In this journal
I hate on vacationers;
I took an express bus averaging 20 miles an hour;
I purposefully stepped on a UNESCO heritage.
Let me take you to one of the world’s poorest country, and let’s experience its charms nobody else has discovered.
It is a strange life I am living.
For some, life is predictable on a daily level. Wake up at 8; work begins at 9; dinner at 6; favorite turn-off-your-brain show at 10. For others, life is predictable on a monthly level. This week with girlfriend, and the next with parents. For me, however, life is as unpredictable as my mood swings. My plan for tomorrow can totally change, just because I cannot resist a good deal on a flight, and here you have an example. A great deal popped up on American Airlines from Seattle to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in Business Class, and I asked myself: why not? By the time my mom realized how low was Haiti’s human development index (spoiler alert: it is really, really low), I was already on my way to the greyhound station.
Day 1: Vancouver –(greyhound)–> Seattle —> New York
Day 2: New York —> Port-au-Prince
Day 3-5: Port-au-Prince
Day 6: Port-au-Prince –(a barely operable bus)–> Cap-Haïtien
Day 7-9: Cap-Haïtien
Day 10: Cap-Haïtien–(a non-functional bus)–> Port-au-Prince
Day 11: Port-au-Prince —> Miami —> Charlotte —> Seattle –(greyhound)–> Vancouver
I must be mad, going to Haiti as a tourist! Sure, a lot of people take cruise ships and stop by Cap-Haïtien, but most of them do not leave the tourist-only Labadie, which has absolutely nothing to do with local scenes. I, personally, abhor this kind of place and practice, thus I vowed to be an authentic Haiti visitor: live locally, and eat locally. Will it bite me in the rear? Let’s see.
woah, this greyhound goes all the way to LA!?
I boarded my greyhound towards Seattle, which, as I latter would appreciate compared to the Haitian bus, covered the 250km journey within 3 hours. I then took the tram towards Tacoma airport, which got me thinking: was I the only person that day to take the greyhound+tram to get to a business class flight?
The flights were rather unremarkable, since American Airlines did not provide any meal for the red-eye to New York, I slept the whole way. I was the only Asian on the flight to Port-au-Prince: the vast majority of the packed plane were Haitian immigrants returning home, each bringing 3 carry-ons. However, a group of young students were also on their way to Haiti for some kind of mission.
Air France A320 in Port-au-Prince
Upon landing, I witnessed the legendary Air France island hopper parked on the tarmac. Heading to Guadaloupe, the small plane looked extremely out of place in the tropical island. Immigration was barely a process other than paying 10 dollars to get a sheet of paper. When asked the purpose of visit, I stated in French: tourism. “Oh? Bienvenue!!!” The lady ecstatically said, her smile spilling onto the agent next to her.
welcome, to Haiti
There is no denying Haiti is an extremely poor country. To call it a developing nation is almost a stretch. The capital, Port-au-Prince, clearly was not trying to hide that fact. Trash piles are ubiquitous; anything other than bottled drinks are considered extremely hazardous to drink; and electricity cuts out as abruptly and frequently as my brain when talking to a girl. No tourism infrastructure exists whatsoever, and to be honest, I am not even sure there is any prominent tourist attraction!
streets in Port-au-Prince
To understand why it is like this, we have to start from the very beginning. Before the advent of time, the universe was an infinitesimally small dot… okay, okay, maybe not that far back. Let’s begin with one of the most critical moments in history. Christopher Columbus’s ship crashed near Cap-Haïtien in 1492 during his first voyage, forcing him to form a colony on the island he named Santo Domingo, beginning a new chapter of the history of the island. Quickly, locals began dying because of the Old World diseases, beginning with a smallpox epidemic. That marked the end of the indigenous people in the Indies.
most people of Port-au-Prince commute by their legs
And since the western half of the island was mostly inhabited by French buccaneers in the 16th century, the Spanish and the French eventually ratified a treaty by the end of 17th century that gave the western third, present day Haiti, to the French, which they called Saint Domingue. The other two thirds became the now-called Dominican Republic. Since it was the height of slave trade, the French brought ships upon ships of slaves from Africa to work on sugarcane plantations. By the years right before the slave rebellion in 1791, black slaves outnumbered whites in a staggering ratio of 30 to 1.
creole food, featuring the ever-present fried plantains
Inspired by the French Revolution in 1789, the Haitian Revolution began in the north. Quickly the whites were overwhelmed. To appease the slaves, the government tried to repeal slavery, but it was too late. Then, chaos ensued. A huge internal struggle took place amongst former slaves, formerly freed slaves (most of them owned slaves themselves), mixed race groups created by white males’ pleasuring in black females, and of course, United States. USA was just born then, but in order to diminish the French influence in Caribbeans, they supplied ammunition to multiple sides of the conflict in order to prolong the ordeal, thus weakening the French.
tap-tap, the primary method of transportation in Haiti
In 1802, Napoleon sent additional troops in an effort to retake the island, but most of the troops died of yellow fever within months. In 1803, Napoleon realized his dream to build a French empire in the Americas was impossible, and withdrew the rest of his men from Saint Domingue. Only 10% of the French soldiers came back from the expedition. Napoleon quickly sold off the rest of French possessions in Americas to USA in the Louisiana Purchase. So in some ways, the Haitian Rebellion caused USA to become the leader of free world.
Pétionville, now an upscale area for foreign aid expats
Thus, the very first, and only, successful slave rebellion formed a country called Haiti. The leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines, proclaimed as “emperor for life”, quickly massacred every white in the country, even babies and children. (exceptions apply: some Polish who fought for Haiti, some medical professionals, and white women who would marry black men were spared.) The massacre forced thousands to flee to New Orleans, which caused the city population to double. Dessalines’ iron grasp for power led to his assassination in 1806.
a UN aid truck struggling to avoid an obstacle on the national highway
Then the country divided into an empire in the north, and a republic in the south. The north I would go over in the Cap-Haïtien section. The south was later led by a mixed-race (homme de couleur) leader named Jean-Pierre Boyer, who eventually took over the entire island, including the northern empire and the eastern Spanish part, with an iron grip. He struggled to revive the economy, and it was made worse when Charles X of France sent a military to reclaim the island. A treaty was signed that stated Haiti had to pay France 150 million francs in order to avoid obliteration.
I lived in a local household’s balcony during my stay in Port-au-Prince
This crazy “money or life” levy annihilated Haiti’s economy, and Haiti did not finish the payment until 1947. A lot of other negative factors combined also made the Dominicans see a perfect opportunity to declare their independence from Haiti, and thus beginning over 50 years of border skirmishes and battles. That sentiment is still present nowadays, as Dominican Republic still suppresses Haitians in various ways.
the still-completely destroyed Cathedral, 7 years after the earthquake
USA then occupied Haiti for 20 years during early 20th century to “help” the local economy. During the occupation, Haiti did recover a lot of losses incurred during the 19th century, but after the Yankees left in 1934, the country had been busy ever since. Couple dictatorships, a few dozen coup d’état’s, and even more devastating hurricanes sprinkled the pages of history. Within half a century, the country was no more than a husk of its former glorious title as the first free-slave country. In 2010, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake leveled the capital of Port-au-Prince, and by my visit in 2017, neither the presidential palace nor the cathedral had been rebuilt. Cholera outbreaks outnumbered mudslides, which itself outnumbered all the infrastructures broken beyond repair.
my seatmate on my way to Cap-Haïtien
It was beyond any doubt that I felt incredibly depressed for the state of Haiti during my 3 days in Port-au-Prince. Despite the fact that most of the people were so poor that they could not afford the $0.15 tap-tap ride, everyone was incredibly warm and nice to me, even though my French was as non-existent as my girlfriend. In local Haitian fast food joints called Epi D’or, the servers kept giving me extra food; the owner of the home I lived in would secretly turn on a backup generator for my attic when the power cut out; the seatmate I had on my way to Cap-Haïtien shared his ear bud blasting Creole music with me. This just proves we do not need money to be happy; we just need ourselves.
the unpaved national “highway”
The 150 mile ride from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien took a solid 6 hours, because the only national highway in Haiti was mostly unpaved. Compared to the greyhound ride from Vancouver to Seattle, this was a throwback into the 60’s. However, I arrived at Cap-Haïtien in one piece after being thrown from side to side for half a day. And since the light would not fade for another few hours, I explored the capital of the north, where numerous leaders, as well as rebellions, rose and fail.
I chose to live in a local charity school, because in Haiti, hostel is not a thing, just like stable internet connection, or free healthcare. This gave me a very good insight into what the local life looked like, and allowed me to interact with numerous friendly locals. Especially the owner of the school I lived in (named Les Poupons) was extremely nice, helping me with money exchange, transportation and communications. Sometimes she even cooked dinner for me!
owner of the school
a 3-week-old puppy nibbles on my index finger ❤
Cap-Haïtien kept its colonial architecture relatively well, and most of the houses were over 200 years old. This would be how New Orleans looked like in 1800s. During the French rule, Cap-Haïtien was the capital of the colony, named Cap-Francis.
However, the city was still very much rustic. It was a bit cleaner than Port-au-Prince, but that was not a difficult status to achieve. Street markets lined the center parts of the city, with very few public facilities or tourist attractions.
Gran Place down the streets
Of course, I had to pay a visit to the legendary Sans-Souci Palace and Citadelle Laferriere, built by the notorious Henri Christophe, a key leader in the Haitian Rebellion. He was the one who declared the northern parts independent after Dessalines was killed. He declared himself an emperor, and constructed numerous castles and palaces since he was really paranoid of an invasion by the French, using tens of thousands of labor forces (under a system basically the same as slavery called corvée). Huh, you thought a former slave would be against any kind of slavery. The most impressive of his constructions were Citadelle Laferriere and Palais Sans-Souci.
looking at Citadelle Laferriere from the foot of the hill
Built on top of a 900-meter mountain overlooking Cap-Haïtien and nearby valleys, the Citadelle, along with the Palace at the foot of the hill, were declared as a UNESCO heritage site. It took a solid 15 years to finish construction, yet it was never put into its intended usage. But that does not mean the site is in its prime. Lack of funding was evident in this place since it was poorly maintained, and my guide insisted me to climb on top of items and places that would be 1000% protected in other countries, in order to take photos for me.
my guide’s finger in a shot
canon ball stockpile
After a 20 minute tap-tap ride to the tiny village of Milot, I hiked the entire 11km straight uphill to the Citadelle, which was a grueling task under the hot sun. However, the scenery along the way was marvelous, which warranted the ordeal. Citadelle is the biggest castle in the entire Americas, and it was bizarre to be the only foreigner during the entire visit.
a guard tower on the route
looking up to the Citadelle
Oh, and about Henri, his pseudo-slavery system was wildly unpopular (surprise surprise!), and caused numerous turmoil within the northern realms. In 1820, after a stroke, he became uncontrollably paranoid that someone under his command was out to get him, an unfounded, but rather reasonable, thought. He killed himself by a bullet in the head. His son succeeded to the throne, and was murdered 10 days later, ending the separation of Haiti.
looking out from a window
reservoirs used to accumulate rain water
Henri was buried somewhere in the Citadelle, but his grave was unmarked, since his supporters did not want his body to be mutilated. It is rather interesting that every single person who declared himself as emperor died tragically in Haiti, yet still everyone wanted to be an emperor.
canons confiscated from Napoleon’s troops, with the French markings
a statue in Sans-Souci Palace
On the way down I visited Sans-Souci Palace, a ruin under the shadow of its former glory. During its acme, opulent feasts and extravagant balls would take place in its halls and gardens every day, but now it is nothing more than a pile of crumbling rubble. Empires rise, empires fall, that is the way of nature.
front of Sans-Souci Palace
I returned to Cap-Haïtien by dangling myself on the side of an overcrowded tap-tap. The wind blew my hair into a “reverse-Elvis” style, making me even more of a sore thumb in the city. For the last day, I spent some time telling the children at the school about English, Chinese, and Spanish, and took a walk at the promenade, Bouleved du Carenage, by the ocean. Wandering around the town gave me a lot of time to see and think, and most importantly, it did not cost me a dime.
Bouleved du Carenage, note the amount of garbage in the ocean and streets
typical breakfast, something like kimchi and an egg sandwiched in bread, with a plantain
It is somehow depressing that while the people in the no-locals-allowed Labadie were sipping 20-dollar-a-glass martini in a reclining chair on a pristine beach, I was witnessing piles and piles of garbage piling up by the rocky coastline just 6 km away. A local told me Royal Caribbean, the cruise company running Labadie, employed quite a few people to keep trash from drifting to their properties, by pushing the trash away. I was furious. Those tourists were not seeing Haiti; they were simply in Haiti, seeing some beautiful covered-up version of a struggling island nation. Because for a lot of vacationers, seeing the truth means ruining their image of a tropical getaway, and sadly, most of us are too weak to handle that. That toll booth on the road blocking access to Labadie, is it keeping the locals out, or keeping the vacationers in?
trash piling up in the mouth of river, Cap-Haïtien
all forests have been cut down for fuel or other needs, so all one can see are bushes
I eventually boarded the bus back to Port-au-Prince. The bus broke down half way on my return leg to Port-au-Prince, so I had to wait 3 hours in the enclosed terminal, so the 6-hour bus ride turned into 9 hours. I caught my returning flight to Miami, followed by flights to Charlotte and then Seattle.
locals watching a soccer game
The services on board were fine, but nothing to praise about. The immigration officer in Miami could not help but ask me:”Is there any thing to see in Haiti?” I had to answer honestly: “Besides a castle, you really don’t have much else. However, I don’t regret a bit.”
American Airlines 737, Port-au-Prince Airport
In French, there is a very unique phrase “jolie laide”, literally meaning “ugly pretty”. It is a phrase that means someone or something is beautiful, but in a very strange, almost unorthodox way, and you cannot exactly tell how or why. I think Haiti fits this phrase perfectly. In a glimpse, this country is completely in shambles: dirty, and uninteresting, but after some careful scrutinization, it is clear that this country is beautiful in its own way. The stories behind these places provoke thoughts that no place else on this planet can.
As the only country established by a successful slave rebellion, why is it one of the least developed? Does this justify the rebellion? Or should freedom be achieved via peaceful means? Does USA’s occupation results justify imperialism? Does the infighting among blacks and mixed-race people mean you can be racist towards your own race? Why does Henri own slaves after liberating himself from such turmoil? How come the millions of dollars other countries put into helping Haiti not yield any tangible result? The questions can go on, and on, and on…
Yes, Haiti does not have Australia‘ pristine coasts, or Bolivia‘s breathtaking altiplanos, or Denmark‘s historical architecture, but Haiti has its own stories, stories so profoundly existential and philosophical that one has to re-examine his or her beliefs, and question the very core of his or her being. This, is Haiti’s own charm. This, is jolie laide.