From Port-au-Prince to Antigua via Panama: including two glasses of Carta Vieja rum and a mysterious bottom pinching French woman
I am now in Antigua, Guatemala, sipping on Mayan hot chocolate – which sounds like a tourist gimmick but may not be. I left the Dominican Republic about three weeks ago, spending a couple of weeks in Haiti before getting on a COPA air flight to Guatemala via Panama. The original plan had been to travel from Port-au-Prince to Guatemala City via Havana, but this proved a little difficult to arrange. Everything in Haiti is difficult. Internet and power in Haiti were absolutely horrible so I was pretty much unable to blog while I was there. Of course laziness also played a part.
Anyway, while in Haiti I did a few interesting drinks related things, including visiting the Barbancourt rum distillery, comparing brands of clairin (a generic Haitian term for rustic, unaged, sugarcane rum), checking out the bitter orange peels used to flavor Grand Marnier and other orange liqueurs, and having a drink in the bar at the famous Hotel Oloffson. Of course I also engaged in non-booze tourism, visiting the famous Citadel, relaxing at the beach (OK, with a rum filled coconut), and so on. Since Haiti is no tourist mecca I also ended up doing lots of non-tourism stuff. There were long, dark evenings in a beautiful old hotel in Cap Haitian during a major power shortage, theological discussions with missionaries, rambles through Port-au-Prince’s less dangerous slums, cold showers and impromptu Christian drum circles in a church run guesthouse in Port-au-Prince, voodoo drum circles in dark alleys, encounters with both aspiring and successful orphanage owners, and talks with an elderly Quebecan gentleman who fled to Haiti after narrowly escaping death at the hands of Triads. Regarding this last, and in a curious piece of irony, the elderly gentleman in question was unable to identify who these Triads were, what gang they represented, or even what country they originated from, yet the Triads still realized he “knew too much” and determined to have him whacked. Haiti is anything but ordinary. I will update on all this later.
Anyway, on Saturday, my second attempt to escape saw me successfully leave Haiti behind. Tuesday had seen me spend half a day at the airport without results as my credit card got declined and the bank refused to change Euros. Saturday’s break for freedom was not all plain sailing though. For a moment it looked like I could end up stuck in Haiti again.
On reaching immigration I realized that the blue slip that had been put in my passport when I entered the country had somehow disappeared. I apologized for my carelessness and showed the immigration officer the entry stamp in my passport. What is the point of these slips anyway? The immigration officer first looked aggrieved, as though I had lost the blue slip just to spite him, then snarlingly turned me back.
Port-au-Prince airport has one of those old-fashioned designs where immigration happens in a closed glass booth. Naturally the door to the booth opens inwards. Like everything else in Haiti the airport is falling apart, and the handle on the inside of the door was gone. As the immigration officer continued to hurl invective at me in Creole I struggled with the door, trying to find some place where I could get enough traction to pull it open. Finally an immigration officer standing on the other side helpfully pushed the door inwards. I asked him what I needed to do about the blue slip and got a shrug in response. Wandering around the hall asking other immigration officers yielded more shrugs, each more sullen and unhelpful than the last. Things were looking bleak.
A well dressed Haitian man happened to walk past at that point and asked what was going on. He turned out to be a senior immigration officer and took me through some back corridors to a room were we picked up a blank blue slip. I assumed I would have to fill it out (it demand information like port of entry and so on) but none of that happened. We headed straight back to the immigration hall, and then to the booth I had previously been in, where the senior immigration officer threw the blue slip at the immigration officer who had turned me back, and shouted at him in Creole. The junior officer sullenly stamped my passport, took the blank blue slip, screwed it defiantly into a ball, and tossed it onto the pile of blue slips on his desk. I thanked the officer who had helped me out and walked towards the security desk, leaving the two men arguing with each other.
There was an hour to wait for my flight so I sat at the bar in the airport cafe and drank a coke. It only cost US$1! Port-au-prince airport must have the cheapest airport cafe in the world. Admittedly the facilities were slightly basic. There was no extractor fan in the cafe kitchen, so travelers sat inhaling greasy smoke from the fried cheese sandwiches and pizzas being churned out. The whole airport was slowly becoming infused with the smell. I sat facing a large wall mirror, doing a little work on my laptop, and occasionally looking up at the room behind me. The air was thick with pungent tobacco being smoked by a table of elderly card playing Frenchmen. The souvenir shops were empty of shoppers. Even the Barbancourt rum shop was doing no business. Everybody was crowded around the cafe counter drinking beers and coffees and waiting for greasy sandwiches.
A French girl came up to the counter with her boyfriend and ordered coffees. In between caressing her boyfriend she kept looking sideways at me in the mirror and flirting with her eyes. When the coffees arrived she paid for them and went to sit at a table. I had my back to her table but in the mirror it was in front of me and slightly to my right. The girl had lots of charisma and very beautiful eyes. Her skin looked as though she had once had bad acne though. She kept alternately looking at me and fondling her companion. She distracted him by pointing towards something in one of the shops, winked at me and laughed. He had his back to the mirror and could not see what was going on. There seemed to be no point to the game she was playing but it was oddly entertaining. What, if anything, did she want me to do besides recognize her elaborate efforts with the occasional sly smile? Her companion was grave looking and seemed much younger than her, though her manner made her seem far more immature than him.
Eventually it came to be time for my flight. I went to the bathroom, then headed downstairs to the boarding gate. The French girl and her companion were a couple of places ahead of me in the queue for the same flight, to Panama on COPA. She did not have an especially good figure, with shorter than average legs and a longer than average torso. Her eyes were her best feature. Port-au-Prince airport is one of those airports where you still board your flight from the tarmac, and COPA had set up a security desk on the tarmac to re-checking all of the carry on baggage. The tarmac was hot and the queue moved slowly. I bid a final, sweaty goodbye to Haiti.
As the French girl’s bag was being checked her boarding pass fell to the ground. She didn’t seem to have noticed it fall. Nobody else seemed to have noticed it either. Although I was a couple of people back in the queue I started to go forward to pick it up. As I did so though the security guard checking the bags picked it up instead. The girl thanked the guard and shot me a reproachful glance. It seemed that dropping the boarding pass had been deliberate.
It came to be my turn to have my bags checked. As the guard rummaged briefly through the bags, my boarding pass somehow fell out of my passport without me noticing. The security guard picked it up for me. With nobody to shoot a reproachful glance at, I could only thank the security guard and wonder at how life sometimes follows bizarre patterns.
I boarded the flight, getting sat right at the back of the plane beside a gigantic Haitian woman. Initially there had been a free seat between us, but once it was clear that nobody was going to be sitting in that middle seat she moved away from the window to sit beside me, her huge arms pressing uncomfortably into my stomach. At first I could not figure out why she didn’t stay in the window seat. Thinking about it though I realized that in the window seat she had one arm pressed up against the hard wall of the plane, whereas in the middle seat she had one arm in free space (the window seat) and the other pressed up against something soft (my stomach). Having made me uncomfortable in my own seat she immediately demanded water from the air hostess in halting, graceless Spanish: “Senora, da me agua!” Â Luckily Port-au-Prince-Panama is a short flight.
Incidentally, Haitians like to dress their children up when they fly. On an earlier flight from Cap Haitien to Port-au-Prince there had been a little girl in the most ridiculously ornate dress I have ever seen. The dress was a cream colored mass of bunches, frills and puffs. The skirt section of the garment was so long her mother had to hold it off the ground to keep it clean, and was decorated with gauze pouches stuffed with dried leaves and potpouri. There was nothing quite that elaborate on the flight to Panama, but frilly dresses were still de rigeur for every Haitian female under 11 or so. The girls seemed to delight in the formality of it all, while the boys looked oppressed in tightly buttoned shirts.
COPA is quite a nice airline. Maybe I was just hungry. It was hours since my 7am breakfast at the Christian guesthouse in Port-au-Prince, and the greasy airport sandwiches had not looked appealing. But the airline food on COPA was surely the best smelling I have ever had. Rather than a full meal they handed out hot beef and cheese sandwiches on some kind of foccacia herb bread. The smell of the herbs as they were unwrapped was unbelievably appetizing. The taste did not quite live up to the heavenly smell but it was still better than most airline food. To accompany the food there was the COPA ‘rum program’. As earnestly explained in the airline magazine, the rum program sees business class travelers enjoy a new rum every month while in economy class the rums rotate quarterly. Who could dislike an airline with a rum program?
The rum on offer was, appropriately enough, a Panamanian rum called Carta Vieja. They were pouring the extra viejo version. I had one on ice and found it very enjoyable.Â The taste was a little sweet and honeyish, with a distinct smokiness that grew as the ice diluted the rum and reduced the sweetness.Â Overall it reminded me of Russian Caravan tea. While not a particularly complex rum it had a distinct and unique taste. I would say this rum is worth looking out for.
As I drank the rum the French girl walked past on her way to the toilet, completely ignoring me in a marked contrast to the game she had been playing before. I sipped my rum some more. That sip, in which I pondered the smokiness of the rum and the mysteriousness of this French woman, was a particularly meditative one. Maybe she was annoyed at me failing to pick up her dropped boarding pass? Maybe she ignored me to stop me getting the wrong idea and following her to the toilet or doing something similarly embarrassing. Maybe she had left her seat with the intention of a mile-high liaison but realized as she walked down the aisle that the cabin crew were still dealing with rubbish in the galley and it was not going to be possible for an extra person to discretely get into the toilet? Maybe flirting just tires you out and you need to take a break sometimes? The thing with her was impossible to figure out. The rum was easier to understand.
Before long we were flying down into Panama. From a brief glimpse out the airplane window the city looked almost like a miniature Hong Kong, with skyscrapers clustering right up to the sea. I looked for the canal but couldn’t see it.
Wandering the airport as I waited for my connecting flight to Guatemala City I was again reminded of Hong Kong. There were gleaming duty free outlets and the scent of perfume tester-bottles permeated the entire building – a contrast to burned cheese smell of Port-au-Prince. A diverse mix of travelers were wandering around, many of them apparently just passing through to catch connecting flights. There were fashionably dressed Panamanians, business people from all over Latin America, and the occasional backpacker. There was a noticeable Asian minority, and I even overheard Mandarin speaking COPA ground-staff who looked to be local Chinese from Panama. The place had a very international feel.
I killed the hour or so between my flights by wandering the duty free stores, ending up buying a sample pack of four different rums from Nicaragua’s Flor de Cana.Â The small airport bottles would be a good way of comparing the different varieties of Flor de Cana rum.
Before long it was time for my flight.Â I took my place in the queue to board the plane.Â In a contrast to the previous flight, this time I was queuing in the type of civilized, international, and sterile airport environment that could equally have been on the other side of the world as in Panama. As I settled into the boredom of queuing, I was startled to feel my bottom pinched and a voice simultaneously murmur “Hello” in my ear. I turned my head to see the French girl from Port-au-Prince airport melting into the mass of travelers after her boyfriend. Her boyfriend’s grave looking shoulders disappeared first. Then, flashing a final smile, the mysterious bottom pinching French woman was also gone. I turned back to my queue. As I queued I imagined a grave pair of shoulders marching towards an unknown boarding gate, carrying the weight of a dangerously flirty girlfriend.
Panama had been fun.
The above line would make a nice ending. However, I said Port-au-Prince to Antigua, so I shall continue.
The flight to Guatemala City was mostly uneventful. I had another Carta Vieja rum, this time with coke. The smokiness cut through the sweet coke to make for an interesting drink. I ate another delicious hot sandwich. I watched a hyperactive Taiwanese dealing with a group of young people who seemed to be from China.
The Taiwanese and his charges were an odd group. They were clearly not related, but the Taiwanese was treating them almost like they were his children. I thought they could be some kind of school group, but the young people seemed too old to be school students, and the Taiwanese man did not look like a teacher. The Taiwanese was micro managing everything the group did. He had them take turns to sit with him while he counted how much money each of them was carrying, he stood up and explained how to fill out their immigration forms, and so on. I only began to figure them out when we were disembarking from the plane. While shuffling off the plane I turned to chat with one of the girls. She was Fujianese and apparently in Guatemala for a holiday. That sounded odd. What was a Fujianese doing traveling with a Taiwanese? And did Taiwanese really organize holidays in Guatemala for groups of young Chinese?
I said hello to the Taiwanese guy. He said he was a restaurateur with a place in Guatemala. That made some sense. He was very on edge though, and after a couple of sentences he broke into English. Without any prompting from me he suddenly said “I like Beijing not Taipei! Beijing has Great Wall!” Having clarified that, he sprinted off towards immigration, his charges struggling to keep up. I called out to ask where his restaurant was, saying I would drop by for a meal, but he either didn’t hear or chose to ignore the question.
I caught up with the Chinese at immigration. The Taiwanese was nowhere to be seen by this stage, and the Chinese seemed to be getting turned back. It may have simply have been a matter of them completing their immigration forms incorrectly. Who knows what was going on though? There was no way that the group was really in Guatemala for a holiday. The Taiwanese guy was either bringing in illegal workers for his restaurant or was a snake-head bringing a group into Guatemala for transportation across Mexico to the U.S.Â Whatever was happening it seemed a little subterfuge was involved.
I kept looking back as I waited for my luggage to see if the group would make it through immigration. They never appeared. Whatever was involved in getting them into the country took more than a minute or two.
Outside the airport I found lots of taxi drivers holding signs with passengers’ names on them, and a small gaggle of taxi touts. There was less trouble than I had expected in organizing transportation to Antigua. I could not see any shuttle buses but a taxi driver quickly agreed to take me for $28.
Late at night, Guatemala City looked surprisingly similar to the United States. It was a clean contrast to the scruffy Caribbean. The taxis and most of the other cars on the road were reasonably new, we refueled at a gas station set beside a brightly lit convenience store, the streets were lined with Burger Kings and other fast food franchises. The road to Antigua was surprisingly good. It was an unusual journey though, including some very steep hills that saw us losing a fair bit of elevation. After 40 minutes or so we arrived.
Driving into Antigua itself was odd, with the streets being cobblestone rather than tarmac, forcing drivers to go slowly and gingerly. The city was near deserted, with somebody setting of fireworks in the distance. I found a hotel, paid the driver, dumped my things in the room, and went out to have a walk around the streets.
The hotel owner warned me to stick to the streets with people on them for safety. The streets all seemed near empty though. The air was cool compared to the Caribbean and it was nice to be able to walk around wearing a leather jacket again. I’d been carrying a jacket without wearing it for so long. I could not seem to find the center of town where restaurants and bars were still open, though supposedly it was only a couple of streets away. After buying a bottle of water from a shop where you asked for merchandise and the shopkeeper handed it to you through a grille I headed back to the hotel and slept.