I’m not really into blogging on the road. I know lots of people write about their experiences as they go along and it gives a real sense of immediacy to their travel writing, but it’s just not me. I like to take the whole trip in and reflect on it before I write it up. Everyone’s different, it’s just my way.
Part of it is probably that I like to do one thing at a time; if I’m exploring and discovering someplace new, I’m really not trying to interrupt the magic with a trip to the internet cafe, or worse, a hunt for one.
I’m also one of those black people that despite the advent of modernity, deep down still won’t celebrate my birthday before it’s actually happened. The travel version of this superstition about jinxing the future by acknowledging it, is not writing/blogging about a place before I go.
Life is short.
Anything could happen before I go, when I reach, or before I get back. Given that I seem to tell every passer-by that says hello that I’m going to Haiti, with a grin that suggests that I’ve won the lottery, I figure I should outline why exactly I’m on a Serious Hype Ting as one might say in South London.
1) Er, it’s HAITI. It’s the quasi-mythical land known as the first black republic in the Americas. The most unequivocally successful slave revolt. And the only one that led to the creation of a new nation state. For a sometime history geek like me, Haiti is the promised land. Saint Domingue was the richest of the Caribbean colonies when the revolution began in 1791. Toussaint L’Ouverture, rose from unknown ex-slave to the black general who beat a Napoleon Bonaparte at the top of his game. Das serious. William Wordsworth, of Daffodils fame, even wrote a poem about Toussaint and the revolution, it was that remarkable. And it happened in Haiti. Napoleon was defeated by organised ex-slaves some 13 years before the British could do it definitively. The English were so delighted when they won the last naval battle in 1805 – still two years after Toussaint L’Ouverture had beaten ol’ Nap – they named a whole central London square after the battle with a huge monument to the lead general. (See Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column).
What’s particularly exciting about visiting historical sites in the global south is that often, the sites are very well preserved. Whereas I had to get permission to enter the basement of JP Morgan’s London office to see the ruins of the original London wall built by the Romans, in the Caribbean, sites of huge historical importance can be viewed rather easily. With the advent of tourism and warm weather, the Caribbean has some truly awesome sights. I personally loved Brimstone Hill in St Kitts and make a beeline for St Pierre in Martinique with every visitor. But before I get carried away with must-see Caribbean historical sites, I will come back to Haiti (Che’s mausoleum in Cuba! Old Town in Santo Domingo!). Suffice to say, with my interests in Caribbean and European history, my Afro-Caribbean roots and slave ancestry, getting to see Haiti is an actual dream come true.
2) The history of the Haitian revolution has inspired countless numbers of black people who have since inspired me. For people who have been made to feel inferior because of their blackness, Haiti is a source of deep pride in one solitary word. Beyond the fact of the Haitian slaves’ overthrow of their slave master oppressors and declaration of péyi nou (our country), there was the act of solidarity: After independence, the Haitians declared that any African slave who managed to make it to Haiti would be granted Haitian nationality and freedom. From Marcus Garvey to Aimé Césaire to CLR James to Zora Neale Hurston to my pops who first told me the story, in times of the most irrefutable, highly scientific proof of black inferiority, Haiti has faithfully served as a constant reminder of a different truth.
3) It’s supposed to be a really beautiful place. It’s widely accepted that Haiti has been made to pay for terrifying the colonial powers in the the nineteenth century. Metaphorically and financially speaking. In 1825 France demanded 150m francs in compensation for lost earnings for the ousted colonialists, which Haiti duly paid to avoid more fighting. Until 1947. At that point they didn’t refuse to pay, that’s just how long it took to pay what has been suggested was £13bn in today’s money. An upside of major national poverty issues can be that natural beauty abounds and Haiti apparently is not exceptional in this regard (£13bn remember). The country is rumoured to have mountains, valleys, waterfalls, beaches, and rivers. Basically all the things I love about Caribbean topography, but on a much larger scale than the smallies I call home. And Haiti is but a third of the whole island!
4) Some of my best students are Haitian. Seriously. It’s a truism I’ve not really worked out the roots of but it’s genuinely added to my curiosity about the country. As well as being trilingual (Kréyol/French/English), in isolated Martinique these students appear uncommonly well-informed about both Caribbean and international current affairs. The Haitian students I’ve had have been top or the best students in the classes I’ve taught them in, and have had in common that they completed most of their education in Haiti.
5) I’ve wanted to go to Haiti for years. I’m all up for taking opportunities when they come and I’m a bit hard-headed to boot so most of the time, when I want to go somewhere, I tend to find a way to get there. Haiti is a bit like Egypt for me; a place I’ve yearned to go for years and years, which I’ve been in close proximity to, but the opportunity has just never come up.
6) I read a book about it which got me all fired up. I finally got around to reading Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath The Sea, this summer. It’s a fictional retelling of life for slaves before and during the Haitian revolution, told through the eyes of a number of women. It’s particularly good at illuminating life before the revolution, particularly the huge colour-based tensions between the powerful minorities of whites, mixed race and free blacks which rocked the colony, and the role of religious fervour during the revolution. It reminded me that a trip to Haiti is well overdue. As all her books do, Allende paints such vivid pictures of the people and place and life that I finished it with a contented adventurer’s dreamy eyes, and paradoxically, a hunger to go and see the principal location of the story for myself. Island Beneath The Sea blatantly led me to push Haiti further up the list of places to get to within the next 12 months. To be clear, I read The Black Jacobins by CLR James years ago, when I was living a lot further away. I found it a riveting history to start, but got distracted. If I’d been born just a little earlier, I could have watched Paul Robeson in the 1936 play version, but alas, it was not to be.
I’m going to Haiti. This is amazing. It reminds me a bit of going to Cuba for the first time, another country which had an almost mythical status growing up. Thus actually being able to visit is slightly surreal; it’s such an old dream I’d almost forgotten about it.
Haiti receives plenty of bad press which does not contribute to my elation about having the chance to go. I don’t think I need to add to that discourse, plus this post is about the reasons I’m over the moon about being able to experience Jacmel, and Cap Haitien and Port-au-Prince. I know a bunch of cool people who’ve been and loved Haiti and I’m travelling with a male so I’m not overly worried.
That said, I’m not a risk-taker and one of the reasons I’ve not been to Haiti thus far is probably because I’ve never believed it would be a good idea for me to rock up to Port-au-Prince as a solo female traveller with no kreyol and dodgy French. I’m always a bit wary about images of ‘other’ countries, they rarely tell the full story. That said, Ghosts of Cite Soleil, an eye-opening film set in Port-au-Prince dubbed the Haitian City of God probably had a lot to do with me not getting there sooner. Even if it did have a cameo by Wyclef. Which is silly really because I’ve travelled enough to know that most places are far safer than you imagine. Havana, for example, remains the safest city I think I’ve ever been to. 2am felt like 10pm it was so well-lit and buzzing and everything was just…open. I thought we were going home early when my friends decided to call it a night. Had I spoken more Spanish I’d have happily wandered around on my own. But that’s another story.
I. Am. Going. To. Haiti.
This is awesome.
I know I said it about Trinidad, and the American road trip, but I really have been looking forward to this for years. What can I say? It’s been a good year for dreams to come true.