“Why are you going there?” “It’s better to stay here” “the people their are weird/violent/eat crap food” Some of the comments you get when talking to Dominicans about going to Haiti. In all fairness, wherever you are in the world, there are always people who tell you the next country over is not worth visiting. Indian’s tell you Myanmar is poor and you shouldn’t go there. Burmese say Thailand is too touristy and you should avoid it. Thai’s say Cambodians eat spiders (this is actually true) and Khmers don’t say anything because they’re too nice. But when Dominicans are not warning you about the dangers of Haiti (and most do) the useful information they give is to head to Cap Haitien first to break yourself in easy. Clearly we ignored their advice and headed straight for the snake pit that can be Port au Prince. So in my head Cap Haitien was going to be a city sanctuary, an even softer version of the Haiti we had seen so far, and a slow paced place to see out the rest of our days in the country; for the most part we weren’t disappointed.
Way up on the north coast of the country, Cap Haitien is first and foremost a port city. The industrial harbour lies at the heart of the city with goods loaded on and off the boats which go directly to the market a few blocks over. This occurs six days a week during daylight hours and covers most of the centro area of the city. I have rarely seen a city that is quite dominated by market life and for anyone who loves nothing more than wandering around vast open air markets with bustling streets filled screaming vendors; it’s a real treat. In my case, the vendors were far more interested in screaming “blanc! blanc” than trying to sell me their avocados, but I bought them anyway. If you are at all into avocados, this is the place for you. A couple of huge avocados the likes of which european supermarkets can only dream of, will set you back 50 gourde and are about 40 pence each. Whatever you buy in Haiti, it’s cinqaunte gourde. Fried plantain at the market? Cinqaunte gourde. Spare tyre for the motorbike? Cinqaunte gourde. New jeans due to an excessive diet of fried plantain and 50p beers? Cinqaunte gourde. Yes indeed, the diet for vegetarians in Haiti definitely sits in the “limited” bracket.
I’d better get onto the things we actually did in Cap Haitien rather than waste your time with sub par witticisms because in fact, there is an awful lot to see and do around Cap. I managed to convince a local guy who owned one of our favourite bars to lend us the use of his bike for a few days while we were in town and we were off exploring on two wheels. Driving through morning and evening rush hours over loose, mud roads with two pillions, and the most unbelievable traffic I have encountered outside of India was probably the most stressful driving experience of my life. At least I had some sort of control (although limited) over the vehicle amongst the sea of chaos, I can only imagine how Diego and Coco were feeling on the back, but, on this particular morning we made it out of the madness and onto the open road towards Citadel La Ferrier.
The Citadel is probably Haiti’s most famous monument, therefore, a popular tourist destination. We weren’t surprised however to find ourselves quite literally the only people inside this truly vast structure – the citadel is the largest fort in the whole of the Americas. Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America after successfully overthrowing Napoleons rule, and was built by the Haitians in fear of reprisals from the French. Thankfully they were never realised. It is a staggering piece of military engineering, built to last millennia. I stared up at the fort perched hundreds of meters up in the sky and had never seen a more intimidating and well defended building. We had complete freedom to roam as we pleased and spent a good few hours walking the courtyards, climbing the towers, and roaming the gun batteries. A particularly surprising find was spotting the royal coat of arms on one of the enormous cannons. The gun had been captured by the Haitians after brief English occupation and was now resting alongside the rest of the impressive arsenal. It was a strange feeling to be in front of a cannon cast in 1719 alongside two others that now sit at the Tower of London, just 15 miles from my old house. I had followed this gun to a small corner of the Caribbean that few visit, and stood in the same abandoned fort two hundred years later looking out over the same misty plains below.
We had been staying at a charming little primary school in the city centre of Cap run by a really lovely local couple with the help of a couple of local teachers. Waking up to the children practicing their french in the morning was the best alarm clock you can think off, and while Coco was in the classroom helping out, I was heading to the local patisserie to pick up fresh croissants and pan au raisins. We had heard stories from some of the NGO’s in PaP of a secret cove (although not so secret if we knew about it and we’d only been in the country 5 minutes) around the coast which is only accessible by boat. The road to the boats was a joy to ride, with long meandering stretches of fresh asphalt with ocean views and the odd private beach resort. We stopped off one day to play a bit of tennis and remembered just how quickly you lose all ability after a year without practice. The beach to catch the boat from was really bizarre, the approach felt like entering a military compound and as we rounded the corner the reason for the heightened security became clear. A colossal cruise ship was waiting patiently just off shore, and to our right, beyond the electric fences, row of armed guards and snarling guard dogs, was a sea of white faces densely packed into this tiny stretch of sand. I suppose for most people who visit Haiti, that tiny stretch of sand is all they see of this diverse and welcoming nation – which for them is a little sad. For us we felt lucky to be on our side of the fence, the Haitian side of the fence. You are free to catch a boat to a remote cove beach, or test your motorbike skills riding through the teeming urban streets, but primarily to see Haiti for what is it to the average Haitian – a fucking hard life and a reality that is important to see and begin to understand. Needless to say the beach was stunning.
So, that was Haiti. There are so many more things to write about but this blog has already go on for far too long. I haven’t recounted the night we went out for food and drinks and ended up less than a metre away from the president on stage as he delivered a rousing political sermon, or our trek up into the jungle followed by a couple of fearless, bare footed kids intent on exploring with us. Such is the breadth of experiences this small nation has provided for us all. I truly hope that cities like Cap Haitien fulfil their obvious potential over the coming years, and that the country can stabilise politically. This means avoiding the corruption that curses most governments in these parts, and staying free from disasters that have set back the people back from living the standard of life they so dearly desire. Now it’s back to the Dominican Republic for more fun on two wheels and exploration of the North.
Bonsoir pour la final.