Roaming Haiti – 2012

If you have been reading you are aware that I have been blogging about previous adventures across the USA as well as currently Roaming the globe in 2019. I have based myself in Lagos Portugal for the time being, rather than write about this which I intend to get to I thought Id cover some previous adventures, this time I’m writing about my roaming about Haiti in 2012.

At the time Id been in Central America for roughly two months (which Ill blog about at a later date) when I received a message from a friend to come and visit him in Haiti as I was in the region, Cancun Mexico to be exact. My knowledge of Haiti was limited to understanding that’s where Voodoo originated from based on the James Bond movie Live and Let Die, the movie incidentally was not shot on location in Haiti. So instead of going to Cuba which I had intended to do I decided to take my friends invitation and head to this small Caribbean Island. I had very little understanding as to what was in store for me for the 5 nights, I was going to spend there.

My plane flight over was quite interesting, I met a group of American students that were spending their “vacation” time going to Haiti to do relief work. This involved farming and assisting in the construction of temporary housing for the local population, the people I spoke to seemed quite motivated. The rest of the small plane seemed to be made up of Haitian residents, I got the distinct impression that I was most likely the only tourist heading to the island. As we came over the island itself, one of the Haitian passengers swapped seats with me so I could see out the window, the passenger pointed out that you can actually see the border between Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic by looking at the tree line. Where the forest stopped is where the borderline was located, this was first time I’ve been able to distinguish two separate countries in such a way and may just be the only place in the world where this happens.

After we landed, we entered the airport terminal, it was actually more like a warehouse made of corrugated iron, quite large and dark, not exactly what I would expect from an flight terminal. I was rushed through customs, actually I think I could have walked through with no border check however I thought it best to get an entry stamp, when the officer asked me why I was visiting I said tourist to which he laughed, looked at me strangely and waived me through. As I exited the airport, I saw no taxi rank, rather a series of United Nation vehicles, trucks, 4wd’s and a few tanks, I turned to my right and thankfully my friend was there waiting and waved me over Tip Haiti is not for tourists if you don’t have some sort of guide. My mate and I walked over to his 4wd we jumped in and drove away, Id arrived in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

I’ll get back to my impression of Port Au Prince at the end of this blog, as it had been quite a long flight my friend took me to where we were staying, Pétion-Ville. This suburb or enclave is where wealthy citizens, foreign businessman and diplomats choose to live. Its quite a modern area with bars, night clubs, restaurants and shopping, however within the area are a lot of guarded community areas with barbed wire fences. We headed to the house he was located at, my friend was living with a buddy who worked for the United Nations, we pulled in, two guards with pump action shot guns waved us through the front gate and I had a look at the house, it was more of a mansion really, two stories, plenty of bedrooms and an outdoor swimming pool. However, the pool was empty, a dead lizard at the bottom of it and the house itself had very little in the way of furnishing, a few chairs, mattresses, and WIFI. After getting myself sorted, we drove to one of the local bars, had a catch up and discussion about what I and he had been up to.

My friend was who is French was working for a French Non-Government Organisation (NGO) doing microfinance. From what I understand many Haitians don’t have a complete sense of monetary value and currency generally. His job was to implement a system as to where the local business owners, mainly people selling from street stores, would invest their earnings in a bank account instead of literally hiding money under the bed or wherever else. Haiti is the poorest Western Hemisphere country in the world with an average income of $250 US a year and roughly 80% of the country living in poverty. My friend also indicated that quite often the American actor Sean Penn would be in the bar we were at but unfortunately, he was away. Sean Penn runs a large non for-profit organisation on the island and spends quite some time there. After a few beers we headed back to the house, my friend indicated we would have to be up at 4am the following morning as we were going hiking, I had no idea at the time how strenuous this would be.

Up at four and still half asleep we had an organised driver that took us for roughly a 2-hour journey further into Haiti heading up a mountain range. When we arrived, my friend indicated that we would need to be piggy backed on two motorcycles, one for my friend and one for me. Now few things scare me as much as being piggy backed on a motorbike, everyone has their own pet fears, the dark, spiders, snakes…. Whatever this is actually mine, and we had no helmets. I asked if I could just ride the bike myself as I am experienced however that was a no go so holding my breath and closing my eyes a lot of the way we commenced riding across the mountain terrain for the next hour or so. I can’t say I took much in, we passed through a few villages but as it was early there weren’t many people around, just a lot of goats by the trail side and some amazing views of the mountains as the sun started to rise. I really didn’t care though and was greatly relieved when we ditched the bikes an hour or so later, we would be hiking for the next few days.

Now I wasn’t exactly in peak condition for hiking, I am a pretty fit guy but the past two months of nights out, food and beer, in Central America had meant I was not exactly in hiking shape. The hike I was on was roughly 40km to the town of Jacmel and so this was going to take some effort. Our destination for the night was accommodation in the mountains at Auberge and the first 3 to 4 hours involved ascending roughly 2000 metres. This involved climbing a 100-metre cliff which needed to be crawled up instead of walking upright, I was not likely to fall however this was still somewhat hectic and quite a strain. After climbing that we rested briefly and I took in the stunning views of the mountain range, green mountains with virtually no trees. Id not seen a place before that had been stripped of so much forest and was now grass and plants remained, it was quite beautiful but very sad that so much deforestation had occurred to never grow back. Further ascending we eventually made it into a pine forest, it was quite peaceful strolling through the National park, there were waterways, wildlife mainly consisting of birds and goats and we say very few people.

After the 2 hours by 4wd, 1 hour by bike and 5-hour hike we reached our hostel for the evening. There were no other guests staying, the route we were walking is quite popular for expat Westerners living in Haiti, it was nice to sit on the porch in a rocking chair and rest for a bit. The owner gave us a menu to look at, the options were plantain and goat so that’s what we ordered. There was no beer option so we decided to walk down to the local village about 30 min away to get a six pack, Id gotten my second wind by then so this was not a problem and after such a hard day I was craving beer. We eventually found a 6 pack at the village, essentially a small market place with old buildings in various states of disrepair, and then headed back to the hostel. As we walked past the kitchen the owner had a goat spread eagled between two poles and was cutting into it, the goat still alive. I was tired, shrugged my shoulders and sat down on the porch and cracked open the beers, ate the goat and headed to bed exhausted.

The following day with a belly full of goat we headed back to the village and commenced a 7-hour hike to Jacmel. My friend indicated we could get piggy backed on bikes but there was no way I was going to do that again and I was starting to appreciate the exercise, that and also the hike was all downhill by a windy dirt track. Most of the hike involved looking at the Caribbean Sea to our left. There was a lot of forest in this part of the island which was fantastic and it was good to know that not all of Haiti had been ravaged. We passed more and more people and a lot of the children came up to us yelling “Dollar” laughing and then running away. Very few white people pass this way and my friend indicated white people are pretty rare in the moutains. He also told me there was a form of reverse racism in that some Haitians think that being white means a better life and that they seriously envy us.

My friend chatted with some people in Creole (some Haitians also speak French), I on had no idea what people were saying as English is rarely used in Haiti, especially in the mountains, so when locals smiled at me all I could do was grin back. Most of the world I’ve been there is always someone that speaks English and I can honestly say Ive never been to a place where I was do dependent on someone else, it was a truly unique and enjoyable experience,

Towards the end of our hike I had the rather silly idea of taking a shortcut cut down a mountain to cut down on the time it was taking to follow the windy road we were on. This involved scaling down a steep forest cliff face on our buts for around 15 min. It was by sheer luck we avoided a small cliff drop of 20 metres on either side of our descent as we could not have climbed back out of where we were located, successfully we made it to the ground and headed to the river to wash ourselves. Our 7-hour hike had come to an end, at the edge of the National Park there were taxis parked, essentially old Toyota Hilux’s that fit 12 people in the back, we jumped into one of these crowded vehicles and 20 minutes later reached out hotel in the town of Jacmel. As indicated, it had been a 40km 2-day hike, exhausting and picturesque and a great way to get a better understanding of the locals even though with the language barrier I don’t think Ill every really understand the local.

The hotel we were at by Haitian standards was quite luxurious, Haiti was once much more affluent which includes nice hotels like the one we were staying at on the coast. Much like everything else it had been run down over the years and didn’t have many customers, however it was comfortable. It was great to use the pool and swim in the Caribbean ocean for a few days, there were also Creole food for dinner and we enjoyed and at night there was a live band on playing local Haitian music and drinking plenty of beer and Jamaican rum. The town of Jacmel itself has a population of roughly 40,000 and is Spanish and French in design. It was nice to have a look around but also run down. My mate met a friend at a local beach the following day and he gave us a ride back to Port Au Prince which was about 80km away. This took around 4 hours as the traffic was chaotic which is putting it nicely.

The last day we had a look around Port Au Prince itself, a city of roughly 11 million people it is in a shocking state of disrepair. The dire economic situation, high unemployment, successive governments stripping Haiti of natural resources have contributed to this but mostly it was the Haitian Earthquake of 2010. The magnitude 7 earthquake killed anywhere between 100,000 and 160,000 people, destroying most of the local infrastructure including the National Assembly and Presidential Palace and the devastation can be seen everywhere. The United Nations police the country, there is little visible in the way of rec-construction but there is significant aid going on which include the Americans Id met on the plane, Sean Penn, the UN and of course my mate.

On my last night my mate took me back to the bar where we had hung out five nights earlier. We discussed other aspects of Haiti, Voodoo for one which my mate categorically ruled out as something I should experience. Haiti also practices slavery where children from poorer families sell children to other families where they become domestic servants until they reach adulthood. There is also no police force as this duty is taken up by the United Nations and many governments though the years have been impeached due to political corruption.

The Haitians are a beautiful people and very friendly, sadly though even with the constant ongoing help of the world, the country will never break their cycle of poverty so my utmost respect to all those that at least try, perhaps Ill try myself one day. Despite the mass deforestation and devastation of the island, its quite a beautiful place as you can see from my photos and it was truly a privilege for me to see this place for a brief stay. It is not a tourist destination for the faint hear-ted and as indicated if you don’t have a friend locally based or guide forget about visiting.