Haitian Heaven

Our plan was to hop on a bus from Santo Domingo, cross the border, and arrive to Cap-Haitien a few hours later.  For as long as I had been making these travel plans known, everyone seemed to state authoritatively what I needed to watch out for.  That these same people were basing their advice and ‘knowledge’ on untenable rumors – or a border visit at best – was quickly apparent though; I found no consistency between their warnings and reality.  My plan was to tackle this country with the same level-headedness I take to every new place.  People were all surprised that I would even want to go to Haiti, and that I would ‘risk life and limb.’  So why then was I?  Definitely to find the beauty in a place unfairly smothered by negative press.

Our bus rolled to the border, and we piled out to go through the two checkpoints, just as I had done at many other land crossings.  It was fair to say that the place was a zoo though, and that nationality could be generally be ascertained based on skin tone – things were a whole lot darker without the Spanish influence.  The language had shifted to French Creole as well.  Having entered Haiti, we boarded our bus and set out toward the northern city of Cap-Haitien. There were some that offered such advice as to only take a bus with bulletproof windows, but I fared well enough without.  An odd observation perhaps, but one of the first things I noticed about this new place was that cacti were used as fences to mark property and contain livestock.  A photo of the beautiful disorder.

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We arrived to the town, gathered our things, and then set out for the hotel.  There were a number of taxis anxiously awaiting the bus, so we decided to see what we could manage on foot and then take a cab that wasn’t so hawkish.  In the end though we walked all of the kilometers to our hotel, really enjoying things along the way.  During all but the last moments of the trek we saw not a single fair skinned individual.  I’ve been in those places where people stare at me for sticking out, but never happened in the Americas.  The best part about the place was how apparent the French influence was, in architecture, colors, and planned layout.  I was later told that the city now looked like New Orleans did some 100 years ago.

10390480_964594403035_6158561247560183811_nWe were hot and sweaty upon arrival, but the Imperial Hotel was truly an oasis.  The domestic travel market is nonexistent and therefore removes the budget niche provided by hostels in most places.  We were fine with the relatively higher costs though: this place was clean, equipped with AC, and had a bar.  After some much appreciated showers, Kei and I sampled Haiti’s local beer, Prestige.  With a name like that it had better deliver, and it surely did.  The crispness brought back memories of Kirin, or Asahi.  Another interesting tidbit unique to Haiti is the manner in which a beer is served.  They first wrap it in a napkin, and then pop the cap – BUT WAIT! – it is left atop the opening.  When asked why, our bartender explained that it wasn’t his beer to be messing with.  Every beer in that country was handled in just the same way.

Actually though, we weren’t going to be spending the whole of the evening at the hotel bar.  A friend of May’s had put us in touch with a few local people who were happy to meet and improve the overall quality of our experience. I reached out to let them know we had arrived to Cap-Haitien successfully, and then we set out to take in the best of the city.  We flagged down a few motorcycles on the street to take us away.  I was surprised that they had never taken such transport before.

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We were zooming off to La Kay, considered the best restaurant in town.  Kei and I had pangs for some legit Haitian food, and knowing nothing of it ourselves, left the ordering duties to our hosts.  In addition to a glorious spread of food (conch, pork, and of course pikliz), we got some bottles of Couronne, which is an extremely sweet soda loved by the Haitians.  The place had great atmosphere, and also a dance floor where we foreigners showed off our impressive skills.  Though there were other fair skinned individuals present, I was informed that they were almost certainly locals who had lived their whole lives in Haiti – not tourists.

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We took motorbikes back to the hotel to plot out the following day.  Our plan was to hit the nearby citadel, but time restraints necessitated our own transportation.  The cost of this was significantly higher than cramming into the back of a local’s truck, but skipping this site was out of the question. We thanked our fantastic docents as they took off and then spent the rest of the night chatting with the hotel manager.  She helped us arrange the private car, and was interesting to speak with in general.  The manager was Filipino, which we learned was common among middle management in Haiti.  She explained how hard it was to keep working class Haitians doing their job properly, and that they needed to be reminded constantly of the task at hand.  Having not grown up in our capitalist environment, most just don’t grasp concept of work with the same attitude.

IMG_0009_edited-1aThe next morning we downed a breakfast and hit the road.  Our vehicle reeked of the diesel spilled in it the night before, but with windows down we rolled on.  The first stop of the day was to King Henri Christophe’s Sans-Souci Palace.  Although largely ruined by an earthquake, it was still impressive.  The average person likely envisions Europe when the topic of fortresses and castles are brought up, but these in Haiti were actually the largest in the Americas.  We were forced to hire a guide, but he did at least tell us about the history of the place.  Built in 1813 by King Henri I, a former slave and leader in the Haitian Revolution, he ruled from here for 7 years before taking his life with a silver bullet in one of the many rooms.

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After a good walk through the structure and grounds, our guide made the expected transition into crapmonger, peddling stuff from his shop.  He insisted that he was giving us the best deals, but failed to notice my complete lack of interest in his wares.  The driver took us further up the mountain to our next location, the Citadelle Laferriere.  This along with the Sans-Souci Palace comprised a very worthy UNESCO site.  The car could only go so far before we were responsible for the rest of the way, hoofing it by either ass or foot.  Being perfectly capable of tackling the arduous slope on our own, and undeterred by a little workout, we trudged up the grade as the sweat poured.  The hike was a couple of kilometers, but the weather was at least fantastic.  The citadel loomed impressively atop a 3000 ft mountain in the distance.
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We were in a bit of a rush to get back before the last bus of the day, so we requested the slightly abridged version of the tour.  There were all sorts of interesting things about the history of the place, but to me the best part was the view.  Although the Napoleonic cannons they had won in battles with the French could never hit ocean invaders, from this lofty perch any attack could be spotted well ahead of time.  I do realize that this is not the coolest photo of me, but the view was only met in vastness by that from Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya.

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IMG_0466aOnce we had soaked in the sights and bathed in our new-found knowledge, the two of us scooted down the hill back to the car.  We were cutting it a bit close with our bus, but the departure wound up being an hour late.  We did finally take off, and it was an insane ride.  We snaked through the mountainous jungle for hours, bounding along the pitted roads.  It well after dark before we would arrive in the capitol.  Along the way I spoke with a local guy who filled me in on the state of government corruption, as well as the ‘Money = Power’ mentality that most people had.  I took his cynicism with a grain of salt, but can’t imagine that he was too far off the mark.  We arrived to a sketchy bus station on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, and would need to get a cab to take us up to the safer area of Petion-Ville.  Fortunately, this guy that I had been talking to was heading in the same direction.  I wasn’t the most excited about that bus station, and glad to find my garrulous nature rewarded.

We parked in front of a landmark cathedral and then called that night’s host.  This was another friend of May’s contact, and he was kind enough to welcome us to their home.  Coordinating the taxi and transfer would have been extremely difficult had we not met the guy on the bus, but sometimes you just need to bank on things working out.  Once Gerald arrived, we transferred cars and went further up into the hills.  We stopped along the way at a pizza parlor to grab dinner and a beer.  It was interesting talking to the couple.  The wife was with an NGO that was working to improve the still devastated capitol following the 2010 earthquake, and Gerald had worked for many years as an adviser to the Olympic Weightlifting Committee.  It’s always great to learn from people bearing such a diversity of experiences and backgrounds.

After some delicious food, we arrived to their nearby homestead.  They were kind enough to give us the master bedroom and take the pull out for themselves.  They explained how to make use of the facilities, we took refreshing showers, and then turned in for bed.  I had a wee bit of indigestion and faced some minor issues when a power outage complicated the toilet process.  Here was a view from the porch.

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IMG_0468aThat next morning, the wife had prepared some Soup Joumou for us, which is the Haitian national dish.  Way back during colonialism, it was a dish reserved only for the French nobility.  After the successful uprising, slaves celebrated by eating the soup for themselves.  Our batch had quite a kick, and the flavor was excellent.  We spent the rest of the morning sipping on Haitian coffee and listening to Gerald rock out on the guitar.

Once we finally got around to starting our day, the sunlight reveled what beauty the area had.  We swapped out their vehicle for a more capable Jeep Wrangler, and I eagerly accepted an offer to drive it.  I would never turn down such a chance, and I did indeed navigate the crazy traffic and hairpin turns without any issue.  Gerald returned to the helm before going through a police checkpoint, which almost certainly would have caused our party issues otherwise.  Along the way he spoke a bit on the religious situation of Haiti, which is mostly Catholic and Voodoo.  In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson had the US Marines take control of the country to promote our own economic interests.  The United States ran the show until 1934 and in that time tried to squelch the agglomeration of African folk religions that is Voodoo, and instead promoted Christianity.  In order to hide the places of worship from the Americans, Haitians disguised Voodoo deities as Catholic saints.  This legacy is still extant today, so someone outside of the know could go into a church thinking their prayers were going to St. Peter, but instead reach Papa Legba instead.

Our first stop of the day was at a BnB up in the hills.  It was a quiet area with good gardens and exceptional food.  I had no idea what anything on the menu was, so we again left the decision making to our ‘aufom’ hosts.  We wound up with a bit of Chicken Djon Djon (a sauce made from a black mushroom),  fried plantains and pork, and a bit of djon djon rice as well.  That, mixed with the crisp Prestige made for the perfect light lunch.  After some chatter, our party settled up and resumed the course.

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The primary reason for us making this trip up the crazy unpaved roads was to reach of the best view in all of Haiti.  There was a small restaurant and cafe atop a mountain that overlooked the entire capitol valley.  Google Maps confirmed that I was seeing things well over 50 miles away!  We nibbled on some fried cassava and marveled at all before us. With the sun setting behind the mountain, we were challenged to get good light for this photo, but here was our group.

IMG_0529_edited-1aBack down the mountain, Gerald dropped us at Le Perroquet, a bed and breakfast back down in Petion-ville.  I was really looking forward to sitting still for a few nights as we closed out the rest of the trip.  Straight away, we were welcomed by a couple of beers and the amicable owner Eric.  He and his wife Lana would come to be the best of hosts and wonderful company throughout the our remaining time there.  For that evening, we had very little planned, just drinks and relaxation.  We put off the idea of getting street food until things had gotten a little too late, and were instead advised to just stay in and eat whatever they could whip up for us.  Lucky for us, Lana was a world class chef and her ‘lil’ something’ was anything but.  We spent the evening catching up on our neglected lives, downing beers, chatting with Eric, and sorting the rest of our Haitian plans.

IMG_0541aThat next morning we truly enjoyed sleeping until whenever and eventually got around to the unambitious mission of walking around the locality.  We planed it to be a languorous day but wanted to continue on with our mission of finding Haiti’s awesome.  The first stop was to the Kinam Hotel, which is really nice, but more for people who are not of our travel caste.  From the roof of it though, we were able to grab a gander at an exceptionally colorful hillside a la Valparaiso, Chile.

IMG_0556_edited-1aAnother stop that afternoon was to the bank, were I was surprised to find no issue pulling cash out with my debit card.  While walking over there though, a truck lost control and slammed into the wall about 30 feet ahead of where we were.  Had the timing differed by just a bit, I would be without my legs, and quite likely my life.  There was a really nice art gallery selling the works of Haiti’s most famous artists.  This country has an artistic expression all its own, and much of the cheaper art being sold on the streets was based on the styling of these in the gallery.  I liked Franz Zepherin’s work the best (center, and right).

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Later that evening the two of us were privy to more of Lana’s wonderful cooking.  As a sort of promotional effort, Monday was dubbed Purple Monday and featured a dinner menu incorporating the color into each dish.  We went with a combination course that included some of each amazing offering; one of my favorites was the locally sourced blood sausage that was hearty and a bit ferrous to the taste.  It was all washed down with Dr. Zhivago’s beet juice martinis.

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Throughout dinner and in the time after we were posted up at the bar, we enjoyed a wonderful evening.  The Prestige flowed, and so too the conversation.  Around midnight, Eric and Lana led us up to an area below the stars with a great view of the surrounding area.  As things started cooling down, we returned to the bar area as the only patrons, and it became the best per-person-party in which I’ve ever partaken.  With just the four of us, we had a fantastic evening dancing and singing to old music.  I could scarcely believe being asked ‘Have you heard of the musical Chess, by Murray Head?’.  Lana was born in the USSR, so I was doubly pleased when she threw on Boney M’s ‘Ra-Ra-Rasputin’.  What an incredible night.

That next morning, for our last day of tourism, we arranged a car to take ourselves and another Chicagoan down to Port-au-Prince to spend time walking around the more poverty stricken areas.  Ron put my collections to shame: not only had he made it to twice as many countries, but his currency collection dwarfed mine.  The driver brought us down to the Banque de la République d’Haïti where he would be purchasing two uncirculated copies of each banknote.  His deeper pockets solved the issue of choosing between which side of the banknote to display back home.  I am usually content to get the best circulated note I can, but took his lead and picked up a set myself.  The woman who humored our obsessions had a bubbly personality and even volunteered a personal tour through an exhibit on Haitian money.  We were also led to the roof to view a few of the area landmarks.  I was really interested in the subject matter, though, our driver could not have possibly been less enthused by the lengthy detour.
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He seemed to think the bank was the only reason we had driven 45 minutes to the downtown area, and kept acting like he knew where nothing was.  I had GPS and a map though, and our collective pressure was enough to get a few more stops added to the itinerary.  The Iron Market is an absurdly cluttered and unsanitary jungle of people peddling everything from food to garbage sculptures.  We didn’t venture inside the madness, but were content to drive around the car-high trash mountains amassed on the outskirts.  We were also on a quest to see some of the wreckage from the 201o earthquake that killed an estimated some 160,000 people.  They had already cleared away the ruins of the National Palace, but we were able to visit the remains of the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, which has been ‘preserved’ as a monument to the event.

IMG_0606aBack up to cozy Petion-ville at last, we agreed to have dinner with Ron, and a Belgian guy he had met before.  The food was great, and the service acceptable, but Belgian had to make a huge fuss about everything, eventually refusing to pay for his meal.  In the end, he succeeded in nothing more than making us uncomfortable, taking advantage of the locality, and proving himself a complete ass.  It was soon evident that he was intoxicated as well, and his catcalling of every hooker was doing a fantastic job of drawing unwanted attention.  Out of nowhere, a band of some 30 guys on motorcycles encircled us.  Of course, there he was trying to pick a fight.  Ron, Kei, and I were a mere block away from our hotel, so we just bailed on that situation for our safe haven.  He would survive and later join us back at the hotel, but we were all thoroughly relieved when he left soon thereafter.  Those are the sorts of people that get into trouble in places like this, not sensible folks like ourselves.

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The next morning it was time to bid farewell to this fantastic country.  There was an elderly man short several marbles leaving nice and early from our hotel to the airport, so we planned to ride along with him.  He had already reserved the vehicle for 40 dollars, and when we arrived to the airport our driver was seeking an additional 20 each from Kei and I.  Was the cost of the services rendered somehow greater with more people in the car?  I was fine yielding a 20 to him, since it have just gone to the old man anyway, but no way was he getting any more.  I realize that my actions were probably approaching pettiness, but I despise being taken advantage of on the grounds of being foreign.  In the end I won out.  That car was reserved the day before, and 60 was already more than he planned on; victory felt good.  At the airport, Kei and I found a place to spend the last of our gourdes on what was certainly the worst meal of the trip.

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All in all, Haiti was an absolutely fantastic, and I would go so far as to place it in my top 5 all time destinations.  For one thing, Haiti felt like such an altogether different world compared to anything else in the Americas, or anywhere I had ever been.  Going to this country truly came with the sense that I was in a new world – or at least one different to me. It brimmed with the novelty I felt in those first ever journeys during my young adulthood.  While the language, food, culture, and history stood apart as interesting, it was the people I met along the way that really buoyed my positive experience.  Everyone with whom I interacted were such genuine people, and clearly overjoyed to have the chance to initiate an outsider the real Haiti.  And if I had to pick a third reason, this place was also made great by the masses who insisted it would be anything less.  I can’t honestly recommend it to the fresh or first time traveler, but those with an open mind and sprawling curiosity will find a dark horse of Haiti.  Go.  Before the rest of the world figures this out too.IMG_0246_edited-1a

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