I was concerned about going to Haiti last March. Not about the danger: Poverty does a lot of bad things to people and places, but it does not make anyone attack tourists. My worry was that it was still too soon after the 2010 earthquake. Would I be stepping over misery and taking pictures of it with my expensive camera? Would my tips and purchases be alms doled out by a careless grandee on his way from one leisured excitement to another?
My first week did not go that way (see accompanying story), but I figured the Air Transat experience might have sheltered me from reality.
So after my new Quebec friends flew off, I climbed into a car with a driver paid for by the Ministry of Tourism and set off on a week of ad hoc travel around this lush, mountainous land – from east to west and then all the way north, through plains and beaches and long stretches where you couldn't see the forest for the jungle – to find out whether this is a country you need to fear visiting on your own.
It is not.
If you were to classify travel spots as you do chicken wings, with Orlando being mild and Mogadishu being suicide, Haiti would be tangy. It is the Caribbean, after all, something we sometimes forget amid all the bad news that filters through about the place. It is one-third of the island known as Hispaniola, the other two-thirds being the Dominican Republic, where 750,000 Canadians a year go for sun and frolic.
Have you ever noticed how island resorts try to seduce by making themselves sound like child brides, with talk of virgin beaches and untouched nature, inviting you to plunge into their warm waters? Well, Haiti's no virgin. She's more like a second wife – a woman who's been through some things. You cannot come and impose your fantasies on her. She is who she is, and she's bloody fascinating.
She can also be difficult. Credit-card machines do not work at times. You occasionally run into a pig eating some garbage. Things are not always as cheap as you think they should be.
But Haiti contains many things not usually associated with a nation you only ever hear about in headlines. At the Marché en Fer in Port-au-Prince, I could not take my eyes off the voodoo paraphernalia for sale – years of questionable media representation has made them profoundly spooky – and the sculptures made of recycled oil drums I saw for sale in various places are great buys (my handmade fish were 2 for $5).
In Jacmel, Haiti's second city, I was locked out of my hotel one night after walking around the streets as safely as I do at home. (La Florita is a venerable old place, damaged in the quake but quickly fixed up.) I knocked and thumped, and a man who lived a few doors down – and was, for some reason, sweeping his stoop at 12:30 a.m. – told me he had called the manager to send someone to let me in. It was the sort of casual kindness that by this point was not surprising. Earlier in the day, a woman on a street corner had asked whether I wanted to buy a hat. I said I did not, with a French accent that was apparently telling. "Vous êtes Canadien?" she asked. When I said "Oui," she ran over, gave me a bear hug and told me it was the best country. I said hers was pretty good too.
It was not until my last stop, in Cap-Haïtien, that I finally got Haiti – well, as much as one can after 14 days in one of the most complicated places on Earth. This is where the Citadelle is, built under Roi Christophe, a man who was born a slave and died a king, ruling over the north of Haiti after the revolution in 1804.
I rented a somewhat dire-looking horse to ride up the 45-minute slope. It was lunchtime on my way back down, and gaggles of teens were walking up for picnics. The boys started yelling it at me. I'd been called blanc since arrival; it's the Creole word for foreigner, whatever the colour. I'd gotten used to it. But this time, it had an edge. One young man grabbed my leg, gently but firmly, and told me to get off his horse, off his mountain. The girls laughed as boys swore at me in Creole. After one hurled "blanc" at me like a rock, I turned around and said, in French, "You got a problem with blancs?" He stopped and stared at me with an anger that crunched his face. "Oui, j'ai une problème avec les blancs." I held my tongue for the rest of the descent, my own anger turning into equanimity over the next hour as I came to one possible understanding of the situation.
Foreigners have mostly been a destructive force here, from the French sugar barons to USAID. Even when they are trying to help, as 10,000 organizations were in the days after the earthquake, they tend to screw it up. I saw signs all over announcing projects funded by any number of countries and organizations. They were often old, paint peeling, leaning over in front of a site where, though money had flowed somewhere, no work was ever done. There are worse ways to impress girls, I realized, than bullying a foreign villain.
Haitians are not used to holidaymakers. The only other guests at many of the hotels I stayed were aid workers on weekend leave. Wherever they go, their SUVs block traffic, their expense accounts raise prices.
Tourists offer a different sort of aid, one that goes directly into people's hands instead of over their heads and into various honey pots. Each new hotel room creates two jobs and four indirect jobs, Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin told the Associated Press in September.
Things are changing: The budget for the Ministry of Tourism recently doubled to $4.7-million (U.S.), airport improvements are about to start and a special police force for tourists launched in September. A high-end Best Western opened in Port-au-Prince in April, and JetBlue announced flights to the capital just last week. And then there's Air Transat, one hopes the first of many to offer package tours.
Haiti has the climate, the beaches, the palm trees, the hotels and the great food. We have the holiday bucks. Seems like a fair trade.
For more information, visit haititourisme.gouv.ht.
The writer travelled with assistance from the Haitian Ministry of Tourism.