In all honesty, I had not planned to visit Haiti and I went a bit by chance. In planning a little Caribbean trip with my girlfriend, the Dominican Republic came up as a convenient and interesting stop for me, prior to meeting her in Puerto Rico. When deciding whether to rent a car or use public transportation there, I discovered that one of the big bus companies has a Port au Prince – Santo Domingo connection. The flights were the same price and I remembered I had a friend working in Port au Prince. Perfect reasons to drop in.
Unfortunately, I only spent a long week-end, and I visited very little. This is not because there is nothing to visit in Haiti, but because transportation is either hard or expensive, especially travelling alone.
Of course, you can take this kind of public transportation, called “taps-taps”, but you have to want to. The alternative is a private taxi, always expensive, especially for intercity travel, or an internal flight. I am willing to endure almost any level of discomfort or expense if the payoff is worth it, like an active volcano, the most remote human settlement on the planet or the midnight sun of the High Arctic. The charming village of Jacmel with its famous arts and crafts? The Citadelle Laferriere and the ruins of the Palais San Souci? Not so much. It’s not that they are unappealing, but for the price of visiting them from Port au Prince, I could travel to 10 different castles and fortresses by train from Paris or London. In fact, the taxi from Port au Prince airport to Pétionville (~10 km) cost me more than my flight from Lithuania to France last year (~2,000 km).
Almost all the tourism in Haiti comes from cruise ships stopping in Labadee. While I didn’t go, I read a bit about it. It is not a town, but a fenced-off private resort leased by Royal Caribbean, which pays the Haitian Government US$10 per tourist per day. While visitors are certainly on Haitian territory, they may just as well be in the Dominican Republic, Miami, or any other place where a lot of Haitians work. A private security firm ensures no tourist gets out and no Haitians get in, except those who are allowed to sell arts and crafts on the resort. All food and drinks served come from the ship. Apparently the Government is improving roads and security in the area in the hopes of convincing Royal Caribbean to offer day trips to places like Milot, where the Fortress and Palace are located. In the mean time, I cannot imagine the appeal of such a place.
If you read the news a bit, I probably won’t reveal anything new about the country. It is poor. Terribly poor by the standards of the Western Hemisphere. As I mentioned before in my story about the US Virgin Islands, Haiti was one of only three countries outside of Africa with an annual GDP per capita below $2 a day in 2013 (along with Afghanistan and Nepal). It is extremely corrupt, ranking 190th out of 202 jurisdictions in the Corruption Perception Index 2011. It exports t-shirts and imports food, with a massive trade deficit. Some of the biggest contributions to the economy are international aid and remittances, money sent to their families by the huge numbers of Haitians living abroad. The earthquake of 2010 destroyed a good portion of what little infrastructure existed and Nepalese peacekeepers accidentally introduced cholera to the country, infecting over 700,000 people and killing almost 9,000 of them. Unemployment is “guesstimated” to be around 50%. Foreign investments are badly needed but massive bureaucratic hurdles prevent most of it. In 2014, Haiti ranked 177th out of 189 jurisdictions in “Ease of doing business”, and 187th in the subcategory “Ease of starting a new business”. Foreign ownership is strictly regulated and restricted and for any project of significance, a local partner/shareholder is required. This obviously restricts growth, but I will guess that it also guarantees a cut of everything goes to the small Haitian elite with capital to invest. The pie stays small, but at least they don’t have to share it. I’ll stop here. The point is, the situation is bleak.
Unexpectedly, in a way I felt it as soon as the plane left the gate in Fort Lauderdale. I have often been on empty planes run by state-owned airlines, but this was the emptiest flight I had ever been on in North America (American Airlines). I was surprised they didn’t cancel it.
I could also see the deforestation from the air, another massive problem in a country that used to be an exporter of wood, but which is only 2% forested now. Many rural folks continue to cook with charcoal, contributing to the problem.
Residents I talked to confirmed that I should really get out of the capital, which is not exactly peaceful and quiet, and head for smaller towns. Although the capital is not the nicest place in the world, I have to say that I loved the experience of just walking around downtown. I have been to most Caribbean nations, and Port au Prince feels nothing like them. To me, it is not the Caribbean, it is not Latin America, it is 100% Africa. The sights, the smells, the noises, the shops, the sidewalks covered with merchandise, the colours, the ladies selling vegetables, everything. If I had been teleported there and asked where I was, I would have been sure I was in some former French colony in Africa.
The city does have a few attractions, such as the Pantheon National Haïtien. Unfortunately, it is underground and photography is not allowed. While the complex is small, it really exceeded my expectations. It consists of an inner ring where objects and documents related to the history of Haiti and its leaders are displayed. The main piece is the anchor of Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria, which was shipwrecked off the coast in 1492. On the last wall, the pictures of all the former heads of state are displayed. The dates on them give an indication of the unstable periods the young nation has gone through. Sometimes you can count half a dozen leaders in just a few years. Many only lasted a few months.
Otherwise the history is interesting and very unique. Not so much in terms of what happened, but in terms of when it happened. The Haitian independence movement was a century and a half ahead of its time. When the first steps towards the decolonization of Africa took place in the mid-twentieth century, Haiti had been an independent nation for 150 years! Even the paintings look strange. When I imagine the men who fought against European colonization, I see them wearing traditional costumes of their respective countries, Maoist shirts, modern business suits or military uniforms. To see the leaders of the Haitian revolution dressed in Napoleonic cavalry uniforms feels incredibly anachronistic.
In any case, the rebels defeated a force of 60,000 soldiers and colonists sent by Napoleon, at the time the largest force ever to cross the Atlantic (not to take anything away from their determination, but about half of Napoleon’s force was killed by yellow fever). Of course, killing soldiers and exterminating thousands of white settlers from France, next to British and Spanish colonies, in the back yard of an emerging power with an economy still dependent on slavery, comes with risks. No country recognized Haiti, they were forced to pay massive reparations to France, descended into a long period of civil wars, and the rest is history. If you don’t speak French or have a guide, you will get little out of it.
Speaking of languages, there is something very strange and probably not very healthy in the linguistic reality of the country. Both French and Haitian Creole are official languages, but French is the language of Government, administration and business. All educated Haitians speak French. But the majority of the population do not (I read 60%). Since French and Haitian Creole are mutually unintelligible, this creates the strange situation that the majority underclass of the country does not speak the language of its own Government. An oddly colonial situation in a way.
The outer ring of the museum is much more joyous; an art gallery. It features some of the kind of art that made Haiti famous in the mid 20th century, but also art of all styles, painted by Haitian artists.
Outside, some fountains which were either turned off or don’t work.
In front of the Pantheon, the Bicentennial Monument, built in 2004 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of independence. I am not sure if it is finished, but in 2004 thousands were being killed in the rebellion that led to the ouster of former president Aristide, so I doubt the tower was a high priority. I am not sure what to think of the fact that the earthquake that wiped so much of the country’s architectural history and destroyed so much critical infrastructure left this thing standing.
Otherwise, the centre of the city is a big construction area. The remains of the former Presidential Palace have been removed and barriers and construction equipment block all the parks and open areas.
About 20 minutes away on foot stands the Hotel Oloffson, which in its glory days hosted all manners of international celebrities. I had lunch there.
“Poulet djon djon”, a delicacy from the north of the country, I was told. The sauce is made from a local black mushroom. It was very nice. This was incredibly different from my dinner with my friend Alain.
First, in his defence, he is there long-term and we were not going for the local flavour. We went to the richest part of town, Petionville, at a restaurant called “The View” (in English), located on the 8th floor, on top of a shopping mall. The waiters wear tuxedos, the prices are only labelled in US$ and dinner costs the equivalent of a week of wages for a typical Haitian. You go there to get what you want, which resulted in a very funny exchange.
The waiter approached with menus and without opening it, Alain asked, in French: “Do you have nachos?”. Of course, the result would have been the same if he had asked in Icelandic. Not wanting to torture the poor waiter any further, he said “Never mind, I will look at the menu”. But then the waiter had a discussion with his colleagues, then the chef and the maitre d’hôtel. He came back: “You mean with potatoes?”. I was trying hard not to laugh at the ridiculous situation. “Heu… not usually” hesitated Alain, “But sure!”.
At least 20 minutes later, this arrived. Potato chips with a huge bowl of delicious guacamole. I am not sure it qualified as “nachos”, but it was delicious. Between the three of us, we ran out of chips in 2 minutes and asked for more. At least 20 minutes later, more came, and that is when we realized that every time we ordered “chips”, the staff in the kitchen had to start thinly slicing potatoes! I have to say, this reminded me of my former business travels in the African “expat zones”. Totally fake bubble, outrageously expensive by local standards, but sometimes so funny.
Of course, nowadays I travel on a different kind of budget, but I had an equally great time in my “budget” hotel (in Haiti this means basic, but not that cheap). I arrived in the middle of the afternoon and was greeted by the owner of Hotel Le Perroquet, Eric. The reception doubles as the bar and before asking me anything about my reservation, showing me the room, or any such thing, he offered me a beer and we started chatting. By the time I first stepped in my room, I had been at Le Perroquet for at least 3 hours!
The owners are the kind of people you can only meet in off-the-beaten path destinations. Eric is of Haitian and German ancestry, born on a United States Marine Corp camp and Lana was born in the Soviet Union. They met when they both were living in Bali. Typical, right? They were awesome and I had a great time.
Since there was no power to the hotel that night, they couldn’t play the classical music they usually have on in the evening. So a guest decided to provide entertainment. And this is how we ended up spending the evening drinking beer while listening to 1970’s soft rock, sung by a guitar playing 62 year old Hare Krishna from Shawinigan, Quebec! You know I’m not lying because no one can invent stuff like this.
The next day, I lived Haiti two ways. First, the expat life.
Australian beer in the pool, behind the razor wire. Since I was too cheap to take a real taxi and Alain and I had been drinking, I called my motor taxi driver (recommended by Eric because he spoke French). And now I give you Haiti, local style.
Safe? Well, with a few beers it felt safe enough. And that was it for my short stay. The next morning, I took a very comfortable Dominican bus to cover the 322 km between Petionville and Santo Domingo. It took an incredible 9.5 hours. Surely the roads were not the best, and traffic was heavy in towns, but the border was complete chaos.
I don’t understand exactly what is going on here, but I am certain it is related to the difficulty of doing business officially in Haiti. Vast quantities of daily necessities are exported from the Dominican Republic to Haiti, but for some reason, the sea containers do not cross the border. They get parked alongside the road on the Dominican side and hundreds, if not thousands of people continuously cross the border with a wheelbarrow or a basketful of stuff on their heads. Perhaps the probable bureaucratic nightmares involved in importing a container don’t apply to individuals with a small quantity of goods? Bear in mind, this road is the one our driver was trying to turn onto, in a full sized intercity bus!
The informal shops not only line the road, they even form extensive side streets.
Finally, although this is a strange conclusion, I will show you two pictures I took from the plane on my way to Haiti. For some reason, I rarely do this, but I think they are nice for phone pictures.
One of the many islands in the Bahamas.
And some shallow Caribbean waters, between the Bahamas and Haiti. That’s all!