Distances can be deceiving in Haiti. Haiti is a tiny country, but it seems much larger than it is. There are places that are less than a few dozen kilometers away but take hours to get to – poor roads that wind you around mountains like string on a spinning top. We once had 13 flat tires over the course of a three-and-a-half day trip to Anse a Pitre – just going the few miles up the mountain could take us over an hour depending on how many of our wheels were punctured on the way. In many cases, you are better off on a horse or a donkey than on a car or a motorcycle – horses don’t lose air in their hooves when they hit a sharp rock at the wrong angle. And when a Haitian peasant tells you that someplace is ‘pa lwen’ – not far – that means that you have at least a few hours ahead of you.
So when peasants told us that our destination was actually far, we knew we were in for a real hike. It was January 2nd, , and we had decided to celebrate the new year and Haitian Independence Day (a day late) with a hike to a historic abandoned fort that lay between St Raphael and Bawon, two towns nestled between the mountains of rural northern Haiti. We were in St Raphael because that is where Robi was born and where most of his family is, and spending Independence Day with family is an important gesture. We had heard about this fort, Fò Rivyè, several times before, and Robi was determined to see it. We assembled a ragtag group of nine people – Robi, myself, his sister, his cousin, two young students from the area, and a few wizened country men who had always wanted to see the fort.
We set off around nine in the morning – already delayed an hour due to a flat tire – and scrambled up a mountain side. Most of the crew, although they were hearty Haitian peasants, were from the valley, and were out of breath after several steep climbs up mountain paths. After about two hours, we arrived in what everyone called Ogad. We were told it was a village, but we arrived in the yard of one house and hadn’t seen another for the past few miles of walking. The local casec, somewhat like the local town councilman, welcomed us and asked if we were thirsty. After we said yes, he pointed to the trees that surrounded us, which were heavy with ripe grapefruit, and told us to eat our fill. Exhausted, sweaty, and thirsty, our crew scampered up the trees and threw down grapefruits the size of softballs. We ate until our stomachs were full and the corners of our mouths tingled with the bittersweet aftertaste. We filled our bags, and it seemed as if we hadn’t even made a dent in the number of ripe grapefruits hanging just at arms’ reach. Robi’s sister was stunned – yesterday she had wanted to buy grapefruits at the St Raphael markets and hadn’t found any, and here they were, rotting on the trees because there were so many. Why? Because they couldn’t make it down the rough mountain roads. Robi shook his head and said what he always does – Haiti doesn’t have a food problem, it has a roads problem.
It was at Ogad that we told the peasants we wanted to reach the fort and they told us it was actually quite far. From the ridge, we could see it in the distance, nestled along the clouds – but the sweet grapefruit made us forget the pain in our feet and keep going. Robi’s sister’s boots had broken, so she had taken them off and was walking in socks. But we pressed on.
After another two hours and slipping down and scrambling up rough mountainsides, we arrived at the fort. On one side of the mountain, we could see the Grande Riviere du Nord, and on the other, St Raphael. Clouds swept in around the ruins of the fort, blocking out the amazing 360 degree vistas we had been enjoying just moments before. The peasants shivered and mentioned how cold it was. We spoke with local people about the history of the fort and the reality of the area – when we offered to share our water with them, they laughed and told us they had all the cold water they needed, and that we should save it for the hike back.
And they sent us back a different way – we were to follow the ravine that would lead us to the Bouyara River in St Raphael. The hike began gently, skimming over the tops of grassy mountains that we had been seeing from the distance. And then the descent into the ravine: it was at once beautiful and terrifying. In the crack between two mountains, everything was lush and cool. Bird song and tumbling water and towering trees with hanging vines. But the road itself was treacherous – in fact, it wasn’t a road at all, but rather finding the least slippery and steep set of rocks to climb down. One section was actually called ‘the ladder’ because it was an almost vertical slope that one had to slide down, and presumably climb up. We spent the next several hours crawling from rock to rock, alternately crossing the ravine and tiptoeing alongside it. Our group of valley peasants was stunned and unnerved – and yet we watched young boys and old women balance basins and jugs and pots on their heads as they skipped down the mountain. All of the old peasants were amazed that the children from Ogad and the communities we passed had to climb up and down this path every day to go to school – rain or shine. They shook their heads in sorrow.
Except for the young agronomist who was with us. He saw the lush ravine and valleys and said he was happy there was no road, that it was so challenging to cross this ravine. If it was easy, he said, there would be no trees left here, no lush foliage, no gurgling river, no birds. The local people would have already cut the trees down and carried them out to make charcoal long ago, and we would be slipping on dust, not smooth, water-washed stones. The rough terrain protected what little nature remained.
And it made us think of roads – the lack of roads is what was causing the grapefruit to rot on the trees in Ogad, what made old women risk breaking their necks to bring what little they could carry to market, what made small schoolchildren climb over rocks everyday on their way to school. And yet it was this same lack of roads that protected the lush, cool ravine and all of the lives it nurtured. If we could build a road to save the grapefruits and the grandmothers and the schoolchildren, would we be exposing the river and the birds and the ancient trees? As we finally emerged into the valley of St Raphael, just as the sun was setting, eight hours after we began, we were too tired to attempt an answer.