An Unforgettable Trip to Mount Kenscoff, Haiti

May 29, 2020
An Unforgettable Trip to Mount Kenscoff, Haiti.

More than 30 years ago when we were living on St Croix, my children were in the Dolphins Swim Team, the only one on the island.  In order to compete, we hosted teams from the mainland in our homes, or swimmers and the coach could fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the small 8 seater planes. Unless the meet was in San Juan, they would take a bus or fly to another island.

If swimmers were 8 or under, a parent was required to stay in a hotel nearby. Swimmers stayed with host families. One of the biggest meets of the year was in Santo Domingo. My 7 and 9 year olds qualified to compete, as did Eric, David’s buddy. His mother, Nancy, and I decided to share a hotel room and take the children to Haiti afterwards.

An Unforgettable Trip to Mount Kenscoff, Haiti.

We watched the swimmers on Saturday. On Sunday, Nancy and I went sightseeing. In 1498, the Spanish monarch requested Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher who had landed there in 1492, to found Santo Domingo as the capital of their colony, the Dominican Republic. The Cathedral, Town Hall, Hospital, University and Monastery were all the first of their kind in the Americas.

The children learned there were 2 very different countries sharing one island, Hispaniola.

The next morning, we flew to Port-au-Prince, the capitol of Haiti. The children learned there were 2 very different countries sharing one island, Hispaniola. Spanish was spoken in the Dominican Republic. However, the French had established themselves on the western end of the island in the early 17th century and Spain ceded a third of the island to them in 1697. A language, Haitian Creole, developed from communications between French colonists and their slaves who were brought over from West Africa to work on the sugarcane plantations. 

In 1804, half a million slaves revolted against the French and Haiti became the first black independent Republic.

We stayed at a charming pension where they only spoke Creole. I wanted the children to experience as much of the culture as possible in 3 days. We had supper there en famille on Monday evening. 

In the meantime, we went off to explore the capital city, a chaotic, noisy jumble of traffic. There were many tuk-tuks – old, brightly-painted VW minibuses – which provided transport for Haitians who rarely owned cars. There were small transport trucks, tall metal or timber boxes often on wheels much too small for their size or likely weight.

Trucks were everywhere, their beds filled with an incredible array of furniture, coconuts, sacks of grain from the fields, or 8 to 10 people, standing room only, except for the occasional one perched on the edge of the truck bed. Small motorcycles, frequently carrying 3 people, seemed able to progress more quickly than any other vehicles. Tall, thin, very dark Haitians of all ages were everywhere, weaving their way between vehicles which were stalled or moving extremely slowly on the crowded roads. Once black-topped, 80% of roads were much in need of repair. Vehicles were almost universally old, rusted and would no longer have been considered road-worthy in the U.S.

An Unforgettable Trip to Mount Kenscoff, Haiti.

There was constant noise, of horns blaring out their warnings, engines idling, drivers shouting at others who tried to cross their paths. There was a lot of trash on the gravel sides of the roads lined with tin-roof shacks where locals sold drinks in bottles or cans, or displayed rainbow-colored plastic chairs, jeans, hand-made children’s clothes, crafts, or brightly-colored paintings.

We made our way to the “Marche du Fer” the huge Iron Market, with an architecturally elaborate framework, shading vendors and buyers from the harsh Caribbean sun. Chickens and many malnourished stray dogs roamed freely. Goats were leashed to some of the stalls, and colorful parrots cawed in cages. There was the unmistakable aroma of body odor, understandable in the hot, humid climate, and the pungent odor of dirty animals. Occasional vendors were aggressive, but most were friendly and laid-back.

Nancy and I kept our money and passports on our persons for safe-keeping. I was fascinated with the pyramids of grains, white, beige, cream, and the displays of starfruit, guavas, breadfruit, papayas, mangos, passion fruit, bananas, coconuts and my favorite, genips. I loved the exquisitely-carved wooden religious figures, bowls, and vases. We admired paintings with their vivid colors of seascapes and crowded markets depicting the long-legged Haitians.

I understand a major fire destroyed the Marche du For in 2017 so I don’t  believe there is much to see today.

The Palace has been demolished because it was badly damaged in the devastating earthquake on 2010.

When we left, I drove to le Palais National, the Presidential palace opposite Place L’Ouverture. It was very impressive, a huge white French Renaissance building, surrounded by a wrought iron fence reminiscent of Buckingham Palace in London. Armed guards kept traffic moving and at quite a distance from the Palace, the only place where traffic moved at a normal pace.

The Palace has been demolished because it was badly damaged in the devastating earthquake on 2010.

An Unforgettable Trip to Mount Kenscoff, Haiti.

On Tuesday, we set out for our trip t0 Mount Kenscoff, in the Saddle Mountain Range about 30 miles south-east of Port-au-Prince. The mountains rise steeply from sea level to just less than 5000 feet. I had read in a flight magazine several years earlier one could take horses to the top of the mountain. We traveled up a very bumpy road, with large sections of it gravel. Nearly 2 hours later, having stopped occasionally to photograph the magnificent mountain scenery, the road petered out and we found ourselves in a small village.

Shacks of corrugated iron and occasional concrete block houses with small vegetable gardens, were surrounded by stony, treeless red-brown dirt. There really wasn’t a street or shops but one place had a sign “restaurant” in the window.

I went in to enquire if they were open for lunch for the 5 of us, since I was the only one who spoke any French, similar to Creole. We all piled in and sat at the large table in what seemed to be the front room of the owner’s house. We were served tasty goat stew with root vegetables over rice.

When I settled the bill, a beaming host said they had found us horses.

I asked where we would find the place to rent horses to go up the mountain and was disappointed our host said they had stopped that several years earlier. When I settled the bill, a beaming host said they had found us horses. Her husband would accompany us so we could get to the peak. My children had spent a week at horse camp on St Croix, so they were better riders than I.

Outside, we found a motley crew of horses, one with a paper saddle, and hardly any of the stirrups were at the same level. The children were excited and after tying our water bottles to the reins we set off. I don’t believe Philipe had a saddle at all, We felt sincerely grateful that these lovely people had rounded up their neighbor’s horses to make us happy.

The mountain was extremely steep with no trees. It was badly eroded, with nothing to hold the surface layer of dirt which occasionally caused a dust storm when the wind blew. We marveled at the dozen or so bare-footed local children who followed us to the top and back. How they could keep their footing in the dry dirt I don’t know, but we obviously made their day as they made ours.

An Unforgettable Trip to Mount Kenscoff, Haiti.

The horses may have looked unkempt but they were sure-footed. We were happy to have Philipe to lead the way. The sun was hot, even though we understood it was 10 degrees cooler  in the mountains than the city. Half an hour after starting out, we met a tall lady in an attractive long blue dress balancing a series of baskets on her head coming down the trail towards us.

I was most impressed with her upright stature and her broad infectious smile accomplishing an amazing feat seemingly effortlessly. I also remember her long, lean bare feet grabbing that parched earth with every step. She was bringing her wares to sell at the market the next day. She would probably stay overnight with a relative in the village.

Beyond mountains, there are more mountains

The view from the top was of more peaks, with a precipitous drop-off just beyond us. Some of the mountains were wooded in the distance. There is a Haitian saying, “Beyond mountains, there are more mountains” and we could certainly attest there was truth to it.  It was sad to see so much deforestation – I understood the trees had mostly been cut down to use for cooking.

We didn’t see any evidence of electricity, but I believe they have developed the area recently, building a road, a mission clinic and school.

The descent was more difficult and scary than the ascent, but we all made it without any falls. I tipped them generously above the asking price, and everyone was happy. We left with smiles all around. We spent the night at the pension before heading back to St Croix with a better understanding of how both city and rural life was for many Haitians.


Photo credits for An Unforgettable Trip to Mount Kenscoff, Haiti by Margery Franklin.

About Dr. Margery Franklin

After 40 years of practicing pediatrics, retirement has afforded Margery the opportunity to travel more extensively and pursue her interests in photography and writing. She often travels alone, but sometimes with one or more friends as when she walked 90 miles on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in 2016.

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