Scouting Notes from Haiti: The Road to Psalm 23Rich Stigall
Titanyen, Haiti— For first time guests to Haiti, the road trip north on National Route 1 from Croix-des-Bouquets to Gonaives is one of the more unique aspects of a visit. And for many different reasons.
Let’s begin with the highway. Much like the rest of the country, driving this particular stretch of sun-baked asphalt is a lawless game of high speed chicken. Only here, it’s with dump trucks.
I think helpful signage might be missing, too. Roadside postings indicating one or another section of highway is sponsored by a “sister city” in Switzerland, or the local Knights of Columbus chapter, just aren’t around. Nor are speed limit signs, stop signs, yield signs or exit signs for the next rest stop or Holiday Inn Express.
Maybe I’ll notice them after a few more trips. Or, more realistically, maybe I’m always preoccupied by other things flashing before my eyes.
For example, my life.
This was the second leg and third day of scouting for a GO Adventures team that is expected to tough through the tough stuff. But, even still, a few self-preservation thoughts were loitering in my head as we reached Haitian cruising speed along the highway.
I could tap Foubert, the bus driver, on the shoulder and ask him to stop the bus. Then I could step off, walk back to the airport and purchase an $800 plane ticket back home. It’s a reasonable option, but I would just become another dump truck target along Route 1. No dice.
Or, maybe I could actually stay on the bus, close my eyes and imagine a happier place with smooth roads, courteous drivers, turn signals and soft, billowy air bags. Unfortunately, this option, we’ll call it Option Two, requires Option One to happen first: fly home. And that wasn’t going to happen.
As it turned out, like it always does, I selected Option Three, which was this: man up, look out the windshield and stare down my fears. Even if they were fast moving objects called Mack trucks that weighed 20 tons each.
This particular bus trip north was going to spill us into Gonaives where we would spend the next few days searching for potential routes for future Tours d’Haiti. These “tours” are multi-day cycling adventures during which participants ride bikes from orphan village to orphan village and play with the children for a few hours each visit. It’s a powerful experience if you haven’t done it. Please note, however, that the kids a) will school you in soccer and b) may send you home in a makeshift cast.
Schedule-wise, we would set up a temporary base in Gonaives and then check out Haiti’s central mountain ranges. Lodged in there somewhere was a small town called Marmelade. We heard from our GO Project colleague, Tate Williams, that Marmelade was worth a visit.
Tate told us the scenery in Marmelade is breathtaking. Coffee farms are everywhere and the roads are like the alpine stages of the Tour de France. Only Haitian style. Which means they would be much, much steeper and probably not painted with encouraging messages like “Allez! Allez!” No, I think these roads would have some hefty potholes instead. But for a cycling nerd, Marmelade sounded like an über-trifecta.
The Valley of Death
About an hour into the drive, the bus was filled with a chilled out mix of Vision Trip goers and Global Orphan Project staff. There was singing, guitar playing, picture snapping and chatting here and there in English and Haitian Creole.
Very soon, though, and no one but our Haitian counterparts knew it, we were going to be nearing the small, but significant town of Titanyen.
When you type in the search terms “titanyen haiti” in your browser, you won’t find a lot of uplifting information about the town. Here’s why.
Between 1957 and 1986 thousands of Haitian political prisoners were executed and dumped in mass graves just south of Titanyen. The 30 year rule of Francois Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was behind this ongoing atrocity. So corrupt were Haiti’s politics during this period that Jean-Claude Duvalier, popularly known as “Baby Doc,” won the 1971 presidential election by a staggering margin: 2,319,916 to zero.
Even more staggering and sobering is that Titanyen is the area where hundreds of thousands of bodies were delivered by dump truck and dispatched into open pits in the days following the 2010 earthquake. It’s no surprise that the locals have referred to the place as “the valley of death” for over 50 years.
Sitting in the white, air conditioned bus, I stare out the window as Joseph Volcy, our gifted guide and translator, points out the mountain ridge to my right. “There it is,” he quietly says to me.
It’s odd. “The valley of death” sits mid-way up the ridge of a mountain.
In Everything Give Thanks
About 18 months earlier I was here in Haiti riding next to Pierre Reynald in The Global Orphan Project’s box truck. He was driving. It was late afternoon on Wednesday, January 12, 2011.
The two of us were transporting 30 mountain bikes from Les Cayes to the Jumecourt Inn on the east side of Port-au-Prince. The first Tour d’Haiti finished up earlier in the day and we were getting ready to take the bikes apart, pack them up and send them back home to the US.
On this day one year earlier a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook Haiti and crushed an estimated 316,000 people, injured another 300,000 and sent around 1,000,000 into instant homelessness.
Driving had been banned in Port-au-Prince on this day, but Pierre managed to drive us through the streets toward Croix-des-Bouquets. The city was quiet.
We were nearing the Jumecourt Inn when unexpectedly and surreally the street slowly filled with hundreds of women, men and children. They were dressed up like it was Sunday, walking through the streets and singing.
Looking over to Pierre I asked him what they were singing. “They are singing about thanking God that they are alive,” he said.
The scene was impossibly beautiful.
It still is.
Goodness and Love
I am certain there is deep, deep pain here in Haiti. It’s a huge understatement.
But it seems that only in this hurting place can a Wednesday become a Sunday, a destroyed city become a sanctuary, and a memory of tragedy become a song of joy.
Haiti is far from my daily reality. But in moments like this one, I wish it were much, much closer.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me….”