Clearly, a fairy godmother has been watching over the “North State for Haiti” team since we left Redding on Tuesday. We survived an outbound flight debacle, an unexpected overnight in Florida and a one-way flight to Cap Haitien, turned multiple-layover aerial exploit. Our fairy, Ghislaine Pierre, finally appeared to us as we boarded our Haiti-bound plane.
Ghislaine, a cook for the American Red Cross and owner of Salon de Elegance in Petion-Ville, took pity on eight weary, sweat-saturated Americans. She imparted some practical advice about a visit to her country and saw us safely on our way to the connecting airline before extending an open-ended overture of assistance. She was our ambassador to a completely foreign land, and our unexpected layover stop, Port-au-Prince, was the gateway.
An aerial view of Port-au-Prince reveals pockets of bright blue, post-earthquake humanitarian aid tents surrounded by the remains of shanty neighborhoods. Streets are swelled with the unemployed, idle two-thirds of Haiti’s labor force, victims of high inflation and continuous social upheaval. More time in Port-au-Prince may have revealed her charms, but she is the spitting image of a developing nation’s over-populated principal city.
Once we were in the air again, and had traversed Port-au-Prince and Haiti’s arid southwestern region, the topography morphed into irrigated subsistence farms at the base of emerald-coated mountains. The mountains drop off to Haiti’s most beautiful beaches. Cap Haitien’s banana palm-studded tarmac is the inverse of the shanties shadowed by runway traffic in Port-au-Prince.
After a white-knuckled flight on a twin-engine Gulfstream 30, we were on the ground in Cap Hatien, nearing the end of our journey. Milot and the hospital where the team would volunteer seemed even more elusive than it had during months of travel planning. We were greeted at the airport by a convoy from Hopital Sacre Coeur and whisked on dusty roads through the countryside. After several near-collisions with an armada of motorcycles on the road to Milot, driving through the double gates of the hospital rendered us all speechless. We were finally here!
Not for long. We had a few minutes to set our bags down before a whirlwind tour of the hospital and CRUDEM compound. (Keep reading “To Haiti and Back” for more to come about our temporary Haitian home.) After the orientation, we applied DEET-laden bug spray and headed back out CRUDEM’s mythical gates to explore the town of Milot and one of Haiti’s most revered landmarks: San Souci Palace.
Ceasar, my guide to San Souci and a 74-year-old father of six, leached onto us halfway up the hike’s steep climb. Self-appointed scouts are de rigueur in tourist zones of developing countries, but Ceasar was likeable, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him “no thanks.” Adam’s new #1 travel tip: Don’t ever judge a 74-year-old by chronology alone.
I could barely keep stride with Ceasar’s effortless, sweat-free ascent to San Souci, made even more impressive by his non-stop, knowledgeable narration.
San Souci was the royal residence of President Henri Cristophe, his wife Marie-Louise and their twin daughters. It was completed in 1813, a few years after Haiti’s 1804 independence from France. Acknowledged by many to be the Caribbean equivalent of the palace at Versailles, San Souci, translated “without worry,” was never rebuilt after a damaging earthquake in 1942. Its decaying ruins are picture-perfect vantage points for views of Milot and the surrounding mountains. The ground’s grassy terraces are tailor-made for soccer matches, a popular pastime with Milot’s youth.
After the tour, I thanked Ceasar, made his attempt to put me in cardiac arrest worth his while, and the team descended the hill with San Souci in our rear-view.
A great day and the beginning of our week at Hopital Sacre Coeur was capped off by a few cold beers with the hospital’s cadre of volunteers, who I am sure will soon be new friends, and a hearty, oddly American meal.
We are so not in Redding anymore. I just hope that when a group of Haitian visits the north state, they report being welcomed into a totally foreign land by a fairy godmother, are rendered speechless by their imagined destination and somehow get there and home again “san souci.”
Click here to read Chapters 1 and 2 of “To Haiti and Back.”
The team is accepting donations for CRUDEM. Make checks payable to CRUDEM and send to P.O. Box 633, 215 Lake Blvd, Redding, CA 96003.
For more information about CRUDEM and Hopital Sacre Coeur, visit crudem.org.
Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your NorthState weekend events to firstname.lastname@example.org.