Karen Zabawa – On the Road to Cap-Haitien

Karen Zabawa, 2003

This story of my trip from Sosua near Puerto Plata on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, to meet Sharon in Haiti.  Although tourists eagerly embrace the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s island-mate on the island of Hispaniola, when they think of Haiti at all, it’s not as a sun and surf destination, or the world’s first black republic, but as dirt-poor, voodoo-practicing country. The actual truth of Haiti today lies somewhere in between.

Haiti travel story – On The Road to Cap-Haitien

A bright yellow steel gate is blocking the middle of the bridge over the Rio Dajabon (DR) (Riviere Massacre in Haiti) marking the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The two uniformed guards sling their rifles over their shoulders, grab the heavy gate and roll it back, and we drive across:

Welcome to Haiti.

Many border crossings are unremarkable, a melding of cultures with little to distinguish one from the other. Not this one. The solid yellow metal gate may as well have been a stage curtain as it opened to reveal a vastly different tableau.

Gone are the verdant hills of the D.R.; Haiti’s trees ended up as firewood. Gone, too, are the wiry-bodied Dominican children; Haitian children are chubby with the edema of wet malnutrition. There are no cheerful shops, no flower pots brimming with blooms, just a low metal building where you register your arrival, set back from the dusty gravel road.

From Dajabon Across the border into Haiti

In less than a minute, we’d left behind a typical Caribbean country, where poverty lurks at the edges, and entered this one where poverty slaps you in the face, hard. When countries are ranked by wealth, tiny Haiti — with 8 million people crammed amongst seven mountains ranges — is about sixth from the bottom.

Haiti has the usual accoutrements of life in the tropic outside the shelter of resorts — poverty, disease, sporadic hydro, unpotable water — and a few of its own: Violent civil protests and blockades that close the shops and schools and cut off supply routes for days at a time. With minimal amenities, tourists are few and far between, most often aid workers or students on a study trip.

Yet about four times each year, as she’s done for close to five years now, Sharon Gaskell, a former teacher who now facilitates poverty awareness retreats, travels from her home in Ontario to Haiti. There, in the north coast city of Cap-Haitien, and in the nearby village of St. Raphael, she uses her own money and donations to pay for school supplies, uniforms and tuition for more than 80 young students, most of them orphans. And each visit makes her even more determined to do what she can to help out.

“It seems like Haiti’s a disposable country, that no one cares what happens to it,” she says. “I want to help Haitians to help themselves, and education is the key. These are the poorest of the poor. They have nothing. Yet I see in them such promise, such courage.”

When Sharon Gaskell comes back to Canada, she tells the stories of Haiti children and their families. Like Lana’s story: A 14-year-old still a child herself who was nine months pregnant, and in the terminal stages of AIDS. Sharon met her on her first visit to Haiti. “There were no medications to ease her pain,” she says. “I felt so helpless. She just wanted her feet rubbed, it was the only thing that made her feel better, so I massaged them for hours.”

And the others, like the dying baby she held in her arms till he was gone. And the storm that brought flash floods sweeping through the city, taking eight more lives. “There was so much death, so fast, I just sat and cried,” she says. “It turned my world upside down.” Realizing that sitting and crying was not doing any good, she says, “I started asking myself, ‘Where do I fit in? What can I do?'”?

Intrigued by her stories, I wanted to learn more . . .

And so, as part of a trip to the Dominican Republic, I arranged to hire a van and driver to take me to meet her in Cap-Haitien. From there, we would go up the mountain to St. Raphael (Sen Rafayel). And so it was that one August day, I found myself at this border crossing. Sylvio, a stocky, cheerful Dominican, is my guide, driver and translator — he speaks Creole. That, and French, are Haiti’s official languages.

That morning, we’d left Puerto Plata and taken a series of wide, busy highways that wound upwards and inland from the coast, affording us sweeping valley views of fields lushly green with sugar cane, flowers, fruits and vegetables. We’re heading for Dajabon, across the border from Ouanaminthe, Haiti. Sylvio estimates it will take three hours to reach the border, which is open between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., and another three to reach Cap-Haitien.

Ahead of us now, the highway to Haiti’s second largest city is a desolate patchwork of sharp rocks, muddy potholes and choking red dust, and largely empty of traffic, save for occasional tap-taps, the brightly painted local buses.

The 70-kilometer (44 miles) drive takes three bouncing, radiator-overheating hours through scrub grassland where huge cactus hedges are taking over the hardscrabble fields. There’s just the two of us in a 9-passenger, 4WD air-conditioned van.

Slathered in a repellant laced with DEET, the ultimate chemical deterrent for any malaria- and dengue fever-carrying mosquitoes, and we’re well stocked with bottled water. I am painfully aware that the $1,600 I’m paying for a week on this island would sponsor six children for a year at school.

When we stop yet again to refill the overheated radiator at one of the communal wells near a row of tin and scrap wood huts that huddle under dust-laden trees, we buy a bag of mangoes from a slender woman; these few dollars are her day’s wages, earned in one transaction.

Finally, a sprawling market that looks more like a recent natural disaster than a place of commerce heralds our arrival in Cap-Haitien. Crumbling concrete block buildings line the streets, some of which are paved, and all of which are bracketed by open sewers thick with greenish slime.

With her is David, a college student from London, Ontario, here with her on his second trip to give her a hand enrolling students in school. Sharon wants to show us Labadie, a nearby seaside village (right), and so we head out on an even rougher and rockier road whose steep grades give the van a beating.

Every time Sylvio stops to fill the overheated radiator, women and young girls sidle up to Sharon, soft voices pleading their case.

“Sometimes I feel like I have ATM written on my forehead,” she says, “but they all are sick, and need money for food or medicine.”

It takes close to an hour of inching and limping along to make our way the 10 or so kilometers (6 miles) to the end of the road, where one of the tires gives up its air and we leave it to rest. We go on foot down a steep slope to a wide beach, then wade out to a water taxi for the short ride across a bay to Labadie. Here, there’s a small clinic built with Canadian donations.

“On my first trip, I saw it being built,” says Sharon. Her face lights up at the memory. “When I came back the following year, and saw the clinic in operation, I could see that by working together, we were making a difference.”

Colorfully painted small boats line the water’s edge, and small houses scatter under the trees and up the mountain side. A narrow stream leaps from a rocky ledge high up the hillside, its waterfall making a natural, communal shower for the several dozen people, young and old, chatting and laughing, who soap and rinse off the day’s grime.

Charity versus Justice

Whenever I find myself weary of these awful Haitian roads, and begin plotting how to bring in just one bulldozer from Canada to fix them, Sharon gently points out that I am falling into the ‘charity trap'; wanting to help, to make things better, to make things the way I want them.

Haitians don’t need us to fix anything, she says. They are quite capable of fixing things themselves. What they do need is someone to listen to them, to help them where they say they want help. Like help pay for tuition. Or hire a tailor to make their school uniforms. That way, the tailor can earn a living, can go to the market and buy food for her family. Endless charity handouts are demeaning and dehumanizing, and, most importantly, don’t solve the problem, she says.

No Room at the Inn . . .

With my promised hotel room at the Roi Christophe in Cap-Haitien given instead to a group of aid workers, I find a room at Cormier Plage, a seaside resort about 8 kms/5 miles west of the city that’s owned by a chap who used to dive with Cousteau.

In the sizable open-air thatch-roofed dining room at Cormier Plage, a few couples speaking French make their dinner selections from a modest number of upscale dishes, mostly seafood and fish.

One couple with two young boys, their light skin hinting at European origins, wanders into the twilight of the empty beach, giving a glimpse at what the tourism industry once was, and what it could be again.

Though many of Haiti’s natural resources have been gutted and neglected, one can’t help but see that, given time and money, it could once again become a tourism jewel.

Although Sylvio is game to continue on to St. Raphael [Sen Rafayel] the next day, the van and I had had enough. Though St. Raphael is just 28 kms (17 miles) away, it’s all uphill, and takes three hours to get there even if you don’t break down. I am worried if we chance the trip, and something goes wrong, I will not get back to Puerto Plata in time for my flight home. And so, it’s good-bye for now.

On the long ride back to Puerto Plata, then on the plane ride home, I have plenty of time to reflect on what I had seen, and to ask myself, as Sharon asked herself so long ago : Where do I fit in? What can I do?

I am still asking those questions, and, as it turns out, the answers keep coming: Do what you can, when you can, do what is needed. Give a hand up, so that these young people can fly on their own, not a handout that keeps them forever dependent. And if you have to help one child at a time, remember:

That’s better than doing nothing at all.