Hitchhikers’ Guide to Iceland

image

On many of the trips that Matt and I have taken together, he’s been mostly in charge of researching and planning, while I more or less pack my bag and hop in the car. While this tends to work well for both of us, it also gives Matt a certain amount of power to omit key details about what we’re doing until it’s too late for me to back out.

For example, last March we went to Cumberland Island for spring break and we decided to kayak to the island instead of taking the ferry with everyone else. Around the time we began unloading our boats, Matt finally mentioned that it would be a 12 mile paddle. By that point, though, it was way too late for me to change my mind and take the ferry.

Similarly, last week when we spent three days hiking the Laugavegur here in Iceland, we were already about 20 miles in when Matt finally let slip that there would be several river crossings involved. Thus, about 12 hours later I found myself wading thigh deep through swift foot-numbing water that had very recently been snow.

So when we began gearing up for the last leg of our hike and Matt casually mentioned that we were taking a mountain pass over part of a glacier, I was surprised at the information– but I also wasn’t surprised at all.

(Full disclosure: I know that Matt doesn’t necessarily do this on purpose, and that he wouldn’t send us out to do something that we weren’t capable of. I also know that in the end I’m always thankful that we did whatever it was, and I’m thankful that Matt gives me the nudge I need sometimes to challenge myself. Anyway.)

This section of our Icelandic backpacking trip, from Thorsmork to Skogar, was around 35 km and topped out at about 1000 meters. The trail wove up into a high lava field from a 2010 eruption that is mostly buried under several feet of snow. We were hiking it backwards from the popular direction, so the first several hours of the hike were an extremely steep and semi-exposed upward hike followed by 15 kilometers of very gradual decline. (This was actually ideal for us because navigating a steep upward scramble with a heavy pack is a heck of a lot easier and less sketchy than doing the same thing downward.)

Things were really great for about the first three hours of the hike. The views of the mountain scenery behind us and the glacier ahead of us were magnificent, the sun was shining in a mostly clear sky and a steady breeze kept us cool. Then, after crossing an extremely flat and unexpected ashy plateau, we began to notice the first tiny ice pellets coming down on us. We were optimistic that this was only from the cloud passing overhead and that it would soon blow over. As we climbed higher, though, things only got worse. By the time we reached the highest point of our hike, it was a full on downpour of rain and sleet, the temperature had dropped below freezing and we had emerged onto the glacier in a thick blanket of fog.

It’s important for me to note here that I borrowed my mom’s old rain jacket for this trip (without permission) because I knew she had gotten a new one– sorry, Mom. It turns out that the joke’s on me, though, because the jacket isn’t remotely waterproof, and so by the time we began our descent every single thing I had on under the rain jacket was completely drenched. (My boots and gloves aren’t waterproof either.) Matt, who was wearing socks on his hands for gloves throughout much of the hike, wasn’t in much better shape in his ultralight hoodless rain jacket.

Our wet descent into Skogar followed alongside a narrow grassy river canyon, which had giant downward steps in it that produced countless waterfalls, some gently cascading and others dramatic hundred foot drops. Had we not been so miserable and cold we might have actually enjoyed it.

I’m sure you can imagine what kind of sight we were by the time we trudged into Skogar to set up camp. We stumbled into the restaurant there for the coffee that we’d both been dreaming about for several days. It just so happened that that there was a soccer match between Iceland and England that evening, and we got to partake in another multi-national viewing party. (Iceland beat England, to the astonishment of many.)

The next day we began hitchhiking east along the Ring Road, and made it all the way to a village called Hofn (pronounced Hep) before turning around to head back toward Reykyavik. In total, we caught 12 rides and traveled around 600 kilometers along the southern coast of the island. We met a lot of interesting people this way, including a Chinese couple living in Canada who drove the tiniest car we’ve ever been in, a vacationing German plumber, an Icelandic girl who has aspirations of being a truck driver, an odd Russian/Asian couple who we think met online and met up in Iceland for their first date, and one woman who we’re pretty sure is our guardian angel.

I’ll explain. After exploring Skaftafell National Park a few days ago, Matt and I caught a ride to the iceberg lagoon (Jokulsarlon). By the time we were ready to leave, it was evening and traffic had slowed considerably. After about an hour and a half of waiting, it was getting very cold and we were growing disheartened. We decided to count 20 more cars before giving up on a ride and setting up camp on the nearby beach. (Please remember that this is a beach in Iceland at a lake full of huge frozen hunks of ice, not a warm breezy Florida beach– so not an ideal camp spot.) The 20th car passed and didn’t stop. Directly behind it, though, was one more car that we decided to wait on, and, miraculously, it pulled in next to us.

The driver turned out to be an American woman from Atlanta, Georgia, who had decided to give herself a trip to Iceland for her 30th birthday. After we explained our 20 cars story and how amazing it was that she came along at that exact moment, she explained that before her trip a friend had challenged her to do 10 things she had never done before. See where this is going? Yeah, she had never picked up a hitchhiker before.

Her name was Savannah and it turned out that she was headed exactly where we were trying to go– to the campground in the village Hofn.

Maybe it’ silly, but things like that, like Savannah, make me think that I’m somehow on the path that I’m supposed to be on. I guess you could call it a lot of things– fate, luck, coincidence, whatever. You might just call it statistical inevitability. Call it what you want, but it sure does give me the feeling that I’m doing something right.

Matt and I decided that if we made it all the way to Hofn it would be our turnaround point. We spent a day there and then began our journey westward, giving ourselves several days to get back since hitchhiking isn’t exactly the most reliable method of travel.

We made it back to Reykjavik in two days and are now at an Airbnb near the airport to catch an early flight to Amsterdam tomorrow morning.
We’ve loved everything about Iceland, from the never ending daylight to the otherworldly combinations of mountains, rivers, volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls and hot springs. We’re sad to be leaving such a beautiful place but of course are so excited to start the next leg of our adventure. We’re also very excited to spend a few nights sleeping indoors and to eat any food that isn’t ramen noodles. And so onward we trek!

Update on soccer: Tonight Iceland played France in the quarter-finals (I think) of the Euro. We’ve been told that about 10 percent of the Icelandic population, 30,000 people, traveled to Paris to watch the game. Unfortunately Iceland lost miserably and the Cinderella story has come to an end. Icelanders are rightfully devastated, but everyone we’ve talked to also seems to recognize how incredible it is that their team made it so far, being such a tiny country and having never even been in the tournament before. Afram Island!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Laugavegur

image

We arrived in Reykjavik on what just so happened to be the day of the biggest soccer game in Icelandic history. We stumbled across a public viewing of the game against Austria and got to spend our first afternoon abroad cheering on an underdog team with a couple thousand very excited Icelanders. It was quite the welcome party.

After that we hopped a bus to Landmannalaugur (which we learned how to pronounce about two days after leaving it) which is the starting point for the Laugavegur, the most popular hiking trail in the country. The bus ride was really an adventure in itself, spanning across most of the country and ending with several miles of windy, narrow dirt roads and lots of cringing on my part as I was sure the 50-passenger vehicle was going to tip over at any moment. Icelandic people seem very confident in the capabilities of their buses.

In all the 55 km trek took us three days to complete (though we still aren’t quite sure if you can call it a day when the sun never actually sets), covering 15-25 km each day. (We are still struggling with kilometer-to-mile conversions.) Along the trail, there are huts that provide indoor accommodations for people who have reserved in advance, and very expensive campsites for those who haven’t. We fell into the latter category, but the presence of bathrooms, picnic tables and clean water each night made us feel like we were living in the lap of luxury all the same.

I think we’re both still a little speechless at how insanely beautiful the landscapes on the trail were. Every few hours it seemed like we were walking into a different place altogether: we started in yellow rolling hills and hot springs that reminded us of Yellowstone, and moved from there into some of the most beautiful jagged mountain scenes imaginable, we camped on the beach of a calm blue lake, then walked into a black desert rimmed with green peaks, we hiked along lush mossy canyon walls jutting up from a narrow but raging river, and finally into a forest populated with small trees and a million wild flowers.

Though it’s still early in the summer (a season which averages in the 50s), we were by no means alone on the Laugavegur. Even now, when many miles of the trail are still under snow, people flock to it by the bus load to experience it’s world renowned awesomeness. We saw and camped with dozens of people from all parts of the world each day, and the campground where we are now is teaming with hikers. (Without moving from where I sit now, I can hear at least five languages being spoken– and we are seriously amazed at how the rest of the world seems to speak perfect English.)

The trail deposited us in Thorsmork, which is basically a campground and a bus stop, and is crowded with people who have either just come off the trail or are about to begin it. (You can tell which is which by how dirty and hungry they are.) Our plan is to continue on the extended section of the trail, another 30 km, which squeezes between two glaciers and heads further south to Skogar. Presently it’s raining incessantly and all of our gear is soaked, so we’re taking a rest day in Thorsmork in the hopes of getting some of our stuff semi-dry before we head on.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“An adventure is afoot!” -Matt

Today is an airport day. Well, actually, it’s a car-shuttle-airplane-moving walkway-eight hour layover-another airplane day. In the next five months, Matt and I will have about seven more days very similar to this one as we weave our way through Europe using just about every method of transportation imaginable. 

Tomorrow morning we’ll land in Reykjavik, Iceland where we’ll spend about two weeks backpacking and hitchhiking around the small country, which has common words the length of this sentence and a fondness for fermented shark meat. We’re betting we’ll have plenty of time to see all the sights considering that it’s only dark for about three hours each day this time of year. After that, we’ll head over to continental Europe for hiking, WWOOFing and the general sort of bumming around that new college grads are apt to do in faraway places. 

Track us on our Spot page, or keep up with us on Instagram (@madisoneubanks and @jmguenther). 

I should also mention that we’re only taking backpacks. Here’s what’s in mine (which rang in at a surprisingly light 21 pounds, minus a full water bottle and a few other minor things): 3 t-shirts, wool base layer top, tank top, flannel, rain jacket and pants, pack cover, 2 pairs of leggings, a pair of jeans, 3 pairs of shorts, 6 pairs of socks, undies, down jacket, a hat, parts of the tent, spare shoes (hiking boots are on my feet), toiletries, first aid kit, fuel canister, journal, Spot communicator, plug adaptors, sleeping bag and pad, digital camera, camp food, headlamp, and…. I think that’s all. 

Matt has his personal gear and other camp essentials such as: the rest of the tent, camp stove, water purification, cooking pot, and a dram. (His pack weighs 24 pounds minus his camera, water bottle, and the iPad I’m currently writing on.)

We’ll pick up things we need and ditch stuff we don’t as we go. We spent the days leading up to our departure packing and repacking our bags, debating tiny details like whether or not to bring an extra stuff sack or a collapsible water bottle, and frantically searching our pockets every five minutes to make sure our passports hadn’t wandered off. After so much planning, we’re psyched that there’s finally nothing left to do but to hop on a plane and hit the road. 

A day in the life

IMG_1171
Today we reached the west coast and our 375-mile mark. In the hour that we’ve been here in Lincoln City, we have secured a campsite and erected our teeny tent, giddily scarfed and slurped giant ice cream cones that we’d been promising ourselves all day, and briefly visited the unsurprisingly unpleasant oceanfront.

Our ride today was shorter than usual- 27 miles- but we’ve decided to celebrate our beach arrival by clocking out early to relax and triumph in reaching this unofficial destination. So on this not so typical day of bike tourist-ing, this is to be a narrative of a typical day in the life of a bike tourist, or at least, these particular bike tourists.

Morning: We try to start our days fairly early, to take advantage of the daylight, which here in the Pacific Northwest lasts from 5 a.m. to nearly 10 p.m. The magnitude of this earliness almost directly depends on the legality or sketchiness of our camping situation. For example, if we have paid to pitch our tent at a family-oriented state park and have received a neat little permit to display on our tent proclaiming our permission to be there, we may sleep until eight and piddle around for a while, leaving camp nearing ten o’clock. However, after a night of cowboy camping between a shed and a train track, we will depart very early and with a purposeful haste. (We’ve only had one close call with these “unofficial” campsites involving a disobedient dog and a man who took his “Volunteer” status way too seriously.)

We eat instant oatmeal every single morning, sometimes accompanied by scoops of peanut butter or handfuls of cheerios, but usually just the oatmeal, straight out of the package and halfway cooked. We don’t make coffee, because I would rather drink no coffee than instant coffee, but maybe I’m just a snob about it. Once Matt’s little alcohol stove is cooled enough to pack up, we hit the road.

Mid-day: Biking is probably at its most pleasant during the mid-morning hours. Then, traffic is often slim and the incessant wind hasn’t yet reached its full, infuriating force. The frequency and duration of our breaks of course depend on the terrain and the weather, but we typically take a major rest after our first 20-ish miles– unless we are climbing one of Oregon’s many hills or mountains, which it seems we nearly always are, in which case I stop to drink and pant and cuss approximately every 50 yards, while staring in incredibly fierce envy at the cars that whiz past us as if the road is flat or something. In this style we’ve ridden some of the state’s most beautiful scenic highways and experienced the landscape’s drastic changes through the magnifying glass that is traveling by bicycle. Matt is constantly pointing out trees and birds and vistas while we pedal up, up, up, but I tend to be mostly unable to appreciate these little wonders until the descent.

Anyway, we like to take our big, middle-of-the-day-making-good-progress breaks at, of all places, Safeway grocery stores. They’re everywhere out here, and they have everything we need: cheap cold drinks, air-conditioning, and tables next to outlets– Safeway is a bike tourists’ paradise. So we sit, recharging our phones and our burnt muscles, looking at maps and camping options, until we are mentally and physically boosted enough to get back on our bikes that double as suitcases and back on the highways that will take us onward.

My biggest hope on any given road is simply that it has a nice wide shoulder with little debris. Road shoulders are useful to us in a myriad of ways: they help me to not see my life flash before my eyes every time a truck passes; they help drivers to not yell at us to “Get off the road you hippies,” and therefore help me to not make rude hand gestures; they give me a place to perform my hill-climbing drinking-panting-cussing routine. The only people that road shoulders don’t seem to be useful to are the drivers of logging trucks, who always seem to swerve closer to us in what can only be a conspiracy against cyclists because anyone who rides a bike must be a tree-hugger.

Most of the time, how many miles we bike in a day depends on where we will be able to camp. Usually we are able to hop between national forests and state parks from day to day, but sometimes they are too far apart and we find ourselves stuck in what I think of as no man’s land, but the problem is that it is certainly some man’s land, which is why we can’t camp on it.

Evening: Inevitably, we find somewhere to sleep, questionably permissible or otherwise, and we settle in. In a secure spot we set up the tent; elsewhere, we sleep outside on the ground, ready to ride. While heating water on the trusty stove, we pour over our maps, discussing and re-discussing where we’ve been, where we’re headed, where we’ll be able to camp. These conversations are detail-oriented to the point of obsession, and the conclusion we almost always come to is something along the lines of, “Eh, we’ll see what happens. It’ll work out.”

We eat ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes every night, sometimes followed by a course of blackberries that we picked from the side of the road and have carefully kept at least somewhat un-smushed all day. Last night we had road kill pineapple for dessert, by which I mean that we found a perfectly good pineapple on the side of the road and we took it with us and we ate it delightedly.

Our days end with a single beer when we feel like splurging, and me reading from The Last American Man, the story of Eustace Conway, modern-day mountain man, which is probably the most appropriate book anyone could read on a trip like this (except, perhaps, a guidebook or a book of biking tips or some other sensible read). Sometimes we manage to stay awake until night falls, usually we don’t.

And then we do it again.

Oregon Aint Flat

FullSizeRender

Almost one week of being bike tourists and we are already getting accustomed (or in Matt’s case, re-accustomed) to living the dirtbag lifestyle. We made the 2,500-mile drive from Tennessee in a day and a half, thanks to Matt’s marathon driving skills. In Bend, Oregon, we got lucky with a free parking spot for the month and struck out with a few sets of clothes, a tent and sleeping bags, a stove and no experience. Riding away from the car and knowing that the next time I see it I’ll have pedaled myself several hundred miles all over Oregon was probably one of the strangest feelings I’ve had.

We were not cyclists before this trip. At home we rarely ride more than ten commuter miles a day, we don’t wear much spandex, most of our gear for this trip is borrowed and we bought our bikes on Craigslist. We had certainly never ridden with weight on our bikes before, and I’ve been pedaling in Chacos. On our first day of this tour we biked 35 miles, my longest ride ever up until that point. Ill-prepared? You could say that.

From Bend, we headed north for the Columbia River that marks the southern border of Washington, passing along the way a few tiny towns and never-ending fields of wheat, which according to a nice farmer’s wife is producing a skimpy harvest this year. We spent two days riding through a roller coaster of rolling hills, which can be very disheartening because the joy of topping one hill is immediately erased by the sight of the next one, and the next one, and repeat this cycle for 50 miles. We stayed one night in a town called Moro, the biggest town we’d seen in days with a population of 300. Moro is the kind of place where the local convenience store sells goods that were purchased from a real grocery store in another town miles away, but we thoroughly enjoyed this little taste of civilization before we headed back into the hills.

Now, we’ve just surpassed 200 miles, and have spent the past couple of days biking the beautiful but ferociously windy Columbia River Gorge. This is not the kind of wind that will ruffle your hair and cool you off on a hot day. This is the kind of wind that will blow you and your bike off the road, or bring you to a dead stop when you would otherwise be coasting at 20 mph down a hill, or keep you up all night because the sound of your flapping tent can be equated to a train passing overhead. It makes for an exceedingly difficult ride, even on the rare flat stretches.

Already we have met several interesting people who are curious or excited or confused about what we’re doing. People love to give us advice about routes to take or sights to see along the way. They want to scribble in little directions on our maps and tell us about their own outdoor endeavors and ask us a million questions about our plans (and are usually shocked at our general lack of plans, so they offer us even more advice). Yesterday a couple gave us their phone number so that we can send them pictures from the country’s second tallest waterfall when we reach it.

We’ve already received a fair share of what wanderers call Trail Magic. Trail Magic is little miracles for dirtbags, when things work out all too perfectly given the circumstances, such as finding an awesome campsite just as it’s getting dark or being given a free cup of coffee, for example. (Yes, those really are the kinds of things dirtbags hope for.) Two days ago, after a hellish 55-mile day involving 30 mile an hour winds and a very steep and unpleasant gravel road, we limped into a town called The Dalles and treated ourselves to some Mexican food. At the restaurant we asked around about free campsites nearby, about which the waiters were clueless. As we were about to try our luck sleeping at a city park, a very nice young lesbian couple in the booth behind us offered to throw our bikes in their truck and drive us 12 miles back the way we had come to a free campground on the river, and to then pick us up the next morning and drop us back in town. We couldn’t have asked for anything better, because we got to meet some cool local people and because on a trip like this there is nothing quite as comforting as camping in a place where you’re actually allowed to be. (I have to say, though, that it was pretty depressing to drive in ten minutes what it took us most of the day to bike).

Today we will continue along the river on the Washington side and cross back into Oregon at Bridge of the Gods. Soon we will turn south and head for the coast, entering gladly into a more populated and less windy part of the state. We have very little to depend on except willpower and our own bodies (and maybe a little Trail Magic here and there), and this creates an odd sort of freedom that can only come from having no stuff, no money and nowhere to be (except, of course, back in time for fall classes). Luckily we both love ramen noodles.

Orevwa Ayiti

IMG_4818

Home again.

Our trip home from Haiti was almost as exciting as actually being there. We had an evening flight out of Port-au-Prince, which on a good day is about a two-hour drive from Petite Riviere on a road that is partially paved, though often only gravel or dirt. There are no traffic laws in the country, so motor vehicle experiences quickly and often turn into near death experiences. The driver assigned to take us to the airport arrived to pick us up only 45 minutes late, so we were off to a timely start. On our way, we stopped in a city called Miragoane to say a quick hello to Father Granjean, a Monsignor who has been with the American Haitian Foundation since its beginning nearly 20 years ago. When we arrived at his home he was still conducting mass at the cathedral across the street, and we waited on his porch for an hour until the service ended. Still, a very timely morning. What we thought would be a brief greeting turned into an enormous breakfast with Father Granjean, the church’s bishop, and several other priests coming from church in their suits and collars– and then there was Matt and me, in our shorts and t-shirts and baseball caps which we shed out of courtesy to reveal our dirty and disheveled hair. We ate Sunday Soup. After we dined, we were promptly sent on our merry way to continue our journey into the capital city.

Two planes, a night sleeping in the airport, one shuttle bus and a car ride later, we found ourselves back in Tennessee, a little tired and hungry but overall no worse for wear than before our month in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I was given all sorts of advice before we flew south in June: Only drink bottled water. Don’t eat any freshly prepared foods. Don’t go anywhere alone. Avoid rivers. Wear lots of bug spray. Don’t eat the barbecue. In general, watch out, it’s a very dangerous place.

Well, I drank and bathed in the rainwater we pulled from the well. We ate freshly caught fish, or beef, goat or chicken, or whatever else was served to us because Haitian food is delicious, and because it’s okay that the woman who cooked it probably didn’t wash her hands first. After the first few days, Matt and I were allowed to travel about the town unchaperoned, out to eat or for a drink or to the market. River crossings are unavoidable. Bug spray is necessary, but, let’s be honest, easy to forget. And the barbecue is fantastic.

We didn’t catch malaria or cholera or any other illnesses, we didn’t have any dangerous encounters or guns pointed at us, no one cursed us or threatened us or threw rocks at us, we didn’t fall off a mountainside, very few people begged or demanded money, we didn’t starve, we weren’t flung from a motorcycle, we didn’t get heat stroke, no one tried to steal from us, and the food didn’t make us sick. We didn’t even get sunburned. Maybe it is a dangerous place, but maybe dangerous is often confused with unfamiliar, or different. In four weeks I was never scared, I never feared for our lives or our health, I never thought that I was in any more danger than I would be in the US.

Many of these good fortunes are thanks to our friends, Gouel and Wilkens, Michena and Jimmy, Fernandez and Carmello, Tamara and Dady and Odeil and Tony, and the list goes on. We were welcomed and looked out for by so very many people, most of all by Gouel. There’s a saying that every Haitian has a White Man. Maybe some would consider us Gouel’s white man, adhering to the stereotype that says he used us for money or resources and we used him to make us feel better about our luxurious American lives. Many would say we were a lot of our Haitian friends’ white man (or future white man, since we currently have no money or resources but have the potential to).

But we didn’t send money donations or unwanted clothes and goods, and we didn’t spend a week on a mission trip in a controlled environment. We lived with all of these people for a month. We ate a meal with them every day, we slept in hammocks next to them, we panted and sweated walking high into the mountains together, we played competitive games of soccer on the beach, we passed around cokes and beers and plates of food, we sat at crooked tables playing games with bottle tops, we watched movies in French with English subtitles and in English with French subtitles, we all complained about the heat, we made fresh fruit juices, we discussed history and religion and marriage and culture, we taught each other languages, we met a million family members who offered us whatever they happened to have to eat that day, we talked about why America is rich and Haiti is poor, we took turns playing Temple Run on cell phones, we danced Kompa and the cha cha and everything in between, we picked on whoever fell asleep first and pulled each other out of oncoming traffic and cooked spaghetti hotdog and did laundry together (helping someone wash their dirty underwear spells friendship to me). Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t feel like anyone’s white man.

While we did get a deeper look into Haiti than most of the country’s visitors do, it was still only a glimpse. I saw and came to understand lots of things about the history and culture, but it all still comes down to the fact that I am an outsider, a visitor who went home to hot showers and air conditioning and Wal-Marts. I went to Haiti with my eyes, ears and mind wide open and learned many, many things, but how much could I truly learn while knowing that my stay there was so very temporary? That’s a question I can’t answer. I have lots of questions about Haiti that I can’t answer, and part of me feels as confused as I did when I first arrived in Petite Riviere. Maybe some things will come to light when there is time and distance between Haiti and me; maybe it will all become as clear as the creeks I was warned away from. But if I learned anything about Haiti, it’s that it is a country of subtle nuances and blatant ironies, of freed emotions and limited opportunities, of complex history and uncertain future. As long as Haiti is Haiti, there will be confusion and unanswered questions, but there will also be generosity, vibrancy, endurance and an authentic love simply for the gift of being alive.

In the morning Matt and I will begin our drive to Bend, Oregon. There we will park the car and begin a very different kind of adventure on our bicycles. We plan to ride as far north as we can in the first two weeks, and then head back south along the coast. Neither of us has been on a ride of this magnitude before, so there are sure to be some mishaps and misadventures along the way, but we are so excited to embark on this new journey in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

Go with it

IMG_4113

I write to you from our friend Wilkens’ backyard, which looks out on what is today an unusually calm sea where a dozen fishermen float in precarious dugout canoes, casting improbably large handmade nets that, I would guess, probably retrieve more trash than fish. An unknown fisherman ran up to the house in his squishy, falling apart rain boots asking for water, and received a tall glass of cold, clean dlo, a rarity, with no questions asked.

We were told to be here at seven this morning, and after stopping to water the corn we planted two days ago, we arrived at 7:30, still early by Haitian standards. Wilkens and Gouel brought dining room chairs that previously occupied a First Tennessee bank and a makeshift table out to where I am sitting and we had fresh locally baked bread (pen), bananas (fig) and Haitian style coffee (kafe), which is similar to espresso and so loaded with raw sugar that it is more like a syrup than a drink. It’s all so delicious.

We have just over a week remaining of our stay in Haiti, and part of me feels that I’ve been here for months while another part feels that I arrived just yesterday at that hot, crowded airport in Port au Prince. The timelessness that exists in the people and places here can be almost unsettling sometimes. With our foundation projects underway, I’ve been spending a good deal of time at the school (by which I mean about an hour a day) and Matt has been working on his gardening project next door.

What we’ve learned the most from these assignments has been, I think, flexibility. I came here under the impression that I would be meeting with two teachers to work on their conversational English skills a couple of times a week, very casually and sans Kreyol. I’ve ended up teaching English to a class of 15 Creole-speaking students two days a week, and teaching writing skills to a group of six eager teachers for another two days. You just have to go with it.

Similarly, Matt is something of a project manager for a garden on a rocky plot of land near the school. He was supposed to have twenty tireless young volunteer students to help him remove the rocks, till the clay-filled soil and plant seeds. None came. After long days of slow strenuous work, a gaggle of goofy, excitable boys wandered into the garden and started working, evidently having nothing better to do. After that the garden was finished in two days, aside from lugging a five-gallon bucket to it each morning to water what will hopefully soon be a whole lot of corn. Again, you just have to go with it.

Other than our surprise-filled endeavors for the foundation, it’s been business as usual for Matt and me. We wander the town with Gouel, who shows us down crumbling backstreets and through acres of farmland and into hidden little neighborhoods near the mountains. The villagers are accustomed to us for the most part, many know our names, and we are hardly ever called blanc anymore (except for a group of little kids at one particular house who never ever tire of enthusiastically reminding us of the color of our skin each time we pass). We are regulars at the little drink stop near our house, where all the chairs are broken and the tables are wobbly and if you don’t return your bottles the next day you don’t get your change. We almost understand the money. We swim in the ocean and read our Haitian history books and eat lots of rice and try to speak Creole and lounge on the porch and slurp tropical fruits. We play soccer and know the routes around the perpetual puddles in the road and wash our clothes in buckets and eat coconuts and ride on the backs of motos and sleep in hammocks and watch TV in French. And we sweat. A lot. Mostly, we try to live as authentically as possible while here.

We’ve heard talk of Compound People. Compound People are the missionaries or other aid workers who come to Haiti (or wherever else, I suppose) with organizations that provide “safe” lodging quarters that are set apart from what I think of as real village life. These places are gated and filled with Americans. There is one missionary group presence here called Life Teen, who live in one of these compounds a couple of miles out of town and travel around locked inside a riot truck on their way to pray with the needy people of nearby towns. We’ve seen the Life Teens at the church, but nowhere else. I don’t mean to spout any negativity. But, exactly what kind of experience is this? What does one learn about a culture or a people by watching them from afar and not mingling with them except to try to bring them the faith that they already have? Can you know Haiti by seeing it blur by from inside a caged vehicle? I wonder often how these peoples’ thoughts on life here might differ from my own. I wonder how our understandings range based on our very different circumstances in Haiti.

Yesterday I needed to exchange some dollars for Haitian goud and Gouel agreed to walk into town with me to make sure I got a fair deal. We hopped on a moto with another of his friends to make the trip quickly, me in the middle clutching Gouel’s knees, and sped off. As I traveled down the dusty road on this rickety motorcycle, dodging goats and dogs and potholes, I wondered, what would the Life Teens have thought if they’d happened to pass by and seen me, little, lone and blanc, sandwiched between two skinny Haitian guys and with nothing separating me from Haiti?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.