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Marchand-Dessalines, Page Three

March 6, 2013

After completing my ablutions in the predawn darkness, I climbed onto a tap tap on my way to Marchand-Dessalines.  Dr. Felix had asked me to check in with our students who are working on their practicum at Claire Heureuse Hospital, and I was looking forward to a visit with my friends, Ian and Alice.  I was also ready to climb to another of the forts.

As we turned into Saint-Marc’s market  in the pale morning light, the streets were already teeming with men pushing wheelbarrows and women with 5-gallon plastic buckets or large baskets balanced on their heads, carrying their wares to their market stalls. The street vendors had not set up their stands as yet, but the food sellers were already busy with people buying breakfast.  Pigs rooted in the canal in search of their morning meal.

I found a van headed for L’Estère, a bit of a luxury.  Designed for 11 passengers, it had been refitted with extra seats to accommodate 15.  We pulled out of the city with 21 aboard.

As we approached Pont-Sondé, transport trucks, dump trucks and buses were parked helter-skelter across the highway, each with at least one front tire flattened to make it impossible to shunt them to the side—a blokis, an impromptu roadblock that is a favourite tactic during a manifestation, the usual Haitian form of protest.  The van could go no further.  With many of the other passengers, I hiked the couple of kilometers to the bridge over the Artibonite River.  On the other side another tap tap awaited to take us on the next leg of our journey.

A few minutes further on we encountered another blokis, but instead of stopping, the driver made a U-turn, and after retracing our route for a short distance, turned onto a side road.  We bounced our way past electric-green rice fields contrasted against the darker hues of corn and cane, and the homes of the people who work those fields, rude cramped houses not much larger than Canadian garden sheds, far less luxurious than the brightly painted mausoleums of the ancestors of those who occupy them.  As we rolled to a stop in a tiny hamlet to let someone off, I heard on the wind an echo from my distant past, the insistent ringing of a brass hand bell summoning children to class.

It was market day in L’Estère, and I took the time to explore.  The town’s market is sprawling and it was very busy, the road through clogged with trucks piled with sacks of rice, regimes of plantains and all manner of goods, bleating hog-tied goats hanging from the sides.  A man pushed past me, a squealing, wriggling pig draped around his neck.   The air was heavy with cooking odours mingled with the pungency of dried fish and rancid meat.  I saw items I hadn’t encountered elsewhere—wide flat rice baskets, primitive earthenware and crafts. I bought a pen and a notebook to write down my impressions before they slipped through the sieve of my memory.

Despite being told on past trips, and again today by several people, that there was no tap tap service to Marchand-Dessalines, I found one.  As I rode, I toyed with the unlikely idea that perhaps few people knew about the service, as there was only one other passenger.  It was far more likely that my informants hid the truth in an attempt to generate business for the moto operators.

We turned off National Route 1 onto the road to my final destination, winding down the smooth asphalt skirting the mountains  rising on the north margin of the Artibonite Valley.  These mountains are barren, as elsewhere in Haiti denuded of trees to make charcoal.   Only cacti stud the lower slopes.  A spring painted a dark stain down a high rock face.  We rounded another of many curves and suddenly the forts came into view, silent sentinels over the city.

I circled the town square along the tidy streets of interlocking pavers, stopping occasionally to examine items the vendors there offered, and to take a photo or two of the statue of Jean Jacques Dessalines that faces the police station, sword drawn as if ready to challenge any officer who sets foot through its doors .  I then headed into the sun, still low in the east,  toward Fort Culbuté and the path up the mountain to Fort Décidé.

Dessalines in town square

Dessalines in town square

I knew from my last trip that the ascent would not be difficult, but I never expected to find a six foot wide concrete and stone walkway with steps in all the steeper places.  But despite this, I was still climbing several hundred feet.  In places boulders had tumbled down the mountainside,  coming to rest on the path.

An easy climb

An easy climb

Top of stairway

Top of stairway

In short order I was looking at the south wall of Décidé, rising to a height of about 18 feet.  (Please note that all dimensions are “guesstimations” arrived at by pacing off distances and visualizing multiples of my own height).  It is not a mountaintop fort like the four above it, but rather set into a mountainside.  The mountain rises above it on the east, but an attack over it would be very hazardous, as the other side is ably defended by Culbuté.

South wall

South wall

Décidé covers over 8500 square feet, with a central parade about 60 feet square, and four arrowhead-shaped corner bastions reaching about 45 feet from entry to point.  The walls are pierced by cannon embrasures, their doors long gone, but the iron hardware still in place, and two tiers of loopholes, some angled through the walls to provide a wider vantage point.  At one time there must have been a scaffolding of some sort to render the upper tier accessible.  The walls appear to have been built in two stages, as the character of the masonry changes at the base of the upper loopholes, the higher third of the wall having less mortar.  The western wall is defended by a ditch cut below its face.

Northwest bastion

Northwest bastion

The east-facing entry is built like a small building that intrudes into the fort, most of its vaulted ceiling collapsed.  Sturdy iron hinge pintles and hooks to secure locking bars testify to the existence at one time of heavy doors at either end.   Inward facing loopholes pierce the sidewalls, making the portal a deathtrap for anyone foolish enough to attempt a frontal assault.

East wall showing cannon embrasures and entry

East wall showing cannon embrasures and entry

Just to the south of the entry is a water reservoir, about 20 feet by 12 feet and 7 feet deep, that once collected water off roofs long gone.  Just to the west of the reservoir  a narrow stairway descends into a short low-ceilinged underground passage leading into what was once an underground bunker built below the entire southwest bastion.  Here defenders could withdraw for protection from enemy fire in the unlikely event the enemy was able to breach the fort’s defenses.  The roof has collapsed and a lone cannon, having fallen with the roof, now leans against one wall, its breech embedded in the earth of the floor.

Powder magazine to left, entry portal center, and reservoir in foreground

Powder magazine to left, entry portal center, and reservoir in foreground

Underground passage

Underground passage

Underground room

Underground bunker

Set just far enough inside the north wall to accommodate a cannon is the powder magazine, about 40 feet by 16 feet.  It once had a sort of small entry courtyard, but some of its wall has been destroyed.  The main structure of the magazine remains intact.  The ceiling is vaulted and at each end are air vents, their inside and outside openings offset to make it impossible to fire into the magazine through them.

Powder magazine entrance

Powder magazine entrance

Interior of powder magazine

Interior of powder magazine

I sit for a while in the quiet stillness of the fort, recording dimensions while marveling at the genius of its design and the tremendous effort it must have taken to build it.   Through the embrasure of the northeast bastion I can see the four mountaintop forts, Innocent closest, with Doko, Madame and Fin du Monde above and to the west.  To the south, the city flows from the base of the mountains into the valley.

Doko, Madame, Fin du Mond and Innocent

Madame, Doko, Fin du Monde and Innocent

Marchand-Dessalines

Marchand-Dessalines

The sun now high, I leave the still heat of the fort to a most welcome cool breeze.  Approaching the city as I descend, I am greeted not by the sound of traffic, but rather by voices and the laughter and squeals of children at play.  Its residents live a simpler life, albeit in many ways a more difficult one.  Nearer the bottom I have a view over Culbuté.

View over east end of city

View over east end of city

Culbuté

Culbuté

I decide to take a second look at that fort to photograph some of the features I missed on my previous visit.  Inside the fort I am accosted by two men who yell at me to leave and not take pictures.  They are especially upset when I approach the arched doorway of the powder magazine.  As one shouts, “Dessalines will kill you!” I understand what this is all about.  These men are Vodouists, and they consider the fort a shrine.  On my previous visit I saw ceremonial objects inside the magazine .

I make my way back past the house of Claire Heureuse to Marchand-Dessalines’ hospital, named for her.  There I warmly welcomed by  our students and am pleased to learn they are enjoying their stay and believe they are gaining valuable experience. Ian and Alice, whom I meet at the hospital, tell me that the group appears to be well supervised.  I am told they will soon be moved to the doctors’ residence, much more comfortable accommodations.  Ian takes me on a little tour to show me the progress made in the hospital renovations since my last visit, then heads off to attend to some errands.  A short time later he returns with Alice to invite me to join them for lunch.   In the comfort of their home we have opportunity for more intimate fellowship, time to get to know one another a little better.

Claire Heureuse Hospital

Claire Heureuse Hospital

Our students

Some of our students

Hospital's new septic tank

The hospital’s new septic tank under construction

After lunch Ian insists on my seeing the dental clinic they are creating by renovating an old home they have long rented, across from the hospital.  It will be an excellent facility when completed, but Ian tells me that must await a couple of teams who will arrive in over the next while.  Leaving Ian, I go to bid our students adieu and walk back to the square where I find a van to begin my trip home.

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