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Petite Rivière & Marchand-Dessalines Page 2

February 15, 2013

I had told Kelele that I wanted to get an early start to our trip to Petite Rivière yesterday; he was at my door before 6AM.  We were on the road a few minutes later, our connections were immediate in both Saint-Marc and Pont Sondé, and our moto taxi got us to our destination well before 8.

[Just a bit of an aside:  as long as I have been in Haiti I have always known the little hamlet at a major junction north of Saint-Marc as Palm Sunday.  I had wondered about this English name, but never looked into it.  On my trip to Marchand-Dessalines a couple of weeks ago place signs had gone up as they have throughout Haiti.  There, in bold letters, was not Palm Sunday but Pont Sondé (Proven Bridge).  Sounds very similar, but definitely not the same.]

Our first stop in Petite Rivière was King Henri Christophe’s Palace of 365 Doors and 52 windows, also known as the Palace of Belle River.  As with all historic sites I have seen in Haiti, this important part of the country’s story, dating from 1816, has fallen into serious disrepair.  Parts of the roof have collapsed and all else has deteriorated.

IMG_3317

Main palace entry with Kelele on steps

Much repair needed

Much repair needed

But despite its state, the palace is amazing.  There are doors everywhere, both in the exterior and throughout the interior.  We were not able to gain access as the entry doors were padlocked, and no one we encountered knew where the person with the keys could be found.  I considered climbing through a window, but there were a lot of people around and I thought it might be asking for more trouble than I wanted.  Time in a Haitian jail has no appeal for me.

Back of palace

Back of palace

Doors everywhere

Doors everywhere

Looking into interior with many arched doorways

Looking into interior with many arched doorways

Next we made the short walk to Crête-à-Pierrot, the fort at the east edge of the town.  This was the site of one of the most famous battles of the Haitian revolution, Dessalines holding the fort for twenty days in March 1802 against French forces led by General Charles Leclerc.  Running short of food and munitions, Dessalines and his men were able to force their way through the French lines and escape into the Cahos Mountains.  Despite their apparent victory, the French had suffered such heavy losses that they never captured the fort.  The battle was the final blow for Napoleon’s army; they would soon withdraw from the country.

The low wall of the fort encloses a very large rectangle with small rectangular bastions at each corner.  The only significant features on the parade ground are a powder magazine and three low tombs where the rebels felled in battle were interred.  Sadly the tombs have been desecrated, and the large cross that once graced them now lies on the floor of the powder magazine, along with marker stones broken by vandals, under lock and key.

Inside fort wall

Inside fort wall

One of the corner bastions

One of the corner bastions

Powder magazine

Powder magazine

Tombs of the fallen

Tombs of the fallen

Interior of powder magazine

Interior of powder magazine

Cross in powder magazine

Cross in powder magazine

Fortunately on our arrival the young man who holds the keys showed up and unlocked the gate for us, as well as the magazine.  He provided us with a guided tour and told us what he knew of the fort.  Unfortunately he knew absolutely nothing of the military history of the fort that had been entrusted to his care.

I believe the terrain inside the fort has been much altered over time.  Some of the loopholes are now at ground level, and viewing some of the walls it is apparent that the wall does not match the slope of the ground.

I wished I knew of a source to interpret the markings on the cannons, here as elsewhere, but I know of none.  Surely knowing the significance of those markings would add to my understanding of Haiti’s rich history.

Cannon markings

Cannon markings

Part of this marking is worn away

Part of this marking is worn away

The panoramic view from the south wall was breathtaking.   The river keeps its floodplain well irrigated, turning the fields into a carpet of lush green.  On the expansive gravel bars in the wide bend just below the fort, testimony to the river’s propensity to alter its course, women were doing their laundry and spreading it to dry.  We stood silently drinking in the view for a while and then made our way to l’Eglise Saint-Jerome (Saint Jerome Church), the town’s Catholic cathedral.  It never ceases to amaze me that in the midst of dire poverty there seem always to be huge well-appointed churches.

Looking over Artibonite Valley from west wall

Looking over Artibonite Valley from west wall

Doing laundry

Doing laundry

L'Eglise Saint-Jermome

L’Eglise Saint-Jermome

Since it was only 9:30, we decided to head for Marchand-Dessalines.  The moto taxi trip over a very rough back road had us dusting ourselves off when we arrived at the city.  Marchand-Dessalines is beautiful.   The broad streets of interlocking pavers, laid out on a grid, carry little traffic; it is a quiet city.  It is also the cleanest city I have seen in Haiti.  Parched from our trip, we searched out a street vendor for a cold drink and conferred as to where we would go.  Overhearing us, a man pointed out the directions to the sites we were discussing.  When we set out he accompanied us.

Our first stop was the house of Claire Heureuse, Dessaline’s wife.  It too was in need of major repair.  Unless one was familiar with the house, it would be impossible to find without help; there is absolutely nothing to identify this as a historic building.  A couple of blocks away, partially hidden behind a hoarding of rusting corrugated metal, we found the house of Charlotin Marcadieu, one of Dessalines’ most trusted lieutenants, who would die trying to save the emperor from his assassins.  The house appeared to be getting a bit of a facelift, but not nearly as much as would be necessary to restore it properly.  However, in a picture posted on the Internet in 2007, it looks almost exactly as it is today.  Haitian progress, I guess.

House of Claire Heureuse

House of Claire Heureuse

House of Charlotin Marcadieu

House of Charlotin Marcadieu

A five-minute walk along the road to St-Michel-de-Attalaye, took us to Fort Culbuté, known more familiarly as La Source.  The building of this road in 1947 resulted in considerable damage to the fort.   Unlike the five mountaintop forts that look down on the city, Culbuté (Somersault) is built on flat ground to the east of the city.  Its location served two purposes:  first, it could defend the city from an attack from the east where mountains obstruct the view from the mountaintop forts; second, it safeguarded the city’s water supply.

Fort from the west

Fort from the west

Culbuté was and is all about water.  All around the fort women were doing their wash in the canals, and children swam in the reservoirs.  This is still a major source of water for the area.  Outside the wall, a large reservoir called Felicité is fed from nearby sources.

This reservoir serve as a swimming pool

This reservoir serves as a swimming pool

The fort is a favourite spot to do laundry.

The fort is a favourite spot to do laundry.

Felicité

Felicité

Two sides of the fort are built in classic form with a double wall built of stone masonry with lime mortar.  Climbing over the outside wall would place one inescapably directly in the line of fire from the loopholes in the interior wall.  The other sides seem to depend on the steep mountains for their defense.  In the large courtyard, reached through low-arched gates, a long powder magazine runs along the east wall.

East wall

East wall

Powder magazine

Powder magazine

Entry into fort

Entry into fort

As at Crête-à-Pierrot, we encountered a man who acted as our guide.  But unlike his counterpart, he was a rich source of history and details about Culbuté, past and present.  He ushered us into the powder magazine, closed off to the general public,  where I saw evidence of the Vodou ceremonies that I was told regularly take place at the fort.  Our guide then made certain we saw every corner of the fort, walking us around the exterior, drawing our attention to the fort’s features, all the time providing non-stop commentary.  When I had questions he always had ready answers.

Inside powder magazine

Inside powder magazine

One of my questions, one that I had in mind to try to answer before arriving at Culbuté, was the story behind this fort’s name.  The names of all the other forts have simple explanations, as does Culbuté’s alternative name, La Source; this one does not.  Our guide gave me a long and involved answer, but my Creole vocabulary was inadequate to comprehend it.  Kelele, on the other hand, understood the words but lacked the historical background to make sense of them.

Fort Doko loomed large above our route from the city.  Seeing that although the trail running up to it was long, it was not steep and would not be difficult, I was game to make the climb.  But Kelele was not interested in going, so I will see Doko another time.  Soon.

Our sightseeing done, I decided to drop in on my friends, Ian and Alice Van Norman, a Canadian couple who have for 30 years played a pivotal role at Claire Heureuse Hospital.  As we were making our way to their home, known locally as the White House, someone called out to us.  It was Eldon, the moto taxi chauffeur who had carried me both to and from the city on my last trip.   I assured him I would call him when we were ready to go.

When we reached the White House, Ian immediately insisted we stay for lunch, and showed us the cupboards he and his helpers were building for the children’s wing of the hospital while Alice made sandwiches.  At lunch there was much conversation about Canada (Ian and Alice are very familiar with both BC and Manitoba) and I came to realize that Kelele understands much more English than I suspected.

Afterward Ian gave us a tour of the complex where he and Alice live, which is designed to accommodate visiting groups in very generous apartments with all the amenities.  He then drove us to the hospital where Bert, who works with him, showed us the plans he developed for the major makeover the hospital is getting.  Ian pointed out that those plans were completed in just a couple of days under pressure from USAID who will participate in the upgrades when the shell is completed.  Bert explained how he had worked out the logistics of the project so that the construction will not interfere at any time with the delivery of any of the services the hospital offers.  What he had done was very impressive.

Ian then gave us a tour of the hospital, giving us the history of and future plans for every area.  He told us the Haitian government has rated the hospital’s obstetrics program as the third best in the country, and he is determined to see that  ranking rise.  On the tour I met the students from our nursing school who are completing their practicum at Claire Heureuse.  They told me they were delighted to be there and were very much enjoying the experience.  I could identify with them, remembering how much I loved my initial practicum experience at Ste. Rose du Lac.  Dr. Felix has assigned me to monitor this group, so I will be back to see them again soon.

From the hospital we drove to the doctors’ residence where Ian showed us the renovations that are being completed there.  He seemed especially proud of his innovations to prevent termite damage.  The house is beautifully done, and no doubt the doctors will be very comfortable.  He pointed out the kitchen building he had recently constructed to avoid cooking odors and heat in the house.  Ian was going to drive us to the nurses’ residence as well, but he got a call asking him to pick up steel for the huge septic tank that we saw under construction at the hospital.

Back at the house I called Eldon, and he was there in a couple of minutes to start us on our trip home.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable day and I covered much more ground than I had anticipated.  At every turn there were people who made our experience richer in a variety of ways.  I found it notable that most of these people were Christians for whom the spiritual life is inextricably entwined with the temporal.  God is good.

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