Suddenly there were five naked little Haitians boys swimming in the river with us. That’s when I felt that our group was part of a landscape. I say they were swimming, but they really weren’t quite, and neither were we. The river didn’t offer enough of a space to really swim. At least not in early March, well into the dry season. What they were doing was turning underwater somersaults, jumping around, and splashing. Generally: They were cooling and showing off. We ourselves were relaxing in the river’s strong current of cool water or drying on the warm rocks.
Toto and Jean-Reynald had been talking about the hike for several weeks, consistently telling me how far we were to go and how early we would have to leave. We would take off at 6:00 in the morning on Madigra, or Fat Tuesday. Kanaval would be in full swing down in Pòtoprens, but we would hike away from the noise and the crowd, up into and over the mountains, and down into the valley below. So we woke up at about five, we packed some sandwiches, and went for a walk. There were eleven of us: Madanm Kastra’s son Byton, Jean-Reynald, his younger brother Nikson, two of their cousins, Toto, Clébert, Richard, Erik, my friend Juan who was visiting from the States, and
The most stunning fact about the whole walk for me was the dirt. It’s light or medium brown and rocky around Ka Glo, where trees, shrubs, and grasses flourish. Though Ka Glo is no rain forest, it is pretty lush: shady and comfortably cool most of the time. As we hiked up the hill, through Ba Osya and Blancha, the soil got darker and richer, less rocky. By the time we reached the small high plateau around Grifen and Divye, it was black. This is prime farming country, relatively flat. The peasants grow vegetables here – carrots, onions, lettuce, cabbage – stuff that won’t grow well in the heat down below. These are some of the gardens that stock the markets in Grifen itself, and in Bwa Moket and Petyonvil below. The houses around Grifen reflect what the gardens are worth. They are large, solid stone houses with expensive tin roofs. Many are nicely painted.
But as we walked up beyond Grifen, the soil began to change. First it started to redden. It became lighter in color and harder, too. By the time we reached the near side of the ridge, it was bright red, the red I remember from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Up near the ridge, there were few large trees and very little grass. The shrubs were more succulent, less leafy. The gardens along the steep slope are large, but that hardly seems to help very much. There are few houses, and they are small and weather beaten. Most are made of woven sticks and mud.
As we crossed over the ridge, onto the other side of the mountain, the soil changed again. It turned white, grayish white. It looked like dirty sand, but it was more like powder. We were walking down the road as if through ashes, in places several inches deep. On this interior side of the mountain, there were few plants at all. It was barren, a desert waste. Lifeless gray dust all the way to the plain below. Just as there were few plants, there were few people. But there were a few. Somehow they scratch out something of a life on this unearthly terrain.
And we descended. By the time we got to the bottom, we had been walking for almost five hours. There was a shallow river there, where a few people were bathing and a few others doing laundry. Having crossed over the ridge, we lost the breeze. It was noon or so, and hot. So we hurried across the river to some shade, and thought about what we wanted to do.
The guys had determined to visit Belle Fontaine, where one of our neighbors had once taught school. But when we got to the shady oasis near the river, some market women told us it was another three hours’ hike. They were there trading at a small grocery – the only one for miles around, I was told. They pointed us instead towards Basanble, a small place about 30 minutes away, where the water would be a little deeper and there would be space to play soccer. It would be, they said, a little hard to find, so they assigned two little local boys to walk with us there as our guides. We had a ball and a picnic lunch with us, so the boys were glad to go along.
So we ate and we swam and then started to head back. When we got back to the grocery, there was a truck waiting to leave. We were more or less out of gas ourselves, so we jumped at the surprising chance to get a ride most of the way home – especially since the truck’s route would include the hard climb up through dust back to the ridge above Grifen. It was five goudes apiece, about a quarter these days, for a space to stand and hold or hang on. Baggage – we had none to speak of – would have cost extra, but other passengers brought plenty. For example: The mid-sized pig tied tightly to the truck’s flat bed squealed in pain or fear all the way back. We had to get out and walk a couple of times when the combination of the steepness of the slope with the depth of the dust made the climb too hard, but after an hour’s rough ride we were just above Divye, less than an hour from home.
As we walked, or dragged, back down, we talked. In twos and threes, the little groupings shifting as each of us slowed down, sped up, or took a short rest. Clébert tried to convert Juan to Adventism, using a homemade language, a sort of compromise between his own Kreyol and Juan’s little bit of French. I talked with Byton about his work: He’s an apprentice cabinet-maker. We got back to big and very welcome meals, which we gladfully ate, lots of questions about how tired we were, and cold water to bathe in. It was a great day.