Monday, April 23, 2012

Castaches: mototaxis and moulets

Haiti biker babes: Margarette and I prepare to ride to Castaches
It's raining this morning. This means that it's reasonably cool as I sit on the porch in my nightgown typing this. Unfortunately, it also means that it might be completely impossible to get to Castaches today unless the folks at the UN complex let me borrow their helicopter. Margarette doesn't ride (horses) and you can't take a motorcycle on a slippery, muddy dirt track. Or at least, not with me on it, you can't. The road we want to build to Castaches is not just a luxury. Nobody from up there is going much of anywhere today, unless it's very close by.

Last night Claudette, the young President of the Castaches Women's Assoication, came by for a chat. She filled me in on all the details of what they want to do. These women have their act together, even down to the committee of eight who will evaluate microloan applicants and make the decisions regarding who will get a chance, and who will not. Now all they need is for me to find them the money to get started.

Castaches is an agricultural area. Most of the women will start with either crops that they plant or with livestock, and they will visit the various small vilabes on their market days to sell their products. In those villages, they can buy items in short supply elsewhere – matches, dry goods, etc. - and then sell those in the next location. The economy here is very small scale. Margarette and Claudette and I also discuss that some people really aren't suitable to be business owners, and they'll need to work for others eventually.

We have an offer from a Canadian woman in the area who is buying and exporting beautiful woven placemats to teach a few of our women how to make them so that they too can sell them for export through her program. Of course we'll have to pay some tuition. Nothing of value is truly free.

Across the street from me, a teenage girl is setting up a stand to sell little packets of crackers and cookies. I hope she won't be there all week. She ought to be in school. On the other hand, for Haiti, she's not unfortunate. Her stand is right inside her family's little compound, where everyone has a roof, decent clothing, and seems to be in good physical health.

Ugh. The moto taxi guys are here, which means I have to go put on decent clothing. What I'm wearing is fine for everyone else, but I'm attracting more attention because I'm different. Poor Saint Michael.

Night of April 23rd:

We're back from Castaches. First a quick comment on traveling by motorcycle: WOOOOOOOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! What a rush!!!!

The ride up was long, and I started out with little faith in this small, noisy machine's ability to stay upright. This was ridiculous for two reasons: first, I've seen dozens of these in the street, most of them carrying people far larger than I am. Secondly, my son has one and I've ridden it with him. But still...

The drivers are four guys chosen by one of them, who is a friend of Mr. Saint Fleur. About two minutes in on Jeremie's cobbled streets, I realize that this is FUN. So by the time we leave the paving, and eventually what anyone might describe as a real road behind, and are – I guess you can't call it 'four wheeling' when you only have two wheels – I am pretty comfortable. Mentally. Every time we go down a hill I have to hold my weight back with my arms, as there is nothing to brace your legs against in front and I keep sliding forward.

The ride is long. It is much farther than I had thought it would be. Our speed is impaired by the rain. Margarette tells me that every time she comes here, it rains. I should bring her home with me. We could use a little moisture in the Dakotas. We ride through mud and puddles, which splash us less than I would have expected. My driver has it easy when the tires do slip, because I'm not very heavy. I'm not about to put my feet down as he does to help right or brace us. I have no idea when he's going to start up again, and I don't need to break a leg here.

Glorious GREEN
The scenery is astonishing – green, verdant jungle. Everything, everywhere, is varying shades of emerald or deep rich burgundy, scarlet or even canary yellow. Not all jungle plants are green. I recognize some of my house plant's larger cousins, including many Poinsetta trees towering twenty feet into the air.

We pass an endless stream of people. Children headed for school,wearing uniforms, children who don't go to school playing or attending roadside stands, vendors both male and female headed for various markets with their sale goods on their heads or loaded onto small horses, mules, or burros. Endless humanity! Haiti is a very crowded, populous country, even as we go farther and farther from Jeremie and modern conveniences.

We stop breifly at a Catholic complex with a church and a school and an abbey. Margarette and her father speak with the priest. We'll coordinate with their organization when we are able to work on the road. Even further into the mountains, we pass through a street market with permanent stalls made of sticks and palm fronds. There are a lot of vendors there, and it would appear they don't see blan very often. Everyone, everyone is staring as I pass quickly through.

I see a lot of poverty here in the Castaches area, of course, but it's nothing like the desert of Cabaret. Most families seem to have enough money for a small cement house in a garden with a living fences. I see shoes on almost everyone, although a lot of people are carrying them because of the mud. I see almost no children suffering with kwashiorkor. In fact, now that I think of it, it is in Port-au-Prince itself that I have seen the worst starvation, malnutrition, filth and poverty. And so many of the people there came from smaller places like this, somehow deluded that they would find a better life in the Capital.

The aquaduct
We stop to examine the aquaduct project. I've seen photos, but it's hard to understand without seeing it. In the process of building the school, the Foundation needed water. And the easiest way to get it was to pipe it in from a local spring. So now, Castaches has a cap over the spring to protect it and keep it clean, and a cistern for storage and pressure. Twice a week, bleach is added in both places, just in case. There are two public fountains with faucets for the community to use, dispensing free, potable water. There is no cholera in Castaches!

And right nearby, the school! I've seen photos too, but actually seeing it here, with its 150 students, so amazingly far from anything else, is almost unbelievable.

School in Castaches
Margarette jumps right into her project – checking the actual attendance against the logs that she has, and getting information for the French sponsors of all the children. Everyone gets their picture taken and she records a very brief summary of their academic progress. There are several mothers gathered on the verandah, talking and waiting.

I take a walking tour with Mr. Saint Fleur. Margarette's not much of a one for hiking, but 'Grandpa' and I are a lot alike. We're country people, and we like to walk. He shows me a fallen down Catholic church behind the school, and talks about how they'd like to repair it. We walk down a steep gully, cross a stream, and on the other side we pass through a cemetery. He tells me his parents, Margarette's grandparents, are buried here. Now I understand how it was possible to build this project out here. He's a local! In a place like this, it's impossible to get community buy-in if they don't understand and trust you. But everyone here knows Grandpa. I mean, everyone. We have to stop and chat with every person we pass, and we pass a lot of people.

Grandpa knew about this location, where the nearest school was so far away that children physically couldn't walk to it until they were old enough that they might feel shamed by their own illiteracy, or have given up on education.

He shows me the first building site they were interested in. From what I understand, it belonged to his family and he wanted to give it to the community for the school. But on this far side of the stream, it is truly inaccessible to motorized transport. They abandoned this site, and bought about two acres of flat, cleared land at the end of all roads.

As we walk it begins to rain again, and then to pour. We stop at the house of an old man to shelter in his covered porch. He puts out chairs for us, as in Haiti you never keep a guest standing. Grandpa and I tell him that if it doesn't stop pouring eventually, we may have to spend the night. He and Grandpa know each other, of course. Finally he loans us a large umbrella and we start back to the school. It's very wet and extremely slippery, and I worry about Margarette's father, who must be in his seventies. Luckily the problem solves itself. He takes my arm, telling me to be careful, and I'm able to go first and carefully to be sure he does not fall.

When we return to the school, Margarette tells me we might be spending the night up here. Before I started working in Haiti, the idea of being stranded in a strange place with nothing more than the clothes on my back and my digital camera would have sent me into a tizzy. But now, my only worry is that somebody has a mattress or pad of some sort I could sleep on. I'm getting too old and arthritic to sleep on a bench or a table like a real Haitian can. She says if we can get down the mountain tonight, we won't be able to come back up tomorrow. Here and now is my one chance to document what the people of Castches want and need.

Women's group of Castaches
A fairly large number of women have gathered now. They are curious about the sponsorship photos and about me too. I take photos, and with Margarette's help, interview a few of them. There is much discontent until I go outside and explain that it's my job to look for seed money for their association, and the women who are getting their photos taken are no more likely to get the loans than those who are not. I just need a few real faces and real stories to tell to the world, so that everyone can see how worthy they are of a chance to support their children. One woman, obviously a community leader, translates what I say into better and more culturally relevant Kreyol, including the plan to draw the names of women who are qualified in a lottery to decide who gets money first, and who must wait for her chance. They understand, and the scowls of those I didn't interview disappear. I explain that I'd like to return with a mission group to help with the road or any other project their community needs, and they agree to show my visitors Haitian hospitality.

During all of this, Margarette has sent our motorcycle drivers and their machines away. I'm not clear on what is going on, but whatever happens, happens. It takes type-A people like me a long time to get broken into this concept, but when God makes an omelet, He has to break some eggs. It's taken years for me to get properly broke in, and I still struggle with it sometimes.

School lets out at 1:00 sharp, and it's pouring rain. We used to be able to provide a free lunch, but the pay rates for teachers went up and used our food budget. We now have three cooks and nothing for them to serve. Margarette is going to ask the French to send more. One or two free meals, like we provide in Port-au-Prince at the school in Delmas 31, would be a huge help to these families.

The children and their mothers cram under the shelter of the balcony, waiting for a break in the deluge. A few small boys run out into the rain and start for home. Many of the girls take off their uniform blouses, and some change their shoes for cheap sandals to protect their good clothing. These kids have seen blan recently. The French, who made this school possible, were here just a month ago, so I'm mildly interesting, but not that thrilling.

My preferred way to travel
Finally the rain slows, and we finish up business. There are a tiny horse and a mule on the lawn of the school. Margarette asks me to give her my camera so she can take a picture of me on the horse. I give her my camera and approach the tiny pony, but his eyes roll back in his head and two grown men can't hold him still enough for me to get anywhere near him. Apparently he did not see the French when they visited. I've never seen the like, but this horse is terrified of white people! I approach the mule instead, who doesn’t seem to care what I look like. I have trouble figuring out how to get on with the unfamiliar tack, and the handler seems to take this for ignorance. He wants to lead me like a kid on a pony. I don't have any of the nouns I need, but I manage to explain that I want to steer by myself, and he fashions reins out of the rope bridle. I wave goodbye and cheerfully ride my mule off towards the sunset, which is apparently incredibly funny. Of course I turn around before I reach the gate, but when I look back, Margarette is being helped onto the little horse, who is not afraid of her at all. We really are riding out, at least to where the road gets a bit better. I am delighted!

Trail riding through the jungle – what a treat! Even if I do have to use a stick to make my mount keep going, and I'm pretty sure I can walk faster than he can. I ride up ahead of the man leading Margarette on her pony. It's beautiful, peaceful and lovely in the light rain. Eventually, a barefooted young man catches up to me and tries to start leading my mule. I tell him I prefer to ride by myself, and he manages to accept that I know how to do so.

Actually, I'm a terrible athlete and a clumsy person, but I've been riding since I was four years old and I used to train horses for a living. I'm more comfortable mounted than I ever will be on my own two feet. Or at least, I would be on a more athletic mount. The young man settles for following along and pushing my slow and lazy mule along when he gets to be too slow. But eventually he drops back out of sight. I don't think about why until later.

I ride alone through the same little market we passed on the way up, and there I am reminded that I am not, and never will be, Haitian. Apparently the sight of a white woman riding a mule is the funniest thing ever, ever, ever! There are about 150 people at this market, and every single one of them is looking at me and laughing. Literally. All. Of. Them. Most are also pointing, just in case someone misses the joke. I'm actually blushing as I laugh too. I don't get the joke, but it is surely me. This mule didn't startle when I opened the umbrella from my big pannier basket, but the roar of laughter confuses and spooks, him, and he stops dead. Right in the middle of the market. For a moment I'm too stunned and embarrassed to think, but before I can get the umbrella closed to whack him with it, my motorcycle driver appears and leads me off, taking the reins as if I haven't been riding all the way down here. Interestingly enough, this is much less funny than my riding by myself, and the roar of laughter subsides. I really, really don't get it. But I make him give me the reins back, because where I come from the sight of a grown woman being led on horseback is definitely worth laughing at.

We were supposed to get back on the bikes here, but it's still so slick that my driver tells me that if I don't mind, he'd just as soon I rode the mule down a bit father where it will be drier. I tell him I'd just as soon ride the mule all the way back to Jeremie, but at his pace I'll miss my appointment on the 26th if I do. I head on down the trail, my driver slipping and sliding behind us, until we reach the point where he has us stop and wait for the others. Finally they join us, all on motorcycles again.

We take a different route home alongside a river through an incredibly green, lush and lovely valley. It is absolutely breathtaking. I make my driver stop to let me take pictures, even though he thinks I'm crazy, but I try to explain I want to show the Americans how beautiful his region is. He becomes more cooperative. It's still raining, and we are wet, wet, wet. I have my camera in a baggie in my pocket. On the flat valley floor, I learn that you can ride a motorcycle through about six inches of standing water. I also learn that it's easy to go to bed before eight o' clock, even in a strange house over the noise of the neighbors chattering away, after a full day's adventure.

What a rush. Wow.

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