Fran and I had our first two kids, Kevin and Kimara, now ages two and three, and we had finally arranged for our first overseas trip since their arrival into our world. The babysitter was hired, Fran’s parents would be available, and we signed on with a group heading for a week in London. A few days before departure, a coal strike was declared in England, resulting in no heat, no transportation and, eventually, no tour. What to do? Fran called our law school friend Andy, the one we had visited in Tangier. Andy said, “Why don’t you go to Haiti?” Fran said to me, “Why not?” I was too tongue-tied to answer, so after a few frantic phone calls, Fran set it up.
At the time, Haiti was run by Baby Doc. He was not a pediatrician. Rather, he was the newly installed successor to his notorious father, Papa Doc Duvalier, who had recently expired. Baby Doc continued ruling the country using the very visible and nasty police force called the Touton Macoute.
The capital of Port-au-Prince, in 1971, was very poor and dirty. Nonetheless, it still had a third-world charm. Of course, there were many ragtag children running after foreigners asking in Creole and English for candy or money. To get them to leave without being too overbearing, Fran and I pretended not to understand them and started talking in Spanish (we had met in Spanish class in college). Sure enough, most of them left. But they soon returned with a couple of other kids who began asking for the same things, speaking better Spanish than Fran and I could. Although tempted to reward them for their resourcefulness, even then we knew not to give begging kids treats or coins, so we shooed them off.
We located our aging but full-of-character hotel. It had been home to several well-known authors and assorted literati, but none seemed to be in residence. After a few days, we moved down the hill to another establishment complete with a tennis court, where I enjoyed having ballboys for the first time in my life. Our plan was to fly up to Cap Haitian on the north end of the island and visit the famous fortress built by Haiti’s first emperor after independence. However, all flights were cancelled. We did not find out the reason until later: the American Ambassador’s plane had been shot down, so the Haitian military had commandeered all civilian aircraft. We thought our northbound plans were kaput, but since we didn’t know the reason for the plane cancellations we didn’t have enough sense to go home.
Fortuitously, we met a young French Canadian couple, Pierre and Michelle Thibadoux, who invited us join them on their trek to a hospital in a town called Limbe. As Haiti is nominally a French-speaking country, we thought the trip would be uneventful as they seemed to be a very nice young couple. Pierre spoke for them, and his English had a thick accent. Michelle said almost nothing the first day, but when she finally did talk, it was with almost no accent. It turned out she had learned English by watching American TV but never spoke it until she found we wouldn’t laugh at her.
With the Thibadouxs we rented a Volkswagen Beetle. I was very happy to let Pierre drive as he was involved with an auto dealership in Quebec and liked to race cars as a hobby. Besides, I had never learned to drive in Brooklyn, and even after moving to Omaha, Fran never taught me how to drive a stick shift. We piled into the Beetle, leaving most of our things at the Port-au-Prince hotel, and soon reached the outskirts of the city. At the military checkpoint we were strictly informed that no one could leave without written authorization. Four hours later, after visiting three government offices and five officials, we went back to the checkpoint waving our signed documents and were allowed to proceed. Not speaking French, neither Fran nor I were involved in the negotiations with the officials, but I think she, more than I, learned not to take “No” for an answer from any bureaucrat.
Although we had a map, there were no signs to tell if we were on the right road. On the other hand, there were virtually no other roads, paved or unpaved, so we assumed we were heading in the right direction. Occasionally, we would pull over and Pierre would ask any local who was standing there, “Which way to Limbe?” (correctly pronouncing it Lahm-bay rather than Limb). Although these country folk could not understand his French, and he could not understand their Creole, if they had heard of the town they would point in the direction we were heading. We drove on, but soon the pavement gave out and we were on badly rutted dirt roads. We gave thanks that we had a Beetle, as Pierre explained there was nothing on the undercarriage of this vehicle that could be damaged by rocks, mud, or even by the rapidly running water of the streams we were fording.
Pierre seemed to take perverse delight in telling us about the Catholic priest who had recently been murdered by the locals, his body hacked into many pieces. With darkness coming on, our nervousness was elevated by the new sound of reverberating drums. It was our first experience with voodoo, and we were worried it might be our last.
After what seemed like hours, we passed a sign announcing our entrance into Limbe. At the time it was a city of 40,000 people, with no mail, no lights, no running water and, frankly, not much of anything. Our destination was a maternity hospital where Michelle had friends working. The outside of the hospital was old, rotting wood with badly flaking paint, and the inside was damp and dilapidated. Haiti’s humid weather was further worsening both the exterior and interior appearance.
A fully cassocked nun showed us around. The textbooks used by the nurses had been published 30 years earlier. Why? The equipment in the hospital laboratory was 30 years old, so the textbooks had to teach equally outdated methods to get usable results.
But the most surprising thing in the hospital was the absence of patients. The astounding reason was that the Haitian women only gave birth during the two weeks of the month coinciding with the first two phases of the moon. They firmly believed that if a woman did go into labor during the taboo weeks, the baby would be delivered stillborn or deformed. We learned later that there were researchers studying how women could program themselves to deliver during only two weeks out of four. Such information, whether the mode was physiological, psychological, or pharmaceutical, could certainly aid women anywhere who needed to prevent early childbirth. Unfortunately, we don’t think the Haitian secret was ever discovered.
The good part about having the hospital empty was that we were able to stay there overnight. It would have been impossible during the “right” two weeks of the month. So sleep we did, and the next morning we bid adieu to Michelle’s friends and set out in the ever-reliable Beetle for Cap Haitian. We were driving on more rutted roads through muddy villages whose smiling people appeared to have almost nothing in the way of material things. We were fording streams where, incongruously, people were brushing their teeth with Colgate Toothpaste.
We finally arrived at Cap Haitian, but there was only one room available at the hotel. That was okay as both couples were trying to save money. The room had three beds. Pierre said they would rather sleep in the one double bed, and Fran and I were happy to have the two twins. The next morning Fran and I had a good quiet laugh as we both awakened to the sounds of Pierre and Michelle making passionate love. Ah, l’amour…
We drove over to the base of the fortress, and rented donkeys for the hour and a half ride up. (The donkeys were quite gentle and comfortable, and as Pierre had demonstrated, it’s always good to have a nice piece of ass.) Surprisingly, half way up the trail we came to what looked like a parking lot. The local “guide” told us that, sure enough, there had been a parking lot but that the road had deteriorated so much without being repaired that the parking lot was no longer usable.
The fortress at the top, called The Citadel, was built by the first Emperor of Haiti after gaining independence from France in 1804. Historical footnote: Napoleon sold the Louisiana Purchase Territory to the young United States of America in 1803 because he thought it was more important to keep Haiti as a French colony with its large sugar-cane production. The sale price was $15 million, or about two cents per acre, and resulted in 15 American states from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border.
In any case, the large fortress with cannons and other armaments overlooking the bay was never used to repel the French or anyone else. But it was impressive in its size, structure, and location. We enjoyed the ride down on the donkeys, and drove back to Port-au-Prince. The four of us had a great sense of fulfillment for having successfully traversed a very undeveloped country, met its people, and learned some of its fascinating history and culture.
Nine months later, Pierre and Michelle needed a real baby doc.