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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Seeing Port au Prince like a Tourist, Meeting a Celebrity

Today being our last full day in Haiti, we spent it driving up into Kenscoff which is "up on the mountain" above Port au Prince.  It is cooler up there and many fancier homes can be found.  The Baptist Mission is also up there, which I saw for the first time today.  A lovely craft shop full of hand made bags, linens, jewelry as well as dishes from china and wood.  An American woman walked up and introduced herself as "Madam Wallace", and told us, "I'm 91 years old and I've lived in Haiti since 1946!". When we told her we work at Ecole St Vincent, she brightened up even more and talked about Sister Joan Margaret. She said her name is Eleanor, but the Haitians call her Madam Wallace because of her husband.  I asked her about Larry and Gwen Mellon, who founded Albert Schweitzer hospital in Deschapelles, (about whom I am reading a book at the moment), and she told me about Gwen Mellon coming to Haiti and helping her out with caring for sick children.  She also knows Dr Gretchen Berggren, who vaccinated thousands of children against tetanus during the 70s and 80s.  Apparently Dr Berggren's daughter was baptized by Pastor Wallace.  Then Eleanor mentioned her son's book, Creole Made Easy.  Wally Turnbull, I realized with a sudden shock!  I have studied his book and listened to his CD dozens of times!  It was like meeting the First Lady and not realizing who she was right away.

With more time and a cup of coffee, I could have listened to her stories for hours.  I'm sure she would have obliged!  But we had to leave so I said goodbye and she said she would pray for me and our ministry.  Quite a blessing from a special person who has devoted her life to the people of Haiti.

Sienna and I walked across the street and "ran the gauntlet" of shop keepers pressing for our attention.  We found two delightful paintings and then got out of there, our money spent along with our tolerance for requests from all sides, "Can I show you Madam?  Come see my shop Madam?  I give you good price Madam!"

Tomorrow we will stop at St Vincents to say goodbye to our friends before boarding the plane for Atlanta. Such an amazing two weeks.  As I sit typing for this blogpost at the guest house, sweating and looking forward to air conditioning, I am so thankful for this chance to travel and learn so much more about this country I love.  We have memories and treasures to bring home, and a trunk load of stories.  Thank you to my readers for sharing some of these with me, and for taking the time to glimpse the "other side of Haiti".

Friday, May 29, 2015

Voyage Day #6 Lots of rest and a quick plane trip

Slept from 10:30 pm til 6:30 am in cool beachside hotel room.  Sienna and I cant get over how much cooler it is in Cap Haitian than in Port au Prince.  Morning coffee with fresh mango and pineapple!
Sienna and I spent an hour or so in the ocean; the water was clear and not very cold.  Many vacationing Haitians and a few Americans.  My husband pointed out that if you want to see Haiti like a tourist, you'd better get here before the Hilton moves in and the rest of the world discovers how fabulous it is.  Our hotel room, which could easily sleep four people, cost $120 per night, including breakfast and dinner!

The ride to the airport, through Cap Haitian, drove through traffic only possible in Haiti.  In general there are two lanes of traffic going opposite directions.  The tap taps like to make themselves a third lane, then the motorcycles weave in and out between all, zoom around onto the sidewalk and back into traffic, or cut directly across in front of you to get around a slow moving vehicle.  At the intersection, its hard to tell who's turning right or left because everyone piles into the center and tries to beat the other guy.  At one point we had a clear road in front of us, then a small truck ahead stopped to make a three point turn in the middle of the road to turn around.  In America, most drivers would stop and wait for the other driver to finish his turn and get out of the way.  In Haiti, the solution was to pass BEHIND  the truck, on the far LEFT side of the road.  I'm sure you can't even picture what I'm talking about.  It defies description.

Alongside the sides of the road were every kind of store.  Kris Te La (Christ Was Here) Barber Shop.  Sang de Jezi (Blood of Jesus) Moto Parts.  Stalls and tables with every possible bicycle replacement.  Pedals stacked on one table. Wheels on another.  Gears on another.  Bike frames and wheel spokes, sold singly or together.  A store for lumber, with stacks of two by fours visible through the open door piled to the ceiling.  A tractor trailer with a load of cement bags being unloaded one by one, the first man handing a bag to a second who carried it on his head into what looked like a small warehouse, followed by another man for the next bag of cement, and so on.  Madonna Beauty Shop.  "Miroirs e 2 Vitres" painted on a business door (Mirrors and 2 Windowpanes). Why two? I thought to myself.  One stall with stacks of shoes, another with every size denim jeans, the next with t shirts.  Reminds me of that scene in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where Bill Nighy goes to buy replacement parts to fix his sink.  I suppose if you lived in a place long enough you would figure out where to buy just about anything.

Checking in at the small airport, Sienna went on ahead of me through security, which takes about five minutes only because the xray machine is broken and the agent must look through each bag by hand.  As I came around the corner I found a waiting room with about 4 Haitians, one uniformed ?airline pilot or crew member asleep on one of the benches, and no Sienna.  Ummm...momentarily bewildered, I could not figure out where she had gone.  I located her eventually in the bathroom and laughed at myself for being so easily confused.  On board the plane, there were 21 seats and 21 passengers, with two pilots.  No stewardesses walking through the cabin making sure our carryon luggage was "stowed entirely beneath the seat" or any sort of pre-flight check.  Just a recording, in English, with the usual safety talk about "In case of a water landing, your seat cushion also functions as a flotation device" and "in case of sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically drop from the overhead compartment"; at that statement for some reason the man next to me and I simultaneously glanced at the panel above our head and laughed.  I think we both doubted the presence of actual oxygen equipment in that tiny compartment, or whether it would actually function if it was.  Also puzzling was why the announcement was in English, with a plane full of Haitians. Another surprise  was actually seeing the runway out the front window, an unknown sight on the large jets I'm accustomed to travel in.  However, I must say it was an easy flight and despite my anticipation of being nervous,I was not anxious at all. Within 30 minutes we were descending into Port au Prince.  I could feel the heat as we dropped, missing already the coolness of the north.

As we waited for our single bag at the airport in Haiti, the usual cluster of men offering to sell us paintings or give us taxi rides surrounded us.   Sienna felt a man tap her arm repeatedly and snarled, "Pa manyen mwen" which means "Dont touch me!". Suddenly we recognized with much chagrin, that it was our hired driver!  She apologized over and over, and he just laughed and thought it was great that she could speak Kreyol!

We met new friends at the guest house tonight and shared our stories and photos of the fantastic places we've seen.  Only two more days then home to Memphis.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

VOYAGE Day # 5

Sans Souci Palace and the Citadelle

I cannot believe I am sitting on a gorgeous beach in Okap(northern district of Haiti) drinking a pina colada and watching Haitians and American tourists play in the surf.  Sienna is out cold on the bed in our beachfront hotel room, under a fan with the breeze blowing through.  My chair is in the shaded protection of a large almond tree as I try to recount the marvelous things we saw and did today.
Leaving the lovely and restful Hotel Roi Christophe reluctantly, we climbed in a van with Moise, our driver, who arrived on time and smiling.  First stop the village of Milot, to pick up our informative and friendly guide Maurice.  We asked him to speak only Kreyol with us, after explaining my daughter's studies and my attempts to learn.  He happily obliged, so the rest of the day we heard the history of the Haitian revolution and all about Henri Christophe, Jean Jacques Dessalines, and Touissant Loverture in his native language.  It was quite compelling to be standing within the palace built  after Haitian independence was declared Jan 1, 1804, and hear this man proudly tell of his people defeating the strongest army in the world, the French.  How Napoleon sold Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson so he could return to reclaim Haiti (that didnt work, obviously).  How Christophe and Dessalines fought in the American Revolution in Savannah Georgia, recruited with many Haitian soldiers by General Lafayette (I'll have to check his facts on that one) The sad tale of Prince Noel (younger brother of Christophe's wife and queen, Marie Louise) who died in an accident with gunpowder.  Marie Louise was Italian, born in Haiti to Italian immigrants.  When Christophe killed himself (more on that later) she returned to Italy with her two daughters. (neither had children-we asked, thinking there might be royal Haitian family still living somewhere in Italy)
Christophe wanted to build a palace to rival Versailles, complete with gardens. His magnificent creation was damaged in the earthquake of 1842 and abandoned.  What we saw today was a palace of brick and stone, with lovely arched doorways and windows and fine views of the mountains all around. They had a hospital and printing press and a place to greet international visitors.  Christophe corresponded with heads of state including the Czar of Russia.  We went in the morning and the air was cool. There were half a dozen young Haitians studying their homework; one girl working on chemistry problems of all things. No other humans invaded the grand space and we wandered from room to room, mouths hanging open and cell phone cameras flashing. If you are friends with my daughter Sienna on Facebook you can see more photos than I've included here.

Leaving the palace, whose name Sans Souci means "no worries", we climbed back into the van for another "off road adventure" Haitian style.  Picture driving up a stoned road with switchbacks for 20 minutes, then arriving at a "way-station" where you meet your horse and guide for the last push up the mountain to the Citadelle.  Being warned by Tim and Mimi Baker, who have done this before, I was prepared for this!  The guides instructed us to lean forward on the ascent and backward on the descent. Right.  And dont fall off when the horse shifts his weight to stop for bodily necessities!   We climbed for 25 minutes, up and up and up.  The road was well maintained, restored during Jean Claude Duvaliers administration, we were told.  We saw several people working on it today.  Ispan is the government ministry responsible for maintaining the historical monuments of Haiti, and as far as I can tell they are doing a good job.

Sienna is reading the Game of Thrones, and as we walked and climbed through the Citadelle today she remarked how it seemed similar to the old french castles she saw in Europe last year.  Rows of cannons looking out through windows called "murder windows" (I dont remember the french name!). A grand aqueduct system built by the Haitians that still functions today to collect water and bring it down the mountain. At one time 6000 people lived at the Citadelle, and we saw the giant bread ovens used to prepare food for so many.

After Haitian independence, Jean Jacques Dessalines was the ruler of Haiti, similar to our George Washington, the guide told us.  Sadly, Dessalines was assassinated by Haitians.  Christophe and Alexandre Petion both wanted to rule Haiti after that. Christophe ruled in the north and Petion in the south.  We now have Petionville, a city  near Port au Prince.  Christophe apparently suffered a stroke,leaving him  partly paralyzed on the left side.  When Petion heard that he sent troops to conquer the north and Sans Souci.  Apparently this is the reason Christophe shot himself at Sans Souci, to avoid the disgrace.  We stood in the room where this happened, as Maurice described for us the sad tale.  Looking up at the majestic structure, I felt the loss of the dream of this man and thought about the structures man builds to show off his strength and power, which all come to naught in the end.

After climbing through more chambers, batteries, and vast empty rooms we rested at the top where we could see the mountains all around us and the drawbridge below.  Maurice was patient with our many questions and was happy, I think, to be giving his tour in Kreyol.  Very few people, even Haitians, ask for the tour in Kreyol. "They all want to speak in French", he told us. We talked about Kreyol being an oral language only until about 30 years ago.  Now the Haitian children learn Kreyol AND French and English in school, which we all agreed is wonderful.  There is a great need for more schoolbooks in Kreyol. Pas Ti Pas, the Haitian expression for "little by little"

We also agreed that Haiti's greatest asset is her young people.  He described Sienna as a "citizen of the world" which is a great compliment.

Descending down the mountain on horseback was mildly alarming, especially when the horse wanted to catch up with his "lady friend in front", the guide told me.  He put me and my horse in front after that, so no more funny business.

Tipping is always confusing in Haiti, as I never know how much is fair.  Fortunately I have learned to ask other Haitians this important question, so Maurice had prepared me and I gave each of our horse guides $5. There were three of them.  The first man quietly said to me, "you can give me $10, if you want, I wont tell the others."

Back into the van again, and it was only 12:30 PM, and still blessedly cool.  Maurice took us to Lakay Lakou, which he is creating as a "cultural center" in his village of Milot.  Arriving there, on the rooftop we were greeted by his wife with a bowl of fresh water and a bar of soap to wash our hands.  Se magnifik!  Lunch prepared graciously by Madame Innocent (a fine name) included carrots, potatoes, some type of green beans, onions, and tomatoes, all directly from her garden.  Chicken, killed that day she told us.  Picliz, Very Hot!  Brown rice.  For dessert, mango and cashew, the fruit of the same tree that gives us cashew nuts.  It tastes like bread pudding, absolutely delicious.  Again from their garden.  And finally, coffee, ground from their own beans from their own tree.  Hows that for Haitian immersion?

Sad to leave this welcoming couple and their obvious love for Haiti, we climbed again into the van   at about 3:00, to head for our hotel, Cormier Plage.  Again a mountain road, this one narrow, unpaved, through back country not obviously inhabited by anyone, much less a resort hotel?  Just sit back and enjoy the process, I have learned to tell myself.  What comes next will be even more wonderful than what you just left behind you.  Of course, what happens to a fifty something year old woman after a fine lunch with two cups of coffee when she rides on a bouncy road for thirty minutes?  You know what Im talking about.  I was about to ask for an old fashioned stop alongside the road when we arrived at our hotel.  Another botanical paradise, rivaling anything I saw in Hawaii.  Our room is beachside, and we have all evening and tomorrow morning until noon to enjoy it.
Truly I must pinch myself, or at least write all this down to preserve these memories.

Sienna and I promised each other we will someday return to magical Cap Haitian and its treasures.

Susan Nelson

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Today we traveled to Cap Haitien via the Sans Souci bus.  Speaking Kreyol is a huge help with understanding "check your bag over there" and "here is the waiting room" and "the bus leaves in 30 minutes". We did NOT realize we had assigned seats, however, as there were no visible signs or numbered seat designations, only Haitians asking us to please move out of their seat!  A helpful woman showed us where to sit, and off we went, pulling out of the station promptly at 9:05 am.  The bus, to our pleased surprise, was a large comfortable AIR-CONDITIONED affair like any tour bus in the US.  Complete with TV screen, playing a Haitian soap opera, but  minus the bathroom.  We stopped along the road at one point, in the countryside, and a woman took her small daughter off the bus briefly.  I realized that was a bathroom stop and hoped it would not be the only option, as it is a six hour bus ride to Cap Haitian! (Okap).

Reflecting on our progress north through Haiti, I asked myself which type of road do I prefer? A paved road that curves and twists up the mountain?  Or a straight UNPAVED road?  Once we got about 50 miles out of Port au Prince, those were the two choices.  I figured the pavement ran out in St Marc and they hadn't gotten around to repaving the northern part of the highway yet. We did see a few road crews at work, with heavy machinery in evidence, so perhaps the road to Okap will be better next time.  The unpaved road is gravel and filled with holes, some of them 12 inches deep and 3 feet across.  The driver is obviously experienced and moves from one  side of the road to the other in order to avoid the deepest ones.  Like Mark Twain navigating the Mississippi, I thought.  Careful drinking from your water bottle because you might chip a tooth on the next bounce. I think I have bruises on my back from banging into the seat over and over, despite the cushions. The driver blared his horn at every blind curve to warn oncomers "Nou La!". We're here!  This meant loud horn blasts every 30 seconds or so, for the better part of 3 HOURS! May I observe that "personal space" as defined by Haitian bus and truck drivers, has a different meaning than we Americans are used to.  Our travel agent had advised us to "sit on the left side of the bus, you'll see better.". The better to see the oncoming Mack trucks!
Mercifully there was a 30 minute stop halfway, for bathroom break and lunch break, in a roadside station built just for that purpose.

Back on the road, we see miles and miles of hilly countryside, most of it looks farmed.  Who owns all that land, I wonder?  The sun is so bright I need my sunglasses, even through tinted windows.  There are rare signs of human dwellings or buildings, other than the omnipresent BANK-LOTO buildings one sees everywhere in Haiti.  Concrete buildings the size of a Texas outhouse, with Pere Eternel (Eternal Father) often painted brightly on the side.  No houses or buildings to speak of for miles, then there is a BANK LOTO building.  Apparently every community in Haiti has one?  Then there are the groups of school children in their uniforms, usually 10 at once, walking along the highway by the dozens and dozens.  There must be schools somewhere hidden in the plaintain groves down the hillside.  Occasionally I see a half finished concrete dwelling, empty now, with arched doorways and windows and a 12x12 pile of cement rubble in the dirt yard.  There are hundreds of these in Haiti as well, and they all look the same.
Other Haitian mysteries include: how can a woman carry what looks like 50 pounds on her head without holding on to it?  The Haitians lay their clean laundry out to dry on the roadside, on what looks to me like bare dirt.  How do they keep their clothes clean?

Arriving at the bus station in Okap, we were quickly greeted by our taxi driver and drove through the "City of Independence" to our Hotel Roi Christophe.

Henri Christophe was one of the leaders of the Haitian revolt against the French, and built himself a fortress called the Citadel. He declared himself king and built a palace called Sans Souci ("without worries"). We visit both places tomorrow.  I noted the city of Cap Haitien seems to have a slightly more permanent feel to it than the crumbling chaos that is Port au Prince.  There are actual storefronts here, with doors instead of huge locked metal gates.  The hotel entrance is open to the street, and a cool breeze has been our company since we arrived.  Gorgeous mahogany furniture fills the rooms and hallways, and there is the usual profusion of colorful botanic life.  Sienna and I enjoyed passion fruit ice cream (intense flavor, like nothing I've ever tasted before)

 and then our feet in the swimming pool before retiring to our room.  Truly a luxury vacation.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reflections on Last Week at St Vincent's and our Amazing Team

Refreshed after a shower, I am sitting in the guest house listening to the nightly rainstorm.  Haiti rain is like no other rain I have experienced.  It comes suddenly and loudly, with crashing thunder and torrents of water.  Sort of like a summer storm in Memphis, except every night it's the same.  Thunder, then the power goes out, then we listen to the downpour. The fans stop spinning, but the wind from the storm blows through the windows and keeps us "mostly" cooled off.

We work so hard and exhaust ourselves during the week at St Vincents, that I often dont get to say to my team members how much I value their time and sacrifice.  At the end of the day its all we can do to eat dinner, take a (cold)shower and withdraw into our selves or our Ipads to regroup for the next day. Not to mention the thousand items we want to remember to get done the next day.
Now that I am vacationing in this beautiful place, I have time to reflect on the many members of our team and what they did for our ministry and the children of St Vincents.

Mimi and Tim, thank you for your dear hearts and willingness to do anything and everything I asked you to do.  Mimi, you asked me before the trip what a retired first grade teacher could do on a medical mission trip.  I think you learned quickly that it takes an entire team to get kids lined up, weigh them, help get their correct names and keep them calm and entertained while waiting to see the doctor.  You blessed us all with your gentle manner and somehow always looked clean and stylish in the Haitian heat!  Tim, what can I say except thank you for being a willing dental assistant to our incredible dental team.  And your first aid skills on the overheated bus were very important! A fellow Texan, you made yourself invaluable.

Brittany brought another pharmacist, Katie, and together they counted, among other things,  about 1500 ibuprofen, reminded me not to prescribe two similar BP meds, wrote out each and every label in Kreyol and explained medication directions carefully to about 50 people.  In Kreyol. And sign language, with Sheryes help. What a gift for me to have confidence in the careful dispensing of medication and know that we did our absolute best to make sure each patient understood their medication

Minda, Sarah and Sonya worked with the children painting and drawing.  This is a treat for the children as well as some of the adults, to create something beautiful.  Thank you for bringing all the supplies and your creative encouragement.  Thank you for working in that hot little classroom all day.  None of you ever complained, not even once.

Sonya and Hana, her daughter, also helped me in the clinic. Hana, thank you for being willing to help anyone and everyone and not complaining when you were sent three different places at once. Thank you for accepting my teaching of a few " medical tricks". I enjoy teaching, and its fun to have a student who listens and learns quickly!

Sonya, I always enjoy being on a team with you. Your quick wit and astute observations always make me laugh!  Teams are much more fun when youre around.

Ashley quietly and cheerfully did the least favorite job of all, pricking the kids' fingers to check their iron count.  John has managed to teach Ashley this important skill, so he doesnt have to do it anymore!  That leaves him "free time" to find the keys, open the clinic room and pharmacy, unpack all the supplies for the clinic, find the kids when its time to leave their classroom and come down for clinic, find a working power supply, locate clean water or send someone to buy some so he can refill our water bottles all day, and take blood pressures on 180 patients.  Surrounded by  screaming children. Oh, and find me when Frenel comes around, or another of my favorite students.

At the start of this parade is Vickie Baselski, "Mama Vickie" who to my great delight has made it her mission in life to keep us organized.  Thanks be to God.  When asked if she has any tape, for example, she responds, "scotch tape, masking tape or duct tape?". How does she DO that?
She produces a manila envelope when asked for something to keep loose papers in.  She has medications for every emergency.  She's like the porter in those old Hollywood movies that carries the silver tea service into the jungle so the British Captain can have his morning tea.  It gets to be a team game, to see if we can ask for something Vickie doesnt have.

My partner in the clinic was Dr Judy, retired from St Judes but not from offering her medical skills in the service of others.  Brittany and John agreed she is the best provider we've ever had on a trip.  She was not overwhelmed by the difficult working conditions (occasional fan, no light, deaf kids with no interpreter, no lab available other than hemoglobin, and 10 people in the same room speaking in different languages all at once).  She could quiet a screaming kid with a word or two, she found three new kids with heart murmurs who will be referred to a local cardiologist.  Thank you thank you thank you for helping me serve these children and keeping a smile on your face.

Sherye splits herself into 3 people on these trips.  This time she was not only interpreter for the medical clinic, she spent one day with the dentists and the entire week helping organize which classroom came next and avoiding duplication, or trying to.  This is her second of three trips to Haiti this summer so she has gone above and beyond by all measures.

My daughter Sienna is now one of our interpreters for Kreyol. I had hoped to show her some medical exam skills, but she was so busy interpreting for the children I couldnt pull her away.  To her credit, when I sent for her to come examine a patient with an interesting heart murmur, she declined because she didnt want to stop the flow of the clinic or interfere with what other people were doing.  I was proud of her for supporting the team above her own interests.

Phil Caldwell was our intrepid dentist, who braved sweltering heat and exasperating inconsistent transportation for the children to declare victory on Saturday after seeing 16 kids at the dental school.  Organizing anything in Haiti is a challenge, but he managed to enlist private dentists, and dental students, as well as the dean of the dental school, to provide much needed care for the St Vincents kids.  I still dont know how he pulled it off.  He told me it was all because of Phil Cloutier, the dental hygienist who came on our November 2014 team.  Phil "Junior" was the first person to bring dental care of any kind to the children since the earthquake of 2010.  I remember him telling me about the "sixty kids" who needed urgent dental care and that I wasnt sure at the time if that would happen.  But, convincing Dr Phil Caldwell to join our team, I now had two dental personnel, and together with Tim, the jeweler cum dental assistant, they did magical things this week.  Phil "Junior" is very persuasive and energetic, and supported "Dr Phil" so they could accomplish their work.  I believe they saw  50  or more patients this week all counted, filling cavities, extracting abscessed teeth and other things we doctors dont even like to think about!  Now that dental care is off and running, I hope we can keep bringing dental teams down in the future.

Lastly I must thank Drew, our deacon.  Drew first inspired (begged, pleaded, cajoled) me to come to Haiti in 2008.  He sits quietly with the children or holds them in his lap when they are frightened by the doctor.  His beaming grin begins at the airport in Memphis and continues through our exhausting week at St Vincents.  He provides spiritual support for our team members and a steady hand when one is needed.  Thank you Deacon Drew for your love in abundance and your example to us all of selfless service.

To all my team members, forgive me for unintended sharp remarks when I was tired and hot.  Thank you for the offers of a cooling face wipe or granola bar when I needed it   Thank you for coming with me to this heartbreaking place Drew calls "the Cathedral for children", and for giving up air conditioning, water pressure, comfortable beds, soft towels and knowing when things are supposed to happen.  I hope to see you all back in Haiti again.


Coffee overlooking the sea
Morning coffee overlooking the bay at our hotel, listening to the crashing waves on the rocks below.  Sienna and I walked down to the beach after breakfast, but decided we did not want to swim. We preferred to go back into town to meet our gracious guide, Michel, for more touring of Jacmel.
We caught a ride into town with another group of Americans from Detroit, and met Michel at the hotel Florita.  Quick trip to the ATM and we were on our way!  Sienna had her eye on a  drapeau (sequined flag) she had seen the day before, with La Sirene beautifully created in bright colors.  
Unfortunately the gallery owner would not come down on his price, so we left it behind.  After a return visit to another gallery for a painting of Jacmel and the sea painted in the shape of a guitar, we again left empty handed as the price was over $300.  At that point Michel offered to take us to another gallery "where the prices are cheaper", but we would have to get there by moto-taxi.  In other words, on the back of a motorcycle!  What the heck, we said, and off we went.  Zooming through the streets with the wind on our faces was so much fun!

We found Wilbert Laurent in his house with all his paintings displayed, and enjoyed meeting the artist and hearing him talk aout his work.  Sienna finally settled on a painting of Carnaval and another of Jacmel and the sea.  Not to lose the advantage of two Americans in his gallery, Wilbert offered us any small painting for $25.  She chose a painting of donkeys (bourrik) drinking in the river.  All three paintings for $150, we considered quite a deal especially having met the artist in a hidden  alleyway reached by moto taxi, with wild hibiscus growing on the post and a child singing from the house next door.

Returning to Hotel Florita, we lunched on  grilled fish, plantains, picliz and Haitian spaghetti.  This usually has tomatoes and carrots, green pepper, some chicken.  I told Michel I wanted to eat whatever he recommended, and I was not disappointed with the blackened fish seasoned with lime juice.

After lunch Michel wanted to know, would we like to see Jacmel from the mountain, the same view that Sienna bought in her painting that morning?  Of course, we said, especially if it meant another ride on a moto-taxi!    A truly Haitian immersion experience.  Michel is very proud of his "village" of Jacmel, "La Bel Femme". We spoke all day today and yesterday only in Kreyol, and now I find Kreyol phrases filling my mind as I write. Apologies to my American readers.  Sienna is my tutor so that I say "Where are we now?" instead of "Where we here?" and other grammatical faux-pas.

Saying "orevwa" (goodbye) to Michel was only possible with promises to return and bring our friends to experience his beautiful "village". 

Tonight we are resting at the guest house in Port au Prince, for tomorrows 6 hour bus ride to Cap Haitian. Learning to have no expectations about anything, we dont know if the "Bus Sans Souci" is a tap tap or an air-conditioned luxury bus.  Probably somewhere in between.  Whatever happens, we feel safe and privileged to be enjoying this amazing country in so many ways new to us.


Last time we came to Jacmel I remember a terrifying ride through the mountains, but this trip was pleasant and completed in exactly two hours.  We complimented our driver, Geffrard, for not scaring us to death!  Jacmel looks a lot like New Orleans, Sienna kept saying all day.  There are mosaic tiles decorating many walkways and walls, and historic buildings which have been restored since the earthquake.  Artisan galleries filled with treasures!  Our guide, Michel, was pleased that both of us speak Kreyol, and promosed to speak only Kreyol the rest of the day.  Haitians are very kind and generous to visitors; he told me if I live in Jacmel for one month I will speak Kreyol better than him!  Pa Vre!  Not true!  But it made me happy anyway.

All around Jacmel the land is farmed, with abundance of mango, plantains, coconut, cacao.  Michel told us the people have plenty of food but no money.  He hopes that tourism will continue to come to Jacmel.  It is certainly a lovely city, safe to walk around in, if a little HOT in the afternoon sun!
After a refreshing Coca Cola ( made with sugar cane, absolutely delicious and ice cold) our driver took us to Bassin Bleu.  This is a series of three waterfalls. Getting there was an off road adventure, with gravel or dirt roads filled with potholes.  At one point we drove into a lake.  I am not kidding.  Folks come to this lake, which turns out to be only 8 inches deep, to wash their motorcycles, their cars and their clothing.  We saw women laying out their newly washed clothes on the rocks.  Haitian laundrymat and car wash combined!

After that mildly terrifying experience we climbed a steep road (I use that term conditionally) with hairpin turns up the mountainside to reach the village of Bassin Bleu.  Leaving the van, we asked about changing our clothes into our bathing suits.  "There will be a changing station at the falls" we were told.  Sienna and I both speak Kreyol, and we are certain that is what they said.  More on that later
Its about a 3/4 mile hike to the first "basin".  As they say in the hiking guides, "a strenuous climb".  The path is covered in stones part of the way, littered with mangoes which give off a sweet smell as you walk.  At one point one of our two guides picked up a rope.  I asked Sienna, I wonder what that rope is for?  I could only imagine.  Reaching the final "basin", the two guides attached the rope to the top of a cliff and indicated to Sienna to climb down.   Right.  We could not see the cliff face, only a sheer drop down to the rocks below.  I am eternally grateful to my daughter for going first!  She held onto the rope, Seville (the guide) climbed down ahead of her and showed her where to put her feet, and over the cliff she went, out of my sight.  She kept hollering reassurances to me that "really, its not that bad, Mom!". Then it was time for the old lady.  May I say rock climbing has never been one of my skills. Yet with the gentle but firm assistance of the two guides, I made it in one piece to the bottom of the cliff.

Here we could see the waterfall and the catch basin, magnificent.  And....where do we change our clothes.  Right here, of course!  Standing on the rocks.  Great.  No shame, Sienna says, we're in Haiti.  Yep.

Climbing into that cold water after that hot climb and life threatening descent down the cliff was incredible.  Sienna and I stayed there for over an hour, relishing the beauty and sheer incongruity of it all.  Our guide climbed to the top of the waterfall and jumped off into the basin below, for our viewing pleasure!  What a paradise is Haiti.  No wonder the French called it "the Pearl of the Antilles"

Returning to earth, as it were, we completed the reverse trip without incident.  I told Sienna I was giving our two guides a huge tip for not letting me fall to my death and for encouraging me all the way.  We were so exhilarated!

The final gift of the day was arriving at Hotel Cyvadier, which is directly on the ocean.  Waves crashing and beautiful vistas were the backdrop for our dinner of paella and shrimp creole.  Sienna said she wanted to go down to the beach after dinner, but we could barely finish our meal without falling face first into our plates.  We decided to visit the beach in the morning

Now I am having my morning coffee at the same table, with the lovely waitress Diana bringing me fresh mango and pineapple and banana.  Sienna is still sleeping, as it is only 6:30 AM.  Another day in the heartbreakingly beautiful paradise that is Haiti.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Is it safe to travel to Haiti?

Since Sienna and I are travelling in Haiti this week, I want to share this article with my readers.

 Is it safe to travel to Haiti?