I just returned yesterday from my first visit to Haiti as one of a group of 16 graduate students in public health, forestry and environmental studies, and nursing. Our route took us from Port au Prince, the capitol city devastated by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in January 2010, through the Artibonite Valley, the epicenter of the subsequent cholera outbreak, and finally to the city of Hinche in the Central Plateau, the site of a suspected sewage dump that set off an epidemic that has killed thousands.
We spent a week in the town of Deschapelles, located in the Artibonite Valley about 70 miles north of Port au Prince. Our group stayed at an inn run by a member of the founding family of Hopital Albert Schweitzer. At each meal, we received heaping helpings of multiple varieties of starch - rice and beans, fried plantains, fried potatoes, and bread - a common cuisine in many areas located in the tropics.
With a paper-white, dense, dry crumb and a hard, smooth tan exterior, this bread can't disguise its lack of nutritional value. Unless slathered in butter, it has no flavor at all. Even when fresh, it has a stale, crumbly quality. The dough is probably made from a low-protein, low-quality flour, minimally hydrated and leavened as quickly as possible.
A 10-mile hike from Deshapelles, through a set of mountains, and to the next valley brough us to Bastien, a small town known in the local area for small, round, spongy boules of bread. Our guide called it "mountain bread," though I'm not sure what the proper name is. We saw a beehive-shaped clay oven next to one of the homes nearby.
In Bastien, we also met a lady selling fry bread. The flavor resembled that of a salty, unsweetened donut. We asked her how she made her bread, and she mentioned flour, water and salt. It seemed to be chemically leavened. I asked her in my horrible kreyol, "eske mwen kapab pran foto ou?" - May I take a photo of you - and she was happy to oblige, proudly posing for a shot with her product. Having hiked 5 miles of winding, hilly trails under the hot sun, we were quite hungry (in the first-world kind of way), and the sensation of fat and salt on our palates gave us a euphoric rush. I can only imagine what it must be like to eat a hunk of fried dough when you're truly hungry.
Ironically, diabetes and hypertension are on the rise in the Artibonite Valley in the midst of malnutrition. It seems to be an emerging trend in many developing areas - disease of excess right alongside diseases of deprivation. It's difficult to avoid starchy, high-fat, high-sodium foods when they are the most affordable and available. We're familiar with the same patterns here in the United States.
It somehow seems fitting that the bread in a place with such a complicated past and an equally complicated present should be so simple; it's a basic food that allows people to fill their bellies and go on with their lives. Spending time in an impoverished area always reminds me what a privilege it is to be able to choose what I eat, and to turn down the things I don't want to eat. It is also a privilege to have had the education to make knowledgeable dietary decisions, and to never have been forced to decide between going to school or eating dinner. For those of you who were lucky enough to have a spring break, I hope it was enjoyable, and I look forward to hearing about your adventures.