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For years now, my friend Frank and I have been watching the weekly SpiritAir sales, keeping an eye out for the next dirt-cheap destination to jet off to over a break week or long weekend. One city that has never failed to go on sale, for any dates under the sun, is the oft maligned capital of Haiti, Port au Prince. Most people, myself included, do not know the first thing about Haiti, and yet, it is impossible to mention the name without invoking a primal fear, an instant sense of loathing and repulsion that cannot be dislodged with any measure of evidence or reason. It was for this reason that neither of us seriously considered the country as a viable option; we sometimes joked about it, but were always quickly dissuaded by a glance at the state department’s warning. And then one day, through a set of circumstances that now elude me, we decided we were going to fly there the day after Thanksgiving and stay for 2 days.
I put an announcement on the UF outdoor club’s listserve, with a disclaimer stating that anyone who joined the trip was senselessly putting their life in extreme danger; one girl, who neither of us had ever met, replied. From her Facebook profile, I gathered that she was far less hairy and unkempt than either me or Frank, and would no doubt be in far greater danger; however, she was also fluent in French and was taking a class in Haitian Creole, making her invaluable in getting us around the country, and she was a long-distance runner, which no doubt meant she would have a super-human tolerance for the pain, fatigue, hunger, and general hardship that is typical of my trips. I made the obligatory half-hearted attempt to talk her out of it, but she remained committed to joining us. The tickets naturally went on sale the week I was in Vancouver, and in a few tense hours when I could not be found, it was decided that Amanda and I would leave on Wednesday morning, and Frank, who had class, would be joining us on Friday; when I next signed online, I took a minute to quell my qualms about missing the age-old tradition of a Thanksgiving smorgasbord, family togetherness, and volleyball, and rapidly booked the tickets.
Over the next couple weeks, we searched ad nauseam for any resource that might suggest that it was actually possible to visit the place and survive. Every government under the sun issued strong recommendations against traveling there, but digging deeper we found that the rate at which Americans were being kidnapped had dropped from fifty the previous year to only one in 2009, and the (documented) murder rate was only a tiny fraction of that in Jamaica or Washington D.C. Magazine articles the world over followed the plight of the poor starving Haitians who were eating cakes made of mud to fill their bellies, but the statistics showed that conditions were still far better than in Ethiopia and a handful of other reasonably stable countries. The week before we left, the club held a Haitian potluck; we feasted on about twenty different versions of rice and peas, and watched a documentary full of burning corpses and other indicators of an apocalyptic wasteland. The next day, Forbes released its list of the world’s most corrupt countries, with Haiti prominently holding the #1 spot. Virtually everyone we spoke to was convinced that we would suffer some terrible fate, but we had already bought the tickets, and so there was nothing to be done but to just ignore everyone and go.
Amanda and I left around 5 on Tuesday, and, due to an overturned orange truck that spewed oranges all over the highway and apparently caused around a dozen other accidents, did not get to Ft. Lauderdale til after 11. Nina had graciously volunteered to let us stay at her house and drive us to the airport, so we arrived, met her killer rabbit, briefly discussed our chances of surviving the weekend, and passed out on her couches. In the morning we dropped off my car at Frank’s grandma’s house (we would later learn that it had narrowly escaped getting towed because no one had bothered to inform Frank’s grandma of the plan), and were subsequently taken to the airport. Our plane touched down in Port au Prince just after noon on Wednesday.
As we walked off the tarmac, we were immediately greeted by the sounds of a live band, with all manner of colorful instruments made from recycled boxes. Before we could enter customs, we were intercepted by a man bearing a sign with our names. He led us to a special customs desk where we were immediately served, and then took us up to a VIP lounge where prominent signs explained that no one was to enter wearing what we were wearing. We sat for around 20 minutes on the leather couches, wondering what would happen next, and plotting what we would do if nothing happened for a great while. One of Amanda’s classmates had volunteered his dad, Ernst, to pick us up at the airport and drive us to the bus station, and before we grew too impatient, he did indeed show up.
The twenty minute ride to the bus station gradually morphed into three hours as we wound our way along a ridiculously convoluted network of roads through hellacious traffic on a variety of errands; we first ventured some 10 miles in the wrong direction to drop his friend off in Petionville, then proceeded to his bank so he could make a deposit, then went to a different bank that had an ATM (we later discovered that the airport had an ATM and if we had only exited on our own, we certainly would have found it), and finally, returned to his bank to exchange our large 1000 gourde bills for a fat bundle of a hundred 50s. He had us list off all the places we were planning to go, and then proceeded to call someone in each place to see if our plans were viable and to arrange a ride from the bus station to our hotel. He stopped at a random street corner, got out, and a man immediately materialized from nowhere, handed him a plastic bag, and quickly vanished; from this bag he produced a brand new cell phone with MP3, TV, radio, camera, GPS, and a dozen other functions. We were to keep this and use it to contact him upon our return to the city. Then, like a father dropping his kids off at school, he took us to the bus station (an intersection with some buses scattered about), found the bus that was going to the right place, and escorted us onboard.
Our original plan was to make it to Cap Haitien the first night, but by the time we finished our unexpected tour of the city, the only buses remaining were going only as far as Gonaives, a point midway between the capital and the island’s second largest metropolis on the north coast. The bus took about an hour to go anywhere, but we killed the extra time with a rather unstimulating conversation with an inebriated man who just stared at us and repeated the word ‘white’ over and over. Before the bus had even cleared the station, we got our first call from Ernst; any and all efforts to be inconspicuous were lost in a second as the phone belted out the loudest and most obnoxious ringtone imaginable, and cycled through an array of bright, multi-colored lights that were embedded throughout the device. For the full length of the ride, various vendors would stand at the front of the bus and make impassioned sales pitches for all manner of products, from chocolate to shampoo. We arrived at the Gonaives bus station a few hours after dark.
A swarm of motorcycle taxis greeted us as we stepped off the bus and we quickly arranged for two to take us to a hotel that had been recommended by a random guy on the bus. We sped away from town and down a narrow dirt road into nothingness; we saw neither lights, nor people, and after around ten minutes of riding through this nondescript darkness, we were becoming increasingly convinced that we would shortly be robbed, murdered, and left to rot in the countryside; on the upside, it was a thrilling ride, and the night sky overhead was blanketed with stars. When we had quite nearly come to terms with our grisly fate, we took a sudden turn and a lighted cluster of buildings appeared up ahead.
What we found at the end of this harrowing ride was not a city, but only two hotels, a bar, a scrapyard, and a few other random shops. We checked both hotels, chose a room in the cheaper of the two, and, having no other option, went to the other one for dinner. Amanda’s fish was delicious, but my chicken drumsticks (which were definitely not from a chicken), as well as the sides of french fries and fried plantains (which tasted exactly like french fries) left something to be desired. The meal came out to around $15, which struck me as completely ridiculous given that we happened to be in a podunk suburb in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Before entering the restaurant, I had spied a cart with a number of blenders containing liquids that closely resembled milkshakes, and had resolved to get one as soon as we were done with dinner, but when we exited the hotel we found the streets to be empty; from that moment on, it would be my tireless quest to find a milkshake somewhere on the streets of Haiti.
We never really managed to get the hang of deciphering the prices that were given to us. Besides gourdes, Haitians also commonly use the Haitian dollar (equal to 5 gourdes), and the American dollar (40 gourdes). We shortly found that there was no great way of telling which someone was employing with any given quote, so the amount that was demanded at the end of a meal or a taxi ride always came as a bit of a surprise.
Our $50 hotel room had a TV, a doorless bathroom with a waterless sink, and a fan, and was easily the worst value of anywhere I’d ever stayed. The room was a bit warm and it was a clear night, so we left after a few minutes to go sleep on the roof. Aside from dozens of little rocks stabbing into our backs, this was really a very pleasant place to be, and around 3am, we had a perfect vantage point to watch a lively little parade, complete with drums, clapping, and singing, which circled the town. Our alarm went off at 5 and we hopped on a tap-tap to head back to the bus station.
Ten hours and 150km after our arrival - our first meal
We were the first ones to board the next truck to Cap Haitien and it wouldn’t be moving an inch for another two hours. The driver had advised us (in Creole which we may or may not have interpreted correctly) that we shouldn’t get food from any of the myriad vendors at the station, because we’d be stopping somewhere better en route; sure enough, not an hour after taking off, we pulled up next to a woman with a cluster of steel buckets who served us a massive portion of rice, peas, spinach glop and a ham hock for less than $2. We would shortly learn that this was the same dish served by virtually every street vendor in Haiti, but for the time being, it was novel and delicious. We reached Cap just after noon and immediately grabbed a bus to the nearby town of Milot, home to the famed ruins of Sans Souci and the Citadelle.
We signed in at the ticket office and found that we were the only foreigners to visit the place that day. The palace of Sans Souci was less of a tourist attraction than a local hangout and was swarming with schoolchildren, starry-eyed couples, and sketchy homeless guys. After briefly walking its halls, we headed up an obvious cobblestone path to the Citadelle 7km away. A great many horse touts tried to rent us their beasts, but we refused; three of the more determined among these followed us half way up the mountain in the hope that we would eventually get tired and have no choice but to take their animals the rest of the way. The path was lined with huts, and hordes of children, many of them naked, and souvenir and drink vendors rushed out to meet us. We wrestled past these obstacles and made it to the top just in time to find the caretaker of the fortress locking up and leaving for home. With her excellent Creole, Amanda persuaded him to reopen the doors and give us a private tour. She got way more out of his explanations than I, but the long, indecipherable monologues gave me plenty of time to take pictures, and since we weren’t paying him a dime, there was no sense in objecting.
We had hoped to visit the caves of nearby Dondon, which reportedly held pictographs and artifacts from the days when the Tainos inhabited them, but we only had two hours of daylight remaining once we exited the complex, and there was no way for us to complete the arduous trail (with seven up-to-the-knees stream crossings) required to reach the place. So we reluctantly started jogging back down the mountain to try to catch the last tap-tap back to Cap.
It turned out that there were actually a great many trucks going back to the city and we had no trouble finding a ride. We had heard rumors that there was a bus leaving at midnight for Port au Prince, but reaching the bus station, we found that the next one was not until 5 in the morning. We contemplated taking a bus and then a boat taxi to the most scenic cove in the country and sleeping on the beach, but the buses had all dried up by the time we arrived at the stop. Amanda came up with the brilliant idea to rent a boat and sleep in the city’s main canal, but neither of us thought it particularly wise or straight-forward to walk along the dark waterfront looking for someone willing to part with their craft for the evening. We ended up grabbing a hotel room that was, quite remarkably, even worse than the one in Gonaives; in examining the room, I found that the shower was really just an exposed pipe that shot a stream of water horizontally against the opposite wall some two feet above my head – the owner acknowledged that this was the case but was unrepentant. We ate at a restaurant that was not only limited to just a tiny subset of the items on its menu, but it could only provide one of each item; so, for our Thanksgiving dinner, we had the last serving of goat, the last serving of chicken and, of course, fried plantains, rice and peas. We went to the main square and there found a diesel-powered soft serve ice cream machine that we had been following around town; over the course of the trip, I developed a Pavlovian association between generators and ice cream, and, upon hearing any generator, would inevitably race in its direction.
Gonaives bus station
One of thousands of roadside box 'banks'.
Haiti's main highway - note hand-me-down American school bus.
Surreptitiously taken from the back of a tap-tap.
Cap Haitien waterfront
Amanda and the gatekeeper
The north had much to offer, and we were somewhat reluctant to get up at 4am and speed back to Port au Prince. We briefly discussed forgetting about Frank and going to the beach, the caves, and a vodou ceremony happening that night; with one phone call, we could arrange for Ernst to pick him up at the airport and give him a grand tour of the country. We soon concluded, naturally enough, that this would be a poor treatment of our friend and trip organizer, so shortly before 5, we wandered across the dark city and found a place on the luggage rack of an overloaded school bus.
At first glance, you might think that being packed on a bus roof with twenty Haitians for a six hour trip down a horrendously bumpy road could be a negative experience, but it was truly an awesome ride. We had panoramic views of the sun rising up over the ocean and burning the morning mists out of the mountain valleys. We were treated to a bird’s eye view of all the bustling village markets along the route. We had the wind in our faces and probably would have felt a sensation akin to soaring over the rooftops of Haiti, if only our legs hadn’t been trapped under the weight of six other passengers. Our fellow roof dwellers were an obnoxious bunch; to every single person we passed, they yelled ‘bai mange, bai gogo’, which was most likely an order to toss up something to eat. There were no bathroom breaks, so at least two of the men discreetly passed bottles under their clothes to relieve themselves. One guy used a phone to (not very) surreptitiously take a few dozen pictures of us; this would be a reoccurring theme in our travels and seemed particularly ironic because we so desperately wanted to capture such scenes but were never brazen enough to pull out our cameras. Halfway through the trip, several of the guys started giving us instructions that included the two of us ‘couche’-ing; Amanda initially interpreted this to be an invitation to some sort of perverse voyeurism, but we later discovered that it was in fact not legal for foreigners to be on the roof of the bus, so we would have to lie down and hide ourselves whenever we passed a police checkpoint.
Once back in Port au Prince, we grabbed a series of trucks from the stop in Cite Soleil to the Aeroport International Toussaint Louverture. Here, Frank had been waiting for half an hour, while a number of taxi drivers tried to convince him that his friends had forgotten about him and that he should go with them instead. It was a little weird making an airport pickup on foot, but Frank brought little in the way of luggage (he had originally intended to bring nothing, but we thought that might not go over big with customs), so we just walked to the nearest bus stop and caught another progression of trucks down to the Jacmel bus station. We got a plate of rice, peas, slop, and chicken for $2, which was more than enough to fill all three of us, and subsequently boarded a minivan bound for the south coast.
The road to Jacmel was an exceptionally windy, scenic affair that did not agree with multiple people in Frank’s row. On both sides, Haitians were puking into bags (a substance that bore a disturbing resemblance to our lunch) and Frank promptly dozed off to avoid following suit. We arrived just around sunset and went to the main town beach; we had been running along the coast the entire trip and Amanda desperately wanted to swim, but the trash-covered sand and waves were not nearly as inviting as we had hoped. We hiked a kilometer out of town through a maze of dark, dirt roads to reach La Saline Plage, which we had heard was cleaner and was home to boatmen who would catch lobsters and fry them up for us. The first place Amanda found to swim was filled with needle-covered rocks, and she came out after a few minutes with hands full of little spines. We walked around the headlands for a bit and found a sand beach. The water was clear, though a bit slimy with the occasional floating debris, and we enjoyed a brief swim; Frank had not come prepared with any sort of swimsuit and opted to skinny dip; we had to leave all of our worldly possessions on shore, but we hid the really valuable stuff in our shoes, which was no doubt sufficient to undermine the prowess of any would-be thief that might come wandering out there in the middle of the night. We found no lobster-purveying fishermen, so we hiked back the way we had come.
Back in town, we got a dinner of chicken, rice, peas, and plantains and watched a series of music videos celebrating everyone’s favorite liquid, water. We found a hotel with a room for $45; it was tiny and was immediately adjacent to a church, a loud snoring guy, and a chicken, but we would likely not be staying there for long. We went to the Alliance Francaise for a weekly event with music and dancing, then briefly contemplated spending some time at the disco or cinema, then went back to the hotel and promptly passed out.
Frank in a tap-tap
The headlands at La Saline Plage
Our hotel’s free breakfast was supposed to be at 7, but we felt guilty sleeping in that long, so we got up at 5 and took a truck 10km east to Cyvadier Plage. This was a scenic little cove with plenty of rocks to jump around on, trees to climb, and a batch of fisherman that we watched as they tended their nets. We returned and ate a filling breakfast of eggs, bread, juice and coffee, and then grabbed another truck to Marigot.
My guidebook explained that one of the best treks in Haiti ran from the mountains near Jacmel to the alpine village of Furcy just outside of Port au Prince, and we had planned to return for our Sunday flight via this 6-8 hour route. What the book failed to mention (though curiously, we later found out that Frank’s older edition did list it) was that the approach hike to the start of the trail at Seguin was itself at least six hours long. There was a slew of motorcycle taxis at the bus stop ready to speed us up to Seguin; they all had a hearty laugh when we announced our intentions to walk up there, but we interpreted this as a typical sales tactic and plowed through their ranks to the road beyond.
The hike up the mountain had a distinctly vertical aspect to it, and we quickly found ourselves pushing the limits of our fitness. We had little in the way of food, but we were able to treat water from small waterfalls along the way. Each time we reached a village, we would think that it was in fact Seguin, and we neither had sufficient knowledge of Creole nor the necessary trust in the locals to accurately ascertain just how far away we were at any given point in time. The locals were friendly enough; many of them told us that they were hungry, and we immediately echoed the same sentiment back to them. At one point, we took to lying on the side of the road in exhaustion, trying to lift our spirits with a bit of rest and the catchy Chinese MP3s from our garish cell phone – the passers-by observed this scene with rather curious expressions.
After hiking for five or six hours, we found ourselves at a village which, from a distance, we had perceived with absolute certainty to be Seguin. Inquiring about the place, we were told that our target was still six hours further, but for forty bucks we could go on horseback. The accuracy of this was highly questionable, but we only had a few hours of daylight and very little energy remaining, so we finally resigned to return back the way we had come. Up until this point, our plan had been to reach Seguin, get some food, and then decide whether we wanted to make an overnight trek to the airport, but now there was far more uncertainty than even the three of us were comfortable with. We began our descent, taking a number of shortcuts that had not been visible from below; at one point, a bull charged down a treacherous narrow goat path just behind Amanda, and only a last-minute sidestep allowed her to avert disaster. As we were contemplating a particularly long shortcut that would either cut an hour off our trip or get us hopelessly lost, we heard honking and engine sounds from just above. I jumped into the middle of the road and started waving my arms, so as to inform the driver that he would either have to stop or run me over. We jumped into the bed of the truck on top of huge piles of vegetables and made ourselves comfortable alongside half a dozen locals. The truck would stop every few minutes to pick up another batch of vegetables, and our seating arrangement would change in interesting, unpredictable ways each time. I spent the last two hours of the ride balanced precariously on a bag of horrendously spiky vegetables; I never successfully identified them, but they were easily the least comfortable vegetable I’ve ever had the opportunity to lie on.
We returned to Jacmel in defeat and sought out some street food for dinner. We first found the milkshake cart that I had been searching for since shortly after my arrival, and the banana shakes it produced were nothing short of amazing. There was a great variety of ingredients that went into the mix, but the one that surely made the drink was a triangle of laughing cow cheese. For desert, we got a huge plate of rice, peas, slop and chicken which was identical to every other such plate we’d found. Going to the main square, we followed the sound of a generator to a delicious cup of mango yogurt. We walked out of town a ways down a dark street with intermittent pools of wet cement and other construction hazards, until we reached a guesthouse where we found a large room for $40. There was no water in the place, so we had to shower with a bucket, and it was ridiculously hot, but it did provide us with shelter from the rain, which would have been an issue with our alternative plan of sleeping on the beach, and it allowed us a few hours of sleep before our 5am bus ride.
An early morning trip to Cyvadier Plage
Frank in a tree
View from... well we really had no idea where we were...
Le seul cheval
We returned to the station and jumped on board a tap-tap to share amongst the three of us what we perceived to be the last seat. Around fifteen more people squeezed in over the span of the next hour, and I foresaw a vomit-fest as we sped through the mountain passes on our return to the capital. Luckily, the ride back was uneventful and we arrived with time to spare before our flight.
One of the more curious aspects of Haitian culture is the ubiquity of hand-me-down t-shirts from America. Virtually everyone you meet is advertising a sports team or a hospital in Florida, or is proudly announcing some sentiment that they obviously know nothing about. On the bus from Jacmel, we were seated next to a man wearing a shirt that simply read ‘Special Lady’.
We strolled down the bustling, trash-filled streets of Port au Prince. We got breakfast in an alley and stopped by a junkyard where a group of artisans had transformed trash (and a disturbing number of human skulls) into bizarre and often unsettling sculptures. Down the road a bit, the Marche de Fer seemed to be virtually free of souvenir vendors, and this being the last in a long string of unproductive market visits, we finally admitted that we would have to leave Haiti empty-handed. We grabbed a tap-tap back to the airport, checked in for our flight, and took our place for a two-hour wait in the one-room departure lounge. Back in Ft. Lauderdale, Frank’s parents picked us up, took us out for Cuban food (we couldn’t find any Haitian restaurants) and bid us a safe journey for our 6-hour ride back to Gainesville.
If I’ve failed to express it in the preceding sections, Haiti is an immensely beautiful place, full of very friendly people, great hikes, tasty food, and bizarre cultural experiences that you won’t find anywhere else. Aside from Port au Prince, we never felt that we were the least bit threatened, even when walking in the middle of the night or in isolated areas. I recommend that anyone looking for adventure travel (not for vacation), who is willing to learn a modicum of Creole and dispense with such frivolities as sleep and comfort, put this one very high on their list.
Breakfast in Port au Prince
Around the Marche de Fer
No need to fear, the UN is here!
The ubiquitous tap tap