It’s Sunday, my last day. My footsteps are confident, a far-cry from the timidity of my arrival, when every step was planned and executed, careful to scan for boas and other creatures that might impede my progress.
Perhaps it’s the offer of morning coffee from my host up the hill dictating my pace. Haitian coffee is strong and earthy and lacks acidity, and the morning bellows of the neighborhood rooster make it a necessity. I finish it in three gulps and begin to scrape and eat the sugar settled at the bottom, something I did as a kid when I’d go camping with my grandpa (known only as PawPaw), the only other world traveler in my family. His tickets came on the back of a draft card.
Two weeks from now, I’ll be holding his hand as we keep vigil at my grandmother’s hospital bedside, but for now, family drama is pushed aside by caffeine, the roster of lizards calling my apartment home, and excitement at my trip into the mountains.
SAURON & PIN-UP JESUS
Rain comes in droves as my hosts and I round our way out of Port-au-Prince and into the mountains that barricade the Haitian capital, our 4x4 clambering up the inconsistently unkempt road, seemingly the only one ever built in Haiti. The mountain acts as a literal class divide, with Haitians of means (and the many NGOs and “aid workers”) peering down like Sauron, surveying their underlings who round out the lower classes in a patchwork of civilization that runs the gamut from middle-class family compounds to scenes that had me double-check that my passport stamp said Haiti and not Syria.
My Haitian hosts, a duo of American-educated cousins who reside among Port-au-Prince’s middle-class, inform me as we proceed up the mountain that the roads at the top are intentionally ill-maintained, a weapon in the class war utilized by the rich to prevent the poor from accessing them.
Tap Taps, the innovative method of public transportation that consists of a camper being welded to an old truck, resulting in a Frankenvehicle that can be seen throughout the city, are the main form of transport in PaP and, typically, ill-equipped to handle the rougher parts of mountainous terrain. The owners take pride in their monsters, adorning them in decorative paint jobs akin to the combat pilots of WWII. They’re typically less about pin-up models and more about Jesus, which is either a testament to the overwhelming Catholicism (intermingled with Voodoo) of Haiti or the fact that a Christian missionary gave them the paint.
LOVE IN ANY LANGUAGE
Our mountain expedition makes a sidetrack for food at a soon-to-be-opened restaurant being launched by a friend of one of my hosts, Jean-Manuel. It’s our second trip here in the five days I’ve been in Port-au-Prince, and it has become clear to me that my host might be desperately in love with the proprietor - awkward flirting is apparent in any language. The food, a large bone-in pork chop over a bed of creamy rice, is delicious, though lacking in salt, a failure not unique to this particular Haitian restaurant. It seems that the culture is very concerned about high blood pressure (though not chain-smoking). When paired with a couple of Prestige (Haiti’s refreshing national beer) and the open-air dining room gazing down into the city, it’s easy to understand why we’ve been here twice.
BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS, MORE MOUNTAINS
The inconsistently unkempt road turns to inconsistently elevated dirt reminiscent of the sweet potato and marshmallow concoction Americans gorge themselves on at Thanksgiving. It’s still raining. There are no guardrails, only the experience of Jean-Manuel, a man I’ve grown to adore over the past few days.
Trained as an actor in New York City, he could easily have a career as the hilarious best friend of Jason Segel or Seth Rogen in any of their films. He’s far too consistently funny to be a leading man, like Kevin James in Hitch (once I publish this, he’s going to email me insisting that he’s starting his juicing diet any day now).
His cousin and my other host, Gaelle, moved to the U.S. when she was seven and eventually settled in New York City. She’s intelligent, sarcastic, and highly animated, her hand gestures a strange blur of energy and excitement that only exist in the microcosm of Haitians from New York. She is the educator, he the entertainer, and they act as an inseparable duo throughout the majority of my trip, a role they seem to fulfill for all of their AirBnB guests (get $40 off AirBnB with my partner code) and throughout life in general.
The sweet potato road turns to orange goop in the wake of unrelenting rain, and it gets goopier as the road narrows. My hosts believe that the road, barely big enough to accommodate two vehicles, has been widened since their last trip, a feat I’d be more impressed by if not for the mountains. The inconceivably grand, so beautiful that they induce ponderance of existence and create a searing memory you’ll relay to your great-grandchildren (if you don’t fall off the goopy road into oblivion) mountains.
An inner-battle rages between capturing photos that I can share with my wife back home, who I’m pining for in a way that only the first explorers of the North Pole or Antarctica or the Moon or some other oppressively beautiful locale must’ve pined for their sweethearts, and savoring the sensations of the moment; I opt for pointing my camera out the window and taking videos.
The goop again turns to gravel as we enter the village of Furcy, a mountaintop haven for those looking for a respite from the complex cacophony that is Port-au-Prince. It’s quieter, though still lively, like a Midwestern college town on a Thursday night. Our destination is Rustik, a treehouse hostel and bar catering to Haitians and hipsters alike.
Made completely of recycled wood and empty liquor bottles, the place seems like one of those you either adore or detest, a feeling that can be attributed to all of Port-au-Prince and one that there’s surely a French word for. Situated at the top of a mountain with tentacles stretching out into the valley below, the Rustik is the perfect Spring Break hangout for adventurous college students or voyeuristic couples who prefer to sleep in a treehouse with only a curtain providing privacy.
After a few Prestige and cheap Haitian menthols that aren’t actually Haitian but pretend to be, we wander aimlessly through Furcy, reveling in the juxtaposition of the vibrant Haitian hibiscus flowers growing between razor wire lined walls.
To me, this is Haiti: a beautiful, exceedingly friendly nation that’s teeming with life and hospitality and battling the worst of mankind’s demons. The razorwire, surely a holdout from the military dictatorships of the 80s and the successive (likely U.S. backed) coups against democratically elected Presidents, is rusting and being slowly enveloped by the flowers and other greenery.
Our drinks and wandering come to a close and we all huddle into the 4x4 that will either serve as my savior or grave coming down the mountain. There is no photography on the way down, only contemplation, the occasional “Bonjou,” to passerby, and a certainty that my passport will hold many more Haitian stamps by the time it’s retired.
If this story of my exploration of Haitian mountains has inspired you to travel to Haiti, check out the Haiti travel guide I put together.