Saturday, February 20, 2010
A different planet called Belo
I know that I’ve mentioned a place called Belo in past blog posts, but I don’t think I’ve ever really described it or posted pictures of it. Given the image of Haiti that most people – including myself – have always had, especially post-earthquake, I just want everyone to know about Belo. This place is inching higher and higher on my list of favorite places on Earth every time I visit. When I tell Haitians about visiting a little place called Belo, they have no idea what I’m talking about. To give people a clue, you have to mention the bigger tiny town nearby, about thirty minutes farther down the mountain. Even if they know that town, most have never been there or anywhere like it. When I show the kids at school pictures of Belo, many can’t even believe it’s Haiti, since they themselves have never been to such a remote, mountainous place.
Belo is barely even a town – it’s more of a truck stop at the end of a rutted, windy dirt road on the top of a mountain south of Port au Prince. A few trucks come and go each day, to drive workers the two and a half hours down to the city, and transport goods back up to the people who live in tiny houses scattered throughout the mountainside. There are a few large landowners up there as well – our friend Patrick Brun is one of them – and they have worked hard in the past nine years to replant trees in the largely deforested region. Amazingly, in such a short time, trees are thriving, and the soil is improving with it. The primary mode of transportation around Belo is walking – or sometimes riding horseback – and the primary mode of transporting goods is by carrying them on one’s head. It’s cold in Belo, in the low sixties at night, and often misty by day as the clouds swirl around among the mountaintops. There are no mosquitoes in Belo and the stars at night are brighter and night sky has more depth than any I have ever seen. People in Belo are incredibly friendly in that way that small town people around the world always seem to be, especially when compared with their more jaded and suspicious countrymen who live in the crowded cities. They wave and smile and don’t ask for money, and they absolutely do not speak one word of English. Every time we come, they always seem somewhat amused and intrigued by the carload of blan arriving from the city. However, the best thing of all about Belo these days, is that the violent fingerprints of the earthquake are nowhere to be found.
Of course the people in Belo felt the earthquake. It’s actually much closer to the epicenter in terms of miles, but the elevation (more than 6,000 ft) seems to have cushioned them from most of the shaking and destruction. One man explained to me that some small houses were destroyed, but that everyone from the area who actually died during the quake was killed in the city, not in Belo. Mr. Brun’s house is simple and well constructed, and the only damage his house sustained was some broken glasses that fell from a shelf and a large granite table on the back patio that tipped over. When we made the turn off the paved road onto the dirt road about 45 minutes from Belo, we saw fewer and fewer piles of rubble and collapsed houses, those sad remnants we have termed “monuments” to the earthquake. There are no tent cities or UN trucks, or traffic, and the thin mountain air refreshes the body and spirit in equal parts.
What is there to do in Belo? Nothing really, and that’s why it’s wonderful. We’ve gone there a few times, always a collection of volunteers, staff and Moynihans, but this time we went alone, just the volunteers. This week was supposed to be a vacation week in the country in celebration of Carnaval, and we had plans to spend it in the DR sipping cocktails with umbrellas in them on a beach somewhere. But Carnaval didn’t happen, and traveling is still complicated, and it just didn’t feel right to party it up in the DR while people here are still digging out. So instead we opted for two nights at the Bruns’ house in the mountains of Belo. We played Chinese checkers sitting in the sun on the patio, read a lot, went on long walks in the hills, and spent tons of time cooking and eating. It was nice to sleep a little later, lounge around in our PJ’s, curl up under blankets on the couch and watch the clouds roll in and out. We grilled chicken and potatoes that Bernard, the caretaker of the house, literally dug out of the ground for us. In the morning he brought us some freshly laid eggs, and we enjoyed the tastiest omelet I’ve ever eaten. At night we built a huge fire in the outside fireplace and made s’mores while sipping Barbancourt rum and Cokes.
On one of our walks we journeyed to a nearby hotel that we had heard has a restaurant, but when we got there we were informed that it was closed for the season until March. But since one of the gates was close with only a coat hanger … we decided to do a little exploring anyway. It was the strangest place! It was sort of a cross between the hotel from The Shining and the family summer camp from Dirty Dancing. There were little cabins, and well maintained gardens, and a big outdoor pavilion with a creepy Phantom of the Opera chandelier. There was a restaurant with a patio for outdoor seating, a soccer field, some horses, and the ugliest, mangiest dog I’ve ever seen in my life. Men were working on the grounds, and smiled and waved as we walked around, but other than that it was totally deserted. Eerie. I imagine that people must come there, and one of the caretakers explained to me that in the summer there are lots of big parties and weddings there. I think it must be really beautiful, and it gave me a glimpse into the tourist industry that this country could have … if visitors didn’t have to pass through the trash piles of Port au Prince in order to get here. Maybe if Haiti rebuilds right and foreigners invest, then tourists will come. I hope so. I’d love to come back to Belo with friends some day.