Thursday, January 12, 2012

Comused (Confused and Amused) in Haiti

Who’d a thunk that riding waves with the “Godfather of Haitian surfing”, getting and fixing 8 flat tires on our trucks, bailing our Haitian driver out of jail and being the 2nd person to ever kiteboard the northwest coast would be relatively insignificant events on our Haitian Adventure Sustainability trip. These moments were but a blip on our magical and mystical 8 day journey.


Let me explain...


Prior to stepping foot on the island of Hispanola, when I thought of Haiti (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiti), images surfaced of mystical ceremonies, zombies, voodoo dolls and for the past two years...devastation following the massive earthquake. After spending over a week exploring the northwest coast, I found all of these things and a myriad of other splendors that make Haiti one of the most challenging and exciting places I have ever stepped foot.


Other than the above, I really had very little expectations prior to arriving in Haiti. I had of course heard of the widespread poverty that existed and the desperate situation that existed throughout much of the country. I had also heard whispers of the untouched coastline, specifically the northwest region, that held potential for challenging and rugged activities...if you could get there.


The premise of the trip was to join up with some adventurous pals and tow along a wide assortment of adventure gear to explore and ultimately showcase the adventure sport potential in the country. If we could identify and ultimately showcase the wonders of the Haitian coastline, we would hopefully be able to confidently promote Haiti as a viable adventure sports destination. Tourism is of course one of the most viable forms of economic infusion as it touches on multiple facets of a local economy...from the guy selling fruit on the side of the street, to the bar where we buy our beers to the grocery store where we purchase our food.


Based on email conversations with several adventure minded Haitians and hours pouring over Google Earth images, we concluded that we would bring mountain bikes, kiteboard and surf gear in hopes of finding the right conditions and terrain to give each of these sports a go. By driving from Port Au Prince by car around the rugged western and northern coasts on very little traveled dirt roads, we hoped to locate the ideal destinations for each of the respective sports.


Upon arrival into the recently devastated capitol city of Port Au Prince it quickly became apparent that even 2 years (almost to the date) of the massive and pulverizing earthquake, the city has a long way to go with recovery. Prior to the quake, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with a history of corrupt government. The natural disaster in January 2010 was a setback on a massive scale and has left essentially no work and an economy in shambles.


All of this being said, there has been a lot of bandwidth put towards Haiti since the disaster, primarily in Port Au Prince, in attempt to provide basic necessities to it’s inhabitants. We were profoundly impressed with what Sam Bloch has going in the city with his organization Grassroots United (http://grassrootsunited.org). Not only do they provide a ‘conduit’ for many of the NGO and relief organizations in Haiti, they also have become a sentinel for sustainability projects in the face of disaster. Building construction based on compressed used plastic bottles, straw bale homes, rudimentary cement crushing machines and ingenious composting applications are but a few of the technologies observable on their organization site. But in my mind, the most impressive sustainable project on the grounds was the aquaponics display. This self contained system merges hydroponic food production and fish farming. Fifty gallon containers are connected to a raised vegetable rock and soil bed through a system of simple hosing. The containers are filled with live Talapia fish which provide fertilizer (through their poop) for plants to grow in the beds while the vegetables filter the water for the fish. A tight, symbiotic relationship that demonstrates biomimicry in its truest form. It has some of the highest yields of any food production method and uses very little water with zero waste. Brilliant! Too bad this concept can’t catch on everywhere.


Once we departed the “family” scene at Grassroots, we set out on our long bumpy ride up the western coast towards our first multi day destination of Mole St Nicholas on the northwest corner of the country. Within 2 hours of departure from our overnight camp at Gonaives we stopped to repair a flat tire on one of our 3 trucks. Little did we know this would be the first of 8 flat tires we would encounter throughout the 8 days (you do the math)... a relatively nominal number considering the rugged, bumpy ass roads we were on for every mile of the drive.


After a couple of days in country I began to take note in the similarities between the language of Haitian Creole and the Tanzanian version of Swahili I have heard for 10 years on my trips there. I was told by our resident Haitian historian, Paul Clammer that the version of Creole we hear in Haiti is a blend of French, the indigenous native language of the Taino people as well as the Fon language of Western Africa spoken by the slaves that were brought to Haiti in the 16th century. It manifests as a syrupy blended version of language that is as foreign to me as Greek.


Paul joined us for the first half of the journey as he wanted to explore the uncharted northwest coast in order to complete his Lonely Planet version of Haiti. You know a region has had very little activity if the Lonely Planet has yet to document it. We were fortunate to have him along as he provided invaluable insight into Haitian history, politics and culture. He detailed the mysterious form of religion we know as voodoo and how it often manifests with souls, spirits, sacrifices and werewolves (a.k.a.. Loup-Garou). He also explained that Haitian national independence was more about the slaves seeking their personal independence rather than national sovereignty as was clearly manifested in the slave rebellion of 1791. It’s like they said, “Listen Frenchy, having a nation to call our own is secondary to our own freedom...back off and go away!”


And that’s how it went down.


Towards the end of the second full day of being banged around in the cab of a pickup, I spontaneously became inspired to pull the mt bikes out of the back of the trucks and do the remaining mileage into our beach destination of Boukan Guingette. The GPS showed it was approximately 6 miles away down a dirt road...easy right?


Well... as is the case most times in the “world of wingin it”, 6 miles turned into a rainy descent close to 10 miles with a flat tire about 6 miles in. But when a flat occurs what do you do...? Play soccer with the locals. Three of us found ourselves in a heated game of “football” with the local kids in a field on the side of the road. They won. Beautiful.


Hours later we rolled into what appeared to be, even in the dark by the moonlight, a magical outpost on the side of the ocean. Our camp was already set up by our truck drivers so we could just step right into a meal of the fish catch of the day and a few tasty Prestige beers (a yummy Haitian lager). After a few beers we all made our way out into the water as a group under the moon and enjoyed countless laughs as it felt our adventure really began to come together in earnest.


The next day provided the ideal conditions to try our hands at the first kiteboarding jaunt in this part of the world....ever. Tyler is an absolute killer under his kite. He launched out and immediately proceeded to pop multiple launches of 20 feet or more while skimming across the water with great speed and style. Then it was my turn...not so much. I popped up and slid across the water for a couple laps just happy to get up and make it official. A few other team members got out and gave it a valiant effort but it all came down to Tyler and his sick performance. The locals were beside themselves...never having seen a kite carry someone across and over the water in such a way. They laughed and screamed with excitement as they watched. Beautiful!


Side note...my GoPro camera which was attached to Tyler’s kiteboard, fell off on one of his higher and more dramatic jumps on day 1 of our stay at Boukan Guingette. I just assumed it was gone, gone in the depths of the clear sea water. We just received an email from the owner of the beachside restaurant where we lodged that the local fisherman found the GoPro on the ocean floor and returned it to him simply because they knew that it must belong to the crazy white guys flying under kites. This act alone tells you of the sincerity and honesty that exists among the Haitian people.


The next day was all about mountain biking complete with wicked single track (which I kept track of with my GPS), more flat tires and some cactus issues (http://vimeo.com/34896575). Beautiful!


That night we had one final test prior to arrival into Port Au Paix. A nighttime river crossing with the reputation for sweeping vehicles downriver. Well, alrighty then...this sounds like fun.


We watched with great interest as a few other trucks chose their lines and made the crossing...some cleaner than others. At it’s highest, the water seemed to engulf a small truck, easily flowing over the headlights. One by one, our drivers picked the zig zagging line that seemed best suited to them and went for it and each time the trucks filled with jubilation as they reached the far bank. Just another day in Haiti.


The next day we drove on more of the same (read...bumpy, dusty ass roads), marking GPS waypoints along the road for potential single track rides as well as small villages where travelers could purchase food and drink. This type of mapping had yet to be done in this area of the country and I found it quite satisfying to be “adventure mapping” an area that had seen VERY little road traffic. All along the way, waving and engaging with local folks on the roads and towns...many of them sporting very curious looks as 3 trucks filled with foreigners and mountain bikes putted through their communities.


Our next outfitter of the journey was a young Haitian mountain biker named Tony. We were to depart the care of our wonderfully competent ground coordinator Cyril Pressoir and make the rest of the journey with Tony and his crew as we surfed and mountain biked around Cape Haitian. We knew things were about to get interesting when we immediately found that Tony’s other driver was currently in jail for having an expired drivers license and I would be placed in charge of the 2nd trucks passage. Although I have driven in many countries around the globe, the road and traffic conditions in Haiti rivaled the most challenging for sure. I would have my hands full. But at least it was dark and raining. Sweet!


Two hours later and after lots of Obi Wan Kenobi, Jedi channeling...we arrived, safe and sound at the lovely beachside hotel of Camiere Plage. Delicious ceviche, more local fish and a few more Prestiges and we racked out for the next day’s venture with surfing with local legend Russell Behrmann, followed by a BBQ with an expat named Tim who has set up quite the utopia on the north coast.


After a mild morning rainstorm we headed up the coast with Russell and a truck full of surfboards. To get to the spot, we had to descend down a steep, rugged, jungly dirt road to a small turn around. As we were making the drive I commented that the ride back up was going to be a guaranteed “hooray”...especially in wet conditions. Some foreshadowing to say the least.


Russell is known around the country and beyond as the “Godfather of Haitian surfing” due to his pioneering efforts at essentially all viable surf breaks around the country. It was a pleasure to see him move with ease from wave to wave as the rest of us fumbled our way on to a couple of the 5 foot face waves. Surrounded by rugged coast line and dotted with remnants of 400 year old French fortresses, it was quite the idyllic place to catch a wave.


As the late morning rain storm came and went, the anticipation of an epic drive back up the road came to fruition.

Truck....stuck.

The slippery mud turned into the consistency of Crisco and, as is common with Haitian trucks, our 4 wheel drive feature had shit the bed. A couple of hours later and multiple tries with me behind the wheel (I was suddenly a pretty good Haitian driver) and the other pickup pulling my truck by a long strap, I jostled us up to high ground and we were safe. On to meet our soon to be friend Tim.


At the age of 22, Tim ventured over to Haiti in search of adventure that was seeded by a National Geographic story he had read a few years earlier. A few decades later...he has built what can only be described as a coastal nirvana. Tim has been resourceful and vigilant as he as constructed a “disembarking location” for the weekly Royal Caribbean cruise ships that visit the north coast of Haiti. Passengers who choose to get off the ship and “experience” Haiti are given the opportunity to visit Tim’s creation of a ‘typical’ Haitian village, experience his small but exciting “adventure park” complete with alpine slide and zip-line as well as visit the original landing point for Christopher Columbus as he bounced around the north coast of Haiti. Although some might perceive Tim’s venture as contrived, I see it as an opportunity to employ dozens of Haitians as well as introduce an insulated American society to a more “digestible” version of Haitian culture rather than the poverty riddled scenes in Port Au Prince (although I think it should be mandatory for Americans to the witness the latter as well).


We enjoyed our afternoon with Tim and his wife Kim very much...taking a ride on their 90 ft double hulled boat and identifying another sweet location to kiteboard in the future. Unbeknownst to us, our new mountain biking guide Tony had been battling alcoholism for decades and only in his late 30s he and his family were suffering greatly from his disease. Right in front of our faces, Tony blacked out and fell down a set of concrete steps with his 6 year old daughter in tow. Miraculously she was uninjured and I found Tony to have sustained only minor abrasions and cuts to his face. This incident prompted an unsolicited but entirely appropriate and necessary intervention with Tony facilitated by Kim in their living room, with all of us as witnesses. Although some may have perceived this event as uncomfortable and untimely, I along with my group found it to be an extraordinarily powerful and moving event. Kim was strong with her words. We chimed in when appropriate. Tony sobbed. I think...I hope we were there to witness a life being saved that night.


It was around this time that Russell told us of an oft used English phrase he uses with regards to Haiti... Comused. Haiti will confuse and amuse you...a perfect blend.


The next day we took two trucks loaded with mountain bikes up towards the Citadel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citadelle_Laferri√®re), the high mountain fortress built in the early 19th century by Henri Christophe to display the strength and sophistication of the new Haitian government. It’s quite a sight to say the least. We guessed the mountain bike ride down the cobblestone road from the structure itself would be an exciting way to follow up a historical cruise through the Fort.


As our two trucks wound up the road the tropical rain fell and moistened up the circuitous, steep cobble as long drops appeared on both sides. All was going to plan until our truck rounded a corner and I immediately took note of about a dozen local Haitians running to peer over the bank at something.

Uh oh.

My gaze then caught the image of a white pickup truck just coming to rest on it’s side about 12 feet down an embankment in the thick of the jungle. My thoughts raced with images of Philip, Louise and Tyler stuck in the truck with unimaginable crush injuries. Not exactly the place to run a mass casualty incident and evacuation. I jumped out of the truck as my heart began to beat out of my chest when Philip stuck his head out of the upturned drivers window and calmly stated, “We are all alright”. They each climbed out, seemingly whole and unscathed. The 2 Haitians in the bed of the truck had amazingly jumped from the sliding truck and avoided being crushed underneath. Miraculous.


What happened next was simply outstanding...and comusing. We watched as roughly 50 local Haitian men and boys connected a strap to our one upright truck and began to physically push and pull the truck until, after a half dozen attempts, it was pulled back from certain carnage to being back up on the road and potentially drivable. At first look I said out loud that I thought there was no way possible their efforts would pull that truck out. Thirty minutes later, they proved me wrong.


Once the truck was back on the road another remarkable moment occurred. The workers along with another 50 spectators erupted in a joyous celebration filled with singing, screaming with hands raised in the air. It all appeared to be a manifestation of national pride and resourcefulness....essentially saying, “Look at us Haitians! We are small, we are poor but we get it done!” It was quite a scene...one that I will never forget.


That day turned to night and we were thankful that another day of Haitian adventure had left us with vivid memories and no injuries.


I have been blessed to travel all over the world, seeking out adventure...and most times, I find it. In this case, it was on steroids. What a place, this remarkable country of Haiti. I am excited about its potential as an adventure sports destination. It is for the strong and rugged amongst us...not for the soft. If you want rugged and a taste of the unknown, I know the right place for you.


I will go back...

You know why? Because I’m thoroughly comused.