Tour d'Haiti North Scouting Retreat: Mole St. NicolasRich Stigall
Scouting retreats are bite-sized portions of a GO Adventure experience. By assessing the terrain, the food, the weather and our on-the-ground partners, they are necessary “tests” that help us understand the realities and challenges of any location where we operate a GO Adventure.
On the surface, the seven-person scouting retreat for the Tour d’Haiti North (January 23-31, 2013) was a flight to and from Port-au-Prince, an overnight in Croix des Bouquets followed by three days of bike riding in rugged Mole St. Nicolas. But beneath the hectic flight transfers, sluggish Tortug Air pilots and numerous flat tires was a powerful set of days in a nearly forgotten part of the world.
Mole St. Nicolas (pronounced “nick-oh-lah”) is a small town on the northwestern most tip of Haiti, just about 60 miles from the east coast of Cuba. Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas landed at the site of what is now Mole St. Nicolas on December 6, 1492. By the late 1600s, France had gained control of Haiti from Spain and established “the Mole” as a remote outpost of its empire.
Today, crumbling 18th Century French forts and massive rusting cannons line the coastline of the Mole, and discarded iron cannonballs dot downtown streets. If it were not for the Haitians taking back the town and country in 1791, the Mole would be either a Caribbean ghost town or a European resort. Fortunately, it’s neither.
The purpose of this visit to the Mole was to test ride the routes, visit the kids and read the book of James each day. We had a lot to cram in to just a few days, so we knew we would be working hard and go home tired.
After a flight to Port-au-Prince and a night at Jumecourt Inn outside of Croix des Bouquets, the scouting group packed up and headed off to the small, in country airport. There, we were to catch a chartered flight to the Mole and begin scouting. This journey began at 8 am and consisted mainly of waiting for the plane we had chartered to show up. I discovered that chartering a plane in Haiti is similar to booking a flight in the US: delays are common and cancelled flights are always possible.
By 1 pm our Czech manufactured L-140 Turbolet aircraft was loaded up and ready for boarding. The plane felt solid and comfortably sat the seven of us, along with our luggage and bikes. The majority of these planes were used by Aeroflot, the Soviet Union’s primary airline, and then re-sold in the 1980s to carriers in Asia and South America. Their ability to land on short runways make them particularly appealing for island hopping. And when we touched down on the dirt runway in the Mole 45 minutes later, the plane’s 120-yard landing made it clear that this was the perfect plane for this trip.
The group drove to the hotel, changed clothes and began a short, exploratory ride out of the center of Mole St. Nicolas and east along the northern coast of Haiti toward the small town of Jean Rabel. Travelling along the highway, which is the only connection between Moles St. Nicolas and its eastern neighbors, is a rocky, bumpy event. Soil and gravel have given way to hard coral, which has been smoothed over by decades of travel. But it still wasn’t enough to make for light riding or conversation. The only consolation for the riders was a spectacular sunset and a cold shower back at the hotel.
Day two in the Mole was an ascent to the small town of Bombardopolis twenty miles south at around 2,000 feet above sea level. There are three routes out of Mole St. Nicolas, and each of them includes a short, but steep climb. Once outside of town, the landscape opens up and the Caribbean comes into clear view. Our team of riders and support staff slowly slogged up the mountain, along paved and unpaved roads, and, finally, into the market of Bombardopolis. After purchases of sodas and woven baskets from a local artisan the group meandered through the red dirt of the streets and back down the mountain to the Mole for a late lunch before heading off for an evening on the “island” of Presqu’ile.
Presqu’ile is more of a peninsula than an island. Separated by a thin isthmus of land that the airstrip calls home, Presqu’ile is as remote and forgotten as any place you will ever visit. Grass huts dot the coastline seven miles from the Mole by road. Although it’s just a short distance from the Mole, it feels and looks like a place absent of any modern advances in technology: A cistern collects the only water for miles.
The absence of electricity leaves freshly caught fish for the sun to dry and cure on the rocky coastline. And dominos provide nightly entertainment. There is no radio or television on Presqu’ile—only the sound of the villagers, the ocean and the wind. While this sounds barren and lonely, it’s actually peaceful and reflective. Nothing can interrupt watching the sun set over Cuba.
Our group gave Presqu’ile two goats, which we purchased in Bombardopolis earlier in the day, along with seven sets of dominos and enough candy so every family was able to share. We strolled along the coastline, up and down the jagged coral trails, diving into the deep waters whenever there was an opening. Some of us climbed up to the windy plateau above Presqu’ile where we found two additional 18th Century French structures in ruins. Here, the full force of the Windward Passage was evident. The plateau was scorched and scraped by centuries of charcoal manufacturing and high northeasterly winds.
The rugged bike ride out to Presqu’ile was short and tiring. But the 30-minutes boat ride across the bay back to Mole St. Nicolas was peaceful and smooth. The sun had set and flashlights were pulled out in order to avoid the occasional fishing net. Above us, the clear, cool and moonless November sky was filled with the billions and billions of stars in the Milky Way. There was no electric lights to be seen in any direction, so the night sky was alive. As was the water beneath us: scores of motion-sensitive luminescent jellyfish lit up as we passed over them, sprinkling the dark water with soft bursts of white.
On the third day of scouting, it was Sunday. And it was hot. We began the day with breakfast, then church. A visitor to the region will soon realize that in northwest Haiti and Mole St. Nicolas, from air conditioning to spirituality, the infrastructure is minimal. And church is no exception. But combine the two and place them in a military tent, and it’s a recipe for for an overheated exchange between the body and the soul—the body is overheating despite the power of the words from the pulpit.
But what is lacking in terms of comfort at church in Mole St. Nicolas is made up by the passion and song of the congregation. Haitian churches rival the Apollo Theater on a good night. It’s a beautiful sound when scores of voices rise up in Creole singing praises to God with all their strength. It puts our meager American efforts to shame. In Haiti, church is prime time without a Simon Cowell.
Yet, the heat was still there and we had our hardest day of riding in front of us: the climb up to Mare Rouge.
Mare Rouge is the central hub of commerce in northwest Haiti. And while that sounds like it might be the Frankfurt or New York of the region, it’s not. It’s a simple market where goats, bread, eggs and chickens are bought and sold. But it’s the best that the region has to offer. Strangely, Mare Rouge is a very difficult place to get to. From the west out of Mole St. Nicolas or Bombardopolis, it’s an easy-ish ride or walk along a relatively flat road. But the last three miles on either side of the town is a straight-up climb of twisting concrete road and breathtaking views. It’s awesome and intimidating and made Joe Fox “very concerned.” And that’s saying something.
The long and short of it is that Mare Rouge was, in fact, the hardest day of riding and the best day of riding. The climb and descent was epic. Going up was an unbelievable, but immensely gratifying slog. And going down was fast and flowy. The absence of car and truck traffic, which is almost spooky after a day spent in the impossibly congested Port-au-Prince, made the road feel more like a wide trail with sweeping views as beautiful as any place you will ever see.
But Sunday wasn’t just about church and bike riding. This was Haiti, after all. Eventually things were going to slow down and come to a stop. And this is when it is critical that our American mindsets should be set aside, placed in a box and hidden in a closet. Why? Well, because the rule that says “if anything could go wrong, it will” is doubly applicable in Haiti. Another way to look at it is from the vantage of Yvonne Chouinard who said, “It isn’t an adventure until everything goes wrong.” Which is why Sunday became our Chouinard-esque day of adventure.
By the end of the day, we had collectively ridden 34 miles, been separated into three groups without any means to communicate with one another, had five flat tires on our vehicle, run out of gas, walked seven miles, three of which were with children on our shoulders, and realized too late that daylight savings time “happened.” And we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Walking along a dirt road in the middle of northwest Haiti beneath a moonless sky, with nothing but the Milky Way above us, was one of the highlights of our scouting trip, if not of my life. To feel completely helpless, yet safe, knowing that God has everything in control, is a powerful experience.
Sunday was our last night in Mole St. Nicolas. Monday morning would be breakfast, packing up and then heading to the landing strip and waiting for Tortug Air to pick us up and fly us 45 minutes back to Port-au-Prince so we could begin our journey back into our “normal” lives. On our last night in the Mole, we laid down on the beach staring up at the sky counting shooting stars and going over the highlights of our trip. We had spent time with kids, done some great riding, met wonderful people and experienced a landscape like nothing any of us had ever seen before.
As we shared our thoughts with one another, we found we were thankful for the very moment we were in. There were many highlights, from shot putting French cannonballs to holding the kids to bombing down the mountain from Mare Rouge. But staring up into the night sky we were all thankful to be in that very moment—safe, blessed and loved by the God of the universe. It’s tough to put that into a sound bite. Impossible, in fact. This was an understanding that could only be experienced to be known.
I don’t think everyone would enjoy scouting in Mole St. Nicolas, or riding the Tour d’Haiti North in January. If you’re looking for an air conditioned hotel room with a soft bed and room service, this isn’t it. If you want to look out of your window each morning and just see comfortable, happy people, you won’t. And if smoothly paved roads are what you are interested in riding on with no threat of a flat tire or a sketchy descent, you will be pretty disappointed.
But if opening your mind and heart to the raw and unpredictable nature of life intrigues you, then I strongly encourage you to join us in Mole St. Nicolas. Like the rest of Haiti, it is a contrast of beauty and ugliness, wealth and poverty, joy and sorrow. But in the Mole, it’s even more.