Country number: 135
Territory number: 155
When? January 2016 – coming from Miami. Next stop – Turks & Caicos.
How? Overland tour – local flights and bus with guide – contact me for more details
Who? Group Trip of 6
‘Of course, the humans in Haiti have hope. They hope to leave.’
P. J. O’Rourke
The small group tour in Haiti is actually a small group tour this time. There are six of us. A very much retired married couple who have already been everywhere, two married Mancunian men (of course) and a lady from California who has also already been everywhere. They all seem relatively normal and good company.
Haiti itself 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 ling the roads and the streams and culverts resemble plastic glaciers. 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. 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 In Port au Prince. We have lunch at the Hotel Oloffson, built in the same brown wood sprinkled with white style. This is where Graham Greene set 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 gingerbread houses, but it is still being restored. 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.
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 that is gunshots in the back ground.
Saturday and a flight to Cap Haitian in the north – 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. Built by ex-slaves to keep the French out after they had won their independence it lives up to its billing. It’s the largest fortress in the western hemisphere and a great monument to courage and endurance. 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 little twitchy. The handler’s constant use of a makeshift crop doesn’t help. The mountain views and the San Souci Palace down below are stupendous too.
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 provided 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 man in a football shirt. A meal in up the mountain, upmarket Petionville, is a pleasant way to wind up. Twinkling lights and white table cloths. There is a good life in Haiti – for those who can afford it.