Mission: Haiti 2006
A view of a Haiti mostly unseen
By Gary Fallesen
There was not a lot of information available on the mountain we went to climb in Haiti. Not many mountaineers go to Haiti to climb. Not many people go to Haiti for anything.
In fact, in 2005 when I made my first visit with my then-15-year-old son, Jesse, and 22-year-old Johnathan Esper, we were among the few Americans going into the country. Most were going in the other direction — the Peace Corps had pulled out and the U.S. State Department had ordered all non-essential personnel home.
The country, located on the western end of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (an island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic), was in turmoil. That wasn't news. Haiti's history is one of difficulty and trouble — hundreds of years of slavery followed by misrule and foreign interference.
It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most impoverished nations in the world. In Haiti, the average annual income is less than $450 U.S.
Misery is a way of life. Disease, cured elsewhere, still plagues Haitians. The people grow what they eat in rocky soil. If it's a bad growing season, they eat less.
In the summer of 2005, kidnapings and murders had become all too common amidst the political unrest of a sorry temporary government clinging to power in the months before a national election. (Rene Preval was elected president in Februrary 2006. See “News on Haiti” and “More News on Haiti.“)
We were on a mission trip that included climbing Pic la Selle, the country's highest mountain. But we knew little about the 8,793-foot peak, which rises nearly 7,500 feet above the dry-river valley in the southeastern part of Haiti. The initial local knowledge we received consisted of a man pointing off into the distance. In Creole, we think we were told: ”It's up there." We gave him a Creole Bible as our way of saying thanks.
That climb ended in a mountain village, where I was introduced to a pastor and a people in need.
Ten months later, I went back to Jeantilhome, Haiti. This time I was accompanied by four other members of Climbing For Christ. Brian Arnold, 22, of Greece, N.Y.; Walter Casper, 18, of Greece, N.Y.; Todd Jenner, 62, of Cameron, N.Y., and Todd Paris, 35, of Pottersville, N.Y., went with me in April 2006 to build a church. We hope the building also can be used as a school and a first-care medical clinic — two things that the village of several hundred people have never had.
"I knew it was pretty violent," Arnold said, when asked what he thought he would find in Haiti. "On the Internet, it was (said to be) one of the most violent places you could go in 2006. That rattled me a little bit.
"I prepared myself mentally. I felt peace as soon as I got on the plane (in Rochester, N.Y.). It was in the Lord's hands."
Casper, a high school senior, also had an impression formed by what little is reported in the U.S. media about Haiti.
"What you hear on the news is all the political stuff," Casper said. "I thought it was going to be Army guys coming to attack you.
"It was a lot more peaceful than I originally thought."
Once we cleared the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti, we were far removed from soldiers, police, or anyone who carries a gun. It is a different world in the Chaine de la Selle mountain range. We have seen the other side of Haiti — that place where beauty is found in a seemingly endless sea of peaks. "Beyond mountains there are mountains," the Haitian proverb says, accurately.
To visit Haiti is an adventure outside the pages of all those magazines that preach adventure tourism. Haiti is a walk on the wild side.
It is the type of place where, as Pulitzer Prize-winner author Tracy Kidder wrote in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World, "The world is full of miserable places. Our way of living comfortably is not to think about them or, when you do, to send money."
People sent us money and I was sent backpacking beyond my comfort zone.
The first time I went, we were greeted with stares, cries of "blanco" (white), and obvious disbelief. Villagers in another town we visited laughed at us as we pumped water with a purifier, put on headlamps at nightfall, and put up our tent in a matter of minutes. Miguel Guante, my Haitian friend who has traveled with me both times, remarked: "These people will never forget this. A man with light in his head, built a house in 10 minutes, and sat with a book before bed.
"In Haiti, they never go anywhere. They never see anything like this."
I have never seen anything like Haiti. Although there are some physical similarities between Africa and Southeast Asia, Haiti has a unique feel to it. Only in Haiti, they say, can a farmer break his leg because the corn is planted on hills of unimagined steepness.
"There was just so much open space," Casper said. "The mountains are really incredible. So much room for everything. You don't see that at home. Everything is cluttered, crammed together (in the United States)."
But in the Chaine de la Selle, neighbors are a long walk away. The stars beam brightly over a place where there is no electricity or running water or a corner store.
"Haiti was different," said Arnold, a college student and drywall hanger. "It was completely uncivilized, I guess you could say."
But, he added, "It's magnificent creation. Every hill you look over. I was blown away. Every single mountain was so beautiful."
Most of those mountains stand, nameless, sometimes stripped of their timber. Trails snake up and over them. People walk those trails despite the heat and humidity. Where are they going?
"One cannot escape destiny," another Haitian proverb declares. "Today you see; you cannot see tomorrow, yet."
Some tomorrow we will go back to those mountains beyond mountains. We will see where those trails lead.