Haiti

Hiking towards the Carribbean

Haiti

Going for a hike

Haiti

Sunset in Port-au-Prince

Roaming Haiti – 2012

At the time Id been in Central America for roughly two months (which Ill blog about later) when I received a message from a mate to come and visit Haiti. I was actually in Cancun, Mexico, which is the complete opposite to the nation of Haiti. My knowledge of Haiti was limited to understanding that’s where Voodoo originated from based on the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. This film incidentally was not filmed on location in Haiti. So instead of going to Cuba, which was my intention (maybe some day… sigh) I took up my mates’s invitation and flew to this Caribbean Island. I did not understand what was in store for me for the 5 nights I was spending there.

My plane flight over was 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 makeshift housing for the resident population. The people I spoke to seemed quite motivated. The rest of the small plane appeared to be Haitian residents, I got the 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 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, I believe this is unique though open to correction if anyone has seen this somewhere else.

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 a 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 Nations vehicles, trucks, 4wd’s and a few tanks. I turned to my right and thankfully my mate was there waiting and waved me over; it appeared that Haiti is not exactly a tourist destination. 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.

As it had been quite a long flight my mate took me to where we were staying, Petion-Ville. This suburb or enclave is where wealthy citizens, foreign businessman and diplomats live. It’s quite a modern area with bars, nightclubs, 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 mate 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. I had a look at the house, it was more of a mansion really, two stories, plenty of bedrooms and an outdoor swimming pool. 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 mate 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. His job was to implement a system where the local business owners, mainly people selling from street stores. People 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. He told me the American actor Sean Penn would be in the bar we were at, but unfortunately, he was away. Sean Penn the actor 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. An alarm was set for 4am to go hiking (this was so not Cancun).

The following morning 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 mate said that we would need to be piggy backed on two motorcycles. Very 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. I held my breath and closing my eyes a lot of the way we started riding across the mountain terrain for the next hour or so. We passed through a few villages, there weren’t many people awake but there were lots cute little goats. There were amazing views of the mountains as the sun rose. I really didn’t care though and was greatly relieved when we ditched the bikes an hour or so later. We would hike for the next few days.

Now I wasn’t exactly in peak condition for hiking, the past two months of nights out, food and beer, in Central America had meant I wasn’t in shape. The route we were on was roughly 40km to the town of Jacmel, this would take 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 required crawling 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 never seen an area with so much deforestation and it was unlikely it would ever grow back. Further ascending we eventually made it into a pine forest, it was peaceful strolling through the National park. There were waterways, wildlife mainly comprising 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 was popular for Westerners living in Haiti, I liked sitting on the porch in a rocking chair. 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 walked down to the local village about 30 minutes 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 marketplace 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 “cute” goat, we headed back to the village and started a 7-hour hike to Jacmel. My mate said we could get back on the bikes but I wasnt doing that again. That and also the hike was all downhill by a windy dirt track. Most of the walk had the Caribbean Sea to our left, we entered a forest. We passed 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 mate said caucasian people are pretty rare in the mountains. He also told me there was reverse racism in that some Haitians think being white means a better life and that they seriously envy us.

My mate chatted with some people in Creole (some Haitians also speak French). I did not understand what people were saying as English is rarely used in Haiti, especially in the mountains. When locals smiled at me all I could do was grin back. Anywhere I have travelled in the world I have always found someone that can speak English. I can honestly say Ive never been to a place where I was done dependent on someone else. It was a truly unique, enjoyable and yet frightening experience (and I’m a hardcore traveller).

Towards the end of our hike I had the idea of taking a shortcut cut down a mountain to cut our travel time as we were following a windy road. 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. We successfully we made it to the ground and headed to the river to wash ourselves. Our 7-hour hike had ended, at the edge of the National Park there were taxis parked 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. It had been a 40km 2-day hike, exhausting, picturesque and an active way to get a better understanding of the local culture.

The hotel we were at by Haitian standards was quite luxurious, in the past Haiti was affluent which includes nice hotels by 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 Jamaican rum. The town of Jacmel itself has a population of roughly 40,000 and is Spanish and French in design. It was interesting to walk around and was in general disrepair. We met with my mates buddy 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. This included the National Assembly and Presidential Palace and the devastation can be seen everywhere. There was 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 we wen 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. I found out also that 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. Deforestation of Haiti began in the early 18th century, after the French left in 1803 and continued ever since. Politcal corruption in Haiti combined with the Earthquake of 2010 means the situation there is dire.

National Assembly

The Haitians appear to be a beautiful happy people despite abject poverty the country is in. It appears 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, it’s quite a beautiful place as you can see from my photos. Tt was truly a privilege for me to see this place for a brief stay. It is not a tourist destination for the faint-hearted and if you don’t have a guide forget about it, anyway I was no on my way to the USA.

Austin Texas USA

Sunset on the Austin City Limits Festival