Trip to Bellefontaine

Jan. 12, 1989
Bob Corbett

I've really learned a lot on the most difficult trip I've ever attempted in Haiti. I was to walk into Belfontaine, an extremely remote area of southeast Haiti. I knew it would be difficult, but I couldn't even conceive just HOW difficult it would be.

My Haitian guide showed up at Michael's at 6:20 A.M.--10 minutes early on Tuesday, Jan. 10th. We rode the cameonette up to the top of Kenskoff, a mountain above Port-au-Prince. Then we walked to the very top of this area. We could look out in every direction. It was beautiful, but very bleak. The mountains are simply stark bare. Just rock. Few trees, virtually no vegetation. To the east were rows and rows of mountains as far as the eye could see. The third large row of peaks in the distance seemed even higher than where we were, even though Kenskoff is supposedly one of the largest mountains in Haiti. I asked my guide if the tall mountain on the horizon were the border with the Dominican Republic. No, he told me, there is another large mountain behind the one I was looking at, and it was the border. However, he said we would cross that high mountain to get where we were going. I thought surely I had misunderstood, we could never walk that in a day--I didn't think I could walk it in a lifetime.

Below us there was a long ridge. It was a narrow dusty trail. It went off a long long way into the distance. Then, I was informed, it would drop down to a river, then we would climb up and down three other mountains to get to the home in Belfontaine where we would visit.

The first part was hot and long, but not difficult. We descended from Kenskoff and either went down very slick dusty hills, where I fell several times, or we walked long long periods along a very narrow dusty ridge. Once we stopped to get a drink. I set my knapsack against my leg. My guide wanted to borrow my pocket knife to open his little can of milk. When I stood straight to get the pocket knife I moved my leg and my knapsack rolled off the mountain side. We watched it fall and bash against rocks for a long time. Finally it came to rest in a level spot a long long way down. My Haitian guide, with the sure footedness of a mountain goat, literally ran down the mountain to retrieve my sack. The only thing that had fallen out was one of my two canteens. Fortunately he saw this and went on down another 100 feet or so to retrieve the canteen too. The incredible surprise was that nothing in my knapsack broke. There were only clothes and a few things, but neither canteen broke, nor did my borrowed flashlight.

At about 10:30 after 3 long, but relatively easy hours of descent we arrived at the first river. It was the largest of the four we would cross, but it was only the size of a large creek in our Ozarks. This river was the border into Belfontaine, but we had a long way to go to get to the house where we were to stay. I was simply exhausted. I was drinking my water so sparingly, but it was very hot and, stupidly, I had forgotten to purchase a hat, so I was hatless in the beating sun. Since I was to stay for 3 days I had brought water purification tablets with me. I told this to my guide and he suggested that I refill my one canteen here.

There was supposedly good water available. I drained my small canteen, refilled it and put in a tablet to purify the water while we walked. I did this several times before we returned and always with seemingly good results since I had ample water to drink and didn't suffer any ill effects that I know of.

I was already exhausted and we hadn't even begun to climb at all. We would have to hurry to get to our destination before dark. I started to climb this very steep mountain and I just couldn't do it. This was the first time I'd every come across anything like this in Haiti. I have always followed a general principle that I will do things like the Haitians do, or I won't do them at all. When this whole trip idea to Belfontaine came up friends in Port-au-Prince advised me to hire a four wheel jeep and to ride as far as I could into the lower side of Belfontaine. I would be able to get within four hours of where I was headed, and have a more level ridge to follow with only one or two mountains to traverse. But, I wouldn't hear of it. If the Haitians could walk it, I boasted, so could I. Well, I couldn't. And I was in a very difficult bind. Here I was at the bottom of this mountain. Ahead of me was an extremely steep, rocky climb. One that would require not only strong legs, but even using my hands. But, we had just descended a three hour downhill from Kenskoff. If I couldn't attack this mountain in front of me--much smaller than Kenskoff--I certainly couldn't return up the long mountain of Kenskoff--to say nothing of the defeat it would be. I just didn't know what to do. I was even frightened that I'd never get out. This was certainly a silly and unreasonable fear, but it was powerfully present to my consciousness at that moment.

Just then a young man, Elinor, came down the mountain on his big mule. He was headed to Port-au-Prince. He had saddle bags with things in them for the market. When my guide explained my difficulty he immediately left his goods in the care of a woman at the river and turned around toward home and offered me his mule. Since he had been carrying large saddle bags he didn't have a saddle on the mule, only a large wooded frame which held the saddle bags. No matter. I was temporarily saved! I mounted the mule and the mule struggled up the difficult mountain. Even riding up exhausted me. First of all I was scared! I expended a lot of energy in holding on tight and worrying about what would happen next.

I had a lot of time to think on that ascent. I've always felt that I had to out-Haitian the Haitians to prove myself. I have no idea why I felt this. Somehow it has to do my own discomfort with the ease of my life in comparison with the difficulty of theirs. To come into their world with 4 wheel drive jeeps, special living arrangements and all that sort of thing has always bothered me a lot. Thus, I've tried to do it Haitian style. Of course, I never really succeed. They always take special care of me. Where Haitians walk, I often ride horses or mules. Where Haitians sleep several to a bed, they always give me the family bed while the family sleeps who knows where. But, the gaps were not as great as what most foreign people have and I felt good about this. In fact, so have many of my Haitian friends, this I've learned.

But, now I was in a bind. I had tackled too much, and had come face-to-face with my own limits. Limits which, until this moment I had denied even existed. Now I had a new problem to face. Since I now knew there were things I would have to simply NOT do if I were to insist on doing them Haitian style, I had to evaluate which was more important. Doing what I could do Haitian style and not do the rest, or in doing all that I felt I needed to do, but do it in the style I could handle. This is a double edged sword. Once I began to justify the use of a four-wheel drive vehicle for a trip like this (at a cost per day of more than most people in this region earn in a YEAR), then it would become increasingly difficult not to use such conveniences in other circumstances since I've given the message that I will use them.

I can see all sorts of difficulties for the people who go to Haiti with us. I have always pushed them hard to use public transportation, and to enter into Haitian culture as much as possible. I had always led the way in this experience and modeled this cultural sensitivity for them. Now here I was contemplating a major retreat on this important point.

It was a difficult ascent both physically and mentally. When we got to the top and I saw the descent I was much too terrified to even think about riding down. So, I dismounted and walked down. We had a whole train now. My guide, Alphonse, Elinor and his mule, and 6 or 7 Haitian women and girls, each carrying a huge bundle on her head. Going down was slippery, but easy. Again, in a foolishness that came from my guilt and all that was running around in my head, I led the way and arrived down at the bottom before anyone else. But, once again, I didn't have the strength to walk back up the next mountain, and once again rode Elinor's mule, as I did on the final long, long ascent of the mountain which was higher than Kenskoff itself.

We were now only some 100 yards or so from the house, and we were at Elinor's little hut. I thanked him profusely and walked on. But, the 100 yards was up a steep hill. Darkness was quickly falling. I couldn't even make it! Alphonse had to return to Elinor's and get the mule once again. I've never felt like a greater failure in my whole life.

But, we had arrived. Gracious, was this place remote and bleak. I had planned to drink coconut water and grapefruits when my water ran out. Ha! There are no coconuts at all in the region and very few grapefruits, though I had managed to purchase 4 or 5 not very ripe ones on my way in. Darkness was quickly falling. My host, Jolissant, urged me to rest a bit on the bed they had put into the tiny house next to the small table. I flopped down on the bed and nearly broke my rump and back. I looked under the sheet and there were two large planks of wood on 4 large rocks. It was all covered with a lovely sheet and looked like a nice cot! But I did fall fast asleep and awoke a short time later after dark. A very tiny kerosene lamp burned on the table and Jolissant's mother served a rice with an onion sauce. It was so so good. This was the simplest meal I've every had in Haiti and sort of symbolized just how terribly poor this area of Haiti is.

The plan was for me to see a few things in the area the next day, Wednesday, and then to leave again on Thursday. However, I knew I wasn't going to do any walking at all on Wednesday. I was exhausted, but mainly I was scared. I just didn't know how I could ever get the strength to get back out. I kept realizing there were the identical mountains to climb up and down to get to the river, but then, that monstrous walk up Kenskoff, which we had only walked down, just had me terrified. I couldn't think of anything else. Finally, I called Jolissant in, told him how nervous I was about getting back out. I told him I knew that all I would do on Wednesday was worry, worry, worry and worry. I preferred to do our business that evening, and then to try to leave in the morning's first light. He thought this was a very bad idea, but as he saw just how nervous I was he agreed. He gathered up the other members of the committee of the local community organization and we began to discuss the cattle raising project which they want PEOPLE TO PEOPLE to fund.

The project looks like a good one to me. This area suffers lots of protein deficiency. They hope to introduce cattle into the area to provide meat and milk. Additionally, the cattle can provide some bit of economic activity into the area too. The community will contribute the land and plant the grasses for the cattle. PEOPLE TO PEOPLE will buy one bull and six large cows to start and add more cows as we can attract funding to the project. I like the people, have a good deal of trust in them, and like the project, so I'll set out to raise funds for it.

The evening was not without a wonderful side event. We were sitting at the table working out the final details of the economics of this project. It was about 8 P.M., very pitch black out and a still as anything. All of a sudden a booming voice at the door just brought all of us to a terrified standstill. A huge guy in the door way announced that he was Bernard. A wild looking white man with long black hair down to the middle of his back and a great bushy beard. He looked like a large Che Guavara. Everyone really jumped to. They had not met Bernard, but they knew him. He is an inspector for the Inter-American Fund (IAF), and the IAF had funded the training of several men from this area as animators (community developers). This group included Jolissant and the other men at our meeting, so Bernard was there to check up on their work. Well, were they now pre-occupied.

But this Bernard was a wild man. He just walked in, sat down and said, do you have food? Well, there was still a mountain of rice and sauce on the table. He heaped his plate high. He told them he was terribly thirsty. They ran and got a pitcher full of water and he didn't even pour it into a glass. He drank the whole pitcher with water running down the sides of his mouth. He ate voraciously. He asked about a bed, and, since they had thought I was bringing one person with me (oh, happy day that I didn't subject anyone else to this trip!), so they had two beds. He told us to go ahead with our meeting, but the Haitians obviously didn't want to discuss this project in front of Bernard. They made some excuse that we had agreed on all the essential details (which we had), and that they would have to discuss some details themselves, (which was not true) so they beat a retreat to the porch outside.

It was just Bernard and I. I asked him who he was. He told me a lot about the IAF, and that he had been an inspector for them for 15 years.

He is also a professor of rural sociology and the sociology of agriculture at the University of Haiti. I asked him many many questions about his work, the IAF (an arm of the Congress of the United States and not under the control of the executive branch. Thus the president doesn't control the IAF and they do many progressive projects which the State Department, CIA and president don't like at all.) Then we spent a long time talking about the University of Haiti.

Finally I got to today. I asked him how in the world he ever got here in the dark. He roared his huge laugh. He had been meaning to visit here for over a year. So, finally today he drove up to Kenskoff, rented a strong horse and a pack mule and just came in. I was utterly shocked to hear he'd never been here before. How in the world, I asked, did you find this place. Again he roared. Today it was easy, he said, all along the trail the word is out that a white man came in today. He said I was the first white to come into the area since the road washed out about a couple of years ago. But, I countered, you're white and you came in alone. Again, he boomed out his giant laugh. He told me he wasn't white, but a Haitian. I just couldn't believe it. He had no Haitian features at all. Not even his hair. He looked totally western-European, a mountain man. I had figured he was a Frenchman. He was born and raised in Haiti. After studying many years in Germany he had taken his doctorate in France. He also told me he visited the U.S. often. His wife, a famous dissident in Haiti, had been expelled 17 years earlier. She now lives in Miami and publishes and edits "Haiti En Marche" an excellent newspaper often critical of the government. He visits her often in Miami, but won't leave Haiti permanently.

Then I got yet another shock. He said, now, I want to hear about YOU. But, he said, if we're going to talk about you, let's do it in your language, and with that he shifted into simply flawless English! Once again I was floored. He had also studied in the United States. I asked him why he had put me through two hours of difficult discussion in Creole. Again, he laughed and told me three reasons:

  1. He said I speak Creole very well, which is an exaggeration on his part.
  2. He said I should be speaking the language, which is certainly true.
  3. He said the people on the porch were listening intently and they needed to hear all of this stuff about him and that to be in Creole. That made sense. He then told me that he was actually a much more refined fellow than he appeared, but that he put on the "mountain man act" in order to command more respect in the rural areas, and to make his work as inspector more successful.

We talked another hour as he quizzed me about PEOPLE TO PEOPLE's work. He seemed quite pleased about our approach, which, of course, made me quite happy since I'd grown to think highly of Bernard. Finally I told him of my worries and my desire to leave early in the morning. He thought I was very funny and said little about it.

But, I did arise early, pre-dawn. Much to my surprise, Elinor did show up early too. I had made arrangements to rent his mule again and to have him as my guide to get back out. We started out in the dark with my flashlight, but within half and hour we were in the first light, a good hour before sunrise. This was a great move for several reasons, one being to get me on my way and to stop worrying in anticipation of the trip. Now I could just worry on the road, which I did all the way home. Secondly, without a hat and in a short sleeved shirt, I was a real target for the sun. As it was I really was badly sunburned when we finally got back to Kenskoff in the late afternoon. But, I was able to get home before dark.

The trip back was so very hard. I was frightened, badly sunburned and exhausted. About mid-morning I put on my long-sleeved flannel shirt even though it was extremely hot. I had to shelter my arms. At times, even though I was clinging with desperation to the hard working mule, I didn't think I could go on. I was near delirium with both sun and fear. At one point I recited the story of the little train that could to myself. Another time we were in a very steep climb. I was clinging to the mule with all my strength when I began to laugh hysterically. Elinor ran alongside, wondering if I had finally fully flipped. Perhaps I had. But, what I had been thinking about was Jack and his cow. No wonder Jack had sold the cow to the first man he met, even if the guy only offered a handful of beans. Anything rather than continue on to the market. Now, that's how bad a shape I was in--those were the thoughts that kept me going up and up and up that blasted Kenskoff Mountain.

But, I survived. Not without a badly sunburned nose. And not without having arrived at some conclusions about my future trips in Haiti. I am going to make compromises. I will no longer feel I have to out-Haitian the Haitians. Not because I don't want to, but because I now know I can't. I've decided it is better to visit where I need to visit in anyway I have to rather than not do it at all. I hope I can keep this a reasonable commitment and not make it just an excuse for taking the easier way out. But, I doubt if I will EVER, EVER visit Belfontaine again.

[1999 note. I never went back, but sent a few other adventuresome folks on this difficult walk, We have a sort of I-survived-the-walk club for the exceptionoally-hardy.]


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