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.