One of the great joys of travelling alone is the freedom to go where you please, when you please. Unfortunately, I was going nowhere, stranded by a set of circumstances out of my control and, thanks to a woefully inadequate command of the local lingo, completely at a loss as to why.
I’d been in Jacmel for a few days celebrating Kanaval. Carnival festivities took place each February a week before the rest of the country. A flamboyant parade of colourful floats, larger than life papier mâché characters and enthusiastic dancing, it was a raucous, deafening and utterly captivating event. In short, it was anything but a warm-up for the revelry which took place a week later in the Haitian capital, Port au Prince.
I say I’d been in town. More accurately, I’d been staying just out of town. Prices at that time of year were hiked by the few desperate hoteliers that managed somehow to stay in business. Haiti’s tourism industry is precarious at best, battered by a hideous earthquake in 2010 and several devastating hurricanes. Those extra gourdes would likely mean the difference between staying open until the following year and closing their doors for good. Today was the day the visitors left and those who remained counted their takings to determine their fate.
But things were not going to plan that morning. A taxi had dropped me off at the petrol station forecourt that served as a bus station, though there was no petrol at the pumps and nothing in the vicinity that you’d call a bus. Instead, a gaggle of decrepit minibuses were parked in an untidy line as their drivers slouched against the concrete fence drawing on cigarettes and lazily passing the time of day. Inside one minibus there were a handful of patient passengers. Assuming that it would leave when full, I approached the driver to ask if he was headed to Port au Prince. To my surprise he replied in the negative. My schoolgirl French wasn’t up to the ensuing conversation but the gist of it, as far as I could work out, was that there were no buses leaving for the Haitian capital at all.
“Pas de bus?” I asked, exaggerating a French accent for effect while pointing at the minibus.
“Pas de transport?” I tried, hanging onto the hope that he’d misunderstood.
That, I understood.
A knot began to tighten in my stomach. A veteran of many a solo trip, had I bitten off more than I could chew? With private transport back to the capital well outside my budget, if there was no bus, any chance I had of making my flight home was dwindling fast. What I still couldn’t understand, however, was why, if all transport was suspended, his bus still had passengers inside. I decided that as we were so close to the Dominican border, I’d try speaking Spanish. From what I’d read, there was no love lost between the Haitians and their wealthier neighbours – a few days earlier a cross-border bus had been set alight in a tit for tat incident – but I was running out of options.
Fortunately, the driver spoke a bit of Spanish too. I managed to ascertain that there was a protest just out of town. A blockade had been hastily erected on the road which wound through the hills that cocooned sleepy Jacmel from what otherwise might have been the contagious noise and chaos of the capital. This roadblock of burning tyres and angry protesters had stymied public transport for the foreseeable future. Something to do with the government increasing the price of fuel, he said vaguely, and out of his hands. Until the roadblock was lifted, no one was going anywhere. Those few passengers inside his vehicle were either blindly optimistic of their government’s ability to resolve the situation or had nowhere else to go.
Luckily, I did have somewhere. As of today, hotels were back to offering post-carnival rates, so I schlepped my wheelie back into town. The Hotel Florita was a Jacmel landmark, its elegant balconies and huge wooden doors a giveaway to its former life as a coffee warehouse. Built in 1888, it had been spruced up post-earthquake with a coat of whitewash, its myriad architectural features accentuated in baby blue. I’d read about the place when I’d been planning the trip and fallen in love with the idea of staying there.
The hotel’s own website proudly boasted that the place was “not in catastrophic condition” and that the main house had “not been hijacked by conditioned air”. The management’s description of the New Yorker who converted the place into a hotel was just as entertaining, recounting that the man had first seen it when drunk before “thoughtlessly and fecklessly” purchasing it. The paragraph concluded: “Why he did it remains a mystery and his decision to turn it into a hotel a decade later unfathomable. It is still there limping along.” The Florita had seemed like my kind of place and now it seemed I might get to stay there after all. Happily what had been the old courtyard kitchen now contained a four poster bed that had seen better days. Its most recent occupants had checked out just this morning, leaving my path clear to snagging the cheapest room in the house.
Installed on one of the Florita’s sofas, I logged on to what surely had to be the slowest WiFi connection in the western hemisphere and attempted to trawl Twitter for information. News was sparse but universally bad. The latest fuel hike was one in a long line of unacceptable actions by an unpopular government and people had had enough. I sympathised up to a point but their timing couldn’t have been worse.
While the townsfolk of Jacmel battled their hangovers to begin the big clean up, I spent the morning researching an alternative route home. The blocked road over the mountains to Port au Prince was the only one in that direction. To the west, a torturous mountain track lead to the tiny towns and villages of Haiti’s southern claw – effectively a dead end. Jacmel had an airport, just outside the town, but it was no longer in use. There was a coast road which might have taken me east into the Dominican Republic, but I had no wish to be the next victim of a retaliatory arson attack.
I snapped the lid of the laptop shut and ordered a beer. I might not be free to go where I pleased, but the whole point of travelling was to embrace your surroundings and anything they threw at you. There were worse places to be stranded, I decided. The sun was shining and it was nearly time for lunch. Solving the problem of how I was going to get home could wait.
A few days ago I delivered a talk on Haiti to Leigh Travel Club and so my thoughts return this week to the impoverished Caribbean nation that made such an impression on me when I visited in February. The trip was one of extreme highs and lows, the latter making me question whether I’d done the right thing in travelling independently rather than with a tour group. From the sweeping views from the top of Citadelle Laferriere to a rather too interactive vodou blessing ceremony, this was always going to be one holiday that I wasn’t going to forget in a hurry.
Is Haiti ready for tourism?
Much has been written in the travel press of Haiti as an emerging tourism destination for 2015. This charismatic Caribbean nation has featured in as many recent top tens as the latest fashionable boy band and is garnering as much attention. Five years on from the devastating earthquake that claimed as many lives as the 2004 Asian tsunami but in an area a fraction of the size, Haiti is beginning to rebuild. But progress is slow, hampered by political turmoil and the sheer scale of the work to be done.
Around half a million tourists visit Haiti each year. The destination for the vast majority is Labadee Beach. Privately owned by Royal Caribbean, this pristine beach is reserved for cruise ship passengers only, who in turn are not permitted to leave the resort. Plans are afoot to facilitate day trips to the nearby attractions of Sans Souci Palace and the imposing hilltop Citadelle Laferriere, but for now they remain marooned in their paradisiacal enclave. But by far the greatest number of visitors come from the US and Canada, United Nations personnel, volunteers and NGO workers with an almost evangelical zeal. Transiting through Miami, I wasn’t surprised therefore to be asked by the curious immigration official whether I was a surgeon, though he thought I had taken leave of my senses when I told him that I was heading there on holiday. Alone.
Nevertheless, inspired by the glowing recommendations, a steadily growing number of independent travellers are exploring Haiti. Many of these are French or Canadian – it helps to understand the language – with a smattering of Americans, Brits and other Europeans. Except perhaps the terrace of the Hotel Oloffson in downtown Port au Prince, nowhere was the concentration of “blans” or foreigners more noticeable than in Jacmel. Once a coffee port and still crammed full of ageing yet utterly charming balconied warehouses, art is now the commodity that supports this laid back town, with galleries and vendors on every street corner.
Visiting Haiti is the tourism equivalent of a backbreaking wooden coaster ride. It will push you close to the edge as you reflect on what possessed you to hail a tap tap that threatens to squeeze every last drop of goodwill from your sweaty pores. But just as you swear that you cannot take any more, that same tap tap will deposit you at an idyllic palm-fringed beach, deserted save for the crabs that scuttle out of the blazing midday sun into the tiny holes they bore in the white sand.
But it’s the people that create a lasting impression and ensure that Haiti sticks in your mind long after you return home. I encountered much kindness during my trip from people that had little to give but their time. Missing my stop on the tap tap from Les Cayes to Port Salut, according to my fellow passengers by at least five kilometres, a young lad on a motorbike pulled up alongside me as I stood on the roadside and pondered what to do next. He offered to take me and my suitcase down to my hotel, refusing my offers of payment with the kind of smile reserved for the exceptionally dim. I obviously looked that pathetic. That it turned out to be only a couple of minutes down a pretty beachfront promenade fringed by palm trees wasn’t the point. And he wasn’t the only one that went out of his way, literally, to help.
The flip side to this was the undercurrent of danger that was difficult to ignore. During my trip, tempers flared as bus drivers went on strike over government-imposed petrol price hikes, leaving Port au Prince on lockdown and incoming passengers corralled at the airport for want of somewhere safer to take them. I spent two days stranded in Jacmel, thankful that I was fortunate to be far from trouble and in such a characterful spot to boot. A few days later, the capital’s carnival, held a week after the vibrant and fun Carnaval in Jacmel, ended in tragedy when a stray overhead cable fell onto the road, causing panic in the crowd and killing at least sixteen. And shortly after I returned home, an air-conditioned coach travelling from Les Cayes to Port au Prince was attacked and set alight, supposedly a casualty of simmering tensions between Haiti and its more prosperous neighbour, the Dominican Republic.
Is Haiti ready for tourism? That kind of depends on your definition. If you need a smoothly functioning infrastructure along with your rum punch, then this isn’t yet the place for you. Wait a while, but you’ll find the crowds will catch up with this place eventually. The hawkers will lose their sense of humour, buses will run on time, hotels will offer luxury over rustic charm and tours will be packaged and sanitised.
But the magic will be long gone.
Nothing much happened in a hurry in Port Salut.
The village sprawled beside the soft white sands of Pointe Sable, on Haiti’s southern coast about a half hour from the noisy bustle of Les Cayes. It was no small relief to arrive. My coccyx was numb after a ride in the most cramped and overloaded tap tap I’d had the misfortune to flag down. Not for the first time this trip, I wondered whether my days of travelling like this, eschewing comfort for a more authentic experience, were numbered.
The half-hour ride had stretched to five times that, delayed by the need to fill the vehicle to three times a sensible capacity, then tie and retie a large assortment of sacks and packages to the roof. Finally, the driver turned over the engine but instead of leaving, we waited while he carried out urgent mechanical work with much tutting coming from under the rusty bonnet. All the while we sweated under a relentless sun, listening to the football on someone’s portable radio. There wasn’t a murmur of complaint; such delays were clearly the norm. These tap taps had once been shiny new pick up trucks, but were now zombified skeletons, shadows of their former selves. Bereft of various body panels they were held together with frayed bits of rope that disintegrated and wafted fibres into my eyes, . Eventually we had left the goats and stray dogs to scavenge in the filthy depot, only to stop a few kilometres down the road at the edge of a rice paddy while the driver acquired sufficient water to cool the already overheated engine and finish the journey.
Missing the unmarked turn off from the main road, I’d been dropped at the far end of the beach road. I told the conductor I needed to find my lodgings.
“Is it far?” I asked in schoolgirl French, unsure if I’d been understood.
“Combien de kilometres?” I tried again. The conductor glanced at his other passengers.
“Cinq, je pense,” came the collective reply.
Inwardly cursing that I’d relied on my own inadequate observation rather than asking the conductor a little earlier, I resigned myself to a long (albeit scenic) trudge laden with luggage. A young man pulled alongside me on a motorbike and offered me a ride. Asking how much, he’d shaken his head and told me he was offering out of kindness. Gratefully, I accepted. Such a willingness to help was common amongst Haitians, I’d found, one of the delights of visiting a place where tourism was at an embryonic stage.
In the end, it was less than a kilometre. Bathed in the soft peach of late afternoon, the Auberge du Rayon Vert – the Inn of the Green Ray – looked as if it had been transported straight from rural France. Dumping my bags, I watched the sun settle languidly into the horizon and headed to the terrace to eat. The menu, chalked carelessly on a board, gave no inkling that the food served was to be the most delicious I’d have anywhere in the country. I feasted on creamy goat’s cheese enclosed by an exquisitely pink fillet of beef. The sky turned to blood orange before I sank into a deep slumber under crisp sheets.
The following morning, I awoke to the sound of the Caribbean lapping at the shore and set off to explore Port Salut. Popular with Haitians from Port au Prince as a weekend retreat, I wasn’t surprised to see half-built houses strung out along the main road which I presumed to be holiday homes in the making. Hot pink bougainvillea made a welcome change from the ubiquitous grey concrete of the building plots and beach shacks.
Changing some dollars at the hardware store, I doubled back to the beach. Crudely fashioned dugouts on the sand didn’t look seaworthy. The flaking turquoise paint was photogenically shabby but didn’t appear to my untrained eye to be watertight. Piles of netting heaped in their bows indicated otherwise. A group of fishermen dragged a gnarled wooden boat out of the sea, their scant catch inadequate recompense for their labour.
A little further on, a cluster of beach bars catered to a largely local population. At this hour their plastic chairs and tables were deserted save for a group of men idly chatting into mobile phones. They looked up briefly to say hello. An old man slept soundly on a concrete bench, his forehead deeply lined and his feet calloused. Children giggled and pointed, “Blan, blan!” I smiled back. One of the bars was painted with a colourful mural of tourists waterskiing, which struck me as just about as far removed from reality in this backwater as you could get. Opposite, a six-point guide to cholera prevention on a painted billboard seemed a whole lot more relevant.
Opposite the auberge, another catch was being landed. A group of villagers were hauling in their net, dragging its colourful floats into a horseshoe to corral the fish into an ever diminishing trap. But for all their toil, the results were meagre, a few fish the size of sprats tossed into a wicker basket guarded by a small child.
By far the best thing to do, or more accurately, not do, as it involved very little effort at all, was to relax on one of the hotel’s beach chairs and watch the world go by. This wasn’t an arduous task; there wasn’t much world to go by. The palms that edged the beach swayed almost imperceptibly in the breeze, fidgeting the shade. From my vantage point, I watched as delicate ghost crabs scuttled about their business before retreating from the heat into burrows drilled deep into the damp sand. A trio of avocets tapped away at the water’s edge while a lone pelican cruised overhead.
The sun was now high in the sky. A single wisp of cloud hung like a vapid crescent moon. Traffic was limited to a few motos and the odd 4×4 – the auberge was a popular weekend hangout for the UN police and NGO personnel working in the area. Out towards the horizon, a small boat with tattered sails bobbed on a sea pricked with diamonds. The voice of an occasional hawker interrupted the sound of the waves’ ebb and flow, offering straw hats and fresh coconuts. They approached gently as they offered their wares; there was no need to be pushy. A young girl wandered up, carrying a large straw bag.
“Would you like mamba, ma’am?”
For a minute, I was alarmed, fearful she might produce a snake. It turned out mamba was a kind of peanut butter. The large jar being proffered would have been a tempting purchase had it not been made of heavy glass clearly unsuited to moto rides. Eventually, I dozed off under the shade of a tree, its dense bunches of fat leaves creating a natural sun umbrella. After all, nothing much happened in a hurry in Port Salut, so how else was I going to kill time before dinner?