The Travel Bug Episode 23: Haiti

The Travel Bug
PC @ ThoughtsDave the Wanderer left us off in Belize and Mexico where, among other things, he was on an Indiana Jones-like adventure, went snorkeling in the barrier reef, had a strange story about a barman and the law and he was having a Vegas-like touristy time in Mexico (this is unlike the Dave we know).  
The pace changes in this episode where Dave gets a taste of Haiti; a country not generally regarded as a tourist destination. Our wandering man gives us a taste of the country, the people and their culture, the beautiful countryside and what’s on the Haitian menu. But there is a lot more to this chapter than meets the eye.
And so without further ado..

 


Haiti

 

O

riginally I was intending to visit Cuba on my way through to the USA; however a friend of mine contacted me and indicated I should visit him in Haiti.

Not regarded as a tourist place I thought why not and changed my travel plans, figuring this would be a rather unique experience. 

And still I have not been to Cuba.

The flight over

My flight over involved talking to a group of American college students that were heading there to build some housing through their church group, they were taking holidays to do so, and I figured ‘good on them’, particularly when Americans only average two weeks off a year.

I landed at the international airport, which appeared to be a makeshift garage, security was pretty lax for an airport and I realised why when I exited, the airport was surrounded by UN Peacekeepers, ATV’s, tanks and 4-wheel drives, lots of troops carrying guns, not exactly the kind of place you would argue with customs officials.

Haiti whilst not in a war zone had all the appearances of what I assume one would be like.

It was going to be an interesting few days.

Port Au Prince

I found my friend and we headed out into Port Au Prince and straight into a traffic jam.

Haiti has no road rules and the traffic was complete chaos, 4wd’s local cars in various state of disrepair and the street were all filled with potholes and bumpy.

There was no maintenance whatsoever and it seemed like chaos.

traffic

My friend first took me to his office and explained what he was doing in Haiti, working for an NGO in Microfinance for a French Bank, they were working on providing bank accounts to local Haitian business people, from street peddlers and up, so that the people could deposit money into bank accounts instead of underneath their beds or wherever else Haitians save their money.

A guarded fortress

We then headed to where we were staying; a mansion at the top of a hill in the safer area of town, my friend was living with a colleague who worked for the United Nations. The mansion was surrounded by walls with an armed guard on the gate carrying a pump-action shotgun.

friends office

View from my friends office

 

We had a few beers by the pool that had no water, then we headed off to a Lebanese restaurant with some of my friends mates, a place frequented by Sean Penn who does a lot of disaster relief (though he was not there) and we then turned in early as were going to go on a hike early in the morning… Like I say, backpacking leads you to meet some interesting people and some interesting places.

Note: Sean Penn actually runs the largest relief camp in Haiti as far as I’m aware.

Bike ride

I didn’t really know what the plan was for the next few days, but we were up at 4 am and then a one hour drive up the mountain overlooking Port Au Prince. We then arrived at a drop off point where the road became too rough and we then hopped onto the back of motorbikes and another hour of riding on dirt roads to our drop off point.

The only thing that really disturbed me so far about Haiti was the motorbike ride, I didn’t particularly like being a passenger on a bike and would much rather of done it myself, but I was on holiday so grinned and bared it as my friend had gone to some trouble to arrange this adventure.

The bike ride was quite pretty, lots of villagers and third world housing on the trail, also there were lots of goats.

Ah the countryside

We arrived at the drop-off point at around 7 am, about 3 hours later. My friend and I were going on a hike for the next few days. This involved walking through the spectacular mountain countryside, there were lots of Haitian locals waving and greeting us with smiling faces, particularly children.

We went over the mountain and the hike involved the longest steepest ascent I have ever made, practically climbing up a sheer cliff, my joints ached and any slip would have meant a quick end to my trip and possibly life.

Decent Climb

Looking forward to a decent climb

A great accomplishment

Upon reaching the top I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment (and relief) as this was one of the toughest things I have ever done, drinking margaritas in Mexico was a distant memory and only two days earlier and definitely not adequate preparation.

The view was quite spectacular from the top, it was almost like the Swiss the Alps, unfortunately, a lot of the land was barren, the rainforests stripped by a dictator years ago in the early 80’s.

It was the first time I could see the effect of mass deforestation firsthand, still it was nice to look at.

Another decent hike

We then hiked another hour or so through a pine forest and eventually reached our hostel. All in all it was a 6-hour hike mostly up the mountain and when we arriving we ordered dinner (we were the only guests).

Very long

View from the top of a very long like, no trees

We ordered the only thing on the menu, goat, and then on our way to the local village to get a couple of 6 packs of beer we walked past the cook who had strung up the goat and was in the act of slaughtering it for our dinner, that was rather confronting but at least it was fresh I guess and now I know why there are so many goats.

Beer run at the local village

Beer run at the local village

The walk was half an hour or so to the village to pick up the beer, the village being run down and in a state of disrepair, we then headed back, drank after a hard day while eating my freshly killed goat and plantain stew.

The hostel owner was quite a nice guy and heard some interesting stories about Haiti.

The reminder

The following day involved a 7-hour hike, reason being I was too scared to go on the back of another motorbike (I really don’t like being a passenger), fortunately it was a descent all the way involving hiking along the main road, virtually no traffic.

We could see the Caribbean coast most of the way, a truly spectacular view, there was also a dense forest, a reminder of how beautiful Haiti was not so long ago before deforestation.

Lots of locals along the way were yelling at us, mainly begging for money, but not in a serious depressed way, always quick to grin.

My French friend chatted with a fair few of them in Creole as nobody seemed to speak English (or French) so all I could do was smile.

A shortcut

Near the base of the mountain, I had a stunningly stupid idea of taking a shortcut to avoid the seeming endless winding road. This involved scaling down a cliff face on our arses for around 15 min, and luckily avoiding two sheer drops on either side and then making it to the river below.

Hike down

Hiking back down

 

If we had accidentally picked the wrong way and hit a drop I had my doubts about how we would have climbed back out.

We then cleaned ourselves off at the bottom in the river and then headed to the local town and took a chicken bus to our hotel near the beachside resort city of Jacmel.

Getting cleaned up after the silly shortcut

Getting cleaned up after the silly shortcut

A chicken bus is essentially a very old Hilux Ute that carries anywhere up to 20 people in the back tray.

Needless to say, it was over crowded.

Relaxation

The next couple of days involved sitting by a Caribbean beach, drinking loads of beers and eating the local Creole food, mainly goat. The sea was lovely, the local town of Jacmel was pretty, but run down like most of Haiti seemed to be.

We caught a football game on the TV (Brazil vs Denmark) and caught up with my friend’s friend at the Family Beach.

We listened to some local Haitian music which is hard to describe but involved a banjo and tried I also drank plenty of local rum.

After a few days my friends mate drove us back to Port Au Prince, about 80km away or around 4 hours with the traffic jams in the city.

The last night

My last night involved watching a movie at the local cinema night at a club, the place was full of NGO and United Nation workers, there are a lot of people out there willing to do more than work a regular job 9 to 5 in the office in Sydney apparently.

My last day we went to a mountain top to look at a spectacular view of the city below, Port Au Prince has a population of nearly 2 million, but nobody really knows.

We then headed through the city itself, the central Palace still sits destroyed from the earthquake in 2010, the city roads littered with rubble, buildings destroyed; sadly it still looks like a war zone.

Palace

The Palace

 

In summary

 

I

enjoyed my experience in Haiti immensely, I rarely get surprised by anything I see these days, but this is a rare and unique place / experience.

Local High street of Port Au Prince, Chicken buses cruising by

Local High street of Port Au Prince, Chicken buses cruising by

I believe I was the only tourist in the country, all other expats being involved with the betterment of Haiti. The border guard upon exit actually laughed out loud when I mentioned the purpose of my trip was tourism.

The hike we took pushed my limits, again a really rewarding experience the countryside spectacular and the people beautiful and always smiling.

Looking back

I am not sure Haiti will ever get back on its feet again, so much poverty still exists.

The UN is the police force as there is no police or army, slavery is still practiced, there is reverse racism which is a lot of Haitians wanting to be white to escape poverty.

While I did see my goat get killed for dinner, I did not actually experience or see any voodoo being practiced though it does exist. 

voodoo

I was told that that was a really bad idea and therefore, did not pursue it.

The feeling was different this time

This was the first time I’d headed to a third world country that actually felt like the third world, kind of like visiting Africa I suppose (have not been there as yet). I’d been to others such as Bolivia, Peru, Thailand etc. but nothing like this, those countries thrive on tourism and there is a relative safety in tourist areas, an embassy if need be, that was not the situation in Haiti, not tourism and a very real sense of danger. 

 

In saying that however it was a unique and enjoyable experience.

Oh well, off to Miami and the last phase of my trip and writing about it, road trip across the USA…..

 


The Travel Bug

The Travel Bug is a collaboration project that goes through Dave’s travel journals around the world. This series started a while back and finished right here in Haiti. We’ll be back soon in the Miami!


DavoDave
 is the Travel Writer of the Travel Bug. He is a Technology specialist by day and social butterfly by night.

He just completed another world trip and will be sharing his tall travel tales shortly.

PC @ ThoughtsPC likes getting the job done by day and writes, designs and codes during his spare time. He also enjoys having a drink with Dave and hearing his tall travel tales.

We hope to entertain you with these stories.

 

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