HAITI – AND WHY IT DOESN’T SHOW UP ON GUIDEBOOKS
The flight from Santiago de Cuba to Haiti is predictably not on time. It is in fact, four hours late. You have to admire Cuban consistency. Upon landing and getting out of customs in orderly and rapid fashion, it was out to the taxi stands. The usual hassle ensues. They give you a vertical assessment (taking care to notice haircut, clothing, watch, thickness of wallet, and baggage) – which is essentially a “dollar scan” – and then pronounce a price. It is mostly double what they hope to get. I in turn announce the price I expect to pay.
Nearby cab drivers get bug eyed, point at me with glee, and bust half their buttons with laughter. They slap each other on the back and point again. The Yankee expects to pay what? You say “too much” anyway. They drop the price $5. You say “still too much.” They say “this is the price” (sometimes falling back on some phantom association and their very impressive official Taxi Driver Badges for uplifted prices). Or they try some other higher authority gambit to stay firm in their pricing. You walk. They lower the price again. Rinse, and repeat. Eventually you settle on a much lower number and depart.
It is immediately clear the capitol of Port au Prince is no place to linger. The streets are torn up with culverts, earthquake and hurricane cracks, and drainage ditches. It is dusty. Filled with rubble. Cascades of concrete block and disheveled rusted rebar are everywhere. The streets are littered with abandoned vehicles and piles of rubbish. Pockets of barb wired, high-fence quality villas punctuate the poverty in no logical order. Anything worth protecting is walled off with a barbed razor wire topping, and has a solid 6-foot tall movable driveway gate. Traffic moves at perhaps 10 mph. The street addresses are completely out of sequence. What is mostly evident is the lack of consistent color. This is like a war zone housing project within a moonscape.
Port au Prince is one of the few places on the planet that does not evoke my curiosity. I know I will be missing something, and those who have spent additional time here will be quick to point it out to me later. Still, a quick decision is made to leave early the next morning for Cap Haitien, six hours to the north. In the meantime, my hostess – a well educated and erudite foreign woman with a modern car and a fastidious sense of cleanliness – arranges dinner for me by the pool.
I am surprised to be fed beer, tomatoes, onions, salad, rice, and a delicious leg of chicken with attached thigh for about $10 US. It is juicy, and so different than the dry Cuban chicken I have become accustomed to. I am also surprised to get reliable in-room internet service for the first time on the journey, and use the opportunity to post pix and a brief narrative to Facebook if not this blog. Sleep arrives easily, but with a sense I am going to miss a lot in this country due to the conditions I have witnessed outside my ideal little bunker and the ambitious reach of this journey as it extends far beyond poor Haiti.
On the way to the bus station, it is clear there are many people in Port au Prince without jobs or a reason for being. I am not sure how they survive. United Nations’ efforts here are notoriously inefficient. As always visitors can easily witness bags of rice and beans being sold out of shacks for cash, rather than being distributed for free to those most in need of nutrition. On this particular day, February 7th, a new President (Jovenel Moïse) is being inaugurated. He is a banana farmer from the northern regional capitol of Cap Haitian – my intended destination – and has given much hope to the country on the street level that something will be done about the poverty and rampant corruption and accompanying waste that is endemic within Haiti.
Along the tortured path of the six-hour journey northbound through erratic traffic, broken roads, dirt and gravel redirects, and choking pollution I had the opportunity to speak with a French ex-pat living in Florida and traveling the world in pursuit of rare watches. His name was Simon. I was not sure how seriously to take him, despite his fascinating take on things. He mentioned with some credibility that Haiti was full of gold (being mined by Canadians) and uranium (being mined by Americans) but the wealth that resulted was not even remotely distributed evenly.
He also mentioned that the earthquake that took Haiti down to 4th World Country status 7 years previous was caused by American fracking in the search for oil in the Caribbean. I promised Simon to look this up on the internet, but had no real intention of following through. If any part of this latter statement of his was true, the American military would have used it years earlier against North Korea, Cuba, China, Russia, Libya, and countless other targets.
It is one of the ironies of international travel that this particular leg of the journey proves to be the only one of 51 days on the road where the trip began and ended almost exactly on time. How this could be predicted, given the nature of Haiti’s broken infrastructure and social fabric, is beyond my powers of estimation.
This unfortunate west third of the Isle of Hispanola first discovered by Columbus 525 years ago is fascinating in the same way that watching a slow-motion Russian dashboard video of two cars about to take out a pedestrian is. The roads are pockmarked, overrun by flood debris, and the traffic is choked with motorcycles and cars. You often can’t see them due to the spider webbed windows of your own vehicle. You can often look through the floorboards to the road below, however. In a word, the situation is mostly chaotic.
Upon arrival, my hotel in Cap Haiten had no air conditioning, and was next to the noisy diesel electric generator (which still resulted in power outages). Unlike the Air B&B promises online, it also had no sink, no shower knobs, no hot water, and no Wi-fi. One week out from Seattle, I've had one night of internet access. I do my best to catch up when the airwaves allow it, on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Beyond her outright online lies, the proprietess also had the gall to ask for more money than any hostel or Air B&B I had visited over six days in Cuba. As it works out, Haiti is a very expensive country, considering what you get in exchange for your payments.
I feel truly sorry for these folks. It is as if they have committed some heinous past-life crime, and are tied to this forlorn place as a means of absolution. They are trapped in a pit of food shortages, boggle-the-mind traffic, fecal and oil-slick pollution, plastic bottles stacked up to 18 inches high along most streets and roadways, endless trash heaps, disgusting water, and a lack of purpose and opportunity. The people are wonderful, but are so desperate they are always trying to take advantage of visitors -- and especially white people. There is a given assumption we somehow owe them money, are rich (which of course can be a very relative term) and must provide handouts whenever asked. It is my hope that new President Jovenel Moise (inaugurated during this, my second day in-country) will bring reform and some measure of prosperity to one of the poorest countries on earth.
I wander the streets inauguration night, with a couple fellow guests from my hotel, and a local from the laborers’ union who is charged with finding me means of transport to the only thing worth visiting in Northern Haiti – The Citadel of King Henri Christophe. My temporary handler is named Miguel. He amuses me. He is half my size, but insists on protecting me from thugs real and imagined during our walkabout to see the locals celebrate one of their own as the new President. Most locals, viewing me with odd glances, ask me why in the world am I here?
Miguel has a bit of an interesting history. Which kept changing over the course of the evening. He speaks seven languages and a couple of dialects: Haitian, Filipino, Portugese, French, Creole, Spanish, Jamaican, Papiamento, and English. As we wander and get to know each other a bit better, he allows how he had spent 7 years from 1993 on in Rykers Island, New York, and then Buffalo in a “state guest house” for selling drugs. I feared him not. It was very clear he was trying to impress me with how tough and how reliable he was. And so it went for the evening.
For whatever reason, his reliability did not carry over to the next morning. Miguel’s designated driver for The Citadel did not show. I had to arrange for my own transportation, but in the meantime managed to cut some of the cost down. Looked at realistically, getting a new driver gives me a whole new chance to make different connections and be attached to a different set of potential helpers who might move the journey forward when needed.
The Citadel is a 1982 UNESCO World Heritage Site almost without peer. It is the largest fortress in the western Hemisphere, and may be the most indomitable. It was built from 1806 to approximately 1820 through the efforts of 20,000 laborers. It is located high on a mountaintop set back far enough from the coast to be out of range of naval artillery. Fresh from establishing independence two years previously, the newly emancipated black Haitians decided they would always have a bastion to retreat to should the French ever return. Theirs was the only successful rebellion carried out against colonial powers by slaves, and resulted in the first independent nation of Latin America or the Caribbean.
The massive redoubt (Citadelle Laferriere) is gained after a 45-minute drive from Cap Haitien (17 miles away) to Sans Souci Palace. This is where Haiti’s original northern ruler – King Henri Christophe – kept his peacetime living quarters and carried out the administrative functions of his new government. From there, visitors can either be driven by motorcycle up a very steep cobble stoned road at a cost of about $15 each, or walk the 3.5 miles on their own. Once at an open parking lot high above (expect to be assaulted by vendors selling souvenirs), there are only two ways up. You can walk the remaining 1.5 miles, or ride a horse, again at a cost of about $15.
If you do not appear to be in shape, the horsemen will follow you anyway, betting you will relent and demand their services eventually due to the steep pitch of the climb, the heat, and the humidity. I later learned that the elevation of Bonnet a L ‘Eveque Mountain is 3000 feet above sea level – a relatively low ceiling. However, following the approach walk I find myself dehydrated, dizzy, and temporarily spent.
No 19th century army ever assembled would ever be able to realistically capture The Citadel. It has many defensive outposts on the way up, that can serve to ambush or delay enemy initiatives. Upon arrival, the walls are massive. They are about 130 feet high in places, 15 feet thick, and have very few ground-level entry points. The fortress is over 108,000 square feet in area. All points of approach are commanded by captured French, Spanish and Italian cannons (over 365 were located at the Citadel, and many remain on display today). The most imposing collection of cannonballs I have ever seen also remains stockpiled inside the main gates, awaiting a French return invasion that never occurred.
The Citadel’s architecture is meant to deflect attack (including from cannon balls) through its oddly angled walls and abutments. As a result, it appears like the prow of a massive ship for most of the approach on the single road/path leading to the fortress. As you make numerous turns winding up to the base however, it takes on different appearances altogether. At many turns along the path it looks like the massive keep of a Norman Castle in 11th Century England.
Inside is housing for 2000 regular troops (5000 in time of war, and provisions to last them a year), officer’s quarters, and residential quarters for the King and his family. There are also several large cisterns, a massive powder room, a bakery, a dungeon, a central plaza, bathing and dining facilities, and numerous storerooms to stockpile items for anticipated sieges. Somewhere within the central courtyard, King Henri is buried in a secret hiding place after having committed suicide following a stroke.
It is difficult to imagine the labor that went into this massive affirmation of “Never Again!” high up on the mountain top. Nothing could have been easy, between hauling heavy stone, mortar, water, food, provisions for workers, and eventually munitions and cannon up the steep 5-mile pathway. In many cases, dressed stone was mortared directly to a rocky base capping the mountain. The mortar itself was special, using a mixture including quicklime, molasses, and the blood of local cows and goats. Cows’ hooves were cooked for their glue and added to the mix to give the mortar added strength and bonding power.
After a quick cab ride back to town, the overwhelming perception that there is nothing else to do here set in. With military decisiveness, I set out to leave immediately. The taxi driver and hotel staff find me the quickest way out of town. Numerous competing sets of directions are provided, of where to go and how to get there. Confusion sets in. Everybody is contradicting each other. Finally, one of the more quiet and pious hotel employees mentions he will go with me to the bus station, so that I can head for the Dominican Republic border.
The so-called bus station is merely a crowded parking lot for 15 passenger vans, heading in and out of town. All of them compete for my ride, assuming they can take advantage of the language differential (largely French) to confuse me about bus or taxi rates. I am on the verge of paying 4x what other passengers traveling to a town an hour away would pay, when a scornful young man who had previously lived in Chicago for two years came up to my assistance. After lecturing the others on their dishonesty, he directed me to a van headed the right direction, made sure I paid the local fare only, and obtained for me the uncrowded front seat. I am grateful, but only too happy to leave Cap Haitien.
One final episode took place prior to crossing the border. The town I am supposed to be dropped off, is somehow bypassed. Nobody told the driver (who spoke only French) I was to be dropped off early. Next thing I know, we are at the border crossing. I am not ready for this. At least six Haitians are grabbing for my bags and headed in opposite directions. You have to be very firm and decisive with them at this point. Otherwise you never see your personal effects again. Once more, I receive contradictory estimations of what can be done to cross. And what do I do then? This is outside my planning matrix. Several would-be handlers try to tell me at 4 pm that the border is closed, and grab my bags once again to take me to their cousin’s hotel for the night … and then to their brother’s restaurant … and then to their friend’s this and that for …
At the last minute, a powerfully built young man who speaks English walked up to me. He has command authority presence. The others automatically drop my bags, and clear away from him. He asks me to follow him, which prompts puzzlement and a bit of distrust initially. My thoughts were: “Here comes another strongman, throwing his weight around again. This will cost more than the usual fleecing even.” He advises that the border is not closed, but that we must hurry.
It works out that he is an off-duty policeman, and somewhat embarrassed by the pushing and grabbing and low-rent behavior and misdirection exhibited by his countrymen. He walks me through the final stages of passport exit stamp in Haiti, border inspection, payment of fees, a second passport inspection for entry into the DR, and then personal accompaniment to the local bus station ten minutes away. From there, I am directed to Santiago, about four and one-half hours distant. The bus leaves half an hour later. I have never been so happy to leave a country, with the exception of Venezuela six years previously.