By Jennifer Gallardo
I wake up early on the roof to a sky lit up by stars. I lay on my back, feeling a small breeze and the blessed coolness of the morning before the sun awakes. I listen carefully for the sounds that might be coming from the birth room. Nothing. I hear a goat, then a rooster, and then more roosters chime in. I get up and wander downstairs. No momma’s in the birth room. I am happy, because today we go to the Citadel, and an empty birth room means more of us can go! Rose Edith has agreed to stay and babysit the birth center today and someone else will stay tomorrow while she goes on the beach trip.
The Citadel is an icon of Haiti. It is a large mountaintop fortress, one of the largest in the Americas, built from1805 to1820 by over 20,000 Haitians led by Henri Christophe, a key leader during the Haitian slave rebellion. It was built just after Haiti gained independence from France, to protect the new nation against French attacks. Some of our staff and the midwife students have never been to the fortress. It sits at 3,000 ft elevation, stretched along three sheer cliffs. There is excitement in the air as everyone awakens and prepares for the trip today.
There are things to take care of before we leave. By 8:30 am there are over 30 women downstairs receiving training by our nurses, Nadesh and Christian, who are teaching them about cervical cancer screening. I watch them teach. Nadesh makes the women laugh. I take pictures. Fernando and Claudin fix the sink in the birth room, attaching it to the wall, glueing and caulking. It is perfect and I am pleased and bring all the midwives down to show them. We clap our hands and hug each other.
Getting everyone out the door reminds me of home and getting the family to the car for a trip. I finally just walk down the stairs and out the clinic door telling everyone I will wait in the tap tap. That works, and about 10 minutes later there are 13 of us on the porch. We pile into the back of our tap tap pick up truck and take off, with spirits running high. We drive for 45 minutes, first through the city, then the beautiful country side, closer and closer to the big mountain that the Citadel is built on. We drive through Milot, the town at the foot of the mountain, and I am amazed and pleased with what a pretty town it is. The nicest Haitian town I have seen. Paved roads and green street signs on each corner.
We arrive at the tourist center at the bottom of the path to the Citadel, 11 km from our destination, and we are surrounded by potential guides, motorcycle drivers, and horse owners, all of them clamoring for our business. We choose one guide and nine motorcycles (we ask for seven motorcycles but end up with nine). We begin a seven kilometer wild ride up the mountain on the backs of fast moving motorcycles, twisting and turning up steep bumpy roads, finally reaching the upper parking lot. Here we begin our steep 4 km walk up the mountain to the Citadel. We are followed by horse owners pulling their horses, hoping we are too out of shape to walk to the top on our own. I tell them we need the exercise, but they persist and follow next to us. We pass vendors, and musicians, and the midwives and I dance and twirl to music, leaving tips behind. We pass little children playing in front of their stick built homes, sitting at the side of the steep path. I take a picture of a little boy and girl, playing with machetes. Their mother sees me and comes out to take away the sharp knives and gently chastise them. I smile at her, and we have a little laugh together. As a mother, I relate. My children have taken knives and spoons from my kitchen to play with too. We buy fruit from the vendors at the side of the path. We climb higher and higher, and finally the horse owners dejectedly turn around and head to the bottom, in search of other more weary travelers, as they realize we will make it to the top on our own.
We reach the Citadel with its majestic stone walls and sweeping vistas. We explore it’s deep recesses, but we especially enjoy our time on the roof, with the cool breeze and incredible view of Northern Haiti. On the roof they have put up guard rails that weren’t here four years ago. Last time I walked to the edge of the stone walkways where the view was incredible. I look at the guardrail and look longingly towards the end of the walkway and I just know I will regret coming all this way if I don’t walk to the end of it like I did last time. I slip under the guardrail and carefully walk the 200 feet to the end of the stone wall, away from everyone’s chatter, and I sit and look out upon Haiti. Mountains upon beautiful mountains. I think of the Haitian proverb, that beyond mountains there are more mountains. Like most proverbs, the meaning has multiple layers. In its simplest form, it seems to mean that when you solve one problem there will be another beyond it to solve. Or when you surmount a great obstacle it is only to get a clear view of the next one. I like to think it means to keep climbing, keep overcoming, and continue onward in serving others, making a difference in their lives.
We head down the mountain at dusk. When we get to the upper parking lot there are 12 motorcycles and no way for us to tell which were our original nine drivers, as all of the drivers clamor and insist that it was them. I decide it is not worth arguing about and tell everyone just to get on a motorcycle and go. Everyone takes off, and I try to take pictures of us flying down the mountain on 12 motorcyles, but the road is so bumpy that it is hard to get a good photo as I hang on tight with one hand to the bar behind my seat. I finally put the camera away and close my eyes and just enjoy the moment, feeling the wind on my face and in my hair, swaying to the left and then the right, moving fast and holding on.
We return home to two momma’s in the postpartum room and a huge feast. Rose Edith was busy with births while we were gone, and Rossette made a beautiful dinner... one of my favorites. Beef in a red sauce, rice, mashed potatoes, a beautiful salad, passion fruit juice. This is a feast and I can tell that a lot of labor and love went into this meal. We crowd around the table, Fernando says a prayer, and we all eat together, laughing and reminiscing about our day.
It feels like family.