You may recall that a couple of months ago I was bursting with excitement about going to Haiti. If you were following closely, you may have noticed that I wrote very little about that trip. If not, well, now you know. The truth is, as holidays go, it was an extremely intense, thought-provoking experience. I couldn’t write in part because I didn’t know what to say. There was so much to say! But I also had A LOT of questions. Last night I saw a film, The Agronomist, which provided a lot of answers.
A Film For You
The film highlighted the quest of Haitians to secure participative democracy in the twentieth century. The documentary examines the life’s work of Jean Dominique, a journalist, broadcaster and Haitian activist over four decades and exiled twice. Fearless, hope-filled, passionate and patriotic, under him Radio Haiti was the first station to broadcast in Kréyol, the first language of 90% of Haitians.
I won’t lie, it was a Hotel Rwanda moment for me. Perhaps because I had such beautiful recent memories, the flagrantly deliberate man-made suffering of one people just broke my heart. I had never quite got my head round this Aristide chap who seemed to pop in and out of power in Haiti. Never felt the full fear inspired by the Tonton Macoutes, never understood why the UN are still in Haiti. Now it all makes horrifying, chilling sense.
I’m not talking heartbreak based on pity. It’s the weeping that comes after the rage. Made by American film-maker Jonathan Demme (Silence of The Lambs, The Crying Game, Philadelphia), I watched it as part of an event called Voir Haiti Autrement (See Haiti Differently) organised by a community organisation here called Jamais Deux Sans Trois. You should DEFINITELY see The Agronomist. Whether you’re slightly sceptical about the sincerity of American foreign policy and its commitment to democracy, are into inspiring social justice-themed documentaries, or just enjoy a good story, it’s for you. If you’re in Martinique, you should definitely check out the association. C’était une soirée géniale.
Historical Haiti’s Meaning
As implied in 6 Reasons to be Ridiculously Excited About Going to Haiti, I am firmly one of those Caribbean or Afro-Caribbean-descent folk who was taught that modern black pride starts in Haiti. That in a world which is at times unspeakably unkind to the darker-hued members of the human race, Haiti was the reminder of our beauty, our strength, and full humanity.
Not unlike Cuba, the country holds an almost mythical status in our history, one of embarrassingly successful resistance to an unjust status quo. The one time we win outright and defy expectations. We were David versus Goliath; the high point in a recent history of traumatic lows. As a Guadeloupean historian explained ‘It’s not easy being the descendants of slaves’. Not intellectually, not emotionally, and certainly not when a discourse of black inferiority which was deliberately constructed to justify owning human beings, has over the centuries come to constitute common-sense seemingly everywhere. Haiti has long been the distant lighthouse of truth for those stuck at sea and in an omnipresent penetrative fog of lies.
But I’ll chill on the dramatics. In short, this was the rhetorical context in which I hopped and skipped excitedly off to Haiti. As hoped, I had an absolutely fabulous time. To ease ourselves into we-didn’t-know-what, cheaply and cheerfully a pal and I flew into the Dominican Republic and got a bus from Santo Domingo with Caribe Tours. We chose Cap Haitien as our first stop. Haiti’s second city, former capital and the home of the Revolution. As the 2010 earthquake didn’t get as far north as this city, it held the additional bonus of enabling us to see beyond the new tragedy discourse.
My Haitian Road Trip
On day one of my Haitian Road Trip, after my initial vexation re being out of touch with hardcore travelling, I fell back in love. I spent the whole day sitting on a bus looking out of a window. Literally. We left Santiago at 9am and arrived in Cap Haïtien just before 6 and the countryside just rolled on by. The Dominican Republic looked interesting, with some lovely bits, some bits, and some really arid bits. Perhaps most importantly, despite all the fear and horror stories, the whole thing went really smoothly. The bus was comfy and punctual. The ride was smooth, air-conditioned and pleasant. The bus company fed me! A proper lunch was provided as part of my ticket. That was a travel first.
Crossing the border was surprising but not difficult. Contrary to what my travel buddy had seen on Google earth, when we crossed into Haiti, suddenly the flora and fauna came to life and much of the drive was through lush countryside. I’m no agricultural expert, but there were lots of plants and trees I’d never seen in Martinique, and the landscapes were both stunning and humungous. The moreno (light-skinned) look so prized in Santo Domingo also started to disappear as we headed further and further north, especially after we passed Santiago, the DR’s second city. Entering the border town in Haiti was a shock. We went from seemingly unpopulated rolling countryside to entering a relatively small space with what felt like thousands of people milling about. A few short hours later, we arrived at our first stop.
I loved Cap Haitien. It’s a typical second city; large, interesting, busy but chilled out with it. Like Fes vs. Marrakesh, Chiang Mai vs. Bangkok, Birmingham vs. London. I am a very big fan of second cities and Cap Haitien was no exception. The ville coloniale or old town in Cap Haitien is lovely. The architecture is just so pretty. Lots of narrow streets with colourful stylish buildings. I wandered in perfect contentment through the well-organised if narrow streets musing over the street art-cum-advertising.
The Citadelle, Cap Haitien’s must-see monument, was simply breathtaking. No other word suffices. I felt literally knocked down and bowled over by the view. One of those almost emotional ‘You truly are an awesome God of creation’ moments.’ As well as a stunning historical feat (it’s a huge fort-like castle from the nineteenth century), it’s location in the heights and clouds of Milot, a small town about a 40 minute bus ride from Cap Haitien only added to its magnificence. I could literally see for miles and miles and miles. Definitely fifty, possibly hundreds.
Despite it being suggested we’d be kidnapped and murdered on sight if we didn’t have accomodation booked in advance, or that we shouldn’t just pick up any old taxi driver, we’d did exactly what I’ve done in a million places when we arrived at the bus station in Cap Haitien; tell the taxi driver a place sort of in my budget and ask if they know anywhere cheaper.
The young man (talking on his mobile as he drove!), took us to the place we wanted to go – the Roi Christophe – which was beautiful and US$126 per night. Tom was unequivocal: NO. Two hotels later he was prepared to pay US$120 per night even though I’d already said okay to US$80 to 2 beds and hot water. We saw 2 more gorgeous hotels before settling on The Prince of Peace, on the street opposite the Roi Christophe which looked kinda bruck down from the outside. The room was simple but clean with great amenities; fan, air con, fridge, wardrobe, hot water, cupboards…queen sized bed and single bed. No wifi was a small sacrifice. Additionally, we had an AMAZING view of Cap Haitien. A terrace with a sea view on one side, and the city mounting the hills on the other. Incredible. I got the impression I would have enjoyed it ten times more if I’d (we’d) stayed longer, but we couldn’t.
I was in Cap Haitien for the commemorating of the 210th anniversary of the decisive Battle of Vertières. Being there on a weekend of huge historical significance was a plus and a minus. On the one hand the town was vibrant and teeming with free – great! – concerts every night. On the other, some of ‘the sights’ were being refurbished or being used for events so visits were not possible. Furthermore, hype around security problems in present-day Haiti meant we were actively discouraged from participating in the night-time festivities.
I say hype because one of the things that left a deep lasting impression on me is how perfectly safe I felt in Haiti throughout my time there. I had been warned by people who have and have never visited Haiti that I was basically taking my life in my hands and would be lucky to make it back alive. I was also encouraged to go, told I would have a brilliant time and that seeing how I was sticking to the beaten path, I’d be absolutely fine. Despite my brave talk, the mixed messages meant I genuinely wondered if I would make it out of Haiti alive. The discourse of danger was terrifying.
I’m not crazy, you see. I don’t take unnecessary risks and I don’t go looking for trouble. I like my life. There were 3 key reasons why I went despite my own fears:
1) Years ago a lecturer said to me, just in passing, ‘But you know discourses around danger are all about a woman’s place being in the home right?’ It clicked then and I’ve never forgotten to always interrogate the roots of concern for my safety. Too often between the lines is ‘you have the right to go wherever you want, but for your own sake, you probably shouldn’t.’ Riiiiight.
2) Two of the coolest girls I know went to Haiti – separately – and loved it.
3) I’d been to Castro’s Havana and it remains the safest big city I’ve ever visited. Contrary to everything I’d imagined in advance, Havana had a friendly police presence, was well-lit and easy to navigate. 2am on a Friday night felt like 9pm; it was bustling, happening and felt like the night was just beginning in a great place to party. That experience taught me how representations of places that have ‘differing’ ideas about how our world should be, were neither neutral or accidental. So I took my chances.
The cheapest hotel we managed to find also happened to be centrally located. As such we ‘enjoyed’ breakfast with armed police every morning as it turns out the barracks are just over the road. By armed, I don’t mean handguns that fit into a holster, I’m talking about long machine gun-looking things, rifles. Men craning their necks around a gun poised on their laps and whose barrel passes their heads, just to get some nourishment. Lucky us, we also got to see them at the hotel bar at unexpected intervals. So personally, I felt ‘secure’. All the other hotels had armed guards at the gates, so when we chose the hotel where all the other guests were Haitians and we didn’t have armed security on our doorstep, we felt like we might be missing something. Apparently not. But did I mention the amazing view?
It’s very difficult to pass comment on people who you can’t fully communicate with and only spend a few days with. And unwise. In Cap Haitien, the people seemed like the other human beings I’ve encountered in life; some nice, some really nice, some not so nice. It wasn’t always been easy being taken for my travel buddy’s Haitian prostitute. Or an uppity Haitian because who is refusing to speak Kréyol, rather than an English girl who’s barely got a grip on French. But Ayiti was still fabulous.
The female owner, and the guys in the shop across the road were lovely to me from day one. But they were indifferent to my similarly-dispositioned travel buddy. Two days into my stay I finally got a smile out of the girl on reception. Even if she did charge me 70 gourdes for 1.5 phone calls, whereas Tom paid 10 gourdes for 2 and had her giggling pretty much upon arrival. But who’s counting hey? There was a restaurant waitress who had her chest out and weave and thighs stroked for Tom’s pleasure, but when I tried to get her attention over his shoulder, she looked me straight in the eye and ignored me. I was livid, but it was her loss: we didn’t tip and never went back to La Caye again. I recount these events because being a black woman travelling with a white dude allows for some interesting reflections.
In Cap Haitien we also encountered a young woman called Jennifer who adopted us halfway through our long weekend there. A French speaker, when she overheard us asking for advice about onward travel, she made an appointment to come back the next day to take us to the Haiti Trans bus stand for tickets to our next destination. She arrived promptly, bossed the moto taxi into taking us at local fare, basically organised our tickets for us, and made sure we got back to the hotel safely. She then proceeded to make another appointment with us for the evening. She took us to the most delicious, affordable restaurant we’d been to, Finesse, and commemorative festivities at Vertières that night. She was kind of like a guardian angel but more streetwise and fun to hang out with. She also arranged the taxi to take us to the bus station in the morning.
The Security Question : Port-au-Prince versus Cap Haitien (and everywhere except Mogadishu*)
I’m going to come back to the safety/security in Haiti question. Popular Haitian art often depicts scenes bursting with black people. On entering the border town, and then again on entering Port-au-Prince, I was instantly reminded of that fact. Haiti is a country of 10 million or so people and the overwhelming majority are black people. Dark-skinned black people. African-looking people. In fact, sitting on the bus waiting for my passport to be processed at the border, I swore I could see the spitting image of a Nigerian dude at my church in London. Despite having loved my time in Cap Haitien, I was apprehensive about Port-au-Prince. Dangerous chaotic anarchy was the image firmly planted in my mind by all the travel literature. And I don’t read the Daily Mail travel supplements. Which on reflection sounds like an oxymoron if there ever was one.
After everything I’d read, I had no desire to spend any time in Port-au-Prince which was basically the wild west as far as I could tell. So imagine my surprise at spending a couple of days wandering around a city like any other. With fears of political tensions, yes. But despite the demonstrations on the days I was there, which I gave a wide berth but seemed to involve random individuals sitting in the streets, gathered crowds and/or police, and an air of anticipation, I never considered myself to be in danger.
I saw homes, traffic jams, parks, schoolkids, museums (the museum of National Heroes is must-see), employees, shops, parents, public services, commuters, shopping centres, local businesses, people liming, public transport…signs of a city full of people getting on with the business of life.
The only time I felt fear was when I turned into one of Port-au-Prince’s busiest thoroughfares and a huge white UN tank was suddenly headed toward me. Everybody else was almost oblivious while I was internally freaking out. As a black woman dressed casually, I blended in with the crowds effortlessly. So much so that once I’d gotten over my fear, I was wandering around on my own even at night.
This discourse of absolute fear about Haiti especially the ‘chaotic’ Port-au-Prince gave me real pause for thought. Is it a busy city? Hell yes! Is that surprising given that it’s the capital of a country of some 10 million inhabitants? Not really. I’m from London. Port-au-Prince, tanks aside, was no scarier than Marrakesh or Bangkok from where I’m standing. My conclusion was that Haiti was classed as ‘scary’ ‘cos it’s a slightly unpredictable place to travel to filled with dark-skinned black people. Who worship ‘differently’ and who speak Kréyol rather than English or French.
I’ve only now mentioned Vodou because it played no part in my travel experience. I actually forgot that it was the unofficial national religion until my second to last day when I saw a provocative art exhibition. I then belatedly realised I had made no effort to visit a place of worship other than the evangelical church I’d visited on my Sunday in Cap Haitien. Which wasn’t an unproblematic experience either. Like I said, Ayiti was nothing if not thought-provoking.
Travel and the Language Barrier
Port-au-Prince was the most francophone of the three places in Haiti I visited. I was able to get around the city – or more accurately the small section of it around Champ de Mars near to where I was staying – on my own with little difficulty. Jacmel, definitely the touristy town of our three stops, had a good number of French and English speakers, but communication required a fair amount of gestures and patience when dealing with people not connected to tourism. In Cap Haitien, I found a French-speaking shopkeeper close to our hotel and harassed her for the duration of my stay. We found in the Cap a people who were more English than French speaking, but the rare French speakers were far more fluent. Despite speaking both relatively fluently, I struggled to communicate solely with words.
In essence, to talk to most Haitians, to engage with Haiti with any kind of profundity, you really need to learn their language. Like anywhere else in the world theoretically. For travellers used to speaking an ‘international’ language like English, or being catered to in their own language by seasoned tourism professionals, Haiti presents a challenge. It’s a beautiful fascinating country and you cannot bypass the people to access it. Of course, if you’re serious about discovering someplace new and exciting, you shouldn’t wish to.
*When I was freaking out, a Dominican friend of mine told me to chill out because ‘it’s Haiti, not Somalia!’ As she lives in Santo Domingo, and has friends on the other side of the border, she had a very different perspective on how lethal the trip really was. I can only wonder, however, if I was panicking about going to Somalia, my Kenyan friend would say, ‘Calm down! It’s only Somalia, not Haiti!’