Monday, October 25, 2010

Day 116: Mental Health Break? Check! [Part 2]

A bit overdue, given I was up doing the All Hands satellite project in Tom Gato, a tiny town way up in the mountains separating Leogane from Jacmel, but Part 2 of the Mental Health Break Chronicles is here. Let's recap shall we?

Last we check in with our four intrepid adventurers they were in their tent camped in the small town of Bassin-Bleu. Having been the victim of a midnight spider-turned-insanely large cockroach attack, I didn't exactly have the best night's sleep, but we all woke up fairly early regardless, as is almost always the case in Haiti. Jean, the local head of the tourist office in Bassin-Bleu, came to greet us with a "Bonjour!", and to invite us to his home for breakfast. We brought the remnants from our shopping spree the night before - mostly bananas and an avacado - and followed Jean back to his abode, where we found a big spread of spaghetti, bananas, little suckling fruit I don't know the name of, bread and coffee. The spaghetti was actually seasoned and had sauce, unlike the spaghetti we eat all the time at All Hands basecamp, so we tore into it. The coffee was also good, even if it did have way too much sugar in it (two things the Haitians love en masse: sugar & ketchup). Before too long, we were all fat and happy and ready to get up to something.

Max, being in a chilled out mood, opted to keep chipping away at "To Kill A Mockingbird" while Cassie, Dieh & I headed back down to the first of the Bassin-Bleu pools to get in a morning bath. It was intended to only be a quick dip, as we were ready to head back down into Jacmel and find ourselves a hotel for the evening (the thought of beds and the ability to take our packs off for a healthy chunk of time being too hard to resist) but the water was so nice we opted to adopt a more leisurely time schedule. The pool we were bathing in had a small waterfall feeding into it that you could push yourself back into if you could get strong enough footing, and we all took turns enjoying it. The next pool down had a larger waterfall, so I scrambled over the dividing rocks and again wedged myself into the flow, this one nearly ripping my swimtrunks off me. Dieh soon followed suit as Cassie watched from the pool above, content to kick it and not tempt fate with her gimpy toes. Half-inclined to just stay there all day, sleeping and swimming as desired, we nevertheless forced ourselves out of the water and back up the mountain path, and about an hour after leaving Max with his book, we found him exactly as he was before.

Striking the tent for the third time in two days, the four of us found Jean to get sorted out with our moto-taxis back down the mountains and into Jacmel. "Fifteen minutes." Haitian Time being what it is, we spent the next hour and change exploring the Bassin-Bleu gift shop at the behest of Jean, and then sitting on a wall waiting, surrounded by the town children and some of the people we had met the day before. Max, befriending the pastor who ran the school up in Bassin-Bleu, took off down the road to take a look at the school and get an idea of the needs the pastor told him were necessary. Eventually, the characteristic whine of motorcycle engines under strain crept up the path to us - our cue to to say our thanks and goodbyes. Deciding to stick to our original configuration, Cassie & I jumped on one moto while Max & Dieh straddled the other, and after some shuffling around of packs and bags to get properly balanced, we were off.

It became apparent within just a few seconds that these two moto drivers were in another league entirely when compared to the two who brought us up to Bassin-Bleu. Besides the fact that they actually got all the way to the town, whereas our original drivers stopped fifteen minutes short, it was the speed with which they descended that really got our blood rushing, and Cassie and I had unknowingly picked the alpha of the two, who pulled way ahead of Max & Dieh, not to be reunited again until we were in the river bed. Yes, I said IN the river bed. Having taken a different route down that we had up, we no longer had the quasi-bridge-like something that the original motos had barely managed to traverse the day before. Instead, our descending drivers dropped us off at the edge of the strongest part of the river, which they had no intention of attempting to cross on their bikes, and made it oh so clear that we'd be walking from there on out. However, they were gentlemen as well as speed demons, and began to take off their shoes and pants to aid us in getting to the other side.

Being tall and perhaps a little over-confident in my abilities, I opted to kick off the party, wading out with my pack strapped to my back and my shoes still on, despite the drivers' recommendation to remove them (a very smart decision on my part, as it turned out). Reaching the middle of the river, the current was definitely making itself felt, and I crouched down a bit, water at my groin, looking for balance. Nature, having the twisted sense of humor that she does, opted to plant the deepest and fastest-flowing part of the river not all that far from the banks of the opposite shore. Thinking myself to be home free after passing the mid-point, I nearly fell over as my right foot sank six inches deeper than it had been the step prior, and the current pushed against me. My feet, unable to plant themselves, were pushed a few feet downstream, rocks rolling around them (thank you shoes!). Arms stretched wide and trying desperately not to wreck the electronics in my bag, I simply drifted standing for a spell before my feet reestablished for their footing and I could continue, reaching the other side smiling and dry from the waist up. Thinking about it in retrospect, there's really no explanation as to why I didn't completely fail in my attempt, but hey, I'll take it!

Happy with myself and feeling semi-badass following my crossing, I looked behind me only to be yet again humbled by the Haitians. Whereas my wading was slow and anything but surefooted, our two drivers made it look easy. The first, our driver, had Cassie on his back and moved through the current without hesitation or any seeming difficulty. The second driver had Dieh on his shoulder, helping her keep her footing, and was loaded down with bags. Max, bless his heart, brought up the rear, also weighed down with bags, which proved to be problematic as he froze when he hit the deepest part of the river and waited for the first driver to drop off Cassie and return to relieve him of some of the extra weight he had, and ensure his safe arrival on the opposite shore. And all this they did in their briefs, barefoot. It almost adds insult to injury when people can make something you struggled with look incredibly easy while also looking absolutely ridiculous in the process.

After we were all deposited safely on the Jacmel side of the river, our two drivers bid us farewell and waded back across to where their clothes and motorcycles awaited them. Unsure of what our next move was, we briefly considered heading down river to where it met the ocean to spend some time on the beach. Dieh and I went ahead to scope it out only to realize that if we wanted to do that we were actually on the wrong side of the river and would need to re-cross. Without the help of our now gone drivers, and taking into account Cassie's bum foot, we knew that wasn't going to happen, so we settled on heading into Jacmel proper to see about a hotel.

Leaving the riverbed, we came into a shantytown of sorts on the outskirts of the city. Cassie, unable to fully put her shoes on given her toes, was looking at a particularly nasty trek through the place, so I handed Max my pack and had Cassie hitch a ride on my back. Lucky for Max and me both, the shantytown was actually very small, and before too long we hit a road. Not recognizing it as the same road we came in on from Leogane, I was a bit lost for direction, but we headed right (the correct choice) and in a minute or so came upon a little vendor's place. After our adventure down from Bassin-Bleu we were all ready to take a breather so we stopped to enjoy a few Prestige, sodas, and a shady place to sit. The fact that a Sapi Bon vendor (frozen flavored ice in a bag - think Haitian Otter Pops) walked by shortly after our arrival was icing on the cake.

During our pit-stop, we made some phone calls to other All Hands volunteers that had taken mental health breaks in Jacmel to see about a hotel recommendation. Unable to reach most of them, we finally got in touch with Marine Matt (America!) and he tipped us off about Hotel Cyvadier, telling us it wasn't the cheapest option, but was a really nice place to truly unwind and do right by the "break" in "mental health break". Having not been able to reach anyone else for further recommendations, we decided that Hotel Cyvadier sounded like a pretty good option, even if it wasn't the cheapest, so we bid our street vendor adieu, hailed two mototaxis, and about fifteen minutes later, outside of Jacmel along the coastline, arrived at our destination.

Hotel Cyvadier sits at the end of a long dirt road, and immediately upon entering the gates we knew we were in for a treat. A medium-sized hotel, Cyvadier is well laid out, with a parking area on the left, immediately upon entering, and a two-story building with one set of rooms to the right. The grounds are manicured and it is quiet. At the end of the parking lot and first set of rooms is the front desk, and to the right and behind that is the second set of rooms, sitting closer to the ocean, and the restaurant / bar and small pool. During check-in we were informed that the Leogane volunteers got a discount, so instead of $80/night per room, we paid $65. $32.50 a person (we split the rooms, with Cassie & Diey in one room and Max and me in another) for those accommodations was more than fair. They even had flushing toilets - an incredibly rarity here in Haiti.

The true selling point of Hotel Cyvadier is, in my opinion anyway, not the hotel itself but where it is situated. As you make your way to the back of the hotel, where the bar / restaurant & second set of rooms are, you'll see a stairway descending away. Following it, you'll pass under a few tree before the view opens up as the stairs end and you're looking at one of the most beautiful coves you've ever seen. The beach that the stairs empty onto is small and sandy, flanked on one side by green cliffs and the ocean on the other. The water is near-perfectly clear, which is pretty normal in Haiti unless you happen to go swimming where a river undoes itself into the sea, and out past the rock cliffs that form the entrance to the cove, the Caribbean stretches away in an easy blue line. The beach is largely empty, only a few locals and blancs floating around, and upon discovering this gem, all four of us immediately smiled and knew that, despite the unpredictability and fun of the adventures we'd had up to that point, this was exactly where we wanted to be.

A few hours later, after we had enjoyed some cold beers poolside and were down at the beach playing around in the water, we crossed paths with a colorful set of gentlemen. Originally striking up a conversation with Max, my attention was perked from a distance when I heard one of them mention they were in Haiti as part of a crusade. Given all three were fairly clean-cut, twenty or thirty-something white guys, they seemed to fit the stereotypical mold of the Christian missionary, and "crusade" used seriously has a way of sparking a heat in me, so I couldn't help myself and decided to float over to see exactly what the boys were talking about.

They were in fact missionaries, evangelicals from what I could tell, although they referred to themselves as non-denominational, and were part of an international Christian organization called Global Ventures or something along those lines. One of them, the most outspoken (and later, most determined to save my soul) ran a blog - Religion always being a potentially explosive and volatile topic of conversation, I actually think the seven of us handled ourselves admirably, particularly given the religious make-up of our own group, with Max & Cassie being strong Christians and believers, Diey being the preacher's kid-turned-skeptic, and myself being firmly planted in the "organized religion is not a good thing" camp. However, there were more than a couple of moments where I had to bite my tongue, especially when the guy put forth the argument that went something along the lines of, "Hey, we really respect what you guys are doing here to try and help, but don't you have to ask yourselves what's the point in the long run in giving people food and shelter if they don't have Jesus?". That's me paraphrasing, and those aren't his exact words, but the point he was trying to make was clear - why save people today only to have them burn in Hell for eternity tomorrow?

That argument in and of itself isn't anything new to me - religious types the world over use it ad nauseam, and it never makes sense. However, what I found particularly distasteful about this particular instance was that he made it in the context of Haiti today - a country still reeling from a devastating disaster, in which millions of people are homeless, hungry, sick and desperate. To go by his argument, the people of Haiti actually needed his particular brand of Christianity more than anything else. Right. My ass. Ask the young single mother living in a refugee camp, hungry and trying to care for her sick children what she needs more, Jesus, or food, shelter and medicine. And besides, faith is personal, or it should be. With or without you, if the Haitian people want to have a relationship with God, they will. Indeed, they already do. The vast majority of this country is unquestionably religious. The same can't be said about aid. The overwhelming majority of earthquake victims want homes again, want community restored and schools open for their children, want safe drinking water and enough food. Nine months later, most are still left wanting, despite all the efforts made by the countless NGOs and volunteers here in the country doing what we can. There is no way the "Jesus over basic human needs" argument can ever hold water in my book, but to try and pull it off here, now, in the midst of this, that's just incredibly condescending and insensitive. Such is the byproduct of adopting completely and without question a belief system that assures you you are right and those that disagree with you are wrong, that you are saved and others damned.

And yet, as ready as I was to make him choke on that argument of his, I refrained, mostly because I respect Max & Cassie and didn't want to make them uncomfortable, and also because hell, this was my mental health break. No need for that shit when trying to kick back, and truly, what was the point? I stood about as much chance in changing his viewpoint as he did in changing mine. So we kept it cordial, I once again silently thanked my parents for never pushing religion on me before I was old enough to understand it is a choice in world-view, not truth, and we went on our merry way.

For dinner, everyone except Cassie agreed that it had been far too long since we'd had a proper meal, so while Cassie spooned around her lukewarm MRE corn chowder, Max, Diey and I enjoyed Thai conch, grilled fish, and grilled conch respectively. We let Cassie nibble on the side order of French fries. Bellies full and eyelids heavy, we enjoyed one final round of rum punches (well, Diey and I did, Max wasn't feeling it and Cassie doesn't drink) and retired to bed.

The next morning, after eating a simple (but free) breakfast of toast, eggs, bananas and coffee, we checked out but were told it was OK to hang around if we wanted to have drinks or swim. We had originally hoped the hotel would approve letting all of us stay in one room so we could afford to stay another night, but that idea was shot down, so we settled for lingering a bit longer before heading out.

The highlight of the afternoon was taking the one-person kayak the hotel had out for a spin. Cassie took it out first then I commandeered it upon her return. Going out through the mouth of the cove, past where I had gone swimming the day before, I headed left and east along the coastline. The water remained crystal clear so even in the deeper parts I could see the reefs stretching away below me. Groups of Haitian divers were disappearing under the water, knives out and ready, on the hunt for lambi (conch). The entire scene was magical. I love the water to begin with, so being able to dart around in the kayak, moving much faster than I ever could swimming, was wonderful, even if there were moments where I wanted to bail out and go diving with the Haitians but refrained for fear of having the kayak drift away.

Once our ocean time was done, we ate lunch at the restaurant, this time Max & Diey going for a club sandwich and myself going for the "like a chef salad" salad (actual menu description). Not too shabby. As early afternoon began to fade into mid-afternoon we knew we'd have a potentially long tap-tap ride back into Leogane, so we grabbed our packs from where we'd stashed them, paid up our dues, and hit the road. One very crowded tap-tap and mellow mototaxi ride later, we were on the outskirts of Jacmel, at the bus station (if it can even be called that) and on the hunt for a cheap tap-tap home. Given all the tap-taps available were smaller and much faster than the giant truck we'd taken to get to Jacmel, the cheapest ride we found was 100 gourde per person, as opposed to the truck's toll of 50. Still, that's $2.50. Ridiculously cheap, yet you tend to forget that after you've been in country for a while, sometimes finding yourself haggling over 10 gourde (a quarter) on principle alone. It isn't a bad thing to do though, particularly in a city like Leogane, where so many internationals are present. If you let the locals gouge you, that gouging becomes the norm and then all of us blancs and our wallets are shit out of luck.

Anyway, getting sidetracked. So yes, in this case, 100 gourde wasn't a blanc-only price, all our fellow Haitian riders were paying the same, so the four of us scaled up the back of the tap-tap, again opting for the roof over the covered back, as the weather was holding and the views to come were worth it. We waited a long time before the tap-tap left, as the driver wanted to pack it absolutely full, so we ticked by the minutes listening to our iPods, reading, shooting photos, and watching a fight that broke out on the street below. It's a bit unsettling watching two guys get progressively angrier and angrier when there are machetes everywhere, but no blades ever came into the equation. Instead, one guy broke a wooden something or other over the other guy's shoulder, then they played the "I'll chase you then you chase me." game until everyone, including us, lost interest. Not long after, our tap-tap full and the four of us sharing the roof with many a local, the engine came to life and up into the mountains we went.

Once again incredibly scenic, we rode in silence until the time came to jump off on the side of the road as it passed the Leogane exit. A quick mototaxi ride later and we were back in All Hands basecamp, refreshed for the most part, and ready to get back into it.

And that, thank all things holy, is me FINALLY finishing the Mental Health Break Chronicles. I'm sure there are some fun errors in grammar, etc. but I can't be bothered to re-check everything right now. Pics and video to be added soon, but there are so many other things to talk about - cholera, my foot getting hacked into to remove a nasty infection, biosand filter fun, etc. etc. etc. This will be the last time I take this long to update something I wrote offline and get it online. Yes, I lost almost this entire entry (Google didn't save it even though it said it did) so I had to rewrite it all, but yea, done. Never again.

And we continue!


  1. Yes we do
    I like the way you segway from Conch to Club
    Hope you are OK with the Cholera, if not give it some C&C
    L Unck L

  2. Hey quin its josh from greenwich CT. The small josh remember anyway its great that you do these blogs and vlogs. I love hearing about hati from a friends perspective who came down there to help. Well write back or something its great to hear from you and ps my email is See ya Ps. I didnt know you cut ur hair.