Anne Heffernan – Haiti

2016-05-07 14.59.02


Anne took up an assignment with the Religious of Jesus and Mary (RJM) in Jean Rabel, North West Haiti in April.   Her role is in an educational project aimed at improving skills to help people, particularly women, attain skills to help them with income generation.

Here Anne shares her first impressions of Haiti – on the very long, seemingly never ending journey from Port au Prince to Jean Rabel:

First impressions

Airport in Port au Prince. Very bare walls, no colourful advertisements, notices or placards to entice you to buy their wares. Stark, very few people allowed into the ‘arrivals hall’.

Family and friends wait in a covered area outside for visitors they are meeting.

Young man muttering at me that he will collect my bag, get me a taxi etc., but I was being met didn’t need taxi.

Sr. Rose arrived to greet me and eventually we got rid of my ‘helper’

We were to stay in a hotel near the airport and a courtesy car would bring us there. All very friendly and helpful.

Hotel was very nice, friendly staff, very welcoming, there may have been damp on the carpet in hallway, so I didn’t know what to expect when we went into our shared room, but I was pleasantly surprised, it was pleasant with everything we needed including an en suite!

We went to the bar for a quick drink and again the staff was really friendly and helpful as Sr. Rose could converse ably with them, I just nodded and smiled and said the occasional ‘merci’, although I was inclined to say ‘grazie’ having been in Italy recently. I need to get back into trying my French.

Had a great sleep and just as well because Sr. Rose informed me we’d be having breakfast at 6.30am. That was a bit of a shock as I was tired and knew I could sleep my brains out given half a chance. But I went with the flow and was happy to get into my bed at an early hour.

Next morning we had breakfast in the colourful dining room with orange upholstered chairs. It was a bright and cheerful and I felt I could have been anywhere in the world. Those having breakfast were busy at their laptops, some possibly having business breakfasts. A big television took pride of place as a focal point in the room, which amused me. There was no sign of poverty and the staff was friendly and helpful and smiling the whole time.

At 7.30 our driver came to pick us up for the journey to Jean Rabel; we expected it to take about 6 to 8 hours, but 3 hours later we hadn’t even reached the outskirts of the city the traffic was so heavy and hardly moving. We had taken an alternate route to that taken by Maxim and Rose the day before as they had come by the river route and had had difficulty crossing the river and decided to take a different route out of the city, as it had rained also over night and so they expected the river would be even more difficult to cross.

Well, as we snailed through the traffic along bumpy, dirt tracks for roads, I saw Port au Prince in all its glory – all of life was to be seen as everyone went about their daily life, busy on their way to or from somewhere important.

I was most amazed at how well dressed everyone was, from the tiniest school child to the oldest adult, not a hair out of place or a stain on their clothes, despite having to walk along dusty, bumpy streets and though potholes and mounds of dirt and stone in places.

The ease with which many of the women carried their wares on their heads was simply amazing; even young children had no difficulty in carrying heavy items on their head.

A young guy passed by with an 8×4 sheet of timber balanced nicely on his head as he crossed the street to get to his destination. And there were motorbikes galore going every which way. For most of the journey out of the city there seemed to be two lanes outbound and one inbound, but if a driver became enraged that could change at will to three lanes outbound and no lane inbound.

The motorbikes for the most part carried at least one passenger often two and sometimes they had huge baskets or other carriers hanging from each side full of items they had purchased or had come to sell. If a bike had a lady passenger who was wearing a skirt or a dress they invariably were seated side saddle, for decorum purposes, I presumed.

No one bothered with a safety helmet and I got the impression little or no enforcement of rules of the road mattered much in Port au Prince.

Having inched our way eventually to the outskirts of Port au Prince by 11 am, at last the road stretched ahead of us to Jean Rabel. Our driver made good progress doing his best to make up for lost time. We’d had a good breakfast at the hotel, but he had probably not eaten anything but was happy to continue driving without stopping to make as much headway as possible after the slow start.

Thank God for water is all I can say, I was gulping it down by the bottle as the heat of the day intensified. Eventually, Maxim decided to stop for food, at what could be called the last outpost before setting out across the mountainous stretch to Jean Rabel.

The restaurant, like many we had passed along the way, was a simple construction with a couple of tables, a trunk style fridge, where Rose and I could get a cold drink, the cook sitting outside on the path with her two huge cooking pots over a charcoal fire.

Maxim ordered his meal and the three of us sat at a large wooden table covered with oilcloth. There were no windows just some material hanging at the window openings to keep the insects at bay, with little success.

Once Maxim was finished his meal we set off again but not before I put in my spoke for another bottle of water to keep me hydrated for the rest of the journey. While we were in the restaurant Rose advised me we had about the same length of a journey to do as we had just done, my heart sank…at this rate we wouldn’t reach Jean Rabel before nightfall, and the heat was already getting to me.

She meant we had about another 3 hours to go to reach our destination, the same length as we had travelled since leaving the outskirts of Port au Prince.

As we had travelled from Port au Prince, we had passed through numerous towns; none seemed to have shops, post offices or banks like towns I knew. The streets were busy with street traders at their stalls, selling everything imaginable. And the traders came in all shapes and sizes, from young girls of seven or eight to older traders. It was obvious many who we might think should be at school were out earning a living instead of enjoying a carefree childhood, but they all seemed happy and smiled their way through.

Leaving the last outpost behind, Rose told me this was where the bad roads began. I was in for a treat, the Haitian massage, she called it. That’s what you get as your body rocks back and forth while your driver attempts to negotiate ‘the road’. There isn’t much chance of nodding off during the Haitian massage leg of the journey. If we were not being rocked from side to side as we drove over bumps and rocks and wondered would the tyres hold out, Maxim was hooting the horn urgently to notify oncoming traffic that he was on his way, or he was hooting at them because they were on his side of the road. The thing is, if they were on our side of the road, mostly they hadn’t any choice as it was really a case of making your way through a difficult stretch as best you could and without going over the edge lots of times.

The vegetation was sparse, desert like with cacti being the only thing growing in this arid region Yet still from time to time we came across the odd hamlet of inhabitants, and I had to wonder how on earth they existed in such a desolate area, with so little.

Next we came across a colourful bus – which seemed to be broken down, and I thought well, it’s not the best place to break down. Rose told me that the bus leaves regularly from Jean Rabel at midnight to make the journey to Port au Prince, so I don’t know how long it was sitting on the side of the road or how long more it might remain there till a mechanic would come to the rescue. There seemed to be a number of passengers inconvenienced and they sought shelter from the burning sun under the scant trees.

We also passed a huge truck right in the middle of the roadway, wheels already missing, so it wasn’t going anywhere fast; it seemed like it could have been there already quite a while and may just become part of the scenery as the difficulty in moving it would probably prohibit the action.

This Haitian massage went on and on until the road narrowed and we passed some school children on their way home after their day, happy to wave at the few vehicles passing by, compete with each other throwing stones into the ocean and generally amuse themselves with little or nothing; having company and someone to play with seemed sufficient.

At this point we had moved beyond the desert area into an area with some trees and scattered houses. Along the way we came across donkeys making their way uphill carrying produce such as plantain and I wondered where exactly the plantain was growing. Then Rose pointed out a cluster of trees below us to the right. A few women also carrying large bunches of plantain had passed us by and I voiced my thoughts as to where they would have gotten it. Rose replied that they may have gotten it in the market in Jean Rabel, but that seemed a long way away yet and it made me think about how difficult life was for these women.

Within a short time we had indeed reached Jean Rabel and passed under the arch welcoming people to the town. It wasn’t quite what I had expected, on the Internet it had seemed to have a big wide street, but here we were in what appeared to me to be a village setting. Next we passed through the gates of the school and reached what would be my home for the next year, a large building, 100 years old, now used as part of the school with our quarters above it.

Much like the area we had crossed en route to Jean Rabel the surface of the school yard was bumpy, dusty and uneven, but Naza and BowBow the dog and two strong male visitors were waiting to welcome us with a very warm welcome.

It was 5pm and we had been driving since 7.30 am with no more than half an hour stop! Tiredness had well caught up on me, despite my good sleep last night.

I was glad we had arrived and was certainly not looking forward to making that car journey any time again soon.

Now I understood what they had meant when they said Jean Rabel was ‘remote’. In fact, I had never known ‘remote’ till now!

Saturday was a relaxing day with plenty of sleep to catch up on, stories to hear about the town, the work and the area in general as Rose, Naza and I got to know a little more about each other. And of course BowBow nudged his way into the conversation at every turn. Just like Murphy at home, he was looking for attention however, he had manners and did what he was told, unlike Murphy who manages to become the boss of all.

Mass is at 6 am each morning and at 6.30 on Sundays, Rose enlightened me, adding that she and Naza generally get up at 4.30 to do their bits and pieces before the day! This seemed outrageous but having done the journey from Port au Prince, I could understand why Rose had set out the day before meeting me at 4.00 to get to the city at a reasonable time in the day and to beat the traffic into the centre, and enjoy the relative freshness of the early morning, before the heat of the sun made everything that much more difficult.

On Sunday I got up shortly after 5 to give me time to shower and get ready for Mass. Having an early morning cuppa before my shower, Rose advised I may wish to eat a little something with the tea before Mass, as it could last two and a half to three hours. Needless to say, I was glad to be forewarned of this and had some bread then showered and was ready just in time before Mass started next door in the church.

Standing outside I was struck by the fact that it actually felt much more like 12 o’clock Mass, as the sun was already high in the sky, shining brightly and everyone was wide awake, well presented in their good Sunday best and looking forward to their participation at Mass. The church would be packed Rose told me as we approached and sure enough it was. Only for the fact that Naza had gone ahead of us and held two seats for us, we’d have had to stand, and I really don’t think I would have lasted the duration of Mass.

Flamboyant is the only way to describe the proceedings at Mass. There was music, singing, dancing and processing (during the offertory) with local produce of yams, sugarcane, fruit trees and plantain brought up to the altar for blessing.

The sermon lasted a good 45 minutes and the local priest must have covered every topic from the destruction of the trees and the environment to the number of books in the Old and New Testaments. But the congregation took it all in their stride with not a single child objecting or causing a rumpus. A very tiny baby of less than 3 months, I would think, was the only one to cry out or make a noise, and the church was full of very young children and teenagers; they all played a big part in the ceremony, seemed happy to be present and joined in with all the singing. It was a huge change from what I’m used to in Ireland.

Shortly after 9 am Mass was coming to an end and Rose advised me that we would leave in a minute, because the notices had yet to be announced and that would certainly take the proceedings up to 9.30. It was a bit of a marathon of a Mass but well received by all!

By the time we got back home the sun was well and truly making its presence felt and would only get hotter as the day progressed.

We enjoyed our well-earned breakfast and pottered about till it was time to go to an exhibition of local produce and crafts to celebrate May Day. Naza’s workshop had a stand and the girls were hoping to make some sales.

Afterwards we went to ‘the best restaurant’ in Jean Rabel for dinner. It was much like the restaurant we had been in on the journey from Port au Prince but 100 times cleaner! There were no other patrons at the time we were there but the two women told me it was busy in the mornings with people having breakfast and again at night when the proprietor put on music and had patrons to enjoy food or drink or maybe both.

After that it was time for our siesta and it was badly needed as the short walk back home was difficult in the heat of the middle of the day.