An ominous darkness descends on Port-au-Prince
Deciding to visit Haiti
When I picked the Dominican Republic for a holiday I figured one of the benefits would be hopping across the border to Haiti, making it a sort of two-for-one Caribbean travel destination. Haiti has always interested me. Haiti was the setting for “The Comedians”, one of my favorite novels by Graham Greene, one of my favorite writers. Haiti is the only nation to have been formed through a slave rebellion. The slaves quite reasonably turned the call of liberté, equalité, fraternité against their French masters. In a typical example of hypocrisy it was years before the United States, itself founded on an anti-colonial rebellion, extended diplomatic recognition to Haiti. Haiti is also home to the Isla de Tortuga, once the most notorious pirate nest in the Caribbean. Then you have the imposing Citadelle, quite possibly the ultimate Caribbean fortress. Add a sprinkling of voodoo and the mix is becoming most impressive. To that impressive mix you can start adding drinks-related attractions, such as Haiti being the home of Barbancourt rum, the bitter oranges used to produce Grand Marnier, and the famous bar at the Hotel Oloffson – once known as the Greenwich Village of the Caribbean. New Orleans’ Peychaud’s Bitters also traces its roots to Haiti, with Antoine Peychaud having been born in Cap-Haitien. There are even vague rumors of an ancestor of mine having been born in Haiti. In other words, plenty of reasons to visit.
The Citadelle near Cap-Haitien
The longer I stayed in the Dominican Republic though, the more apprehensive I became about visiting Haiti. Online information on travel to Haiti is scarce, but I had assumed I would learn everything I needed to know from making inquiries in the Dominican Republic. What I had not banked on was that, once you exclude illegal Haitian immigrants, nobody in the Dominican Republic has actually been to Haiti. Other than a truck driver whose family was originally Haitian, I never met a Dominican who had been further than the Haitian border. No foreign residents of the Dominican Republic had been to Haiti either, the only exception being an ancient American with vague recollections of visiting in 1958, “back when it was still safe”. Most people were adamant that it was too dangerous to travel to Haiti, talking about violence, kidnapping of tourists and so on. A guesthouse owner in Sosua hinted darkly at a guest having gone to Haiti and never been seen again. I had to wonder if it was not normal for a guest to leave a hotel and never be seen again. The story was told so as to suggest the involvement of highly malevolent forces though, so I settled for gripping the arm rest of my chair, donning an expression of horror, and listening wordlessly. The Haitian illegals residing in the Dominican Republic were no more reassuring. A teenage prostitute who had shooed away the shoeshine boy in a Sosua bar so she could shine my shoes herself hissed in bad Spanish that I would die if I went to Haiti. She talked of having seen her neighbors shot during the violence a few years before. There was not much arguing with that. Nobody had anything comforting or useful to say.
The first reassuring voice came from the owner of Hospederia 24, the Italian restaurant I regularly ate at in Sosua.Â He had visited several times and said Haiti was perfectly safe provided you were sensible. He warned me that there were no ATM machines so you needed to take money for your trip with you, that there were no taxis at night and it was not safe to walk the streets after dark. Basically he said it was OK provided you were careful.
The second reassuring voice came during a power cut an Santo Domingo. A typhoon took out the power in my hotel. Without light, Internet, or power I went to sit on the hotel balcony with a glass of rum and coke (Barbancourt 1 star). The hotel had put candles out on the balcony, and in the candlelight I got chatting with a Danish woman and a Haitian sanky-panky.
A sanky-panky is a Dominican Republic term for a sort of gigolo. Sanky-pankies take great pains with their appearance, dressing flamboyantly and perhaps even taking steroids to put on muscle. They pick up female or homosexual male tourists. Rather than charging directly for their company they try to establish longer term relationships, perhaps requesting remittances after the tourist goes home, or even emigrating to the tourist’s home country on a spouse visa. The Haitian sanky-panky sported impressive dreadlocks decorated with dozens of colorful shells and silver ornaments. He looked like a cuddly version of a pirate.
In any case, the Danish woman and the sanky-panky had just returned from two weeks in Haiti and assured me it was perfectly safe. The Danish woman did not seem the especially adventurous type, and unlike the owner of Hospederia 24 she did not speak French, or even much Spanish. She could be wrong about Haiti being perfectly safe, but there was no way Haiti was the war zone most people were making it out to be. Getting money in Haiti seemed to be an issue though. She had been forced to come back to the Dominican Republic when her money ran out and she was unable to get any more through the Haitian banks.
We drank rum and chatted about Haiti. They had rented a car and driven around the country. They had not been up to Cap-Haitien because the recent storms has washed out the roads. The Danish woman seemed to think the UN presence there was completely unnecessary given how friendly everyone was. The sanky-panky talked of how before the UN arrival some neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince had seen continuous gun battles between gangs of youth who were better armed than the police. It sounded like things had been very bad but were now much improved. The Danish woman mentioned how educated and polite the average Haitian was compared to their Dominican Republic counterparts. She seemed sold on the place. The sanky-panky said that few Haitians had jobs and most families relied on remittances from relatives in the United States. That led the Danish woman to bring up the delicate topic of getting him some kind of job. Before long he was flouncing back to their room, slamming the door behind him. The Danish woman waited for a moment or two before saying goodnight and disappearing into the darkness.
Our interesting conversation now over, I sat alone in the dark with a half finished glass of Barbancourt rum, on my way to Haiti.
On a Caribe Tours Bus
A couple of days after my conversation with the sanky-panky I arrived at the Caribe Tours bus station to catch the early morning bus to Cap-Haitien. There was no need to ask which bus was going to Haiti. The presence of two shotgun wielding guards made it obvious. Besides myself, the only other passengers were a pair of teenage Haitians, the girl wearing an extravagantly long white glove despite the heat. I wondered if she was hiding a burn or something, but probably it was just fashion. Both her and her companion were decked out in U.S. style rapper gear so perhaps the glove was part of that look.
The ride to the Haitian border was uneventful, feeling like the build up some later drama. I had heard about how the landscape changed dramatically as you crossed the border. Supposedly the two halves of the island of Hispanola are a study in contrasts, with the Dominican Republic being fertile, forested and prosperous, while poor environmental management has left the Haitian side barren, denuded of all vegetation, and desperately poor. The border itself is supposedly a mass of refugees. One Dominican resident had told me he found the border so intimidating and desperate that he turned back.
Considering all the hype the border crossing was anti-climactic. The final stretch of travel on the Dominican Republic side, through Monte Cristi in the north-west of the country, was through the most arid and poor country I had seen in the Dominican Republic. We passed through one dusty little town after another, each apparently devoid of life. Arrival at the border was a relief. Finally there was a little activity. The guards dismounted; the conductor came down the bus collecting passports; soldiers lounged sleepily around; a man sold ices that he scrapped from a large block and doused in brightly colored syrup. After a few minutes wait the bus began creeping through the archway that marked the end of the Dominican republic.
We passed a final Brugal rum sponsored rubbish bin, and Haiti instantly became recognizable. Beyond the rubbish bin was a bridge, and as the bus crossed the river below was revealed to be crowded with Haitian women busily washing colorful piles of clothes. The road ended and the bus lurched into a dusty field, zigzagging slowly around rocks and tree roots. There were no crowds of refugees. Instead there were people busy loading carts of firewood and pushing them by hand across the field and further into Haiti. A few people lounged asleep on the seats of motorcycles. Food was being prepared in a makeshift open air kitchen. Suddenly there were no white people. There were not even any light colored black people.
Crossing the Haitian border. . .
The dramatic disappearance of the road turned out to be short lived. The road reappeared on the other side of the field, this time beside a Haitian immigration post. An immigration officer boarded the bus and returned my passport, now containing a Haitian entry stamp. A beggar saw me and began standing below my seat and banging on the window. Another beggar saw him and started to come over. Before the second beggar could reach the bus we were once again on our way. It had all been slightly anti-climactic. My only anxiety involved what had happened to the guards. They were nowhere to be seen. Putting armed guards on a Haiti bus service, only to have them abandon the bus at the Haitian border, is the opposite of reassuring.
As we drove into Haiti I found it not to be the contrast to the Dominican Republic I had been expected. I did not see the deforested hillsides I had heard so much about. There appeared to be plenty of vegetation, or at least no less than in Monte Cristi. The road was no worse than in the Dominican Republic, and perhaps a little better than that in Monte Cristi. The biggest contrast with the Dominican Republic was probably the sheer number of people. Where the roads in Monte Cristi had appeared deserted, in Haiti they were lined with people. Women walked beside the road carrying plastic containers of water. Open-air roadside shops appeared at regular intervals, all selling an identical range of merchandise (biscuits, drinking water, rum – Barbancourt and Barcelo – and little else). Every stream or river was full of people washing clothes or bathing. The quality of housing was worse than the Dominican Republic. Few houses were painted, and none of the buildings looked finished. People looked poor but well fed. Children occasionally ran out of houses to wave at the bus. We passed a couple of UN camps and the soldiers standing guard on the sentry towers also waved. The daily passage of the Caribbe Tours bus was an event.
Arrival in Cap-Haitien
The drive from the border to Cap-Haitien did not take long, perhaps only an hour or so. When it finally arrived, Cap-Haitien was small and dilapidated, but also quite pretty and dramatic. The center of the town comprised faded but still colorful French colonial houses set beside a large bay and against a backdrop of green hills. The buildings themselves were in the same style as the French Quarter of New Orleans. With a little smartening up the town could have looked very attractive.
The usual throng of hopeful taxi drivers, hotel touts and so on failed to descend on the bus when it finally stopped and disgorged its passengers. We were simply dumped on an empty street. I was carrying a couple of hotel names and addresses on a scrap of paper and had planned to take a taxi to whichever was closest. With not a taxi in sight my plan was dead in the water. The absence of street signs or numbers did nothing to help matters.
A guy came up to me: “Hey, blanc!Â Give me my money!” And so it came to pass that my first interaction with a Haitian was to be told I was white and thus existed to give him his money. Apparently what was mine was in fact his, or was soon to be. I spied a hotel, the Hotel Roi Christophe. I had seen the name before and it sounded expensive. On the other hand it was supposedly the only hotel in town with Internet. Dropping in there for a look was going to be better than standing on the street getting hassled for money.
The hotel turned out to be empty, and the manageress, Madame Joelle, was soon offering me a discounted rate. I did pop down the road after dropping off my luggage to check out the Hotel Freeman, recommended by a few travelers. There was no comparison. While a little more expensive, Hotel Roi Christophe was a beautiful old building set in an attractive garden, and had Internet, a bar, restaurant and so on. Hotel Freeman was a dirty little place with no amenities besides a downstairs shop, and many of the residents seemed to be renting rooms by the hour.
After checking in to Hotel Roi Christophe I went for a walk along the sea wall. I wanted to check out the area north of the old town, where supposedly a string of three French fortresses were located.
People mostly left me alone as I walked. The bum at the bus station had not been typical. Some parts of the harbor were full of smelly rubbish, but overall it was an attractive harbor, and got more attractive the further north I walked.
Walking out of town and along the coast I wandered through an area of newly built but slightly ramshackle concrete brick houses. Goats wandered between the houses. Everyone ignored me other than a few children who asked for change.
It did not take too long to reach the first fortress, and then the second one. The tide was too high to reach the last one though. After getting my shoes filled with water I ended up turning back.
By the time I returned to the hotel it was starting to get dark. The hotel sat empty and without power. In fact, though I did not quite realize it at the time, Port-au-Prince was in the midst of a crisis. A recent hurricane had destroyed the city of Gonaive and cut the road to Port-au-Prince. Cap-Haitien relies on Port-au-Prince for its fuel supply, and a shortage of fuel meant there was no electricity. It would be like this all week.
With no power I sat on the veranda, drank a Haitian brewed Guinness, and smoked a cigar. I tried getting into cigars while in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic vies with Cuba as the world’s leading cigar producer, so it seemed a shame to ignore cigars while there. Some are clearly better than others, but on the whole the attraction eludes me. They all taste like tobacco and make you feel sick. This cigar was evocatively named Orient Express and had a slightly peppery taste – though of course it still tasted mostly like tobacco. The barmaid picked up the attractively decorated cigar tube at the end of the night and put it in her handbag, assuming it was something important. It was returned to me the next day, in a memorable, very sweet, but somewhat useless, gesture. Incidentally the Haitian Guinness was around 7% and tasted much like the Malaysian version.
Eventually the hotel’s generator started up and the bar and restaurant became fully operational. The bar was not stocked with anything very exciting (Barbancourt 3 and 5 star were the only rums), but it made up for it in atmosphere. I tried a rum punch, which turned out to be an over-sweet mixture of Barbancourt rum, fruit juices, syrup and grenadine. After that I stuck to straight rum or beer. The other customers in the bar were a mixture of UN soldiers and local residents. There were not a lot of places to go out in Cap-Haitien. Beyond the bar lay little but darkness.