While in Haiti I spent around a week in Cap-Haitien. Cap-Haitien was the nicest part of my visit to Haiti, being more pleasant, relaxed and interesting than Port-au-Prince. I stayed in the atmospheric old Hotel Roi-Christophe, parts of which apparently date back to the 18th Century. There was a serious oil shortage during my visit, the result of the road to Port-au-Prince having been cut by the storms and floods that had all but destroyed the city of Gonaive. The combination of the oil shortage and the nearby humanitarian disaster lent the city an air of crisis. There was no electricity, and nightfall saw UN patrols rumble through pitch-black streets. The hotel bar was a rare oasis of light, drawing in aid workers who sat around drinking beers and planning sorties to Gonaive. Even that oasis of light tottered on the brink of being extinguished. With no fuel available in Cap-Haitien, the hotel manager was forced to drive to the Dominican Republic border just to buy fuel to keep things going for another couple of days.
Chilean UN soldiers attend mass
Visiting the Citadelle and Sans Souci
On my first full day in Cap-Haitien I took a bus to the town of Milo, located a little over an hour away, to see the famous Citadel and the palace of San Souci. The walk to the bus station took me through the center of Cap-Haitien. There were very few cars on the streets and almost no commercial activity. I was not sure how much the absence of cars was due to the fuel crisis and how much was the normal state of affairs. Although Cap-Haitien is Haiti’s second largest city it seemed a very sleepy little place – its commercial center remarkable for the absence of commerce. One of the main avenues was virtually blocked by a huge mound of smelly rubbish. Presumably this got cleared away on a semi-regular basis, but it seemed an odd way to use a main street, and was obviously unfortunate for those living nearby.
The bus station was near a large market, located across a small river just beyond the south end of the town center. Calling the place a bus station is generous, since it was really just a muddy, rubbish-strewn field that waiting busses shared with vendors of clothes, bags, and so on. I asked for the bus to Milo and was soon on the right bus and heading out of town. An old Haitian man sat beside me and we chatted a little in Spanish. Many people in Cap-Haitian speak some Spanish, far more so than in Port-au-Prince. The man beside me said he had learned it when he was a farmer working land near the border with the Dominican Republic. He had several relatives working in the Dominican republic.
The road to Milo was muddy and full of pot holes, but the fine and dry weather meant there were no dramas in getting there. Once again the bus was continuously passing people. Haiti is far more densely populated than the neighboring Dominican Republic. At Milo the bus stopped right outside the entrance to Sans Souci.
I bought a ticket, hired a guide, and started walking up the mountain. The guide tried to pull the typical stunt of English speaking mountain guides, negotiating a price for his services, then telling me that somebody else (unable to speak English) would be doing the actual guiding. I made him do the hike himself (I had only hired him because he was easy to communicate with) and to his credit he never complained about the long uphill slog.
San Souci was located immediately inside the main gate. To be honest there was not too much to see. Supposedly the complex once looked like Versailles, but an earthquake in the 19th Century left it in ruins. One or two classical statues sat among the ruined walls and lent the place a bit of atmosphere.
From Sans Souci we headed up a mountain path. It turned out to be a very long, hot and tiring hike. No tourists were around, and the only people we met were locals who lived on the mountain. You cannot actually see the Citadel from Sans Souci since a mountain ridge blocks the way. The hike takes you across that ridge and then up to the Citadel itself. The distance is something like 7 km, almost all of it uphill.
It took a long time to get there, but the Citadel was rewarding. The Citadel is a simply huge castle with a dramatic mountain-top location, surrounded by tropical forest, mountains, and commanding views over the whole of northern Haiti. The walls are massively thick, and still bristling with dozens of cannons – many of them captured from the French. There is no wonder the place was never attacked, though I wondered about the logic of situating such a massive fortress in such an impregnable location. In fact the dozens of canons hauled up here had only ever been able to fire into the jungle. The coast, from which any threat would presumably have come, was surely well out of range. The major roads also seemed to be kilometers away and were probably difficult to fire on. Even San Souci itself, which the fortress was supposedly built to protect, was out of line of sight of the fortress’s batteries. Impressive as the place was, it had the air of a massive folly.
There was a museum inside the fortress containing a few personal items of King Christophe, the fort’s builder. The museum was locked though, with its staff gathered outside playing cards. Apparently the door could be unlocked for US$10, though my guide was evasive about whether this was because a ticket cost US$10 or because the staff were supplementing their salaries by extorting money from visitors. I decided not to bother with it.
We headed back down the hill, the walk down being far easier than the walk up had been. On the way down the guide talked incessantly about how the fee I had paid him earlier in fact went entirely to the park, and therefore a tip would be his only chance of making money on the day’s activities. He also said my decision to walk up rather than hire horses for the pair of us meant I would have missed the last bus back to Cap-Haitien, making it necessary to organize a motorcycle taxi.
Back in Milo he started talking with moto-taxi drivers, named an outrageous sum, and asked me to give the money to him rather than the driver. I thanked him and wandered off through the little town to look for a bus. He followed me, still negotiating with various moto-taxi drivers. Of course there were buses back to Cap-Haitien, though they waited at the other end of town rather than immediately outside San Souci. The guide ran ahead of me to the bus, talked with the driver, then came back saying this was the last bus to Cap-Haitien for the day, but it was full up and I could sit with the driver in the cab for roughly 20 times the fare I had paid to get from Cap-Haitien to Milo – the money to be paid to him rather than the driver. I went to talk with the driver myself. Surprisingly the driver spoke fluent English, having worked in the United States for years, and I got a ride back for the standard fare. It was the usual story of the people you hire to make your life easier doing their best to scam you.
Haiti has very cool painted wall advertisements
Some Racist Unpleasantness
Driving back into Cap-Haitien the bus was stopped by Haitian police wanting to know what I was doing on board. They thought the driver must have made an unscheduled run to the Dominican border to pick me up. I do not think it was an attempt to shake the driver down or anything since they seemed very jovial and waved him on his way as soon as he explained. I guess not many tourists ride the local buses.
When was the last time you felt tout tan?
From the bus station I took a different route back to the hotel, this time wandering past the busy market. I did not go into the market itself but even the street outside was crowded with thongs of people. I walked through the crowds, assuming there would be a second bridge somewhere north of the one I had used earlier. After a few blocks the crowds began to thin, and as I walked through an intersection I could see that on both sides the water was getting closer and I was on a tapering peninsula. I had not yet passed a bridge and I started thinking about retracing my steps. I stopped for a moment, wondering if I should change direction and walk a block to the edge of the water to check for a bridge.
Right around that time a young Haitian guy walked up behind me and expelled a large glob of snot onto my little backpack. Everybody in the street laughed, many of them pointing, and some of the children curled up into little balls of mirth. The Haitian guy raised a fist in a sort of celebratory gesture and turned back towards the crowd. Obviously what had just happened was unpleasant, but somehow it did not bother me too much. Getting angry was not going to be productive. The crowd seemed to be against me, and my primitive attempts at communication were not going to change that. Anyway, I was looking for a bridge.
I don’t think I showed any reaction to what had just happened. I just started walking again, this time towards the water. The water was only a few steps away, and once at the water’s edge I could see that there was no bridge other than the one I had used earlier in the day. I was going to have to walk back the way I had come. Given the unfriendly nature of the crowd that was not such an attractive proposition, but I doubted much would happen beyond more abuse and sniggers, and possibly not even that. Then I noticed a boatman waving to me down below. He said he could take me across for some nominal sum. The water was dismal, stinking of sewerage and covered in floating rubbish. The boatman’s craft was equally miserable, flooded with water and apparently barely managing to stay afloat. I clambered down into the rickety boat, and with a few strokes of the oars I was on the other side of the water.
Though brief, crossing the dirty little river was oddly cleansing. Whatever anger I had felt at what had just happened was replaced by indifference. Haiti was not my country, I had no particular desire to fit in or be accepted there. If Haitians wanted to treat white tourists with racist contempt they were welcome to do so. Obviously on one level they found it amusing to behave like this, but ultimately it seemed another way of making their home miserable, and surely the place had enough misery already without creating more. In any case, they were stuck here whereas I would be gone in a few days, so what did I care about how they treated foreigners? It was reminiscent of the pile of rubbish blocking the main road I had seen earlier, undesirable and surely unnecessary, but not my problem. That sounds mildly spiteful, but also seemed to be the truth of the matter.
I wandered back to the hotel.
Realistic toilet art, so much better than silhouettes, top hats, etc.
Kicking around Cap Haitien
Much of the rest of the week was spent lounging around the hotel waiting for the power to come on, but I also found plenty of time for wandering around the town.
I had wanted to find the house where Antoine Peychaud lived before emigrating to New Orleans and inventing his famous bitters. However, since nobody knew anything about the Peychauds I had no luck with this. Who knows? Maybe one of the attractive old houses I photographed is the house?
One of the most interesting places in Cap-Haitien is the central market. The market is housed in a large building made of decorated iron. Walking into the attractive iron building, there is an odd contrast between the bustling thongs of people and the scarcity of merchandise. Many vendors sell literally a single product, perhaps spaghetti, of a single brand, and in a single packet size. Moreover, they often appear to have only a dozen or so packets on offer. Probably half or more of the meat vendors did not even sell meat as such, instead being specialized vendors of goat hooves or goat skins (given that the skins were roughly chopped rather than whole I assume they were being sold as food). There was none of the opulence of Asian markets, where you wander past huge mounds of sharks fin, ginseng, and other luxuries. Some of the best stocked stalls were those selling lurid colored bottles of clairins, medicines, and other potions, all surely of dubious quality. The squalor was incredible. The meat was literally black with flies, and as they periodically swarmed up and buzzed around it was natural to worry that you would swallow one if you opened your mouth. The seafood was surely a massive health hazard, being heaped into little piles (each one a unit of measurement), then placed on dusty ground mats where it attracted the attention of far more flies than people. There was none of the rudimentary refrigeration you see in markets in tropical parts of Asia, where seafood is often displayed on beds of ice, and automatic fly whisks twirl over the meat.
Another spot worth visiting is the northernmost of the string of forts guarding the harbor. The fort is only accessible at low tide, and it took me two attempts to reach it. It was the largest of the forts, and one of the ruined buildings (possibly the chapel) appeared to still be being used for religious purposes. There were burn marks on the floor from bonfires, designs had been painted on the walls, and a sort of makeshift alter had been set up. I guessed it was used for voodoo ceremonies of some sort. The place was empty except for goats and a fisherman or two.
Originally I had planned to try and visit the famous Island of Tortuga. It is a fair distance from Cap Haitien though, and so far as I know there is really nothing to see there. Given all the problems Haiti was having I ditched the idea. Going by road would have taken at least a couple of days and been a little dangerous, and going by air was going to be very expensive – if possible given the shortage of fuel.
I didn’t make it to Tortuga, but surrender that booty anyhow!
General observations about Haiti
One annoying thing about Haiti is people’s sensitivity to photography. Taking my camera out was sometimes enough to practically cause the street to freeze. People would stop in their tracks to avoid being in shot, and maybe shout out to people in shot to get out of the way. Young guys would come up and tell me to put my camera away, asking me what I was doing in Haiti anyway. On the way back from the beach with the missionary film crew an incident occurred when one of their party took an impromptu snap of a guy on a motorbike with Cap-Haitien in the background. The guy and his several friends jumped off their bikes and went ballistic. The Haitian interpreter/guide who was accompanying the film crew may have done well to avert violence. Because of this I ended up being very restrained with the camera, and avoided taking photos in which people were anywhere near the foreground.
If you are white then having people shout ‘blanc’ at you all the time will quickly get old. Obviously I was reminded of the cries of ‘laowai’ that westerners in China have to deal with. I asked Haitians whether the constant use of ‘blanc’ was considered rude, and they said it basically depends. Obviously you cannot judge these things well without speaking the language and understanding the culture. However, if you ever feel offended by the way somebody addresses you using this dubious tag there is a fair chance your feelings are not unreasonable.
Unemployment in Haiti is massive, but Haitians with jobs really try hard. The staff in the hotels and guesthouses I visited were all exceptionally pleasant and helpful. I felt there was a noticeable contrast with the Dominican Republic, where attitudes can often be indifferent or lethargic. Speaking with staff it was alarming how many claimed to hate their job yet be very lucky to have it. Changing jobs seemed a remote possibility for most people I spoke to.
Haitians also tend to be very polite and a little formal. Even beggars and vendors of tourist souvenirs queue up and patiently wait their turn to harass you, saying something like “Hello, my name is Ghislaine. I sell boxes. After Mr. Agwe has finished talking with you, you speak to me, OK?” In China they just go ahead and push their box in your face, shouting something like “Good box!” Mind you, in China the tourist’s ordeal, while less pleasant, is over relatively quickly. In Haiti you can end up getting detained for ages if you are not careful. I felt sorry for the souvenir vendors though. During my stay in Haiti I met only one other tourist, so the life of a souvenir vendor was surely not easy.
Money in Haiti is peculiar. The stuff is so filthy that it really gives you a fright. Occasionally you get a crisp, new note, but mostly you fumble around with damp wads of blackened bills, often worn so thin it takes the hand of a surgeon to keep them in one piece during handling. The really odd thing though is how people talk about sums of money. The official currency is called the Gourde, and so far as I know it has always been called this. However, Haitians typically talk in ‘Haitian Dollars’, where a Haitian dollar is equivalent to five Gourde. I was told this practice dates back to a time when five Gourde was roughly equivalent to one US Dollar. It becomes very confusing since you negotiate a price verbally, then hand over bills totaling a completely different sum. Asking Haitians to simplify things by just telling you the price in gourde tends to be counterproductive. They are liable to angrily demand that you pay Haitian dollars, saying they do not want to be paid in gourde, only to happily smile as you hand over a wad of gourde.
Security and Cap Haitien at Night
There is no street lighting in Cap Haitien, so if you venture out at night you have to take real care not to fall into one of the many holes in the road. Of course there is nowhere much to go at night. The main options are hotel bars and restaurants. The Hotel Roi Christophe has a nice little bar that sometimes gets quite busy, and they have plans to set up a larger garden bar beside the hotel. Hotel Mt. Joli has a terrace bar and restaurant with great views. There are also a couple of local restaurants set beside the harbor. One of these restaurants seems to be dying a quiet death, and I walked in to find no customers and only one dish available. The other one (called something like Kaya) has a nice outdoors seating area, and serves good Haitian food to a mix of Haitians and foreigners. Despite the lack of entertainment options the streets have a fair number of people in them. The UN step up their patrols at night time and also put checkpoints on some of the larger intersections.
I went out walking at night three times during my stay. The first time I went out with my laptop looking for somewhere to send an urgent e-mail. I did not run into any problems, but the fact I was given a lift home by the manageress of the hotel wound up in I visited suggested my adventure had not been a good idea. Another time I went out for dinner alone because I was bored with the hotel food. The cries of ‘blanc’ that accompanied me wherever I went took on a slightly astonished edge at nighttime, with people not realizing I was white until I passed them. Another night I went out for dinner with the missionary film crew, and walking around in a group we seemed perfectly safe.
The night I went out with the film crew there was a little drama as we got back to the hotel and realized two of our group had somehow not made it. We did not know they had stopped to check out the voodoo drummers in one of the alleyways. Everybody decided to mount a search. On account of it being late it was decided that we should dispose of valuables like wallets and cameras before going back into the streets, and so a large pile of booty was entrusted to one of our party, who was to wait back at the hotel. For some odd reason, this individual decided to wait on the street outside the hotel rather than in the hotel. Therefore, after a successful search and rescue operation, we returned to find a lone white guy standing nervously in the dark street, amazingly still in possession of our valuables, and very relieved to see us. Why he did not wait for us inside the hotel I have no idea.
In any case, the main danger in wandering around Cap-Haitien at night is undoubtedly falling down a hole and breaking a leg. I imagine getting mugged or even kidnapped is also a possibility, but I was told Cap Haitien was much safer in this respect than Port-au-Prince.
Security can’t be too bad if a child can sit on the street with a laptop to sneakily use the hotel wireless Internet
Jacques, the triads, and failed voodoo
I made some efforts to see a voodoo ceremony. Basically I did not manage it, though I did briefly drop past a voodoo drum circle happening in an alleyway close to the hotel. There was not much to see there beyond a bunch of guys sitting around and beating out rhythms. Maybe it livened up later on.
My efforts to see a full-scale voodoo ceremony got derailed partly by an elderly Quebecan called Jacques. A time leach who demanded perpetual babysitting, and with an appearance unfortunately close to a bagman, Jacques was nevertheless quite interesting. He arrived at the Hotel Roi Christophe the day after I did, having traveled to Cap-Haitien through Gonaive, taking three days to make a trip that was previously a half day drive. In talking about his trip he confirmed what everyone else was saying, namely that the situation in Gonaives was far worse than reported in the media.
Jacques had previously lived in Haiti for many years, and had just returned with a plan to establish an orphanage. He wanted to live out his last years ‘surrounded by children’. Since he had no money to fund this he planned to import and sell simple solar-powered cookers (low-tech models that heat food simply by reflecting and concentrating the rays of the sun). The plan sounded like it had a hole or two, and even if it worked I wondered what would happen to his orphans after he died. Haiti is full of elderly men running private orphanages. I met two more such guys in Port-au-Prince, both of whom complained that the recent food price inflation had left them barely able to keep feeding their charges.
In any case, with an interest in religion and many years spent living in Haiti, Jacques seemed to know a lot about voodoo. Moreover, after spending years away he said he was also interested in seeing a ceremony. He told me he would make inquiries about where a voodoo ceremony might be held. Progress was slow though, and it gradually became apparent that his real interest in me stemmed from his belief that I could help him find a factory in China to produce his solar cookers cheaply. Maybe I was also an excuse for him to hang around the hotel without embarrassment. He left the hotel for cheaper lodgings after a day or two, but kept coming back to hang around and chat, politely refusing any service besides endless free glasses of water, and constantly reminding the hotel staff that he would repay their kindness by including them in his will.
Jacque’s stories about himself became increasingly bizarre. As he started spinning tales of fleeing Quebec because some unspecified triad realized he ‘knew too much’ (he said he had previously been a journalist and still wrote the occasional story), I began to suspect his professed knowledge of voodoo was also imaginary. When I questioned him about the details of his triad story he was unsure what country the triad came from, much less which triad it was. Far from knowing too much, Jacque seemed rather clueless. The ‘attempt on his life’ happened while disembarking from a bus. He was shoved to the kerb by a young Asian guy he thought he recognized as a member of a triad he had unearthed in his neighborhood. It sounded like he had encountered a normal young Chinese guy in a hurry; triads are far more polite.
Jacques twice made appointments to meet up so that we could head out to Milo to make inquiries regarding voodoo. The first appointment was canceled when he made other plans. He turned up for the second appointment but seemed in no hurry to actually leave the hotel, and after dawdling until it was getting too late he announced that he had organized a ‘business meeting’ with somebody who knew about the solar cookers. The business meeting was to be held in the hotel at some unspecified time that afternoon – this lack of any organization apparently being the ‘Haitian way’. Since the time was unspecified I politely suggested that maybe I would quickly head up to the last fort on the headland north of town (the tide being out I would be able to get there), and with luck be back in time for his meeting. Jacques threw a fit when I apologized and took my leave. He swore that my refusal to respect the ‘Haitian way’ would prevent me from ‘succeeding in Haiti’, and then he stormed out of the hotel. Given that Jacques found somewhere else to be even faster than I did, the business meeting was presumably an imaginary one.
So that was the end of Jacques. Somebody else, not realizing we were already acquainted, happened to introduce Jacques to me a couple of days later. Jacques was still too angry to speak with me, demanding I apologize for insulting him, and reminding me that I was missing out on millions of dollars now he had decided to exclude me from his solar cookers scheme.
The Village People and Gonaive
I spent some time hanging around with a missionary film crew, in Haiti to film a documentary on a foreign funded school. I dubbed them the Village People, as mentioned earlier. They were an odd group, and very nearly set off to Gonaive to film the situation there for inclusion in their documentary. Their enthusiasm was admirable, but watching them plan their expedition over dinner was excruciating.
The plan was to hire a tap-tap, pack “a couple of bags of rice” to divvy up among the thousands of starving and homeless people they hoped to encounter, then head into the disaster area to gather footage. It was to be a simple day trip, with their long-suffering Haitian translator providing security, and hopefully negotiating some sort of ‘food for footage’ arrangement with the disaster victims. There were creative jokes about flood victims. Finishing their food, one of the Village People thoughtfully offered what was left on their plate to the translator. He politely declined. I cringed. Mostly the translator sat and listened, quietly agreeing to everything that was proposed, and occasionally interrupting to clarify minor operational details – such as the location of Gonaive. I had a feeling that if they did not figure out for themselves that the plan was madness he was simply not going to show up for work in the morning.
In the end I interrupted to say that going to Gonaive purely to film, carrying next to nothing in the way of relief supplies, and expecting a single unarmed Haitian to protect them, was pure craziness and very unfair to the translator. The only way to go to Gonaive safely would be to ask the UN for permission to piggy-back on an existing convoy, and even if that could be arranged it would not be a day trip. Perhaps they already realized their plan was silly and were waiting for somebody to tell them so, for after I spoke and the translator enthusiastically agreed, the whole Gonaive plan was almost instantaneously forgotten.
New Zealand in Cap-Haitien
The day before I left Cap-Haitien the Alabaman sexologist told me she had met a New Zealander in the street, a long term resident of Cap-Haitien who had previously been a nurse and was now working with one of the churches as a sort of missionary. The Alabaman sexologist had mentioned to her that another New Zealander was staying in her hotel, and so I was invited to visit the New Zealand missionary before leaving town. Perhaps it was more of an instruction than an invitation. Supposedly I was the first New Zealander to visit Cap-Haitien in 30 years, and therefore my presence was requested rather urgently. The first New Zealander to visit Cap-Haitien in 30 years part does not sound quite plausible, but when I like the sound of something I see no reason not to repeat it.
Just before leaving for the airport, I tracked the New Zealand missionary down at her church. It turned out she was not just from New Zealand, but from Omaru, my father’s home town. Although things were a little rushed, the missionary and I had an interesting conversation. She had originally come to Haiti to work as a nurse, and had stayed on as a missionary. Before coming to Haiti she had worked in Vietnam, and was among the last to leave Saigon as it fell to the communists. After 30 years in Haiti, she obviously knew more about the place than most foreigners. She spoke fluent Creole, still with a strong New Zealand accent.
I asked her a bit about voodoo, which she very much equated with evil. One of the special things about Haiti is that you can have conversations containing sentences like “The forces of Satanism are very strong in this country” and take it all very seriously. I don’t know why, but that is just the way it is.
She saw most voodoo as being focused on the negative. I was interested in what voodoo was really about. Obviously the black magic receives all of the attention, but I thought maybe there was a larger but overlooked positive aspect to the whole thing. An analogous example could be something like Fengshui, which is mostly invoked to improve people’s lives, and almost universally perceived as positive, yet still occasionally employed for malicious purposes. Incidentally, every Haitian who I questioned about voodoo maintained that it was devil worship and they did not believe in it. Regardless of what exactly is going on (e.g. Haitians who claim not to practice voodoo could be lying), there seems to be an amazing consistency in voiced opinions of voodoo. The New Zealand missionary saw the influential voodoo priests as obstructing efforts by churches to improve conditions in Haiti, mostly because they saw the churches as threatening their own influence. She also said there was no organized charity or development work being done by voodoo practitioners, perhaps partly because the religion is not very organized. I found that interesting, because most religions seem to get involved in charity on some level, and if voodoo leaders have no involvement in charity it seems peculiar.
There was less time to talk than I would have liked. As I left for the airport, she warned me not to walk around Port-au-Prince by myself, but instead to hire a reliable car and driver for the day and see the sights that way. She said that even after living in Haiti for 30 years she would never wander around Port-au-Prince without organized transportation and a local guide for protection. In the end I walked around by myself without incident, but her advice was probably sound.