Wednesday, January 08, 2014

TR Haiti


TRIP REPORT
Haiti
                                                                                  1/3 to 1/6/14

 

Race Results:
Sun, Jan 5/14
Cap Haitien, Haiti
Let’s Go Haiti Marathon
Marathon # 368 – Country # 119 
5:02:00

 At the end of my last report I stated that I had three personal goals to complete before I hung up my racing shoes. Well this race enabled me to accomplish my 1st goal – but it wasn’t easy. This was ‘The trip from Hell’! Let me explain.

 After the last race it took about 1 month of difficult and frustrating work to organize and book travel to the start line of the marathon in Cap Haitien. There is no tourist infrastructure in Haiti and the few businesses (hotels, airlines) that do serve tourists have no idea what ‘service’ means. They would not respond to emails, were difficult to reach by phone, had no website or it didn’t work and few spoke English. I thought I lucked in when the race director referred me to a manager at a local airline (Haitian Aviation) who booked flights to Haiti for me and was working on hotel reservations. Unfortunately 2 weeks before the race (a few days before Christmas) I learned that the airline went out of business. He hadn’t even bothered to call me to inform me of this issue! I scrambled to find a travel agency located in Port-au-Prince that was reliable and knowledgeable who helped me book alternative flights and confirm a reservation I had made at a hotel (the hotel wouldn’t respond to my emails to confirm the reservation). The last-minute alternatives cost me twice the original price (that I asked my credit card to refund?).

 I drove to Miami on Thu afternoon and overnighted at the airport to catch a 7 am flight to Port-au-Prince (PAP) on AA. The AA flights were easy but the problem was getting from PAP to Cap Haitien (CAP). There are a few local airlines but it is impossible to book them from outside Haiti. My original flight/route was to fly to PAP and take a shuttle (provided by the airline) to CAP – a 6-hr drive. Boy am I glad that didn’t happen. As it was the travel agent forgot to mention some critical details such as I would arrive at the International airport in PAP (no surprise) – but the domestic flight left from a small domestic terminal at the other end of the airport. I was waiting at the gate for the local airline in the International terminal and was lucky a curious employee finally asked me where I was flying to? He arranged for a taxi to rush me to the domestic terminal ($10 US taxi fee for a 1-mile drive) and he demanded a tip for his help. I quickly learned that everybody scrambles (or begs) for money/food in Haiti and they expect ‘rich’ tourists to hand out money like candy! I made it safely to CAP on a small 12-passenger plane that flew right over the Citadelle Laferriere, a large 19th century fortress built on top of a mountain about 17 miles south of CAP. I also noticed that the country is very mountainous and barren. A 6-hr drive would have been very boring – and long!

 During the 5-mile taxi ride to my hotel I wasn’t surprised at the poverty and filth along the route but I was surprised that there were no – I mean NO – nice shops, buildings, etc.? My hotel was the nicest building I saw in the whole city during my 4-day stay. The Hotel Roi Christophe was built in the 18th century but has been updated and is very luxurious by Haitian standards. It was conveniently located near the ocean and close to the city center. I spent the rest of the day and Sat morning walking around the city looking for my mandatory souvenirs (a souvenir teaspoon and silver charm) but I already knew that I wasn’t going to find them in CAP or Haiti.

The entire city is a dump filled with old, dilapidated buildings. There are a few small shops in some buildings but most of the ‘shops’ are stalls in the streets or at the Central Market and sidewalk vendors. The shops and market sell ‘life’ essentials – food, soap, clothes, etc – to locals. There are no souvenir shops. Well, I lie – I found one small corner near the hotel with 3 or 4 stalls that sold local arts and craft – mainly carved wood, etc to tourists. Only local handicrafts (read dust collectors) – no souvenir teaspoons or silver charms. In fact I could not find a jewelry store anywhere in the city?

 Although I did not feel unsafe walking around CAP I did not feel comfortable because I stood out like a Christmas tree with lights – white skin, blonde hair. I was a walking magnet for every local who would approach me and ask (in French/Creole) where I was from and then ask for money. If I had $100 in $1 bills I would have been broke within the 1st hour! I found it frustrating and intimidating not to be able to help. So I walked to the local city gym to pick up my race packet and final instructions and then returned to the hotel. I decided not to leave the hotel again during my stay except for the marathon!

 I ate and drank at the hotel. It had a beautiful restaurant but it also had problems. Half the items on the menu were not available. I tried to order fish for dinner – no fish available so I ordered goat. I hadn’t enjoyed goat since the Sahara Marathon. I ordered a glass of red Chilean wine (cheaper than French wine) – no Chilean wine available? On Sat for lunch I ordered a pizza – no pizza so I ordered spaghetti bolognaise. It was OK so I tried to order it again for pasta dinner that night – no spaghetti bolognaise available? At that point I started to ask what was available on the menu before I ordered.

 I had already decided to stay in the hotel and watch the NFL playoffs. Problem – only 3 channels on the TV in my room. So I went to the lobby where the TV had satellite – sadly the major US networks were blocked! No NFL playoffs! I was not a happy camper. I was able to get status reports and scores on ESPN.

 I requested a wake-up call for 4 am but figured it wouldn’t happen (it didn’t) so I woke up every hour after midnight to check my watch so I could walk to the gym to catch a bus at 5 am to the start. But first I had to find a guard (sleeping in the lobby) to unlock the gate to the compound to let me out. I was first to arrive but shortly other runners started to arrive - a total of 80 runners including 8 (Caucasian) foreign runners. The bus was supposed to leave sharply at 5 am but the bus was too small to accommodate 80 runners so they had to scramble to find a bigger bus. We finally left at 7:30am - 90 minutes after the race was supposed to start! The local runners starting chanting/singing a derogatory song in Creole about the delay and incompetence of the race (organization) and were finally requested to stop. The foreign runners were just riding the wave knowing that we were helpless to the situation. As we drove on an ancient dilapidated bus (worried about whether it would make it to the start line) I became concerned about the amount of traffic and pollution along the course at 8am. I thought the course would be traffic-free on Sun morning? I commented to fellow runners that it was going to be ugly – and dangerous- when we returned to the city later. We drove 42 Km south of CAP although I became concerned that I might have to run my 1st ultra because it seemed that we drove a long time? We stopped at one point and the locals starting getting off the bus but were ordered back on because we had not arrived at the start line. We finally arrived at 8:15 am. – and waited another 30 minutes before the race actually started. It was 8:45 am! We had missed an hour of dark, cool temps and the cooler temps of early morning. It was going to get hot and ugly! There were no distance markers on the course – NONE! However the highway had markers every 5 km. We started at the 35K marker and I located every marker to 10K so had some idea of distance and pace. There were supposed to be water stations every 2 miles but by the time I reached the 2nd one there was no water left. I had wisely anticipated this probability and had worn a belt with a 20 oz. water bottle. And fortunately a race (support) car would pass by every 20 minutes or more and I would get water to fill up my bottle.

 I didn’t bother starting my stop watch. It was a good thing I didn’t need it because my useless heart monitor/watch crapped out again and would only function as a watch. I was hoping it would last a few more races but I will have to junk it and buy a new one before my next race (and only use it for a few races?). I reached 10 Km in 1 hr and 20Km in 1:59. I was surprised that I was doing so well. Since there weren’t enough distance markers I set my strategy to run 40 min and walk 3 min. I kept that cycle until I reached 25Km in 2:40 and then the sun/temps started to get brutal so I reduced the cycle to run 30 min and walk 3 min. Half of the runners were young locals – teenagers and early 20s- who had signed up for free in hopes of winning prize money. By 10Km many started to drop out and hop on buses that served the small towns we ran through. I wondered why there were so many course monitors –every 2 miles? It was to record bib #s every 2 miles to prevent cheating! Another annoying thing I quickly noticed was that all the spectators along the course and in the villages would laugh as I ran by. I had experienced this behavior before in S America and in East Timor. I was the oldest runner in the race and the locals were shocked that such an ‘old man’ would/could run a marathon. Their response was to laugh and make crude remarks in French/Creole that I understood because I understand French. I soon learned to ignore them and point out that there were many young local runners behind me! As I approached 30Km (no more distance markers on the highway) the course started to enter the city and traffic became a problem and danger. There was no traffic control. A that point a young male race volunteer joined me and started to run with me. He was wearing a bright red shirt and directed traffic around us so at least I didn’t have to worry about being run down from behind. I only had to avoid cars, buses, donkey carts, bikes, wheel barrows and street vendors in front of me or approaching from side streets. The other benefit was that he carried bags of water in a back pack and became my portable water station.

 At that point I passed a young couple from Montreal who had succumbed to the heat and were walking (it was now 12:45 pm and the noon sun was beating down on us). They thought they only had about 5 Km left to the finish line. I didn’t have the heart or meanness to tell them that I figured it was at least another 10 to 12 Km to the finish? As I approached what I figured was close to 32K I asked my ‘guide’ how far it was to the finish line. He stated ‘about 4 km”. I knew that was incorrect. I even hoped it was incorrect or I would finish under 4 hrs which meant the course was short? Not knowing how far it was to the finish line started messing with my mind because I couldn’t determine how hard to push myself. And I didn’t want to run a ‘short’ race! So I said “screw it” and reduced my cycle to run 20 min and walk 3 min. After I ran other 4 km we were joined by a UN police jeep that stayed directly behind us to prevent vehicles/traffic from running us down from behind. They stayed with us until the finish line and provided water. I quickly realized that they also had no idea how far it was to the finish line. I kept asking “Combien de kilom├Ętres de la finition”? The answer always seemed to be ‘deux kilometers’! 

When we finally approached a main intersection near the city center I recognized where we were but still had no idea where or how far the finish line was. But I did get a different answer to my question. This time it was “Environ cinq minutes”.  I took a final long rest/walk break so I could run across the finish line in 5:02.

Marathon # 368 and Country # 119. And more importantly I had accomplished my 1st goal – to maintain my WR #4 of completing a marathon in every country in N. America.

 The award ceremonies were already under way –in French/Creole – as I cooled down and after a mandatory finish line photo I walked back to the hotel for a soothing shower. It was already 4 pm! I enjoyed a greasy snack and a beer and decided to enjoy a nap before dinner. I never woke up. I slept until 7am Mon morning!

 After breakfast (I was starving) I walked to the Post Office to mail postcards (the hotel had some) to my family. I was shocked to learn that it cost $300 HG/$7.50 US to mail a card to N America. That is more than many locals make in a week? Needless to say the postcards did not get mailed from Haiti. That is the 1st time I ever had to bring cards home to mail them?

 Finally and HAPPILY it was time to leave. And I was lucky to get on an earlier AA flight in PAP to arrive in Miami 4 hours early. But Uncle Sam took care of that opportunity. I was pulled aside at Immigration (not Customs) and detained for 2 hrs while they checked my biometrics – fingerprints/photo, etc. They didn’t ask a single question or answer a single question that I demanded.  Two hrs later they handed me my passport without an explanation or apology and told me I could go? I am still very pissed about the power and abuse that the government has (and uses arrogantly)! I have been in/out of the country hundreds of times and never experienced that problem/abuse before.

 Now I am trying to forget the “Marathon Trip from Hell”. I felt good during and after the race in spite of the problems and heat so I am ready to start planning my next trip and adventure. I will accomplish goal #2. It is not hard to guess what that is – Country # 120!

 Where? Stay tuned!