I’ve gotten pretty good at telling this story over the last few weeks, but have only recently been able to type it, for reasons which will become clear over the next few posts:
The story begins at Citadelle Laferrière, an impressive fortress in the mountains of the north of Haiti. A friend had organised a trip up there for the weekend, and a group of us had hiked up to the Citadelle.
The drive up to Cap-Haitien from Port-au-Prince would be a story in its own right (our bus breaking down, the road being blocked by an electric pole that had fallen and stirred up a bee’s nest, etc), but as I said, let’s begin at the Citadelle.
On the steep ascent up to the Citadelle, several people in our group had decided to ride the horses eagerly loaned by the many grooms along the path. But a group of us had walked all the way up, and were planning to walk back down to visit the ruins of San Souci palace (Side note: The Citadelle is absolutely stunning, as the pictures here hopefully capture).
On the way down, our friends on horseback were tenuously clinging to their beasts of burdens as they flew down the hill. Those of us on foot regrouped at a parking lot about a third of the way down the mountain, where there are toilets, souvenir-mongers and a place to park for the less-spirited hikers who choose to climb only the final ascent to the Citadelle.
As we prepared to start descending again, one of my companions noticed someone pulling out in a pick-up truck and decided to ask if we could sit in the back and ride the rest of way down the mountain. I wasn’t feeling particularly tired, but I did want to stick with the group, so I hopped in the back of the truck with six or seven other friends. The driver told us in Creole that we could only have four people in the back, and as I was fine with continuing to walk, I happily hopped out of the pick-up truck, ceding the spot` to a more weary fellow traveler.
Those of us who were still walking had only gotten a hundred or so meters down from the parking lot when someone driving a Polaris off-road vehicle stopped and offered us a ride. At this point, I was still willing to keep walking, but as I mentally accounted for the 13 people in our group, I was pretty sure that everyone was now either on horseback, in the back of the pickup truck, or about to get into this Polaris.
Not wanting to walk down the rest of the mountain alone, or hold up the rest of the group from starting the tour of San Souci at the bottom of the mountain, I decided to pile in the Polaris along with my travel-mates as well as the driver; a woman who seemed to be the driver’s mother; and a young man in the back who I thought might be the driver’s brother, but I think was in fact her boyfriend.
Now, I have struggled to describe the type of vehicle we were in, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t exactly remember what it looked like, but I think it looked something like the picture at right.
We were flying down the mountain with the wind in our hair, and as we passed several friends on horseback, my friend Sarah said “I think we made the right choice.”
At some point, we passed a friend who was still walking, for whom I had not accounted earlier. I briefly thought about hopping out and walking along with him since I myself hadn’t wanted to be only one from our group walking down, but we were quickly well past him and the thought was gone.Soon we passed the pickup truck that had our friends in the back, and we smirked and jeered as we passed.
What happened next didn’t exactly transpire in slow motion, but somehow I was sensing and processing things faster than I could physically react.
I vaguely sensed that the vehicle was out of control, as we were swerving to the left side of the path, even though we weren’t trying to pass anyone. Moreover, we were headed straight toward a berm on the side of the trail. And then, we hit the bank on the side of the path with a jarring thud and the Polaris seemed to come to a halt.
Then the vehicle flipped on its side…