Ravaged by natural disasters and poverty, Haiti is nevertheless trying to revive its tourism industry. Here, the process begins with voluntourism.
Rebuilding Haiti, and Its Tourism
My flight to Port-au-Prince, only three and a half hours direct from New York, was a cinch. Things got rougher when our group of 13 piled into two battered vans for the three-hour ride to Cyvadier. After juddering along the rutted city roads, which led through garbage-heaped slums and tent cities outside Port-au-Prince, our drivers headed south across a mountain range riddled with freakily skewed hairpin turns. Still, the route looked out over beautiful scenery—terraced valleys, swales of shade trees, a hazy scrim of blue ocean—which I appreciated as best I could between bouts of nausea.
Most of my travel companions were, like me, first-time visitors to Haiti; many were also serial do-gooders, who’d put in time volunteering for causes and organizations around the globe. Our two trip leaders, Andrew and Meryl (who worked day jobs as, respectively, a journalist covering responsible tourism and a lawyer for various nonprofits), told us about the Let Haiti Live compound—the dozens of children we’d meet there, the warmth of the staffers, the delicious porridge and cabri en sauce (stewed goat) cooked over open fires.
The vans dropped us at the base of the same hill we’d soon be climbing with our buckets of rocks. But for our inaugural walk up the slope, all we carried was our own luggage. After ducking beneath a handmade archway that local residents had fashioned from bent sticks and flowers (on the dirt next to it, “Welcome” was spelled out in small white stones), we were warmly received by the three full-time Let Haiti Live staffers—reforestation expert Guerlyne, agronomist Cheler, and community developer Elie. A group of children had trailed us up the hill, and one, a shy four-year-old girl with beaded braids named Lunja, suddenly recognized Meryl from the previous summer’s trip and leaped into her arms.
The majority of our group would be setting up tents here. But once I’d scoped out the rock-strewn terrain (which we later learned was crawling with biting ants and tarantulas), and the single bathroom without running water, I felt glad that with a handful of others I’d decided to stay in a hotel down the street that catered to foreign relief workers. It was a little rough around the edges, but infinitely better than shacking up with dinner roll–size spiders.
“Bucket!” a deep, Creole-inflected voice sang up to me. “BucketBucketBucket!”
From where I stood, partway up a steep, crumbling dirt hillside on the south coast of Haiti, the owner of the voice was invisible. But then Ernst, a tall young man with bare shoulders like gleaming obsidian, rounded a stand of boulders just below me. From his hands swung two plastic five-gallon buckets, each heavy with rocks. Grinning, he thrust the buckets up toward me; I took them, staggering a little from their weight. Luckily, I had to lurch only about a dozen steps up the hill before handing them off to the next person on line.
It was the fourth day I’d spent on the hillside, in the small village of Cyvadier overlooking the sapphire-blue Bay of Jacmel. Each morning, before the late-July temperatures climbed above 100 degrees, some 25 locals and visiting American volunteers gathered at the base of this 400-foot slope. There sat a giant heap of rocks, next to a dirt trail that snaked up between slabs of porous stone, flowering shrubs, munching goats, and yellow butterflies. Our task was simple, and Sisyphean: move the rocks from the bottom of the hill to the top.
At the summit, a local community-building organization called Let Haiti Live had its headquarters. The compound consisted of two cement buildings—where dozens of village children attended classes in agronomy and environmental conservation—and a small lean-to where cooks prepared meals for the kids over an open charcoal fire. Our pile of rocks would form the walls of a new kitchen—one that could feed more kids, more ecologically and safely.
A backhoe could have done the job in an hour, if there had been a backhoe—and a road for it to drive on, and cash to pay the driver. But since there were none of those things, we had strung ourselves each day along the trail and, sweating through our clothes in the punishing heat, passed the load bit by bit, like an old-time fire brigade putting out a blaze.
The project, in the scope of things, was tiny; the effort required to achieve it, huge. But this, it seemed, was the way that things got done in Haiti: the hard way.