“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,” Sara said while we walked.
The sun beat on us, taking my sweat and making me red. I told her that the only Bible verse I knew was Corinthian’s 13, and that was because it was cliché. But I quoted Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet 17, it wasn’t the Bible, but it was beautiful. Jess told us later that she knew we were goners as soon as Sara started quoting Bible verses.
I know the valley of death is supposed to be a metaphor, but it sure felt like that’s where we were. The central plateau of Haiti isn’t very lush; I remember comparing it to The Lorax, but no one spoke for the trees here. The locals chopped them down for charcoal to heat their houses. Centuries ago Americans and French pillaged their land before the revolution. Poverty wasn’t just in the houses- it was in the landscape.
On our first day, we were told that Haiti translates to land of mountains. There were hardly any valleys. No flat terrain. It wasn’t like hiking in North Carolina, where you climb up—see the beauty that is below you, and hike down. The hills kept rolling—there was no peak.
The night before the hike, Jane, the woman whose home we were staying in, told us she only takes two water bottles, and maybe a Sprite. If she could do the twelve-mile hike, then we certainly could. She told us they were rolling hills, like The Sound of Music. But Jane had taken this trek many times in the past ten years. And we weren’t used to the mountains or the heat. The Haitians had named where we were going Site Jane because she was the first white person ever to go there.
That morning we headed out as the sun rose. We wanted to get going before it got too hot. We left without breakfast; were told to bring some snack with us, along with extra water, and activities and games for the kids at Site Jane. We all talked and enjoyed each other’s company. There was a lightness to our movements.
When we got to Site Jane we played with the kids, we learned of their agriculture system that was supposed to help stop the malnutrition in the community, and we were shown around. We were told to get into the community, really get to know the kids. The sun took my energy, and left me with a painful sunburn, despite all the sunscreen I lathered on. Just thinking about the six miles back to Jane’s house made me tired.
We left Site Jane and stopped to eat before we headed all the way back. While we sat, our group leader, Preston, told us that those who lived out in Site Jane had to do this same walk every day for the market, church, and school. It’s one thing to hear that a child walks six miles to school and six miles home—it’s a completely different thing to take that trail for yourself.
I don’t remember being hungry; I remember feeling weak like I knew that I needed those calories if I wanted to make it back to Jane’s house. There was only one bottle of water left in my pack– it wouldn’t be enough. I had to ration it; I couldn’t chug it like I wanted. My mouth had already started to feel cottony. I remember sitting there, wondering just how these people did this hike every day.
Only a mile or two in and it was clear our group wouldn’t be sticking together. The other students didn’t want to keep stopping; they knew if they did it would only hurt them. But Sara and I knew we couldn’t keep up with their pace.
We kept moving. Soon the others were so far ahead of us we couldn’t see them. It wasn’t like in the morning; we weren’t talking as much. There wasn’t an easiness to our movements. Every step felt heavy. But my legs weren’t as sure of themselves as they had been hours ago– my feet began to wobble. When I hike I always keep my head down; I make sure where I plant my foot is stable, so my ankles will not twist. The last hike, resulted in a sprain and a snapping sound in the darkness of a volcano in Guatemala. I was sure my ankle would snap again, especially when I wasn’t careful.
Around midday, my bladder was filled for the first time all day, despite the constant stream of sweat pouring from my body. As I walked off the path, I thought seriously about filling one of my empty water bottles with my own pee. Years ago I had seen that on Man Vs. Wild. Was this such an extreme situation that I needed to drink my own urine? Thankfully, I decided against that—it couldn’t be that much longer.
My mouth not only was filled with cotton but began to get this sour taste. I pulled the skin on my hand to check if it would stay up, a trick I had heard of years ago in camp. It did a little bit. I was definitely dehydrated. I cursed the sweat that was running from every orifice of my body.
“It isn’t fair,” I said to Jess, “no one else is sweating as much as me. That’s why they aren’t as dehydrated. This is bullshit.”
She just laughed at me.
It was hard to tell how many more miles we had to go; everything looked the same. Preston and Jess were the group leaders, but they had never been on this hike before.
I looked at Preston as we were sitting on some rocks, “I know you’re a Methodist preacher, but do you know how to give last rites?”
He laughed at me and told me he did. I’m a Catholic, and I knew if I died in Haiti my mom would be glad to know that I had been given that.
I was following Jess over a ridge and looked back to Sara. She was sitting on a rock with her head in her hands. One of the Haitians was fanning her with his shirt, and Preston was kneeling beside her. I asked Jess if we should go back to her, she said we shouldn’t crowd her. We stopped for a second, then kept moving.
We were probably only a couple hundred feet from the road when we stopped at this beautiful palm tree. I sat under it and looked up through its leaves. My eyes closed and I thought this would be a good place to nap, or die.
“This is it—give me my last rites,” I said to Preston with my eyes closed.
“Polo, stop being a drama queen,” he laughed. I did not.
Jess and Sara got up and started walking. I knew I should get up too, but couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t move. Preston reached his hand towards me and said to get up. I didn’t really have a choice unless of course, I did want to die under that tree.
We got to the final hill before the road. Jess, Sara, and I stopped in front of it, sizing it up. The hill was at least an eighty-degree angle, and was filled with litter.
“Fuck,” Jess said under her breath.
“This hill is a bitch,” I said a little louder.
As we walked up, Sara started crying. I grabbed her hand and told her not to waste the water on tears.
When we finally got up the hill we sat on the assault waiting for Preston and another girl who was further back. But after a while it was clear they weren’t right behind us– we kept moving. We still had another mile to Jane’s house. We stopped on the side of the road in the shade, when a motorcycle stopped right by us. On it were three Haitians, and a six-gallon jug of water.
I looked at it with lust in my eyes, “I would do some fucked up things for that water.”
Sara and Jess laughed, but I was considering going up to those men and figuring out how to communicate that I needed that water or else I would pass out on the road. This water definitely wasn’t safe for my frail American immune system to drink, but I didn’t think or care about that fact at the time.
A couple of hundred feet later I found a small shop that had Gatorade in a cooler; I bought us all some. I don’t know how much I spent on it, nor do I remember the exchange rate, but it didn’t matter. They (whoever they are) say not to drink Gatorade unless you’ve run, like, a marathon, but I instantly felt better as soon as we started drinking it. It was like magic. Easily, the best and most important drink I’ve had in my entire life.
When we walked in the front door of Jane’s, someone mentioned my sunburn, and I asked for no one to talk to me for a little while (which probably came out a lot meaner than I intended). I walked away without an answer, into the room I shared with three other girls and laid on the floor silently. I didn’t want to get my bed dirty and didn’t have the energy to stand in the shower. So I laid there. I thought about the hike we just did, and how those who live by Site Jane do that every day. I thanked God I was alive. I thanked God my ankle didn’t twist. I thanked God for the water I was now drinking. And I thanked God to finally not be moving.
Much like the final scene of Castaway, where Tom Hanks has dozens of bottles of water in his car—I have since never been on a hike without more water than I need. Never again will I taste that sour cotton taste. Never again will I not plan ahead. And God willing, I will never be that unprepared in the Haitian countryside again.
Lauryn Polo is a writer, queso enthusiast, traveler, caffeine addict, YA reader, odd-job-doer, slow runner, too-soon jokester, hammock lounger, ocean swimmer, teen drama watcher, mom bod having, pizza loving, former competitive eater, Jersey girl, quintessential millennial, naive hiker.