More travels with Louise: Letter from Haiti, Part II

Haiti is not exactly your classic Caribbean getaway. But it will shake you out of the winter doldrums.

Last summer, in these pages, I wrote about a trip to Haiti with Louise to help out the Centre de Santé Communautaire de Mare-Joffrey, a health clinic deep in the Southeast. It was my introduction to a beautiful, vivacious, but deeply troubled country. 

Louise Lindenmeyr, a local nurse practitioner and multi-talented musician, is the executive director of Hispañola Health Partners (HHP), which supports the clinic. Like Louise, I have lived in Salisbury for over 30 years and raised a family here; and now find myself drawn to a place so radically different from our, well, comfortable lives in the Northwest Corner.

As before, we flew to Port-au-Prince with 200 pounds of medicines provided for the clinic by AmeriCares. But this time, instead of a long standoff at customs, we sailed through the airport — our Haitian medical director has a well-placed cousin. 

We met up with Patricia Borns, a brilliant filmmaker from Florida, and spent four days in the capital, meeting with healthcare partners and filming at the shuttered Hôpital de la Paix. 

Port-au-Prince has yet to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake. With a metro population of 2.6 million, the capital still suffers from sporadic electricity, darkened traffic lights and rubbled streets. Sidewalk vendors are everywhere, showing their determination and vibrancy. And you see pride in the locals — they dress well and do not have their hands out begging for help.

On our fourth day, we took the long drive into the mountains to reach the clinic. Much has changed there since last summer: many more patients, mobile clinics and medical staff. 

The town of Mare-Joffrey has no electricity, but we have managed to install a solar electric system that provides needed power for an examination room and lab. (For more information on the work of the clinic, please visit HHP’s website: www.hispanolahealthpartners.org.) 

The range of care runs from treating hypertension and anemia to machete wounds and broken bones. Louise focused this trip on cervical cancer screening and training.

Haiti has the highest incidence of cervical cancer in the world. Eighteen nurses and doctors crowded into a classroom at the clinic for three days of intensive academic training in the morning, followed by screening in the afternoons where 131 local women were seen. 

In addition, we traveled to the Dominican border region, where Louise and an assistant screened and treated women at the Pak Kado refugee camp, while Patricia and I filmed the deplorable conditions of the camp. 

The Dominican Republic has summarily expelled ethnic Haitian residents who often have no alternative other than to live in the cardboard shacks of Pak Kado. Yet, the surroundings along the banks of the Pedernales River are fertile and gorgeous. As with everywhere we went in Haiti, despite profound poverty, we were met with politeness and friendship.

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A trip inside Haiti is an adventure. Transportation holds its own thrill. In Port-au-Prince, there is no organized public transport. Taxis exist, but the coolest way to get around is by tap-tap. 

Tap-taps are exotically painted pickup trucks with covered bench seating inside the truck bed. You pay pennies, and tap the driver’s cab when you want to get off. They are always packed, but it’s usually a fun crowd. 

Outside of the capital there are no tap-taps or conventional cars, or even bicycles. The roads are rocky and steep, and even national highways cross rivers. 

So most people walk, take donkeys or ride on the back of the ever-available small motorcycles that serve as taxis. We rode three-on-a-seat for the shorter (under three-hour) distances. For longer hauls, like the five-hour drive to Mare-Joffrey, we took a “zo-reken.” It means shark bones (more like shaken bones). 

Zo-rekens are sturdy old-fashioned Jeeps that sit high and are built for survival — not for comfort. They usually hold a dozen and a half passengers in the back and layers of cargo on the roof. They get you where you need to go. But one should inspect the tires and count the lug nuts before setting out. 

It is best not to rent and drive yourself — the roads are a labyrinth that only experienced drivers can decipher. 

The best moment is always the trip down to the rocky beach, 30 minutes south of Mare-Joffrey. The mountainscapes and seascapes are exquisite. The water is a light azure and unusually buoyant, and you seem to have the whole coastline to yourself. We took most of the clinic’s training class down to Grand Gosier for an unforgettable sunset swim by zo-reken. No breakdown, only joy. 

It was late February, when Carnival is celebrated throughout Haiti. Even in our rural corner of the Southeast, the evenings were filled with singing, costumes, celebration and dance.

I left the morning after Mardi Gras for the bumpy ride down to Port-au-Prince. Louise stayed on a few more long and difficult days, treating and advising patients at the Mare-Joffrey clinic. The clinic provides an essential service to the 25,000 surrounding population, and is on the road to success. Hopefully, with the help of the Health Ministry, it will become independent of Hispañola Health Partners someday.


Peter Halle, a retired hedge fund manager, is treasurer of Hispañola Health Partners. For further information or to make tax-deductible donations, go to www.hispanolahealthpartners.org or visit Louise’s blog at llindenmeyr.blogspot.com.