. We have left the developed and somewhat lush zone surrounding Port-au-Prince and now look out to rugged, desiccated mountains surrounding rocky desert plains. Gonaives is doing its own version of the Haitian morning shuffle – with uniformed school kids crowding the streets, busy looking men and women moving about on foot, small motorbikes, or crowded onto the ever present “tap-taps” – small pickup trucks to large buses that randomly load and discharge their passengers, instantly identifiable by their screamingly colorful and come all ye faithful inspired paint jobs. Messages range from Jesus Saves to Toyotas Rule, with an occasional homage to Bob Marley. Out of Gonaives our environment quickly becomes full on tropical desert.  Sand, rocks, cactus, and the Gulf of Gonave off to the west, as far as the eye can see. KeyKey and I can do a little sightseeing, but Sebastian needs to keep his eyes firmly on the road, or what passes for the road.   The pavement is gone, as is often any semblance of grading or even the vaguest sense of a single track. At first we laugh nervously as we slip, slide, and bottom out, but that gives way to English, Spanish, and Creole prayers for safety, traction, and ultimate deliverance. I get out at several mud pit boulder garden rut maze crossings to scout routes, photo document the adventure, and avoid the possibility of being in a capsized car. We make it through them all – somebody’s karma is in the plus zone. By now we’re so far off the beaten track that I can barely go to the place of considering that we might get stuck or break down. We rarely see another car – every once in a while some goats or burros. It’s very beautiful, in the powerful and forbidding ways that deserts can be.

The road to Sources Chaudes
Black Gold

Finally, we approach our day’s destination – the tiny remote village of Sources Chaudes, and just to be sure that we get our daily dose of Haitian surprise and irony, it happens that today is market day here – so that the one street of the town is absolutely packed with vendors, buyers, burros, and an endless variety of animal, vegetable, and mineral wares for sale. We make like Sources Chaudesians, and go to market. What a show! I recognize the rice and beans, beautifully displayed in their rawness. Some of the veggies have me scratching my head – exotic fruits and squashes that aren’t on the shelves where I usually shop. The meat department features the freshest products you’ll ever experience – since the goats, chickens, and pigs are all still walking around. Sebastian and KeyKey do some price surveying/data collection for agro-forestry work. I try to look not too out of place – a challenge being the only non-locals at the market. The big draw is down the hill (just to the left of the burro parking lot), where the charcoal concession has set up shop. There are a couple of six foot high piles of the black gold, dozens of 35 kg bags already filled, and an energetic crew hustling about, loading bags, answering questions, and making sales. KeyKey and Sebastian dive in, checking on prices, processes, products, anything else they can draw out of the boys. As the sun passes midday, many of the shoppers start loading up for the commute home. Amazing how much goods, including live goats and chickens, you can load onto one little burro – and usually still have room for the driver to sit on top for a ride too. Some of the burros appear to be heading up the trail for home by themselves – let’s see your family car do that!