Travel to the other end of Haiti

I’ve started to feel at home in my mountain village of Sainte-Suzanne and bustling-but-laid-back coastal city of Cap-Haitien. Feeling like a Northern-Haitian-expat, almost. Knowing how things work, the people and the tricks of the trade is nice – but there’s nothing like travelling for the first time to the other end of a new country you’re living in. Haiti, in my mind, is just about to become 300km larger.

The reason for the trip: work. Yay for paid expenses! The work involves: researching the commercialisation process of fairtrade coffee cooperatives. Where better to go then to Thiotte in the South-East of the country, base of COOPCAB (Cooperation des cooperatives cafeieres de l’arrondissement de Belle-Anse) one of the most successful coffee exporting cooperatives in Haiti. So off we go – Alain (older boss), Max (younger boss), Lavalette (friend of Alain’s and coffee-cooperative expert) our driver, Patrick, and myself.

DAY 1
Departure time: 3:30am, Wednesday morning. As always when I have to wake up at absurd hours I get up before my alarm; I’m bright eyed and ready at 2:30. We’re rolling on the road and out of Cap-Haitien by 4:00am. Dark as dark can get and we’re rolling around the horribly pot-holed road to Gonaïves. The road couldn’t be worse but the views on surrounding mountains and bays are beautiful – not that anything is visible through the darkness; thankfully I’ve done this portion of the journey before by daylight. I try listening to music and faking sleep with my eyes closed until the jerking of the pick-up all over the road as Patrick avoids dogs, chickens, ravines and semi-trucks starts making me nautious. Instead I keep my eyes open and the nausea fades. I’m sleepy as heck but beyond grateful that as the only woman in our team I’ve been given the one comfortable seat available: passenger seat. It may be chilly and bumpy where I’m at but it’s nothing to the wooden benches in the back of the open truck where Max and Alain are crouching, wrapped up in winter jackets worthy of a Northface commercial. When it starts drizzling around 5:00 I really start to feel bad for them! They muscle through it Haitian-style and refuse offers of huddling up together inside the truck.

We roll up to Gonaïves a little after sunrise to pick up Lavalette. In his home we have our first bite today: a boiled egg each and warm coffee. I reach for the salt thinking it’s sugar and hoping to put a half teaspoon in my coffee cup. Lavalette stops me saying the coffee is already sweetened. Uh oh. I know what that means: there is a kilogram of sugar per pint of coffee. Sure enough the beverage provides the required wake-up slap in the face, and then some. Also, for the hundredth time since arriving in Haiti I wonder how it’s possible that all Haitians aren’t diabetic. These people take their sugar legacy seriously!

We’re rolling along now to Port-au-Prince and country capital. I ask Patrick if he’s familiar with the route and he nods yes. He then proceeds to ask for directions several times, gets yelled at by Alain for taking a wrong turn, until we’re finally back on the road. For a second I really do think we have taken a wrong turn and veered into another country…that’s how good the road is! The smoothest, hole-free and pristine road I have yet witnessed in Haiti. My optimistic feelings for Haiti’s blossoming future swell inside of me. A. Real. Road. Wooow!!

Ok, don’t get ahead of yourself Kasia, I tell myself calmly. We do make good time for a while and then stop in a small town after Saint-Marc to get a real bite to eat. The guys grab warm corn with spinach and I opt for a few fried plantains and meat (ends up being pork fat, oops). Only an hour later my belly will be burgling alarm signals of a coming diarrhea (a regular occurance here, naturally). Sure enough I’m visited by the runs a few times during the day…and as usual wonder with mild curiosity at what did it. Perhaps it was the dodgy kinda-washed cutlery at the breakfast place? The pork fat? Lack of sleep?? Who knows.

We’re driving through Port-au-Prince now and I’m getting a crash course in Haitian history: the Presidents. Aristide’s house is coming up on our right, that’s why. And did you know that Aristide’s successor, Prévale, is known for being the only Haitian president to ever serve a full term (aka. no coup d’état, assassinations or exile for a whole 5 years!) Oh yeah, and we’re driving by the American embassy, supposedly the largest USA embassy in the world. The line of Haitians standing outside is very long. There’s plenty of traffic and we easily spend an hour advancing only several kilometers. Max used to live in and prowl these neighbourhoods and has plenty of stories to share. Finally, we’re out of it and back in the open country. We’re heading on the #8 national highway to Thiotte!

National highway , yeah right- more like inter-village rock slide. This next stretch of “highway” turns out to be a gravel-wildly-uneven-requiring-4-wheel-drive type of “road”. Honestly, I’ve seen cattle trails in Spain in better condition. As we make our way up the mountains (final destination at some 900m altitude), across creeks and valleys, we glimpse the beautiful Azuei lake. The surrounding mountains are breathtaking but the ride in the pickup is painful and tiring. I’m hoping we’ll “get there” within a half hour when two hours of this rock-track later we finally pull into our guest house. A clean, multi-storey building sitting alone, high above the small town of Thiotte.This quiet and clean recluse Is a God send especially after 10 hours on the road. I’m further ecstatic to find out that I’ll have my own room and bathroom! Chilling with the boys is made that much saner when I can have my own space to rest :)

We wash up, have lunch at the guest house (plantain, beef, macaroni salad and rice with peas) and head right over to COOPCAB for a first introductory meeting. Tomorrow is when we’ll do our real work, but we’ll take the time today to introduce ourselves, get to know our hosts and set our objectives for our time together.

We arrive, take our seats in the office, as I try to avoid the gaze of one of our hosts who has taken an obvious and immediate liking to me. I do my best to smile and stay focused as our IRATAM crew introduces themselves. The effects of sleep deprivation are starting to come on, but I make an extra effort and manage to get everyone laughing over the spelling and pronounciation impossibility of my Polish last name. The two François (our hosts share the same first name) are friendly and willing to share information. Thank goodness! Lavalette points out that every successful exporting cooperative in Haiti has historically been obligated to go to someone else, be it in the Dominican Republic or nationally, to learn about the ins and outs of exporting coffee. Now we have come from the North to learn of the successes in the South. We set our time table for the following day and part ways…but not before François-with-a-crush gifts me with a hand-made candle holder decorated with carved coffee plants. I’m very touched, but also acutely aware that my role here in this moment is uniquely as foreign, white woman. Everyone’s happy as long as I smile and act interested. Quite frankly, at this point I’m too tired to make any kind of intelligent remark anyways, so I’ll settle for IRATAM maskot for now. But just you wait until I get a good night’s sleep! I’ll wow their socks off with my insightful businessy questions tomorrow (Ha!)…which is my final thought as I pass out at 8pm in my room in our guest house. I’m covered in three thick blankets – it’s cold in the mountains!

DAY 2

With a solid sleep to my credit I am up bright and early and ready for a full day’s work. Over breakfast, Lavalette is explaining the structural differences between réseaux, fédérations, platformes and unions. Sounds like our idea of naming the North-East exporting cooperative a platforme would be a technical misnomer. So perhaps the PECOCANE will actually become the FECOCANE? Or the UCOCANE? We don’t have any clear answers just yet.

9:00am rolls around and we are back at COOPCAB sitting down around a table in front of a white board ready to learn and ask all our questions. François #1, aka Carnes, is our teacher, and a good one at that, sharing his extensive knowlesge in an engaging fashion. He’s obviously passionate about his work. Everything is happening in Creole which means I’ve got about 2hrs of good concentration in me and then my brain starts going into linguistic shut-down. I keep notes but they’re more frequently peppered now with “clarify with Alain” and “ask Max” then before…Carnes is speaking fast (even though I’ve asked him to slow down). I got a great smile for my request…and he plowed on full steam ahead just as before.

Today is easily my most intense work day in Haiti to date. We are all acutely aware of how much material we have to cover and how little time is available. We plow through topic after topic – from the birth of COOPCAB, the structure of the cooperative, container sizes, broker services, international partners…every topic spurrs another and we are growing thirstier rather than satiated for information. Finally, lunch hour rolls around and my stomach is growling for sustenance as my head throbs and concentration ebbs. The omelet and boiled plantain from breakfast are a faint memory. We bump our way on the gravel road back to the guest
house and to promised food…only to find out that it wont be ready for another hour. Having spent the morning admiring COOPCAB’s excellent organisational and communication skills yet another example of Haitian frustration knocks on the door – the cook said this, we said that, some one else gave the wrong info and we don’t have time to discuss it anyhow. Now we’re on our bumpy way back to town to eat in a restaurant instead. 2:00pm is creeping in and we promised to return to the centre by 2:30. Lunch gets wolfed down, and off we go for part two of our “Exporting via coffee cooperatives in Haiti 101” course. Deep breath, and we take the plunge!

Emerging at around 6:30pm we’ve covered nearly every topic imaginable (and the cooperative’s President stepped in to teach us too) and my ears are ringing with key phrases like “operational costs” and “target market”; my notebook is plastered with reminders to look into the New York stockmarket coffee
prices, ristournes and the advantages of using contrats ouverts. Most importantly this cooperative’s level of organisation and expertise in their field is impressive and worthy of emulation – I’m realizing that there really is hope for Haiti if like-minded people engage in their work with the same drive and attitude. To top it off everyone drums it into our heads that quality, yes coffee quality, LA QUALITÉ is the most important element at every stage of the coffee process. It is VITAL and I am thrilled to hear this repeated time and time again. It’s generally known that high-quality coffee is Haiti’s only real chance at growing a viable coffee industry. Let players like Brazil and Colombia play on volume if they like (although who wants a second-rate product anyways?)…in a country that produces around 0,5% of the world’s coffee it is on quality and uniqueness alone that Haitians can compete.

Our time is out. I am saddened to leave such a dynamic and optimistic team and infintely grateful for their time and willingness to share their knowledge. When Carnes opens up spreadsheets containing internal accounting and budgeting records I nearly cry from happiness – this is exactly what we need to see: how costs are monitored, the numbers followed through every step and cooperative in the network. Their records look excellent and organized and further proof of the “how” behind their success.

Again, a big thankyou to the whole team at COOPCAB and for their warm welcome and presence in South-East Haiti :)

DAY 3
(p.s. blog post uploaded as we sit in Port-au-Prince traffic on our way back to Cap-Haitien. Thank goodness for fast Internet in the capital!)

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