Thursday, October 7, 2010

Day 98: Mental Health Break? Check! [Part 1]

OK, instead of trying to play catch-up going past to present, I think instead I'll start right here and now and push the rewind button. And what a beautiful here and now it is.

So yes, I'm writing this sitting at a wobbly table on a veranda overlooking a cove that without question qualified for a "Hello from the Caribbean!" postcard. So incredibly beautiful. Water that catches the sunlight and plays with it below sea level and jagged rock outcroppings overhung with vines and trees balancing on their perches. Throw in a beautiful beach, a clear wispy sky and a few strong rum punches and life is indeed good. Jacmel, you are appreciated.

If you haven't guessed yet, I'm not working at the moment. Every thirty days, All Hands requires its volunteers to take a mental health break. It is one of those things you don't really realize you need until you're taking it. The work I doing here in Haiti is incredibly rewarding and something I wake up feeling tankful for every morning, but it can be intense in its pace: six days a week, every week. And, in my case, it also means I am on base nearly all the time as the project I run has its workshop attached to the base. I think that is actually the single largest reason for the eventual case of stir-craziness and semi-burn out that affects all volunteers that are here for any decent chunk of time. Being in the same surroundings day in, day out will take its toll. Even when I'm not on break, those moments where I can take a day off from leading the biosand filter project and simply load into one of the All Hands tap-taps, sledgehammer in tow, to head out into the Leogane community and smash up some collapsed homes are a breath of fresh air. Needless to say, this four day hiatus has been just what I needed to recharge the batteries and stimulate the adventurer in me.

We headed out from Leogane three days ago - myself and my friends Max, Cassie and Dieh. Great group. I like traveling in smaller groups - more dynamic, more mobile. We caught a tap-tap out on the Route Nacional down to where the road forks off to the south and up into the mountains that divide Leogane and the southern north coast from Jacmel and the south coast / ocean proper, then we hopped off and hailed another tap-tap that was headed in our desired direction. It was one of the much larger tap-taps, big open-backed people movers that can pack in thirty or forty of us - the same kind of truck Mathilde and I rode into Jacmel on my birthday the weekend prior. The back was packed so we scrambled up onto the roof, if you can even call it that. It was nothing more than a central metal beam criss-crossed with straps that connected to the sides of the truck and held down the tarp stretched over it. After some precarious balancing as the tap-tap lurched up the mountain pass, a narrow twisting road carved out of the slopes with exposed sides that cascade into the nooks of the earth, we all found our respective "safe spots" (a very, very loose term, as nothing about that truck or that road are safe) and settled in for an incredibly scenic, two-plus hour ride. As always, the locals on the truck with us found us something of an amusement, but were incredibly warm and helpful, offering to hold our packs and continually reminding us to hold tight to the straps so as not to pitch over the side as the truck jerked side to side and front to back, engine asthmatic as the driver jammed in and out of the lower gears when the road got particularly steep. I put on my iPod, loaded up the "My Top Rated" playlist and just balanced there atop the straps and tarp, smiling.

Eventually we descended the southern slopes and followed the river into Jacmel proper - a city packed tight up to the Caribbean, flanked by mountains behind it and to the west, and with open coastline stretching east. At this point it was dark but we were all content to stay where we were. In my broken Creole I asked on the Haitians on the truck if it was headed toward the beaches - "Machin ale a le plage?". "Oui!". Yes, indeed it was. So, after a forty-five minute pitstop at the Jacmel  Texaco (Haitian time...) off we went again, without any planned destination, in the night, happy. We probably would have simply stayed on the tap-tap until it reached wherever it was headed had it not blown a tire about forty minutes outside of Jacmel. Opting not to wait for the replacement (Haitian time...), we four scaled down the side of the truck, tossed on our packs, grabbed the tent, and headlamps lighting the way, began walking down the road, looking for a beach.

Given the totality of the darkness after the sun sets in Haiti, we couldn't see much at all. Our headlamps only illuminated so far into the distance, and while we could see the ocean to our immediate right, we couldn't shine for enough down the rock-strewn beach to see if any sandy clearings could be found for the tent. After walking for about thirty minutes, through a little fishing village wish locals watching the four of us blancs, we decided to just make the most of it and abandon the hope of finding our sandy beach in favor of finding the flattest rocky spot we could. It didn't take too long, and a short while later our tent was parked about ten feet from the waterline, up on a raised part of the beach. Lodging now secured, we all stripped off our clothes in the dark and went for a swim, floating naked in the warm, salty waters of Haiti's southern sea, and laughing at our complete lack of any sort of plan other than "get there and we'll figure it out". After an hour or more in the water, enjoying the phosphorescent somethings that lit up all around us when we made sudden movements, we retired to the tent and the sleep we all needed.

Haiti has a way of waking you up early, particularly when you're snoozing in a tent exposed to the sun, and the following morning was no exception. Coming to in that heat quickly inspired an exit to enjoy an AM salt water bath. In the light of the early hours we were proven correct to just pitch the tent anywhere we could, as the rocky coastline extended away in both directions. To our immediate west a group of Haitian fisherman were gathered in a line, tugging repeatedly on a rope disappearing away into the ocean, one slow half-foot heave at a time. Over the course of the morning the rope revealed itself to be a massive fishing net coming in from far off-shore. Behind us to the north, on the other side of the road, a steep hill climbed up and away, on top of which were a handful of local children standing and watching the curiosity below. After swimming for a while, which included a particularly enjoyable moment where the fishing rope caught Max unexpectedly in his sensitive bits and resulted in an entirely hilarious squeal and flail, we packed up our stuff, climbed back up to road, doubled back and ate some fish-filled pates and pikli for breakfast in the little village we passed through the night before, and hitchhiked back into Jacmel in the back of a friendly pick-up, no payment required.

Once back in Jacmel our first course of action was to sort out some shoes for Cassie, as she had left hers far too close to the waterline the night before, which the waves and tide were only too quick to take advantage of. Eight dollars later Cassie had herself a new pair of ankle-high black Converse (deal!), and we were on the hunt to get up to Bassin Bleu, a tourist destination of sorts (if anything can really be called that here in Haiti) that consists of a set of waterfalls far up in the mountains west of Jacmel. After some haggling with a few moto-taxi drivers we settled on a price, loaded up on two motos - three per moto (two of us and a driver) - and exited Jacmel along the same road we came in on en route from Leogane. After crossing the bridge outside of town we turned left, off the pavement and onto a dirt road that would soon provide the most intense and exhilarating motorcycle ride I've ever taken.

Getting to Bassin Bleu is no easy task, and I soon understood why the moto-taxi drivers were throwing out a price that at first seemed unreasonable. To get there, you have to first cross a river and then begin a steep ascent up into the rural communities up in the mountains, all the time following that dirt road that is anything but friendly to any form of transport, be it moto or pick-up (a car won't cut it...) or horse. Crossing the river was particularly intense, as the water began to flood the engine, leaving us nearly stalled in its fastest flowing section. I prepared myself for the tipping I was sure was coming, scrambling to try and figure out how best to land in the water so as to both keep myself from getting swept away and off the ledge to our right, and from getting pinned under the bike, hoping all the while the electronics in my bag would somehow be spared. Gunning the sputtering engine, and with a high-pitched vehicular whine, the driver and moto nonetheless somehow managed to keep upright and crawling forward, and we reached the other side dry from the knees up. From there it was the off and on game - driving as far as we could until the path simply got too steep for our weight, at which point the drivers kicked us off the bikes, gunned them up the steep bits, and waited for us at the top as we hiked them.

Somewhere around forty-five minutes later, we reached the point where the motos could go no further, so we dismounted, thanked the drivers, paid them a little extra for their efforts, and proceeded on foot. Immediately, some of the local Haitian guys who live their came to meet us and escort us into the tiny town of Bassin-Bleu - our guides as they called themselves. It took about twenty minutes walking that final, particularly broken bit of path before we reached Bassin-Bleu, all the while passing Haitian farmers with machetes tending their meager plots, and Haitian women washing clothes in the little streams criss-crossing the road. "Bonswa." "Bonswa." Lots of smiles. Always warm. In that, the Haitians seem to be universal. It is one of my favorite aspects of being in this country.

Bassin-Bleu, the town, is little more than eight or nine buildings, at least that we could see from the road, and it seems to run entirely on tourism (although we saw no other blancs or tourists during our time there) and sustenance farming. The town seems small, but while we were there we met the pastor who runs the local school and he told us that he has one thousand children he has to tend to. That number seems a bit high given we probably saw only forty or so individual people when we were at Bassin-Bleu, but the locals we talked to said many more people lived up in the mountains away from the town itself, so perhaps a lost tribe of one thousand children (that for some reason bother to go to school) is among them, although I do find that rather unlikely. The pastor threw out his number as part of a pitch to us to help him rebuild and expand his school, so exaggeration is definitely likely.

After paying our 100 gourde per person fee to the tourism office (roughly $2.50) we followed Sanzo, our most persistent and likable guide, and his entourage on foot down the mountain to the river and the waterfalls. It was about fifteen minutes before we hit the first pools and started to get excited. Being half seal, I immediately wanted to jump in but Sanzo assured us that where we were headed, the "waterfall gwo" (big waterfall), was a much better place to go for a dip. Bassin-Bleu, the waterfalls, are basically three different pools, each consecutively higher up the river than the others, and each more impressive. The final pool, which requires a bit of steady footing and rock scaling to reach, has the waterfall proper, probably twenty or thirty feet. Certainly no Angel Falls but still something wonderful to turn the corner and find. They cut a ravine in the mountains, so to be at Bassin-Bleu means to be flanked on both sides by steep, thick-foliaged mountain walls. It is dramatic, and certainly has the effect of making you feel far removed from anything resembling civilization. Indeed, my normally "almost to the point of recklessness" sense of adventure was intentionally toned back during my time there for the simple fact that if anything serious did happen to me, or any of us, it would be a very difficult if not all-together impossible task to get back to any sort of decent medical care (that in and of itself being damn hard to find in this country).

Still, we found some good places to have a few jumps and dives into the water, which was far colder than the ocean we've all gotten accustomed to here. It was refreshing and worth it given what it took to reach it. Our guides, being the locals that they are, scaled up the side of the waterfall, right alongside the water as it came crashing down, and launch off from very near the top. I swear, if I could trade in my blanc feet for a pair of Haitian feet, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Yes, I'd be a bit mismatched color-wise, but I'd be able to go anywhere and do anything without need for shoes. That is also something that seems universal here in Haiti, be it the kids in Leogane who play football barefoot in the rock and rubble-strewn streets, or the guides at Bassin-Bleu scaling mossy cliffs twenty feet up. It always makes me feel a bit ridiculous as I wince my way in and out of rocky beachlines and up and down well-worn mountain trails. The Haitians are unquestionably products of their environment, and I am of mine.

Once we'd splashed around a bit at the big waterfall, we doubled back down to the second pool, where we decided to set up camp. The locals advised against it, saying that in the event of heavy rains the water level could rise to the point where our tent, our bags and indeed ourselves could all be swept away. Having hiked in a ravine prone to flooding before, back when I was sixteen and doing Outward Bound, and having heard the same warning then, I knew that such a thing could happen, but given the trajectory of the river at Bassin-Bleu in relation to where we put up our tent, it seemed very, very unlikely. Having our hearts set on waking next to the waterfalls, we decided to disregard the locals warnings and camp there regardless. First though, time for a nap on the warm rocks, so we bid our guides farewell, and promised them we'd see them later in the evening when we would be heading back up to town to pick up food for dinner. After some much enjoyed snoozing in the sun we awoke to Cassie having smashed the hell out of her toe after she slipped getting back down the rock (not a good trip for the poor young lady's feet I must say) so we divided ourselves based on need an capability - myself and Dieh to hike back up to the town to get food given I spoke the most Creole, and Max and Cassie to set up camp given Max is a pro with the tent and Cassie couldn't do much more than hobble around (although always still with a good attitude).

The hike back up to the town went much faster than the first descent as we had no bags other than a small one to carry the food in. When we got there, the locals all came out to see what was what and I managed in my broken Creole to express our desire for food. Haitian time being what it is, we spent about an hour there as the locals all went to their respective houses to see what they had to offer. When all was said and done we'd hauled in a pretty good catch: a bunch of bananas, two avocados (which are much larger here in Haiti), bread, some citrus type fruit that looks like a lime but about ten times larger, four Prestige (hooray!), two bottles of 7-Up, and to top it all off, half a bottle of clairin, the local moonshine. Fun stuff! Paying them all we departed, once again telling them we'd be fine camping down there to try and counter their insistence that we camp in the town, only this time they also through out that they could provide "security" in town, whereas they couldn't if we were down by the river. That got my attention, and I asked them if we had to worry about water or people. They just laughed. Lost in translation I suppose. So be it. We remained undeterred and ten minutes later Dieh and I got back to camp just as it began to get dark. Max and Cassie had done a damn fine job of getting the tent perfect and ready for habitation, and we all settled in to enjoy food, drinks and a game of cards. After relaying the message about their concern for our security, we couldn't help but be a bit nervous, given we are in a very, very (very!) foreign country and, while never having felt threatened by the Haitians before, were aware that things can happen. In the end, it just dissolved into some nervous laughing and a lot of joking, which seemed to center around the movie Deliverance. Given that Max, Dieh and Cassie are all from the American South and had the accent and verbiage to play into that perfectly, it only seemed appropriate. Yes, shit can happen, but it seemed highly unlikely, and fear cannot be a prime motivator in life unless it is absolutely called for. This wasn't one of those moments where it was.

Still, all of that and we still didn't get to camp in our little wonderland. Once again Sanzo and some of his entourage came down to check on us and again insist that we camp in town (to be clear, it was never made clear that we had to, only that they suggested we should). Again we told them we'd be fine and not to worry. After eating and enjoying a few of the Prestige, and in the middle of our learning how to play Spades, headlamps on as it was dark now, we suddenly realized we were surrounded by Haitians. It was a large group from the town, led by Jean, the head of tourism for Bassin-Bleu. This time it was made clear we were not allowed to camp by the water (the first time might I add) and the real reason came out - if something were to happen to us, Jean has to report to the Minister of Tourism. Should things not be as he wants, the police would be dispatched to Bassin-Bleu and make things difficult for everyone. Given Haitian history, that made perfect sense, and while we were pretty pissed they didn't just tell us that to begin with, we nonetheless struck camp in the dark, packing up our perfectly made tent, and, with Cassie's gimpy toe still in the equation, hiked up and out of the waterfalls and back to town. Max wasn't at all happy about it, but I couldn't help but laugh. You have to roll with the punches, and the locals weren't mean about it. They all helped carry our stuff, and helped keep Dieh and Cassie from falling given the darkness. I talked more with Jean about his job and Haiti in general. Zombies came up (one of my favorite things!) and he told me that that was another reason we had to come to town - zombies could be out at night. That might sound ridiculous, but if you haven't been to Haiti, you probably don't understand the seriousness they have for vodou (that's the technically appropriate way to spell "voodoo"). It is a common saying that Haiti is "80% Catholic and 100% Vodou". I've borne witness to some our local volunteers swear they have seen people transform into chickens and roosters and what not (a statement that was truly hilarious given Mathilde's face and total lack of ability to remain serious when she translated it for us blancs), and while I clearly don't believe it, you have to be respectful regardless. I mean hell, how many people out there believe in a guy who was conceived without any need for a male parent or his genetic coding, that grew up to walk on water and heal people by touch alone, and then resurrected from the dead only to ascend to Heaven? Is that truly any less improbably than a man turning into a chicken? Suffice it to say, people believe what they want to believe, and who am I to tell them they're wrong as long as their beliefs aren't making life miserable for others? But I'm getting sidetracked...

So yes, we were saved from zombies by the locals and, once getting to town, were offered a nice little plot of flat land near an old dilapidated home ("My father's home," Sanzo told me). I thought that was pretty cool of them, especially since they stayed with us to help set up the tent. Before too long, we were back where we started, tent up and ready to be slept in, and after bidding the locals goodnight, we fell asleep.

Asleep, that is, until I awoke in the middle of the night in total darkness with a very obvious insect something perched atop my closed right eye. Beginning to freak out internally, as judging by the size and number of legs on the thing, I thought it was likely one of the brown recluse spiders that are all over this country, which meant if it did in fact bite me in the eye, I was looking at a very high likelihood of blindness. Brown recluse spiders are very, very venomous, and their bites cause necrosis. It can get bad. If you want to see what I mean, click here, but be forewarned, it isn't fun to look at. Needless to say, all of that running through my mind, I remained as perfectly still as I could, willing myself not to breathe or blink until the something but probably a spider on my eye decided to move. It did, shuffling down to my right cheek, at which point I slapped it off of me into the side of the tent, which was conveniently pressed against where I was sleeping. "Cassie! Cassie! Get a light. Get the light!" It was a half-scream, half-whisper as I sat waiting for Senor Spider, now proper pissed off, to exact his revenge. Cassie, god bless her soul, took her sweet ass time getting the headlamp, I'm talking a good fifteen seconds, as Max and Dieh were mumbling nonsense given I'd just jerked all three of them out of sleep. Headlamp finally secured and switched on, we shone around my side of the tent, waiting, looking, and yes! There it is. The biggest damn spi... Wait, wait. That's not a spider. But it is big, damn big. The biggest damn cockroach I've seen since I've been in Haiti. After breathing a sigh of relief, and watching Max immediately stop giving a shit and go back to bed, Cassie, southern girl that she is, went about trying to grab Mr. Nightmare Bug with her hands to toss him out the tent. That didn't work, because when she finally did grab him the feel of his wriggling freaked her out and she dropped him (now imagine coming out of a peaceful sleep to discover that aforementioned wriggling taking place on your eyeball) so she grabbed one of the shoes she bought that very day and went about trying to kill him. Being a cockroach, that didn't really work either, given they're immortal, but he did decide to hang out on her shoe long enough for her to put it outside, zip up the tent, and celebrate victory. Certain blindness avoided, with my ego just a bit bruised, I settled back onto my air mattress as the girls laughed at me, and managed to slip back into sleep before too long.

Up next: the return to Jacmel, and our night of splurging. Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Mental Health Break Chronicles, photos in tow.


  1. very interesting blog
    perhaps besides zombies and water and responsiblities
    the locals didn't want to fully share their
    secret spiritual spot and wanted you as foreign
    blancs to submit to their will as often it is outside of one's own element.