We drove for almost two hours past breathtaking vistas and gut wrenching poverty that we now expect but never adjust to. It was to experience a day away from the work in a town described as "different." Words like "artsy," "wealthy," and "resorts" almost deterred us. No one on our team was really feeling the vacation vibe but four of us had finished our project and agreed to go.
It was a typical drive in Haiti. The highways are designed as two-lane roads but habitually function as three lanes with motor bikes zipping between a variety of other vehicles. There really are no good adjectives for that last statement. The motor bikes often carry three adults and two 5 gallon water jugs at max speed. The mid-sized pickups have extra tall canopies and work like a taxi for 8-12 seated adults (it's called a tap-tap because that's how you get them to let you out).
Going around one corner, a dump truck came around a blind, hairpin corner going so fast he looked like he might finish the maneuver on two wheels. In The States that would be scary but in Haiti big trucks drive down the center of the road. They don't move over. They honk. We all gasped a bit with that one.
As we drove, I thought the drive might be the best part of the trip. I like roller coasters and that is sort of what a 14 passenger van driving like a rally car feels like in the mountains of Haiti. As a final touch, the highway narrowed at a village market to the width of a bike lane crowded in by 10,000 people with makeshift huts just trying to make a living.
When we got to Jakmel, I realized I had forgotten the context of labels like "resort." The ritzy, midsized town had littered river banks, chaotic traffic and on one corner of a downtown street, a grown women covered herself with one arm while she bathed with the other. But as we began to descend a typical Haitian side street everything was about to change.
It felt the same, a single lane, unpaved road requiring a capable all terrain vehicle to get to the end. A few of us had to take Advil to treat the headache that comes from driving down the driveways here. There are walls on both sides of many side streets in Haiti. This one was so narrow that a little girl had to climb one side to let us pass.
We drove into the typical Haitian scene: street venders, motorbikes and SUV's but when we crossed a small grassy walk way toward a centuries old railing with a set of stairs that just cleared the jungle canopy, we experienced the great contradiction of Haiti. A white sand beach surrounded a clear teal cove that whispered heavenly sounds with crashing waves. Our talkative bunch was speechless.
We ascended another set of stairs worn by centuries of Caribbean storms to Cyvadier Plage Hotel & Restaurant. It's an oasis that rivals the efforts of the most talented photographic enhancement with effortless charm. We sat in the oasis of green landscapes, elegant furnishings and white columns overlooking paradise. God breathed his own exclamation with a gentle breeze that tamed the heat. Now we understand what our hosts meant by Jakmel.
We ventured into town, ate a delightful meal, visited an art gallery and a number of shops in a gradually updated historic French colonial stretch of town that ended at another breathtaking beach with a hand laid mosaic promenade along the Caribbean Sea.
But its still Haiti. There was trash on every beach, a naked boy playing in the water, smiling friendly people dressed in vibrant colors and dazzling smiles, with feral dogs lying dehydrated in the shadows of vehicles being repaired in the street. After all, despite being arguably the most beautiful place on earth, it's also the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That is the contradiction that is Haiti. And the people who love it will politely chuckle when we suggest ways of possibly fixing it.