In Haiti, Tracing A Paradise Lost

  • Posted on: 6 December 2017
  • By: Bryan Schaaf


New York Times

DEC. 4, 2017

Haiti is a fixture in my mind, as permanent as memories of high school graduation or the weekend I first met my wife.  I lived there twice as an American diplomat for a total of four years since 2000, but its hold on me is not a function of time. Of all the countries I lived and worked in, Haiti stood out as the most beautiful, the most colorful and the poorest. It melds French, African and Caribbean cultures into something truly unique, less than two hours from Miami. Yet it also resists easy definition. It is an open, free place filled with secrets.

Today there are conflicting signs about where Haiti is going. The U.N. Security Council decided recently to close down the peacekeeping mission it has maintained in Haiti since 2004.  The U.N. Secretary-General’s final report on the mission concluded: “The many setbacks and challenges notwithstanding, including the disaster caused by the January 2010 earthquake and at least six major hurricanes, substantial headway was made, and today the Haitian people enjoy a considerable degree of security and greater stability.” The last day of the mission was Oct. 15. (A successor mission will have a much smaller footprint.) Since then, the United States has revoked the temporary protected status of nearly 60,000 Haitians in the country, citing Haiti’s recovery as the reason for doing so.

However, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the World Bank, with a G.D.P. per capita of $846. Fifty-nine percent of Haitians live under the national poverty line of $2.41 a day. Economic growth is low, and political strife is constant. The State Department “warns U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Haiti,” an admonition that has been in place for as long as I can remember. This November, I returned to Haiti as a tourist, curious to see the country after a five-year absence. I had heard that the highways had improved, and so planned a weeklong road trip, starting in Port-au-Prince before moving on to the southern and northern coasts.

Tourism and Haiti may not seem like they go together, but in the years after World War II, the country belonged to the Caribbean highlight reel. A 1947 New York Times article with the headline “The Pleasures of Haiti” described it as “fiercely independent, riotously colorful, and surprisingly inexpensive” and recommended hotels, bars and places to visit. I found similar articles from the 1930s through the end of the 1950s, all extolling Haiti’s exceptional culture and many attractions. Cruise ships and planes unloaded tourists in Port-au-Prince, where they would stroll through downtown and buy souvenirs in this “shoppers’ paradise,” according to an article from 1956.

It has been several generations since Haiti was a major tourist destination, but it may become one again. International hotel chains have arrived, and the number of flights to the country has increased substantially. For years, American Airlines was the only U.S. carrier flying in or out but now JetBlue, Spirit and Delta also serve Port-au-Prince, and American has begun a daily flight to Cap Haitien. When I arrived this fall, my friend Pierre Esperance picked me up at the Port-au-Prince airport. I’ve known Pierre since 2000, a year after he was attacked and almost assassinated due to his occupation as Haiti’s most prominent human rights activist. Despite the attack and other threats, he’s still in the same line of work. Pierre is optimistic, even ebullient, yet also a clear-eyed observer of Haiti’s dysfunction. That evening, when I asked him to assess the country’s current situation, his amiable disposition shifted to neutral. Haiti was in an uncertain place, he said, facing a mix of progress and setbacks. Road infrastructure had improved, as had the police, but Haiti’s institutions were much too weak and the political will to support them did not exist. The justice and prison sectors were particularly problematic.

We chatted on his terrace, filled with pink, white, red, and orange bougainvillea, and waited for the electricity to come on. Pierre’s house gets power only a few hours every day, and he is one of the lucky ones. It is a stark reminder that in some ways Haiti has progressed very little. Pierre was born on nearby Gonâve Island, and grew up without any electricity during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier.  Near the end of our evening together, I asked Pierre to compare that dictatorship to the current moment. He laughed and looked surprised. “It’s night and day,” he said. “Because today we have liberty of expression. Under Duvalier’s regime, you could not come here to sit and talk, because there’d be people listening to us and they’d come to arrest us. But today you can walk down the street and speak however you want.”

I toured Port-au-Prince the next day. It was a national holiday, and traffic was light. I visited a few of the capital’s interesting sights: the bustling, rebuilt Iron Market, the Port-au-Prince Cemetery, a warren of snaking pathways around built-up tombs, and the metalworks area in neighboring Croix des Bouquets, where for generations Haitians have transformed the tops of oil drums and other pieces of metal into ornate masterpieces. The area improved since I last lived there, with recently paved streets and some new construction. The camps for earthquake victims, which used to cover every open space, were gone. Despite these improvements, though, it was clear that Port-au-Prince was not going to be a tourism hot spot for a long time to come. It is too difficult to move around, and security concerns dominate. If tourism ever returns to Haiti in a meaningful way, it will likely happen first in the provinces.

For a road trip into the Haiti that exists outside of its capital, I turned to the driver I trust most in the world, Frantz Newbold. I met him in 2000, when he had started work as a driver for the U.S. Embassy, and I had just arrived for a two-year assignment.  Frantz, the photographer Chris Miller and I started our road trip by heading south toward Saint Louis du Sud, a town on Haiti’s southern coast. Inspired by the Bradt Haiti guide, I was looking for old forts. We found the first one, Fort Olivier, on the edge of a promontory near town, in a pleasant open area dotted with palm trees. By itself, it would be a worthy stop on any tourist excursion. The real masterpiece, though, was Fort Anglais, which occupied an entire island just offshore. We bargained with local fishermen to take us there, and climbed into their rickety dugout canoe, literally a floating mango tree trunk with its insides scooped out. It was brightly painted in the red and blue of the Haitian flag.

Chris and I spent hours clambering through the fort, which was thickly covered in underbrush, banyan trees and guarded by suspicious goats. Built by the French in 1702, Fort Anglais was a spectacular find, the type of place that if properly restored, would undoubtedly be a top destination. There was even the beginning of tourist infrastructure, in the form of two concrete piers built to connect Fort Anglais to the mainland. For the time being, though, it sat in the middle of a gorgeous, white sand-lined Caribbean bay, largely ignored. While clawing through the fort’s underbrush, I suddenly came upon a thick drapery of banyan roots covering the entrance to an intact room. Blue-tailed lizards congregated on the roots and I spent a few minutes just looking at them. When I finally pushed into the room, I discovered an alcove on the far side. Using my phone’s flashlight, I realized that the alcove was actually a tunnel leading down and to the left. For a moment, I was an excited child. I climbed into the alcove and started down the tunnel.

As I did so, I heard the frantic protests of thousands of insects. I shone the flashlight onto the walls. They were covered with large insects that moved crablike across the glistening stone. They looked like hybrid spider-crickets, and they were on the ceiling too. Some darted across my shoes. I cringed and tried not to shriek. I crept forward but the walls narrowed and the remaining space filled with even more insects. I held the flashlight out and saw the passageway curve down into another room. I wanted so badly to go, but I could almost feel the spider-crickets dropping onto my neck and crawling under my T-shirt. In the battle between exciting adventure and large, noisy insects, the insects won. I retreated back into the sun. To erase my skin’s memory of this encounter, I walked to the sea-facing side of the island and found a spit of perfectly white sand. Remains of the fort’s exterior walls stuck out of the ankle-high water, which was warm and crystal-clear. The beach was perfect, or at least it would be once the washed-up plastic bottles were removed.

I snorkeled for a half-hour, finding coral and small fish, and glancing back now and then at the fort. This was an ideal area for tourism: perfect sand, warm water, and a massive, mysterious fort evoking pirates and buried treasure. Its future, however, was as uncertain as Haiti’s. We continued exploring Haiti over the next two days as we raced across the southern coast. We found time to root around one of the many caves scattered throughout the mountainous country. Most have a cultural and historical resonance. Taíno Indians, the first inhabitants in Haiti, as well as runaway slaves, used the caves to hide from their oppressors.

Haiti’s best known cave and one of its largest is Grotte Marie Jeanne. It has several levels, and certain areas remain unexplored. Guides from the nearby town of Port-à-Piment take visitors into deep areas, but many easily accessible caverns are on the surface. While clambering around one of them, we came across an underground chamber dotted with bottles of Barbancourt rum. Apparently, the cave is still used. We also stopped by the town of Jacmel, one of Haiti’s top tourist destinations, mainly for the festivities and parades that culminate with the Feb. 4 carnival. Jacmel’s walkable downtown is filled with buildings that evoke its 19th- and 20th-century role as a commercial and shipping hub. The minister of tourism envisions Jacmel becoming a cruise ship stop too. It isn’t hard to imagine the old pretty streets downtown and along the seaside boardwalk filled with tourists. Although some buildings in this historic commercial and shipping hub required work, some appeared to need nothing more than a coat of paint.

Jacmel was an alluring a mix of history, culture, beaches and beauty. Nearby, it even boasts Haiti’s first and only surf club. Surf Haiti is several miles outside of Jacmel, in the commune of Cayes-Jacmel. The thatched roof, beachfront restaurant called Le Cam’s, where I met members of Surf Haiti, looked the part of a surfing hub. I was there to meet Lionel André Pierre, born in New York to Haitian parents. When he and his family moved to Jacmel several years ago, he fell in with the tiny surfing community that had started because of the presence of several international aid workers with a passion for surfing. The workers found local children already “surfing on driftwood and plywood,” he said. They gave the children surfing instruction and organized them, which led to the creation of Surf Haiti.

Today, Surf Haiti is the country’s only member of the International Surf Association, which functions as surfing’s governing body. Some in Surf Haiti dream of competing in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when surfing will make its debut as an Olympic sport. For the time being, though, the group is focused on more prosaic opportunities. Members teach surf and swimming lessons, and also run an eco guesthouse nearby. Surf Haiti gets about 5 to 10 requests for lessons a month, a small number but enough to imagine what larger-scale tourism could bring. An hourlong surf lesson costs between 8 and 15 US dollars, much more than Haiti’s daily minimum wage of 290 gourdes ($4.55) for eight hours of work in hotels, restaurants and agriculture.

Also soaking in Le Cam’s relaxed Sunday atmosphere was Ericka Bourraine, director of the Ministry of Tourism in the Southeast Department. Like Lionel, Bourraine was born in the United States to Haitian parents and decided to return to Haiti in recent years. Her office supports major events each trimester, including a summer surfing and music festival in collaboration with Surf Haiti. She also is encouraging the development of excursions, like a day trip along the “route du café” to show how Haitian coffee is grown, harvested and prepared.

Ms. Bourraine said the goal is to provide vacation options to potential tourists like the Haitian diaspora, although some fear their country’s insecurity. Bourraine said she had heard those in the generation before her say, “I’ll never step foot in Haiti again. I’ll never go back to that place.” However, Ms. Bourraine said the generation after that is very interested in seeing the country. “It’s just about making the connections and making those people feel safe and feel brave enough to venture out,” she said. The waves weren’t high enough to surf on, so late that afternoon, I floated in the water just offshore. A deep blue sky was spotted with lazy clouds. All along the shoreline stood a thick forest of trees that extended out over the ocean. Nearby, a few children were skipping rocks, and people sat on the beach in twos and threes. I walked back to the hotel. There was no electricity, so I took a shower in darkening shadow. When I walked onto the hotel’s veranda, the abundant tropical flowers glowed in the last rays of sun.

We set off on an epic drive the next day from Cayes-Jacmel on the southern coast to Cap-Haitian on the northern coast. The distance is relatively modest in absolute terms, about 193 miles. That this journey seems so intimidating is due to two factors -— Haiti’s mountainous interior and the lack of any bypass to avoid Port-au-Prince. It ended up taking over 10 hours, through the mountains along the southern coast, down into the broad plain of Port-au-Prince, then due north until we climbed into the mountains of Haiti’s northern claw. We passed through forest stippled with thousands of shades of green. Thick clouds swirled around the car and hugged the road. At times the roads were wide and recently paved, the rust-red earth neatly graded and stacked on each side. In other moments, I gripped the dashboard with white knuckles. Weaving through Port-au-Prince, we took rutted gravel roads to avoid a demonstration. When we finally arrived in Cap Haitien, Frantz drove through torrential rain that poured across the streets and disabled several trucks. This was Haiti from south to north, its problems and promise on clear display.

That evening, we unwound on the veranda of Cormier Plage, a beach hotel I had visited during my first assignment to the country. It is tucked between Cap Haitien and Labadee, a private beach resort closed-off peninsula leased by Royal Caribbean as a day stop for many of its cruise ships. At dinner, we sat in comfortable lounge chairs and listened to waves breaking on the beach only feet away. It was so dark that the lights above us shone like beacons. In the aftermath of that day’s drive, I felt optimistic and wondered out loud whether Haiti had turned a corner. But Frantz shook his head doubtfully. Like Pierre Esperance and others of his generation, Frantz would not speculate about the future. They had witnessed so much: Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship, coups, armed gangs during Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s presidency, U.N. peacekeepers who brought cholera, all of it a lather of misery and instability that stretched over decades. I understood their reluctance to make predictions about their country.

To end my week, I visited Sans Souci Palace and the Citadel, a Unesco World Heritage complex and arguably Haiti’s first tourist attraction. Built in the early 18th century by Haiti’s founders, Unesco says the palace and the Citadel far above it “serve as universal symbols of liberty, being the first monuments to be constructed by black slaves who had gained their freedom.” Only skeletal walls remain of Sans Souci Palace, which was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1842. However, the Citadel still looks every bit as impressive as the statistics cited about it -— largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere, filled with original, French, English and Haitian built cannons, walls 13 feet thick and 131 feet tall. It took 20,000 people 14 years to build it. This complex has been a tourist attraction for a long time. In 1937, The New York Times announced a new steamship service that would make the Citadel more accessible. “The main offering of the new tourist service is the chance of visiting the famous citadel, La Ferriere, sometimes rated among the ten wonders of the world.”

My tour guide was Nicolas Antoine, a 62-year-old who has been showing people around the complex for 25 years. When he began, Antoine said, the Citadel was in poor shape, abandoned, with trees growing on and inside its walls. The task of ferrying up tourists was given to sure-footed donkeys climbing through scrub. His description reminded me of the current condition of Fort Anglais on the southern coast, another impressive site in a country filled with them. The complex was truly spectacular, a testament to Haiti’s world-changing struggle for independence. When we arrived, it was late morning, blindingly hot and humid. I stepped across a crumbling wall of Sans Souci Palace into a field of tall grass. Chattering from the village of Milot below rose through the air. Facing me, on the other side of the village, was a steep mountain slope covered with rubber, mahogany, mango and palm trees. I greedily drank in the view. Haiti’s struggle with deforestation is well known, making these types of unadulterated visions of nature all the more precious.

Turning in the other direction, I noticed a young man sitting nearby, intently staring at a piece of paper, his lips moving as if in prayer. I asked him what he was doing. He was studying for an economics test. In the distance stood a large school building, and I heard the chant of students repeating lessons. This moment occupied my thoughts on the climb up to the Citadel and while walking through the fortress’s cool, mist-wreathed corridors. Finally, I realized why it resonated so strongly. I had witnessed a normal Tuesday morning: school, studying for a test, daily chatter, guides, shopkeepers looking for tourists, and tourists looking at the sights. It could have been any tourist destination anywhere in the world. But this time, it was in Haiti.

Like many who have filtered through the country, I held memories of Haiti that were complicated, any happiness diluted by the things I lived through. But near the end of my road trip, in a grassy field alongside Sans Souci Palace, the power of these memories receded a bit. A new narrative began, in which it wasn’t brave or unusual to see Haiti’s sights, to eat its food, to interact with the people I came across, and to be a tourist. It was normal. At the Cap Haitien airport the next day, the waiting area was new and well maintained. As I waited for the flight, I thought about the last moments of our road trip and about saying goodbye to Frantz. We had stood in the airport parking lot under the shade of a big yellow school bus and ate lunch his mother had prepared for us -— Creole sauce, pan-fried fish, pickled vegetables, and Haitian rice. It was so delicious that I can still taste it. When we were done, he drove me to the departure area. I gave Frantz a picture I had recently come across. It was the two of us 17 years ago, on one of our first road trips through the country. Saying goodbye felt like the end of an era, one that expressed itself through silence rather than words.

In the airport waiting area, the lights flickered and went out. The fast descending tropical sun threw broad shadows across the walls, but unlike past moments, I did not assume the worst. I figured the lights would come back on, and soon they did.

Peter Kujawinski is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.

A version of this article appears in print on December 10, 2017, on Page TR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Tracing a Paradise Lost. 

Photo Credit: New York Times

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