In Haiti, Beauty That Plays Hard to Get To (New York Times)

  • Posted on: 14 February 2014
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Below is an article by Dean Nelson in the New York Times about a trip taken to some of Haiti's most beautiful and remote sites. Could these sites one day help promote tourism in Haiti? Perhaps with the right physical and human infrastructure to support it.  In any case, it is a reminder that there is a lot to see, much of it beautiful, outside of Port au Prince.

 

 

It’s hard to know exactly how many waterfalls there are on the side of the mountain in a remote corner of southeast Haiti. From my vantage point on a nearby slope, I counted at least a dozen, and that was at the end of the dry season last year. The rainy season in the spring, I’d been told, puts the cascade in Cascade Pichon.  From a distance, it looks impossible to get to the falls. During the ride there, in a four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser, it certainly felt impossible.  We had traveled for seven hours from Port-au-Prince — and maybe two of those hours were on pavement.  The rest of it was gravel, dry riverbed, flood plain and steep incline. One side of the alleged road was often a cliff.

 

The last half-mile looked impassable because of the severity of the climb, the looseness of the ground, the sharpness of the switchbacks and the lack of guardrails to prevent one from pitching into thin air.  I wasn’t convinced that a sure-footed mule could make this happen.  But the driver didn’t hesitate as he revved the engine and threw the truck into low gear.  We fishtailed and swerved and hopped our way to the top, blasting past a small church with hundreds of uniformed students in classes both inside and outside the building, past a flat spot big enough for a soccer game (which was perpetual), and finally to the peak, where during the 1970s Baby Doc Duvalier stood and gazed at the falls, declaring it one of Haiti’s greatest tourist destinations.  Surely he got there by helicopter.  I had to agree with the dictator on this one, though. The falls are spectacular.  They are fed by an underground lake at the top of the mountain, and they burst out every few feet, like so many faucets stuck in the open position. We walked up into the falls, careful to make way for the occasional cow trotting downhill and a boy who appeared to be perhaps 10.  At the bottom of the falls is a lush valley that becomes a lake when the spigots are fully loosed in late spring and fall.

 

I discovered the falls while on a reporting trip to chronicle volunteer efforts among Haitians who are organizing their own community service groups.  It brought me to this remote pocket of a country whose beauty has been devastated over the years by disasters — natural, economic and political.  The earthquake that struck four years ago was a combination of the three, causing billions in damage and thousands of deaths, swiftly followed by a cholera outbreak that has killed thousands more, and a presidential election that led to violent protests.  The idea that nature could be used to Haiti’s advantage for once has taken root again among nonprofits and officials who are seeking to position it as an ecotourism destination.  An astute local businessman, hoping to realize Mr. Duvalier’s dream a few years ago, built the one-story Hotel Deruisseau on a mesa directly across from the falls.  I stayed there, though I would describe it as more of a “sleeping space” than a hotel: The room had a bed, a night stand and an overhead bulb, all behind a door that didn’t quite clear the bed.  There was a shower in the communal bathroom, but no shower head — just a pipe that poured cold water, like one of the tiny cascades.  (Hot water was a luxury that you have to do without.)  Electricity from the generator was shut off at 10 p.m.  But as I lay in bed, all I could hear was the falls — the greatest white noise ever.  I woke up to a breakfast of plain noodles, lettuce and Doritos (extra cheesy), prepared by locals who served us in a community gathering area (concrete slab, metal roof) about 50 feet from the hotel.  Just down from there is a community that lost five people to cholera a few days before I got there.  A couple of newly plucked chickens lay in a bucket in the corner of the room.  Dinner.

 

My fellow guests there were not tourists. They were Haitian doctors and nurses who built a nearby clinic (just across the valley from the falls) with the help of some American volunteers after a census revealed that the communities surrounding the cascade lacked adequate health care.  That this stunning attraction remains a well-kept secret was stunning in and of itself.  We couldn’t stay for the chicken dinner, because there was another hard-to-reach area we wanted to visit.  We descended the mountain and headed in another direction; we joined National Route 4, a “road” that begins at Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic.  After two more hours of tire-shredding, neck-snapping terrain, we suddenly hit pavement, or at least graded dirt and gravel, and arrived at the coastal city of Belle Anse, population 51,000.  The town square is rustic, with touches that felt modern after the cascades:  paved streets, electricity, stores, restaurants, office buildings with working toilets and running water, a radio station and a medical clinic with an adjacent cholera-treatment facility.  The men and women I met there were young, educated, business-minded and energetic.  Within a few hundred feet, though, the road disappears and travelers step back in time.  Housing then becomes a combination of wood, cinder block, concrete and tin.  All of it is vulnerable during the rainy season as water sweeps from the surrounding mountains to the shore.  But it is also reminiscent of the Hawaii of the 1930s. There were cliffs, fishing boats, a beach, a lagoon, even a cliché scene of fishermen weaving nets under a cluster of palm trees.

 

Belle Anse embodies the contradictions you find in Haiti.  The natural beauty of the beaches stops you dead in your tracks.  So does the poverty.  So does the potential.   Most of the tourists who visit are from the nearby island of Guadeloupe, said the town’s mayor, Pierre Mercidieu.  His community is less touristy and less developed than much of that island, so people come for the simplicity, he said.  I’m no dictator, but even I saw potential for more tourism.  So I had to ask Mr. Mercidieu the obvious question about the only obstacle to attracting visitors: that road.  The only other way to get there is by small fishing boat, a 48-mile journey from the closest city, Jacmel.  Had the mayor considered making it easier for travelers to get there, and for developers to want to build hotels or resorts?

 

“Of course, we want to develop the road,” he said in Creole, through an interpreter.  “It is a national road.  But there is a lack of political will on the part of the government, and there aren’t enough resources.  Belle Anse is the most beautiful place in all of Haiti.  It would have many more visitors if it had a road.” Late last month, Mr. Mercidieu met with dozens of government leaders from other surrounding regions, called communes, to create a strategy for pooling their resources and political influence to develop the area.  One of the main agenda items was the road.  “If that forum really comes together,” said Christophe Rodrique, another community leader, “this region will change socially, politically and in every other dimension.  Those are not just my words; those are the dreams of the leaders of this region.”

 

But for now they remain dreams rather than solid plans.  Mr. Mercidieu invited us to stay for lunch and showed us some freshly caught fish in a nearby cooler. “Another time,” I promised — and I really meant it.  But my interpreter and I had a few other clinics to visit.  We drove farther into the interior of the area to a community that translated from Creole means “Singed Cat.”  There, we ate rice and beans cooked by a lady outside the clinic’s entrance.  We spent the night in the home of a friend of the interpreter’s in a community called Bleck.  There were no screens or coverings on the windows of the house, so instead of hearing the white noise of waterfalls, I heard insects in the room and roosters doing a call and response outside.  Around 5 a.m., the motorcycles started.  Bleck is a pleasant town, but it won’t be in the “Come to Haiti to Relax” ad campaign.

 

Returning to Port-au-Prince the next day, feeling like a bobblehead doll (that road!), I sensed a moment of tension in the driver and interpreter.  Traffic had increased and movement slowed to a crawl. Thousands of people were in the streets, walking home from school, from work, to the market.  Unfazed at the seemingly unsafe driving conditions we had experienced for a few days, the two in the front seat became quiet.  I saw their veins throb, their heads scanning the scene left to right, as if they were watching a Ping-Pong game.  At one intersection where cars, trucks, “tap-taps” (local taxis), pedestrians and motorcycles all compressed into a knot that looked as if it could be dispersed only by a Big Bang, I heard the interpreter barely, but sternly, whisper, “Allez, allez.”  The driver abruptly downshifted, veered out of his lane and bolted through honking horns and terrified children, driving at top speed onto side streets and then back onto a main street where traffic was moving again.  How he did that without killing anyone (including us) was impressive.  The interpreter, calm again, turned to me. “That intersection is a forbidden area for most NGO vehicles because of so many kidnappings,” he said. “I didn’t like how it was feeling just then.”

 

Haiti is its own type of intersection, where past and present collide.  But way, way far away from the gridlock, where it’s really difficult to get to, there is something else.  Maybe it’s not the past or the present. Maybe it’s the future. I think I saw the road headed in that direction.

 

HOW EXTREME?  Rankings are from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very).

 

Remoteness 3: If by car, which takes more than seven hours. It would be rated 1 if by helicopter, which takes 22 minutes.

 

Creature Discomforts 3:  The lack of nice sleeping conditions and hot water is more than made up for by the friendliness and sharing of the people.  To be safe, take plenty of water and food.  Cellphone reception is spotty (locals say that the cellphone company didn’t know that there were so many people living up near the falls, so it built the tower far down the mountain).  Take a soccer ball; there are some elite players up there. 

 

Physical Difficulty 2:  The hardest part is just getting there. If you’re in a small vehicle, consider wearing a helmet so you don’t bash the person sitting next to you. (Only partly kidding.) The rest is hilly walking.

 

A version of this article appears in print on February 16, 2014, on page TR4 of the New York edition with the headline: A Water Wonderland Plays Hard to Get (To)

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Miami Herald
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/articl...

BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
jcharles@miamiherald.com

The almond trees have been stripped bare, and the tropical palms and royal poincianas that once brought life to the now eroded seaside oasis are all but gone. The only thing familiar about the long stretch of Pointe-Sable beach in Haiti is its water, which is once more a clear blue-green, weeks after this section of the southwestern peninsula bore the brunt of Hurricane Matthew. The Category 4 storm sent a wall of seawater crashing through Port-Salut’s beachfront hotels, nightclubs and restaurants, gulping down everything in sight. “Apocalyptic,” said Jean-Marie Chérestal, Port-Salut native, former prime minister and a hotelier whose 30-room inn at Pointe-Sable, Le Relais du Boucanier, suffered extensive damage from Matthew’s Oct. 4 winds and storm surge. “All of the vegetation, and every house that was constructed with [corrugated metal sheets] have practically all disappeared.” Pausing, he struggles to hold back the tears. They flow anyway.

“I love Port-Salut,” Chérestal, 69, continued, detailing how he helped lead the transformation of the coastal city from a sleepy farming community west of Les Cayes in the late ‘80s to one of a handful of tourist destinations in Haiti, with its mountain view, clean beaches and air-conditioned, oceanfront rooms. While Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince has attracted famous Americans such as Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian and Bill Clinton with its lure of brand name hotels, Port-Salut, with its sandy beaches, cobblestone streets and natural charm, was about the Haitian diaspora. Families such as the Leforts, who long ago migrated to the United States, returned regularly along with scores of others to celebrate Saint Dominique, the town’s patron saint, usually in August, while expats like hotelier Yanique Boursiquot invested after falling in love with the place during her missionary travels. “Everyone is afraid. Everyone is stressed,” said Marie Jeanne Lefort, a Pembroke Pines resident, who had to come see “in order to believe” what she was hearing about the devastation to her hometown. “The slightest bit of wind, and everyone starts freaking out.”

Two years ago, Lefort’s older brother, Pierre Forges, a respected and well-known teacher who now lives in Miami, celebrated a family reunion here along the beach. This week, Lefort, 73, revisited the spot. “Nothing’s left,” she said. Or almost nothing. Of Port-Salut’s 19 registered hotels, two survived Matthew’s 145-mph winds and flooding, tourism officials said. But even the survivors don’t feel particularly lucky: the town remains in perpetual blackout with downed power lines and poles, the coastal road is damaged and residents are wondering how long it will be before life returns to normal. “My team is alive, and my hotel withstood the hurricane,” Catherine Barrière, the owner of L’Auberge du Rayon Vert, said while enjoying a visit with friends at her unscathed, 35-room property. “Still, I don’t know what to do. I am emotionally drained.” These days, with no electricity or running water, there are are no tourists. In the month since Matthew made landfall 146 miles west of here, near the rural village of Les Anglais on Haiti’s southwestern tip, the country is still trying to assess the financial toll both to Port-Salut’s tourism economy and the country’s overall struggling tourism brand.

While most people have come to associate Haiti more with disaster than tourism, the country has been aggressively pushing tourism as a means to rebuild after its devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. It has increased the number of regular direct airline routes from the U.S., pushed for the expansion of the landing strip at Les Cayes’ airport to receive commercial flights and promoted the country’s hidden coastlines among the diaspora, and European and Canadian travelers at tourism fairs. The result was more than 515,804 overnight stays in 2015 compared to 367,219 the year before the quake, according to the tourism ministry, and investments by international brands such as Best Western, Marriott, Hilton Garden, Spain-based NH Hotel Group and Colombia-based Decameron Hotels & Resorts. “[Matthew] put a pause in the tourism industry because the headlines read, ‘Haiti is devastated,’” Tourism Minister Guy Didier Hyppolite said. “We had cancellations pouring in on us.”

Hyppolite said the government is still trying to assess the damage to figure out how best to help hoteliers recover, whether through a low-interest loan or grant. Hyppolite says an Inter-American Development Bank estimate of $15 million in damage for the entire storm-ravaged south is far too low, but he won’t offer his own guess. “Nobody has put together anything that looks at the damage done to the environment, which we have to address,” Hyppolite said. Unlike the neighboring Dominican Republic or nearby islands of the Turks and Caicos, Port-Salut didn’t boast luxury brands or ritzy all-inclusive resorts. It instead relied on its natural beauty with the ocean on one side, lush banana, coconut and breadfruit farms in rolling hills on the other side, and waterfalls nearby. “They had a good, natural set-up,” Hyppolite said. “Now after Matthew, we’re back to the drawing board.”

Among the disconcerting revelations after the storm: most hoteliers lacked insurance. “It was expensive,” said Boursiquot, the owner of Fortress Inn, a 15-room hotel. Six years ago, Boursiquot and her late husband, Charles, invested about $2.5 million in transforming an incomplete shell into their dream retirement project. Things were looking up. Then Matthew struck. “You don’t know where to start,” said Boursiquot, who estimates it would cost her about $150,000 to repair the hotel. “I would love to have it back, but financially, especially now, it’s hard to say because what we had, we invested into it. “All of the things that we had were destroyed, carried out by the water … the dishes, the glasses,” she said. “The bar is completely gone.” The scene is even more devastating farther up the beach at Dan’s Creek Hotel, where the storm destroyed all but two rooms, carrying even the stove and bedsheets out to sea, said hotel manager Frantzy Charles, 39. A landmark of sorts with its multistory French Colonial architecture and mysterious disappearance of founder Daniel Evinx in 2014, Dan’s Creek had become synonymous with Port-Salut. Today, it’s a gutted out shell of its former glory, the ocean-front balconies mostly gone.

“It was a reference point for the area,” Charles said as workers around him unearthed broken furniture from beneath a pile of fallen concrete and washed up debris. The hotel, he said, employed 18 people — all of whom are now out of jobs. “We don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said. “There is a touristic void. When people say they are coming to Port-Salut now, what are they coming to see? You may have one or two who come to bring aid, but in terms of tourism, coming to relax, that’s going to take time.” Engineer Frantz Kebreau is also wondering what’s next. Kebreau is part of a group of Haitian-Canadian investors working to transform the area with a high-end condominium and vacation club project. Residence le Sommet de Port Salut was just weeks away from completion when Kebreau was forced to leave one of the 36 apartments at 3 a.m. and run for the stairway and, eventually, the basement. “The hurricane brought everything down, all of the glass, all of the windows,” said Kebreau, who also lost 128 solar panels and estimates the damage to be between $4 million and $5 million.

Today, all that’s left standing is the building’s hillside multistory steel structure. Every unit but one — No. 305, where Kebreau is now living — was destroyed. Kebreau said he constructed the building with Haiti’s cataclysmic earthquake in mind. But while the roof — made of an aluminum frame with a light Styrofoam panel on top, wire mesh and two inch concrete mix — could withstand the ground shaking, it was no match for Matthew’s incredible wind speed that sounded like a Boeing preparing to take off as it tried to suck out the walls and furniture. “All of it is gone,” he said. “We have to start all over again.” A Port-au-Prince native, Kebreau said he chose Port-Salut after falling in love with it on a visit from Canada where he lived.

“The beauty of the mountains overlooking the ocean all around me, more than 180 degrees, that gives you a sense of peace in the morning when you wake up,” he said. He’s been cleaning up Matthew’s mess for a month now, and estimates that he’ll finish by January. Maybe by February, he said, he and his partners can start rebuilding. Then again, maybe not. “Port-Salut will probably need a minimum of three to four years to recover,” Kebreau said. “Nobody is interested in coming to see us now, the way we are. There is nothing to see, even the beach has been damaged.” Chérestal, who served as prime minister from 2001 to 2002 under former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, also a Port-Salut native, said he believes the area’s tourism could bounce back. But it will require vision, engagement and the participation of residents, said the man who once paid locals to stand guard over the flamboyant trees and coconut palms he planted along the beach to keep animals from destroying them. “Jean-Marie Chérestal, however, won’t plant here again,” he said. “Now it’s the role of a new generation.” Port-Salut can’t do it alone, he said. “We are going to need help from a serious government, a government with a vision. It will require energy and experience.” Looking out at the ocean and at the stripped expanse of land where his beautiful tropical plants once bloomed, Chérestal tried to remember the town before the storm — and what it could be again. He remembered a conversation with a local man who had been unable to feed his children until tourism came to Port-Salut. “His son was in medical school in Mexico,” Chérestal recalled, “thanks to the revival of the beaches in Port-Salut.”

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