If The Mountain Won’t Come To You

When Bernadette’s daughter, Martha, invited me to hike up a nearby mountain with her, I was excited. Even when I heard we’d be leaving at 6:30 in the morning and the trip would be three hours uphill. I know these small, isolated villages tucked in the mountains are a key to understanding Haiti, and it’s not often I get a chance to visit one. We were headed up there to talk to the locals about participating in the election campaign, which I knew would be interesting. They’re so isolated that they may not be getting many visits from candidates, and their concerns will be different from the rest of the populace.

I woke up at 6 with a headache and decided that a few minutes more of sleep was more valuable than a shower. At 6:30, Martha popped her head in and announced that someone was joining us from Mirebelais (a larger town about half an hour down the road from us) and there would be a delay. More sleep for me. At 7:15, Martha decided to get going.

We headed to Millienne’s house. Millienne is a woman who works in the house, and we’d visited a few times before. She lives just outside of town – it’s not too far, but it feels like a different world. You cross a river to get there. Sometimes, during rainy season, the current gets too strong and you’re stuck on one side or the other, but we were fine. On the other side, it’s more of a rural neighborhood than a town. There’s an unpaved road with houses on other sides. The houses are made of wood and have dirt floors. They all have big yards that are fenced in with barbed wire or spiky plants – that’s to keep goats, cows, and dogs out. In the back, the land gives way to “gardens.” In Haiti, your garden is where you grow stuff to eat and also to sell. The fields of plantains, corn, and other things go all the way back to the mountains.

Our household dog followed us all the way to Millienne’s house. No one likes dogs here. They’re only useful for security, and then you’re breeding them to be mean, of course. The ones on the street are mangy, possibly infected with rabies, and they sometimes bite people. I’ve been well-trained to pick up a rock whenever one comes near me. They know that means you’re going to throw it, and they back off.

Sometimes, though, people tolerate having a dog in their yard. After all, even if it’s not trained as a guard dog, they’ll bark if there’s an intruder. The dog in our yard has a messed-up eye and spends most of his time sitting on the porch or hanging out by the kitchen. Every so often he wanders into the house, and is immediately shooed out. I have never seen anyone pet him or feed him, although I am sure he collects scraps. He’s not afraid of us, but he doesn’t really go near us either. This was the first time he followed us this far.

At Millienne’s house there was coffee and bread. Millienne invited us inside, but Martha argued that it would be cooler outside. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. To me, it seemed rude, but maybe Martha and Millienne are close enough from spending time together at the house that they can be honest with each other. The thing is, since Martha’s mom is Millienne’s boss, I think that sometimes affects how they get along. Martha had never actually visited Millienne’s house until I went with her last week, even though Millienne’s been working there for six months.

Anyway, we sat in the yard and watched our dog fight with another dog, while a woman cut up bread fruit next door and the residents headed down the street to church. The way was muddy, so most of the men were barefoot, carrying their dress shoes in their hand, with their pants rolled up. The look reminded me of pirates for some reason – maybe the colorful dress tops also played a role. One of the pirates called out to Millienne, and she went over to him. Apparently, he wanted to talk to me. He asked if I remembered him. I didn’t. He said he wanted to talk longer, but he was headed to church. I said okay. I’m getting less and less patient about these conversations.

After that, Jeanide, one of the other girls going, asked me whether I’d “calculated” the mountain. I asked her how long she thought it was going to take to go up. I’d heard “two hours” but also “three hours” from Martha. Jeanide thought it was going to take “four hours.” I mentioned that I walked twelve hours on my last trip, so I wouldn’t die from four hours. When Martha came back out, Jeanide told her that I’d said something about not dying on January 12th (the day of the earthquake). I was quick to clarify that wasn’t what I meant at all.

Then we went about packing while we were waiting on the girl from Mirebelais to come. We hadn’t finished all the coffee, so Martha wanted me to throw out my water and replace it with coffee. She pointed to a bucket full of water bags and ice, but I pointed out that coffee dehydrates you and we should still take as much water as possible. The bucket turned out to be too heavy, so we transferred things to a pair of thermoses and a backpack, distributing the weight among everybody. We packed plates into one of the bags. I commented, “Won’t there be plates on the mountain?” which everyone thought was a silly question.

By then, it was 8, and the girl still hadn’t come. She wasn’t picking up her phone. Martha wanted to wait a little longer (“She said she was on her way!”) but we convinced her to leave. So, our party ended up being five people. Millienne, Martha, me, Jeanide, and Yolande. I hadn’t met Jeanide or Yolande before – it seemed like they were Martha’s friends.

Millienne was the only one who had actually been up the mountain before. She was also the only one wearing a skirt. “I’m the only lady in the group,” Millienne said. “Lady Millienne,” someone said. Martha was wearing long pants, and the rest of us were in shorts. I was the only one wearing tennis shoes. Everyone else had on flipflops or sandals.

We walked through the rest of the neighborhood and then moved on through the fields. The main topic of conversation was someone who had just died. She’d been suffering from stomach pain, and hadn’t been eating. They took her to the hospital after a week or so, but she ended up dying there. Martha accused her of “neglijans” (negligience). I pointed out that you never know when pain is serious and when it’s going to go away, and hospital visits are expensive. People started talking about how her zombie had passed in front of the house three times after she died.

Soon we were at foot of the mountain, and then the going got rougher. I’d been worried about keeping up, but it turned out I was one of the stronger climbers in the group – there was me, Millienne, and then a big gap, although to be fair I’m not sure whether Martha’s two friends were as tired as her or just keeping her company. The path was narrow and rocky, but finding footing wasn’t difficult, and it wasn’t terribly steep. Maybe I’m more in shape than I thought. Back in high school I ran five miles every day, and even though I haven’t run in a long time I guess the psychological idea of getting into a rhythm and pushing through discomfort is still something I’m familiar with. I know what my body can do, which can be a nice feeling.

Millienne’s strategy was to go as fast as possible on the uphill stretches, and then wait for Martha and the others to catch up at a convenient place before taking off again. At one point Martha commented that this really wasn’t fair. Millienne got to rest, but the laggards had to go straight through. Millienne was getting frustrated with the pace, though. She told Martha, “You can’t be a leader if you can’t go up a mountain to reach people.” She even turned on music on her phone to encourage us. On Sunday, we get electricity all day, so there wasn’t an issue of preserving her phone’s battery. She used me as a comparison: “If you all walked as fast as Sora, you’d be there by now.” I wasn’t sure whether that would make Martha and the others like me less, but I kept up with Millienne anyway because I wanted to. We were plunging forward so fast it felt like we were falling up, and I liked that feeling.

I wasn’t keeping track of time, so I have no idea how long the walk actually was. I do know it was gorgeous. Although I had to spend most of my time looking at the ground and concentrating on stepping in the right places, the rest stops gave me plenty of time to look. Lascahobas is in a valley, so as we ascended we saw the town situated within the larger spread of the plain, and mountains on either side. The view closer by was also great. The rocks underfoot were full of holes in interesting places, and often when we rested we’d sit on a boulder. People still plant on the slopes, so we walked alongside corn, plantains, coffee, pumpkins, coconuts, mangos, and other things. I recognized the pumpkins from growing them in our backyard when I was really little, and it was the first time I’d seen a coffee plant. There were also some pretty flowers growing wild, like orchids and many others that I didn’t recognize, all with brilliant colors. At one point, Millienne tried to tear up a vine with pretty leaves to plant back at her house. Of course, everything was very lush and tropical, which made me feel like I was in a dream or in a movie. It helped that the sky was doing that thing where all the clouds are scalloped and stretching across a whole half of the dome above you.

The area we were walking through was called Nanpiman (“In Peppers”) and there was a brief discussion about whether or not there are actually a lot of peppers in Nanpiman. Then we moved into a place called “Ghost Depths,” which people joked could be dangerous to venture into but no one seemed concerned about. At one point, as we were walking alongside a ravine, Millienne mentioned that a woman had died after falling off the edge with her horse. We never ran into another person on the path, and there were no houses – only sloped gardens. At many points, the path was overgrown with reeds at the edges, which rubbed against our legs as we pushed past them. Mine ended up getting pretty scratched, but it didn’t hurt or itch too much. When people asked us how the road was later, we told them they needed to go through with a machete. I wondered about what we looked like from above – a line of people moving through the grass, making the grass move. Millienne pointed out a man walking on a path on the mountain beside us. He was just a small, moving mark.

The longer we walked, the more rests the group behind us asked to take. They frequently asked Millienne, “How much farther?” For a while, the answer was “Almost.” Then the answer became: “You ask too many questions.” Then it was: “We’re here – pull up a chair” (the first thing you do when you arrive at a destination in Haiti is sit down). As we were going up the last stretch, Millienne joked, “Let’s tell the top of the mountain that we love it, and we want it to come to us instead of us coming to it.” I told everyone the story of Prophet Muhammed: “The mountain wouldn’t come to him, so he went to the mountain.”

Finally, the path levelled off and we were at the top. We passed by someone’s house to let them know about the person who had died, and then we paused to eat some spaghetti under a mango tree. We actually didn’t have enough plates, so some people used the lids of thermos. Then the girls changed into church-appropriate clothes under the tree (I didn’t have to change, because I’m a foreigner and can get away with it).

We took a different path on the way down, which went almost directly down the mountain face. You can either pick your way carefully, or you can let gravity take over and just keep moving your legs in a controlled sort of fall, using your arms to balance. You’re risking breaking a leg, but the adrenaline rush is a lot of fun, you get down faster, and it feels like a dance, the way you’re moving your feet and arms. Halfway down, I noticed my headache had gone away, I was so happy.

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