Having been in Haiti for almost two months now, I decided to get out of the city of Port au Prince and take a walk with a few friends. The itinerary? Kenscoff to Seguin to Jacmel. A 20 mile walk that lets you escape the blazing heat, overpowering smells, crowds of people and pollution and traffic of the capital city, heading up into hills and then down to the sea. A hike in Haiti commences like this: you get on a tap tap (a modified pick up truck that has wooden benches and a roof and is crammed full of people to the point of sitting on laps) or a moto... and proceed to take your life into your own hands. Our choice was either five tap tap rides in a row (exhausting) or hire several motos (pricier, also exhausting, but much quicker in traffic). Sans helmets, surrounded by crazy drivers, swerving though market crowds and bouncing over dirt roads and enormous potholes we made it to our final destination intact... barely. After a night in the hills of Kenscoff we started our hike.
Technically, our hike was a road walk, but on a road that becomes so steep, rocky and switchback filled that it is impassable by cars or trucks. The air was cool and the sun blazed down. We dodged the occasion moto, scrambling onto a narrow shoulder on the side of the road, warned ahead of time by honking. At one point, we were passed by two motos bearing newlyweds and we shouted congratulations after them. There were children herding donkeys and young men galloping at ridiculous speeds down rocky descents on horseback.
Women and children carried burdens on their heads - buckets, chickens, produce. At times it felt more like hiking though a farm, as we dodged piles of manure that scented air. Trash dotted the landscapes, but I've become used to whole city blocks and canals heaped with trash, so this seemed relatively clean in comparison. Leave no trace is not an option for Haitians, and in Haiti it's ok to casually toss your trash along the roadside. We received plenty of stares and many friendly greetings. We also met with many "give me's" - the phrase "give me one dollar" is a very popular one, and "grangou" which means hungry. I managed to make what seemed like an entire village laugh when, while walking on loose scree in an attempt to get out of the way of a wheelbarrow, I fell on my face. There were two water sources along the way - piped springs where women and children gathered to do laundry. We also had a few opportunities to buy sodas from coolers at roadside stands. The mountains we were walking through were small but steep, about 6,000 feet above sea level and densely packed together. Looking out you could see handfuls of small homes perched on hillsides, surrounded by terraced farmland. Reaching the final peak of the plateau whose spine we had been walking up and down, we were greeted by wind, cold sprinkling gusts of rain, and Haitians in winter jackets. After this point the walking levelled out and we saw a sight which filled us with excitement - trees - lots of them! Much of Haiti is bare of trees; deforestation caused by farming and a huge demand for charcoal. Walking through an entire forest of trees, listening to birds, enjoying the breeze and air that felt clean and cool was an incredible feeling. Living here, I no longer take unpolluted air or water for granted.
We were reaching the outskirts of the the forest and decided to stealth camp that night... which is easier said than done. There was very little flat ground... and what did exist was either right next to footpaths that led to homes, or was covered in manure from grazing animals. We took our chances and set up next to what seemed like a very lightly used footpath. One hill over there was a farm in the distance. We used gasoline with our super cat stoves (after flagging down a moto and paying him for some of his gas) because our previous attempts at using diesel fuel and paint thinner had been miserable failures. The gasoline smelled terrible but it worked. After dinner we encountered two national forest rangers who after ignoring our initial greetings, warmed up to us and politely asked us to relocate next to their dormitory for "security reasons" because "a lot of people lived near by". Since this would mean both backtracking and setting up again in the dark, we politely declined. They seemed puzzled (understandably so, considering how many displaced people are living in tents not by choice right now in Haiti) but they agreed to let us stay and even declined our not-so-subtle offer of a bribe. This was a relief, especially because this area of forest had a fire caused by arson about a month earlier (we had hiked through a whole section of forest with no undergrowth, and burned tree roots). We hadn't been to sure of what reactions we would get, staying in this location... and we had known that we would be discovered by at least a few people!
The night was punctuated by the sounds of drumming from a vodou temple off in the distance and I fell asleep wondering who we might encounter, if not in the night, then in the morning. We awoke undiscovered, which was a pleasant surprise. The hike started with a water source outside a bamboo farm, and we walked through farms, past churches and people wearing their Sunday best. The road wound steadily downward, with motos with their engines off coasting past us. Going to the bathroom was a matter of squatting behind a rock and praying that a moto or a passerby wouldn't see you, and telling yourself that the people you could hear were too far away to see! Finding a place to eat lunch where we wouldn't be deluged by staring faces and demands of "give me" was also a tricky matter, as descending towards Jacmel we were walking through many small villages. We finally sat down on a dusty road shoulder of a hair-pin turn, with a steep cliff right behind us. Not long after we were offered a ride in the bed of a large truck with a load of spring onions... and with the sun getting hotter as we descended towards town, and hardly a breeze despite our view of the ocean that we were headed towards, plus a friend dealing with blisters, we accepted what turned out to be one of the most bouncy, fun, terrifying rides of my life. Hair-pin turn after hair-pin turn later, we reached a market in a small village and were let out. We had left the pine forests at the top of the plateau and the arid farmlands of the descent behind and were back in tropical weather and landscapes. Our hike ended as it began, on motos... only racing towards the beach and some delicious barbecue.