Scouting Notes from Haiti: The Road to Marmelade
Gonaives to Marmelade—In parts of Haiti, distance is measured in time, not kilometers. An easy drive of 45 kilometers may consume hours. Roads erode and form into wash boards that will shake out your teeth. Pot holes run deep and rivers moonlight as back roads. It is hard work to drive here. And it gets even harder around the west coast port city of Gonaives.
On the morning of June 26th, Adrien Lewis and I headed northeast out of Gonaives on the back of a GO Project pick up truck. Pierre Reynald drove and Jocelin Calixte sat shotgun as translator. GO Haiti Field Director, Jake Barreth, and his friend, Jordan Wilbanks, manned the back seat. The six of us cruised through the dusty streets of Gonaives past the scuffle of Haiti’s “City of Independence”— a title it earned shortly after its revolution and separation from France which began in 1791.
The day’s destination was the mountain town of Marmelade. Our sources told us the roads to Marmelade were twisting ribbons of asphalt that led to small coffee farms and spectacular views. The ascents and descents promised to be epic, if not impossible, cycling experiences.
We also had a GO Project partner in Marmelade we wanted to meet. His name was Pastor Isaac. According to Jake, Pastor Isaac was an attorney in Gonaives, ran two schools in Marmelade and oversaw the construction of two new duplexes for a few dozen local kids without moms or dads. This guy’s heart was big and his schedule was tight. We were blessed to have the opportunity to meet him.
Our team wanted to meet Pastor Isaac, in part, because he was one of our partners. But we also needed his insight about local roads for the next Tour d’Haiti in January of 2013. He would probably know about places that never made it to Google Earth.
Pastor Isaac has a unique story. In addition to being the local attorney, educator and administrator, Pastor Isaac bought the land for his children’s village across the street from the local witch doctor. Most people steer clear of these individuals, especially ones who are more senior and respected in the community. However, within a few weeks Pastor Isaac had led the witch doctor’s wife and daughter to Christ. Needless to say, business was down and he wasn’t happy about it.
Pierre drove up the mountain to Marmelade patiently. Potholes and washboards shook the truck, while the gradient and switchbacks pushed the limits of our engine. It was incredible to watch tap taps and school buses filled with passengers climb and descend the road around us. Kids gave us high fives and slapped our hands along the way. Riding in the back of the truck exposed us to the same risks any other Haitian would face. And it began to level the playing field.
About ten kilometers from Marmelade, the climb subsided and the road flattened out at around 2,000 feet. Banana and mango trees stretched out into the valleys beneath us. Small coffee farms dotted the hillsides. Large cloudbursts in the distance filled the sky with patches of grey with pockets of streaming sunlight.
Looking north, we noticed a road sign pointing toward the coastal city of Cap Hatien. Many miles to our east was the border to the Dominican Republic. But standing along the road looking across the tropical valley, I felt we were somewhere nameless that defied borders and nationalities. This was a Haiti I had never seen before or imagined.
We drove a bit further along the sweeping stretch of asphalt until the mountains to the right of us formed a small cliff. I asked Pierre to stop the truck so I could climb a goat trail up the cliff to get a better view. I figured I would find a better vantage point with 400 or so extra feet beneath me.
I clambered up the trail to the top of the cliff and out of nowhere four women appeared. Their brightly colored blankets were laid out on the grass, one for each of them. I had interrupted their prayer time. The five us us chatted a bit, attempting to make sense of one another’s languages. I took a few pictures of the view and of them before heading back down. As I hiked down the trail, the women spread their hands above their heads and continued to pray.
Within minutes we were on the road again and heading toward Pastor Isaac’s three-acre complex. About five kilometers later we arrived. His place rested on a hill on the right side of the road leading to Marmelade. An office building and two school houses had been completed a year earlier, while a cistern, two duplexes, a latrine and a pair of retaining walls were under construction. The site was filled with stone masons, builders, wheelbarrows and water carriers. This place was buzzing.
After Pastor Isaac gave us a tour of the facilities, we asked him about coffee. He immediately showed us a small outcropping of trees only a few feet away. Dime-sized red berries hung from the trees. He pulled a few of them off the branches, cracked them open and showed us the green coffee beans. Here, coffee is grown like a backyard vegetable garden. It is everywhere.
The coffee in Marmelade is all grown by local farmers with small plots of land. Maybe just a few acres or less. During harvest, the coffee farmers bring the beans to a single facility where they sell the coffee to be dried, bagged and sold.
We asked Pastor Isaac where we could buy a few pounds of green coffee. Our hope was to roast the beans back home in the States and then share it with a few friends—another unexpected example of the exoticness of the Haiti we wanted to talk up. Pastor Isaac pulled two colleagues over, said a few words to them in Creole and they walked off. Thirty minutes later, the pair returned with a small brown bag filled with green beans. It was about a pound-and-a-half. He had sourced it from his mother’s supply.
We spent another 30 minutes or so asking Pastor Isaac about roads and trails for bike riding. Like many other people we spoke with in Haiti, Pastor Isaac couldn’t understand why we would want to ride bikes when we could drive cars to get where we wanted to go. Cars are easy. Bikes are hard. Especially in the mountains. It’s a real head scratcher for any Haitian, even more so for those who live in the higher elevations.
On our drive down the mountain back to Gonaives, we were quiet in the back of the pick up truck. The descent was beautiful and the air was clean, crisp and cool. Along the way down, we passed abandoned churches and groves of mango trees next to roadside markets. Things felt peaceful and relaxed. It was the first time in Haiti I had felt this.
As we drove back into the dust of Gonaives five hours later, we all agreed that the road up to Marmelade was a different kind of Haiti that we had ever seen before. It was lush, green and beautiful. Mountains receded into the horizon and fruit trees filled the valleys. Marmelade is a mountain garden that hints at what all of Haiti must have been like when God first created it.
So, here is my big lesson from Marmelade.
Soak In Creation
The road to Marmelade is a gentle nudge to “be still and know that I am God.” The sunlight, the clouds, the mountains, banana and mango trees, the blue sky and the greenness of the valleys are clear reminders of God’s glory. If you haven’t noticed this in a while, take a minute to stare out your office window at the sky. If you have time, go for a walk and breathe in the air around you. God created all this for you to enjoy. He made it for you to celebrate in. Sure, there are hard times in life. But the constant beauty of God’s creation is a clear reminder of His love for us.