Up, down… and up again

From the garden in Hermance we rapidly transitioned back into dirtbag mode (not that we ever truly left it), traveling by bus and Bla Bla Car to Chamonix, France, the unofficial capital of Europe’s outdoor world. There, we met up with Matt’s college roommate, Mitchell, and his Norwegian friend, Ola, at a campground on the outskirts of town. Mitchell came to Europe after graduation with a purpose that resembles ours, though lacking in both planning and a return flight ticket. (See, Mom? It could be a lot worse.)

The plan was to hike the famous Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170-ish kilometer trail that encircles the Mont Blanc massif, and leads hikers through three countries and over almost 10,000 meters of elevation gain. So, the morning after meeting up with Mitchell and Ola, we went into town to buy the necessary supplies (food, fuel, map) and to cram down a massive cheeseburger before hopping on the bus to the trailhead in a little place called Les Houches. (While the trail officially starts and ends in Chamonix, it’s extremely common to skip the first 7k of the hike which is, as it was described to us, “not very interesting.”)

Being the tourist attraction that it is, the TMB has over 50 “refuges,” or accommodations where hikers can eat and sleep during the tour, which typically takes anywhere from 9 to 12 days. These refuges ensure that a hiker has a hot meal, a shower and a warm bed at the end of each day, but most importantly, it means that a hiker has to carry virtually nothing but a water bottle and a toothbrush. This makes the otherwise daunting hike enjoyable and accessible for people of all ages and physical ability.

Naturally we decided to forego all of this in favor of a more earthy and less expensive approach. We carried our backpacks and “unofficially” wild camped for each of our eight nights on the trail. (As far as we saw, we were almost the only people carrying more than a small day pack.) While not strictly prohibited, wild camping is generally discouraged and frowned upon along the TMB, though it’s widely accepted that many people do it each year. This meant we had to be a tad sneaky. At the end of each day, we covertly scouted out a camp site and waited until dusk to pitch our tents, breaking them down and moving on early in the morning. We were almost always able to find campsites that had already been impacted by people who were, no doubt, doing exactly the same thing we were doing. While this did have certain obvious inconveniences, we were overall extremely happy with our decision to wild camp and felt a level of authenticity that the refuges, no matter how rugged, just couldn’t provide. Each night after we found camp, we’d spend a few hours patting ourselves on the backs for a day well walked, studying the map and gawking at the next day’s elevation change, doctoring our poor neglected feet, and always capping the day off with story time (which was just me reading aloud from Dan Brown’s Inferno).

Our first couple of days on the trail were pretty brutal. On the first day we gained a thousand meters of elevation almost solely on paved roads in the direct line of the beating August sun. There’s something really depressing about seeing a truck grumble easily by as you trudge uphill, barely above a snail’s pace. The second day was worse. We left our improvised riverside camp early in the morning and almost immediately began a 1500 meter ascent over steep rocks and dirt, with no shade but with plenty of hiker pileups and curse words and despairing glances at the impossibly far off ridge line. I almost took off my pack and kicked it down the mountain a couple of times, but fortunately, good sense prevailed. At a false summit Matt had a physical meltdown and I feared I was going to have to use the “help” feature of our Spot communicator. (He was fine after some food.)

It might seem that these first days should have been the easiest, since we were fresh, relatively full and not yet worn down by the mountains and the weight of our packs. But as with any strenuous activity, it often takes a little time before your body stops its initial protesting and decides to cooperate with the hell you’re putting it through. I like to think that the moment my body gives up the fight is when it can really begin for me. So after about three days on the trail, we were feeling pretty used to it– all rocking and rolling, mostly past the agony of lugging a pack up and back down 5 or 6 thousand feet of trail each day, and psyched to be hiking on one of Europe’s most beautiful trails through some of the world’s most beautiful mountains.

This marked the longest backpacking trip to date for all four of us, though we can’t claim to be totally self-sufficient on the trek despite our strict avoidance of the tourist trap refuges and hotels. The TMB dips in and out of small villages, and almost every day we had the opportunity to restock our food supplies and get a taste of some version of civilization. While I was a little disappointed in the total lack of remoteness and the plethora of day hikers who I knew would be returning to their cars at the end of the day, I can’t complain about the convenience of being able find fresh baguette and a flushing toilet almost every day on the trail.

I think there comes a time on a backpacking trip of any magnitude when your thoughts are totally and constantly consumed by food. When, even though you’re enjoying the breathtaking scenery and reveling in the glory of being in the mountains, each step you take is really just a step toward all the things you want to eat when you reach the end of the trail. On this trek, Matt and I were eating oatmeal for breakfast, a bowl of broth and a handful of granola at the highest elevation of the day, and some form of instant pasta for dinner. We supplemented with hunks of bread and an occasional scoop of Nutella (for morale). We call this the backpacker diet, or in other words, the cheapest, lightest way to eat on the trail. While not totally filling or satisfying, we can live like this for a few days while we day dream about what we want to eat when we finish. I usually crave all things sweet and sugary. I dwell on ice cream and candy bars until I think I’m going to die if I see another pack of ramen noodles. I once found myself actually scolding my past self for turning down a brownie that my grandmother had offered me three months ago. Yeah, it’s bad sometimes. This hunger really hit us somewhere around the 6th day, when we were in Switzerland and couldn’t afford anything, and we rode it like a wave all the way back to Chamonix.

And so for nine days we walked like this, each day trudging up and plodding back down, exhausted but exhilarated by our good fortune to be there at all. The terrain on the TMB is extremely varied but with one constant– it is never flat, which for me means slow going. I was standardly the caboose of our four man hiking party. Usually Mitchell and Ola raced ahead, preferring to make one hard push to the highest point and then stopping to wait. Matt was consistently about 10 minutes behind them going at his own quick pace. And then there was me, always bringing up the rear, typically another 15 minutes or so behind Matt, doing my slow but steady slog up whatever we were climbing that day. I wasn’t any faster on the downhill. It’s a myth that descending is easier. While it’s less of a quad buster, it’s exceedingly tough on the knees and toes, especially with a pack. (I’ll refrain delving into the disgusting details of the state of our feet after this trip.)

A few days after we finished the hike was the start of the UTMB, an ultra-marathon trail race that follows the exact same route we were hiking. Any time I got tired or a little bummed out, I tried to remind myself that in a few days hundreds of people would be completing the circuit in a single day.

On our final day on the trail, we decided to begin hiking at seven, because we were excited to get back to town and because we were totally out of food and wanted to get there by lunchtime. By the time we reached our highest point of the day where we crossed from Switzerland back into France, an ominous front was moving in and the sky was dark and angry as far as we could see. Where the temperature would have been a comfortable 24 degrees Celsius it was rapidly dropping as the wind whipped away our hats and our motivation. We ended up making the decision to take a short cut back to town, skipping the last few ridge line kilometers of the trail in favor of a side trail that would let us descend more rapidly. The last two hours of our hike were a frantic scurry in the rain and we were elated to pop off the trail at a conveniently placed bus stop that put us near our campground. Our first stop, of course, was to buy slices of pizza and pain au chocolat at a bakery that Mitchell had been talking about for days, and then to the grocery store for our other cravings.

We spent the next few days relaxing in Chamonix, wandering around town and recovering from the hike. We got to see one of the UTMB events start, a 290k race that teams of three had up to six days to complete. We got to do a morning run with the North Face athletes who would be running the TMB route that we had just finished. We tried to do a day hike one day, but after sailing up the 600 meter ascent, we realized that we couldn’t possibly see anything that could rival the views we’d had on the tour, and we turned back.

Our days on the TMB, aside from being filled with awe inspiring landscapes, served to change my perspective on backpacking and my other various outdoor recreation endeavors. The tour was hard. It was only nine days, but those nine days were long and difficult and downright exhausting. We were hot in the day and cold at night, hungry and occasionally lost, our feet and knees and backs hurt, we woke up early and went to bed late, and we realized that even if you’re prepared, backpacking is hard. But it’s supposed to be hard. Of course, I’ve known this all along, in a vague sort of disconnected way. The TMB made me understand more about why we put ourselves in these situations that we know are going to be at times a little rough, at other times totally miserable. It’s something that’s nearly impossible to explain, but really easy to feel once you acknowledge that the world is bigger than you, the mountains are tougher than you, and once you can learn how to be thankful to be a teeny tiny speck roaming through all of it. In the past few years I’ve developed an enormous respect for nature, but have naively continued to try to be better than nature, to be stronger and smarter and braver than it is. And while I know that I can still work toward being these things in my life in general, all that I need to be toward nature is humble.

After a few days in Chamonix, we said goodbye to Mitchell and got on a bus to begin the journey to our next destination– the French island of Corsica.

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A day in the life

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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

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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

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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

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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?

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Market Day

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Today is one of the two weekly market days in Petite Riviere. In larger cities, market can happen every day of the week, but here there is only market on Wednesday and Saturday. For the average person, this means having the forethought to know exactly what you need on a specific day and remembering to buy everything you will need until the next market. There is no “running to the store” when you are making picklese (a spicy slaw that is a Haitian staple) and realize you forgot the carrots, because unless you know the person who sells the carrots and where they live and they are willing to let you come to their home on their day off, there will be no carrots.

On market day, vendors (usually women) flock to the already busy streets downtown to sell whatever it is that they baked, grew, weaved, raised or bought from somewhere else. Unless the vendor happens to have a house in this part of town, she will fashion an awning of some sort—perhaps a real umbrella, perhaps an old sheet—to hide from the sun that is already scorching at 9 a.m. The display cases are buckets, baskets, blankets and burlap sacks, with an occasional table or upended barrel, depending on how far the vendor had to walk with their merchandise to get there.

The market is absolute chaos. People mill in the street, carrying live chickens or enormous bags of charcoal while cars and motorcycles impatiently honk their horns so that they may squeeze through the crowds. Negotiating is necessary to not get ripped off. Like anyone, Haitians want to make money, so any person who will pay an exaggerated price is fair game. There are no cash registers or lockboxes. Instead there is a tattered purse that the seller wears around her neck into which she stuffs wadded up cash, and from which she will sometimes, but not often, reluctantly make change for larger bills.

The market in Miragoane, a much larger town nearby, is a totally different story. It is still chaotic, but the underlying organization is more pronounced. There, the market happens daily under a big pavilion. The tables are built right in, and I assume that vendors occupy the same spots every day (though I don’t know exactly how that works) and any sellers who can’t fit in the pavilion overflow into the streets outside. In this market, the aisles are narrow, everything is swarming with flies and you can buy everything from Ramen noodles to voodoo supplies. At the back there is a meat section, unrefrigerated and gruesome and a place that I got out of as quickly as I could, but not before noticing that it is common practice to display the severed head of the beast you are selling (to prove that it’s fresh?). I prefer the vegetable aisle.

Haitian currency is the goud, of which there are five in a Haitian dollar, and there are ten Haitian dollars in an American dollar. The Haitian dollar doesn’t actually exist; to my understanding it is a simplifying concept, so that one coke can be said to cost five Haitian dollars rather than 25 gouds (which comes down to about 50 cents in American money). It’s all very confusing.

This morning Matt and I took our first solo trip to the market in the village (previously we’ve had our friend Gouel help us sift through the madness). Beforehand we sat on the porch and looked at our goud, trying to decipher what each bill was worth in dollars and remembering what Gouel told us we should pay for things. As a white person in Haiti, I expect to be taken advantage of every now and then. I’m okay with it. But we still want to do our best to not be seen as walking dollar signs or as what are perceived as perpetually confused Americans in Haiti. So we worked up our nerve, practiced the Creole words we would need and marched into the market to buy our signature bread and bananas, and marched back home, successful and not ripped off at all.

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Never on time and never late

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We’ve been in Haiti for almost two weeks now, and things here are coming to seem a little more normal. I no longer get nervous when a motorcycle blares its horn and passes within inches of me on a busy road, I don’t mind when (often naked) children in the street yell “blanc!” as I walk by, and I have pretty much mastered the art of the Bucket Bath (or, as you may have guessed, taking a bath with water from a bucket). I love sleeping outside every night because it’s just too hot indoors, I love that goats and cows and chickens roam the town and the soccer fields, and most of the time I don’t even mind the heat. All of these things and many more I have gotten used to, but the culture here is so totally unlike anywhere else that most aspects of it still absolutely baffle me.

For one, Haiti seems to run on a schedule independent of the rest of the world. “Haitian Time” is something Matt and I joke about often, and anyone who’s spent much time in the Caribbean might understand what I mean. It’s not uncommon to arrive at church on time (at 6 a.m, I might add) and wait over an hour for it to start. The same goes with school events, meetings, plans with friends, and so on. Of course, people are late everywhere in the world, but the difference here is that no one minds in the least. Time spent waiting on something to happen is not at all considered time wasted, and no one ever seems to get bored. I see people sit, completely content, for hours with no source of entertainment or person to talk to, and for a while I just couldn’t understand how someone could be okay with doing nothing for so long. So I tried it out, this Haitian way of just being, and it turns out to be pretty great. Here I usually spend a good portion of my day just hanging out on the porch, perfectly happy in not doing much of anything except trying to figure out what it is that’s so great about doing nothing in Haiti. Maybe it’s being able to hear the waves on the beach or feel the breeze coming off the ocean, or maybe it’s just knowing that I don’t have to be in a hurry to get anywhere, but sitting still on this island is surprisingly satisfying.

Because so much time is spent doing very little, the days here pass incredibly slowly. On a normal day at school in the US, I am up early and doing a million things all day long so that by nighttime I am absolutely wiped out and wondering where the heck all my time went. I’m sure you can relate. A day in Haiti is effectively the opposite. I am still up early and doing something, but by noon I have usually spent a couple of hours on the porch and taken a nap and tried to make plans that have fallen through, and by night I am thinking, “Well, today I met with teachers at school for an hour and did my laundry. Success.” I think this different way of looking at time comes from the simple fact that doing anything in Haiti is so much harder and more time consuming than doing anything in the US. Getting water for most people requires carrying several jugs down the street and back, or doing laundry means dragging out buckets and soap and water and hanging things out and taking them in, going anywhere means walking or hiring a moto to take you, and don’t even get me started on going to the market and cooking. Doing just one or two of these things in a day is a pretty big accomplishment. Life moves slowly here, and time is still valued, just in a very different way.

One thing I forgot to mention: Haiti is breathtakingly beautiful. The village of Petite Riviere is ushered toward the sea by beautiful rolling green mountains that are entirely too tall to logically be so near the coast. We had quite an adventure yesterday when we paid two motorcycle drivers $20 to take four of us up into these mountains (three people to one bike is pretty standard) on a steep road made mostly of loose gravel and dirt. We had to continually get off and walk when the motorcycles couldn’t make it up a section of road, so we didn’t actually hike the mountain, but we hiked the steepest parts and that has to count for something, right? Naturally we lost track of time there and our Haitian friend Gouel missed his afternoon classes. We saw enormous gardens of vegetables to be sold at the market, children on painfully long walks home from school, women with bags of charcoal on their heads on their way into town miles below, and unbelievable views of the mountains rolling into the sea.

Other than the mountains, our excursions have included a very stressful trip to the busy town next door called Miragoane, a visit to the local agronomist, a couple of play days drinking beer and playing soccer on the black sand beaches, seven o’clock breakfasts of bread and Haitian coffee (which is like espresso loaded with sugar), long hours at mass services conducted completely in French, and evenings at little bars and restaurants where there are no lights or air conditioning and dancing kompa (an intimate slow dance) is always encouraged.

This evening Matt will compete in a soccer game in town, on a sloped, rocky field where many play barefoot and everyone plays bare-shinned, and do his best to prove that white guys can kick.

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