14-Apr-2005 -- This was a very special line-hunting trip. We reached the only land-based confluence point in Haiti.
Our party consisted of Ray, of the Y-B Group, who began his trip in Beijing; Matt, who is based in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti; John, who was in Haiti on a short-term assignment from Atlanta; and Maxi, a Haitian physician from the town of Cange, about 8 kilometers from the confluence point. All except Ray were first-time line hunters.
The hunting party’s primary objective in visiting Haiti’s Central Plateau was not line hunting. Indeed, it was a happy coincidence that our route passed so near to the point. We had gone to the region to visit a number of hospitals and health clinics, particularly the Clinique Bon Sauveur, run by Zanmi Lasante, the Haitian affiliate of Partners in Health (PIH), a Boston-based non-governmental organization.
Our trip from Port-au-Prince began early on the morning of April 13. The road out of the capital is paved, but our two Land Cruisers inched forward slowly through crowds of commuters on foot and aboard tap-taps, the colorfully painted pick-up trucks most Haitians use for public transportation. In the eastern suburbs, the pavement gives out and Highway Three begins, a rutted, stony, dusty track that climbs Morne Cabrit, a steep portion of the necklace of hills that bounds the capital on three sides.
The ride is bone-jarring and the carcasses of trucks and other vehicles that have failed to maintain the track litter the steep slopes. On this day, the road was nearly empty, but we passed a number of people on foot, in small groups or on their own, trudging up or down, more often than not carrying a heavy load on their heads. Near the summit, we squeezed past a large white armored personnel carrier from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The eyes of a dozen Nepalese peacekeepers watched us pass; a few waved.
As the crow flies, Cange is only about 70 kilometers from the capital. But Highway 3, the main road north, is an unforgiving route. It took more than three hours to reach the clinic’s beautifully shaded campus where we shook the dust from our hair, ate a quick breakfast and began our site visit. The hospital is small but impressive, serving nearly half a million patients a year. Free of charge. In the afternoon we visited three satellite clinics in villages near Cange – all equally impressive for their capacity to do so much with so little – and returned to the Clinique Bon Sauveur for the night.
Our time in Cange and at other Zanmi Lasante sites in the Central Plateau gave us a first-hand look at the primary health care system pioneered 20 years ago by PIH and its founder, Dr. Paul Farmer. The PIH model – whether for basic primary health care, HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis – is premised on the idea that on its own, medicine is little match against the myriad social, economic and political problems that flow from the kind of extreme poverty found in Haiti and many other developing countries. The PIH model is often called a “socio-medical” approach, one which attempts to provide patients with a basket of social and economic services, such as education, job training and micro-credit, as well as high quality medical care. It is a complex and expensive endeavor. But an effective one.
We were honored to have a chance to spend some time with Dr. Farmer on our first evening in Cange, talking about the PIH approach and brainstorming ideas for the future. From its roots in Cange, PIH has already begun transferring its model and the lessons it has learned in Haiti to other poor countries in Africa, and South America. To learn more about PIH and its fascinating projects, visit its Web site at www.pih.org.
We had an ambitious program for the 14th and were on the road by 6:30 a.m., munching on MRE (meal-ready-to-eat) crackers as the Land Cruisers lurched up the road north from Cange. Our primary destinations were two towns – Thomonde and Hinche – where we planned to visit a number of PIH-run health clinics.
There are few roads in Haiti and at times one would be hard pressed to describe Highway 3 as a road. Yet, amazingly, the track appears on electronic maps, one of which Ray had downloaded into his Garmin GPS. Following the squiggly line on the screen, we reached a ridge overlooking a beautiful valley about 30 minutes after we left Cange. From this vantage (photo 1), approximately halfway to Thomonde, the GPS indicated the confluence point lay a mere 1.3 kilometers off the road – a coincidence almost too good to be true. And speaking of coincidences, we learned later that the valley is known to locals as “La Savane Médicine.”
We slung cameras and backpacks out of the cars and tightened our shoe laces. Although the point was not far off, it would require a significant vertical drop (200-300 meters) on a goat path to reach the valley floor.
An elderly gentleman who lived with his family in a small house on the side of the road near where we had parked the cars offered to guide us down the path and into the valley. We scrambled down the bluff and passed through two or three farming villages, walking in single file through the cool morning air. About 300 meters from the point, we forded a river on exposed stones (photo 2). At 7:30 a.m., we reached 19°00’N - 72°00’W!
The confluence point is located in a small village, in the back yard of a family of farmers named the Daouts. We ducked under low hanging vines and skirted a pair of hobbled pigs to find the spot, about 20 meters from the back of the Daout’s cheerfully painted house (photo 4). By the time we finished the obligatory photos – views from all four directions and a shot of the GPS lying on the spot amid the dry leaf litter – a small group of villagers had gathered to inspect the strange new visitors.
We had a nice visit with the Daout family (photo 9) and explained to them that their little plot of land contains a very special spot. Our conversation was conducted in English, French and Creole. It was wonderful moment of intercultural contact for our team and, we hope, for the Daouts – who seemed pleased by all the attention, and interested in the knowledge that their backyard was a one-of-a-kind in Haiti.
Like most people living in this part of Haiti, the Daouts are subsistence farmers and very poor. Roumain, the Daout’s eldest son, had some high school education but could not find a job. Grateful for his hospitality and wanting to do something in return, later we asked one of the clinic doctors we met in Thomonde if he would be willing to try Roumain out as a non-medical assistant. He seemed open to the idea, and Maxi, who oversees the Thomonde center, promised to follow up, as well as arrange to deliver some of the pictures we took of the Daout family.
In an effort to combat this chronic unemployment and supplement the little they make from their crops, farmers in the Central Plateau make charcoal from the remaining hardwood trees that dot the mostly deforested landscape (bags of charcoal under a tree in photo 4). The demand for charcoal – which largely comes from city dwellers in the capital – has led to severe deforestation and soil erosion throughout Haiti. The loss of trees has had a catastrophic impact on water source, as well as on the amount of arable land. On this Caribbean island once known as “la perle des Antilles,” the environmental devastation we witnessed along much of our route was disheartening. That said, at one of the PIH-sponsored sites, we visited a community reforestation project that aims to re-green the barren hillsides. A small step. But a critical one.
After our visit with the Daout family, we hiked and scrambled back up the bluff to the cars, reaching them a little after eight. A perfect hour-long expedition. As we bounced away, we thought an appropriate name for this location might be “Zanmi point” – which, like Zanmi Lasante, means “friends” or “partners” in Creole.
After our visits to Thomonde and Hinche, we passed by “Zanmi point” once more on the road south to Cange, Mireblais, Laschobas (where we visited another PIH clinic), and, at last, back over the coastal range and down to Port-au-Prince.
Matt, John and Maxi, the three first-time hunters, all claim to have caught the confluence bug. We’ll see if there’s a run on GPS units in Haiti in the coming weeks. Our only concern is that Maxi, the only Haitian in the group, will now have to leave Haiti if he wants to keep line hunting. Ray has graciously extended an invitation to China where 780 unvisited points beckon.
Rating of this Hunt:
Degree of Challenge: 2 – The 1.3 km hike was most pleasant, even for the two hunters who got their shoes wet while crossing the river. The steep bluff is also not so bad. (Scale: 1= very easy - drive to the point; 5= a death march – glad it is over.)
Scenery: 4 – The confluence point is located in a beautiful valley with more trees than most places in central Haiti. (Scale: 1= not interesting at all; 5= take your breath away.)
Culture-social factors: 4 – This confluence point is in a very rural section of central Haiti, where most of the communities subsist on what they can produce from small farm plots. The people are among the poorest on Earth, but are exceptionally friendly and welcoming – even when their guests seem to have dropped in from the sky. (Scale: 1=dull; 5= most stimulating.)