Saturday, March 03, 2012

Into The Heart Of Haiti

The Caribe Tours bus was as yellow and black and as big and air-conditioned as a bus could be. We rolled out of Santo Domingo, past the Ikea store, onto the four lane semi-freeway, and two hours later we were in Santiago, the DR's second biggest city. and the quintessence of the DR's non-special status. A half hour stop there, and even with the additional passengers we picked up, the bus was barely a quarter full. On we went towards the northwestern corner of the country.
Another report I had read claimed that the border would take two hours, but we were through both sides in forty minutes. Driver did all the work with the passport stamping.
The towns and countryside as we had gotten closer to the border had gotten progressively poorer and dirtier. So my first impression of Haiti was that it was not all that much crappier. But I was just kidding myself, because within about twenty miles I was no longer comparing it to the poor parts of Central America, but dredging up my memories of Africa. And not in the exotic sense, either.
I have seen so much abject poverty by now that I don't know how you would relate to what I was seeing. To my eyes it wasn't that horrible: A fair number of vehicles, small stores selling Coca Cola, an occasional piece of road equipment. The first UN compound, although it wasn't anything special. No starved bodies lying by the side of the road.
Actually, for most of the time there wasn't much of anything, since the land was dry and cactus-y and there weren't any towns or people. But around 4:30 we came upon a large conglomeration of garbage and pathetic shacks and signs that heralded the approach of civilization.
It was the outskirts of Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city. Soon we were in the inskirts, and a couple of minutes later we were inside the tiny compound which was the Caribe Tours international terminus.
By the time I had the bags out from under the bus Maureen was freaking out about the hot, ugly chaos we had just driven through, and that we would now have to walk through. Culture shock, I guess. She had the same sort of problem relating to Nashville when we moved there. I sweetly explained to her that I knew what was going on and that it would only be a five minute walk.
Fortunately for me Cap Haitien has short blocks laid out in a grid of numbered streets and lettered avenues. Fifteen minutes later we were near Rue 22 and Avenue C, the missionary guest house I had booked.
Well, I'm not sure the owner was a missionary, but he was an American and a Christian who had purchased this house as a way to train Haitians in the hospitality industry, and had one room to rent in it. Given the horrible and horribly expensive alternatives, I had been glad to reserve it.
The Haitian who he was training, a young girl named Boulna, happened to be hanging out on the front step, and she took us up to the room on the third floor. Then she volunteered to take me to a bank to change money. Down narrow, dirty, but none too dangerous streets, and we were shortly at Rue 12 and Avenue A. No matter how much poverty you've seen, it's always a culture shock of some sort when it's thrust right in your face. I was quickly adjusting.
The fact that Boulna was so delightfully sweet made it all the easier. Back to the guest house and up the stairs. Fan, no a/c. A nice breeze on the little veranda. (The ocean, by the way, was just past Avenue A.) Lie on the bed and rest for a bit.
Now the sun was down and we were hungry. Boulna directed us to the best restaurant in town, which was about ten minutes away and fronted on the ocean. And an incredibly litter filled beach. It was on the level of a second rate DR or third rate Costa Rican cafe. Then it was back to our room and resting up for a new day.
A bit of history here: After around 1570 Santo Domingo and Hispaniola had faded from prominence. By 1700 French settlers and planters started to take over, and by the late 18th Century the island was France's most important possession and by far the richest colony in the world. People loves their sugar fix. Then came the French Revolution and a slave revolt, and all the white people were killed. Napoleon said 'screw it' and the blacks were left to run the island.
(The DR's Independence Day dates from 1844 when they threw off the chains of their black oppressors, who had the nasty habit of coming over to the eastern part of the island and killing all the Spanish who still lived there.)
Anyway, the guy who ended up taking over northern Haiti was named Henri Christophe, and he immediately set himself up as emperor. He also immediately enslaved 20,000 of his just liberated fellow slaves, and forced them to work for 15 years to build one of the most collossal fortresses ever about 3000 feet up on top of a mountain. When I was a kid he was presented, to the extent that he was ever mentioned, as one of the craziest tyrants ever. Then it became politically incorrect to say that about a black person.
He was also one of the most idiotic tyrants ever, since if anyone had wanted to invade they could have just ignored him and his fortress. After all, he and his 5000 soldiers were 3000 feet up a mountain. Anyway, no foreigners ever did invade, and he ended up blowing his brains out as his competitor from southern Haiti was approaching.
I say all this because ever since I first heard the story in 1956 I had wanted to see this famed Citadelle. Now here was my chance, since it was only twenty miles or so from Cap Haitien. But, this being Haiti, they haven't put any effort in getting people to see this umpteen Eighth Wonder of the world. The main way to do it is to ride a horse all the way up the mountain. Problem is, I have a bad back by now, and I'm way allergic to horses. On the other hand, the LP had said that 4 wheel drives can make it most of the way up, and other sources had said that motorcycles did it.
But last night Boulna's little guide friend had said that a) 4 wheel drives were not available, b) that the horse ride was 5 hours up, and c) that where from the motorcycle parking area it was still a 2 hour hike straight up in the hot sun. Problem is, I've been to enough poor, wretched countries to know that often nobody in them knows anything about anything. On the other hand, the LP had already proven itself wrong innumerable times so far. Who to believe?
Anyway, first we had to go buy bus tickets for tomorrow. After a slow service and high priced breakfast at the faded 1920s ambience of Cap Haitien's best hotel, we headed over to Avenue A and down south towards past Rue 0. The small city got poorer and dirtier, until when we arrived at the place that the taptaps (small covered pickups with wooden benches down each side) for the small town by the Citadelle. It all looked pretty dreadful, especially to Maureen's sensibilities. Hmm.
Then over to Avenue L and down a ways to where the buses for Port au Prince left. The best ones were garishly painted school buses. Unlike most anywhere else in the Third World, there were no obvious bus company offices or helpful touts to steer you to them. All rather chaotic. Since virtually no one speaks even French, only Creole, it took me a while to finally get someone to understand and take us to a dingy counter. There we scored two tickets.
By now we were hot and exhausted, so we took a local taptap up Avenue L and made it back to the guest house. By the time of my old man's nap it was after 1 pm. Kind of late to even make it out to the wrecked palace at the bottom of Citadelle mountain. Even worse, as opposed to every other grungy country in the Third World, there were no taxis hanging out at best hotel, nor anyone driving past us offering a deal out there. So even the fancy tourist option was out.
I could have also taken a taptap out in the other direction to a supposedly nice beach. But I would have had to take a small boat around the cape, then take one back, then a taptap back, and by now it was almost 2. I gave up. Maureen rested at the house and I cruised the rest of Cap Haitien. A totally unremarkable 'cathedral' fronting on a substandard public square, and the claustrophobic crowded darkness of the public market.
Some more walking past the incredibly garbage strewn beach, then back home. The power had been out all day, but creaked back on around 5. I had arranged for Boulna to make a veggie Creole dinner for us at 6. At 7 I heard her chopping the vegetables. Aaagh! Finally at 7:40 or so we were eating.
Up at 5:45 for the 7 o'clock bus. Boulna was supposed to be up and making us oatmeal. At 6:15 I went to see what the matter was. She was rubbing her eyes. Then she produced her cell phone and it said 5:15. You mean even the cell phones didn't know the correct time? Then it dawned on me: Haiti was in a different time zone than the DR. Oops. Many apologies, Boulna. And that also meant that I could have gone somewhere yesterday afternoon...
Somehow Boulna found us a taxi on the deserted streets. When we got to the bus it was already full, except for the empty seat up front. We took it and off we went. After about ten guys squeezed in the front door at the last minute.
They were only on for a few km. Then we were slowly grinding our way up a mountain on one of the worst national highways ever. Three hours of bumpy hell, then we got to Gonaives, at 60,000 people Haiti's third largest 'city'. At least its downtown was a lot cleaner and calmer than Cap Haitien's. Maybe Haiti wasn't so bad after all.
The road got a lot better, also. A relatively well paved 2 lane masterpiece. Not too much traffic. And as we went alongside the ocean there were even a few well gated (for Haiti) vacation homelets with actual bougainvillas blossoming.
But don't get your hopes up. Because the climate was no longer desert-y, but for as far as you could see the mountains were totally barren. Nevada barren. When we were in Madagascar I had looked in vain for obvious signs of the environmental disaster that is supposed to be there. Here there was no mistaking how denuded the people had made everything. If nothing else, it drove home just how hopeless Haiti's situation is.
As if that weren't enough, we were now approaching the first UN agglomerations of cheap blue and dirty grey plastic that are euphemistically called 'tent cities'. Soon we were curving around a long crescent bay that held Port au Prince. And then we were in it. At the worst, slummiest part. Yes, there are slums almost as bad in India and Africa. But that didn't make this any pleasanter.
Nor did the fact that the bus ground to a stop in the smack dab middle of it. This was so bad that Maureen couldn't even afford to have a freak out. I tried to keep my center, concentrated on retrieving the bags from the top of the bus, then allowed a tout to lead us to a dilapidated waiting taxi. Fortunately the cab driver was calm and polite, and he soon had us out of the slum and heading for downtown Port au Prince


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