National Geographic : 1976 Jan
Haiti: Beyond Mountains, More Mountains By CAROLYN BENNETT PATTERSON SENIOR ASSISTANT EDITOR Photographs by THOMAS NEBBIA With miles of up-and-down trail behind her, a woman finds a moment of rest at Jacmel, her head-carried cargo of fruit consigned to her lap. Most of the country's produce moves to market in this manner. Poorest and one of the most densely populated nations in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti struggles to surmount obstacles no less mountainous than the land itself. DAWN COMES ALMOST UNNOTICED in a Haitian day that has no real beginning, no definite end. It is my first night in the thatch-roofed, one-room cottage I have built for a sojourn in Labadi, a north-coast village. And sleep has not come. I have listened through the night to the cries of children, oddly still at play on the beach at my door. I have heard fishermen dragging their homemade boats up onto the wet sand or down to the water-the hour makes no difference whether they come or go. Even so, my ear failed to tell me when the gifts arrived. With the coming of light, I open my door and look out. Women are up and about, preparing for an hours-long walk to market in Cap Haitien. Farmers heading for mountainside gardens call out to one another in Creole, a native brew of language beyond my understanding. That's when I discover the gifts: four freshly husked coconuts, a tremendous conch shell with fluted mouth of gold, a large crab. I have come to live among a people so beset with poverty that an income equivalent to $100 a year is a bonanza. I am white in an all-black village. I am a stranger who can communicate only with frowns or smiles. Yet I am welcomed with gifts. A party of men approaches. They stop at my terrace and display another present, this time of a remarkable sight. In their arms is a four-foot long snake, a native boa, now dead. It is a prize, and the men watch my face to glimpse my astonishment, my delight. I cry sounds of wonder, and they smile broadly at me, at one another. Then, proudly, they withdraw. The snake, I am thankful to see, goes with them. The scene shifts. With friends I am returning from a Sunday drive in the country near Port au Prince, the capital. It is just before Mardi Gras; the road is alive with people on foot, in overflowing rattle trap buses, in tap-taps-rainbow-coloredpickup trucks fitted out for passengers and bearing such names as "Grandeur of Jesus," "God Before All," "Mother of Christ." We round a curve and come upon a throng that slows all traffic to the pace of a dance, a dance fired by a five-piece orchestra on a creep ing truck. And, in all the flashing color, the wild music under the whip of drum, the cease less gyrations of bodies, I nearly miss seeing her. She stands beyond the roadside ditch behind a wire fence that she is using for a clothesline. She is young and slim and beautiful.