Interview with Reggie from Rustik, a model of environmental-friendly development and community involvement

Reginald "Reggie" Simon and long-time friend Gabriel Coupaud co-owns Rustik, a restaurant and bed and breakfast located in Furcy high above Petionville, Haiti, where the air is clean and temperatures can drop to as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Reginald "Reggie" Simon and long-time friend Gabriel Coupaud co-owns Rustik, a restaurant and bed and breakfast located in Furcy high above Petionville, Haiti, where the air is clean and temperatures can drop to as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Reginald and Gabriel both grew up in Haiti, but they eventually left the country for a few years to pursue their education. Reggie moved to New York while Gabriel moved next door to the Dominican Republic.

After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Reggie decided to return to his home country. Gabriel himself had returned earlier, therefore, was more established as a resident.

After working in the construction industry, Reggie needed a place to get away. Since Furcy has always been a place that he enjoyed to go to, he started going there as often as possible.

The earthquake had caused some damage to the area, so Reggie started fixing what he could. Along the way the community got involved in the rebuilding as well. Furcy, at first, was just a place for Reggie to hang out. After a while, however, he and Gabriel considered the possibility of starting a business there and involving the community. For two and a half months before going to work Reggie would go to Furcy at 4:00 in the morning. People from the town were there waiting for him. Before Rustik the area was just a steep hill, nothing existed before that. With the help of the community, Reggie managed to level the hill, planted grass, and gradually built. It took a year of hard work and closed partnership with the community to get to where they are today.

One of the first activities Reggie did with the community was "Furcy Going Green." They planted 300 hibiscus plants along the road, and people named the plants with their names.

Another activity was collecting trash. "There is a culture of not picking up after each other; unfortunately, that exist in Haiti. People leave a lot of trash around. We are trying to put trashcans in different places, and show them how they can recycle and use the stuff. I am working with a trash company to see if they would buy some of the trash, especially the plastic bottles and things like that, to show the community what I do with these bottles and keep the place clean," says Reggie

"My personal goal and vision is to see that each person from Furcy can benefit from this place. We are starting with mountain bikes and horses. We will have paint guns and other fun activities, all with the purpose of creating jobs.

We want to promote adventure tourism, to invite people to come and get dirty, to come and feel like they are part of it and do something, not just donate."

Rustik's biggest potential partner so far is Mountain Bike Haiti, a New York-based organization that is planning a big mountain bike race in Haiti in February 2013. One of the stops will be at Rustik, where bikers can camp out. After the event, plans call for a shop where mountain bikes can be rented and repaired, again creating more local jobs.

How would you describe Rustik?

It's a place that is very much like a recycling bin, using what other people don't see the use for and to use them in a creative way, thereby, giving people an interesting experience. That's my main goal. That's why most of the place is built from wooden pallets. Even these chairs are made from wood wheels.

What made you think about involving the community in the way you did?

Haitians have good hearts, but I fell in love with the people here. They received and welcomed me from the get-go. I would come here and camp out, and they would invite me to their parties. I think my openness to actually go and chill with them made a big difference. I was extremely shocked when they came to help me, and they would ask, "What else do you need?" I would say, "Guys, I don't have that much money, but if you help me we can all have a business here." They trusted me even though they get burned a lot. The way they saw me getting dirty made them believe that I was serious. There were times when I wouldn't come here, but they would continue to do the work.

What are the challenges in operating a place like this so far up the hills?

The road. Even though they helped us a bit with it, the road was much worse before. Anything you need has to come from downtown. If you forget something, you better call someone that you know who is coming up to get it for you. Otherwise, you will be saying, "Sorry, we don't have that," even though it's on the menu." I am hoping that we can be totally sustainable and everything we serve is grown here. That would be a huge goal to achieve.

Do you need support in sustainable development, or do you possess the know-how already?

I could definitely use some support. I am an accountant who became a math and entrepreneurship teacher for several years. All of this that I'm now doing is from the love of doing it. It's not like I really know how to do it. A lot of people refer to me as an artist. I always try to incorporate other people's knowledge. I'm not trying to do it all by myself. I just have a vision and I'm trying to follow it.

What is your future plans now that you have a restaurant, a 4-room bed and breakfast, and camping?

We are trying to have different and unique events like holding a Halloween Guédé party. It's not a Vodou party; it's more like a cultural thing where people will learn a bit about religion. My whole idea is for this place to become a center where the people can grow, which is why we are inviting two young artists. One is Jerry who does a lot of spray-painting on the walls, and the other, Kiyodo, who does metal work and things like that. We're doing something that is new to Haiti, which is to conduct a live art show battle where both artists will create something live for the audience. After this we'll have a fire show.

This is a way to start introducing Vodou. We will do a slideshow from pictures of a real Vodou ceremony. The idea is not just Vodou, but that of artists incorporating the Halloween aspect of trying to be scary and having fun with something that is cultural with a little Haitian influence and flavor to it.

Culture seems to be part of your business strategy. How do you see culture being part of your plans, and why is this important to you?

A lot of times I used to be embarrassed when people didn't know that I was Haitian living in the States. There is something to be proud of where you are from. At the same time just saying that I was from Haiti and not knowing much about it was not enough. Anyone can do that. The question is: Do I know a lot about the country? I have a Tattoo of Haiti "1804" on my back, but do I know much about the country? Even the holidays: I know the American holidays better than the Haitian holidays. After I graduated, I started to teach so I can have more time to come back to Haiti. I used to come back every vacation that I had. I would just drive to the countrysides, take photos, experience the natural beauty of the country, but also to try to meet other people. I think the travel experience is actually getting to experience other people's culture. In resorts you don't get to experience the country itself. That's why I want get to know Haiti a little better, as well as the culture, and give people the opportunity to experience it also.

Your approach to the guests rooms is very different. What was the idea behind that?

I figured the people who would be more interested in coming here would be the camping-type travelers. They do not ask for too much. The experience they want to have is to be closer to nature, so the least amount of things that are foreign from nature, the better. At first we did rooms without any bathrooms since we wanted to have outdoor showers for everyone to just be in the open air. But that was too open-minded. It's a different vibe, and one that we may introduce later for extreme travelers.

Mountain bike and partnership with Barbancourt

Barbancourt is the rum of the country and everyone knows about it. The Haitians in the Diaspora are the ones who keep it going. You see people with yellow cases on every flight.

To survive in business you need some kind of support. I want to support local products and economy. I want people to not just come, but to experience something. The plan is to do a Barbancourt Stay where the room will be build with Barbancourt bottles that the company is providing, and other items that they don't use anymore. Also, along the room, there will be historical information about the rum, sort of like a museum. When you come to Barbancourt Stay you not only get Barbancourt rum to drink, but actually get a little history of the rum as well.

You are finding that partnering to leverage what you like is important for your own business growth and development

Yes. Trying to do it all by myself will not only limit the business, but also the community itself. Partnering with other people means broader exposure. It's very much like the saying, "one hand washes the other". Anything that helps in a way, I'm for it.

You came to the mountains with one idea in mind, and now you've grown this into something much larger. Did you anticipate it will develop naturally as it has?

In order to start I had to kind of downplay my intentions to the people in the community. I told them that it would be small. But back in my head I actually wanted it to be really big because when we are thinking of Haiti in the Caribbean. People are thinking of sand, beach and sun, but not many people know of the fresh air of the mountain, and many people say that seeing the whole vibe reminds them of being in Switzerland.

Other people know the beauty of being here and being in the middle of the fog. Some days you walk in and the whole place is fogged.

It's very attractive here and not that far from the beach as well. The beauty of growing up in Haiti is that you can go to the beach in the morning, and then come up here. It's two totally different experiences, and you don't have to pay a lot for it.

To me, this is a big advantage to tourism in Haiti.

Since returning to Haiti, would you say that people see you as the Diaspora? What was your experience returning to Haiti like?

It's interesting that you asked. When I went to college as a freshman I used to make a difference between who's a real Haitian from those who grew up in the States compared to the ones that came straight to college out of Haiti. Of course we're always going to try to differentiate ourselves.

I would like to believe that I have a certain personality where I accept everyone for who they are, and try to make friends with a lot of people. Many people will tell you that I treat everyone the same way.

I know there is a stigma or that Haitians do make a difference between the Diaspora and locals. I try to defeat it by almost saying it doesn't exist even though I know it does exist.

What do you see in terms of the future? Where do you go from here? It seems like you have big plans for even Haiti.

I envision, and I hope it happens, bringing the Diaspora back. They don't need to move back like myself, but giving them the opportunity to actively participate. Sending money is good (most of the economy in Haiti depends on money coming from the Diaspora), but I think there's more a sense of pride and belonging when you are invited to participate, and actually have the opportunity to participate. It's hard to ask a person living outside of the country to plan to come to Haiti after they've been away for 5-10 years. That by itself will take you a year if you don't have connections.

If you have something that is already planned for you and you can come to not just enjoy the fresh year, but to help make it even fresher by planting, putting a trash can for garbage, teaching people, or just having conversations with locals in English, or volunteering in schools, that would add great value.

A lot of people think that to pay to volunteer is crazy, but I think education-wise we are all growing to value those things a bit more.

A lot of people volunteer in Haiti and that's great, but those are too few and they sacrifice too much to do it. I would love to have active volunteerism, as I call it, where people can actually volunteer and be part of a tourism trip.

You are a very good example for those in the Diaspora that have an idea and would like to come to Haiti to pursue it like you did. What are some of the learning experiences that you would like to share?

I would not want to scare anyone off, but it is difficult. However, if you put your mind to it, it is possible. I think the best way to go about it is to think and start small.

One of my biggest things I need to work on myself is to celebrate something good also, not just focus on the negative.

Celebrating a little bit of success can keep you going. Don't come and think you will change the whole country or community at once. Take a small battle and try to find success in that.

At the same time the advantages in Haiti are huge since it is such a green country, in the sense that there's a lot needed and there's a lot missing. Competition would be good. There are opportunities. Anything you can think of, you can do it in Haiti, because again there's a need for it.