I’ve been in Port au Prince for five days now, it’s time for a change of pace. I climb into the rinky-dink turboprop to Cap Haitien, a mid-size town on the northern coast of Haiti. It’s a bumpy 30-minute flight but it sure beats the 7-hour bus drive over rough terrain and potholed roads. Usually, I always opt for ground transport because it allows me to see the country up close. Circumstances force me to choose the plane this time – to good effect, as it would turn out. Cap Haitien is of particular consequence in the story of Haiti. It is the original colonial capital, known to French occupiers as the Paris of the Antilles. The slave rebellion started here in the early 1790’s and spread to the rest of the island. It is also the place where Voodoo started. Most people here are officially Catholic, but it’s hard to break with old traditions. “We don’t worship Voodoo but it is our principal and our master,” so tells me a Haitian. Who am I to disagree?
Cap Haitien lies on a large bay, not far from where Columbus landed on his first voyage. It’s ironic that I write this post on Christmas day. It is this very same day in 1492 that Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, beached a few miles to the north of here. At this location, he decided to build his first colony, fittingly called La Navidad. The settlement did not last long and soon disappeared, lost to history for five centuries. Remnants of it were rediscovered only in 1972. Unfortunately, the savagery of Columbus and his fellow Spaniards ensured that the Taino people, the natives who originally populated this land, also disappeared to history. Unlike a lost colony, the Taino can never be brought back.
A Caribbean Christmas
It’s Christmas eve, the Caribbean weather is warm and a soft sea breeze caresses the town. The streets are alive with music and dance. Occasional firecrackers punctuate the excitement of the season. For two whole days, the celebrations continue, only stopping once during a very brief power blackout. All night long, the drums beat, the music plays, people sing. The steep slopes of the Cap Haitien’s tropical hills tower high above like nature’s amphitheater. The sounds of the Christmas celebrations below reverberate and echo across this glorious acoustic hall. Sheds rise up the steep slopes of Cap Haitien, laughter and joy can be heard from every direction. The corrugated iron rooftops of the houses are covered with children, laughing and dancing the evening away. Warm Caribbean air mixes with the aroma of hundreds of barbecues, drifting through my open windows. I lie in bed, taking it all in. Is this an enchanted dream? The loud boom of a firecracker reminds me that I’m wide awake. No, it’s not a dream. But it might as well be.
Cap Haitien is much more relaxed and laid back than Port au Prince. People here smile, they seem at ease. The streets feel much safer (though one still has to mind the wildly reckless traffic.) There are also more tourists – not many, but you’ll find them here and there. They come from France and from the United States. Canadians are also here to escape their long, brutal winter. The city is painted in the beautiful, lively pastels of the Caribbean: pink and teal, green and yellow. The houses, though older and falling apart, are built in the French colonial architectural style of the 19th century. Cap Haitien reminds me a bit of New Orleans, but not as well maintained. And without the drunks and topless women everywhere.
UN peacekeepers (“blue helmets”) patrol the streets, a reminder of the international presence meant to calm the precarious political situation. Their task is important, though their day to day job is somewhat mundane. I approach a Nepalese contingent of blue helmets, Chinese-made machine guns slung over their shoulders. Their presence here is a notice to the population that the world has not entirely forgotten Haiti. The captain informs me that they are on duty for a year. I chat with the soldiers. Do you interact with the population much? Not really, they respond, most locals just ignore them. Do you like being here? It’s pretty, they say, with that uneasy smile that betrays the reality that they’d rather be back home with their families. And who can blame them? I represent a curiosity to them, a change of pace from the regular monotony of their mission. They ask me about the US, how far it is from Haiti, what it’s like, can I show them pictures of my home. One of them, a young sergeant, tells me of his dream to move to Florida someday. We share photos, the inevitable group selfie is taken. After a bit of chitchat, the captain gives the order and the patrol moves on. But not before I am extended a courteous invitation to visit Nepal. I assure them, it’s high on my list. They swell with pride, we shake hands and go our separate ways.
I make my residence at Habitation des Lauriers, a gorgeous colonial-style villa on a hilltop overlooking the bay. If you squint, you can see the Dominican Republic from here. The family that runs the inn, as colorful and diverse as the streets below, has owned this property since the 1970s. Seeing a pent-up demand for quality tourist accommodations, Brenda and Leslie decided to trade their quiet lives in South Carolina for a far more interesting life hosting travelers to Haiti. With the help of their two adult sons, Pablo and James, the property has been gradually taking in more and more tourists. They are even in the process of building dormitories to accommodate backpackers. The next morning, Pablo assures me, he will take me to the best place in all of Haiti. This ought to be good….
The magical island
Navigating his truck up steep and winding hills, the rugged road seems to never end. We are on our way to the islands of northern Haiti, to see the country in its raw beauty. Small, poverty-stricken sheds along the side of the road reveal children running along. Heavily malnourished dogs, dirty, mangy and flea-ridden, trod along the side of the road. They compete with the local goat population for scraps of food and waste. The dirt roads are heavily worn and bumpy, but Pablo swears to me that they are better today than in the past. The government is paving the way for more tourists to visit. A hopeful sign for Haiti?
When we finally arrive to our launch point, we take to our wooden boat. We set out for the islands but Alex, our captain, steers the boat into the little fishing village, where he resides, instead. Here, he introduces me to the master craftsman who built our boat with nothing but a hammer and a wood carving kit. He beams with pride as he shows me his current project – a beautiful rocking chair. It’s a shame I cannot fit it with me on the plane, otherwise I would buy it. Down the road, children bathe naked in a stream that drains into the sea. Nearby, a gargantuan cruise ship, tall like a mountain gliding upon the peaceful water, dumps tourists by the thousands on a tiny, over-crowded private beach gated by a tall barb-wire fence and patrolled by armed guards. They paraglide, they jet ski, they crowd the sands of the beach. After a few hours of “seeing Haiti,” everyone climbs back aboard and the cruise liner departs again for the next destination. At the end of the day, luxury cruise-liner type of travel is simply not for me. I don’t judge. The ships bring in much needed income for the local economy, after all. Meanwhile, the employees who work the beach crowd by the dozen on the back of dilapidated old pickup trucks. My mind wanders back to the time in Mozambique when I saw a kid fall off the back of a vehicle like this, his head splattering on the concrete road. What choice do people here have…?
We continue on to our destination. I sit on the bow of the boat, the waves gently rocking us up and down, my feet dangling below, gliding through the warm Caribbean waters. Several kilometers out to see and we slow down to inspect the catch of a local fisherman. It looks good! We buy some fish, a couple of lobsters and some bread fruit before continuing on our merry way. The sun beats overhead, I watch the gorgeous coastline float by. The steep ridges of mountains rise up straight from the water to a couple hundred meters in some cases, covered in dense, green, and lush tropical forest. This is the same view Columbus would have had some five centuries earlier. It’s Christmas day after all, he would have sailed this very same water on this very same date. Oh history, you are full of irony. To quote Lord Acton, “history is not a burden on our memory but an illumination on the soul.”
A while on and we’re still skirting the coast line. What’s that yellow beast popping out of the water over there? Is that a weird, yellow whale of some sort? I inquire with Pablo who just grins. We get closer. No way, is that a tiny sand bank? It is, no more than 3 meters wide and about 6 meters long! We drop anchor and I joyously hop out. Here I am, several kilometers out to sea, surrounded by nothing but water, and I’m wading in water barely deep enough to reach up to my ankles! “Are you kidding me?!” I exclaim to Alex and Pablo. But this is no joke. This is the raw beauty of Haiti. Pablo laughs, “I knew you would enjoy this!” Well played, Pablo, well played.
The rest of the afternoon is spent snorkeling and sleeping on a remote island. We barbecue our fresh catch of the day, Pablo pours us some of that amazing Haitian rum. Robinson Crusoe never had it this good! From this island, one can truly appreciate the splendor and beauty of Haiti’s north coast. All up and down the horizon, tall, tree-covered and deep green peaks dominate the skyline. It reminds me a bit of the island of Kauai, though the cliffs are not quite as dramatic here. Nos frui meridianus. Four hours later and the winds have kicked up dramatically while the sun is steadily losing its intensity. Alex shouts something in creole and motions us to go back in the boat. I grumble and roll over my beach towel. Can’t I spend the night here? Pick me up tomorrow, you bastards. Our boat ride back is far from peaceful. Towering waves pick us up and toss us around, the wind blasts us with warm Caribbean seawater. Within minutes of setting sail, we are already drenched.
Arriving back in Cap Haitien, I reflect upon the physical and emotional beauty of this day. The music still emanates from the streets, the people have not stopped celebrating. Is this a dream, I wonder again? No, it’s better than a dream. This is a fairy tale.
To wit, I shall leave you with Columbus’ description of what he saw when he first arrived. Genocidal pirate or not, his description of the island of Hispaniola is still accurate today:
“Groves of lofty and flourishing trees are abundant, as also large lakes, surrounded and overhung by the foliage, in a most enchanting manner. Everything looked as green as in April in Andalusia. The melody of the birds was so exquisite that one was never willing to part from the spot, and the flocks of parrots obscured the heavens. The diversity in the appearance of the feathered tribe from those of our country is extremely curious. A thousand different sorts of trees, with their fruit were to be met with, and of a wonderfully delicious odor.” – Christopher Columbus, 1492
[Author’s note: all photos taken by me]