Haiti is very much what one is led to expect and more. It’s full of bustle and hassle, very vibrant and filthy. There are heaps of garbage lining the roads and the streams and culverts resemble plastic glaciers. And there's been an earthquake in 2010, which affected the country catastrophically, with many buildings damaged or destroyed. Haiti's government estimated the death toll to be 230,000. Much remains in a state of disrepair. Haiti carries the unenviable title of poorest country in the western hemisphere and illiteracy runs at 50%. Not many can afford school, which is ostensibly free, but isn’t, as there are nowhere near enough government schools. Even foreign aid for education is taxed.
Haiti is the western half of the island of Hispaniola (The Spanish Isle), which was 'discovered' by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
There are six of us on our Haiti tour. A very much retired married couple who have already been everywhere, two married (of course) Mancunian men and a lady from California who has also already been everywhere. They all seem relatively normal and good company. I've flown in from the Bahamas, via Miami.
The city of Port-au-Prince grew up on the Gulf of Gonâve which is a natural harbour, making it very inviting to the French colonists. The surrounding hills create an amphitheatre with the ever expanding city spilling down into the water. commercial districts are near the sea, while residential neighborhoods are located on the hills above, giving way to spreading slums. Nearly half of the country's population lives here. The roads are congested, none of the traffic lights work and everything is coated in dust. Every other building is still under construction or has been left crumbling in the aftermath of the earthquake. This includes the famous gingerbread houses with their pointy gables. ornate decoration and latticework
We have lunch at the famous Hotel Oloffson, built in the same latticed brown wood sprinkled with white style. It manifested as the fictional Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene's The Comedians. There’s a room with a plaque on it. to commemorate where he stayed. (Along with an eclectic mix of others like Barry Goldwater and Jean Claude Van Damme.)
The international press yesterday was full of stories about violent street demonstrations in Port au Prince, over the impending elections, which are said to be rigged. We haven’t seen any violence, just beaucoup de traffique. And our tour leaders haven’t mentioned it either!
The slow traffic has its compensations as the streets are teeming with street stalls and locals going about their business. There are highly decorated buses called tap taps (as you tap to get them to stop). The vast and lively Iron Market sprawls over acres with huge amounts of space devoted to voodoo. Most of it is bottles of potions of every size and hue and heaps of herbs. But there are also aisles crammed with statues, dolls and other sculpted items, mainly made out of real skulls, teeth and hair. Macabre is the best word for it. Most of the people believe in spirits and say that many were released during the earthquake. I just hope they don’t return to inhabit my dreams.
Down south to Jacmel, which would be a pretty town with painted French colonial houses, but it is still being restored. The architecture was so highly thought of that it inspired the French Quarter of New Orleans. it was hit first by a huge fire in 1896 and rebuilt. It was then hit particularly badly by the earthquake, leaving much of it in ruins. Like a phoenix, it is rising again and remains hopefully, on the tentative UNESCO list.
There is an esplanade of sorts and a sweep of sand. But the beach is heaped with debris, mainly plastic bottles and is not remotely inviting.
We're taken on an expedition to Bassin Bleu. Guarded by imposing rock formations, this series of four stunning cobalt pools linked by waterfalls. This is a much better option for swimming. though the drive involves fording a river (also used as a car wash) followed by a tortuous scramble over rocks
Back in Port au Prince our leader (a charismatic young man with cascading dreadlocks called Sean Rubens Jean Sacra, Serge for short) has now had to concede that something might be going on. The hotel guards won’t allow us out of the hotel on our own and there are lot of folk standing around with AK47s. There are either a lot of firework displays going on or there are gunshots in the back ground.
Saturday and a flight to Cap Haitian in the north, over the mountains. This is the most mountainous country in the Caribbean. All seems quiet, but the route to the airport is very carefully planned. The pilot of our 18 seater plane (I'm sure he’s wearing his gardening clothes) kindly flies us over our goal: The Citadelle. It was commissioned by Haitian revolutionary Henri Christophe, (King Henry I) and built by tens of thousands of former slaves, to keep the French out after they had won their independence. Prior to the conflict the colony of Haiti, settled by the French was extremely prosperous, with cotton and sugar grown by a third of the Atlantic slave trade.
It lives up to its billing. It’s the largest fortress in the western hemisphere and a great monument to courage and endurance. Including several smaller forts across the country, the stronghold remains the only African-derived military fortification in the New World. It is truly immense. The journey up the mountain to see it close up is overly exciting as we go on horseback and my mount is a little twitchy. The handler’s constant use of a makeshift crop doesn’t help. The mountain views are stupendous.
The fortress was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1982 - along with the Sans-Souci Palace (King Henry's home) at the bottom of the slope. It includes a pointy domed cathedral - the Milot and it's all stupendous too.
Cap Haitien was once nicknamed the Paris of the Antilles, because of its wealth and sophistication, expressed through its architecture and artistic life. It was an important city during the colonial period, when it was the capital of the French Colony of Saint-Domingue from the city's formal foundation in 1711 until 1770, when the capital was moved to Port-au-Prince. After the Haitian Revolution, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Haiti under King Henri I until 1820.
Cap Haitian is purported to have a very good beach half an hour to the east and I'm aching to see white Caribbean sand in Haiti. There has been little evidence of it so far. However, they are having their first rain here since September and it’s barrelling down. It’s too wet to go out and in any case Serge has forbidden us to walk further than five blocks. The UN are out en bloc (tanks, road blocks, full riot gear) as the protests are persisting, even though they have postponed the election. The country is becoming increasingly unstable.
The hotel is picturesque; traditional with antique furniture and the former home of one of the rebel leaders. There are the usual older style hotel problems and the biggest mosquitoes you can imagine, lurking in every corner. The manager is pursuing them with some sort of electric tennis racket. That provides the entertainment. We can also see some rioters peeping through the window grating. There was a carnival planned for today and some of the Rara bands have infiltrated the protest, so it’s chanting accompanied by bamboo horns and drums. It’s certainly a different way to spend a holiday.
A final couple of days in Port au Prince. No more fireworks, but still beaucoup de traffique. A trip to the cemetery to see the du Valier tombs (Pap Doc’s body was pilfered after the earthquake opened it) and some Voodoo ceremonies. These involve much smoke and a man in a football shirt.
A drive through the colourful suburbs of Port au Prince sprawling up the hillsides. This is Jalousie, the City in the Sky. Its been spruced up and painted rainbow colours by the government, in order to tempt the homeless to settle in less appealing neighbourhoods. Government after the revolution was fragmented. The nation was divided and united by short-lived emperors and generals. They even invaded neighbouring Dominican Republic at one point, to unify the whole island. A more workable constitution was introduced under Michel Domingue in 1874, leading to a long period of democratic peace and development for Haiti. Probably the most famous of the rulers was François Duvalier. His regime is regarded as one of the most repressive and corrupt of modern times. All of this explains the poverty.
A meal in up the mountain, upmarket Petionville, is a pleasant way to wind up. Art galleries, chic cafes, twinkling lights and white table cloths. There is a good life in Haiti - for those who can afford it.
Next stop, Turks and Caicos
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