The Drive to Deschapelles

It would be easy to compare the rural countryside of Deschapelles to the dense city of Petionville - pointing out the slower lifestyle, and lack of accessibility to a range of products and services - but I won't take the quick route. Instead, Deschapelles offered us a space to reflect on beauty that comes in the form of communities and people.

We took the coastline road through Haiti, driving north from the Port au Prince an hour until we reached St. Marc - a large over-the-road banner welcoming its visitors to the town. I read in a book about Eddie's grandparents, and founders of Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti, Gwen and Larry Mellon, that the couple had made St.Marc a temporary home back in the 1950s while their permanent home was being built at the edge of the hospital campus. I tried to imagine them there, as we drove past streets lined with booths, topped with large shading umbrellas. To make it a softer entrance, we stopped at an air-conditioned market and bought a couple of bottles of wine for the Ayati Hotel host LeGrand Mellon, and talked money exchange with men on a corner who held wads of gourdes to trade in larger bills or US dollars. A couple more miles down the road, more animals become apparent - a chicken or a dog, a goat, or a large, albeit thin, cow, grace the sides of the road with their presence. The sign for HAS pops up quickly, and we made a fast right on to the main road.

Eddie gasped. In his two-year hiatus from Haiti, the road to the hospital was just shy of 100 percent paved. Motos carrying people, and trucks carrying supplies zoomed along until we reached the campus area and the road turned back to bumpy rocks and potholes to maneuver around. Foundation changes such as the road make huge differences in Haiti - with the ability to manage many errands and meetings in one day now possible because of the smooth updates.


Bags down - the Deschapelles adventure begins

The corridor outside of the hospital has also changed, Eddie says. Many who have come to the hospital have worked to keep the area sanitary and safe - litter off of the street means a better environment to buy and sell goods. It looked good. After I put my bags down in the Alumni House, a temporary residence hall for those visiting the hospital, we took to the corridor, making it only a couple of yards at a time before "Bonjour, Eddie!" rang out time and time again. Like my neighborhood in Pittsburgh, people know each other here. It isn't as fast paced as Petionville, with new residents coming in by the droves. This was a place where you genuinely ask how people and their families have been. Sak ap fet? komon ou ye? Kijan tout moun ou ye? we'd ask the young and old, who gave sideways glances and nods of their heads.

A newly painted art gallery stood behind a rock wall, the crowd in front of its lit up space welcomed us with smiles, as Eddie hugged dozens of young men who were painters, or gardeners, or who were just hanging around with the cool kids. I said hello, and thanked the gallery curator who gave me a cold Prestige. With a busy schedule, and many people to see, I gulped down the beer, realizing late that the bottle had to be returned in its original box in order to be refilled. I set it down on the road, empty, and Eddie's cousin Nico gave me a quick lesson in the power of bringing things back to where they originated. If the beer box wasn't full with empty bottles, the customer would be deprived of its full buy-back value. It was recycling at its best. For many years, the storefront had been abandoned, but now it thrived. HAS visitors are its most common supporter - a painting here, a metal piece there. The items much different than the pieces we handpicked and scanned during the trip to Croix des Bouquets, but still enticing US dollars to free themselves of their handler's wallets.


The Yale School of Forestry Student Group meets the Friends

The Hotel was bustling. A wide open sky in view between the roof overhang - spaces to see the blackest of skies with the deepest amount of shining white stars. We traveled to rural Haiti for many reasons, but a large piece was to visit with a five-year visitor, the Yale School of Forestry graduate student group, and to see the HTRIP staff and the trees. Now in its ninth year, many of the tree plots have become small forests, and we all wanted to get a glimpse of their celebrity. Happy Birthday, the student team (and two professors) yelled out as we finally met for a dinner of rice, beans and a sort of eggplant au-gratin. Program Manager Melissa Sanon is a friend of mine on Facebook and being that it was my day of birth, had read the familiar celebratory messages on my wall throughout the day. By the time I reached Deschapelles, and began greeting the Yale group, only a couple more hours remained in the day of birth, so I appreciated the salute as the ice was broken. Eddie and I sat at different tables for dinner - me sitting with three very cool students, ranging in experience and expertise. One went to college at age 14 years old. tried out medical school, and soon found her way to the Forestry Program to pursue a happiness that only a tree can provide. Another already held a degree in Veterinary medicine, and was now looking at the ways animals transfer disease to humans. The third tablemate was interested in composting - worm composting to be exact - and I outrightly said how cool it was, and how thankful I was to have not been on the tour during the afternoon. The food was delicious and the talking continued as we finished our plates, and Yale School of Forestry Professor, Gordon Geballe introduced the Friends.

He teaches Sustainable Development in Post-Disaster Context: Haiti. Since 2010, he takes some 15 students to spend their spring break in Haiti. The team provides consultation on a variety of issues, including sustainable development, preventative health care, chronic disease, and agroforestry. Dr. Geballe is the associate dean of Alumni and External Affairs and a lecturer in urban ecology within the School of Forestry. To measure success year after year, Dr. Geballe told The MacMillen Report, “If we come back either next year or the year after and something that we talked about is something that people are doing in the field, then I will feel that we gave an idea that someone thought was useful and the local people are appropriating.”


HTRIP Site Visit with HTRIP Techs Mathurin Dorceus & Shellon Mondesir

It’s morning, and I lay awake in my twin-sized bed, listening to Creole outside of my window. I suddenly remembered that I videotaped the darkness overnight - the roosters starting their cock-a-doodle-dooing way before the sun came up. It woke me up, but I was ready anyway. Haiti’s weather is typically beautiful - with blue skies and warm temperatures, I sipped my strong coffee with a splash of milk and a spoonful of raw sugar, and was ready to greet the day. We’d be busy. Starry Sprenkle, the chief scientist of HTRIP, was also on the trip to Deschapelles. The tree program is her design, with her recently completed PhD the blueprint. Visiting HTRIP sites thrills her, and us, and we pile into the VW four-wheel with Starry at the helm. Stopping at the on-campus nursery, we pick up two of HTRIP’s long-time techs,  Mathurin Dorceus & Shellon Mondesir, who jumped into the back of the truck bed, and held on tight.

We’d be climbing some major mountain, but first, we drove through the back roads of the a region called Lioncourt. The roads were not smooth like the highway, or newly paved road leading to the hospital campus, instead, there were potholes the size of small pools, and rocks the size of softballs. Getting around meant we’d have to take it a touch slower - take in the surroundings. We drove by kids and people selling their wares, a chicken or two, and a good number of newly built homes, the funds often received from a family member who moves to the United States and sends it back home to help build something spectacular. When we stop at the end of a road, the trees are towering.

The tree plot is in someone’s backyard, so Starry says hello the otherwise unexpected family - they greet and hug, Starry arriving to their land so many years before to discuss the planting of trees that could now host a tree house, or a hammock strung between the trunks.

There were varietals including oak and mahogany, and Starry let us know how the science behind mirroring works - it seems that trees that grow around an already-planted tree, tend to do the best - feeding off of one another's growth pattern and pulling the soil’s ever-increasing nitrogen-rich soil. We take a photo of the group.

The shade feels good, and I am already taking in the fact that I have the tendency to take for granted the commodity that is a tree. They bring shade and a sense of peace, an oasis in the middle of dry spot. To our right, a plot of land sits sans trees - maybe feeling lonely and wondering when and if a root will take hold. We thank the family, who is sitting on a sturdy investment - and continue on our way towards Varettes.

The town hosts a massive market, and strong architecture. It is a space where people congregate and have fun in the countryside. We shove past the retail and restaurants, and traverse a back road until we reach the mountain. The hill is big and scary and what feels like 45 degrees up.

Starry’s pedal to the metal technique is go-go-go, and we make our way up the rocky road, passing donkeys and walkers who were on their way to town. Curve after curve, the landscape slowly comes into view - we can see the valley, and the river, the water tower of the HAS campus off in the distance.

And then we see trees. A very hilly area meant building rock walls and terraces that would hold the roots and soil in place. Starry took a photo and breathed in the clear air. She said she used this plot in her PhD thesis - discussing the detail and evidence of the HTRIP model. It is a feat to grow trees where the sun beats and the wind whips.

The once barren space is shaded, and not until we climbed back into the truck and parked at the top of the hill, thereby catching a birds-eye view of the tree-filled hillside, did I understand what is happening here.

The landscape is changing. Where once people didn’t believe it was possible, animals and insects are rejoicing under the leaves of the tall trees. It’s a miracle, I thought, and then right away had a second thought - no, it’s the science and leadership of HTRIP. We salute the Yale students, also at the helm of the same mountain. We stop and get another view of the work. It can’t be outdone.

In between sites, and to calm my floating head following the rocky car ride, we stopped at in a hotel/restaurant for a bite of plantains and pikliz, hamburgers, chicken and griot. The food served as motivation and gratefulness to the country and culture, and to the community that houses the trees. We got to see the HTRIP effect at our next stop. We parked the car, and to our left were massive trees that were now serving as shade for yam plants that were vining along the dirt, and holding on to the tree trunks. The site was one of the firsts, so the trees are reaching maturity now - or within a year or so . We hiked along in a line - each of us taking in the day and experience - it was very covered and for an otherwise really hot day, the trees brought us sanity and kept the truck cab cool as we made a sharp right up a hill.

We walked by a house or two with laundry blowing in the wind - not much decor, but the suns rays were kept away from its tin roof. Natural and free air conditioning must make sleep so much better. A small crowd of about 30 meandered over to us as we took photos of a new angle of trees, little kids and teenagers, mostly. They laughed as I pretended to climb one of the trees for a photoshoot - my khaki pants wrapping  around its trunk. I think that may be the first time I technically hugged a tree. What a feeling!

And we just kind of stood there. We smiled and stared at each other, and looked up. We said thank you a million times - merci, merci, merci - for caring for the trees that could be named after each community member. The trees were part of the family.